The Contemporary Quarrel Between Performance and Literature? Reflections on Performance (and) Philosophy


  • James Corby University of Malta



This article argues for an understanding of performance as being motivated by a principle of autotelicity that suspends all considerations other than those of the performance itself as it unfolds in creative free play. It is argued that it is this ‘principle of performance’ that underpinned Plato’s rejection of poetry in favour of philosophy, in a foundational, mutually definitional rupture that he characterises as stemming from an ancient quarrel. This principle of performance survived both in and beyond philosophical discourse. It can, as this paper argues, be understood as being at work in the idealised conception of ‘literature’ that developed during the ‘theory’ explosion of the 1960s and 70s, as in institution that is, at least potentially, capable of saying anything. This article asks whether Performance Philosophy risks either undermining the principle of performance by making it subservient to the project of philosophy (and thereby reiterating Plato’s foundational move), or whether it hopes to put that principle to work philosophically in a way that does not limit it (and thereby reinscribe the recent but apparently exhausted ideals of the theory explosion, substituting ‘literature’ with ‘performance’). Either way, it is claimed, there may be important genealogical work for Performance Philosophy to do.

Author Biography

James Corby, University of Malta

[email protected]

Dr James Corby is a Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of English at the University of Malta. He has published on literature and philosophy, including articles on romanticism, modernism, phenomenology, politics, and contemporary American literature. He co-edited a volume of essays entitled Style in Theory: Between Literature and Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2013) and is co-General Editor of the journal CounterText, published by Edinburgh University Press.


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How to Cite

Corby, James. 2015. “The Contemporary Quarrel Between Performance and Literature? Reflections on Performance (and) Philosophy”. Performance Philosophy 1 (1):36-50.



Performance Philosophy - Pasts, Presents, Futures