HomeIntroducing CybercultureBook ReviewsCourses in CybercultureEvents and ConferencesFeatured LinksAbout RCCS

View All Books

Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance

Author: Jon McKenzie
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: September 2005

 REVIEW 1: Jeremy Hockett

In his lecture machine, Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance, stratoanalyst Jon McKenzie (Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) has launched a challenging forth of the liminautic deterritorialization of stratified layers of ethnophallogocentrist sedimentation by catachristening a perfumative gay sci-fi, which, through puncepts and scientifiction, lends itself to a digital saticficing of both normative and mutational machinic processes of diverse performance systems. If that makes perfect sense to you, you might not need to read this book or this review. If you are totally dumbfounded, intrigued, or find yourself recoiling at the extravagant and playful use of language, please read on.

If you have ever read a book that seemed to get longer and longer the closer you got to the end, like shots in a film where a hallway stretches and seems to retreat from the camera, you have some understanding of my experience as I progressed chapter by chapter towards what felt like an ever-elusive conclusion. In fact, the later chapters in parts two and three are somewhat shorter than those in the first, but I kept finding myself looking to see how much further I had to read to reach the end of this or that chapter. Now granted, when I got to what were in many ways the most challenging aspects of the book (chapters five and six), I was in the grips of an acute case of the flu. For several nights, after forging ahead a few more pages, I would wake several times drenched in sweat, literally with the words and ideas of McKenzie's book swirling in my mind. My dreams were conversations, discourses, and struggles, attempting to comprehend and distill the overwhelming amount of disparate information presented, much of which was not unknown to me, but had yet to be consolidated in such a way. At one point, I remember waking up and writing down the idea of "feed-forward loops," only to come across the phrase two nights later. Strange, I know, but true.

Part of what made this book so difficult is McKenzie's indulgence in the embellishment and invention language. Indeed, much of the time spent reading Perform or Else is devoted to learning a new language, a language that at times appears totally "made up," and, exacerbating this, McKenzie's language elaborates and builds upon the already very convoluted language of postmodernism, post-structuralism, and existential philosophy. This inherent complexity makes a 1500 word review of Perform or Else extremely challenging, but I hope to provide some initial access to its most salient elements and conceptions.

McKenzie's opus reads more like two books. The first "book" (Part I) is a relatively straightforward genealogy of performance, encompassing three distinct fields or paradigms of Cultural, Organizational, and Technological performance. Through the genealogical study of their growth since World War II, McKenzie begins to map their intersecting, intertwining, and interweaving trajectories into a "general theory" of performance. In the second "book" (Parts II and III), McKenzie's general theory irrupts into a discursive "theory explosion" that no doubt would have made Derrida and Foucault gleam rosy with pride, which is both exegesical and methodological. McKenzie's general theory of performance is simultaneously assembled and practiced. His writing brilliantly mirrors the abstruse, orthogonal language and theory of recent French philosophy. Lyotard, Delueze, and Guattari, as well as Marcuse, Heidegger and Nietzsche, all make significant cameos in this discursive performative.

The book begins by looking at Cultural Performance and the notion of its efficacy. McKenzie writes: "Performance emerges here as the efficacy of certain activities, activities capable of challenging of social norms and symbolic structures" (38). Performance Studies has conceived of cultural performance in terms of its liminality, in terms of its capacity for resistance and transgression. McKenzie suggests that Victor Turner's (1982) notion of liminality permeates the very idea of cultural performance within the field of Performance Studies, which, as theorized by Turner, is a ritualized state where cultural transgressions of normative structures occurs. "Liminality almost exclusively became a space and time of transgression and subversion; thus, a concept and practice primarily associated with normative forces [in pre-industrial societies] had become the embodiment of mutational forces [in post-industrial societies]" (51). Paradoxically, this has resulted in what he calls the "liminal-norm," a normative definition of irrepressibly subversive practices (what I (2004) have elsewhere called a normative-culture-of-countering-cultural-norms.

Moving to Organizational Performance, which is associated with efficiency and primarily the terrain of performance managers, McKenzie begins to disclose the dynamic relationships between each performance paradigm. For McKenzie, "systems theory" provides Performance Management its most powerful analytical tool,
    In classical systems theory, feedback is defined as a process by which part of a system's output is reentered or "fed back" into the system as an input, thus allowing inputs and outputs to be compared. The reentering of outputs as inputs gives feedback a circular or looped structure . . . In Performance Management, feedback is used to measure, analyze, and adjust an entire system's performance in relation to its component systems and to its environment. (70)
Feedback and feedforward loops are integral to McKenzie's general theory of performance, for it is through them that navigation of the performance stratum is realized.

