Judith Butler on unthinking application of ‘theory’ (and Philip Auslander)

I have recently been reading about the case of Philip Auslander and his book Theory for Performance Studies: A Student’s Guide (New York & London: Routledge, 2007), which appeared in a wider series of ‘Theory for X’ books dealing with different disciplines. Richard Schechner, Professor of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of Arts, New York University, undertook a comprehensive comparison of this book with the earlier volume by William E. Deal and Timothy K. Beal, Theory for Religious Studies (New York & London: Routledge, 2004) (both volumes were part of a Theory 4 series) and arrived at the devastating conclusion that Auslander’s book was 90% plagiarised from that of Deal and Beal. His findings were published in a collection of responses entitled ‘Plagiarism, Greed, and the Dumbing Down of Performance Studies’, in TDR: The Drama Review, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 7-21, together with statements on the affair by Talia Rodgers (Publisher, Theatre and Performance Studies, Routledge), Claire L’Enfant (Humanities Editorial Director, Routledge), and short articles by Judith Butler, Marvin Carlson, Tracy C. Davis, David Savran, Shannon Jackson, Branislav Jakovljevic, Jill Dolan, Phillip Zarrilli, W.B. Worthen, Joseph Roach and Peggy Phelan. Most were extremely critical of what Auslander had done, and raised wider questions of plagiarism in an age with immense pressure to publish and the poor practices it can engender. Schechner sent questions to Deal and Beal, who made clear their shock and immense disappointment at this, whilst Rodgers made clear that Routledge were withdrawing the book and pulping all existing stock.

Knowing Auslander through some of his writings on music (in which discipline this plagiarism case appears hardly to have registered, to my knowledge) and in particular his book Liveness: Performances in a Mediatized Culture (London: Routledge, 1999), I have had many reasons for scepticism about his work for some time, not least because of the blanket application of standard theories and paradigms generally associated with writers who identify as post-modern without a great amount of attention to the specifics of the field in question (in this case music – a good deal of what Auslander has written demonstrates only a small amount of specialised and skilled musical knowledge). But the essay by Judith Butler made some points about this most eloquently, which I wanted to reproduce here. This is the last paragraph of her ‘If the Commodity Could Speak…’ (pp. 22-3), in which she argues against subsuming a discipline into an all-purpose body of theory (and a canon of theorists) rather than developing the theory out of the specifics of the discipline. More widely, what Butler has to say here has implications for the wider field of cultural studies (about which my view is not dissimilar to that presented here by Joanna Williams) in which knowledge of generic theorists appears often to count for more than any wider knowledge of a specific cultural field.

Intellectually, such books are a fiasco. The process is mainstreamed, so the same theorists who form the background for religious studies are supposedly the ones who form the background for performance studies. Where are Schleiermacher and Schussler-Fiorenza in the Religious Studies student guide? And where are Richard Schechner and Sue-Ellen Case in Theory for Performance Studies? Are such fields thinkable without such names? If we were to ask, what kinds of theory ought performance studies students read, we would have to think carefully about the various legacies that have informed that field. The idea that “theory” is a toolbox that can be “applied” to various disciplines not only belongs to a highly problematic view of theory as instrument, but misses the “instrumentalist” critique that critical theory itself can perform (cf. Adorno) as part of its very critique of capitalism. Both the approach to theory as “tool” and as “great thinkers” misses the fact that theory emerges in a dynamic and crucial relation to the various disciplinary modes of thinking, popular culture, art, and performance. In other words, those theories that would be crucial for thinking about performance studies would be substantially different from those that are needed to think about geography, and where there are intersections (which is interesting), these exist for a reason. But theory cannot be “exterior” to what it thinks about; it has its own multiple histories and trajectories, but it also is always engaged with the work that is going on in ostensibly nontheoretical domains: Benjamin and Barthes on photography, Derrida on Mallarmé; de Man on Rousseau; Marx on liberal political economy; Geertz on ritual; Johnson on Poe; Phelan on Freud; Jameson on Brecht. Even to start such a list risks the kind of canonization that does not quite work, since what is most important are not the “names” of theorists but the problems of performance studies. How does one theorize performance to the side of the proscenium stage, and how does that come to redefine our understanding of the stage, of public space, of public movement? What is the relation of performance and ritual? How do we understand the body, gesture, movement, and stillness? And how do we understand cultural action and practice in new ways? How do notions of performance in military, economic, and aesthetic contexts converge or fail to converge? How do we think about racial meanings in performance, and what does this tell us about how theories of race need to be developed? There are so many questions that performance studies has introduced to theory. There is no theory for performance studies, in this sense, but only a set of implicit and explicit theoretical challenges that are posed by the field itself, and which have already enriched and revised the field of theory. So any book that sought to think about critical theory for performance would have to really start with a different beginning: What does performance bring to critical theory?; and, Where do we find performance within critical theory?; and, indeed, my favorite, What form of critical theory do we find in performance?


