Performance, Performativity, Privacy

In 1975 in the art gallery Krinzinger in Innsbruck, the Serbian artist Marina Abramović subjected her body to various bodily transgressions, ingesting a liter of honey, a liter of wine, and inflicting razor wounds to her lower abdomen. She then flogged herself and lied down on a cross made of ice, freezing her back, while her body was burning from the above. The audience could not take this exploration of physical and mental boundaries and ripped her off the cross. This performance, Lips of Thomas, constitutes a key moment for performative arts and performance studies, notably by an extreme use of the body as a medium and the unavoidable implication of the audience. In her autobiography, Durch Mauern gehen (2016), mentioning one of the performances of Rhythm 10 at Villa Borghese in Rome in 1973 – an extreme version of the knife game – Abramović described the relationship between herself and the audience as follows:

Es war, als würde ein elektrischer Strom durch meinen Körper fliessen, als wären das Publikum und ich eins geworden. Ein einziger Organismus. Das Gefühl der Gefahr im Raum hatte die Zuschauer und mich in diesem Moment vereint: wir waren hier und jetzt und nirgendwo anders.

Marina Abramović, The Lips of Thomas (1975)

Since then, the notions of performance and performativity have become powerful tools, but also muddled ones in the humanities. Radically interdisciplinary, performance studies currently include the fields of performing arts, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and gender studies. They encompass research in theater, ceremonies, political or religious rituals, sports, along with everyday life, spectacles, and entertainments in a broad sense. By bringing a focus on people, their interaction, self-fashioning, acting, and their representation, performance and performativity can be useful lenses to study privacy.

In 1967, Richard Schechner founded and directed the experimental theater troupe, The Performance Group, which became The Wooster Group in 1980, under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte. Experimentation by the troupe, called Environmental Theater incited the immersion of the audience within the performance and physical contacts between the audience and the actors (an endangered circumstance in the actual times of pandemic). It was meant to suppress the traditional separation between the stage and the spectators, or in theater jargon, breaking the fourth wall. From then onwards, the performing act was no longer just artistic and aesthetic; it includes social and cultural aspects, along with questions of identity and ritual.

The Performance Group in 1976

Performance cannot be evoked without its neighboring concept, performativity. John L. Austin coined the term “performative” in How to Make Things With Words (1962). The British philosopher used it uniquely in regard to speech acts. He distinguishes descriptive language made of constative language, which can be evaluated in terms of right or wrong, from performative language, which has the ability to act and transform the world. In the latter sense, talking becomes a social act. The most famous examples of performative language are institutional acts, such as a wedding ceremony or a judge giving a verdict. Pronouncing a couple husband and wife or condemning a defendant to life imprisonment will literally change the lives of the protagonists. Therefore, talking is not just pronouncing words, but talking is acting.

In the 1990s, with the emergence of cultural studies, Judith Butler extends the notion of performativity to the body. Culture, like theater and music, are now interpreted as a performance and no longer as a text. Before Butler, feminist theoreticians such as Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray or Monique Wittig considered sex as a biological factor, whereas gender was seen as a social construction: one was born as male or female, but one became a woman or a man. Butler questions both notions of sex and gender and develops the notion of gender performativity in opposition with the notion of essentialism. Born in the nineteenth century, this conception considered men and women as fundamentally different due to biological reasons, and consequently also implying moral qualities. It substituted the older Galenic conception of a one-sex model, where men and women were placed on a continuum going from perfection (man) to imperfection (woman). In this perspective, sex along with gender, are a cultural and social construction. The norm is the heterosexual male desire, which created a feminine identity established by the stylized repetition of bodily acts – what Michel Foucault calls the “discours régulateurs” or “techniques disciplinaires”. Gender performance creates gender, each individual operates as an actor of this specific gender. Moreover, gender is performative, because bodily acts express gender and constitute the illusion of a stable gender identity. Butler advocates the subversion of gender categories by performance, along with the idea of a flexible and free identity she calls gender trouble.

The lion’s share in performance studies and theory goes to the German theater historian Erika Fischer-Lichte. According to her, performance as artistic practice dissolves boundaries between life and art, between embodiment and meaning, and between presence and representation. Performance highlights the use of bodies, no longer limited to represent or play the acts of eating or suffering for instance, but literally eating and suffering on stage. Performing arts are indivisible from the concrete moment of their performance. The performance needs to be lived and experienced (erlebt und erfahren). As such, Fischer-Lichte defines performance along three lines of thinking. Firstly, it is unique and unrepeatable (Einmaligkeit und Unwiederholbarkeit). Secondly, a basic condition for performance is the bodily co-presence of spectators and actors in the same space. Finally, the identity of performance is created by a stylized repetition.

