A note on compulsive performativity – and how to care (for) more

Thoughts excerpted from Jan Verwoert’s text: I CAN, I CAN’T, WHO CARES (2008)
  • Some have said that we have come to inhabit the post-industrial condition. But what could that mean?
  • After the disappearance of factory work from the lives of most people in the Western world, we have entered into a culture where we do no longer just work, we perform.
  • We are the creative types who have created jobs for ourselves by exploring and exploiting our talents to perform small artistic and intellectual miracles. When we perform we create concepts and ideas as well as social bonds and forms of communication and communality.
  • We are the avant-garde but we are also the job slaves.
  • When we choose to make our living on the basis of doing what we want to do, we need to get our act together; we need to get things down, in any place at any time. Are you ready?

No. 37,  Terrors and Pleasures of Levitation series 1953

Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation # 37
  • What would it mean to put up resistance against a social order in which performativity has become a growing demand, if not a norm? What would it mean to resist the need to perform?
  • When and how do you give up on the demand and need to perform?
  • What could make you utter the magic words ‘I can’t’?
  • Does it take a breakdown to stop you?
  • Do the words I can’t already imply the acknowledgment of a breakdown, a failure to perform, a failure that would not be justifiable if your body would not authenticate your inability by physically stopping you?
  • How could we restore dignity to the ‘I Can’t’?
  • Can we make I Can’t (part of a) work?


Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation # 58
  • We have to learn to embrace latency.
  • To embrace latency goes against the grain of the logic of compulsive performativity because it all about leaving things unsaid, unshown, unrevealed, it is about refraining from actualizing and thereby exhausting all your potentials in the moment of your performance. We have to rethink and learn to re-experience the beauty of latency.
  • Career opportunities, we are told, are all about being in the right place at the right time. Finding a lover to love maybe also is.
  • Is there a right time for love?
  • What happens when time is out of joint?


Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation # 47
  • Why would you ever want to say I can’t when you can?
  • After all the joy of art, writing and performing freely lies in the realization that you can, a sense of empowerment through creativity that in ecstatic moments of creative performance can flood your body with the force of an adrenaline rush.
  • To face up to your own potentials might be one of the most challenging tasks of your life if not even your responsibility.
  • You perform because you care, to care enables you to act.
  • When your child is in need there is no no; you have to act even if you thought you couldn’t. I care generate I can.
  • But I care also delimit I can.


Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation # 491
  • Sometimes the right thing to say is no. I care, so I can’t.
  • When you need to take care of your friends and family, to profess the I can’t may be the only justifiable way to show that you care.
  • I can and I can’t – may both originate in I care. To recognize the indebtedness to the other as that which empowers performance also means to acknowledge the importance of care.
  • I care is a question of welfare.
  • To live a life caring is to negotiating the freedom and demands of the I Can and I Can’t






8 Comments Add yours

  1. Harold Rhenisch says:

    Beautiful use of imagery in support of the essay, thanks! The essay, though, looks like two separate things . First, post-industrial in the sense of performance and show, types of creative dance, etcetera, display-behaviour, that’s a brilliant observation. I’m floored at how obvious it is, yet how hidden. Fantastic. Second, post-industrial in the sense of having to perform tasks, coupled with the need to resist by saying “I can’t” to demands to perform those tasks, is not post-industrial; it means “execute” or “complete” a task; that’s industrial machine talk. To that, display behaviour is a viable, temporary solution. Street marches. Neo-Nazi and Antifa clashes, are large-scale performances. What’s more, in Verwoert’s Berlin there are many tens of thousands of workers who labour in an industrial model, from those who pick up the trash, to those who build the art galleries, to those who fix broken waterlines, to those who’ll sell you a döner in a kiosk. It’s still performed (executed) in conditions befitting Marxist analysis, still open to exploitation and so on. Verwoert proposes a solution: to leave things unsaid, so there is space for care. That’s an American solution. It’s not going to work too well in a Europe in which space (think city squares, think depths of historical memory) doesn’t have movement and must be shared or cleared. Where space is required in Berlin for just caring, is it not cordoned off by police to allow it to be a safe party in the Tiergarten, or a safe demonstration in a square? It is common German practice. In an Eastern German sense, post-industrial life means a rust belt of decaying DDR factories around former garden cities, factories that don’t work anymore, so isn’t Verwoert asking for the chance to dance in those ruined gardens, free of Marxism, and free of Capitalism, while at the same time for an American transcendental solution, which is to remove history and to create artworks which start with the self and its cares and end with unified images of surfaces and objects which momentarily unify selves with environment (both physical and social)? For post-industrial, he means two things: first, post-capitalist; second, “care”. It would have been useful had he defined “care,” because I think he’s expressing a social model that sets life outside of the clashes of political extremes in the street, and their long, long history in Berlin, to show how a post-Capitalist, post-Nationalist, post-Communist (all three are industrial) world might look on the foundation of the arts, which express human bodies at more organic activities than tending machines and ideologies. That’s wonderful. Without defining “care”, however, he leaves interpretations open in a kind of unexamined anarchy. If he’s going to bring art practice into life, he needs to, at least, be open about his intentions; otherwise he is exercising no care and setting up readings that promote extensions of this non-caring, rather than the ‘care’ he chooses to profess. So, a combination of brilliance, care and carelessness. Two centuries of German history in a nutshell!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Harold!

      I must admit I might be looking at this text from a slightly different point of view. In my reading I’m especially interested in the possibility to develop/re-think ethics in negotiation with aesthetics, and so proposals like: “I can and I can’t – may both originate in I care” – and – “To recognize the indebtedness to the other as that which empowers performance also means to acknowledge the importance of care”, is of special interest to me.

      It could, I believe, be interesting to look deeper into Verwoert’s concept of CARE in the light of Emmanuel Levinas’ “rapport de face à face”, and also relate it to Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism. But as always, my main interest is to see if ideas like these can make me sense new things and discover new thoughts in my day to day interaction with art.


  2. jane tims says:

    I like the use of bullets to present the argument! I think that a by-product of self-employment is instability, but I am one of the last who worked for 38 years in the same job. I put my skills to work for someone else’s goals. Now I work for myself and it feels great!

    1. Sigrun says:

      I try to make it a bit easier for myself by making a list
      For me economy is the challenge; I would never be able to support a family as a critic, even if I worked 24/7

  3. Rio says:

    There is a lot here. I will read it again when i am not so tired.

  4. Helen says:

    The Siskind photos are wonderful! Two quick thoughts in response, tho I’m largely in agreement with Harold Rhenisch’s comment above.

    First, to think in terms of will as well as capability, of I will and I won’t. In my philosophical counselling practice, it’s often helpful for someone who says “I can’t!” to think about whether what they really mean is “I won’t!”

    Second, re your comment about rethinking ethics and aesthetics. I’ve been reading Anthony Steinbock on the phenomenology of what he calls “verticality”. Very roughly… Some experiences are “given” or come to us with a sense of height; Steinbock describes them as three realms of “holiness” (presence of God), “ethics” (Face of the Other) and “aesthetics” (world as ground, as home). I find it really helpful to think that the current state of the world – globalised neoliberal capitalism – can be seen to *flatten* experience and meaning, and that we don’t get the magnitude of the disaster if we can’t (or won’t) recall and remember the sense of verticality: of awe and wonder and humility in the presence of all this. Which is what I think your work and art is about.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Helen!
      I do not know the work of Steinbock, but I like the image of verticality you present here.


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