Addendum: I came across some interesting comments on this affair by T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko, in her book Learning How to Fall: Art and Culture after September 11 (New York & London: Routledge, 2014). She relates this case to some of the arguments in Liveness, as follows:

Auslander is a provocative case study to reference. One of the primary arguments he makes in Liveness – “[l]ive performance exists within the economy of repetition largely either to promote mass-produced cultural objects […] or to serve as raw material for mediatization” ([1999} 2008:28) – might serve as a necessary precondition for the publication of his Theory for Performance Studies as part of Routledge’s Theory 4 series in 2008 (coincidentally, the same year as Double Agent) […]

The irony of the sordid affair is that the debate Theory for Performance Studies motivated, through its pitting of the authenticity of the “original” against the (plagiarized) copy, methodologically replays one of the fundamental debates in performance studies – a debate in which Auslander, as counter to Peggy Phelan, was a major player. [….]

Presuming performance and document are veritably interchangeable, as Auslander does (though this is an argument I cannot hold with), Auslander effectively, in his citing-as-writing, enacted a performance of remediation wrapped up tight in the economy of repetition to promote mass-produced academic, if not cultural, objects. Perhaps evaluating Auslander’s actions in terms of delegated performance that might (through a subversion of [Claire] Bishop’s argument*) recapitulate the academy’s commodification would yield at least a more compelling, if not convincing, defense.

*This is the argument discussed earlier by Claire Bishop, in her ‘Outsourcing Authenticity? Delegated Performance in Contemporary Art’, in Claire Bishop and Silvia Tramontana (eds), Double Agent (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2009), p. 114, to do with how ‘certain strands of delegated performance could be argued to recapitulate the artwork’s commodification by taking advantage of this genre’s ability – due precisely to its liveness – to excite media attention, which in turn heightens the value of the event.’


Addendum 2

In Auslander’s book Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006), p. 64, there is the following passage, interesting in light of subsequent events:

Rock music is intrinsically intertextual, of course, and many songs contain elements (e.g., lyrics, chord changes, bass lines, riffs) that recall other songs. But glam rock characteristically makes free with existing songs, styles, and even voices to such a degree that it challenges “rock’s mythology of original expression” (Toynbee 47**), leading one commentator to note, “The idea of individual creativity that had been current in the sixties was replaced by a delight in plagiarism – everyone was free to steal” (Street 172***)

** Jason Toynbee, ‘”Fingers to the Bone or Spaced Out on Creativity? Labor Process and Ideology in the Production of Pop”, in Andrew Beck (ed), Cultural Work: Understanding the Cultural industries (London: Routledge, 2003)

*** John Street, Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986)

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2 Comments on “Judith Butler on unthinking application of ‘theory’ (and Philip Auslander)”

  1. […] Judith Butler on unthinking application of ‘theory’ (and Philip Auslander) (21/8/15) […]

  2. […] Jean Baudrillard, Mikhail Bahktin, Gilles Deleuze, and more recently Bruno Latour – see also this post with Judith Butler’s response to blanket application of canonical theorists). These are usually derived from secondary or tertiary literature, rarely entail an independent […]


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