Lulu, Alban Berg (New York 2016)

How can these concepts be useful to the study of privacy? By definition, privacy would seem to be quite the opposite of staging bodies on a public stage. However, I believe that some notions linked to performance and performativity could bring a new insight into privacy studies. The body is one of the heuristic zones of privacy, as does society. By its focus on the body and interactions between spectators and actors, performance studies offer a powerful lens through which we can study bodies in private or public. Moreover, speech or gender acts of performativity can be closely related to practices of privacy. Finally, in the scarse existence of private space in the early modern world, I would argue that privacy was a performance. Breaking the fourth wall on a theater stage could be an analogy for private practices. Staging privacy on a metaphorical theater could be investigated along the lines of inclusion and exclusion, inside and outside, boundaries and threshold, sound and silence.

La Fura dels Baus, staging of Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Valencia 2007-2009)

 

 

 

 

 

Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth by Anna Becker

Cambridge University Press

On 23 September, the Centre for Privacy Studies welcomed back former colleague Anna Becker, now Professor MSO in the history of ideas at the University of Århus, for a book launch. Anna presented her newly published book Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth, published by Cambridge University Press in the prestigious series ’Ideas in Context’. This ‘Cambridge School’ historical analysis of gender in the language and the concepts of Renaissance political thought presents a thought-provoking reinterpretation of looking at the period.

 

This fantastic book kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, it presents a historical analysis of the gendered languages of Renaissance political thought. Doing so, and secondly, it is challenging the dominant narrative on Renaissance political thought.

The dominant narrative of Renaissance political thought is that this period marked the beginning of a sharp separation between a private and a public sphere. The public is the political and reserved to male citizens. The private is the realm of the domestic and reserved to female non-citizens. Becker attributes this narrative to Hannah Arendt’s influential reading of Greek thought in general and Aristotle in particular. The view for Aristotle is that man is a political animal (zōon politikon), who can only reach his true potential in the, the public sphere, the polis, as a citizen. In opposition, the private sphere of the household is simply for social companionship, not unlike any other animal. Becker urges us to free ourselves from this reading, which has influenced many thinkers, first of all Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment. We must rethink, writes Becker, this simplified division between the public-political-male realm and the private-apolitical-female realm.

Indeed, Renaissance political thought revolved around interpretations of Aristotle’s division between the household and the city. Philosophy, for Aristotle, was divided into practical and natural philosophy. Practical philosophy was divided into three disciplines: ethics, economics, and politics. Moral philosophy in universities were taught according to this distinction. Ethics concerned the self, economics the household, and politics the city. Becker shows in her book that Renaissance thinkers pondered all three disciplines together. In this sense, the household and even the self, were political matters because the well-being of the res publica depended on good mores of individuals and a harmonious family life, res familiaris.

Becker looks more specifically at Machiavelli’s thought in one of the chapters and Jean Bodin’s thought in three other ones. It is not possible to present all the arguments and points that Becker makes, but I shall here select important ones for her overall thesis.

First, Becker explains Aristotle’s divide of philosophy upon which all Renaissance thinkers commented. Italian thinkers, such as Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370 – 1444), Donato Acciaioli (1428– 1478), and Bernardo Segni, were interested in the relationship between the individual, the family, and the state in their commentaries of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. These three communities of human life constituted three objects of the practical philosophy called moral philosophy, which sought to regulate all human life. Ethics was concerned with individual mores, Economics with family matters, and Politics with public matters. All three sub-disciplines were related with one another, so there was no sharp distinction between a “private” and a “public” sphere. The debates among Renaissance commentators of Aristotle focused on how to balance the three for a harmonious whole.

When it comes to Machiavelli, he pondered on “private” issues such as family and friendship, using the same vocabulary as his civic humanist contemporaries. However, Machiavelli argued against the accepted narratives. It is not friendship in the citizen body that makes a city great, but the lack of it. Discord, and not concord, makes better laws because conflict leads to greater debates. And the law is needed for good civil life (vivere civile). Friendship, on the other hand, leads to corruption and cronyism. This is the lesson from Florentine history, in which powerful families ruled the city almost to its ruin. By the same token, education should not be left to families because anti-republican families educate their children with these values.

