The Performance of Presence

Performance Studies’ theory outside the theatre is attentive to the lived experience of “performatives,” how people say and do things, in order to actualize their ideas and live out social dramas of their own, or as expected of them by society. Utilizing a phenomenological approach allows us to talk about the experience of something without having to determine whether it is right or wrong from a theoretically objective standpoint. This requires that we as observers listen to what is said, and see what is performed, rather than attempt to prove Yoga’s effectiveness by some outside observational apparatus. Through attending workshops on Yoga and activism, I was able to conduct this study as an auto-ethnography, as a participant-observer, and at the same time, without being too overt about my personal experiences on the mat. I do want to make it clear that the inferences made about the women that I encountered are my own subjective analysis and interpretation. It was important to me to be able to contextualize what I observed, with historical research on Yoga concepts, and frame this in conjunction with feminist theory, in order to explain some of the social phenomena that I saw working in the Yoga community.

The importance of personal experience is critical, because the first twenty years of Performance Studies have been based largely on the foundation of phenomenology, and the lived experience of social acts which are now called performative, be they speech, motion, or even biological. Performance Studies’ notions of phenomenological experience and how we perceive performative acts can be traced back to Husserl’s foundational concept of phenomenology, namely that there is no ontological status for objects outside of or transcendent from consciousness itself. In 1917, during his inaugural lecture at the Albert Ludwig University at Freiburg, Husserl described phenomenology:

Through this exposition of the concept of “phenomenon” we obtain a preliminary conception of a general phenomenology, viz., a science of objective phenomena of every kind, the science of every kind of object, an “object” being taken purely as something having just those determinations with which it presents itself in consciousness and in just those changing modes through which it so presents itself. It would be the task of phenomenology, therefore, to investigate how something perceived, something remembered, something phantasied, something pictorially represented, something symbolized looks as such, i.e., to investigate how it looks by virtue of that bestowal of sense and of characteristics which is carried out intrinsically by the perceiving, the remembering, the phantasying, the pictorial representing, etc., itself. (1917)

Husserl rejected the idea that natural objects could be seen to have any objective or inherent “meaning.” Through insisting that sense experience take precedence over object permanence, Husserl echoes the concept found in Hinduism of maya, that what we sense in the world is an illusion, or that meaning is formed through a projection of the mind. And, in another respect, Husserl’s idea of phenomenology also enhances our understanding of consciousness as contrived, such as in object relations theory, that ideas about consciousness must be constructed in relation to objects, human behavior, and performance in everyday life.

In Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, there is a critique of objective thought and empirical inquiry in general, placing an emphasis on subjective experience and especially embodiment, in the apprehension of human experience. He initiates a lifelong dialogue with the biological and psychological sciences, in order to reinforce the idea that science itself is based purely on experience rather than an impartial practical study. In reaction to the transcendental philosophies of medieval metaphysics and empiricists of the 17th and 18th century, Merleau-Ponty dispenses with the necessity of the individual grasping existence, and insteadfavors understanding life as a lived experience: “Obsessed with being, and forgetful of the perspectivism of experience, I henceforth treat it [an object of perception] as an object and deduce it from a relationship between objects” (2002, 81). For Merleau-Ponty, consciousness can never be constituted unless through a perceptive activity, or relationship to an identifiable object of sense perception; it is always produced through the body (via visual data and visual stimulation), within space and time, and then, emerges to an idea.

The roots of phenomenology, and significantly the concept of performativity, rest on an analysis of everyday life experience, rather than those events which are performed or ritualized. Phillip Zarrilli, through his training in the South Indian martial art Kalarippayattu, has in various theoretical works, advocated for a move within Performance Studies suggestive of “a post-Merleau-Ponty phenomenology” (654). Through studying a martial art in which the body-mind is cultivated in a systematic way, in relationship to one’s own lived life, he was able to extrapolate a phenomenological model of the actor’s “embodied modes of experience” (653). In my study of Yoga teachers, I make the case that a model of feminist spiritual activism can be understood and used by others, and that this can be understood by looking deeply into the phenomenological experience of women doing Yoga. The result is a model for activism that relies on an embodied spirituality which is heavily invested in the ideals of self-awareness and presence. While Yoga practice neither qualifies as a performance per se, nor as an everyday action, it is performative and women do it on a daily basis. As Yoga and meditation become more popular, we become more aware of its usefulness, as well as its playfulness, both practically and philosophically. Yoga is an applied form of embodiment that, through disciplined means, can act as a catalyst for transforming performers and critical theoreticians alike.

