No, I don’t just mean performance as in watching a performance. In academic folklore studies this word carries a ton of nuance, and even denotes a specific theoretical orientation!
Since before the word folklore was coined, our discipline’s had a strong affinity toward collecting, archiving, and interpreting texts (of stories, songs, rites of passage, and so on). Folklorists weren’t necessarily ignoring performances, we were just super text-oriented. And a few decades ago, that all changed.
Richard Bauman is a folklorist who was a huge contributor to the shift to performance studies, and so I’ll quote him extensively here. Of our disciplinary origins, he writes:
The foundations of performance-oriented perspectives in folklore lie in the observations primarily of folktale scholars who departed from the library- and archive-based philological investigations that dominated folk narrative research to venture into the field to document folktales as recounted in the communities in which they were still current. (95)
In other words, some folklore scholars were driven by curiosity to extend their fieldwork beyond what was customary at the time (in the late nineteenth century). Instead of just publishing lists of folktale texts, they included accounts of the performers’ biographies, details about their storytelling styles, and so on.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, folklorists went a step further, theorizing folklore not just as cultural stuff to be collected, but rather as a communicative process. This meant paying a lot more attention to the context in which folklore is performed and transmitted, sure, but it also meant reframing folklore less as item and more as event. This involved a lot of borrowing from linguistics and cultural anthropology for concepts, practices, and theories. Along with Bauman, major players in this theoretical shift include Dan Ben-Amos, Roger Abrahams, and Dell Hymes (I’ll note that my mentor, Alan Dundes, was their contemporary, but he never got on board the performance train, instead preferring a thoroughly text-based method of interpretation that turned to psychological theories for inspiration.
Okay, so what does performance mean here? Whether the folklore being engaged in is verbal, customary, or material in nature, Bauman describes performance as “a special mode of communicative display,” one for which “the speaker, as performer, is taking responsibility” (99). Performance is thus an expressive act that communicates something, and for which the performer takes responsibility (for appropriately representing a given traditional genre, usually).
In a performance, the “engagement of an audience is a necessary constituent” (101). The presence of an audience – even if invisible, like a deity, or otherwise imaginary – helps create the frame and the creative space in which the performer can assume responsibility for tradition. Thus, the specter of failure haunts performance. If you’re taking responsibility for something, in front of someone, there’s risk. This is especially evident in ritual, which often strives to meet concrete social and/or spiritual goals in its participants’ lives.
Tuning in to performance “has encouraged the development of a new perspective on the text, not as an autonomous, traditional, literary artifact but as the emergent product of situated communicative practice, a discursive achievement” (103). I interpret this to mean that sometimes folklorists can get a little obsessed with tracking the migration of texts, as though that happens without people performing said texts, and the performance model offers a necessary corrective impulse.
Studying folklore and culture through the lens of performance helps us understand the emergent and ephemeral moments of human connection: how people connect both with each other and with tradition. These are worthy goals for any who wish to grasp society, art, and human nature.
Bauman, Richard. “Performance.” In Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem, eds. A Companion to Folklore. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2012. 94-118.