P E R - F O R M

 

the performative essay and the essayistic performance

Abstract

Everyone knows what an essay is, or at least everyone thinks they know what an essay is. And the ones who do know what an essay is, are having a hard time defining it. Uniformly defining the essay has historically been notoriously difficult, the essay is labeled as undefinable non-genre, an un-methodological method. This is mainly due to the essays diverse, flexible, self-reflective, and experimental form. It drifts between the artistic and the scientific, the experiential and the intellectual. Both the essay and performance don't fit the neat definitional boxes of genres and disciplines. Transcending assumed borders, they expand beyond the safety of the known which leads us to new pathways. They both have an inherent authorial, momentary, and process oriented active attitude. In essence, performance is the live act of an artist; the essay is an attempt. What I found during this two year research, of which the result is artistic work and a text, is an inherent connection of the essay and performance, and the possibility of the essay as an approach to performance — an approach that can be as diverse in expression as the essay is diverse in it’s form. The essayistic performance as form with content, conceptually bound.


shape

physical shape 

physical form 

arrangement of parts 

appearance

countoure 

figure

forming

formation 

shaping

 

through

throughout 

thoroughly

entirely 

utterly

 

like

shaped

in the form of 

 

PER-FORM

This is the core question of my research. Before I start to answer this question I need to ask first: what is the essay? The sub-questions that arise are: what is the etymology of the word essay; what is the currently used definition of the literary essay; who is the literary founder of the essay; What are the main theorizations on the essay; What are the characteristic elements of the essay? Then, in order to answer the first part of the question “what makes the essay performative?” I need to answer the following sub-questions first: what is the essay as noun and as verb; how does the essay relate to experiment; what is essayistic science? After answering these questions I can define what characteristics make the essay performative. In order to answer the second part of the question “can performance be essayistic?” I need to answer the following sub-questions first: how do essayistic science and Artistic Research relate; how can we define the artistic performance? Then I can start to answer the question how performance can be essayistic.

 

I begin with contextualizing the research, then I give a historical and theoretical background of the literary essay. Next, I introduce the Zuihitsu, a hybrid from of text and image that can be related to the essay. After that I discuss the currently used encyclopædic definition of the essay and the etymology of the word essay; followed by a discussion on the literary origin, which is Montaigne. I introduce the theorization on the essay by T.W. Adorno and I briefly highlight his ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’. Then I discuss the essay as noun and verb. I also discuss an essay on experiment by Goethe in relation to essayistic science. I end with argumenting that the essay is in essence performative, after which I relate Artistic Research to essayistic science. In conclusion I describe and explain what could make performance essayistic.

RESEARCH QUESTION(S)

What makes the essay performative and what can make a performance essayistic?

 THE RESEARCH 

Relevance of the essay in fine art

There are a number of artistic forms outside literature that use the adjective essay to define a genre, this is mostly seen in film. But as Laura Rascaroli10 states: “although widely used, the category (of the film essay) is under theorized.”11 This is understandable as even the literary genre has definitional struggles. The film essay genre has affiliation with documentary, fiction, and experimental film making. However, the label of essay film seems to be a complex concept and offers room for very diverse types of cinema, as José Moure argues: “the fact that we resort to a literary term such as “essay” points to the difficulty that we experience when attempting to categorize certain, unclassifiable films.”12 Apart from film, the essay is being used in other forms of art like the photographic essay, the sound essay, and the visual essay. However, also these artistic expressions of the essay seem to lack a thorough understanding and conceptualization of the essay form. It is clear that there is a growing interest in using the essay as format for diverse media. As Emma Cummins wrote in 2013: “In today’s hyper-mediated world — where the Internet and digital devices have transformed our experience of reading — it seems salient that there is renewed interest in the contemplative form of the essay.”13

In order to use the word essay or essayistic as an adjective to describe visual forms of art — including forms which don’t necessary exclude language in either written or spoken form — I must first establish the core characteristics of the essay before investigating how performance art can be essayistic. The essay is described as performative by a number of academics.14 Not just in textual modus, but also in etymological root the essay is in essence an act.15 As mentioned, the essay is used in a number of artistic fields, however the essay form is neither practically nor theoretically researched from the perspective of performance art. Therefore researching the performative essay and essayistic performance is a logical and relevant one.

 

RELEVANCE OF THE RESEARCH 

Theoretical relevance of the essay 

Everyone knows what an essay is, or at least everyone thinks they know what an essay is. And the ones who do know what an essay is, are having a hard time defining it. The essay is widely used, be it as a high-school assignment or a philosophical treatise. Despite its popularity the essay is notoriously difficult to define.1 Lars O. Erikson states: “nearly every theorist of the essay begins by acknowledging the difficulty in describing its form”2. This definitional problem is a historical one, as the ‘Encyclopedia of the Essay’ mentions: “the definitional issues that have marked the essay throughout its history were present at its very birth.”3 So from the start the essay already was as a challenging subject to discuss. In the introduction of the renowned literary study ‘The Essayistic Spirit’, Claire de Obaldia4 says that the essay is a particularly problematic form of writing and there is a great divergence in descriptions of this marginal literary genre. Spellmeyer said it neither belongs to prose fiction, poetry nor any form of academic writing.5 According to Obaldia, the essay positions itself on the border field of literature and science philosophy.6 It roams between the intellectual, the artistic, and the experiential, in such a free manner that pinpointing its definition is rather difficult. Obaldia is not the only one placing the essay between science and art: apart from Lukacs7 — who places the essay in the realm of art — almost every writer agrees on the essay’s hybrid form. But despite the interesting position of the essay, it’s conceptualization in under-theorized. And even now, as the current PhD dissertation of Thijs Witty8 states: the essay form is “largely unacknowledged” as also Spellmeyer stated. Witty mentions that the essay is still “mostly defined as indefinable”.9 Given this information it is a relevant subject to discuss in the present day. Especially the hybrid between art and theory is an interesting one to approach from the perspective of Artistic Research.


 

Relevance of the essay for Artistic Research

This research is aimed at investigating the performative essay and the essayistic performance, an underlying motivation is my interest in theory and art as merged in the essay form. The focus of the essay is not just aimed at the content but also in the manner of presentation, the form. Form and content are conceptually bound to each other in the essay form. I chose specifically for the master Artistic Research at the University of Amsterdam because they aim to combine theory and art practice in an academic setting. From my artistic practice, it is my decision to investigate how the essay can function as an approach16 which can be used for performance. But at the base of this question is understanding how theory and art are present in the essay form. The relatively new field of Artistic Research could be the perfect place where artistic practice and theoretical research can come closer together, and maybe where the essay can reach its full potential. Therefore, this research is also an attempt to investigate the essay (and essayistic science) as possible methodological foundation for the field of Artistic Research. From this foundation the essay could take shape in a variety of artistic forms.

 

Preface        PART 1         PART 2          PART 3        Bibliography        Conclusion

OBJECTIVE(S) of the RESEARCH


Objectives of the research

Because of the essay’s position between academic texts and literary texts, the placement of the essay within literature studies as a literary genre is problematic. Avoiding this problem, Obaldia places the essay in the category of the para-text17 labelling it as literature in potentia. One can imagine that labelling texts as essays is therefore a debatable subject. Because of the hybrid and highly individual characteristics of essay texts, theorists rather refer to individual essayists then to specific essays.18 In light of this, the objective of my research is not to find a new genre of performance art — this would go against the essay’s intended form. The aim of this research is not to reduce the essay to a strict ontology, general definition or classifiable genre. I use the idea of the post-genre as a tool to avoid reducing the essay form. This research is aimed at characterizing the core elements that shape the essay form in order to formulate an essayistic approach toward any form of materialization. In researching an essayistic approach, it can be applied to performance in order to answer the core question “what could make a performance essayistic?”


In defining performance I use a broader form than the classical definition of performance art. The classical performance is an artist showing a live act — either improvisational or orchestrated — usually in front of a crowd or camera. The emphasis is on the unique moment and intimate experience of the performer and the public. In using performance I place more emphasis on the act than on the performer. In this act the performer can be (partially) visible, but the focus is on the action or the effects of the action. Therefore, it could also include an indirect presence of the performer. I argue that the performer can be seen as equivalent to the position of the author in the essay. Contrary to the unicity of the performance, I see high potential in using repetition as a conceptual part of the performance in a series of attempts or reinterpretations

.

Boundaries of the research 

As my intention isn’t to formulate a new genre but rather to theoretically investigate the essay and its relation to performance, I will only use theorizations of the essay form. I do not deploy any literary studies nor case studies. But, as background research I will examine a number of essays written by Montaigne, as he is commonly seen as the founder of the essay form. In relating the essay to visual art, I exclude film essays and other visual arts labelled as essays. Primarily, because the length of this research does not allow me to and, secondly, because I want to investigate the essay as an approach which can form in different mediums or combinations of mediums. I will apply the essayistic approach to performance art. This research is entangled with my own practice and shaped in the format, but I do not use my own artworks or other artworks as practice examples of performance essays. However, in discussing performance and the essay I will use some possible examples of works which contain essayistic elements — these are not meant to be labelled as performance essays but contain essayistic characteristics.


Methodology

The main methodology used is a comparative analysis of the essay and performance. I deploy an historical investigation with literature and dictionary research. I also deploy a literature investigation on the historical and contemporary theortizations of the essay form. I examine primary sources as well as relating secondary sources such as reviews and critiques. I will do a close reading of Adorno’s “Essay as form” as main theorization. 