Yoga functions phenomenologically as an embodied practice that places a heavy emphasis on experience and practice but is also one which, within a neo-Hindu worldview[1], routinely refers to this experience within the notion of existence as maya, with the individual self, the greater creation, and the illusion of reality all acting as play of the gods, an energy force permeating the universe, or the larger sense of Brahman as the ultimate divine form. Yoga, embodied practice, ethics and consciousness are simultaneously co-evolving within this cosmology of illusion. This is where notions of the performative become important, and for considering the role of gender in Yoga, those of performativity. Practice is the fundamental driver in the performance of Yoga, rehearsal of its ethical claims, and acceptance of its promised virtues (such as peace, nonviolence, and oneness), and it is practice which facilitates one’s ability to function within the matrix of illusion, creation, and agency in life.

Within this dance of lived experience, both on and off the Yoga mat, the contemporary practitioner first performs her negotiation of Yoga’s philosophical concepts and later continues this performance, in seeking a progression through stages of realizing the transcendental or attaining moksha (liberation). To use the word performative to describe behavior is not to say that mental and social changes do not occur, that one’s actions are only an imagined drama, but in Performance Studies, performativity is used to describe the way in which lived experience becomes expressed as a social drama.

Sociologist Erving Goffman describes “social front” as the mask that each person wears both wittingly and unwillingly in order to project an image of the self for the surrounding social circumstances. But he also makes the crucial point that these fronts are exercised in a myriad of ways within different social contexts (what he deems “routines”). Goffman describes varying levels of social performance as well, ending with a heightened level of experience called “dramatic realization.” He says that “if the individual’s activity is to become significant to others, he must mobilize his activity so that it will express during the interaction what he wishes to convey” (Goffman, 1959, 30). Important here is the idea of “coherence,” that all of the actors within a social situation agree to the use of certain symbols, gestures and behavior in order to maintain the “consistency” of the interaction. His argument for personality formation based on “coherence among setting, appearance, and manner” provides a good basis for using performance as a factor of analysis in lived experience.

In Performance Studies from the 1990s onwards, greater attention was paid not only to how people perform roles in their lives, as Goffman, Geertz and Turner have alluded to in their interpretive analyses of social dramas, but also how each and every action has a performativeness about it, due not only to the content of the words or gestures, but also the effects which result from them, or other actions which are enabled through them. The debate concerning speech acts between J.L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, and John Searle is important in order to understand how the performative pertains to my analysis of Yoga.

For Austin, all speech, including those that are both implicit and explicit, is a performative utterance (Austin, 1975, 32). He established the idea that one is also doing something by speaking. There are always conditions that need to be met for the procedure of speech to be properly understood, and this is dependent on the correct execution of these requirements correctly and completely by all parties. “There must be an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, the procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances” (Austin, 1975, 26). As long as performative utterances (and, by extension, actions) are distributed and received in the proper way, Austin suggests that these acts have agency, or are effective in their mission.

Derrida refuses this hypothesis, and insists that utterance and their emergent acts must be considered within a context, that contextualization is a necessary prerequisite of the performative, and that “iteration” is the key to understanding human action; this is also based in his belief in the lack of presence, or the self. Derrida does not seem to resolve the problematic stance with which Austin refers to writing and/or performance as an abnormal or aberrant possibility within the context of speech acts in general (Derrida, 1988, 16). He raises questions in reference to Austin’s proposition that “as utterances our performances are also heir to certain other kinds of ills…if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem…language in such circumstances is in special ways…in many ways parasitic upon its normal use” (Derrida, 1988, 16). At the outset, it is apparent that Derrida’s philosophical foundation, a questioning of the difference between phenomenology and structuralism–which sought to unite the systemary with the originary, effects his attachment to the systematics of language, and by extension, writing and performance. For instance, he asks “what would be meant by an “ordinary” language defined by the exclusion of the very law of language?” (Derrida, 1988, 17).