The last of McKenzie's paradigms, Techno-Performance, is concerned with effectiveness. Whereas Organizational Performance's feedback loops are more loosely involved in a systems-maintenance enterprise, Techno-Performance is more akin to a guidance system, which, if all has been properly engineered, will "perform" as designed -- that is, "the test of an engineering hypothesis is a comparison of its predictions with performance, [where] experience becomes the quintessential learning device" (107). In the spirit of Thomas Kuhn, despite scientists' insistence on the rigor of their method, McKenzie goes to lengths to show that "the evaluation of technological performance often involves nonrigorous, intuitive techniques" (111).

Cultural, Organizational, and Technological correspond respectively with "three metamodels of performance: rites of passage, feedback loops, and missiles" (134), which each exemplify their particular paradigms. Rites of passage are the seminal trope of cultural performance. They are the basis from which Performance Studies springs. Feedback loops describe the fundamental analytic of Organizational Performance. They are how Performance Managers assess systems. Missiles embody the quintessential processes of Techno-Performance. They are machines designed to complete a specific set of programmed maneuvers and to accomplish a specific outcome. On the surface, it may not appear that Perform or Else offers much to think about for cyberculture studies, but, McKenzie insists, "on the performance stratum, the field of human-computer interaction is ground zero for the emergence of a new and powerful machine, the feedback and feedforward of world culture" (197). Indeed, the computer is conceived as a metatechnology, which is the essential component in the shift to global performance, and the ascendance of the computer corresponds with a McLuhanesque decline in the "book":
    Across the performance stratum, audiovisual archiving increasingly occurs through multimedia networks. Its citational network is programmed less and less by the book and increasingly by the metatechnology of the computer . . . The networked computer culminates a process that has been underway since the invention of photography and phonography: the radical transformation of the citational network of discourses and practices. (186)
The purpose of McKenzie's analysis is to articulate the ways in which "we" have been moving, especially since World War II, from a 19th century Foucauldian paradigm of discipline (and punishment) into a 21st century paradigm driven by the imperative to perform... or else. Central to this is "that performance must be understood as an emergent stratum of power and knowledge" (18). Furthermore,
    This formation is ontological in that it entails a displacement of being that challenges our notion of history . . . Like discipline, performance produces a new subject of knowledge, though one quite different from that produced under the regime of panoptic surveillance. (18)
In short, he argues, we are passing into the "age of global performance." Thus, "Cultural performance, organizational performance, technological performance, embodied performance, discursive performative, performance stratum -- these are the main concepts composing our theory" (231). Each of these performance "paradigms" has slowly been expanding and feeding into one another such that we can now say, "performativity is the postmodern condition" (Italics mine, 14).

What does this all mean? In McKenzie's general theory of performance, it means "that all performance is electronic, that the global explosion of performance coincides precisely with the digitization of discourses and practices, and that this coincidence is anything but coincidental" (267). Rather than being coincidental, they are the self-same process. Performance, as a conceptual construct, emerges at precisely the same moment as the post-WWII technological revolution is set spiraling towards its inevitable paradigm shift, because it is at precisely that moment when Cultural, Organizational, and Technological embodied performances and discursive performatives begin their parallel trajectories and eventually become bound together as the dominant onto-historical structure of a global existence.

Because the forces of global performance are, paradoxically, both normative and transgressive, McKenzie poses this challenge: "Not only to recognize that one experiences history from the perspective of the present, but to plug into emergent forces in order to generate untimely perspectives on this very perspective, perspectives that multiply and divide the present, rattling it to and fro" (255). Rising to the challenge, McKenzie wields what he calls a perfumative gay sci-fi, perfumative because we have moved from "oral-ear [ritual] to alpha-eye [theatrical] to electro-nose [performative]" (267). Perfumance is a "mode of experimental resistance" which "rehearse[s] the future" (250), in order to channel "mutational forces across the entire performance stratum, releasing desires and intensities from contexts that constrain them, creating perfumances that test the modulations of performative power" (235). Perform or Else is, in the final analysis, a book of strategies to both "sniff-out" the cites/sites of normative performative power and grasp the potential for mutational performances, which will "build new worlds, break with the history of an all-too-human being and, through rigorous cross- and countercultural training, prepare the way for man's overcoming and surpassing" (259).

Jeremy Hockett, "Reckoning Ritual and Counterculture in the
Burning Man Community: Communication, Ethnography, and the Self in Reflexive Modernism." PhD Dissertation: University of New Mexico, 2004.

Victor Turner. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. Baltimore: PAJ Publications, 1982.

Jeremy Hockett:
Jeremy Hockett is an unemployed scholar whose interests include ritual and performance, qualitative research methods, and cultural reflexivity. He received his PhD from the Department of American Studies at the University of New Mexico in 2004, and is currently seeking a "real" job.  <hockettj@msu.edu>

©1996-2007 RCCS         ONLINE SINCE: 1996         SITE LAST UPDATED: 12.10.2009