Rafter by Emily Huurdeman

CONTENT AND FORM


Per-Form

What is meant by “form” in the context of Adorno’s title “The Essay as Form”? It does not only point out to the form of the essay or essay as a form, neither is it solely the essay form, it points towards the essay in forming as such. As Sara Pourciau describes: “Form,” in this context, refers not only to an existing genre, but to a posited one that has yet to be founded (…) The presence of this “as” makes it necessary to read in the word “form” an allusion to the essayistic ideal (…) of perpetual possibility.”19 So form connects the materiality and the content of the essay, the presentation of the idea: the thought. Form (shape, arrangement of parts, physical form, appearance20) comes from the Old French forme from Latin forma (primary shape, configuration21 and contour, figure, shape, appearance, looks, beauty, pattern, design22). The concept of essay as physical appearance or shape could be considered a paradox since it insinuates a physical appearance for a mental construction, the written text as not just words with content but as a form or materialization. It relates to processes in-forming, and this exploration of form is what is important to the essay and performance. Performance, descending from the verb to perform from Old French parfornir (to do, carry out, finish, accomplish) from per- (through, throughout; thoroughly; entirely, utterly) and -form (word-forming element meaning “-like, -shaped, in the form of”).23 Looking at the basic etymological and linguistic perspectives, we see that the act of shaping and forming is the most basic connection that the essay and performance share. They both revolve around the act, the process, the moment of forming. Hence the title of this paper: Per-Form.


Form
This research takes form online and in printed versions. The online core version is presented in
project-space of the Research Catalogue of SAR (Society of Artistic Research), here both content,
form, and artistic practice come together. The navigation map of the page will function as the floor map of the exposition.

 

The printed version is a time bound vision of the online version, each print will get a version
number, date and time of printing. One could say that the online version is the thought in process
and the printed version the preliminary materialization. The layout of the pages is that of a book, including cuting lines and margins on the pages, as literature in potentia. The printed version consists of several parts put together in a binder with two steel eyes on the sides. It consists of the hard cover with title and details, and inside a quote by Max Bense; the table of contents; preface; followed by part one, part two and part three of the research; ending with the conclusion; credits; the footnotes and the bibliography. I will leave the option open to add a practice part to the configuration of elements.


Content

The thesis is divided into 3 main parts. I open with a succinct summary of the research and a quote by Max Bense. Part 1 is the academic contextualization and accountability of the research in which I formulated the research question; accounted for the relevance of the research; and formulated the boundaries, methodology, format, and structure. The chapter opens with a preface with the background of the research. Part 2 is the historical research of the literary essay in which I sketch an outline of the origins of the essay. I start by briefly introducing the Zuihitsu as essayistic hybrid of textual and illustrated content. Then I discuss the current encyclopædic definition of the literary essay and explain the etymological background of the word essay. Next, I will go into the essay’s literary origin: Montaigne. After which I analyze and describe an important historical theorization (Theodor W. Adorno’s text ‘The Essay as Form’) and I briefly highlight the link between the essay and Adorno’s ‘Dialectics of Enlightenment’. Here I give a preliminary summary of the characteristics of the essay. Next, I discuss the contemporary textual essay and make the distinction between the essay and noun and as verb. After which I link the essay as verb to experimenting and essayistic science, highlighting ‘Der Versuch als Vermitler von Objekt und Subjekt’ by Johan W. von Goethe. Part 3 of the research brings the essay into the realm of art, and mainly performance art. I start by argumenting that essay is in essence performative. Then I discuss the essay’s relation to art and science, and connect the idea of essayistic science to artistic research. I conclude part 3 with an investigation into essayistic performance. I end with an overall conclusion.


Artistic practice

As a result of the research I will exhibit a video installation. The installation consist of multiple screens of different sizes and placements, the electricity wires of all the screens are all connected to one plug box. The plug box is connected to the energy source, tapping into the collective power supply. The videos show simple performative and gestural images with minimal sounds, all played simultaneously in a loop. In part 4 of the research I illustrate the link of the research to my artistic practice.


ReMA Thesis

Artistic Research UvA (NL)

Emily Huurdeman

 

Professors:

Miriam van Rijsingen

Jeroen Boomgaard

 

Special thanks:

Sher Doruff 

Chistina Della Giustina 

Jord Homan 

 

PREFACE

In the final year of my Bachelor Fine Art (2010-2014) I attended an extracurricular course about the film-essay by my teacher Kostana Banovic. I was intrigued by the films, but mostly confused by what these different films connected. However, I did feel a strong affiliation with the films in relation to my own live-performance and video-performance practice. It was initially the diversity and the freedom in the investigative attitude that fascinated me. As a theoretical extension we were given a number of articles on the subject. While reading the articles, I started to understand my initial confusion about the film genre. The essay, referred to as a written text, is commonly known, but I quickly came to realize that the essay concept is not easily defined. It’s form appeared even more elusive than I thought. 

 

 

“Makura no Sōshi” (Pillowbook) by Emily Huurdeman

Confusion combined with fascination is the perfect instigator for fueling a research project. As I was searching for additional literature about the essay-film, to try and get a grip on what defines an essay-film, I came across the article ‘In Search of the Centaur: the Essay-Film’ written by Phillipe Lopate. In this article Lopate refers to the T.W. Adorno’s work ‘The Essay as Form’ as primary theoretical text on the subject. I was already interested in the concept of negative dialectics by Adorno but when I read his text on the essay, I instantly knew this was the subject I wanted to investigate more. My visual and theoretical interests came together. It was the seemingly unstructured form, the presence of doubt and paradoxes combined with critique and research that aligned with the driving force of my practice. 


 

THE HYBRID ZUIHITSU

The essay is closely related to the classical Japanese literary genre called Zuihitsu, which emerged during the Heian Period (794-1185 ad). One of the most famous Zuihitsu’s is the ‘Pillow Book’24 completed in 1002. Because both the content and the structure are very flexible, the genre has also been notoriously hard to define.25 Linda Chance names it a: “quintessential nongenre”26. The word zuihitsu is made up of the kanji words for ‘to follow’ and ‘brush’. It is usually translated as “random jottings”.27 The word comes from the sentence “fude ni shitagau” (following the brush28). It is the act of following where the brush leads that is central: whether the brush paints or writes, it is the path that leads and the author that follows. The genre aims to escape the narrative constraints. For example, in a Zuihitsu there are: “series of loosely connected essays and anecdotes, as well as disconnected sentences, fragments, ideas, word pictures, poems, lists, and snatches of conversations”.29 In these, the recorded thoughts of the author are central. This record of the author’s thought can be compared with the inherent presence of the author in the essay form. However, apart from consisting of many different writing styles, it also contains drawings and paintings. Montaigne does not use any imagery but the approach of following thoughts while documenting is very similar to the Zuihitsu. In part 3 of the research I will connect the essay and visual art again.


PART 2 - THE ESSAY

In my application to the research master Artistic Research at the University of Amsterdam, I proposed an investigation into the possible existence of an essay performance with the preliminary title ‘An Attempt in Trying’. In the two years of intensively investigating the essay form, it never lost my attention and keeps fascinating me. Hopefully the reader has as much joy in reading the thesis as I had in writing it. The initially proposed research is polished and refined in this thesis.

DEFINITION, ETYMOLOGY AND MONTAIGNE 

The word essay is widely used to describe a format of writing. Currently it is described by the online Oxford dictionary as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject”, and in second definition as “attempt or effort”.30 In the Dutch dictionary Van Dale, the translated definition is: “personally colored treatise on a scientific or literary subject.”31 The Encyclopedia of the Essay names the form “nonfictional prose texts of between one and about 50 pages (… with an) elusive multiplicity of forms and themes”.32 These definitions are as broad as the essay is in its form, tone and subject. To make the difficulty of defining even more clear I will sum up some descriptions from other online dictionaries and encyclopædias. 


Starting with two openly editable content websites, Wikipedia and Citizendium, they could indicate a broadly accepted definition since they are open to changes and adaptations by any visitor. First the most well known openly editable content website, Wikipedia. On January 2014 the description of the essay starts with: “generally short pieces of writing written from an author’s personal point of view, but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of an article, a pamphlet and a short story.” In May 2015, the first sentence is changed to: “scholarly pieces of writing giving the author’s own augmentation.”33 We could deduce from this definition that the essay is a scholarly piece of writing with a personal touch. The openly editable content website Citizendium34 defines the essay as: “a piece of writing whose form has been so varied that it is very difficult to define. Originally a composition on a particular subject (…) it has been interpreted to mean a great many things which would come within the scope of the modern usage article”.35 From this description it seems like a elusive type of article. However, composition is an interesting and relevant description which will reappear in discussing Adorno’s idea of the essay. One of the most detailed and nuanced descriptions I found was at the website Grammar.com: “We might tentatively define the essay as a short work of nonfiction, often artfully disordered and highly polished, in which an authorial voice invites an implied reader to accept as authentic a certain textual mode of experience”.36 This definition actually gets closer to depicting the character of the essay. It is the experience of reading a certain textual mode and formation which is not just the content but also the æsthetic arrangement of the text. As we can see, even something seemingly easy as looking up a definition in the dictionary is quite complicated when it comes to the essay. To gain some more insight in the essay form, I start by looking at the etymological background of the word essay and its textual origin: 'Essais' by Michel de Montaigne (Bordeaux, 1533 –1592). In discussing the essay as a literary text in a historical context, the use of the word literature is debated. As Erickson states, the word literature as literary production or work arose in 1779 (in Johnson’s ‘Lives of the English Poets’). By 1860 it was officially acknowledged as the whole of the writing on a particular subject. Before 1779, literature was used to describe “learning, cunning, grammar writing, knowledge of letters.”37.Montaigne published his bundle ‘Essais’ well before that time, in 1580.


