Performance – A Manual Categorization, conjugation and the OED

The words in italics below are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary. The curation is mine. The chosen words are here subsumed under fictitious categories, all of which have to do with performance. In doing so, they speak to what performance could and should be, or better, do.

This is about a dictionary’s doings – the OED‘s sedimentation of language. When you type in your word it may not show up, or it may not be listed. Otherwise, this is about categorisation. Who doesn’t work with categorisation? Contemporary theatres and museums do – even So You Think You Can Dance. This is about fabricating a categorisation-style. The one shown below is informed by theory. But this is not theory. This is a list, much like lists of irregular verbs.

I like making lists. I like playing with the OED. It tells you something about how rules form forms. So, what follows is more like conjugation, which as the OED says has to do with “the variation of the form of a verb in an inflected language […] by which the voice, mood, tense, number, and person are identified”. That is, conjugation is concerned with variety and subtleties. But it also derives from con- ‘together’ + jugum ‘yoke’. So, this is about being “yoked together” where “yoke” is “a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plough or cart that they are to pull”, hence “used to refer to something regarded as oppressive or restrictive”. In sum, then, what follows intends to list lists in freaky fashions without hoping that such oddity repairs the wooden crosspieces that keep things bound. That is, experiment does not imply betterment. But it may shift judgments.

Below, directive judgments are given in tentative capitals. But judgments change. YES turns into MAYBE, DEPENDS into NO, DON’T UNDERSTAND into YES, and so on. The ones below reflect late summer 2018. Some feel strong-willed; others ignorant and unsure. I do not want to presume that you want my reductively phrased directions. Nonetheless, I decided to indicate whether or not I think the enlisted words “keep the open open”, in Lauren Berlant’s words, for the simple reason that I want us to think and continue thinking about such questions.1 But check the italics yourself. Because this is not a manifesto but a manual.


Performance in general
am-dram YES

Performance of sex 2
de Beauvoir, Simone YES

Performance of class
Compton-Burnett, Dame Ivy YES

Performance of strong myths
Day of Judgment NO

Performance of weak myths
elf YES

Performance of love
for love YES

Performance of flow
gobstopper NO3

Performance of fame
Hall of Fame NO

Performance of truth
I tell a lie (or that’s a lie) DEPENDS

Performance of self
jo YES

Performance of self beyond self

Performance of self beyond Self4
let someone/something go (1) YES (• NO)
let someone/something go (2) YES
let’s face it (or let’s be honest) YES
let’s pretend NO
let someone down NO
let someone in YES
let oneself in for YES

Performance of pop(ular)
Madonna (noun, the Madonna) NO (• NO • NO)
Madonna YES

Performance of body
naked (1) YES, BUT COMPLEX (• YES • YES • YES • YES & NO)
naked (2) IMPOSSIBLE

Performance of vowels
ooh la la IT LOOKS GOOD, BUT NO (• IDEM)

Performance of night
party (1, noun) YES
party (2, noun) DEPENDS (• IDEM)
party (3, noun) NO (• DEPENDS)
party (verb) YES
party (adjective) DON’T UNDERSTAND

Performance of status/filiation5
queen (1, noun) NO (• NO • DEPENDS • DEPENDS • NO • NO)
queen (2, noun) NO
queen (3, noun) NO
queen (4, noun) YES
queen (5, noun) YES
queen (6, noun) YES
queen it over (1, verb) NO, BUT YES WHEN IT’S NEEDED
queen (2, verb) NO INTEREST
Queen YES
Queen, Ellery NO INTEREST

Performance of the political and more
radical (1, adjective) YES (• NO, NOT IN THIS FORMULATION • YES)
radical (2, adjective) YES (• YES • YES)
radical (3, adjective) YES (• YES)
radical (4, adjective) YES
radical (5, adjective) YES
radical (6, adjective) YES
radical (1, noun) YES
radical (3, noun) YES (• YES)
radical (4, noun) YES, BUT DON’T QUITE UNDERSTAND (• IDEM)

Performance of the couple

Performance of representation

Performance of no
un- (1, prefix) YES (• YES)
un- (2, prefix) YES
un- (1, prefix) YES
un- (2, prefix) NO (• YES)

Performance of performance
vogue (noun) YES (• YES)
vogue (adjective) YES
vogue (verb) YES

Performance of abstraction
wage (noun) THIS IS COMPLEX (• NO • NO)
wage (verb) DEPENDS

Performance of the unfamiliar
xeno- YES (•YES)

Performance of poetry
Yeats, W.B. YES

Performance of money
Zürich NO

  1. Berlant, in a 20-minute conference rap-up published on YouTube, speaks about what a feminist account of reproducing and making – each of which are different things – the world might look like. In that same talk, elaborating on what “keep[ing] the open open” might mean, Berlant asks: “What stories of the intelligibility of the reproduction of the world can you imagine not re-telling in order to be able to tell something else?”. Or, especially relevant to the dissociative genre-work that art is involved in: “How do you dilute the present with different genres?”. See:
  2. I use ‘sex’ rather than ‘gender’ for that was Simone de Beauvoir’s term in The Second Sex (2015 [1949]). The latter, however, has been crucial in sparking the still ongoing feminist debates regarding the distinction between sex and gender and what performance has to do with it. As Judith Butler phrases it in her 1986 article “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex”: “‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman’ – Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation distinguishes sex from gender and suggests that gender is an aspect of identity gradually acquired” (35). For an elaboration and reworking of the latter see, most famously, Butler (2006 [1990]); for a persuasive critique of Butler’s account see, for instance, Barad (2003).
  3. Here, I want to expand OED’s definition (i.e., “a large, hard spherical sweet”) by making reference to Vanessa Place’s use of the term in her 2013 poem No More: “No more Gobstoppers: an epic isn’t an epic for its fingerprints”. I read the latter as pointing to the problematics of the poetic tradition that relies on the inheritance that unquestionably naturalizes epics as epic. Indeed, No More willfully writes against the supposed flow of poetic tradition. Sara Ahmed’s work on ‘willfulness’ and ‘willful subjects’ extensively reflects on the social logics of ‘flow’. That is, how some subjects, because of calling out harmful/violent moments that in their expression disturb the moment’s comfort that functions as non-negotiable, as-if-collectively-agreed-upon norm, obstruct the social flow and hence are deemed willful (Ahmed 2010, 2014). No More seems responsive to Ahmed’s reflections in its sustained negation of the flow of what poetry qua artistic genre is known for.
  4. When writing Self with capital S I think of Sylvia Wynter’s use of Man with capital M that indicates “the ongoing imperative of securing the well-being of our present ethnoclass (i.e., Western bourgeois) conception of the human, Man, which overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself” (2003, 260, my italics).
  5. For a poetic-theoretical critique of filiation, see Glissant (1997 [1990]).
  6. For two imaginative accounts that resist normativity’s hunger for respectability politics concerning the politics of sex change, see Preciado (2013 [2008]) and Nelson 2015.