In your text, "Performance or Enactment?,"1 you speak about how the performative evolved from linguistics and philosophy, mainly through the "speech acts" theory, and how once it entered art discourse and other realms, it failed to accomplish its meaning as a linguistic form. Instead, you began using the word “enactment,” which involves a larger set of relationships. How would you describe your approach to enactment and speech acts today?
The argument that I make in that essay relates to how the concepts of speech acts and the performative, which developed out of philosophy of language with the work of J.L. Austin, became detached from its meaning as a linguistic form and from that very important and powerful idea of how language does things and has a real impact. Judith Butler took up the concept and carried it forward into the arena of gender theory, and how gender identity and other aspects of the self performed and constituted in performance. But. I think with that, the emphasis already shifted away from language to a whole range of phenomena that are not specifically linguistic. But with the emphasis on the compulsory and compulsive—the unconscious or unthought character—of gender performance, Butler's use of performative was still quite distinct from performance as a conceptualized and crafted cultural form. And that's where, for me, that history of the term “performative” and “performativity” links up with psychoanalytic theory, with which, of course, Butler is also deeply engaged. So, when one thinks about the compulsory nature of gender performativity, for example, one can think about the sociological structures at work, but also of the unthought, unconscious psychological structures at work. Both of those frameworks are very compelling for me, and I have different frameworks for thinking about the sociological and the psychoanalytic. But, when these terms entered the art field and art discourse, they collapsed back into the traditional usages of performance, and became an adjectival form for the category of live art, performance, or anything that unfolded in front of an audience. More recently, performative has emerged as a term for statements and acts that only superficially signify but don't have real impact, which is the exact opposite of the meaning of the term for Austin. It's hard to find a definition of performative as a noun. I think the terms performative and performativity lost some of their value and specificity when they entered into art discourse. And with that, we lost the language to think and speak specifically about what language does, and about those aspects of performance that are not artistically crafted and conceptualized.
"Performance or Enactment?" was partly an expression of my frustration with what the art world does to these kinds of theoretical innovations. But it also traces my use of the term enactment, instead of performance and performativity. Enactment in my usage derives from psychoanalytic theory. It's a term that began to take on a specific technical meaning in the 1980s and 90s. It was first primarily associated with relational psychoanalysis, which developed out of object relations and interpersonal psychoanalysis, but now has become, I think, quite broadly used. A number of the people who were developing that framework were queer, feminist, and aware of Butler's work, but I don't think there was a lot of intersection there in the development of the theory of enactment. The concept of enactment emerged through a reconciliation of the opposition in psychoanalysis between doing and saying. Freud famously distinguished between the symptomatic repeating versus the therapeutic remembering and working through of the repressed in analysis. Subsequent Freudian analysts developed a normative, often pathologizing view of "acting out" what is repressed in analysis and, more broadly, of the tendency to realize or actualize unconscious fantasies and impulses in behavior. But the opposition between speaking and doing, between remembering and repeating, never really held up. Relational psychoanalysts in the 1980s and ’90s started to admit that in analysis there's always an enactment of what's being spoken about and that this is not just something the patient is doing, but it is always relational and intersubjective. It's not simply what the patient is doing in analysis when the patient isn't remembering and articulating. It's what's unfolding intersubjectively, relationally, between the patient and the analyst. Regardless of how abstinent or neutral an analyst might be, there is always some degree of actualization or realization of unconscious fantasies and impulses in analysis, and that this is, in fact, part of the therapeutic process, not opposed to it. I think the term is pretty widely used at this point, but there's still an argument about whether it's something to be recognized and worked with as a productive component of psychoanalysis or something to be avoided.
When I embraced the term enactment—with that particular history of the term—I wanted to recover aspects of Butler's use of the term performative and place the emphasis back on what might be unconscious or unthought, compulsive and compulsory, in artistic activity, whether in performance or any other medium, and in our engagement with an artwork. Enactment puts the emphasis on the emotional investments and emotional stakes that are at work. My understanding of emotional investments and stakes is that they are never purely psychological, but always inseparably social as well—they are real, immediate, and intimate for artists as well as audiences, as much as they also may be unconscious, unthought, or even repressed. This is something that I think about in my own artistic process, and also is central to how I work with students as a professor at UCLA.