I put the word essai in an etymological and historical context in order to gain insight on why Montaigne could have used the word assai to name his collection. The French assai, as well as the English assay, come from the late Latin word exagium. In Montaigne’s time exagium was known as “a kind of weight, piece of gold, a noble, a crowne”38, a standard weight type of a 1/72 of a pound.39 The word refers to the weighing of the coins to test their weight, and is used in a wider sense of “examination, trial, testing”40, and as “a balance”41. It is the balancing and testing of the weight of a coin, the testing of the value of a coin. The word exagium descents from the Latin exigere42. Exigere comes from exigo, defined in modern translation as: “to drive out, to thrust out, to take or to turn out”, and in a second meaning: “to demand, require, enforce, performance of duty”.43 Drive refers to driving out, as in: driving cattle, or to be driven, to flea, to chase or to hunt.44 In a Latin to English dictionary from 1563 exigo is translated as: “to expell, shut, or draw out, to expresse, to prove, examine, to require, to exact, take away by force, to finish, to cast forth”.45 Exigo is a combination of the word ex- (meaning: out) and agere (meaning act).46 The root word of agere is age or ago, ago translated into: “to do, to make, to goe about, to labour, to accuse, to apply”47. So in basic meaning: to act out. This acting out — the act of forming — is exactly what I aim to connect to performance in the third chapter.


The difference in the modern and period translation of exigo is not so big, but by summing up the meaning of the respective words we get a better idea of its meaning and definitions in proximity. The essay is too broad and too complex to define it as just a test, it is an experiment with a certain objective. In Montaigne’s time, experiment was actually very closely related to the word assai. Essay translates both into trial and experiment (Latin experemimentum)48. Even in German today, Versuch still means both essay and experiment. At the end of this text I will elaborate on the experiment as described by Goethe in “Der Versuch als Vermitler von Objekt und Subjekt”, and the relation of the experiment to the essay form.


The ‘Encyclopedia of the Essay’ mentions that Montaigne might have used the word Essai to refer to coup d’essai (trial run, dummy run or first try49) and describes the saying as: “the apprentice artisan’s work as distinct from the master’s.”50 A dictionary from 1697 describes it as: “a trial of ones workmanship that’s newly come out of his time”51. The word combination coup d’essai is linked to the sentence: “Faire son coup d’essai, son chef d’oevre, pour passer Maitre (to make a trial of his skill in order to be made free”)52, this might also give insight to the intention of the the word essay. Montaigne could have referred to a trial (or test) — to free one from its previous thoughts and the dominating thought from its master or teacher (freeing from consensus). 


In 1603 the title of Montaigne’s book ‘Essais’ (and the last book ‘Les Essais’) the French word essai is translated into the English essay meaning: to put to proof, to test or attempt.53 Nowadays, essay is used to refer to the literary text in multiple languages. Therefore, the transition of essai to essay is relevant. In the English language, the word essay replaced the original assay around in the end of the sixteenth century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED), the verb assay entered the English language around 1300, and was used as a noun around 1330. Assay was translated into: "to put to the test, to put to the proof” (see OED). The verb essay was first included in the English dictionaries in 1483, but the noun essay only in 1597. From around 1400 until 1676 the verb essay referred to the “essay of a deer”54. In other words: the killing of an animal during a hunt. The root word is again assay, in this definition relating to: “to assault, attack, assail”55. So essay and assay find their affiliation in the test of strength or to attack anything difficult. The shift of assay to essay is in the same year that the English philosopher and writer Francis Bacon (1561–1626) published the first edition of his Essayes in 159756. Bacon’s interpretation of the essay is more impersonal, empirical and rational in approach. For this reason some, like James Shapiro, even boldly states: “if he (Bacon) hadn’t called them essays, we probably wouldn’t either”57. He puts forth Sir William Cornwallis the Younger’s ‘Essayes’ as the first real essays in Montaigne’s style. Cornwallis is also appointed as “Montaigne’s first imitator”58 in an article of ‘Modern Language Quarterly’. Cornwallis published his fifty-three ‘Essayes’ between 1600 and 1601, and he revised them until 1610. He adopted the more subjective and discursive attitude of Montaigne.

Montaigne's bundle of three books (containing 107 texts) was published between 1580 and 1588, with a posthumous edition in 189559. Every new publication contained new essays, but also added extended edits of the previously published essays, with newly added remarks, notes, quotes, and anecdotes.60 The first translation was published in 1603 by Florio. Since then, the book has been translated into English many times.61 The translators also started adding footnotes, since Montaigne himself never mentioned the sources of his quotes — sometimes he wouldn’t even name the author. Because of the constant rewriting and editing of the ‘Essais’ they could be labelled as a work in progress. It is even said that he not so much began with the essay but he “grew into it”62. In the introductory chapter of his translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Screech poetically describes this process as: “thoughts in series upon series of thoughts, feelings, desires, actions and reactions.”63


In his introduction, Montaigne states: “I myself am the subject of this book”. He adds: “I have not been concerned to serve you nor my reputation”64. Florio translates it even more vividly into: “I have no respect or consideration at all, either to thy service, or my glory”.65 Montaigne concludes with saying that the reader doesn’t have to put in leisure time reading such a vein subject, and ends with the statement: “Therefore farewell.”66 The choice to write about himself was quite unusual in that time and place67. Screech calls this choice “a revolutionary decision”.68 There were a number of diaries and personal travel accounts published, but the essays are of a particular kind. The portrayal of the self is not just in thought but in his matter as well. He doesn’t leave out the body in relation to the mind and experience. For Montaigne the subject is not just his personal thoughts and his personal legacy but it is a specific kind of “self-testing”.69 This is a process of constant self-testing; of how he relates to a certain subject, and trying out different points of view. Donald Frames calls it a “constant inner dialogue of te self-portrayer.”70 Montaigne emphasizes this by internalizing the arguments and theories. In this way he vulgarizes the texts and the appropriation of knowledge.


The thing that sets Montaigne apart from both the autobiographical and the academic writers is the presence of certain artfulness in the writing. This artfulness is not just because of his poetical and metaphorical descriptions, it also comes from the structure of his writing — the manner in which the sentences are composed. These sentences consist of anecdotes, quotes, thoughts, emotions and observations. These sentences are structurally organized in a non-linear — and often non-logical and inconsistent — order. The reader follows his train of thought, and as thought is not linear (according to Montaigne) its display should be neither. This free structure of writing does not fill in the direct connections between the arguments, it lets the viewer take part in the interpretation. Emphasizing this strategy is the equivocating use of words. It is conscious of the reader’s interpretation that arguably makes Montaigne more than just a man talking about himself and giving an account of what he thinks: it asks of the reader to interpret what he reads and to form their own thoughts on the matter at hand.

This form of writing could make up Montaigne’s philosophy: it’s not what he writes, but the manner of writing. It is debated if Montaigne’s writing are of a philosophical nature, or just a new genre of writing. An Hartle names him an “accidental philosopher”.71 In philosophical terms Montaigne is mostly described as a Stoic and a skeptic (Screech labels Montaigne as a “melancolic stoic”). This is partially due to the fact that Montaigne often quotes the Stoic Seneca (without directly referring to him directly) but mostly because his fundamental point of departure are doubt and self-criticism. This point of departure is not only present in the content of his writing (in which he displays his thought and the thoughts of others) or his constant rewriting, but mostly in the structure of his texts. The way in which these thoughts are displayed are said to be dialogical at least, and are by some writers described as being dialectical.72 

In Montaigne’s time, dialectics was less philosophical loaded than it is today. It meant logic and (critical) reasoning, or “the art of reasoning or disputation by question and answer”.73 It was a form of reasoning bound to rules. Originally dialectics comes from Greek, meaning “the art of conversation”74 — a form of reasoning to arrive at truth. Nowadays dialectics have a heavier philosophical connotation, it refers to a reasoning by opposites.75 Basically, the logic consists of reasoning that starts with a thesis, is opposed with an anti-thesis, which result in a synthesis. It is the reasoning by opposites, in order to come to a synthesis of those opposites. The synthesis can become a thesis again and the reasoning starts over. This format can be shaped in different forms. The reason why Montaigne’s writing is said to relate to dialectics, is because of the manner in which Montaigne opposes sentences and statements. He incorporates the thoughts and theories of others and uses them as a tool to investigate his own thinking. It is not just a dialogue between him and the thoughts of others, but a conscious oppositional strategy in order to gain insight in the matter at hand without drawing conclusions.

ESSAY

to test 

to put to proof

trail  

testing

attempt  

effort

 

experemimentum

experiment 

bid

shot 

stab

go

 

to act out 

to thrust 

to drive

 

to hunt

to assault 

to attack 

to assail

to test strength 

to take away by force

to attack anythingdifficult 

to kill of a deer

to chase 

to flea

 

1/72 of a pound 

a piece of gold

a weight 

a noble 

a grown 

a balance

weighing

 

exagmen 

examen

examination

to examine

 

to drive out

to thrust out

to take or out 

to turn out 

to demand 

to require 

to enforce 

performance of duty

 

driving cattle

driven out of your house

to expel

to shut 

to draw out 

to expres 

to prove 

to require

to exact 

to finish

to cast forth

 

out 

to do

to make

to go about

to labour

to accuse

to apply

 

act

acting out  

actor 

an action 

deed

doing

operation

 

to do 

carry out

finish

accomplish

 

One of the most highly regarded theorizations of the essay form, is the text ‘Der Essay als Form’ by German philosopher Theodor L.W. Adorno (1903-1969). The text was written between 1954 and 1958 and it was first published as the lead essay of ‘Noten zur Literatur I’ in 1958.76 I will use the English translation “The Essay as Form” translated by Bob Hullot-Kentor and F. Will (1984), and the more recent Dutch translation published in 2015 in “De Kunst van kritiek — Adorno in Context” by Hartle and Lijster. In addition, I asked artist and academic (German language philosopher) Christina Della Giustina for feedback on the two translations.


