(Producing an A4 piece of paper with the words PETER FOSTER2 written in red ink … The paper/sign sits in front of the speaker approximately chest height – and then …)

Hello. My name is Peter Foster, I am from Queensland, and I am here to help.

I’d like to acknowledge my ‘subject position’ as a white, Australian, male … and shall we say, a ‘confidence man’?

I’d like to go further.

I am a performer. A liar. I deal in fictions. Don’t trust me.

No, really …

Whatever you do, don’t trust me. Certainly not when ‘I’ am Peter Foster!


OK. I made that up. (Removes the sign)

My name is, really, Barry Laing. (Looking again) Dr Barry Laing. I am from Victoria. A performer and a liar. And as you have already seen, I am quite possibly only ever provisionally ‘me’ (Phillips 1997:84).

And so, don’t trust me, re-member me.

Now, it is a performer who speaks (Barthes 1977, 1990: 9), one who could just as easily be Peter Foster!, and who says …


The discourse of ‘Performance’ has, to borrow a phrase from Derrida, ‘invaded the universal problematic’ (Derrida 1966, 1987:124) and everything, it seems, becomes or might be seen as, performance (Schechner 2002, 2006: 32 and passim).

For example, ‘Performance’ discourse makes appearances in contemporary conversations about things as disparate as FPVs (Ford Performance Vehicles), mainstream theatre, various corporate ‘Change Management’ outcomes, and the so-called ‘Age of Terrorism’ – of which, it seems, September 11 marked the beginning.

Wherever there is a ‘seeming’, aesthetic/artistic, theatrical, and performance metaphors tend to find purchase. But/and quite some time before composer Karlheinz Stockhausen remarked in 2001 that September 11 was ‘the greatest work of art in the entire cosmos’ (Hilferty 2005), performance and its metaphors were already pervasive. Contested notions of ‘Art’ and beauty, action and destruction (and their possible inter-actions!) have been around at least since the Futurists at the turn of last century.

From Marinetti’s founding Manifesto, 1909:

‘9. We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for …’ (Marinetti 1909, 2005).

Futurism could be said to have celebrated the coming of WW1, and many died performing the end run of speed and technology they lauded, receiving the bullet they had embraced. Nothing ‘new’ there!

Stockhausen excitedly called September 11 a ‘concert’, and a ‘performance’ (Hilferty 2005). That he did so metaphorically did not stop the furore that ensued and perhaps even exacerbated it.

Much earlier, in an article from 1996, US scholar Bert O. States claimed that ‘performance’ had acquired the mantle of ‘keyword’ which Raymond Williams defines as words ‘whose meanings are ‘inextricably bound up with the problems [they are] being used to discuss’ (cited in States 1996:1). States argues that in this way, ‘performance’ is an example of a limit-problem in philosophy. To the extent that the theatrical metaphor extended into performance discourse would have us all seen as performers, then inquiring into the problem or question of ‘performance’ can be seen to be a performance itself.

States argues further that keywords re-double this difficulty because they ‘belong to ideology and methodology’ and are often used in a metaphorical way before forgetting that they are metaphors (States 1996:1). There is a semantic instability (and what Umberto Eco has called an ‘illusory transitivity’: cited in States 1996:1) between terms to which the metaphors of a keyword – like performance – have been applied and stretched too far. However, this instability and the transitivity of likenesses may yet prove to be a useful, performative slippage in this paper’s performance.

It seems outrage can erupt over the proper use of the words ‘is’ and ‘as’. When issomething a performance? When can something be seen as (or like) a performance? And why might the answers offend?

Richard Schechner argues: ‘From the vantage of the kind of performance theory I am proposing, every action is a performance. From the vantage of cultural practice, some actions will be deemed performance, and others not; and this will vary from culture to culture…’(Schechner 2002, 2006: 30). Quite apart from ‘cultural practice’ itself constituting action (and therefore, performance, according to the theory), it is clear that despite the contemporary currency of the discourse of performance, Stockhausen’s timing and ‘Culture’ – in a Modernist sense – were indeed at issue. His comments were considered by many to be perverse, or obscene – that which is ‘out-of-the-scene’ (Baudrillard 1990:50 & passim). They were unacceptable to the normative scenography of the event – its ‘Tragedy’ (hadn’t we seen it somewhere before?), and not in keeping with its attendant ‘appropriate’ responses — shock, incredulity, grief and mourning. But it may be that his metaphor tells us more about S11 than it does about a concert or performance. Reading the metaphor back to front, Stockhausen’s detractors did however reveal a great deal about their own assumptions of what ‘Art’ is, and what it ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be. None of them appeared to be Futurists!

