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After Postmodernism: 5. Performatism

"Mother's Milk," Martin Wittfooth


We turn then to performatism, a paradigm for understanding post-Postmodernism articulated by Raoul Eshelman, a scholar of Slavist literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and author of Early Soviet Postmodernism (1997). In a series of essays written after 2000, which subsequently formed the basis for his 2008 book Performatism, Or, The End of Postmodernism, Eshelman attempts to chart emergent trends in cultural production which he sees as being linked to a foundational shift in the dominant perspective toward language and how we think about the world. He calls this new period “performatism”, a paradigm defined by “artistically mediated belief.” “Performatism,” he writes,

is an across-the-board cultural reaction to post-modernism that began sometime in the mid-1990s. It may best be described as an epochal development that replaces Postmodern irony and skepticism with artistically mediated belief and the experience of transcendence.[1]

One way to put it is like this. If Postmodern critique had indeed effectively cut us off from transcendent categories by fundamentally undermining the premises of classical metaphysics, performatist efforts find a way around or, better, beyond this impasse. While in the bounds of logical argumentation metaphysical transcendence is an intellectual non-starter, within the internal logic of a work of art it can nevertheless still be experienced. “A good formal definition of the ‘performance’ in performatism,” writes Eshelman, “is that it demonstrates with aesthetic means the possibility of transcending the conditions of a given frame” (p. 12). Indeed, this label of ‘performatism’

goes back to the Latin root per formam, which means doing things through form. This suggests that narrative works of art are using formal means to create fictional conditions for experiencing love, belief, beauty, transcendence and similar positive states of social interaction.[2]

In short, one might say (again, as you may have noticed): in the post-Postmodern paradigm, art becomes the new locus of spirit. Through artificial and constructed forms—which employ techniques such as “double framing” and “theistic plots”—an audience is presented with the conditions for experiencing those old metaphysical notions like Truth, Trust, Beauty, Spirit, etc., but only within the cordoned off space of the aesthetic work. Indeed, these impel us toward this experience, both by means of and always blatantly in spite of their artificial and completely constructed nature. “In this way,” Eshelman insightfully observes:

performatism gets to have its metaphysical cake and eat it too. On the one hand, you’re practically forced to identify with something implausible or unbelievable within the frame – to believe in spite of yourself – but on the other, you still feel the coercive force causing this identification to take place, and intellectually you remain aware of the particularity of the argument at hand. Metaphysical skepticism and irony aren’t eliminated, but are held in check by the frame. (Performatism, Or, The End of Postmodernism, p. 2)

Eshelman offers a host of elucidating examples of this phenomenon in post-Postmodern cultural production, with examples ranging from popular films like American Beauty to the dense philosophical theology of Jean-Luc Marion. We’ll take Yann Martel’s popular novel Life of Pi as a helpful test case, though, which Eshelman interprets through a performatist lens.

In the story, a family of zookeepers decides to emigrate from India to America. On the way, however, their ship hits a storm and sinks. The family’s young son, Pi, manages to get aboard a lifeboat in the aftermath, but finds himself accompanied there by an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, and a hyena. Soon, the hungry hyena kills and eats the orangutan and the zebra, and is about to eat Pi—before being in turn killed and eaten by a Bengal tiger, hidden until that moment. After this, Pi must learn how to train the tiger so it won’t eat him, which he does as the two float across the Pacific. Eventually, Pi and the tiger hit land in Mexico. The tiger wanders off, and Pi is taken to a hospital. There he is confronted by officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport who have been tasked with writing a formal report on the shipwreck. Pi tells them his story, but they find it unbelievable. Pressed to give a different account, Pi obliges. He says that after the ship sank he found himself in a lifeboat with the ship’s cook, a sailor with a broken leg, and his mother. When hunger set in, the cook amputated the sailor’s leg to use as fish bait, then killed and ate the sailor and his mother. Pi then killed the cook and ate him before washing up in Mexico. Asked which story they prefer, the officials admit the story with the animals. “And so it goes with God,” says Pi. In the end, the officials use the unbelievable story in their report.

Life of Pi is a brilliant example of performatist “aesthetically mediated belief”, or the “bracketing knowledge to bring forth beautiful belief” (p. 170). As Eshelman observes (p. 54):

The problem is not so much that Life of Pi resolutely resists deconstruction, it’s that Pi deconstructs its own metaphysical conceit so completely that there is hardly anything left for the canny poststructuralist reader to do. This happens because Life of Pi shifts the framework of its argumentation from an epistemological plane to an aesthetic one. The book says, in effect: ‘given that we can never know for sure what is true, isn’t it better to enjoy what is beautiful, good and uplifting rather than dwell on what is ugly, evil and disillusioning?’