Adorno counted ‘The Essay as Form’ amongst his most successful works.77 We might understand why Adorno took interest in the essay form, considering his interest in dialectics. The essay and Adorno are also a perfect fit because the essay’s concern is not just with content but also with the manner of presentation: the form. As Hartle and Lijster note: “Adorno’s philosophy (…) considered content and form of thought”78. This makes the essay a perfect format for Adorno to convey his train of thought. It is not just the content, but the manner of presentation that the essay form embraces. Hartle and Lijster describe that the essay connects art and theory dialectically.79 They even claim that ‘Der Essay als Form’ is probably as close as Adorno ever came to giving a description of his philosophy.80 Adorno always withheld from giving an outline of his philosophy for principal and theoretical reasons. As the ‘Encyclopedia of the Essay’ describes: “The style of philosophy and his critique of social systems (based on theories of Hegel, Marx and Freud) are shaped by his predominantly dialectic mode of thought”81. Adorno does not think that the dialectical contradictions can be resolved. His dialectical mode and method of thought are also described in ‘Dialect of Enlightenment’ and ‘Negative Dialectics’. 


He published the book ‘Negative dialectics’ in 1966. Apart from important contributions to music theory, he also published writings reflecting on visual æsthetics. A result is his book ‘Aesthetic Theory’ (written between 1961 and 1969 and remained unfinished, published posthumously in 1970). Adorno also holds an important role in the development of the Frankfurter Schule’s ‘Critical Theory’. His dialectical thought was influenced by Marxist material dialectics and it was first formed under the umbrella of the Frankfurter Schule. Adorno’s first thoughts on critical theory and the roll of dialectics were formulated in a collaborative work written together with Max Horkheimer during their wartime exile in America. The text “Dialektik der Aufklärung” or “Dialectics of Enlightenment” was first published in 1944, and again in their book which was published in 1947.


The essay as theorized by Adorno is considered to be one of the most important contributions to its conceptualizations.82 Sara Pourciau declares: “the work has long been considered one of the classic discussions of the genre”83 and it is even perceived as “a now classic definition of the essay from”84 by Krista Brune. Elena Guatary pointed it out as the “most striking analyses of the genre”85. Other important theoratizations on the essay form that Adorno refers to as well are: “Soul and Form” by György Lukács (1908) and ‘Über den essay und seine prosa’ by Max Bense (1947). These argumentations and references show the fundamental relevance of Adorno’s text, hence my decision to use this intriguing investigation and interpretation of the essay form as main point of departure. I will analyze the text in order to depict and describe the core characteristics of the essay as intended by Adorno.


What makes Adorno’s text about the essay exceptional is that he treats the essay as a concept, he never uses a single example of an actual essay. He does refer to the essayist — mostly in a negative manner — but he mainly talks about the essay as an entity. In reference to other theorizations on the subject he only refers to ‘Soul and Form’ (negatively), and he incorporates two quotes from ‘Über den essay and seine Prosa’. We could say that Adorno describes the methodology of the essay or rather, the “un-methodological method”86 of the essay. The text can be considered as an essay about the essay (Graham Good calls it “meta-essay”87). His manner of presentation reflects the content and intent of the text. Content and form are both essential, the essay balances between art and science. Therefore, the essay takes the position of a non-identity which makes it difficult to define. The non-identity is also present in the essay’s anti-systematic procedure. Anders Johanssen justly points out: “even though it advocates an anti-systematic procedure, it is not to be mistaken for a defense of relativism.”88 In the essay as depicted by Adorno, a couple of elements are characteristic: the anti-systematic approach, over-interpretation, juxtaposition of elements and equivocation. The content is informed by theories, art, impulse, intuition and experience.


The essay has no natural beginning, middle or end. Its structural point of departure is exactly the opposite. As Adorno says: “it begins with the most complex, not the most simple”.89 The essay does not follow any scientific method90, it does not strive for an inductive or deductive mode of thought because its intention is not to find definite conclusions. It disregards continuity and totality. Like Adorno says: “It ends at any moment it feels itself complete, not where nothing is left to say”.91 This sentence insinuates that the essay as a text has a mode or entity, and character on its own. In the process of writing the author reacts to his/her own writing and this becomes the mode. Or, as Adorno describes: “The essay becomes true in its progress, which drives it beyond itself”92. In this process self-reflection is essential. It is not just a process where we can let go of our thoughts and feelings, without reflecting on them. Adorno: “(the essay) does not proceed blindly, automatically, but at every moment it must reflect on itself”.93 As its structure is always in process its form is always complete, because it recognizes its own incompleteness. Or as Adorno puts it: “the totality (…) of non-totality”.94 The essay tries to grasp truth, and at the same time it recognizes its immanent failure, but it deploys effortless attempts to come close, nonetheless. These effortless attempts are key to the essay. It is literally an attempt, as the word essay implies (as previously described). It is a continuous thought experiment, a specific and deliberate strategy. In Adorno’s case aimed to try and break objects free from their historical, dogmatic or idealistic burden. The essay as described by Adorno has a heavy societal load in light of his time. He puts emphasis on the importance of autonomy. To be autonomous, in Adorno’s eyes, is to be critical. Critique is the only way to break through dogma and consensus, through idealism and propaganda. We can never escape this but we must try relentlessly to break free.


The object of investigation is the (cultural) artifact and the interrelation between nature and culture. The thing that binds the essay is its object of investigation. As Adorno puts it: “The essay is determined by the unity of its freely chosen object, together with that of theory and experience which have migrated into the object.”95 Its unity comes from the tight bound to its freely chosen object and manner of investigation. Because of this, Adorno claims: “the essay is both more free, dynamic and open than traditional thought and at the same time more closed and static than traditional thought.”96 The closed and static part is related to the tight bond to the object of investigating, it always has the object at the center. The open and dynamic part, is the freedom the essay is granted to approach the object. This freedom can be associated with the freedom of an artist, and even childlike pleasure. The essay as a predominantly non-fictional form concerns itself with concepts and theories but allows intuition and experience as well as spontaneity to enter in the course of writing. The essay occupies the space between the assumed organized rational science and the romanticized irrational art. 


According to Adorno, the presence of theory is one of the most fundamental elements of the essay. It absorbs theory of past and present, but the objective is the “genuinely new97. In the tension between free association and theories, the dialectic dichotomy of its form is most clear. Adorno points out that the traditional intellectual process is not sufficient in the essay: “the essay mirrors what is loved and hated instead of presenting the intellect”.98 Adorno’s term is translated as “intellectual experience”99 of concepts, or perhaps better translated (by courtesy of Della Giustina)100: “The experience of mental activity, or experiencing your own mind while thinking.”101 Here, self-reflection reappears as a continuous awareness of the past, as present in the current thoughts. In this way the essay questions that which appears to be self-evident.


According to Adorno, content is central: “The essay’s openness is not vaguely one of feeling and mood, but obtains its contour from its content.”102 The form is taking shape in a process driven by its content. It concerns itself with all theories that are close to the object. However, its relation to theory is not that of a standpoint, its tendency is always toward the “liquidation of opinion”.103 When interpreting a text one must not have the illusion of seeking truth. This would result in what Adorno calls “false intentionality”104, because he claims that it is scarcely possible to figure out what someone felt or thought. There is an openness to “spontaneity of subjective fantasy”105 needed to interpret the interpreted. 


But how could we describe the essay’s form then? Adorno calls it a “configuration of elements”106, “presented in such a manner that they support one another. Each element articulates itself according to the configuration that it forms with the others.”107 It allows a freedom towards the object, and concerns itself with all associating and relating concepts surrounding the object. Each element, in relation to the other elements, can be lit from different points of view. A configuration consists of different parts or elements that form a shape together in a specific arrangement. It implies the possibility of movement or re-arrangement of its structure, by giving every element an amount of individuality within the configuration. However, all the elements are inherently connected. The essay’s configuration lets the relations — the lines that shape the form of the object — be open to interpretation of the reader. The essay wants to reconstruct the object out of its conceptual “membra disjecta108 (scattered fragments). The object investigated by the essay is shaped by, and linked to, different concepts that surround it. Together in a configuration they tell us something about the object. Even words and materials are concepts. The intent is not to copy, or to directly describe the object: it appears from the associated elements.


In relation to concepts Adorno writes: “the essay denies any primeval givens, so it refuses any definition of its concepts”.109 He adds: “we can not know beyond a doubt what is to be understood by the real content of concepts (…) Neither can it do without general concepts”. “Its concepts are neither deduced from any first principle nor do they come full circle and arrive at a final principle.”110 Adorno takes this standpoint because he aims to disarm the violence of dogma and doctrine which is in his case closely related to an aversion to propaganda, idealism and positivism.


The shape, and process of shaping the configuration, is a dialectical one. The “juxtaposition of elements”111 to create continuous contradictions in a dialectical process. However, Adorno says: “Mere contradictions may not remain, unless they are grounded in the object itself.”112 In this procedure the essay paradoxically seeks truth by acknowledging its own untruth, by recognizing its own insufficiency and the awareness of ignorance. These types of contradicting sentence structures are grounded in dialectics, and these paradoxes occur often in this text, and they are an essential part of his presentation form. They are an act in the process of thought. Adorno even says that: “the essay is more dialectical than the dialectic”113. This is because it continuously tries to drive itself beyond itself, it seeks to break free from its own system. The essay makes use of deliberate equivocations and contradictions which makes you read the text from one sentence to the other. No easy summary or conclusion can be made because you have to experience the process that the train of thought goes through. This reminds us of Montaigne’s essayistic approach in following the author’s thoughts. An this thought process Adorno adds: “thought does not advance in a single direction. The fruitfulness of the thought depends on the density of its texture.”114 And: “It acquires its depth by penetrating deeply into a matter, not by referring it back to something else”115, which it achieves by over-interpretation. Anders Johansson regards this over-interpretation as the central aspect of Adorno’s attempt to establish a form of critical thinking.116 This would support Hartle and Lijsters point that in this text Adorno aims to give a guideline to his philosophy. With “not refer back” he aims at historical definitions of concepts and dominant theories. 


