Introductions to academic journals are often rather rote: “Here are our authors, and here is what they are writing about.” Guest editor Megan McDonald’s introduction to the most recent issue of Liturgy: “Liturgy and Performance,” however, is quite a bit more essential than most introductions are. The reason that you will want to be careful to read this introduction before venturing into any of the fine articles is that, like Vizzini in The Princess Bride, the word “performance” may not mean what you think it means, at least in this context.
Put another way, this is not an issue of Liturgy devoted to telling you to stand up straight at the pulpit, spit out your consonants and look the congregation in the eye.
Performance Studies is an emerging academic field, drawing upon fields as wide-ranging as anthropology, linguistics, aesthetics, law and psychology. Its newness as a discipline has attracted criticism, as new disciplines of study are wont to do, and guardians of the traditional areas of specialty are somewhat discomfited by their inability to firmly nail down the boundaries of Performance Studies.
McDonald spends much of the introduction to this issue clarifying the definitions of certain words essential to understanding the following articles, most especially the word “performance” itself.
[T]he term refers to the gestalt of social and cultural interactions that constitute human events, and it provides a way to investigate these interactions. From this academic perspective, performance foregrounds the relationship between the performer and the environment; this includes the objects, architecture, and other material elements involved in the event. Moreover, when human experiences and behaviors (and liturgy is most certainly a human experience and behavior) are seen through the lens of performance they can be analyzed for affect as well as the effects they have on those who participate. The intent with this issue is to introduce this broad performance studies approach to the study of liturgy ...Speech act theory has proven influential because of its development of the term performative. Since its inception, performance studies has established a variety of means for analyzing the performative actions thatconstitute quotidian and extraordinary human life. The five essays in this issue reflect a selection of these approaches.The cognate word performative occurs in many of the essays and also deserves some technical explanation. As a noun, performative indicates ‘‘a word or sentence that does something.’’ As an adjective, performative ‘‘inflects what it modifies with performance-like qualities.’’
Is this way of thinking about performance something that you have encountered outside of academia? If so, where have you encountered it. I love the idea of this concept leaking out of the Tower and into the streets, so let me know if you’ve seen it slumming anywhere.
Megan Macdonald (2013): Liturgy and Performance, Liturgy, 28:1, 1.
Megan Macdonald has taught drama, theater, and performance studies in the United Kingdom and Canada. She did her doctoral work in performance studies and theology at Queen Mary, University of London.