I think that, very often—for artists, curators, and critics alike—art discourse functions less to reveal meaning than to distance and obscure the very basic and fundamental lived, felt, experienced, and invested stakes and motivations that we have in what we do. And that is, itself, an enactment! The other component of the term that's very valuable for me is the emphasis on what's relational and what's intersubjective, because I think about all artworks, not only performance, as encounters. As an artist and educator, what I am most preoccupied with is getting at what artworks do. I think that all art emerges on some level as a fantasy of an encounter in which something happens, and that artworks are efforts to realize that fantasy. Sometimes, that is an encounter between material or signifying elements, but I think it is always, ultimately, an encounter with an object or between objects in a psychoanalytic sense, that is, figures of emotional investment. Artworks realize or actualize that fantasy with varying degrees of success by activating things in the world or other people who engage with them. When artworks activate things, those things are enacted in some way. They're enacted relationally. I think that's true whether we're talking about a performance or whether we're talking about a painting. For a number of years now, my approach to teaching has focused on trying to create opportunities for students to register and reflect on what their art is activating that may be unconscious and unthought, or what other people's art is activating in them as they engage with it, and what they may be enacting in their response to a work both individually as a group.
I think there are several concepts that are quite interesting in terms of how you describe the unconscious. Could you talk more about that, what that means? Because when you talk about speech acts, or the way that Judith Butler talks about speech acts, it seems to be something that we internalize, or what we've normalized in social conventions in a way. So, is the unconscious part of these conventions that we automatically integrate?
For Freud, the unconscious is produced by repression and is the product of a dynamic emotional process. I’m also very influenced by Melanie Klein. Kleinians view the unconscious as a reservoir of primal fantasies that are mental representations of infantile emotional experiences—of deep, old, especially prelinguistic experiences of pleasure and pain, and of anxieties, desires, and fears. These unconscious fantasies are also the mental representations that we hold both of ourselves and our own bodies, and of things or people in the external world that we relate to. These are objects in a psychoanalytic sense of objects of emotional attachments and emotional investments. So, the contents of the unconscious are both the mental representations of those objects and the relationships between those objects. And it's the relationships between those objects that I understand as being the core of enactments. Enactments are behavioral manifestations and, to some extent, intersubjective realizations of unconscious relational templates that are based on a history of actual relationships, but are also based on a reservoir of fantasies that have redefined those relationships in terms of the emotional quality of our experience of them. So that's what gets enacted and why enactment is also always fundamentally relational.
But, of course, to the extent that the internal world of objects is built up through a lifetime of internalization, our internal worlds are not only psychological but also social. And so, another version of this for me is Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the relationship between social fields and what he calls “habitus,” which he describes as the social internalized and incorporated, the social made flesh and mind. He actually refers to Klein at some point when he elaborates his theory of field and habitus, and their relationship, which he describes as a dialectic of objectification and embodiment—the constant back and forth between field and habitus, between the internal world and the external world. In my mind, this corresponds quite closely to the way Kleinians describe the building up of the unconscious and of the internal world of objects through the mechanisms of projection and introjection or internalization. And for Bourdieu, that relationship between field and habitus, of objectification and embodiment, is the primary mechanism of the reproduction of social structures.
After I wrote the essay "Performance or Enactment?", I got very involved in Group Relations, which is also sometimes called the Tavistock method. Group Relations developed out of an intersection between Kleinian and Bionian psychoanalysis—that is, the work of Wilfred Bion—and systems theory. It was developed in Britain in the 1950s as an application of psychoanalysis to groups, organizations, and social systems. So, Group Relations presented me with another way of thinking about the intersection and interchange between internal and external worlds, and between the social and psychological. The term enactment is fairly common in that field of practice as well.
I think a lot of applications of psychoanalysis to culture tend to focus on the decoding of latent content on the model of The Interpretation of Dreams. That's not very interesting to me. Applying the analysis of enactment is much more interesting. It's not so much about the contents in terms of metaphors or images from dreams or from fantasies, it's about the relational structures and their dynamics, and their emotional character and quality as they're performed, rather than as they're thought, imagined, or represented whether in images or words. I tend to think of enactment as a much more direct manifestation of the unconscious in some ways. Fantasies that emerge in dreams or in associations as thoughts are disguised, displaced, or condensed, but they still emerge as thoughts. What is enactment is not emerging as thought in the same way. It's more embodied and, I think, also more abstract and more structural.
