Review – Performance Apophatics (John Matthew Allison)

Claire Maria Chambers. Performance Studies and Negative Epistemology: Performance Apophatics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Hardback. 301 pages.

Performance Studies and Negative Epistemology: Performance Apophatics (hereafter Performance Studies) is a book about the limits of knowledge. Drawing upon a variety of fields – including performance studies, Christian negative theology, and assorted schools of Continental philosophy – Claire Chambers covers a wide variety of topics, including: the relationship between the Continental philosophy of religion and negative theology (ch. 2); the politics and philosophy of intercultural performance (ch. 3); the nature of archives and the life of Reverend Doctor Florence Li Tim-Oi (ch. 4); a dual Heideggerian-Kierkegaardian mediation of the work of James Baldwin in conjunction with Afropessimist theory (ch. 5); icon writing and the apophatic performativity of objects (ch. 6); learned ignorance in Hindegard of Bingen and Bruno Latour (ch. 7); and an afterwards on “Post-Truth” in relationship to the idea of performance apophatics as a whole.

The initial premise of Performance Studies is that “how humanity has talked about the gods or God throughout the history of Western culture has influenced, and still influences, how we talk about everything else” (1-2). The second premise is that “when we speak about God, the divine, or the absolute in any form, we absolutely do not know what we are talking about” (2). From these two premises, Chambers makes two inferences – both that “when we speak we always speak through what we do not know” and “when we perform, we also speak through what we do not know.” In conclusion, Chambers asserts, then, that “performance is a kind of negative knowledge, a negative epistemology” (ibid.).

While the exact connections between these various propositions are never quite fully made explicit by Chambers – and the apparent equivocation here between negative knowledge and negative epistemology is initially confusing – the basic idea here seems to be that is fruitful to draw on negative theological resources to illuminate the negative and constructed nature of performance given that performance studies in the West developed alongside negative theology (14), and that both disciplines concern the experience and interpretation of limits.

More specifically, Chambers here offers a theory of performance as a kind of response to, and expression of, the limits of knowledge. For Chambers, performance signifies constructedness, that is, the process by which reality comes into being. And in Performance Studies, she therefore not only writes about “performance apophatics” but moreover writes in a performatively apophatic way – as is characteristic of so much of post-Heideggerian philosophy.

Chambers defines performance apophatics in terms of the operation of “denying denial” or “negating negation” (see ch. 2). The idea here seems to be that negating negation refers to the operation by which one recognizes both that there are limits to positive, which make knowledge negative, and that knowledge of these limits is itself not a positive form of knowledge (cf. 22). In this sense, Chambers is interested in the performative acknowledgment of the limits of knowledge, but in such a way that self-reflexive knowledge of the limits of knowledge is not mistaken for knowledge of the unknown itself.[i]

Even though Chambers does not put things in this way, we might say – drawing on post-Gödelian language – that performance apophatics signifies the formal incompleteness of knowledge as such, as opposed to any presupposition that both a consistent and complete knowledge of reality as a whole can be obtained.[ii] In this light, performance constitutes a form of negative epistemology – and not just negative knowledge – precisely insofar as it operates from a properly transcendental, self-reflexive form of knowledge, that is, knowledge that is aware of its own constructedness and incompleteness. As Chambers writes, the “negation of negation is an operation that participates in the strategies by which non-knowing knows itself” (9; emphasis original).

Chambers attempt to formulate performance as a form of self-reflexive thought and expression is one of the book’s strengths, and makes a contribution to wider conversations in the Continental theorization of performativity. However, I must admit that I remain unclear exactly how her limitology – which is the theoretical lynchpin of her account of performativity – is supposed to operate.

Chambers draws primarily on Denys Turner’s important work on negative theology to develop her account of negating negation.[iii] In the Christian Neoplatonic mystical tradition, the incompleteness of human knowledge is grounded in the infinity of God. In this tradition, knowledge of God in God’s transcendence is not possible because God is identified with Being as such, which cannot become an object of thought. How this explicitly theological rationale for the incompleteness of knowledge relates exactly to other forms of epistemic incompleteness that Chambers explores (for instance, in terms of interculturalism, the archived dead, blackness, and icons) is never quite made clear. Of course, drawing analogies between disparate fields of discourse can be informative. But sometimes Performance Studies feels like it moves too quickly in this regard, and that the differences between various formulations of limits in philosophy, theology, politics, and performance studies become lost in a “jargon of finitude.”[iv]

This brings me to my another grievance with the book, namely, its lack of methodological clarity. There is nothing wrong with methodological pluralism, and there are, of course, close genealogical and thematic connections between the various schools of Continental philosophy and theology that Chambers draws upon in Performance Studies (such as phenomenology, post-phenomenology, deconstructionism, new feminist materialism, process theology, Actor Network Theory, and Object Oriented Ontology). But precisely because these schools of thought share so much, it becomes all the more imperative to make more nuanced distinctions between them. Unfortunately, this does not happen in this volume.

Furthermore, while “performance” is a concept with seemingly endless applications, Chambers seems to have cast such a wide theoretical net in this book that she loses thematic focus. Many of the chapters of Performance Studies – interesting in their own right – feel like they could have benefitted from further development as stand-alone journal publications rather than being put together in this volume.

In closing, I would reiterate  that Performance Studies has its strengths, such as Chambers’ formulation of the relationship between negativity and performance. And while one appreciates that any attempt to investigate the limits of knowledge and expression is – to say the least – an inevitably messy undertaking, there is a difference between a messy mess and a tidy mess. It is unfortunately to the former category that I must assign this book.

John Matthew Allison is an independent researcher who is currently interested in the intercultural philosophy of religion, technology and religion, and the study of mysticism. His work has been published in Labyrinth: An International Journal for Philosophy, Value, Theory, Sociocultural Hermeneutics, The Journal for Comparative Theology, and Reading Religion.


[i] Even though Chambers does not explicitly set herself against Hegel here, her claim that self-reflexive knowledge of the negative nature of knowledge may be helpfully understood in direct contrast to a Hegelian account of the dialectical unfolding of epistemic progress.

[ii] This presupposition may be identified as generally that of what Heidegger identified as “ontotheology.” On the relationship between post-ontotheological performativity and formal incompleteness, see my forthcoming essay, “Religious Pluralism within the Limits of Reason,” in Labyrinth: An International Journal for Philosophy, Value Theory and Sociocultural Hermeneutics 20/1 (2018).

[iii] See Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[iv] This phrase comes from Bruno Bosteels’ recent book, Philosophies of Defeat: the Jargon of Finitude (London and New York: Verso Books, 2018), which he applies to such stock Continental terms as “the other,” “difference,” etc.

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