When Susan Sontag delivered her broadside Against Interpretation, she singled out for opprobrium what she called the ‘most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud’, adding that they ‘actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation’. 1 While her fire was primarily directed against such tyrannical and tunnel-visioned strategies, ‘a philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’, 2 it has to be said that psychoanalytic approaches, judiciously applied, had already begun to expand the parameter of art criticism in fruitful directions: the belief in a ‘latent’ content which reveals the workings of a textual or authorial unconscious; the attention to personal motives and drives, especially sexual ones, whether of author, character or recipient; the identification of a psychic as well as a social content for the art work; the artistic implication of neurotic, fetishistic impulses or the process of sublimation; the mechanisms of the Oedipal economy of desire and its impact on textuality; the centrality of dream and its attendant processes of symbolisation.
But if these now seem to map out well-reconnoitred territory, the connections between psychoanalysis and performance have rarely been considered in a systematic way, either in terms of analysing the nature of performance itself, or in terms of making sense of specific performance-related activities. Indeed, the two fields seem to possess a particular affiliation that goes beyond the strict application of a hermeneutic theory. Rather than simply providing further grist to the mill of psychoanalytic interpretation, performance constitutes an activity that both resembles and resists its procedures. As Shoshana Felman has observed of the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis, the two fields appear to imply and mutually depend upon one another for their analytic coherence. 3 After all, if performing is a process in which individuals, physically present on stage, think, speak and interact in front of other individuals, then that very activity must throw into relief crucial questions about human behaviour. In making the hidden visible, the latent manifest, in laying bare the interior landscape of the mind and its fears and desires through a range of signifying practices, psychoanalytic processes are endemic to the performing arts. Similarly, the logic of performance infuses psychoanalytic thinking, from the ‘acting out’ of hysteria to the ‘family romance’ of desire.