All the world’s a stage, and I hate it: On interpersonal performativity

Nov. 15, 2017, 1:00 a.m.

There’s a line from Lana Del Rey: “My mother told me I had a chameleon soul. No moral compass pointing due north, no fixed personality.” Like Lana, I often feel unmoored in my own community, improvising and molding myself to my milieu rather than anchoring myself against an external onslaught. At Stanford, that onslaught is in the ocean of sanguine, self-assured students that washes over me, making me doubt myself. I often puzzle over that performativity, wondering whether it’s part of my personality, if it characterizes me as cowardly – or if it’s just a symptom of human survivability, the desire to modify oneself for durability’s sake.

An argument in favor of the former is the fact that, on the Dungeons and Dragons axes of “lawful vs. chaotic” and “good vs. evil,” my ethical alignment is allegedly True Neutral, which avows that I don’t “feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos.” In fact, I “exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality … think[ing] of good as better than evil… [but] not personally committ[ing] to upholding good in any abstract or universal way.” While I have more than one bone to pick with that personality analysis as a whole, I admit that, like Lana Del Ray and my Dungeons and Dragons doppelgänger, I’ve always found myself apt to adapt to my audience, if only because I didn’t know how not to.

I am conscious of popular perception, but bad at being perceived; at all times, I automatically adjust my appearance in accordance with the audience I’m around. The performance of gender, of intelligence, of any sociological subcategorization, is, from a constructivist perspective, the fundamental foundation of social institutions, and yet there’s still a sense of disingenuous docility in designing my identity around another individual, whether it be an intimidating teacher or another archetypal English major.

I’m terrified of my own inability to solidify my sense of self in the face of external expectations, so I temper that terror by imposing my own interpretation of my identity on others whenever I can; I make myself out of moments in which I completely control the impression I give, voicing a two-faced vanity intent on promulgating my personal narrative. Though I don’t particularly want to be, I am a person of perpetual performance.

The pure arrogance of this praxis – its shameless self-indulgence – is a problem; that flutter of flattery in the face of friendly confabulation is far from authentically earned. How do I therefore reconcile a behavior born of insecurity with the truth of its unhealthiness? What are the consequences of not declining to perform?

Take, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 cinematic masterpiece, “Rear Window.” “Rear Window” is an iconic incarnation of recursive performativity – and the repercussions of it. The film features a man named Jefferies – a photographer – who distracts himself while handicapped by snooping on his neighbors from his sitting room window, during which (he believes) he witnesses a murder.

Jefferies, like me, imposes worlds of possibility on his neighbors, seeing his own unfolding futures performed by a neighbor with a nagging wife, a pair of sickening newlyweds and a lonely single woman wanting for love; as a result, there is an essential tension in the film between Jefferies’ involuntary expressions of empathy and his exploitation of someone else’s melancholy for his own entertainment.

I recently watched “Rear Window” for the first time as a reading assignment for English 161. The screening was in a Cubberley classroom, in which my chair sat alongside an unlocked window that looked out on the sidewalk between Meyer Green and Coupa Cafe; throughout the film, students cycled in and out of frame. The blinds at the beginning of “Rear Window” represent the curtains in live theater, and all I could focus on during the movie’s climactic scene was the half-closed curtain on the open pane to my left and the tires I saw circling over the pavement.

While “Rear Window” raises questions about voyeurism – questions that emphasize the agency of the eyewitness – I remained wrapped up in questions of performativity, of the awareness – rather than the lack thereof – of the lens, so to speak.

“Rear Window” is a story of unconscious performance, but Stanford students are both unconscious and conscious actors. As a demographic, we are here because we invest in the social construct of academic achievement and perform it to social satisfaction; divesting ourselves of that standard of self-worth can be equivalent to destroying a cherished stuffed animal, and a twin mentality generates my tendency to tailor my interactions.

The pressure to perform – at least for me – stems from a lack of internality; without the solidity of some sort of selfhood to periodically return to in our minds, we steal morsels of style, of speech, of status, from whomever we can. At some point, though, the performance warps like the image in a car’s rearview mirror, and, like that image, is ultimately closer to the truth than it appears.

Performance, as I’ve particularized it here, is limiting. The second half of that Lana Del Rey quote says, “I belonged to no one, [and I] wanted everything, with a fire for every experience and an obsession for freedom that terrified me.” That eagerness to experience, rather than to entertain, is how we edge forward, how we leave performance in our rearview mirror – by refusing to be afraid anymore.


Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’

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