In the context of Schechner’s assertion that ‘every action is a performance’, lies must surely qualify as part of this ‘everything’ (that performance has become) and might just as well, and often do, attain the status of ‘Truth’ as of ‘Falsehood’.

Slavoj Žižek, in a book published on the first anniversary of September 11, retells an old joke from East Germany (or the GDR). It goes something like this. A worker gets a job in Siberia and before leaving, understanding the probable censorship to which he will be subject, establishes a code with his friends. If they receive a letter from him in blue ink, it is true. If written in red ink, false. After a time, the friends receive a letter written in blue ink:

Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing you can’t get is red ink (Žižek 2002:1).

The brilliance of the joke and the significance of the ruse reside in the way in which the writer communicates that what he has written is a lie, despite being unable to adhere to the prescribed code for lying. To use a theatrical metaphor, he ‘stages’ the truth despite, and by means of, lying. Žižek says that this is possible because the reference to the code is inscribed into the coded message itself and that this ‘produces the effect of truth independently of its own literal truth’ (Žižek 2002:1). Žižek argues further that the operation of the joke constitutes a precise and effective critique of ideology: a performative account of the workings of not only totalitarian ideological censorship, but so-called ‘liberal’ ideological tyrannies as well.

We ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the terms we use to designate the present conflict – ‘war on terrorism’, ‘democracy and freedom’, ‘human rights’ and so on – are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. (…) our ‘freedoms’ themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom (Žižek 2002:2).

What might this have to do with performance?

Everything. Or is the metaphor being stretched too far?

Lies perform. Truth performs. Any discourse performs and discourse – understood as conversations in special languages – therefore lies. It omits, eludes and elides things in order to work (cf. Phillips 1997:84). ‘Working’ in this sense seems to have a lot to do with the veracity, or the performativity, of both truth and lies.

Discourse, as we ‘know’ it in its post-structuralist, anti-metaphysical, genealogical guises has had a great deal to do with de-stabilising the apparent (semantic) stability of ‘Truth’, of ‘Knowledge’ and of, indeed, ‘Self’ as pointing to or turning on any fundamental, essential, or universal ‘ground’. And yet, contemporary discourses themselves often (if not always) surreptitiously perform a claim to a kind of ‘epistemological realism’ or ‘truth’: a claim to show the world, alternatively, ‘as it is (really)’, as it should be (seen), or as it might (otherwise) be. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

For example, beyond Stockhausen’s provocative intervention, it may be precisely the unstable and yet iterative generation of likenesses that the metaphor of performativity affords, that makes certain discursive positions possible. The (critical) notion that the ‘real’ performance in and around September 11 is a kind of ‘global dance’ (Schechner 2002:5) by the US and its allies that produces, constructs, and re-iterates ‘The Other’ or ‘The Enemy’ as ‘Terror’ is made possible by this perspective. It makes it possible to argue that it is precisely Žižek’s ‘We-who-feel-free’ that participate in this performance and – subject to the ‘laws’ of inversion – ourselves enact ‘Terror’, regressively becoming what we ostensibly seek to resist. There is indeed terror in the thought that the performance by the US and its allies, including Australia, produces what it forbids in order to keep forbidding it (cf Derrida 1976: 143) and enacts, almost despite itself, what it most fears … Tyranny.

OK. So, discourse performs, and given the above, performance discourse ‘works’ if only, perhaps perversely, in producing alternative critical fictions to combat the dominant one which passes as ‘Truth’ (We are Good, they are Evil, if you are not with US then you are with the Terrorists etc). But a word of caution: perhaps discourse’s greatest performance is, while acknowledging its discursive status, nevertheless often and all the while performing the elision of the means by which it performs. An old ideological manoeuvre, and one that may easily qualify in the pantheon of possible acrobatics that could be considered ‘lies’.

A crucial aspect of a possible definition of ideology is that it reproduces itself, elides its processes of production, and ‘naturalises’ the functional aspects of its reproduction within its surface meanings; that is, the meanings which it holds to be unassailable or ‘fixed’ in value. (A ‘bad’ old Marxist) Louis Althusser notes this in performative terms when he says ‘Ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’ ‘ (Althusser 1971: 163-164). The role of ideology here as an ‘ex-nominating’ or self-naturalising force is the problem and the point. In these terms ideology is a performance (and all performances might be seen as ideological).