This strategy is the hallmark of performatist works. Through it, performatist artists actually anticipate their own deconstruction (usually the main point in Postmodern texts), forestalling that critique by doing the work themselves.[3] The old metaphysical ideas are not shrouded behind the veil of their own presumption, but actually laid bare, “declared”, you could say, to the skeptical postmodern customs officer tasked with policing the entry of ideas into our minds. But these metaphysical ideas aren’t begging admittance on logical, epistemological grounds; if they were, they would be sent packing. Instead, they have already been experienced, viscerally, aesthetically, by an (immanence-sanctioned) credulous engagement with the world inside the artist’s frame. By this means they have already entered the audience’s internal world: smuggled in, you might say, through the heart, a phenomenological Trojan horse.

How or even whether we hold on to these things after we move on from the work of art, though, is a matter we must resolve on our own. Here’s where performatist aesthetics bump up against the ethical realm, and engage the issue of identity-construction head on. For the artist can only do so much. At some point, the experience of the art comes to an end, the performance is over, and the audience must step out of the constructed frame, back into the uni-planer world where transcendence (we are told) is not possible. How one navigates this movement becomes the crucial factor. Was the transcendence experienced in the performatist work just a holiday from the grim specter of mundane reality? Have we simply been tourists, or escapists, into a land we know we cannot inhabit, within a dream we know we must wake from? Or is there something more to it than all that, something we can actually take with us back into the disenchanted world—perhaps, even, to change that world, or, at least, to find some sense of place within it? What do we make of a transcendence we have both felt as true but know we can’t take to be real?

Our report is due; what do we say about the Tiger?

Because they are easy to identify and debunk,” writes Eshelman,

these metaphysical figures force readers or viewers to make a choice between the untrue beauty of the closed work or the open, banal truth of its endless contextualization. Performatist works of art attempt to make viewers or readers believe rather than convince them with cognitive arguments. This, in turn, may enable them to assume moral or ideological positions that they otherwise would not have. In terms of reader reception, a performance is successful when a reader’s belief pattern is changed in some particular way, and when he or she begins to project that new belief pattern back onto reality. (p. 37)

Eshelman reiterates this succinctly elsewhere, concluding, “The inner space of the painting/photo/performance creates a new way of seeing or experiencing the world that can at first only be experienced in terms of a constructed aesthetic interior. If accepted by the viewer, this interiority may then be projected back onto the outside contexts around it” (p. 23). Such projection could in turn change reality itself: a politics of performance.

This kind of engagement, though, is entirely left up to the reader. Skeptical reason is not abandoned here at all, only “bracketed” for a time, for the duration of the aesthetic experience. It returns to us afterward, and demands a verdict from us. But between a transcendence we have experienced phenomenologically and an immanence we have accepted rationally, there can be only one arbiter, it seems: ourselves; our will. Existentially, we must make a choice as to whether we would hold on to this transcendence in the immanent frame, admitting a sphere for the sub-immanently transcendent, or else waving our hand at the whole thing and letting Postmodern cynicism wipe away as “illusion” or “trickery” what we have felt (if we even can).

But to say “yes” to transcendence, it turns out, is the first step of establishing an identity on a different plane. This assent is predicated on one’s own consent and choice, and thus an act of identity-construction in and of itself. But, once admitted and assented to, this plane offers entirely new ways of further establishing identity which had hitherto been closed off. “Meaning” itself opens up again as a prospect, for instance, since now there can be relationship between multiple levels of existence, with one standing in a teleological position to the other. Indeed, the prospect of a metanarrative even returns! An identity beyond purely immanent markers becomes possible.

Or so one might perhaps extrapolate it into these areas. How far one can go towards re-constituting anything like a “unified self”, let alone “soul”, such as it was before Postmodernism’s critique, is unclear. Certainly something like these is reconstituted in the intra-immanent plane. As Eshelman sees it, “It would be going too far to say that performatist texts like this restore subjectivity in the grand style that humanist critics of Postmodernism have always been longing for. However,” he admits, “they do provide readers with a limited experience of identity-building under controlled, rather coercive conditions” (p. 58).

Those “coercive conditions” are the constructed parameters of the artistic medium itself, of course, where intra-immanent transcendence occurs. Art (we see again) is the post-Postmodern locus of “spirit” reinvented. Unlike the old sacred spaces where transcendence manifested, conceived of as intrinsically distinct from the profane realm, the artistic locus, by contrast, is entirely immanent. It is aesthetic (from aisthos, Greek for “sense”), and thus of the flesh, material, the physical and empirical. From this immanence arises a new transcendence, a phenomenological experience capable of re-enchanting one’s disenchanted world, of connecting people together and changing reality itself. As Eshelman wonderfully summarises it, theorists and theories behind this new post-Postmodern stance agree

that it is now imperative to…renew and revitalize our attitude towards art, ethics, religion, and reality in general. The result is a paradoxical, oxymoronic, or saturated return to metaphysics using postmetaphysical means. This means that the grand metaphysical postulates – presence, center, love, beauty, truth, God etc. – all return, but only insofar as they can be apprehended as immanent relations. (p. 194; italics original)

This last formulation of the post-Postmodern approach will become crucial in what follows.


[1] [2] [3] Rather like the way Dostoyevsky, to defend God, needed to invent Ivan before he could justify Alyosha.

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