Like Montaigne, Adorno uses equivocating words in order to force the reader to interpret. One telling sentence is: “Er denkt in Brücken so wie die Realität brüchig ist”, which translates to: “it (the essay) thinks in fragments, just as reality is fragmented.”117 He continues: “und findet seine Einheit durch die Brüche hindurch, nicht indem er sie glättet”, which translates to: “it finds its unity through the gaps, not by smoothening them over.” In Dutch it is translated to: “Het essay denkt in breuken, zoals de realiteit gebroken is”118, which can be translated to: “he thinks in cracks, as reality is broken.” In every dictionary I could find, Brücken is most often translated as bridges, and brüchig as brittle. Then we would get a sentence like: “the essay thinks in bridges because reality is brittle, and finds unity by going through the cracks, not by levelling them.” That would give a completely different interpretation of the sentence as a bridge is built to connect. “Building bridges between brittle fragments” might metaphorically capture the essay’s attempt even better. Fragments implicate a deconstruction, as if reality consists of deconstructed elements, and the essay moves between them. But, we can also interpret it as: the essay thinks in between the brittle elements, and builds (temporary) connections. Della Giustina translates it as: “it thinks in bridges, just as reality is brittle (broken, “breaky”), and finds its unity through (throughout) the breaks, not by smoothening them out.” This equivocating language is telling for the essay as formulated by Adorno, and for the way we should read essays. We should be critical, and interpret the essay at all times. In part 3 I will return to this equivocating use of words in relation to art. 

To place objects and concepts together, the mental construction contains something material and the material always contains something mentally projected. This projection can be a result of experience, culture, society and history. Maybe there is not much difference between looking at something and thinking about it. If we look at an object we already conceptualize it, and we look at objects (as well as theories) differently at different times. Conceptions, and definitions, of words change. As Adorno describes: “it strives to concretize content as determined by space and time; it constructs the interwovenness of concepts in such a way that they can be imagined as themselves interwoven in the object.”119 He adds: “the essay comes so close to the here and now of the object, up to the point where that object, instead of being simply an object, dissociates itself into those elements in which it has its life.”120 As described before, the object literally exists of its (surrounding) elements which are configured in a time frame. In order to express ourselves we have to materialize our thoughts. One might say it honors the origin of the word concept in Medieval Latin: conception (to grasp, to comprehend) — where already, and not yet, meet. 

This reminds me of a beautiful sentence by Montaigne: “what I cannot expresse, I point at with my finger”121. It seems like a simple sentence, but to have the desire to express your experience, and to experience the inability of shaping it into a communicatable form, leaves you with just the abillity to point at your experience — the gesture of pointing. In other words: experience is personal (may I call it even physical?) but to express it he has to point to something external.

As mentioned previously in this chapter, we can also read his text as “an essay about the essay.”122 Talking about form Adorno does a lot of things that insinuate it is an essay about the essay. He does not say that sentence have to be long, or that references and quotes are not always noted. Foreign words used are not translated. But these are key characteristics of Montaigne’s form of writing. Even in invalidating Descartes’s rules, he literally does not follow the steps because he skips the first rule. What Adorno writes about the essay is not the only thing we should read, it is how he writes it that gives information about his ideas on the essay form. It are the words, the structure, and the form of the text combined that convey the meaning. Form and content are mutually inclusive.

As a final thought, Adorno starts his text with a quote from Goethe’s Pandora: “Bestimmt, Erleuchtetes zu sehen, nicht das Licht” (Destined to see the illuminated, not the light). This references the idea that we can’t see the source but we can see what is illuminated by the source. Not to be blinded by the light of the contemporary but to try and see which things reflect the light of the contemporary.123 Or, as Graham Good describes it: “to transcend the here and now”124. I will elaborate on the connection of Adorno and Goethe, and on Goethe to the essay in a later stage in this chapter.


ADORNO: 'DER ESSAY ALS FORM"

THE ESSAY AS NOUN AND AS VERB

Since the essay’s first appearance in France it was quickly adopted in Britain. When it debuted in Britain, the essay also entered the dictionary as a noun. We could say that in the early days of the essay as genre there already was a split. Where the French essay is known for being more personal and experience based, the British essay is known for a more impersonal, empirical and rational approach.


The use of the word essay indicates a position towards the medium it is applied to. A noun is a person, thing, substance, or event. A verb describes actions. An adjective describes the condition of a noun or verb. We can say that a verb refers to a changing state and a noun to a static state. Therefore, the essay points to a categorizable genre and to a specific person the essayist. When essay is a verb it could be perceived as an approach and therefore it can be applied to multiple nouns. The adjective essayistic suggests that the noun it is connected to, holds characteristics of the essay (being essay-like). This differentiation is an important step in order to define what the essay as a literary genre is, and what to essay as action is. Subsequently we can investigate how a work can be essayistic. 


In describing the literary essay, the ‘Encyclopedia of the Essay’ counts as a renowned reference work and it has made great effort to try and include all the different categories that make up the essay genre. Apart from discussing a vast number of essayists, as well as key terms concerning the essay, they distinguish both origins and themes of the essay as categories. Apart form the British and the French essay, the Encyclopedia distinguishes: the American; Australian; Bulgarian; French Canadian and English Canadian; Chinese; German; Japanese; Polish; Russian; Scandinavian; Spanish; and Spanish American essay. The Encyclopedia also mentions a vast variety of categorizable themes of the essay: the autobiographical essay; critical essay; essay film; familiar essay; historical essay; humorous essay; medical essay; moral essay; nature essay; periodical essay; personal essay; philosophical essay; polemical essay; religious essay; satiric essay; science essay; sociological essay; topical essay; travel essay. All these distinctions mark the cultural tone of the essay as well as its themes. Of course, all kinds of combinations are possible. The encyclopedia additionally mentions adopted characteristics of neighboring literary genres like: “the treatise, the article, the letter, the character sketch, the short story”.125 These categorizations might seem somewhat extensive for a genre formidably hard to define, but this long list of categories and sub-categories actually seem to articulate the difficulty in uniformly defining the essay as genre.


As seen in the definition earlier this chapter we know that the literary essay should be of middle length formally speaking; written from the authors point of view; and should place emphasis on æsthetics and content. The essay has an object of investigation which can be in any of the above mentioned categories, and in any combination. This places the question of the genre in a ridiculous position. With these standards copious amounts of texts could be considered essays.


The essay is difficult to uniformly demarcate as a genre, its form is notoriously flexible and adaptive. Can we actually talk of a genre? Or is the essay the perfect example of a nongenre? As a form, the essay eclectically borrows from all other genres. Obaldia just names it a “literary hybrid” in order to evade the “frustratingly blurred edges” of the literary genre.126 But there are academics who do categorize it under the label of nongenre.127 If we label the essay as an inherent nongenre we enter the discussion of the post-genre. If we label the essay not as genre but as verb, we can describe what the essay does, as an act in the spirit of the essay (as Obaldia’s title ‘The Essayistic Spirit’). If the essay is labelled as an approach we can define non-medium specific qualities. What defines an essay is a certain attitude and intention. To look at the essay as a verb, or a way of acting out, an important step is made towards linking the essay with performance, as both are essentially about the act. This implies the action of the actor, so here the essayist essaying comes together. But the intention of the essayist is not central, it’s action is. Here, the presence of the author, and the presence of the performer can be aligned. But this is a specific act with specific objectives, as Montaigne and Adorno show. I will elaborate on the post-medium possibilities in the part 3.


We now know the essay is linked to certain actions, specifically: attempting, the act of weighing; but mainly the act of testing, examining and trying out. The essay as a test or trial is closely related to experimenting. And the experiment is closely related to science, another important element in the essay. If we think of the essay in terms of a form of testing, we can also view it as a form of experimenting. And not just an experiment of thought expressed in words, but also a physical experiment. Not just as a conformation or proof, but as a way to test something in order to find out something new. In Montaigne’s time the word essaying was even more closely related to the notion of experimenting. The experiment in modern use is related to the scientific method of experimenting. The word experiment arises in the middle of the fourteenth century, meaning: an “action of observing or testing, test or trial”128. It descends from the Old French experiri (to test, to try). Before Montaigne there was no notion of the essay as text, or of the literary genre we know today; nor of today’s scientific experiment. They were both directly related to test or trial (as mentioned before in the research on the etymology of the word essay).

Max Bense also puts emphasis on the experiment when talking about the essay: “The essay is the form of the critical category of our mind. For whoever criticizes must necessarily experiment; he must create conditions under which an object is newly seen, and he must do so in a fashion different from that of a creative author. Above all the fragility of the object must be probed, tested; this is precisely the meaning of the small variation that an object undergoes in the hands of its critic.”129 The notion of the essay as experiment originates in the quote from Bense at the beginning of this thesis. “He writes essayistically who writes while experimenting (…)”130. Testing and experimenting are crucial elements in the essay. It is essential to add related phenomena and experiences to the equation. It is the constant process of writing and reflecting which is central to the procedure, not finding a testable or repeatable result. In German the word Versuch denotes both experiment and essay (as well as attempt, trial, test, effort, bid, shot, stab, go). This brings us to the German writer Johan W. von Goethe (1749-1832) who wrote “Der Versuch als Vermitler von Objekt und Subjekt”, published in 1729. In it, he puts the attempt (the experiment and essay) as mediator of object and subject. It can be said that Goethe deploys essayistic experiments. Apart from being a writer, Goethe was an enthusiastic scientist, although he is considered by some as being a pseudo-scientist because of his background in art, and because of his methods, which were considered unconventional at the time.


The end is in the beginning (Het einde is in het begin) by Emily Huurdeman

The core characteristics as found so far are in essence the thoughts from the perspective of an author engaging in an investigation of the object at hand, through, and with, the medium of text. Its core affiliation is with the act of testing and experimenting. The essay is placed between art and science as it deals with both theoretical and æsthetic content — its form and content are inherently connected. It adopts the freedom of art with luck, play, impulse and intuition, and the theoretical content of science, which creates an arena of intellectual experience. This makes the essay a hybrid form between literature and academic writing. The essay does not seek to explain but to present, and invites the reader to interpret. The essay deploys an un-methodological method. The objectives are not to deconstruct the object, but to investigate the elements which form it. These elements are presented in a constellation. Its structure is anti-systematic and constant forming. This constant forming comes from the continuous self-reflection and self-criticism of the author while writing. The constant reinterpretation follows a dialectical modus without ever coming to a synthesis. Because the essay is in the end never finished, it re-presents transitory thought.


