As someone fascinated with the idea of ontology, the internet as a phenomenal object is something relatively under explored. We all know that the web has fundamentally altered how we interact, how we consume and how we acquire information but perhaps what we have been slower to realise is that the internet changes who we are. In a way that is a little surprising – as good post-structuralists we have existed in the wake of the concept of performativity now for a couple of decades, but with the rapid growth of internet technology and more crucially, internet culture, our conception of who we are needs to be altered.
Performativity, drawn as a critical concept for gender theory from the work of Judith Butler, is something that we all participate in to some degree. The cause is the increasing stratification of the levels to our existence divided by markers such as social circle, employment, class, race and gender identity and technology. We are not just humans any more. We exist in the digital world and the “real” world but with the increasing integration of technology into daily life and routine, it becomes more and more difficult to separate the two spheres of existence. In a sense, we are all engaged in performativity of one kind or another. The split between the online and “real” worlds is something that people are becoming more and more keenly aware of – especially as the actions of one self in one world can have negative implications in another.
The positive implications of this are worth celebrating and pursuing – the performance of the digital persona can lead to great personal freedom and anonymity, creative expression and even liberation not possible under the oppressive normativity of the “real world.” Yet it has to be confronted that this idea of digital performativity has its own means of enforcing normativity (something I have written about in more detail here.)
To talk of performance online it is perhaps helpful to go further back than Butler’s uses of the term, and talk about them in terms of theatricality. When social media allows for a staging of a life through various social media platforms, the self becomes a Stanislavski inspired performance. We regulate, curate and refine our own line selves to make them as convincing as we possibly can. We, in a sense, commodify ourselves for the consumption of the internet viewer. The whole aim of the online life arguably becomes not authenticity, but believability. Normative uses of social media and internet spaces emphasise the centrality of the subject to construct and maintain their own distinct narrative, all the while monetizing the information contained within it.
In the article I linked to above, I argued for an expansion of the bounds of possibility online, and a challenge to the limits of normativity. To frame the demand in the terms of performance then, we need less Stanislavski, more Brecht.
What a Brechtian approach allows for is an exposing of the limits of normality – an excavation of the ways in which behaviour and culture is manufactured, controlled and transformed into an easily marketable and consumable product. This kind of Brechtian online life then, would seem to possess important ramifications for not just how we live, but how we conduct any kind of intellectual or theoretical project online. For artists and writers, especially those who see themselves as opposed to the dominant state of things, the use of theory and criticism becomes something invaluable theory allows for a movement within, and against the dominant controlling forces of the fields we exist within. Framing critical thought within the environs of a performance product is the active out working of this simultaneous movement both within and against a larger more dominant hegemonic discourse. In short, it can serve as the creation of what Simon Critchley refers to as “the interstitial space” where room within a discourse can be opened for a genuinely ethical, or political moment.
It’s something that can be seen happening more and more, as rappers and musicians use the form that comes with a measure of success to explore the criticisms of the system they exist within. Think of Lupe Fiasco, Angel Haze and British artists like Akala and Lowkey who used their music to carry critiques of not just the music system, but capitalism, the post-colonial realities of racist white society and the importance of education. Artists who were signed to major labels, yet still managed to use that to create the space for genuinely radical, and potentially emancipatory intellectual labour.
Within the terms of the cultural logic of late capitalism, the idea of music as product is one that forces artists into their own kind of normative straitjacket different from that of the audience but no less restrictive. Those who practise what a reader called ‘burlesque criticism’ use the this to their advantage. I’m reminded of the term Amanda Palmer uses to describe her band ‘The Dresden Dolls’ as a Brechtian punk cabaret. A somewhat unwieldy descriptor, yet it shows exactly what kind of musical world the band exists within, whilst at the same time showcasing their own resistance of the implicit normative standards that world runs on. It’s a label that is designed to be at once understandable and provocative, easily quantified and resistant to it.
What of the academic discipline then, if burlesque criticism can exist within a capitalist, white patriarchal culture with a measure of success and provocation, what remains for the field itself to achieve? Theory it seems, runs the risk of remaining trapped behind the locked door of the academe’s ivory tower. Theorists are already criticized for speaking only to themselves, the field seen as a rhetorical Ouroboros that will eventually eat itself.
Perhaps though, if this is the end of theory, it might well function as a beginning too. “God is dead” runs the famous Nietzschean injunction, yet if the evidence of the last two centuries of theology, theory, and philosophy are anything to go by; it seems that god is simply refusing to lie down on the mortuary slab. Rather than die in the departments of the academy, theory, criticism and critique have been steadily migrating into new fields – from Lupe’s critiques of capitalism and education systems, to Amanda Palmer’s emotional deconstruction of art and rock, theoretical and critical work is becoming increasingly diffuse outside of the rigid hierarchies of the academic system. When information can be exchanged and the self performed, it seems that intellectual labour can have it;s own kind of Brechtian (re)vival.
The internet has its own German aphorist now, creating 140 character Wortbilder on a social media platform decried by the guardians of good taste as a waste of time, yet these bleak, touching, humourous messages have helped people find some of the great thinkers of the last two centuries – far more than ever would have found them if he had remained a single solitary figure within a vulnerable academic system.
The rise of this kind of burlesque criticism is something to be celebrated, as it carries two implications. That firstly, there is something within culture that is no matter the attempts at larger forces to eradicate it – the internet can function as not just an enforcement of normativity, but as a space of protest and intellectual renewal. Secondly, Culture, it appears, matters and matters a great deal. After all, the performance of the self online doesn’t seem to be slowing down. The great challenge for the commentators and critics and theorists of this new kind of cultural performance is not to become yet another voice desperately trying to convince the watchful of something, but to reach beyond and behind the limits of the current stage and expose the theatricality of our current cultural performance.
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