October 8, 2013 — Todd Madigan

Perfect Fools: Sanctity, Madness, and the Theory of Ambiguous Performance

Cultural pragmatics views social interaction as the effort of actors to convey the meaning of their social situation to others. From this theoretical perspective, we are all continuously engaged in performances designed to convince our audiences that we really are the characters we portray. This theory has until now relied on a single understanding of performance, one through which an actor communicates a solitary, monosemous role to her intended audience. But the hammer of such a limited understanding makes every performance look like a nail. Accordingly, I develop the concept of an ambiguous performance—a performance that projects a single role to its audience, but a role that is multistable. Such a performance comprises essential elements of incompatible roles, but so unifies them as to form a single persona. The audience is then compelled to choose between these incompatible elements when interpreting the meaning of the persona, inevitably basing their selection not on the actor’s social situation, but on their own.
Once the concept of ambiguous performance is delineated, I apply it to the performance of holy fools, a centuries-old category of Christian saint that exemplifies the need for such a concept. After this, I suggest that unitary and ambiguous performances actually form the poles of a performance continuum, and I point toward other sorts of performances that might be better understood using the ambiguous end of this performance continuum.

Please join us in Rm 208 of the Whitney Humanities Center from 1-2pm for this presentation.

A light, catered lunch will be provided.