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Politics, performance, postmodernism

Chinna, Stephen (1995) Politics, performance, postmodernism. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In debates concerning the concepts of modernism and modernity, postmodernism and postmodernity, a recurring critique has been the denial of a political function for postmodernism due to its presumed lack of any effective means of intervention in political processes - chiefly through the putative existence of a gap between theory and practice. It will be argued that this critique is based on the acceptance of modernist criteria for what constitutes political effectivity as well as an endorsement of that dualism which sets up a fundamental separation between theory and practice. This thesis will argue that both postmodern performance and politics resist modernist appeals to metanarratives of totality and the centre, along with the dialectic and dualistic metaphysics which underpin these modernist criteria. This will require an interrogation of the polarising tendencies of both modernist politics and theatre which sought either to separate or collapse the incessant binaries of performance practice - such as those between mind and body, process and product, and representation and reality. It will be proposed that the deconstructive strategies of postmodernism serve to subvert this either/or dualism and set up in its place a performance model which acknowledges the space of play between the poles of these binary oppositions.

In short, the thesis will explore the relationships between politics, performance and postmodernism, specifically in order to argue that performance is the paradigm for postmodernism, and that postmodern politics and postmodern performance share a deconstructive mode of operation: a meansoriented process towards specific objectives, not final resolutions. The postmodern will be defined as a performance model – like deconstruction, endlessly deferring unequivocal meaning and final closure. It is the provisional and contingent strategies of performance which set the model for the postmodern. In turn, it will be argued that postmodern performance practices are not only more relevant than modernist political theatre forms in presenting political actualities as well as potentialities, but that they are also more accurate "representations" of the political and ontological "realities" of the late-twentieth century.

The thesis is in three parts. Part One analyses the relationships between modernism and postmodernism, focusing on the largely negative constructions of the postmodern and in turn, defining a postmodernism that evades the modernist criteria of its critics. The epistemologies and politics of both modernism and postmodernism are addressed - the former in terms of its adherence to a narrative model based on neo- Aristotelian prescriptions; the latter in terms of its performance characteristics - which work to evade entrapment in the dialectic.

Part Two addresses the concept of performance - firstly in modernist theatre, then in the diverse avant-gardes, and finally how it is defined in the postmodern. Major forms of Western modernist theatre are addressed - with a focus on Naturalism, and Dada - leading to the neo-avant-garde performance art of the 1960s to 1980s. It is argued that underpinning all of these forms is entrapment in a hierarchised binary model. Furthermore, it is argued that all of these avant-garde forms were, and are, eventually co-opted and absorbed due to their acceptance of the dialectic that necessarily demands an anti-movement.

Part Three first focuses on modernist political theatre in terms of its embracing of the dialectic and its inherent didacticism, and then on postmodern performance - and the attacks on it (as with postmodernism in general) for its seeming lack of an overt political stance, or programme. It is argued that the criteria used to define the political in these attacks are modernist criteria, and are no longer applicable to the postmodern. A major focus in this section is on the role of the spectator (in both modernist and postmodernist performance).

In the final chapter, the issue of a postmodern ethics will be addressed. It will be argued that it is the postmodern definition of aesthetics as differance which deconstructs universalist appeals to reason, truth, and justice - as well as a rigid subject/object dichotomy. The thesis concludes with a reinforcement of the argument: performance is the paradigm for postmodernism and its political practices. That is to say, performance is a deconstructive mode of do-ing, constantly aware of the tendency to lose self-reflexivity and seek closure rather than embrace the endless deferral of differance.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): George, David
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