High performance, exuberance and exhaustion

May 16, 2012

Jan Verwoert describes the high performance culture of today in Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want, and potential ways of tackling it. We no longer just work, we perform, prove ourselves, do things and go places. “We” are the socially engaged creative types “who invent ourselves by exploring and exploiting our talents to perform small artistic and intellectual miracles on a daily basis.” (Verwoert, 2010, p 14) Verwoert’s view of the consumer society has aspects in common with Deleuze’s writing on control societies from last week’s readings. The consumer society of today proclaims to be founded on the principle of limitless choice, but actually there are only predefined options:

“We encounter it in a moment of suspicion (if not paranoia) when we dimly sense that our willingness to perform might be elicited under a false premise of opening up limitless possibilities – which is, in fact, merely pressure to enact predefined options and thereby enforce the system of control that defines them.” (Verwoert, p 18)

So, is there a way to resist the need, demand and norm to high performance? What silent but effective forms of non-alignment, non-compliance, uncooperativeness and reluctance do we find in everyday life? Verwoert finds tactics in the notions of “I can’t”, “I can” and “I care”. Performing the “I can’t” can be a way of agency, interrupting a cycle of supply and demand, avoiding the pressure to produce for the sake of production. Verwoert gives punk music as an example of this tactic, through its performance of the unwillingness to submit to industry standards of what music can or can’t be, and how professional musicians should act. The punk music scene of the 1970:s can therefore be said to challenge the consumer society.

There are obviously potentials of live music to not confirm to the fast delivery associated with the high performance culture that Verwoert describes. Live music can create moments were meaning lie latent, since it is not always easy to find a “meaning” to it. It is allowed to be complex and not crystal clear, repetitive and delayed. Of course there are also forms of live music that are expected to be more direct in its delivery and message, but the potential for transmutation exists. Even simple pop songs can be transformed and morphed into on-going fluidity on stage, without any clear starts or ends, even though it may upset the audience.

A very up-to-date example of the potentially vast political consequences of live music performances and the threat towards society they can be seen as, is the arrest of three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot in Russia in February this year. The women are accused for “hooliganism” after performing a “punk-prayer” with lyrics such as “Virgin Mary, become feminist / Virgin Mary chase Putin away” in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. (http://freepussyriot.org/about, 20120515) The Pussy Riot performance had a very clear political message though, while performing in an energetic, colorful way. You could say that they performed the exuberant “I can” that Verwoert describes, an exuberant performativity that interrupts the order of things. But, in doing so they clearly crossed the line for what is accepted for a music performance in Russia today. The alleged members of the band (they perform in masks) risk up to seven years imprisonment. Could this be described as a moment of exhaustion, when all options for further action are emptied, that Verwoert discuss in the end of the chapter? Hopefully then, convalescence will provide potential for a state beyond it.

“If, living under the pressure to perform, we begin to see that a state of exhaustion is a horizon of collective experience, could we then understand this experience as the point of departure for the formation of a particular form of solidarity? A solidarity that would /…/ lead us to acknowledge that the one thing we share – exhaustion – makes us an inoperative community /…/. A community, however, that can still act, not because it is entitled to do so by the institutions of power, but by virtue of an unconditional, exuberant politics of dedication. In short, because, as a community of convalescents, we realize in an empty moment of full awareness, that we care.” (Verwoert, p. 70-71)


Image for collage: http://rashmanly.com/2012/03/17/pussy-riot-rampage-rattles-russia/, 20120516


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