Sense and Sensation: Exploring the Interplay between the Semiotic and Performative Dimensions of Theatre

Erika Fischer-Lichte
2008 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism  
The Semiotic and the Performative In the 1970s, when the so-called linguistic, or semiotic, turn took place in the humanities, it opened up new possibilities for theatre research. Up to then, its main self-understanding had been that of a historical discipline analogous to art history and the history of literature. But whereas these disciplines regarded the analysis and interpretation of works of art from past epochs as their main task, a comparable approach was not open to theatre studies.
more » ... ormances of the past are no longer accessible; they are gone and lost forever. The ephemeral and transitory nature of performance, which the German playwright and theoretician Gotthold Ephraim Lessing referred to as early as the 18 th century as theatre's unique peculiarity, does not allow the analysis or interpretation of a past performance. It is possible to examine documents on a performance as well as the material traces left behind, such as the theatre building, stage sets, costumes, props, the text of a play, a score, reports or reviews on the performance, etc., but not the performance itself. On the other hand, a performance, which was accessible, i.e. contemporary theatre, was not considered a suitable object of research. For while the literary scholar or the art historian is able to take recourse to the object of his study whenever it is needed and become absorbed in its details, contemplating it as long as he feels necessary, the performance is not at the theatre scholar's disposal in a comparable way. Because of its fleeting nature, any attempt to analyze it seems doomed to failure. Therefore, dealing with contemporary performances was left to theatre critics, while the scholar's object of interest was taken from theatre history. By the 1970s, when theatre scholars began to question this distribution of labor and tried to develop methods of analyzing a performance despite its ephemeral nature, semiotics provided them with a set of tools. Semiotically speaking, a performance can be defined as a structured coherence of theatrical signs such as 70 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism scenic space, the bodily appearance of the actors, gestures, movements, language, sounds, music, and so on, and in this sense as a text-which does not mean the literary text of a play but a text made up of heterogeneous signs. Thus, semiotic methods could be applied to a performance. 1 The central purpose of semiotic analysis was to search for possible meanings. It stemmed from the assumption that an unequivocal meaning can never be accorded to a performance-as it cannot to lyrics or a painting. It is ambiguous and polyvalent. Accordingly, it is open to most diverse processes of meaning generation. It is never the meaning of a gesture, action, scene, or the whole performance, but only one possible meaning from a generally large number of meanings generated with regard to the element in question. A semiotic analysis never strives to discover a unified meaning of performance or any one element of it. Even if one particular meaning is generated, this does not mean that all others are to be excluded. Rather, a choice is made with a view to the particular problem, question, hypothesis, or perspective under which the analysis is undertaken, for there is no such thing as a complete analysis. An analysis will always neglect elements of the performance which do not seem relevant in terms of the leading question of the analysis or which were simply not perceived at all, first and foremost because an analysis is a dynamic process of relating elements of the performance to each other as well as to all kinds of elements to which the analyst may refer. Theoretically, this process can never come to an end. Instead, the end, created by the analyst, is somewhat arbitrary. Although theatre semiotics is sometimes blamed for being static, reducing the full range of possible meanings to one meaning only, for demanding clarity and not allowing ambiguity or even contradiction, for demanding a unified meaning, all such reproaches are pointless. If such a result has occurred, it has not followed from any restrictions in the semiotic approach per se, but from an inadequate application of it. Another reproach is that theatre semiotics ignores the particular materiality of theatrical signs. This does not hold true either, for a semiotic analysis always proceeds from the very materiality of the sign. However, it must be conceded that it is only considered with regard to its potential to serve as a sign-to produce meaning. This can, in fact, be seen as a certain limitation. While the linguistic turn of the 1970s resulted in an understanding not only of theatre but quite generally of culture as a text made up of signs that have to be deciphered, the so-called performative turn of the 1990s brought forth another metaphor which, in some ways, is opposed to that of "culture as text"-the metaphor of "culture as performance." In theatre studies, this resulted in a shift of focus from the semioticity of a performance to its performativity. This shift promised to overcome the limitations of theatre semiotics. From the perspective of performativity the interest is less in what the acts, actions, and movements of the performers mean than in how they are perceived and experienced, how they affect the spectators, and what kind of impact they have on them. Therefore, the
doi:10.1353/dtc.2008.0001 fatcat:ijsxaxaqqfgkhjs3wcxodac2hm