Glossary of Terms: Jeffrey C. Alexander

Glossary of Terms to Supplement Jeffrey C. Alexander’s ‘The Fate of the Dramatic in Modern Society: Social Theory and the Theatrical Avant-Garde’

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◦          alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt)

A strategy conceptualized by Bertolt Brecht to combat what he saw as a dangerously manipulative tendency in bourgeois theater. The alienation effect seeks to distance audiences from emotional involvement in performances by exposing dramatic techniques of verisimilitude as mere theatrical artifice, thereby jolting viewers from their suspension of disbelief. The result of this estrangement is a lack of emotional and psychological identification between audience and dramatic characters.

◦          cultural pragmatics

Theorized by Jeffrey Alexander as the social process by which people—consciously or unconsciously, individually or in concert—display for others the meaning of their social situation. In early societies, actors performed rituals and unproblematically communicated meaning in a way that affirmed the group’s identity without having their performances’ authenticity questioned. However, in our contemporary world, where society has complexified and fragmented in terms of its fundamental narratives, beliefs and values, social performances present new challenges. In order for a social performance to be effective in the modern world, (1) its cultural meaning must be understood, and (2) it must be accepted as authentic (i.e., sincere, plausible, natural, unfeigned) by its audience. In order for these two conditions to obtain, an actor must integrate the elements of social performance. When this is accomplished, the audience is fused with the actor and her script; meaning is successfully communicated and the performance is deemed authentic by the audience.


◦          de-fusion/re-fusion

In Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of cultural pragmatics, early societies—with their simpler forms of collective organization and shared narratives, beliefs, and values—maintain a high degree of fusion with regard to the elements of social performance. However, as societies have become more complex, differentiated, and fragmented, the elements of social performance have become de-fused. To perform effectively in the contemporary world, actors must engage in the re-fusion of these elements. To the extent social performances are re-fused, they are effective; to the degree they remain de-fused, they seem artificial, contrived, inauthentic, and are ineffective.

◦          elements of social performance

In Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of cultural pragmatics there are a number of elements that must be successfully brought together—fused—during a social performance in order for the performance to succeed in both communicating its meaning and establishing its authenticity: (1) background representations—the shared narratives, beliefs, values, and symbolic associations of a particular group or culture; (2) scripts—the specific background representations that are called upon and organized during a specific social performance; (3) actors—the embodied performer(s) of the social performance; (4) audience—those who observe and decode the social performance; because audiences in modern society are frequently fragmented in the sense of holding different values and being composed of divergent interpretive constitutions, different portions of the audience may experience different degrees of psychological identification with a performance; (5) means of symbolic production—the physical place of a social performance, the mode of transmission (live performance; radio, television, or online broadcast; print media; etc.) as well as the props used to convey meaning (e.g., make-up, clothing, flowers, a stage, a rifle, back-drops, lighting, a scepter, etc.); (6) mise-en-scène—the temporal and spatial arrangement and choreography of a social performance; and (7) social power—the political, economic, and status differentials that exist within a society profoundly affect who has access to what means of symbolic production, who can legitimately say what in a given context, and even what audiences have access to a particular performance.


◦          iconicity

Emerging from the strong program in cultural sociology, iconicity theorizes the symbolic power that inheres in certain sensuous objects and events. An icon functions through the interaction of its sensible surface—with its accompanying aesthetic qualities—and its socially-constructed-but-ineffable symbolic depth. In theatrical performance, the power of a prop comes not so much from its resemblance to the thing it represents in the real world, but from the invisible meaning the object bears. Likewise, in social performances particular material items can be deployed to communicate unarticulated meanings that allow audiences to experience the participation in something profound; more than merely communicating discursively, icons have the power to move their audiences morally and affectively.

