Preface to “Performance Apophatics”–to perform is to not know

With no small amount of trepidation I recently submitted the whole manuscript of my book, Performance Studies and Negative Epistemology: Performance Apophatics, to my publisher, and it’s currently being peer reviewed. I am anxious to move on to the next steps, especially through feedback. I offer here the preface to the book. I hope it’s as short and pointed as I intend it to be.

To perform is to not know.

This book engages with negative theology as a religious practice that has left an enduring imprint on literature, performance, and the aesthetic imagination of the entire western tradition. To seriously study negative theology as an intellectual mainstay of performance theory implicitly argues that religion is not simply an optional sidecar detachable from culture and politics, but an integral reality of cultural and political experience, whether one has chosen to live a secular lifestyle or not. The choice of secularity, whether on the part of nations or individuals, usually arises out of the experience of privilege. Religion is a bare fact of social existence in every part of the world, and for more individuals than not, religion functions as identity and ideology and is not necessarily a matter of choice. This study acknowledges the complex entwining of religion and culture, and will unapologetically blend philosophy, theology, and performance theory. The author is prepared for the likely scenario that some readers will dismiss it out-of-hand because the book approaches the work of the theologian as just that: work. This book will treat the work of the theologian with as much respect as that of the literary critic, the anthropologist, the philosopher, the theorist, or any other scholar

To put it another way, this study of apophaticism and its relationship to performance starts with the simple premise that how humanity has talked about the gods or God throughout the history of western culture has influenced and still influences how we talk about everything else. You may be a person of faith; you may identify with a combination of religious, secular, and cultural practices; perhaps you reject all religion outright, or, like me, you may remain fascinated by religion but possess no beliefs of your own. It doesn’t matter. Our collective religious lives (which include the rejection of religion), past and present, have helped structure our discourse about everything else. It is an inescapable component of our language (spoken and performed), and our language is a great part of who we are. I am not concerned with whether this is the way it should be; I am concerned to understand the depth of influence.

The second simple premise of this book is that when we speak about God, the divine, or the absolute in any form, we absolutely do not know what we are talking about—and this, incidentally, is the starting point for the whole of the apophatic tradition. You may not believe that God exists, or you may be undecided; perhaps you believe in God but suspect that humans can never say anything completely adequate about her, even though there are several holy texts that purport to do just that; or, like me, you may maintain that all speech about God cataphatically expresses an exquisite emptiness and a nothingness that can never be filled, and that the question of belief doesn’t enter into such an operation. It doesn’t matter. The apophatic inadequacy of speech about God is also something that influences how we speak about everything else.

Starting with these two simple premises, we can infer that when we speak we always speak through what we do not know. But this book is about more than just spoken and written language: it is also about act-speeches, otherwise known as ‘performances’, or communications through gesture, dance, ritual, sound, song, orally transmitted stories and jokes, silences, inhabitations, and visual works as well. It follows that when we perform, we also speak through what we do not know. This brings me to the thesis of this book: that performance is a kind of negative knowledge, a negative epistemology.

Speaking through how we do not know is a long and respected tradition, variously called the via negativa, the apophatic way, negative spirituality, apophaticism, apophatic spirituality, and, a bit more recently, negative theology. Although the shape of apophaticism can be detected in spiritual and religious traditions across the globe, this book will, by simple necessity, narrow its consideration to the western Christian tradition, with a brief foray into Eastern Orthodoxy in chapter ___. Traditionally beginning with Plato, moving through Augustine to the European mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Teresa of Avila, to the instigators of modern philosophy with Kant, Kierkigaard and Hegel, to Heidegger, and rising through critical theory in the famous debate between Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida as to whether deconstruction itself is a kind of negative theology, apophaticism is a tradition that performs against itself, constantly denying itself any positivistic turn. What can we learn about performance from a theological tradition that resists its own resisting, that denies its own denying? And what might we recognize in this tradition if we take a look at its history and consider that perhaps it has been weaving itself through performance theory all along?