CORE CHARACTERISTICS

In the paper “Adorno, Goethe, and the Politics of the Essay” Peter J. Burgard makes a comparative analysis between Adorno’s text “Der Essay als Form” and Goethe’s text. In this text Burgard specifically mentions the paronomastic use of the word Versuch by Goethe. Burgard says that Goethes text is both science and essay at the same time. Goethe’s text is an essay on science as essay: it is “essaying science”132. The essay as adjective to science implies it’s a way of doing science, and doing art as method.133 The un-methodological method, or the essayistic approach to science. The word Versuch simultaneously indicates and connotates both experiment and essay. The text from Goethe is in essence a Versuch about the Versuch. Burgard points out that Goethe’s text: “as a text, challenges the order, identity, coherence, certitude, and closure of systematic discourse”134 which are among the core characterizations of Adorno’s conception of the essay. The word Vermittler means mediator, so the experiment/essay acts as mediator between subject and object. 

To understand Goethe’s essayistic science, a short summery of his text:

According to Goethe we should not try to directly prove or confirm, a theory or hypothesis, through experiments. In addition he says that experiments do not prove anything, and claiming they do is potentially harmful. Just as every single experiment through which we reproduce an experience, every single experience is essentially, and by nature, an isolated piece of knowledge. On the other hand, the power of the human mind seeks to unite experiences with tremendous force. Because of the dominance of our teachings, our mind is constantly tempted into historically set frameworks. The experiment should break with pre-set theory and only mediate the subject and object — to try and create a situation in which the object can be newly seen.

While executing and documenting the experiment, the examination of bordering phenomena is equally important as looking at the object itself. In addition, the experiment should be carried out a number of times from a manifold of perspectives. According to Goethe, when an experience135 consists of a multitude of other experiences, it becomes an experience of a higher order. This multitude also consists of other people executing the experiments. Goethe insists on working together from individual points of view. Only if we unite a multitude of unique, but relatable, experiences, we can verify the experience to a certain level, and start to relate them in order to reach the experience of a higher order. Goethe says reminiscing and experience give depth to observations. In Goethe’s experiment the repeated testing and the depth of observation which is gained, does mount up to something. There is a skepticism towards truth claims on knowledge. Any permanent claims on knowledge or facts are considered harmful. This seems in line with Montaignes statement: “there is a plague, on Man: the opinion that he knows something”.136 Although Goethe aims his pen at the scientific community he is in, his writing and experiments do not obey the scientific rules. 

Goethe mainly focusses on scientific observations of natural phenomena like plants, and color. Montaigne’s investigation was of a personal nature; Adorno’s main focus is on concepts and cultural artifacts; Goethe conducts physical experiments. But they all have a similar strategy at hand. Goethe places significant emphasis on the observer’s perception and experience, as well as on the environment surrounding an object. The object is not just the flower but the stern and the roots, the environment — even things like temperature are taken into account. In Goethe’s view every single experiment is isolated from the other, never repeatable in exact the same way. The procedure of Goethe’s experiments is to meticulously write down everything seen and experienced; everything which is associated with, and which happens in the proximity of the object, without drawing conclusions. In this is way the information will be as complete as possible and will always be open to interpretation. Through the accumulation of the non-reducted (and manifold) experiences, the object is formed. In consequence, there are no pre-set rules or methods, nor any conclusions, to the experiment.

Burgard writes that his paper mainly consists of an analysis of the self-reflective performances that “Der Essay als Form” and “Der Versuch als Vermittler” as texts convey. The performative element is in the notion of “what they do — in their texts — is doing what they talk about”.137 They both combine art and science, form and content, but they both use different mediators to mediate their thoughts. This guides us to the next part where I link the essay and performance.

GOETHE, THE EXPERIMENT AND ESSAYISITC SCIENCE 

Shaving of the ram (Het scheren van de ram) by Emily Huurdeman

 

On consideration and re-consideration (Overweging en heroverweging) by Emily Huurdeman

THE ESSAYISTIC PERFORMANCE 

In the closing paragraph of the part 2 I mentioned that Peter J. Burgard describes Adorno’s essay and Goethe’s essay as “doing what they talk about”142. Burgard aims at the meta-level of the texts: they do not just explain something, but they are doing what they are talking about while they talk about it. Burgard calls this merging of word and action a “performance of paradox”143. The paradoxes are acted out in the text instead of simply being stated or explained. This continuous dialectical mode materializes thought, the transitory thoughts are made static through materialization in words. As Adorno formulates: “the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal.”144 Anders Johanssonemphasizes the dialectical relationship between subject and object on a material level: “thinking has to hold on to the material” and “the interpretation is connected to the work on a more profound or, rather, more material level.”145 This materiality is evident in the focus on the object of investigation. Through the materiality of the essay, thoughts are expressed in writing. In this way the essay is trying to grasp thought. Writing and reflecting together enter the dialectical process.

Anders Johansen says that the essay’s attitude of constant self-reflection and over-interpretation is a performative act: “The essay starts performing its own gestures, presenting its own enigmas, its own images”.146 These gestures are performed in the course of writing. Peter Uwe Holedahl says in reference to Adorno’s essay: “Adorno’s essay on the essay — a performative salto mortale (risky, or dangerous undertaking) — must be taken very seriously.”147 Uwe Hohendal adds that the essay is a “performative act of writing regardless of the audience.”148 The essay does not concern itself with the audience, the essay is not didactical. Montaigne makes a similar statement in his introduction: “I have no respect or consideration at all, either to thy (the reader) service, or to my glory (…) for it is myselfe I pourtray (…) myselfe am the groundworke of my booke”.149 Screech justly adds that Montaigne’s words are not to be mistaken for being egotistical or narcissistic — by investigating one man Montaigne aims to investigate all Man. Here, the personal becomes the universal. This also aligns with Goethe’s “experience of a higher order”150. This experience can be achieved by accumulating a multitude of unique experiences, or: a collective individuality. These multitude of experiences are necessary because circumstances are ever-changing — one must constantly test, reflect, and criticize. Montaigne relates to the ever-changing nature of things: “no creature ever is: a creature is always shifting, changing, becoming”151. Because the momentary and the process are emphasized, the essay makes a continuous act of in-forming through which it becomes performative. The essay could be considered as inherently contemporary, because it always reflects from its current moment.


Sarah Pourciau says that Adorno is “performatively demonstrating”152 equivocations, he uses this technique to evoke a possible shift in meaning of the words he uses. This results in the enigmatic character of the essay. Anders Johansson points out the essay’s enigmatic character in relation to art. As I appreciate this striking analysis very much, I will insert a full length quotation:


“As Adorno states (in his Aesthetic Theory) art is a privileged form of expression, in the sense that it is a vehicle of truth (…) This truth is not immediately accessible (…) the artwork is a riddle in a strict sense: it potentially contains its own solution. The riddle character is a call for a solution, a demand that the interpretation should reveal the foundation of the enigma. The artwork and the interpretation, the riddle and the solution, do not form a symbiotic relationship; the riddle is not made to be solved, and the interpretation is not the perfect tool for solving the puzzle. On the contrary, from Adorno’s perspective the interpreter is bound to fail. In other words, the interpretation is characterized by a fundamental insufficiency. The non-identity and the truth content of the artwork demands interpretation, theoretical reflection, critique”.153


Anders Johansson ends with the same solution as Adorno does: “All one can do is guess, (…) the persistence in the face of the enigma means that one does not give up, in spite of the insolubility of the enigma.”154 In the essay, the words, as well as the object, are returned their enigmatic character. This makes room for interpretations, and requires an active attitude from the reader towards the text, which invites multiple readings. The essay presents a configuration of elements (membra disjecta (scattered fragments) or random jointings as pieces of a puzzle which are not meant to be solved. Silvia Specht arguments that: “Adorno’s concentration on “configuration” and “manner of presentation” renders the essay at least analogous to art.”155 Also, the arrangement of the text, its sub-textual content, and æsthetic presentation which makes the essay analogous to art.156 The intention of self-expression, the enigmatic character, and its presented form, all find their source in inherent freedom that the essay allows in its investigation of the object at hand. This freedom could be perceived as autonomous attitude, as the artist is autonomous.


As argumented in the paragraph ‘The essay as noun and verb’ of part 2, the essay could be considered as a nongenre157. The essay is quintessentially eclectic and emphasizes the individual. It does not conform to any form, not even its own. If the essay is acepted as a nongenre, we enter the discussion of post-genre. The post-genre qualities of the essay link directly into questions of post-structuralism and post-essentialism. When the essay is thought of in these terms, its form of expression can be thought of as post-medium. But free from medium does not allow an anything-goes-mentality. The exact opposite is true: we should be even more critical of the form, the materiality.We must at any point be conscious of, and reflect on our choices of style, of medium, and of form. Because the object is always at the center of attention as it allows complete freedom in the manner of investigation and association. In this line of thought, art nowadays can be considered as post-medium. The lines between disciplines are fading, and multimedia works are common. If we apply this to the essay the medium becomes a conceptual choice — a choice to reflect upon at every moment. But in labeling the essay in all these non- and post- prefixes, maybe it isn’t even a post-genre or post-medium, but with medium and with form. Because its form and content are inherently connected, the content needs to be read in view of its form — its thoughts read through its materialization. And for this materialization, performance can be a logical medium.


