Rock Performance : Gloss

Rock Performance

Say the first Performance Theorist in our cast of characters has a friend. Say she is a theorist of vibrant matter. Say she asks, “Does life only make sense as one side of a life-matter binary, or is there such a thing as a mineral or metallic life, or a life of the it in it rains?”


The theorist of vibrant matter never unpacks this rich and suggestive question. She’s packing for a trip to Death Valley.


If we did unpack the question, we might take a different trip—as theorists are wont to do—in French. That language gives us two different constructions potentially equivalent to it rains: il pleut (closer to the English it rains or it’s raining) and il y a de la pluie (more like, there is rain).


There is a potential shift when we move from the former construction to the latter. Maybe we are no longer so prominently invited to wonder after “a life of the it.” In moving from French to English, let’s put aside the proposed translation of the second construction, there is rain. Let’s use instead one or another awkward—generatively awkward—transliterative approximation: It has there rain. Or it has there raining. Or worst, by which I mean best, of all, it has there a performance of rain.


In this case, the it that we have to consider is not one to which we are likely to attribute life in the usual senses. It has there a performance of rain—or, to stick us even more firmly in what some may take to be a dead zone, it has there a performance of rock. What, exactly, are the elements that constitute the performance in question?


There is a there, or location; there is a thing (it). The thing, precisely situated in its scenic environment, is endowed with a quality (performance), arguably predicated on the thing’s placement in the scenic environment. And that quality of performance, that having (rather than being?), redoubles the thing-ness (rather than life?) of the thing. It, the rock, is—of rock. We may point to this it, and its of rock-ness may be attributed descriptively, by a sensate observer. Yet the observer’s presence is not strictly required for the thing’s “having of performance” to unfold, processually, in time’s duration.


The extent to which this commentary strains semantics and syntax is an index. It points to our linguistic resources’ relative impoverishment in helping us to grasp how a scene (whether of rocks, or otherwise) may be possessed of, may have, performance. All the same, we may grasp how performance is directly related to, indeed resultant from, the presence of the thing in the scene. And so grasping, we may grapple, epistemologically, with the presence of the thing and the quality of performance in the scene without necessarily granting, ontologically, any specially marked vibrancy, vitality, liveliness, or agential action to the thing.


In rock performance, there is motility. There is theatre. Whether there is agency or action is a question for the ages and their ghosts.

About the Author

Nick Salvato is Professor and Chair of the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. He is the author of Uncloseting Drama: American Modernism and Queer Performance (Yale, 2010), Knots Landing (Wayne State, TV Milestones Series, 2015), and Obstruction (Duke, 2016). His essays have appeared in a number of venues, including Critical Inquiry, Criticism, Discourse, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Modern Drama, TDR, Theatre Journal, and Theatre Studies.