You talk about relational structures, and, at some point in your text, you also mention how enactment involves the participants and the audience. So, what is rehearsed or externalized through these relations? What kind of relationships emerge? In the opening lines of your performance, Inaugural Speech, realized for INSITE97, you make the statement that “here and throughout the Americas all aspects of the public sphere are under attack, when the public sector is being downsized, public services privatized, public space enclosed, public speech controlled, and public goods of all kinds exchanged for the currency of private goals, be they prestige, privilege, power and profits.” Can you speak about what the meaning of the public sphere is in your current practice as an artist?
When I did my performance for INSITE in 1997, it was very much within the context of neoliberal globalization and the assaults on the public sphere and the public sector under neoliberalism that were unfolding starting in the 1980s. I do make a distinction between the public sphere and the public sector in that, and then add public services, public speech, public culture as subcomponents of the public sphere. But I was thinking then primarily about the economic, political, and social forces that were attacking the public sphere in terms of critiques of neoliberalism, and at that point, Bourdieu’s critiques of neoliberalism were a really important influence on me.
But neoliberalism continued unabated. Thinking today about the art field, particularly in North America, it seems like the battle against neoliberalism and privatization was completely lost. After 1997, I became more focused on the underlying economics of the privatization of cultural institutions and the public sector. I analyzed the wealth concentration enabled by neoliberalism as the driving force behind the exponential expansion not only of the art market, but also of the field of art institutions. I sometimes describe my work as swinging between extremes of the political, economic, and sociological on the one hand, and the psychological and emotional on the other. I've been more on the extreme of the psychological and emotional for the last few years. And so, thinking about the public sphere in those terms is a different question. I think it does link to what we were just talking about, particularly my work and applications of Group Relations. Group Relations has been described as psychoanalysis in public. The structures that I've been more preoccupied with in the last few years and in more recent works have had more to do with the boundary and intersections between private and public in terms of internal and external worlds, and how social identity, particularly gender and race, is formed at that juncture.
Alternately, I could certainly think about my performance for INSITE in terms of enactment. That would have to do with, most broadly, my thinking about a lot of artistic practices of critique and intervention as enactments of very ambivalent and conflicted relationships to the field of art and its institutions. And so, the INSITE piece was an enactment—both for me as an artist in the role that I was taking up, and as one of the things that's elaborated in the speech and in some ways performed—of the relations of mutual legitimation that are performed across ostensibly and consciously opposed positions within the art field and its rituals. Through these relations, artists end up legitimizing the Republican politicians and the corporate sponsors of exhibitions, even if they take a position against those entities in their work. To the extent that we're participating in the exhibition and all of its economic, social, and institutional structures, we are contributing to the legitimation and further empowerment of those structures. And we do that because we're pursuing our own interests, as those are framed within our very specific discourse and practices. So that would be one way of thinking about how my performance for INSTIE is an enactment and is reflecting on enactment in these terms. It is also an example of how subjective, emotional investments—such as those artists have in their own artistic positions and in being seen, known, recognized, etc.—intersect not only, for example, with parallel interests among art patrons as enactments of idealization, but also with social and political structures, such as with mechanisms of legitimation that are essential to the functioning of structures of power.
Probably it goes back to some of your early practices or interests, as I understand, with theater or with other structures that are more based on rehearsal and acting.
Perhaps, but I think it goes back more directly to Bourdieu, that is, thinking about enactment in terms of what is unthought in social structures as they're institutionalized, internalized, and performed. So, in that sense, a primary enactment in the 1997 performance, which I hadn't anticipated but which was very much part of my experience of performing it, was the social stratification of the audience, which also reflected the organizational and institutional stratification of the exhibition that I was consciously aiming to perform. As I performed on the stage, I could feel the stratification of the audience. The patrons in the front rows were responding in a completely different way than the artists who were seated in the back, and than the people in the middle who had paid to see Laurie Anderson. So, there was an enactment in the event itself, outside of what I was doing on stage, of the social structures at work in that site and situation that were organizing the people and their bodies in that space. So that was really fascinating.