In his response to Austin’s speech act theory, “Signature Event Context,” Derrida seeks to elicit a less contentious approach to the performative. He moves beyond Austin’s leaning towards a negativity, degradation, or “failure” associated with the performative and leads the discussion on to that of citational doubling [doublure] (Derrida, 1988, 17). This move, in effect, dissolves Austin’s judgment of the performative, and is one which I will take up throughout this dissertation as I consider Yoga to be a repetitive rehearsal of a feminist ethics and epistemological framework. Searle’s response claims that Austin’s exclusion of parasitic acts is merely a research strategy rather than one inimical to the discussion of speech acts in general (Derrida, 1988, 26). Derrida labels Searle’s “confidence in the possibility of distinguishing the “standard” from “nonstandard” as “serenely dogmatic” (Derrida, 1988, 37). Derrida wants to “suggest that the terrain is slippery and shifting” (Derrida, 1988, 37). From Derrida’s approach, a discussion of performative acts has the potential to become more fluid (“from the perspective of positive possibility” (Derrida, 1988, 17), to perhaps, begin to see how sub- and unconscious moves between the “normal” and “abnormal”, “void” from “non-void”, in actuality, influence, and evolve within and without each other.

The question in the end, must become: What, if anything, do we gain, by distinguishing the performative from the ordinary? In what ways do we privilege performance and at the same time denigrate the actual by routinely seeking to define the performative? And if we are to apply this line of questioning to Yoga, I would like to suggest that our answer is to be found somewhere between the experiential, the performative, and presence. There are many avenues to take to discuss the relevance of Yoga both philosophically and socially, and, as a starting point, we could take notice of the significant emphasis placed on these concepts in Yoga, which are also important for the performance community, feminists, and those working in ecological fields.

The notion of presence, however, remains a challenging one for critical philosophy. It is a concept which has been highlighted in Performance Studies, as a kind of reaction to iteration, the idea that our lives are endless bouts of iterability, with no locatable center of self, awareness or presence, but the term presence can be useful in that presence holds the potential for articulating a way of being or living. Suzanne Jaeger sets up a binary between “those for whom the lived phenomenon of presence still makes sense and is borne out in practical experience,” and “poststructuralist interpreters…who reject the possibility of any singularly meaningful experience of self-presence” (2006, 122). Jaeger privileges the stance of the latter, seeking to show how presence is an actual, felt experience that needs to be articulated, and using the experience of the theater. She defines stage presence primarily as a an “on moment,” characterized by “a keen awareness…a feeling of being fully alive…a feeling of supreme control and power, but also paradoxically an openness to the contingencies of live performance” (Jaeger, 2006, 23).

In analyzing Yoga, however, both approaches to presence can be useful. Presence is both there, and not there, due to the belief in nondualism. From the view of the Vedic school (and subsequently Yoga), dualistic thinking belies the possibility of ultimate presence, which is experienced through realizing oneness with the transcendent Self, the divine reality outside individual identity; this conceivably generates a collapsed identity that is beyond notions of subjectivity or ideology. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal) (White, 2009, 55-56), is one way to come to full awareness, in which duality disappears, thus troubling notions of selfhood, the other and socialization. It is, ironically, by the elimination of perception that presence is experienced, and this presence is an ineffable one. At the same time, presence, or the more common term today “being present,” is a key concept for Yoga practitioners in their development of awareness through meditation and concentration. This translates into the activist context, when yoginis speak of being present, as a way of navigating the challenges of working within one’s own development and spiritual changes, while doing social justice work. It is not so relevant whether or not one actually experiences an ultimate state of presence or merely defines it as presence.

Building a bridge between phenomenology and performativity, and operating through the notion of presence, this interpretation of Yoga maintains it is performed as a way of being and becoming, not only doing through an utterance. So we can use Yoga as an example to see how there is an overlap between our understanding of the phenomenological (living through Yoga is an experience of the world) and the performative (Yoga is performed and rehearsed, as restored behavior that is also ethical or intentional in its acts, via the rituals that constitute its practice) and the epistemological (regular training with Yoga reframes how the practitioner sees and operates within the world). This dissertation takes those three fields as a given, and looks at both short-term and long-term activism in terms of the “somatic performative,” with embodiment being the driving language of Yoga today, and sets this in relationship to how women who do Yoga sustain themselves as feminist activists.

While it may or may not entail community organizing or political action, this so-called “activism” is often not even framed and defined as such by women in the U.S. doing Yoga. Sustaining oneself over the long term becomes equally important in this communal social action, as part of the changes and challenges brought on by life. Yoga serves as a personal psychological and emotional, as well as physical, bolster. The way that I contextualize the performative spiritual acts of Yoga is through feminist contexts, ones in which women are healing, connecting with each other, and supporting other women in their community to be healthy and whole. ~G


[1]The terms Neo-Hindu and Neo-Vedanta are used in the dissertation to refer to practices that have been modified in the modern era and/or the US from ancient practices and/or their original Hindu context. These terms come from the Religious Studies field (see De Michelis’ A History of Modern Yoga).


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