First off, I have to mention that I’m not a performer. I’m a writer. In my case, that means I’m very uncomfortable getting up, standing in front of real people, being looked at, and speaking. All my life I’ve found ways to hide in, among and behind words. I’ve used written words as an escape from all sorts of things: everyday life, housework, a ‘real’ job. I can’t count how many times I’ve turned to a book or a lovely blank page to avoid boredom, anxiety, embarrassment, facing some general unpleasantness. As for spoken words, well, I’m tempted to mention my ideas really fast, to talk a lot, to shoot them out, because they are just going to disappear, fade, dissolve, and be forgotten anyway. On those rare occasions when I do find myself speaking in front of others, every instinct I have screams out to grab paper and books, and to hold them up in front of me as a shield. Every instinct tells me to clutch the typewritten speech in my sweaty palms and read it out. To fling about big words so no one notices how really nervous I am.
Years ago, I went to a talk by Oliver Sachs. He was introduced by Susan Sontag in glowing terms. As she spoke, his cheeks grew more and more red, and he sunk more and more deeply into his chair. When at last he stood, he could only stammer a few words of thanks and apologise haltingly for “being more comfortable with the written word than the spoken one”. I understood just how he felt. He tried again, and again the words didn’t quite take shape. They seemed to drop to the floor like lead balls. By this time, the audience was thick with empathy. Sachs persevered, however, and his fascination with the workings of the human brain and body—what we were there to hear about—eventually took over. Soon he was speaking fluently and unselfconsciously, giving amazing accounts of neurological phenomena. He was splendid.
I’ve never forgotten that talk or the transformation that occurred before my eyes. I often summon the memory when I’m called on to speak and end up stammering. Because what we think of as a shield might really be a cage. If we hide behind written words or by spoken words that are uttered too fast, too formally, we might end up caging off our experience, our personality, the very point we are there to make. We remain distanced from the content, and the audience that much more so. Each talk holds in it the potential for that perfect moment when our words fade into the background and the subject matter rises up, when the speaker and the content and medium of language merge with audience; when the moment itself becomes a work of art, existing as an artefact of experience, no less significant than material artefacts, even though it remains transient and ephemeral. For here I am twenty years on recalling that talk by Oliver Sachs. It never really disappeared.
This idea of the performative nature of words has been given new focus in the last few years. Initially based on the work of J.L. Austin, who wrote in the middle of the last century, the adjective ‘performative’ has come to be applied to much more than speech acts. There is performative writing, which is used when describing writing in which the subject and the object are a fluid composition, when the audience responds viscerally as well as cognitively to what is written. There is performative ethnography in which the investigator of other cultures neither calls the shots nor stands back out of sight but becomes part of the investigation. Norman Denzin, a social scientist who has published widely on this way of approaching ‘the subject’, speaks of ‘the performative sensibility’ that infuses the present moment and focuses on that indefinable quality of engagement, whether in an interview, a conversation, a text or–might I add?–a presentation.
I recently attended a lecture that addressed this very issue both in content and in demonstration. The subject wasPerformative Research, and it was given by Dr. Brad Haseman of the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT. With his first words, I was engaged. He mentioned his background in drama, and the fact that he situated himself in an academy in order to “wonder about wonder”, and that he came to see in all this wondering how creative practice fits into the bigger picture of research and in which ways it extends knowledge. The whole time he spoke, I kept thinking how there was an interesting layering going on – a synthesis of experience: The actor, the dramatist in him, may have been altered by all the wondering and theorizing and hypothesizing, but the performer was there in front of us—bigger than life. The lecture itself was an engaging, inspiring, entertaining performance, and it embodied Haseman’s many roles and interests, as well as much of his experience and personality. He poured all of this into the moment and brought the moment to life. He was demonstrating exactly what he was there to talk about. Another ephemeral artefact. But not so ephemeral really because like watching Oliver Sachs overcome his shyness, it’s made an impact and stayed with me.
One of the most striking performative moments I can think is the example of the young Gertrude Stein. It’s probably the best known anecdote about her. At Radcliff College in the 1890s, she became a student of William James. On a particularly nice spring day during final exams in James’ course she wrote at the top of her paper: “Dear Professor James, I am sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” The next day she received a postcard from James saying, “I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself.” He gave her the highest mark in his course.
I can hear even now the gasps in the lecture hall when a philosophy professor of mine told that story. The other students and I were impressed with Stein’s gustiness. I’m sure a few of us wished we had thought of the idea ourselves. I know I did. Though, of course, our professor was quite clear that we wouldn’t be so lucky if we pulled such a stunt. At the time, we paid more attention to Stein’s rebelliousness, her blithe dismissal of classroom convention, come what may.
What became clearer to me later was the perfection of her act, both in its philosophical nature and in her exquisite performance of it. Stein was an exceptional student. She knew her stuff. She could have written the exam. And she would have done it brilliantly. William James knew this. But there was something stridently philosophical in her refusal to be the good student and in her preference for the loveliness of the spring day. She had taken all that she had learned about philosophy in the course with James and brought it up to another level. Her response to the day and to the exam was also a comment on the subject of philosophy. Her act, part wit, part whim, remains a delightful artefact even 120 years later.
I’m pondering all of this because I have a talk to give. Even though I take comfort in the bravery of Oliver Sachs, and in the fact that our academies are now embracing the performative in scholarly inquiry, my knees still shake. I still feel inclined to write out a formal speech and read it word for word.
But I won’t. Instead, when I stand in front of the crowd, I’ll keep a little of Gertrude Stein’s spirit by me, her witty come-what-may attitude. I may not succeed. The audience may not become engaged. The moment may not transcend the subject matter. But unless I give it the chance to succeed by putting myself out there, by allowing the subject to speak through me, I’ll never know what might have been. I’ll only know the stiff formal words on the page in front of me read out in a shy halting voice. And that’s all the audience will know. The event won’t have any chance to live, and we’ll all miss out on that layered, ephemeral, shining moment trying to break through.