Throughout the following chapters, I will use the invented term ‘apophatics’ to indicate a performative operation that traffics through the denial of denial. I offer the term ‘performance apophatics’ to define the restless dynamic of the unknowable that structures performance itself. Performance apophatics describes not only the way performance may deny, resist, or fail, or the way that performance may depend upon the absent or processes of disappearance, or the creation of the indistinguishable, the contradictory, and the im/possible, but also the way that that through such performances we may end up in a place where the negation itself is no longer enough. At that point we may suspect that although negation/resistance/failure/contradiction heralds a promise of something that lies beyond ourselves, such a promise still resembles the shortcomings of the premise we initially resisted, and that in our eagerness to get outside or beyond ourselves we have somehow reestablished ourselves somewhere else, when the whole point of the exercise was to get away from what we already knew. We may sustain the uneasy feeling that comes when one first reads Althusser and asks of him, ‘But how can I live outside of ideology?’ or of Bordieu, ‘But how do I exit habitus?’ It seems that everything we do will only always be about ourselves, and that we keep reinscribing our limited ontology through the very structures we’ve taken such pains to deconstruct. This frustrates us to no end. So what do we do? Performance apophatics describes the moment when the only option is to resist the resistance, or to negate the negation. But our minds balk. Do what now?

The balking comes along with the denial of experience, which is what one in effect is doing when one ‘negates negation’ or ‘denies denial’. Denying experience makes no sense from a positivistic and phenomenological point of view (and therefore, some might argue, from a performative point of view, if one assumes that performance is first of all an event phenomenon). However, this is the operation that defines performance apophatics, and is the crux of the relationship between performance theory and negative theology. Let me illustrate with an example, and then explain the connection.

In the United States, the Supreme Court recently passed a ruling that legalizes gay marriage in all fifty states. Shortly before this event, a transgender rights activist named Jennicet Gutierrez, who is Mexican and living undocumented in the United States, interrupted a speech given by President Barack Obama at a reception in celebration of Pride Month at the White House. ‘Release all LGBT prisoners from detention centers’, she said, in protest of the treatment that undocumented LGBT immigrants face, especially in Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers. The President had her thrown out as a ‘heckler’, and many in the crowd booed her. At a time of celebration for great advances to the rights of gay and lesbian men and women, a transgender person offered an interjection as a reminder that one step toward liberty is not the end of the road, and as a result she was ejected from the party. Whether or not Gutierrez’s actions were appropriate is not what concerns me here; what I recognize in this incident is a voice attempting to resist the resistance, and to negate the negation—to shake the complacent into recognition that to assume that the work of justice has a final endpoint is to close down justice itself. Similarly, negative thinkers of the apophatic tradition constantly resist the dogma of the institutional church because rulings on the person of God assume human understanding of God. Furthermore, negative spirituality resists the conclusion that one’s experience of negation—to deny that one can know anything of the divine—actually teaches anything about the divine itself. Negative thinkers also deny experience, insisting that experience, even of our own limitations, is still part of a positive cycle that bears no relationship to the divine. When Gutierrez called out the President, she likewise denied the experience of a liberal civil rights victory as achieving ‘real justice’. Her implicit question seemed to be, ‘If the pride celebration obscured the suffering of LGBT prisoners at that very moment, then how did it truly achieve justice?’ Guttierez’s protest was an apophatic performance that pointed to the celebration of hope as a dark shadow of willful ignorance. And it seems to me that her ejection from the party may have had as much to do with the discomfiting truth of her denial as much as any supposed lack of social grace.

To deny the denial, to negate the negation, and to resist the resistance—this forces one into a place where no action, no speech, and no event can ensure communication. Instead, we are left with a mere excess of ultimately inadequate expression. Trying to think oneself through the negation of negation lands one in the halls of some outlandish cartoon funhouse, where the door through which someone else disappeared only opens to a brick wall, and by entering what seems to be one room you find yourself re-entering the same hallway, just several doors away. What the negative thinker would emphasize is that this confounding experience of the limitation of expression cannot be equated with otherness or the absolute itself. Ritual transformation, euphoric trance, collective frenzy, mystic visions—even what would seem to be revelation must be negated as the human and the limited. When we perform for one another or for ourselves, we likewise cannot equate the performance of culture, or of identity, or of community, with the instantiation of those things, lest we find ourselves artificially limiting culture, identity, and community to the performance itself. Performance is an elaboration of the unknowing through which we may glimpse something of the complete transcendence (unknowability) of what remains other than the self (and the otherness that is the self). To perform is to not know.

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