PART 3 THE ESSAY AND PERFORMANCE

Why do theorists call the essay performative, and which aspects of the essay are considered performative? The OED’s definition of performance as noun is: “the doing of an action or operation” and “something performed or done; an action, act, deed, or operation”.138 Performance is a combination of: per- meaning “through, throughout” 139 and -form: “-like, -shaped” 140 Form, as used by Adorno in the title of “The essay as Form”, refers to the forming of thoughts: the essay in-forming141 


The OED defines performance as verb as: “to carry out”. Earlier we have established the definition of essay as attempt. When we combine the definitions of performance and essay it reads: to carry out an attempt. The dictionary suggests they both carry an element of act. This helps us to understand why the essay can be perceived as performative. When we connect performance and the essay we have to define a certain way of acting out. But first, I briefly discuss the performative essay, and the essayistic science of Artistic Research.


THE ESSAYISTIC SCIENCE OF ARTISTIC RESEARCH 

As mentioned before the essay balances between art and science, but why exactly? Historically, science and art have been separated — nowadays there is a clear distinction between the two realms. Science needs to articulate its sources as well as its relevance, and its context, and it must provide clear argumentation. Furthermore, it is strictly bound to academic and ethical rules. Art is not constraint by these rules, it can be free in its acts an motives, its sources can be eclectic and they don’t have to be revealed. Maybe this is the only difference between art and Artistic Research: the artistic researcher has to reveal its sources, motivations, and work process. Adorno says the essay is neither scientific nor artistic: “instead of achieving something scientifically, or creating something artistically, the effort of the essay reflects a childlike freedom that catches fire, without scruple, on what others have already done”.158 The essay adopts the freedom of interpretation and the emphasis on the importance of presentation (æsthetics), from art. The way content is presented says something about how we must to read it. John Snyder describes: “the essay (…) becomes pure essayism, the “arts” of metaphysics, ethics, and even science as they can be “played” by (self-reflective159 discursivity.”160 Science can be essayed but that doesn’t make art science, or science artistic. If science follows different rules as art, what would happen if science follows the artistic un-rules of the essay? Then we get an essayistic science like Goethe: a freedom of experimentation that doesn’t want to find confirmation but truly tests the object of investigation, and tries to find connections and reactions. The aim is not to make science out of art or art out of science, but to let the different modes interact with each other. The initial intent of the essayistic science is not to justify, to conclude or proof anything, but to find. 


If the essay can be considered as a free form of science (essayistic science), maybe Artistic Research could use the essay as an approach (or a way of) making artistic works. The artistic researcher approaches the object(s) of investigation essayistically. The aim of the institutionalized field of Artistic Research is to combine the scientific and the artistic. Though we can not make art of science or vice versa, both the essay and Artistic Research are in the borderland between these two realms. The relatively new field of Artistic Research could thus be a place where art and science may come closer together, and where the essay might reach its full potential. It could break with the notion of assumed organized and rational science, and the romanticized irrational art. This artistic researcher chooses the object of investigation freely and attempts to find different ways of viewing the investigated object. It ignores the need for structured and linear investigation, as well as the manner of investigation and presentation. It refuses to deduct and explain which leaves room for interpretation. The investigation goes hand in hand with its form of presentation where the conceptual, the visual, and the æsthetic, have an essential role. Both theory and experience are incorporated as equal partnerswhich follow a train of thought. The approach allows for playful and impulsive elements, lets experience enter, but also keeps a firm grip on the theoretical. Its attitude is relentless and focused, and it does not regard the audience. At every moment it should reflect on, as well as criticize, itself.


Tension field (Spanningsveld) by Emily Huurdeman

THE PERFORMATIVE ESSAY 

The essay is used in visual arts like film and photography. Why use performance? It seems salient to say that if the essay is in essence performative, performance can be essayistic. But I research artistic performance from the perspective of artistic researcher. So how could performance art be essayistic? First, because conceptually speaking it is a logical medium for the essay as the act is central in the essay as performance. Second, because performance has the ability to adopt many different art media, just like the essay it could be considered post-medium (or with medium). And finally, as a performance artist I feel a strong affiliation with the essay form and I wanted to investigate the essay as an approach for performative works.


Performance

In theater and in literary gatherings, people have always performed music, poetry, and literature. As texts have a long history of being performed I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider performing essays in a similar vein. But this research is not about performing essays but about essayistic performance. The performative should not just be a materialization, illustration, or verbalization of the essay text. Only if the performed adds to the content of the text and works with the text it can be considered as essayistic performance. In these performances the artistic act and gesture adds to the content. For gesture I use the following definition: “a movement of the body or a part of it, intended to express a thought or feeling” from the root word gerere “to carry on, wage, perform”.161 This act does not exclude auditive, verbal, and lingual aspects but as the action takes a central role, these elements shouldn’t be the most dominant aspect. When talking about performance in relation to science there is the example of the lecture-performance. With university lectures getting widely accessible through the internet, and with the rise of infotainment (where entertainment and information meet), these types of lectures are gaining popularity. But the notion of lecturing is absolutely contradictory to the idea of the essay. However, there are examples of artistic lecture performances where the idea of knowledge transfer can align with an essayistic approach.


Performance art is a relatively new medium, it could be considered live art. The big mark in twentieth-century performance art was the publication of the Futurist Manifesto on 20 February 1909. Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Happenings and Fluxus concerts, but also 1920s declamations could be considered forerunners of performance art.162 In the seventies performance art became more common, but with a more radical and anarchistic tone.163 One example is the performance piece by Chris Burden titled: “Shoot”164 from 1971. This was also in the year that the word performance art entered the dictionary.165 In the sixties performance art expanded beyond the realm of visual arts, to be adopted by musicians, composers, poets, and film makers. Performance art is in essence multidisciplinary — easily adopting and combining a vast verity of art forms and mediums. For instance: the lecture performance; the musical performance; the theatrical performance; the dance performance; performative installation; video performance; and new media performance like computer-aided performances. This list could potentially expand, even painting can be performance. And I am not referring to action-painting, where the action is just the method to the work, but where the painting itself is the work. For instance: a performance like Navid Nuur’s work from 2013 ‘Voice Over (Voice)’166: two artists enter a conversation together, the painter reacts on the voice, and the voice reacts on the painted. The work consists of oil on canvas, 350 x 200 cm, video, amplifier, studio tables. The work is not just the painting but the whole setting of performance. If the action (or: process of making) is both the central aspect and the aim of the work it could be considered performative. Performance also transcends disciplines and acts with medium. It is the act as artwork.


Essayistic performance

Now that the relevance of using an essayistic approach for performance art is established, I investigate how performance could be essayistic. In the first paragraph of this part I highlighted the lingual connection between essay and performance in the act, but a specific type of act, namely the essayistic act, has to be specified. First, I link the characteristics of the essay to performance, and then I discuss a couple examples of performative art works that hold essayistic elements.


The essayistic performance is an act that approaches an object of investigation essayistically, be it a cultural artifact, a natural phenomenon, a concept, an event. Apart from an approach in figurative sense, performance could also approach the object literally: by weighing, by testing, by experimenting, by touching. Or perhaps even in actions like demolishing, repairing, mending, climbing, lifting. The performer works with the elements and materials at hand. The act of the performer is immanently individual and experiential because the point of departure is that of the performer, comparable to the author in the essay. But where text is the medium of the essay, the performer (through the performed) is the medium. The act of the performer can also be indirectly, through a performative installation or an online performance. The performer can even be present through the act of filming, perhaps by the movement of the camera, through shadows and reflection of the performer, or by hearing the performer’s breath. Video performance — not as documented performance but as performance intended to be presented on a screen — can make the transitory performance material, as thought process in the essay is materialized by text. But the material can also be the residue the performance, or an object in movement.


The performer follows the thought process as they are expressed. Process proceeds in time, a continuous way of doing something (“a continuous action, or series of actions or events”167). The performer can reflect in the process of performing. There is a direct relation between the reflective and the active, embodying the self-reflective attitude of the essay. While performing, the performer can incorporate luck, play, and intuition — to improvise. But, this improvisation is not to be misunderstood for automatic or sub-conscious actings. Because, when allowing impulses or spontaneous acts, we need to reflect on those. As Adorno said: “it (the essay) does not proceed automatically, blindly”. Even the essential bodily reactions need to be reflected upon. Because the essay wants to push something beyond its initial status, and it constantly reflects on its status. The essayistic performance can also revisit and reform the performance in a series of attempts or reinterpretations. Contrary to the classical idea of performance, as an exclusive one-time event for a crowd, and emphasizing the unicity of the performed, there is a vast conceptual potential in the repetition of performances. These can incorporate the elements of self-reflection. the performances can be acted out by re-interpretation and re-forming of the works.


Performance and theory

There are ways of incorporating theory and investigating an object, for instance through lectures. As I mentioned in the beginning of this part, there are performative lectures that do incorporate the performative and the essayistic — where the performer is doing what he or she is talking about, and not just talking about it. Line Kakknayer names the 2-13 piece ‘Case no. 05CR498: From no one to someone’ an “essayistic performance”168. One could say that she is performing an essay but to name her performance essayistic is another question. She reads her essay and combines it with the pictures from her research on the background. Is this enough to be performative? Let alone be essayistic? In this case, the form does not work with the content but it merely illustrates it. Because there is not just image to work with there is the gesture and the act. (Just as in film where it is not just the shots that give us information but also the editing, the angle, and the speed.) So where is the gesture in this lecture? There is no convincing one to be found: if her voice was a recording it would not change the work in a meaningful way. ‘Case no. 05CR498: From no one to someone’ is not an essayistic performance but it is a good example of performing an essay, because it seems like the only essayistic element in the performance is the text she reads. In a lecture performance by Robin Deacon named ‘White Balance: A History of Video’169 from 2015, there are a lot of essayistic elements. In this lecture performance there are two screens; a video; the performer; a text; a camera, and objects. All these elements play a roll in conveying the content. Deacon makes use of image repetition. He also merges and divides the attention of the viewer between the different elements and objects: from his face on the screen to video’s on the other, a white piece of paper between him and the camera. These elements are all in coordination with each other and the performer handles them and plays with them. This constellation conveys an essayistic gesture, a playful, yet focussed attention between all the shifts that the constellation makes. 