Can we talk about public speech and about whether language is something in and of itself, or how it is embedded in enactment? Is public speech a form of language or contains language within?
It's a good question. It's such a fundamental question and I have to recognize that I have a conflicted and probably incoherent perspective on that. Part of my engagement with the two primary frameworks that inform my work and my thinking—which is Bourdieu’s sociology and then Kleinian, Bionian, and object-relations perspectives in psychoanalysis—is that those frameworks presented an alternative to some of the emphasis on language and discourse in cultural theory in the 1980s and into the ’90s, until performativity theory took over. I felt that the focus on language and representation were inadequate to understanding and to working with and within the social and psychological structures that I felt were much more fundamental in determining lived experience, including relations of domination and power. So the psychoanalytic frameworks that I've gravitated toward can be sharply distinguished from a Lacanian framework that places a lot of emphasis on language. They place much more emphasis on emotional life and embodied experience and only secondarily, I would say, on the symbolization of emotional life in language or in representation. Bourdieu also rejects Austin and performativity theory and held that the efficacy of the performative was not in speech but in the social and political structures of delegation and authorization.
But I have to recognize that language is central to almost all of my work and that my primary medium is language! I mean, certainly with performance, but also in writing and so much of the other work that I do. I don't know how to resolve that contradiction. I totally believe in speech acts, but I don't want to think of them as primary or central. I think in my mind, the way that works is less about speech as an act than about what is being enacted in speech, through speech, alongside speech. I think what has become more important to me is recognizing how speech is also engaged in repressing, disavowing, distancing, obscuring, and defending against what is being enacted. There is often a relationship of opposition, contradiction, or conflict between the articulation and the enactment. I think what we're enacting very often, as we speak and in our discourses, is a repression of what we're enacting on other levels: a repression or a distancing of the emotional and psychological as well as the social stakes in what we do. And I think that we use discourse in the art field, and in a lot of other fields as well, to obscure those stakes. So, what I'm describing are two different levels of enactment. There is defensive enactment, in the way that we often use language, of which intellectualization is the classic example. But then there's also what might be enacted underneath that defensive enactment in the use of language. I think what I'm trying to do in my work with language is often to reveal both. I do think that what we say can help us understand what it is that we're doing when we're saying things. But that has to include understanding that what we're doing when we're saying things is also repressing or distancing part of what we're doing.
My most recent performance is called This meeting is being recorded, in which I'm performing seven white women doing an antiracist process group. It's based on a group that I convened and I'm one of the seven women. It's a 10,000-word script. There is a lot of language. But it's also choreographed in minute detail. And so, what the body is doing is also extremely important. I wouldn't say that there's necessarily a relationship of tension or contradiction between the speech and the body, but it's often the body that's carrying some of the emotional weight of what is happening at any given moment, which might not be in the language itself. So that would be an example. But because the group itself was applying Group Relations methods, there is also a fairly high degree of recognition among the participants of what is being enacted primarily in language, as well as of the limits of our own self-understanding.
I suppose when you mention how language comes from this place of repression it's because we often think about language as theory, and theory also has this ability to co-opt terms and turn them into something else. But when you talk about language as being embodied in the performance, then that's a different thing. And that you’re trying to embody language as an intrinsic form that is contained in the public sphere, or in public speech.
Yes. Freud suggests that an intellectual process can only ever achieve a partial overcoming of repression unless it is connected to an affective process. I do tend to think of that in terms of language versus the body, but it's really more about different kinds of language. There's a beautiful quote by a psychoanalyst named André Green that I opened an essay of mine with. The essay is called “Why Does Fred Sandback's Work Make Me Cry?”2 and the quote is:
Language without affect is a dead language: and affect without language is uncommunicable. Language is situated between the cry and the silence. Silence often makes heard the cry of psychic pain and behind the cry the call of silence is like comfort.3
It's a beautiful quote. I think that first sentence captures a lot of the way that I work with language and the body. I think the art field is full of dead language. But, of course, language is not dead in itself. It's killed, right? It's killed by the repression that divorces it from its affective force and content. But we still need language to communicate that affect, whether it's spoken language or whether it's body language or whether it's representation.