Regarding Bodin (1529/30–1596), one of the main arguments turns to the gendering part of our political vocabulary; what Becker calls the “invention of a tradition.” This new tradition is the husband’s power over his wife. Since marriage and the family are the first stones of the res publica, the commonwealth, and since the trope is that a state is a big family, or a family a small state, the gendering of the vocabulary is here crucial. The private marriage of husband and wife is about power (imperium): the power of the pater familias (family father) over the submissive wife. This construction is particular to Bodin and contradicts Roman law. In the body of Roman law known as Corpus iuris civilis, Roman wives were not subjected to the power of their husband. The seventeenth century was then heavily influenced by this metaphor of the ruler as a father. The divine-right theory was a direct consequence of this idea and the tradition of paternal political power.

We are left hanging in the last chapter, which only a few paintbrushes of what a study of German political thought during the same period would be like. The reader could ask for more on Martin Luther, and how Reformation thinkers interpreted Aristotle’s practical philosophy, but Becker paved the way for this reader to accomplish that on her own using the same method of analysis.

If you want to know more about the book, stay tuned for a podcast episode with Anna Becker. In the meanwhile check our amazing previous episodes!

Sound and Privacy

WHAT

SOUND: Soundscapes of Rosenborg is an innovative research project aiming at listening, hearing and reconstructing the soundscapes of the Danish court. How did the past sound and what can we learn about the court by studying its soundscape? The court is a privileged space to study etiquette, privacy, gender, and rituals through its sonic aspects. I argue that sound played a crucial role in the appropriation, display, and control of power in those spaces. Speaking or producing sound at court was ultimately a political performance and established protocols of rank, power, and distance. For example, the notions of inside and outside, along with public and private, will be extended: the sound of bickering inside a private room could be heard in the public sphere, just as the sound of music played in public penetrated the private sphere. Aurality, or the shared hearing of written texts, defines a community and includes not only the royal families, but also servants and visitors across several social classes along with animals, carriages, kitchens and food, gardens, entertainments, and music. One part of SOUND will specifically focus on gender and women’s voices at court, including families and children, but also the royal mistresses and morganatic marriages. Studying illegitimate relations sheds light on female agency in a context of transgression and also reveals by contrast what was considered the norm in legitimate marital relations. Did women have specific sonic practices and, if so, how did they differ from male ones?

Funded by Danske Frie Forskningsfond Project 2, SOUND is hosted at the Centre for Privacy Studies and I work in close collaboration with Rosenborg castle and the royal collection.

The Winter Room of Christian IV had four acoustical conduits built between the cellar and the room. Musicians placed in the cellar would play and the visitors were amazed by hearing what they called “invisible music”

Detail of an sonic conduit

WHY

Historians seldom use their ears and including sound in historical research brings a complete change of perspective. SOUND will be the first sonic history of court. A focus on sound will provide a new comprehensive analysis of courtly life, by including dimensions that often fly under the radar, such as everyday practices, connections between higher and lower class inhabitants, and gender roles. I will challenge perspectives of space based first and foremost on vision, which is fixed, immediate, and implies distance and perspective. On the other hand, sound is immersive and dynamic; it travels through time and space and therefore involves temporality and humans. I argue that sound also brings a central focus on the body as one of its main producers, and will allow us to consider issues of gender along with social, cultural, and political meaning. Moreover, a soundscape is shared by the community of people hearing the same sounds. However, people can feel both unisonance and dissonance, by hearing the same soundscape but interpreting it diffently, according to their social level or gender. It is my hypothesis, that soundscapes can create a form of exclusion (who can hear the king and who cannot), but they are also inclusive and reach across social classes. The eyes can be closed; on the other hand, the ears cannot: the king cannot prevent his servants from hearing music, secret conversations, or a quarrel.

SOUND may incite an awareness of the relationship between space and sound, but also between noise and silence. Modern post-industrial societies and the media have profoundly altered the relationship between sound and privacy. SOUND will offer analytical tools that enable us to approach these concerns. SOUND will certainly bring new insights into private and public spaces and the overlaps between them. The porosity of sound and its power to cross physical boundaries allows us to consider outdoor sounds that penetrate indoor spaces, but also indoor sounds that spill outside, expanding into surrounding areas. Bringing sound into historical studies creates a change in paradigm: what was once fixed has become dynamic, what was silent can be heard. This new approach will certainly be fruitful, and could therefore be applied to a variety of other spaces from our past and foster a prolific and new research path for sonic history.

