On Raoul Eshelman’s “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism.”

The new notion of performativity serves neither to foreground nor contextualize the subject, but rather to preserve it: the subject is presented (or presents itself) as a holistic, irreducible unit that makes a binding impression on a reader or observer.
-Eshelmen, “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism”

As a piece of writing, I don’t find Eshelman’s “Performatism” to be very convincing at all. It seems as if Eshelman essentially establishes post-postmodernism by fiat, from which two other main assumptions follow: 1) that postmodern thinking, basically defined as thinkers in the latter half of the twentieth century but prior to, like, 1997 or something, are wrong, or that we no longer think like them, and 2) that postmodern is purely pessimism and nihilism. Therefore, the answer to postmodernism, performatism, must be diametrically opposed to postmodern thinking: optimistic and defined by belief. The logical structure of that argument just bothers me, and in addition to that I find almost none of Eshelman’s readings of films or literature or art to be convincing at all, either in those places where he attempts to articulate the obsolescence of postmodern art, or more often in those places where he tries to describe how his selected artworks are performatist. This could just be because American Beauty seems like a profoundly stupid movie in every way to me, so it’s hard for me to accept it as a paradigm of the new direction in thought.

Particularly egregious in this essay are those moments when he tries to outline a performatist politics, as are his arguments about the reassertion of the phallus. His notion about performatist politics seems to boil down to a replacement of politics with the achievement of personal transcendence and wholesome living. He correctly points out that because of the size and complexity of the most dire political problems we’re faced with (environmental problems, for example, cannot be adequately addressed by a politics of resistance and emancipation, really, and the contemporary economic world creates problems whose solutions very likely cannot resemble the sort of mass revolutionary politics nor the critical acts of localized resistance that early and late modernism tended to envision), new ideas of the political are needed. But the solution offered by performatism borders on the solipsistic: “If we do not become the sort of people–more reflective in our demands, more modest in our needs, more attentive in our actions–who could inhabit a responsible economy, such an economy will not come to us by law or government. Because it will not come without law and government, changing ourselves is all the more important” (6). Essentially, we are invited to performatively change ourselves to good people who believe in love (or just believe in things more generally) which will create a new space that through a kind of osmosis of goodness will draw out a new government and economy. I’m sorry, but this is stupid. His argument about the re-invigorated phallus seems likewise to be incredibly problematic. If he were just arguing for a way that the phallus can now be understood as not necessarily oppressive or dominant, that would be one thing (not unproblematic, but maybe less so, at least), but here he seems to base his sort of call for this reinvigoration on that really simple and old and wrongheaded classic division of masculine/active and feminine/passive, and when that’s your starting point, calling for the reassertive (but friendly! I promise!) phallus as a basis for the new performatist subject doesn’t get the benefit of doubt.

Backing away from those complaints, though, there is something here, in Eshelman’s idea of performatism. The basic idea behind a turn away from the endless ontological undermining of thought (and language and the subject and what-have-you) that characterized the 20th century does seem to bear a certain resonance in the present. For it to happen just as a naive and stupid rejection of all that critical work would, I believe, be likely to lead to the negative side of this possibiliity, and Eshelman’s insistence on treating all his examples as representative of a new transcendent hope for our present seems to lead precisely to those problems (see, as I just mentioned, his solipsistic politics). But the careful deployment of thought toward constructively building new ideas and concepts, of politics toward concrete localized actions of community-building, etc., these do seem to be aspects, and useful aspects, of the present. Within that matrix, a theory of performatism that begins with the holistic treatment of subjects and ideas as non-reducible could potentially carry some weight.

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2 Responses to On Raoul Eshelman’s “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism.”

  1. yes but says:

    I had a similar reaction when I first read this essay, but Eshelman has refined and developed his thinking in the twelve years since then. Also, I’ve found his ideas have grown on me – performatism is a way, for instance, of thinking about Lost, a show he doesn’t seem ever to have seen.

    • Marcus says:

      Ah, that’s interesting. I read only that essay, for a class, and I’m not aware of Eshelman’s continuing development of his performatism ideas. Maybe I’ll have to slot in some attention to it sometime this summer. My sense (which may not have come across very much when I wrote this post) is that there’s something really interesting and useful at the core of his performatism which I’d be interested in getting at.

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