You, like me, may have noticed that ideology is unpopular or out of fashion in the Academy and beyond. Nevertheless, the language of ideology is staged here as a reminder that the multiplicitous ‘perspectives’, points of view, and contested sites of contemporary discourse all take place in the pervasive and perpetual fields of representation and interpretation: fields which this speaker at least is not convinced are free from the performances of ideological inscription. Ideology is profoundly bound up with the processes of subjectification (Self-making, Identity, Otherness — veryfashionable in the Academy) without which, in culture at large and in instances of performance, processes of representational signification would find no point of resonance. To think this performance as antinomical, interdictory and perhaps inescapable is to find ‘ones-self’ always and already performed.

But don’t trust me — I am a liar, I deal in fictions. Re-member me?

It occurs to me that there is an apparent contradiction between Žižek’s perspective on the joke and the lie and his and my further elaboration of a critique of ideology. Žižek argued that the production of truth-effects independent of literal truth is made possible because the reference to the code is inscribed into the coded message itself. A particular kind of ‘performance’. I went on to contend that ideology’s performance turns on the processes by which it repeats itself, elides its processes of repetition and production, and naturalises its surface meanings ‘as if’ they were uncomplicated ‘Truths’. But if the elision is complete, if the performance absolute, and the code erased it seems impossible that a critical perspective could perceive that there was any ‘ink’ missing at all.

The code must be somewhere and in some sense ‘available’ or ‘we’ all of us would have thoroughly internalised the ideologically constructed notion of ‘Freedom’/Us and Them/Good and Evil/War on Terror’ etc that it seems others speak for ‘us’. It is impossible to make this claim unambiguously.

What if the code is (a) performance — in the sense of constituting an instance of performance AND is performance itself? What if the performances of lies that become regimes of ‘Truth’ can only be seen, and ‘seen through’ by means of a ‘performative’ perspective (cf Hillman 1983, 1997:15)? It seems that lies and lying are conventionally of the order of the ‘Bad’ — an ‘Evil’ opposed to the ‘Good’, the ‘Right’ and the ‘Just’. This stand-off itself is aphoristic of the tyranny of false truths successfully performed on the back of lies. In this sense, there is no point re-iterating, incredulously, that lies and lying are of the Devil. Žižek’s joke allows us to imagine that lies and lying may constitute an effective form of resistance (cf Blau 1987: 200)! A little tyranny may just need a bigger lie.

The background of my thinking here draws on the writings of Herbert Blau and James Hillman. Hillman, a psychologist of the imagination, says that the arts ‘provide complicated disciplines that can actualize the complex virtuality of the image’ (Hillman 1983, 1997:18). Hillman is not so much concerned with analysing, but with ‘analogising’. Creating likenesses and thinking imagistically as a strategy for gaining insights into further precisions of the image (question/problem/conundrum). Analogising is not concerned directly, initially, with asking what something is, or what it means, in a sealed authoritative way, and not even what it does — but what it is like?

‘Analogising’ in the context of performance might imply shunting meanings, narratives and fixed or ostensibly unassailable interpretive positions sideways. It is a proposition for opening the sometimes closed loops of epistemological strategies to the slippages of imaginal and metaphorical meaning, and comes close to a kind of heurism.

Heurism is, literally, a philosophy of a system of education which is based on learning or finding out for oneself. But laterally, and more loosely, it tends towards the notion of the ‘third thing’. ‘Heurism’ here might be understood as a form of understanding which is born of the productive collisions of disparate and inconclusively related ideas, images, forms, strategies or practices: the generation of a kind of ‘critical fiction’ which yet addresses the ‘truth’ of a proposition or illuminates a previously unseen aspect of a problem in theory and in practice. A key aspect of heurism is that of invention and imagination; to ‘see through’/via and by means of this ‘third thing’ which emerges from the collision.

In 1969, Anselm Kiefer, a German painter, sculptor and performance artist, traveled throughout Europe posing in various locations photographing himself with an hysterical, stiff arm aloft in the ‘Seig Heil’ of the Hitler salute. The series of photographs taken during these excursions were called Occupations. Kiefer said, ‘I do not identify with Nero or Hitler, but I have to re-enact what they did just a little bit in order to understand their madness’ (Lopez-Pedraza 1996:16).

