The term ‘performance’ has a special meaning in linguistics and the distinction between linguistic competence and linguistic performance was made by Chomsky, where the former is ‘the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of language’ and the latter ‘the actual use of language in concrete situations’ (1965:4). Duranti (1998:15) notes that another notion of performance comes from Austin (1962) with his category of performative verbs which enable us not simply to use language for referential purposes but also to do something with words. For example, ‘I order you to sit down.’ is both the use of language and also an act of ordering. These notions are useful for consideration of our language behaviour in everyday life and further discussion of them will come shortly, but the idea of performance that will receive most attention here is that concerning what Bauman (after Milton Singer) specifies as ‘cultural performances’ (1992:46). These are, for Duranti, performances which are found in, amongst other activities,
verbal debates, story telling, singing, and other speech activities in which what the speakers say is evaluated according to aesthetic concerns, that is, for the beauty of their phrasing or delivery, or according to the effect it has on the audience
For Bauman such events have a characteristic set of features. Performances are:
- scheduled: set up and prepared for in advance
- temporally bounded: there is a defined beginning and end
- spatially bounded: enacted in a space that is symbolically marked off either temporally or permanently e.g. theatre, festival ground, sacred grove
- programmed: there is a structured scenario or programme of activity e.g. the five acts of an Elizabethan drama, the liturgical structure of an Iroquois condolence ceremony
- co-ordinated public occasions: open to view by an audience and collective participation
- heightened occasions: available for the enhancement of experience
through the present enjoyment of the intrinsic qualities of the performative
However, this does not mean that such performances are always distinguishable from other types of linguistic performance. Duranti notes that there is always an aesthetic dimension to utterances, that is, ‘attention to the form of what is being said’ (1998:14). For Bauman this sets up a continuum from ‘a full performance’, for example, a diva singing at La Scala, through a ‘hedged performance’, for example, someone tentatively trying out a joke amongst friends, to a ‘fleeting performance’, as when a child tries out a new word in conversation with peers as ‘a gesture of virtuosity’ (1992:44-5). The performance theorist Schechner is even more inclusive and sees theatrical performance as one mode on a continuum from the ritualisations of animals (including humans), through everyday performance – greetings, family scenes, professional roles, etc. – to play, sports, theatre, ceremonies, and so on (1988:xiii). He further notes that John Cage, in an interview in 1965, remarked that simply framing an activity as ‘performance’, simply viewing it as such, makes it into a performance. Thus, for Schechner, documentary filming can transform ordinary behaviour into performance (p.30). An example of this that can be given from television is the development in the last decade of the genre of ‘docusoaps’ - documentary films of actual persons in their everyday settings e.g. workers at an airport, which, shot over a lengthy period and broadcast over a number of weeks, give the people involved time to develop and take on some of the familiarity of characters in soap operas. A more recent example is the advent of ‘reality TV’, in which, to give just one instance, a group of people are selected to live together for a number of weeks under the constant watch of cameras. The very name of this type of programme - ‘reality TV’ - points up both the juxtaposition and merging of the private (‘real life’) and the public (‘broadcast television’) in this type of performance.
Abrahams & Bauman make a related point in connection with the ethnography of speaking in St. Vincent, but their example involves not a broadcast performance but a ‘live’ performance in everyday life. Looking at the conflicting styles of ‘talking sensible’ and ‘talking nonsense’, they find that one aspect of the latter is getting on ignorant, within which is talking trupidness - without order or logic (1983:93). Such talk can be licensed in, for example, performers who take the role of fool in Carnival, but is also expected from people who are genuinely trupidy in everyday life, that is, people who are ‘mentally defective, tongue-tied, or insane’ (p.96). Such people’s everyday speech can be framed as performance, especially in rum shops. Thus, one such man was asked to describe a film he had seen and ‘the result was a nonsensical trupidy recounting of some of the dialogue, delivered with a great good spirit and animation, for which he was rewarded with much laughter, applause, and a drink’ (p.96).
And in Afro-American culture, the many studies of male adolescent verbal duelling (variously called sounding, the dozens etc.), which is an everyday street activity among friends involving ritual insults, is invariably seen in performative terms. For example, Labov notes, ‘One of the most important differences between sounding and other speech events is that most sounds are evaluated overtly and immediately by the audience [and] the primary mark of evaluation is laughter’ (1972:144). However, such play can turn into serious argument when a ritual insult is not countered with another ritual insult but when an insult is countered with a denial. This, according to Kochman, transforms play into nonplay (1983:332). That is, the distinction between some everyday playful performances and ‘serious social life’ can be very fine. We shall see that this is an important factor in the analysis in Section 8. (All these examples also underline the importance of the role of the audience, a point which will be touched upon repeatedly in this study.)
This spectrum of possibilities has been recognised in certain approaches in the social sciences, most notably, perhaps, by Erving Goffman. His use of dramaturgic metaphor in such concepts as actor, stage, foreground/background, frame, has been noted by Duranti (p.16). Schechner also comments that in Goffman’s ‘The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life’ (1959) Goffman stated that performance is a mode of behaviour that can characterise any activity (Schechner 1988:30). However, it is worth repeating that the focus in this section will be mainly on ‘cultural performances’ as described above, as most of the humorous material dealt with in this dissertation falls within such a framework. It is to a survey of the construction of special spaces for such events that we now turn, though it will be borne in mind throughout this dissertation that it is not always easy to clearly delineate between ‘social life’ and ‘performance’.