Performance and attempting

In performance the here and now is evident, conceptually bound to the medium. The performance resolves as it progresses in time, one can document it but never redo it in exactly the same way. One can only revisit and reform the performed. Exactly become of these characteristics, performance could function very well as an embodiment of the effortless attempts that the essay aspires. A good example of incorporating this might be the work of Dina Danish’s (1981, Egypt/France)170. Her performances consent try-outs. She is not looking for an improvement or the controlling of a practice, it is the sincere attempt and the struggle that she wants to convey. In one work (‘Competing with a Computerized Tongue-Twister’171) she attempts literally. In this video the artist competes with a computer, repeating a sentence that is formidably difficult to pronounce in a language which is not her first. You hear the computer repeating the sentence over and over and you see the artist trying to catch up and improve herself. In this video, the juxtaposition of a person and a machine competing might be interesting to relate to an essayistic approach. The perpetual attempt without the illusion of ever reaching the end goal. 


Emphatic communication (Empatische communicatie) by Emily Huurdeman

Gazing at the stars by Emily Huurdeman

In potentia

to follow the brush

anapproach

procedure

adjective

characteristics

 

hybrid

hyper-mediated

hyper-personal 

self-critical

self-testing

self-reflective

constant inner dialogue

observers perception

working together 

 

personal touch

personally colored

own augmentation

individual points

highly individual 

universal

authorial voice

 

doubt 

reflect

skepticism

all one can do is guess

 

accidental philosopher

melancolic stoic

 

ideas

pictures

poems

lists

snatches 

conversations

remarks

notes

quotes 

anecdotes 

 

soul 

spirit

transcend the here and now

 

intuitively 

impulsively

experience 

spontaneity 

luck

play 

emotion

feelings 

desires 

childlike pleasure

mode of experience

 

intellectual experience

theory 

science 

ratio 

content  

concept 

 

mega-level

meta-essay 

over-interpretation

post-medium

post-genre

para-text

sub-textual

re-writing

re-interpreting

extended edits

 

multitude

manifold

multiplicity

series of attempts 

reinterpretations

continuous

cumulating

eclectic

process

 

inconsistent

insolubility

 

undefinable

unclassifiable 

under theorized

un-methodological

 

non-fictional

non-logical

non-linear

non-reductively

non-identity

non-genre

non-didactical 

non-authorial

non-conformatie

 

anti-systematic

 

no conclusion

no respect

no consideration

 

borderfield 

bordering phenomena 

to drive beyond itself 

to break free

escape the narrative 

escape constraints

 

penetrating deeply 

fragile position

 

to grasp 

to comprehend

to interpret

 

configuration

manner of presentation

inherently connected

loosely connected 

random jointings

"membra disjecta” 

scattered fragments 

fragments 

assumed organized

disconnect 

elements

 

thinking as gesture 

recorded thoughts

train of thought

critical thinking

 

dialectic mode

the art of conversation

the art of reasoning 

reasoning by opposites

question and answer 

disputation 

thesis

antithesis 

synthesis 

the totality of non-totality

more dialectical than dialectics

paradox

contradictions

juxtapositions

dual character

 

art and theory

doing art 

doing science 

certain artfulness

forms and themes

contend and form

rational science 

irrational art

romanticized art

artfully disordered 

highly polished

 

environment 

grounded

the flower

the root

the stern

temperature

nature and culture

Versuch

grew into it

 

act of

acting 

actions 

reactions

presenting 

demonstrating

doing what you talk about

regardless of audience

salto mortale

gestures

 

transformed

durational

movement

momentary

temporality

shifting

changing

becoming

transition

enigmatic

repetition

ephemeral

transend 

equivocating

liquidation of opinion


RANDOM JOINTINGS

CONCLUSION

The essay and performance don’t fit the neat definitional boxes of genres and disciplines. Transcending assumed borders, they expand beyond the safety of the known which leads us to new pathways. We should always keep in mind that the essay and performance are shaping and shifting forms, always reflecting, re-forming, in-forming and experimenting. Because they both have an inherent authorial, momentary, and process oriented active attitude, they fit so well together. In essence, performance is the live act of an artist; the essay is an attempt. The essay has an affiliation with the artistic as well. It drifts in-between the theoretical and the artistic, the intellectual and the experiential, the rational and the irrational. An un-methodological method, both free and fixed at the same time. In this research I did neither aim to define a categorizable genre of the essay nor of the essayistic performance. I did attempt to describe the essayistic approach and to formulate the characteristic elements which can depict an essayistic performance. I spent a large part on laying out the framework of the research: nearly a quarter of the text consists of explaining the contextualization and boundaries. Roughly half the thesis was spent on historical contextualization, in which I investigated the origin of the essay and the theorizations, and conducted an extensive etymological and definitional investigation. In hindsight it seems a lot but given the notorious definitional difficulties of the essay it gave me a firm foundation to depart form. The rest of the thesis was spent on answering the research question at hand. While finishing the last part new questions emerged.


How could the idea of essayistic science in relation to Artistic Research be formulated? I described a theoretical relation between the essay and Artistic Research, but how could it be formulated as an actual workable method? This lead me to question how the essayistic experiment relates to Artistic Research and experimental systems as theorized by Rheinberger and Schwab? Another question that remains untouched is how gesture relates to the essay and the body. I confined myself to using a dictionary definition of the word gesture, but there is a lot more to be said and to be read on this subject — especially in relation Montaigne’s note: “what I can not express, I point at with my finger”.

 

I also wonder if my video-installation is an example of essayistic performance. Do I test? Do I experiment? I do think it is an example of Artistic Research with an essayistic approach and I do think the video’s hold essaysisitc elements , just as described in the last part of the research. There is the testing, the attempting, the experimenting, but it also contains characteristics like the equivocation of text, dialectical paradoxes, fragmentation, fragility, and enigmatic content. But is it theoretical? The content of this research is combined with the visual content in the online version. Is it self-reflective? The works do reflect on my position towards my object of investigation: the essay. I do think the video’s show my position, and point of view.


Did I answer whether the essay is performative and whether performance can be essayistic? It did become clear that the essay is performative in its dialectical process and in it’s manner of presentation. But can performance be essayistic? I mentioned in the first part of the research that the practical examples of performances are not meant to be examples of essayistic performances but they do hold essayistic characteristics.


But are these essayistic performances? I think they are. To me the installation as a whole is performative. The performances can’t be disconnected from each other — the connections aren’t explicit, but implicit. Is provides a constellation of elements, random jointings, scattered fragments.


As I’ve said before: I wasn’t looking for the perfect example of an essayistic performances. What I found is an inherent connection of the essay and performance, and the possibility of the essay as an approach to performance — an approach that can be as diverse in expression as the essay is diverse in it’s form. Just as difficult as it is to define texts as essays, it will be equally difficult to define essayistic performances. Instead of focussing on the materialization we could focus on essayists. Writing essayists, photographing essayists, fiming essayists, experimenting essayists, scientific essayists, or a combination of them in the performing essayist. The essayistic performance as form with content, conceptually bound.

Performance and text

Performance can act out (and document) the moment of writing. Literally following the train of thought, including the hesitations of the performer, the breathing, the correcting. These elements all add to the concept and objectives of the essay. Making it not just about the the content of the writing visible, but the manner in which it is written down, also if we can’t even see the actual words that are written down. The central aspect is about the act or attempt of expressing, of communicating. Whether it is the inability to write, like the piece ‘La Pluie’172 from Marcel Broodthærs (1924-1976 Belgium poet, filmmaker, artist), where the ink is faded by the rain before it can ever attach to the paper. Or following the hand of the writing artist in the beautiful work ‘Water Written Secrets’173 by Jannie Regnareus (1971 Dutch artist and novelist). In this piece by Regareus, you see the image of her, walking backward on a bicycle path with a bucket of water and a brush in her hand. She’s writing her thoughts in water while the hot sun vaporizes the words at the same time. This paradoxical action fits the essay perfectly. The process of writing can be seen as an action, as a (performative) gesture, a performance of paradox. Because, it follows the thoughts while at the same time undermining them in the process. We see the brush stroking by the hand of the author, the conveyed message is not by the writing per se, but by the act, the gesture of writing in a particular setting.

Performance and experimenting

Science and art are merging more and more, like for instance Bio art that combines art with biotechnology. Residencies for artists in laboratories like the Swiss ‘Artist in Labs’174 and the Australian ‘SymbioticA’175 are perfect examples, but also open-lab spaces like the Dutch Waag Society ‘Wet-lab’176 and the ‘Biohack Academy’177 are places where science and art merge. There are a number of performative experiments that question science and knowledge and our relation of subject and object, of human and nature. Take, for instance, the 2011 performance ‘May the horse live in me’178 by French artist duo Art Orienté Objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin). Where the artist injects the blood of a horse. This is an experiment that would not be an experiment in the domain of science in the first place but it does question science and the relation of man and animals, to gesturally create a centaur. The freedom of the artist is to be able to go beyond the borders of the known, and the allowed. The artist is solely responsible for its actions, we perceive the work by the experience of the artist. As we experience the worlds through the mind of the essayist, by truly and freely experimenting. But what exactly makes the experiment essayistic? It is a way of approaching the object of investigation with an open attitude, taking new positions, questioning. It is not the end result that matters, but the process and what is gained, the insights gained. Self-reflective, self-critical but also with also luck, play and doubt. If the elements are presented as a constellation, maybe the installation can function as a constellation. A performative installation that carries out the experiments, that is connected to theory as well as art. Like the performative installations of Adam Brown for example the ‘Origins of life experiment’179 from 2010, this experiment is based on the experiments of Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. Still these do not necessarily question the objects of investigation, it is rather a reinterpretation. But the way and the place where the experiment is executed does give a new perspective.

Compilation video of exhibition PER-FORM at Paleis van Mieris

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