Athanasius Kircher, Phonurgia nova (1673), system for transmitting sound as a speaking statue.

HOW

Reconstructing soundscapes that no longer exists and listening to it is a challenge. The sound of the past is irremediably lost, along with listening habits. However, a keen scholarly analysis of a variety of sources will allow us to reconstruct the sonic environment of the court. I have identified three types of sources:

1) written texts and archives mentioning sound, such as visitors’ descriptions of both castles, letters, inventories, registers, account records

2) visual sources such as engravings, etchings, but also historical maps to localise the sonic activities depicted

3) artefacts from both courts

Ivory carved horse carriage, skatkammer, Rosenborg

SOUND will consider sounds produced by humans (conversations, quarrels, murmurs, singing, crying, yelling, laughing, male and female voices, adults and children, native or foreign languages, but also sounds produced by the body such as steps, rustling clothes, sick bodies suffering, sex agony, and death), sounds produced by animals (horse hooves, dogs, cats, birds and exotic animals), mechanical objects (bells, carriages, kitchen tools, weapons, craftmen’s tools), artistic sounds (music, dance, theatre, fireworks), and natural sounds (water and fountains, wind, fire). The written sources will be analysed lexically with a thesaurus of words referring to sound, noise, music, listening, and hearing. The visual sources will be studied from the perspective of sound and space: what is making noise in a painting and how does it relate to the site where it is made on a map? Artefacts producing sound can be literally heard and even recorded, giving access to a true sonic reconstruction.

Weapons, Skatkammer

Bringing soundscape studies into research on privacy and the burgeoning field of court studies offers an entirely new perspective. SOUND will use theoretical approaches from sound studies, musicology, and history, connecting them for the very first time. Soundscape studies have proven to be a fruitful approach and have produced substantial scholarship. Sonic materialism proposes a new model to analyze sounds by considering hearing, advocating a new sonic epistemology. It highlights the dynamic materiality of sounds and their relationship with the bodies producing them. The reconstruction of sounds from the past based on written sources has generated a flourishing scholarship in early music and theatre studies since the 1960s along with thriving early music and theatre performances based on the fruits of historical research. It includes the reconstruction of unwritten practices such as improvisation, performance practices, acting, and the restitution of early pronunciations. Such methods can easily be applied to sounds in a broader context.

The Porcelain Cabinet, Rosenborg

OUTCOME:

The most innovative idea of this project is to realize a sonic history of the court, that will be published as a monograph. An other outcome will be the realization of an immersive and spatialized exhibition with soundscapes at Rosenborg Castle in 2023. These exhibitions are a more evocative and exciting means to present everyday life at the court, not only in the eyes of the audience but also in their ears, giving them an enhanced perception of what the past was like and how it sounded. In a society that is ever more disconnected from its past, it is important today more than ever to come up with new ideas for the dissemination of history, an aspect to which this project will contribute. Studying the past allows us to understand its legacies in the present: SOUND will study the Danish court during the reigns of Christian IV, Frederik III, and Christian V (1606–1710, or from Rosenborg’s construction as a country house by Christian IV, through its use as a royal residence until 1710), first as an elective monarchy and from 1660 onwards as an absolute monarchy. As such, it represents an archetypal place of power with refined systems of representation and control, but also a thriving site of social, cultural, and intellectual exchange, with an enduring legacy today. Understanding these dynamics will lead us to understand people and their relation to power and culture, enabling us to question the way contemporary soundscapes and sonic practices contribute to our own relationship to power. Even today, sound remains a tool used to display power, from political rallies and national celebrations to the use of loud music to torture prisoners of war. At a societal level, Rosenborg is a major landmark and museum. Its popularity among visitors attests to its importance today. As such, it represents the perfect medium to communicate history in a vivid way.

Sounds profoundly shape our experience of a place, yet we seldom pay attention to them. An interesting consequence of the lockdown of society in spring 2020 was the extreme reduction of noise pollution. Suddenly, everyone was listening and hearing better, being aware of the quality of our soundscapes, once that almost all industrial noises had disappeared. This unprecedented experience gave us a little insight in how the soundscapes of the pre-industrial world sounded like.