Martin Healy and Performative Writing

Still from “A moment twice lived”.

I read the phrase “performative writing” for the first time just a few days ago, when Professor Alex Davies sent me, in error, the essay list for Postmodernism in Literature and Film. I am not studying that unit.  But I read the titles anyway.

One essay title asks “How is Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked an example of performative writing?”  Another: “What kind of essay would be the most appropriate response to a book like Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked?  Write it.”  Intriguing?

It seems to me to be rather strange that I had no idea what Professor Davies was talking about: performative writing might be something that I am really interested in as a feminist, literature and theatre teacher and putative master in Literature. So I looked it up and darling Wikipedia is very helpful. I quote in full:

Performative writing is a form of post-modernist or avant-garde academic writing, often taking as its subject a work of visual art or performance art. It is heavily informed by critical theory, but arises ultimately from linguistic ideas around performative utterances. The term is often applied to a bricolage of other writing styles. It is claimed to be politically radical, because it thus ‘defies’ literary conventions and traditions.

It is often practiced by feminist writers. A notable current writer in performative writing is the performance art theorist Peggy Phelan. She describes the form as one which….

“enacts the death of the ‘we’ that we think we are before we begin to write. A statement of allegiance to the radicality of unknowing who we are becoming, this writing pushes against the ideology of knowledge as a progressive movement forever approaching a completed end-point.” (Mourning Sex, 1997)

Such a writing form is claimed to be, in itself, a form of performance. It is said to more accurately reflect the fleeting and ephemeral nature of a performance, and the various mechanisms of memory and referentiality that happen during and after the performance.[citation needed]

Critics of performative writing have described it, in practice, as: self-indulgent; insular; politically neutred due to its tiny elite audience and its neo-romantic individualism; obscurantist; often bearing only a loose relationship to the works of art it claims to be about; and dependent on the funding (of universities and public arts funding) of the very state that it claims to be against. Also that, when taught, it often paradoxically expects students to reveal personal truths and use experimental forms within a strict classroom regimen of grades, lesson attendance and exams. It can generally be seen to follow the pattern of much modernist writing, in that it seeks to create complex new literary approaches in order to seal off ‘high art culture’ from the attention of ordinary people and from a mass culture.[citation needed]

The term performative writing should not be confused with “writing that is performed”, i.e.: plays, radio or poetry readings.[citation needed]

Performative writing is sometimes referred to by the alternative name of ‘creative critical writing’ – which is not to be confused with straightforward creative writing.[citation needed]

The article was last moderated in 2014 and is crying out for modification.  But I do not think that I can be the one to contribute as I still do not fully understand what performative writing is.  So I looked further and found a PDF by Della Pollock published in 1998 which is entitled “Performing Writing“.  She gives a list of six things which performing writing is: evocative, metonymic, subjective, nervous, citational, consequential.   

Further down the Google page I found a piece of what I take to be performative writing – it reminded me of J.J. Abrams’ book S to which Donna Alexander introduced us.  I think it is a blog inspired by Pollack’s essay.  But I am not sure.  What I do know is that I still do not know what performative or performing writing is, unless I am in fact engaging in it myself, at this minute.  

So what does all this have to do with Martin Healy?  He is a London-born artist who lives and works in Dublin and his exhibition A moment twice lived is currently showing at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.  I went to see it today at about 1.45pm.  I invited members from my erstwhile Irish Writing and Film M.A. group but no one could come.  Perhaps because I gave them so little notice?  I chose to go because it was pick of the week  (p24) in Listings The Guide Scotland and Ireland in my favourite newspaper, The Guardian.  

Healy works in the media of video, photography, text and other.  There are three pieces on show, the other two being The long afternoon of eternity (2016) and Harvest (2015).  According to the information sheet A moment twice lived (2016) refers to “JW Dunne’s writing, in particular the book An Experiment with Time (1927) by way of a curiously overlooked painting in the Crawford Gallery’s collection by Nathaniel Grogan (c. 1740 – c. 1805) that only recently has been reattributed to the artist.  During the course of the film, a narrator refers to dreams and experiences of temporal dislocation, questioning our perception of the passage of time and its relationship to our understanding of the world. The narrator’s text is based on Dunne’s writings as well as notes from the J.B. Priestly Archive at the University of Bradford.”

How strange is all that referencing in and out of different media and different epochs?   And is the narrator the voice of the woman seen studying Grogan’s painting?  And what is the painting, hung in an adjacent room, called?  And what has the subject of the painting to do with the film?  And does the soundtrack reference the sound of a fire burning?  I don’t know.  But I like it a lot.

As to Harvest it was a strange beast:  

Still from Harvest – recording equipment is being set up

The film, according to the gallery leaflet “follows a character as he attentively records the sound of plants as they are watered over the course of a morning.  Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, the work is characterised by the use of a real protagonist in a real environment who fastidiously attends to the plants in silence.  Healy ruminates on our relationship to the rhythms of the natural worlds and the phenomena that affect our existence.” 

Still from the end of Harvest – mist fills the space and water thunders

Towards the end of the film the large greenhouse structure fills with the mist of water whilst the soundtrack becomes thunderous.  It was strangely unnerving.  It reminded me of images of this morning’s cowardly attack on Brussels, and in particular on landside at the airport.

Still from – smoke fills the space which had thundered with explosions

I did not “ruminate” much on “our relationship to the rhythms of the natural worlds” but I did “ruminate” on “the phenomena that affect our existence”.  In other words I thought about those poor frightened people and their families.  It’s a terrible example of our behaviour in the world.

Is my writing performative?  Does it fit with the Wikipedia definition?  Check it out.    

And is it evocative? Metonymic? Subjective? Nervous? Citational? Consequential?  

PS  I hope the in-text citations will do well enough.  I’m tired now.  



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