◦          performance theory/studies

An interdisciplinary field of inquiry developed and propagated by Richard Schechner and Victor Turner in which social life is conceptualized in terms traditionally reserved for the performing arts. This perspective claims that all our actions are culturally embedded and are learned, rehearsed, and presented “not-for-the-first-time.” Performance theorists assert that performances are inherently interactive with their milieux; they can, among other things, entertain, create something beautiful, mark or change identity, make or foster community, heal, teach, persuade, and deal with the sacred and profane. In short, their embodied practices create meaning and shape social life.

◦          postdramatic

A concept developed by Hans-Thies Lehmann to describe the purported next phase in theatrical evolution, a certain variety of avant-garde theater that emerged in the late-twentieth century. In its most extreme manifestations, postdramatic theater is non-representational; has no plot, characterization, or narrative; and consists of disconnected scenes with no unifying meaning. According to Lehmann, postdramatic theater reflects a shift in the social world to one in which shared meaning and community are increasingly unlikely to obtain.

◦          scenario

A concept theorized by Diana Taylor for understanding social structures and behaviors. Unlike more traditional research in the social science and humanities, the analysis of scenarios draws not only from the archive (i.e., texts, archeological remains, audio-visual recordings—in short, those things supposedly resistant to change), but also the repertoire (i.e., embodied practices of performance, including speech, gestures, tone, attitudes, actions—in short, those things generally thought to be ephemeral). When investigating events as scenarios, we are urged to confront (1) the physical place of the event; (2) the social actors and their social roles; (3) the formulaic, cultural structure of the event that presupposes certain outcomes; (4) the form of transmission (e.g., writing, telling, reenactment, dance); and (5) the way in which we are situated as participants, witnesses, or spectators, thereby precluding any distancing between participants and their audience.

◦          social drama

As originally formulated by Victor Turner, a universal social process that occurs within groups bounded by shared values and a common history (e.g., a family, village, office, political party, church, nation, etc.). The social drama has four phases: (a) breach: a social drama first manifests itself as the breech of a norm, the infraction of a rule of morality, law, custom or etiquette in some public arena; (b) crisis: a phase of mounting danger or suspense during which the breach widens until becoming coextensive with some dominant cleavage within the social group; (c) redressive action: mechanisms are set in motion to mitigate the crisis (e.g., personal advice to antagonists, formal legal machinery, public ritual requiring a scapegoat). This phase leads to social reflexivity; (d) reintegration or recognition of schism: if reintegration occurs, the disturbed social group is brought back to its pre-breach status quo; however, if reintegration does not occur, then an irreparable schism between the contestants is socially recognized and legitimated. Recently—and for the sake of the present article—the idea of social drama has come more generally to signal any social performance taking place on the scale of a large portion of society (e.g., the French Revolution, the American civil rights movement, the first lunar landing, the death and funeral of Princess Diana, a national election, the terrorist attacks of September 11, etc.).

◦          social performance/cultural performance

Originally formulated by Erving Goffman, social performances are social interactions when viewed dramaturgically. Like theatrical performances, social performances are constructed (i.e., not “natural”), can be analyzed in terms of the elements of dramatic performance, and can be said to succeed or fail to the degree that these elements are persuasively integrated.

◦          spectacle

A characterization of modern society promulgated by Guy Debord. In the society of spectacle, authentic social life is replaced by its hollow representation, and human relationships are mediated by commodities and their images. Instead of active, meaning-making members of society, people have become passive spectators who merely look on without connection to the world around them.

◦          symbolic action

A  term coined by Kenneth Burke to call attention to the distinction between the mere communication of information—such as that of non-human species—and humankind’s ability not only to say things, but also accomplish things with language (cf., J.L. Austin’s notion of performative). A central tenet of symbolic action is that we actively construct our social reality through the use of both linguistic and extra-linguistic symbols. This concept was subsequently picked up and elaborated by Clifford Geertz, who held that culture is fundamentally semiotic; it is composed of behaviors and representations that combine to give culturally-specific symbolic meanings (e.g., the blinking of one’s eye might symbolize a nervous twitch or a conspiratorial signal). Geertz called the explication of an action’s symbolic meaning thick description.

Todd Madigan

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