Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The introductory performance

One of the things I tend to do is to listen to random lectures on Youtube. Listen, as in letting the audio roll and looking at something else than the accompanying visuals. Multitasking, you know.

The last one I happened to stumble upon is this one with Cornel West. I haven't listened to it yet, though - something about the introduction gives me pause. And this something is this: how come introductions to lectures tend to sound so alike, regardless of who is introduced and who is doing the introducing?

One theory on this is that it's just a common tendency among people in such circumstances to say the same kinds of things. And that they, thus, independently from one another, acting from their own points of discourse, will come out sounding similar and familiar.

Another theory is that it is something of a genre, and that people have internalized certain implicit expectations and assumptions that goes with this genre. That they, in short, know how an introduction to a lecture is supposed to sound, and work (consciously or unconsciously) to emulate this idea of how it's supposed to be done. The template is there, and the only thing you have to do is fill it with content, so to speak.

Listening to this particular introduction made me think that it's more of the latter than the former. It's the intonation, you see. You don't get that particular stiltedness of pronunciation anywhere else. People have too much personality to conform to this pattern out of sheer random anything. On some level, they know what they're doing, and doing their best to do it right.

The proper way, as it were.

Whenever someone wants to say "let's ignore all the blatant pitfalls that are inherent to doing what I'm about to do", they tend to say "let's for the sake of argument assume that". So let's for the sake of argument assume that all these genre performers don't quite know what they're doing on a conscious level. They know enough in their bones and guts to make the genre performance in an improvised fashion, moving along on the general principle that it has to be done in some way and the way in front of them is as good as any. Better than most, actually, as time constraints constrain.

That would account for how so many sound so similar without ever having talked, communicated or even been in any kind of proximity to one another. The genre permeates their tendencies, and tends them to conform whenever the situation doesn't require anything out of the ordinary.

Genres don't have servants. But they have a Butler. Sometimes referred to as Judith. And this is, at a basic level, how her notion of performativity works. People perform and act out a certain genre whenever they don't do anything out of the ordinary, and this genre is gender. They know, on some level, what 'a man' or 'a woman' is supposed to do, and act to emulate this supposed ideal. The template is there, and all one has to do is to go through the motions.

The obvious caveat to this is, of course, that gendered persons tend to know on which side of the genre fence they're on. Either because they've internalized the expectations of what being a wo/man means, or because they've gotten the rules brutally beaten into them whenever they've dared to perform badly.

The beatings themselves being a part of the genre of gender. In subtle and not so subtle ways.

The way to avoid these beatings is to conform to the genre. The way to avoid both the beatings and the dreadfully boring life of conformity is to subvert the rules - play along just enough to pass the minimum bar, but perform in such a way that the whole production cannot but look as ridiculous as it actually is. Embrace the letter, profane the spirit.

(re)Mix all the metaphors. And become freer for it. -

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