In his Occupations, Kiefer’s performative strategy stages in him a reflection, an imaginal ‘pre-occupation’, of German history. Something of the hysteria, stupidity and thebanality of evil (cf Hannah Arendt) in Nazism surfaces in his performances as part of the humour stemming from his pretense; the sheer disparity between him and Hitler; the lieof his performance, no less. Kiefer is not straight-jacketed with the moral opposites ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’; he is ‘unabashed’ by these proprieties. His ‘occupations’ are and are not like Hitler’s, his ‘madness’ is and is not the same, and yet we may see throughHitler’s evil to its underside of banality and stupidity by means of Kiefer’s performance — a critical fiction, a lie, that gets at a further precision of the image of Hitler.

Kiefer’s performances were, in a strange, inverted way, repetitions of what Jung referred to in Hitler (and surely his public) as pseudologia phantastica: ‘that form of hysteria which is characterised by a peculiar talent for believing one’s own lies [my italics]’ (Lopez-Pedraza 1996:11). The heuristic ‘finding out for oneself’ in terms of the conviction and persistence of the doubled, repetitive form of the performance may come close to a kind of ‘belief’. But belief is not necessary — here, it is performative ruse: a critical fiction that cleaves AND merges time, place and subject, giving way to a ‘third thing’ which lies in order to get at the truth.

…but I could have made all that up.

Re-member me now.

(Re-positioning the sign with ‘PETER FOSTER’ written in red ink …)

Its Peter. Peter Foster.

‘Hello. My name is Peter Foster, I am from Queensland, and I am here to help’.

Look, I need to point out that what I have ‘staged’ here is an example of what a good friend of mine Gilles Deleuze might call a double ‘capture’ that is axiomatic of his definition of ‘becomings’ (Deleuze & Parnet 1977,1987: 2-7). For those of you familiar with the Australian Opposition Leader’s speech to the Labour party’s national conference this year, it qualifies as a triple capture! Borrowing further from my erstwhile colleague Barry Laing’s discourse, let’s call it a performative becoming-Foster-and-Rudd-of-Laing and a becoming-Laing-of-Foster-and-Rudd. A critical fiction. A third thing!

Ok, having said all of that … and already, dutifully, acknowledged my ‘subject position’ as a white, Australian, male … and did I say, ‘confidence man’? … I’d like to go further, and say…

(Removing the sign again …)

I divide myself in order to lie, to act — to stave off a certain kind of ‘death’, to ‘survive’, and to resist the tyrannies all around, and inside of me. I lie, I act, I perform in order to live.

As you may have perceived, I am a product of both Theatre Studies and Performance Studies, of theatre and more contemporary forms of performance and its theories, and this seeming division may be precisely the cause of that peculiar hysteria, which has me – of necessity, in writing and performing this paper – believing my own lies.

1 A propensity for believing one’s own lies
2 Notorious Australian conman facing numerous charges over alleged fraud, forgery and illegal political entanglements in Fiji, 2000–2007. This article is based on a paper delivered at a Double Dialogues conference, Lies: A Conference on Art, Suva, Fiji, on 6 July, 2007.


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Roland Barthes (1977, 1990). A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (London: Penguin)

Jean Baudrillard (1990a). Fatal Strategies (New York: Semiotext[e])

Jean Baudrillard (1990b). Seduction (New York: St Martin’s Press)

Herbert Blau (1983). “Ideology and Performance”, Theatre Journal, 35, 4: 441–460.

Herbert Blau (1987). The Eye of Prey: Subversions of the Postmodern (Bloomington: Indiana University Press)

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari (1980, 1999). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism andSchizophrenia (London & New York: The Athlone Press Ltd.)

Gilles Deleuze & Claire Parnet (1977, 1987). Dialogues (New York: Columbia University Press)

Jacques Derrida (1966, 1987). “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, in R. Rylance ed., Debating Texts: A Reader in Twentieth Century Literary Theory and Method (Milton Keynes: Open University Press), pp.124–136

Robert Hilferty (2005). “The Greatest Work of Art in the Entire Cosmos”,http://www.andante.com/article/ (access date: 26/7/2005)

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Raphael Lopez-Pedraza (1996). Anselm Kiefer: After the Catastrophe (London: Thames & Hudson)

F.T. Marinetti (1909, 2005). The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/manifesto.html (access date: 5/8/2005)

Adam Phillips (1997). Terrors and Experts (London: Faber & Faber)

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Richard Schechner (2002, 2006). Performance Studies: An Introduction (London: Routledge)

Bert O States (1996). “Performance as Metaphor”, Theatre Journal, 48, 1: 1–26

Slavoj Žižek (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London & New York: Verso)