Performances, Structures and Eugene Halton #sssi #sociology

Below you’ll see Robert Perinbanayagam’s response to Eugene Halton’s review of his book “Identity’s Moments: The Self in Action and Interaction“. If you have read Robert’s book and/or Eugene’s review please do add your comments below. 

Dirk (@dirkvl)


It must be; it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act, and an act hath three branches—it is to act, to do, and to perform; she drowned herself wittingly. (The gravedigger in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, commenting on Ophelia’s suicide) 1

When I opened the journal and saw that Eugene Halton had been assigned to review my book – Identity’s Moments — I was truly elated that such a distinguished Peircian would consent to take up my work for comment (Symbolic Interaction: 38:3: 455-457). I was however sorely disappointed by his rather perfunctory essay. Halton makes three major criticisms of my work that merits a response insofar as it goes to the heart of any study of the everyday conduct of human agents.

He observes, citing one of my endnotes:

Perinbanayagam cites philosopher Bruce Wilshire’s critique of the dramaturgical approach as not realizing the difference between literal “on stage” acting and offstage ‘role-playing’. Wilshire says, “We are our ‘roles’, but we are not just or roles, a point with which Perinbanayagam disagrees, claiming that humans are always in the ‘performative mode’ and that there is no such thing as ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’ conduct…” Surely, as Halton states, “Humans are capable of being more than performing puppets, enacting a script however scripted their lives become. Human conduct involves the capacity for spontaneity, for unscripted improvisation even to the point of being out of character” (2015:455).

The problem with this comment lies in the interpretation of the concept of “performance”. There’s nothing in the meaning of this word that denies the capacity of human agents to be “spontaneous” or for “improvisation” and for acting “out of character” — whatever that means — and there is no implication that human beings are “puppets” playing out predesigned “scripts”. A consultation with a dictionary would have clarified the matter. The Oxford English dictionary notes that the verb ‘perform’ denotes: “carry out, accomplish, and fulfill an action, task or function”. In everyday life then human agents are accomplishing an action or fulfilling tasks, whatever they happen to be doing, on an ongoing basis, whether they are ‘playing a role’ or acting spontaneously, whether they are doing so in the company of others or all by himself or herself. The self in action and interaction, the self in the performative mode, is then a description of the ontological state of the human agent, as well as, for that matter, all living creatures as performers of acts. Suzanne Langer put this very well:

The act concept is a fecund and elastic concept. It applies to natural events, of a special form, which is widely represented on the surface of the earth…a form characteristic of living things, though not absolutely peculiar to them…They normally show a phase of acceleration, or intensification of a distinguishable dynamic pattern, then reach a point at which the pattern changes, whereupon the movement subsides. That point of general change is the consummation of the act (1967: 261).

She continues:

In the study of behavior this is, of course, obvious enough; in watching a creature’s behavior we quite indubitably see one act after another begun, carried out or miscarried, and ended, sometime by completion and return to quiescence, sometimes by the rise of another act (1967:264).

Some of the commentators on acts, performances and roles cite Jacques’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like it as precursor of dramaturgical social psychology. The characters that Jacques was describing in his famous soliloquy do have their exits and entrances but ones that they enter into as a succession of roles through a lifetime and exit from one to another until death. Shakespeare begins with: “And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages”. Shakespeare then describes the stages through which a man passes as he matures into manhood and old-age: first there is the “infant, mewling and puking…” Then, “there’s the whining school boy with his satchel…” This is followed by “the lover sighing like a furnace” and “with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’s eyebrows” — of all things. He then becomes a soldier seeking honor and “the bubble reputation”. Then he becomes a “justice” “with a round belly”. In the sixth stage he shifts into “slippered pantaloons” and so on to the seventh stage: “the last scene of all that ends this strange eventful history is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (Act II; Scene vii).
This statement about the drama in life is different from the one that the dramaturgical or the dramatistic position posits. In fact Shakespeare’s position is an early version of the functionalist theory of roles — making him an early Parsonian! Indeed Shakespeare seems to have anticipated even Parsons’s conception of the “sick role” in old age. The theory of performances or acts posits moments of activity conducted in an ongoing basis by agents in defined situations to an immediate audience or to himself or herself all alone and not about the roles of a lifetime.

