Performance, performativity, identity

In the past couple of months I’ve been working on my research proposal and a mini ‘literature review’ for the PGCert, and the process has led to more refinements to my research questions and focus. As presented three times during December, my questions were:

  • What is the nature of social media use in the everyday lives of creative and cultural workers?
  • How is expertise performed on Twitter?
  • What can both of these tell us about the workings of the creative economy?

The three areas for my theoretical framework were Networks, Cultural Work and Social Media.

Now my questions are:

  • What is the role of social media use in the everyday lives of creative and cultural workers?
  • How is expertise performed on social media?
  • What can these insights tell us about the culture of the creative industries?

The three areas for my theoretical framework now are Performance and identity, Cultural Work and Social Media.

The changes here are from ‘Twitter’ to social media, so as not to exclude those who may not be using Twitter and to leave scope for looking at multiple social media platforms (and to avoid it turning into a study about Twitter) and from ‘creative economy’ to creative industries. This is because, while I do aim to relate my insights to the wider context of the creative industries, the terminology of ‘creative economy’ may provide the impression that I will be providing specific insights into the ‘economy’ of the creative industries at the exclusion of the sociological. This does not mean I’m not including ‘the economy’ in my work, because as well as the useful perspectives on cultural political economy done in relation to expertise by O’Connor (2013) and Taylor (2013) there is also potentially useful work in this area around performativity.

Now that I’ve handed in the PGCert I’ve been reading a lot more in depth about performance and performativity, which has also led me to identity. I’ve also engaged further with some of the literature on cultural intermediaries, particularly the Cultural Intermediaries Reader (Smith Maguire and Matthews, 2014) which is a really helpful compilation of work done on cultural intermediation.

I’ve found the work of Paul du Gay (1996; 2002; 2007; 2010) especially useful for understanding identity and its relation to performance and performativity. Judith Butler’s work on performativity, particularly in Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993) has been used in looking at performance on social media by Cover (2012) and was an approach I was considering (briefly mentioned here). Butler carried on Foucault’s work on subjectivity and production of the self to define performativity as the ‘doing’ of a socially constructed role.

Du Gay (2010) however provides a useful critique of some of the theoretical problems with this. While his concern here is primarily with performativity of politics and its relation to the ‘moment of theory’ (which is the point when a theoretical concept surfaces in a wide variety of disciplines), du Gay appreciates the practical uses of performativity, but argues that Butler’s (and Michel Callon’s) attempts to elevate performativity to higher philosophical truths is problematic. He explains this with reference to Butler:

“It is my contention that Judith Butler’s approach to performativity and politics is located firmly within this ‘moment of theory’, and that a number of things follow from this. First, that the specificities of empirical and historical circumstances are subordinated to transcendent truth claims, and second, that the politics deemed to flow from this theory programme has little obvious connection to (minimalistically) practical politics and considerably more to do with the ways in which politics is identified with the intellectual operations of certain sorts of theory. Stanley Fish (1994) calls this ‘anti-foundational theory hope’. Carl Schmitt (1986) called it ‘political romanticism’.” (du Gay, 2010, pp. 177)

du Gay goes on to explain how Michel Callon’s approach to performativity is also prone to this ‘political romanticism’ to some extent:

“In contrast to Judith Butler’s predominantly theoreticist approach to performativity
and politics, Michel Callon’s ‘performation programme’ is more empirically oriented, exhibiting a much greater concern with detailed description. However, it is my contention that Callon’s relationship to ‘the moment of theory’ is more ambivalent than such a clearcut distinction might suggest, and his approach to performativity and politics is also prone to a certain degree of political romanticism as a result.” (du Gay, 2010, pp. 177)

This article helped me to understand performativity in its more political and economic function, elements of which Nixon (in Smith Maguire and Matthews, 2014:34-41) uses to analyse intermediation in the advertising industry.

Nixon utilises elements of Bourdieu’s approach to cultural intermediaries (i.e. the class tastes and dispositions of the ‘new petitie bourgeoisie’ emerging in intermediary professions such as advertising) and Michel Callon’s consideration of socio-technical devices (how characteristics of objects to be taken to market are defined and fixed, usually by an intermediary, so they are suitable for circulation and will appeal to consumers) to look at intermediaries in the advertising industry. He argues that both subjectivities and social trajectories of individuals (Bourdieu) and socio-technical devices (Callon) need to be considered when exploring cultural intermediation. This consideration of both the sociological and economic is important and is something I am continuing to explore in more depth for my research.

I’ve also found du Gay’s work on identity of help. My previous engagement with identity was with the ‘identity theory’ approach of Peter Burke which is of relevance, particularly his work on identity and role performance with Reitzes (1981). In a book du Gay edited with Stuart Hall, Questions of Cultural Identity (1996) Hall asks questions about conceptualising identity. Hall describes identities as “the positions subjects take up, knowing these positions are representations, which are never adequate to the subject processes invested in them” (p.6). He also says ‘identity’ refers to the meeting point between the discourses and practices which attempt to speak to us, and the processes which construct us as subjects which can be spoken. The conceptual problem lies in articulating this intersection.

Hall draws on the work of Foucault and Butler here to describe how identities are formed in discourse, and mentions the influence of Butler’s work on performativity and how this grounds perspectives on production of the self (or subject). This highlights the relationship between performance/performativity and identity and why I need to consider identity in my work.

In Organizing Identity (2007) du Gay proposes that identity be analysed through ‘personhood’ rather than focusing on how identity is formed. Looking at forms of personhood requires reference to “a definite substratum of categories and practices that give an agent its particular (complex and differentiated) form” (p.23). These ‘categories’ that someone may belong to refer to their role or occupation in a particular context at a given time,such as employer and employee, landlord and tenant. These are categories, and a person can be a member of more than one category at different times. In the case of my research, the ‘category’ in question is that of creative industries worker, and the practices and activities are that of creative practice, and also social media practice (which may be a part of their creative practice). This is a shift from what Stuart Hall talked about in 1996, and du Gay’s approach of ‘personhood’ is something I am continuing to engage with.

There is still a lot more work I need to consider in these areas, but what I’ve read so far has led me to expand performativity and identity in my literature review, because when it comes to looking at the discursive practice of creative workers’ social media use, performance/performativity and identity in this context would be difficult to ignore.

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.
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