It is not then that dramaturgical social psychology draws its materials from “stages” and “theaters” and uses them metaphorically to explain everyday conduct; rather, it is the other way around: what goes on stages and theaters is a condensed and artful re-presentation of the acts and performances of everyday life. Kenneth Burke addresses this issue squarely – though it will not come as a stunning revelation to anyone who has ever seen a play:

Where does drama get its materials? From the “unending conversation” that is going on at the point in history when we are born… It is from this “unending conversation” (the vision at the heart of Mead’s work) that the materials of your drama arise (1973:110-111).

Long, long years earlier Aristotle expressed the same idea: poets and dramatists imitate – that is, metaphorize – the performances of ordinary people making such performances primary and the poetry and drama secondary. Aristotle wrote: “In fact some authorities maintain that that is why plays are called dramas, because the imitation is of men acting (drontas, from dron,”do” “act”)” (Else,Trans. 1970: 19).

I may add here that such “conversations” and “imitations” are conducted with words as well as with various other agencies – to use Kenneth Burke’s term—such as gestures, facial expressions, bodily postures, space, time, material objects etc.

Halton quotes Wilshire’s claims, “That we are not just our roles” (1982). What are we then when we are not our selves performing or acting out roles? Do we stop acting and become – what? Surely Wilshire and Halton are not appealing to a “soul” or an “inner essence” that transcends the present being and doing existence of an agent, an essence that that is extra social and perhaps even extraterrestrial, or perhaps a sort of ectoplasm? Rather, we are indeed our ‘roles’ and we slip from one role to another in a never-ending series of performances of doing drontas. To act is to be enrolled and to be enrolled is to act.

In fact we cannot escape the performative mode even when we are alone, and we do not go off stage, so to speak. To be “off-stage” is to be really backstage – as He said, What in fact is it to be alone– that is, without an audience to which to stage one’s performance? Is he or she wearing clothes when he or she is alone or is he or she naked? If he or she is clothed, what kind clothes has he or she chosen to wear? Is he or she standing up or sitting down or is he or she dancing, or preening himself or herself in front of a mirror? Is he or she is sitting down or is he or she reading a book, watching television or playing with himself or herself? If in fact he or she is sitting down in front of a computer is he or she composting tendentious reviews of other people’s books? Or finally, is he or she preparing to kill himself or herself — insofar as a new collection of essays claims that suicides are dramatic performances (Lester and Stack, 2015). Indeed then all these moves are performances, “carrying out”, accomplishing, and fulfilling an action or task or function, in the words of the dictionary, engaging in moves that can be called performances with a purpose.

Human agents are then always in the performative mode — even when they are being spontaneous — as long as they are alive and not comatose. In fact even the moment he or she is dead he or she will find herself or himself cast into the performative mode by others: kith and kin, priests and pastors, police personal, coroners and investigators. It turns out that even after death one is involved in performances — some people even leave instructions as to how their corpses should be made to perform: buried or cremated with due ceremony or thrown into the Ganges, the sacred river of the Hindus, or exposed on towers to be eaten by vultures as the Parsies of India do. The readiness to perform is the definition of sentient beings.

Halton then takes up the chapter that Doyle McCarthy and I wrote seeking to show how human agents use the features of language to engage cognitively and emotionally with others. He is prompted by this claim to go into a riff about the importance of music and dance in the emergence of engagement in social life, a theme on which Halton has written earlier and is evidently one that is close to his heart. This is no doubt true – and I myself have commented on this somewhere or other — but entirely irrelevant to our claim that in everyday interactions, in the course of ongoing interpersonal relations, people seek to engage the other through the uses of all the structural features of language. Truth to tell, neither McCarthy nor I have ever seen anyone seeking to engage the other in everyday life by either singing to him or her or by dancing — except in operas, Broadway musicals and ballets.

Halton then advances a third criticism of my work:

Perinbanayagam argues for a dialectic of process and structure using the contrast of continuous classical physics and discrete quantum mechanics as the metaphor for why both are needed. Though drawing from Mead and Peirce, Perinbanayagam seems to artificially separate process from structure and to undervalue the place of habit in the pragmatic theories of sign and communication (2015: 457).

This passage is rather obscure in its significations. In fact the last sentence is a non sequitur. Nevertheless I will try to make sense of it — as is my habit. Far from “artificially” separating process from structure I was insisting that in practice one cannot separate the two. The fundamental issue it seems to me is not to engage in casuistries about structure and process and whether they are separate or united but to ask how best to “make our ideas clear” to another in situ. This is done by using the inherent features of language – structures or representamens — to assemble articulations and address another so that one can construct a “response” an “interpretant” and carry on a “meaningful” interaction and maintain a relationship.

To conduct “processes”, so to speak, one must use structures and structures themselves are not immanent forms but manifest themselves in usages. If one takes Mead’s concept of the significant symbol: What is it but a static form — to wit a word — that is transformed into a process when it is combined with other words in a disciplined way and used to convey a significance to another thereby becoming a signifying act? Or take Peirce: In his famous pragmatic maxim Peirce wrote “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (1958: 124). How indeed do individuals “conceive” an object? With signs, of course. Peirce wrote, in describing what he called the “consequences of four incapacities” that “we have no power of thinking without signs” (1955:230) To conceive “the object our conception” then we need signs and we have to do this conception with a representamen. And once we have chosen such a representamen — that is an element in what Peirce called a “logic as semiotic”—a static sign, it is used to present it to another thereby becoming an act in a process of communication by achieving an interpretant (1955:98-119). In short then structures become process when they are put to use and certainly this can be done as a matter of habit — though what has become a habit was, at one time, not a habit.

In fact Halton has addressed this issue before and I don’t think I am saying anything different from his arguments in that seminal paper.

In practice and in communicative situations in which one is obliged to make his or her ideas clear Halton himself cannot help but use binary codes. Take for example a couple of his pregnant – pregnant with meaning, that is—sentences. He has written:

Neither the extremes of a structuralist “infernal culture machine” nor a symbolic interactionist “scientific luddism” can provide the comprehensive theory of meaning that seems to be the goal of the ongoing restructuring of social theory… Yet these two traditions cannot be reduced solely to the work of Levi-Strauss and Blumer, and by exploring the concept of sign and the locus of meaning in the foundations of the symbolic interactionist and structuralist traditions, I hope to trace the parallel threads of situation and structure that define each tradition. (Rochberg-Halton,1982: 457)

“Neither the extremes of the structuralist “infernal culture machine,” nor the symbolic interactionist “scientific luddism” can provide a comprehensive theory of meaning that seems to be the goal of ongoing restructuring of social theory” (Rochberg-Halton,1982: 457).

In this particular communication situation he wants to bring forth not only an apt phrase-structure but a witty one at that, if possible, and delivers “infernal culture machine”. He then wants to contrast this with another theory and delivers an equally witty phrase “scientific luddism” with a sly allusion to a certain technophobic social movement in 19th century England. Combining “scientific” with “luddism” is itself a nice oxymoron insofar as the Luddites were opposed to technology and by implication to science too. With these maneuvers Halton has selected certain structures — or if one wants to be Peircian about it, a representamen — and, shall I say, processed them into a signifying act and thereby made his ideas clear. In fact by contrasting structuralism with symbolic interactionism he has established a syntagmatic opposition between the two. Similarly in writing this text he has to resort to using the infernal culture machine of grammatical structures. Indeed then structure and process cannot be separated: in the process of writing – or talking — one resorts to various instrumentations – semiotic, structural and grammatical — to make “our ideas [and meanings] clear”– as clear as possible. In fact Richard Ohmann has forcefully argued that generative grammar aids in the construction of literary style (1964). And so do other structuralist instrumentations.


  1. Cited and discussed in a book by Alice Rayner(1994)



Aristotle.(Trans by Gerald Else) Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Burke, Kenneth.1973. The Philosophy of Literary Form. 1-137.

Halton, Eugene. 2015. “Identity Dramas”. Symbolic Interaction. 38(3) 455-458.

Langer Suzanne.1967. Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lester, David and Steven Stack. (Eds) 2015. Suicide as a Dramatic Performance. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Ohmann, Richard.1964. “Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style”. Word. 20(8)424-439.

Peirce, Charles Sanders.1955 “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs”. In Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Publications.98-119.

Peirce, Charles Sanders.1955. “Some Consequences of the Four Incapacities”. In The Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed, by Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Publications.228-250.

Peirce, Charles Sanders.1955. “How to Make our Ideas Clear”. In The Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed, by Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Publications. 23 –41.

Rayner, Alice. 1994. To Act, To Do, To Perform .Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wilshire, Bruce. 1982. Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of the Theatrical Metaphor : Ithaca: Cornell University Press.



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