The Rise and Fall of Signaling and Performativity

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Yves here. As hotly contested elections are coming in Europe (see for instance Poland, where the ruling coalition is worried about being turfed out in what would amount to an anti-more-Ukraine-support vote) and the looming 2024 US campaign battles, and we are at the same time seeing more dysfunctional behavior among Western elites, it makes sense to step back and discuss the process of coalition and loyalty-building. One issue that we and others have focused on is increased deficiency of putative leaders and managers in handling complex material world projects. Reader and sometimes blogger albrt discusses how signaling in particular has assumed undue prominence compared to action.

By albrt, a solo lawyer from flyover country who has previously posted at Calculated Risk and Corrente

Thanks again for all the thoughtful comments on the August 14 post about Apparently Irrational Behavior in Western Elites.  The comments gave me so many ideas that I had trouble following up (I also had to patch a roof and drive across the country and some other things).  I have a few additional posts in the works, but this post comes next because it provides additional context for the concept of signaling behavior.

The traditional academic use of the word signaling, like so many other academic terms of the 1970s and 80s, has transitioned to a popular pejorative use.1  The Oxford English Dictionary says that in 1933, “pejorative” meant “Tending to make worse; depreciatory; applied especially to a derivative word in which the meaning of the root word is lowered by the addition of a suffix or otherwise.”  The OED gives the example of “poetaster” to describe a bad poet.  In current usage, according to Google, pejorative means “expressing contempt or disapproval.

It seems to be widely accepted now that Western elites cannot do much of anything other than signal, perform, and otherwise try to control the narrative, with all those terms being used in a pejorative sense.  For example, Aurelien recently wrote:

But the greatest weakness at all levels in modern political culture is one that I’ve touched on several times in these essays: the modern preference for performative acts and speech in place of actual practical activity, and the tendency to confuse the one with the other.

Aurelien may well be right.  Signaling and performativity were such interesting concepts and became so fashionable among people of certain age groups and educational attainments that signaling may have become the tail wagging the dog.  The purpose of this post is to look at the analytical value of signaling and related concepts, and to think about how the terms came to be used pejoratively to describe the failure to act.

In my experience signaling explanations are rarely the only thing going on in a complex situation, but remembering to look for signaling behavior often adds something to an analysis, particularly when humans are acting in groups.  For example:

  • Why are people doing a thing that appears counterproductive or unreasonably costly?
  • How do groups maintain internal loyalty?
  • How do groups maintain external boundaries?
  • How do groups appear to act together without an explicit plan being put into words?

Often, the answer is signaling.  It is hard to find a precise and widely accepted definition, but the term signaling is generally used to describe communications that are less obvious than plain statements in a mutually comprehensible language.

Signaling in Biology

To give an idea of the breadth of the subject, the Wikipedia page on “Signalling theory” in biology has 127 footnotes.  That includes a substantial number involving anthropology (human social groups).  These are large-ish numbers for a Wikipedia page, but they do not come close to capturing the number of academics studying signaling and related concepts.  Because the literature is so extensive, I’m using Wikipedia references as a nod to things I’m not going to talk about in depth right now.

Probably the most famous example of signaling in biology is the coloration and behavior of birds.  Us oldsters were told, once upon a time in grade school or on a National Geographic documentary, that birds have fancy tails, fancy songs, and fancy dances to attract mates.  These signals are presumed to arise as a result of evolution through sexual selection, rather than by any conscious strategy of an individual bird.  The Wikipedia page suggests that perhaps a female peacock chooses a male peacock with the largest tail because it signals that the male must be relatively healthy to be able to carry around all that extra weight.

The Wikipedia page also suggests that signals must be costly in order to be evolutionarily stable.  If signaling is free, then everybody will do it and the signal gets lost.  The word “costly” appears 60 times on the biology page.

Within human time scales, which is what I am mostly concerned about, the idea of evolutionary stability is of questionable usefulness, especially once people start thinking consciously about signaling.  A human is usually trying to achieve things within one lifetime.  But costly signaling may still be perceived as a good way to deliver a message because the cost gives the message gravitas, at a time when gravitas may be in short supply.  Thorstein Veblen suggested way back in 1899 that elites signal their status by conspicuous consumption, and that ostentatious leisure is the most costly signal they can think of for this purpose.

Signaling in Economics

The Wikipedia page on “Signalling (economics)” has only 32 footnotes. Given how thoroughly economics has contaminated other academic disciplines, it is surprising how little economists have done with the concept of signaling. One of the best-known economic examples of signaling is college, discussed at length on the Wikipedia page. You signal that you are reasonably bright by getting into college. You signal that you are special by getting into Harvard. You signal that you are obedient and dutiful by graduating.

Zvi Mowshowitz describes it this way:

Robin Hanson knows: School is to submit. Signal submission. Submit to a life of signaling, obeying, being conscientious and conformist.

This cancer has taken our childhoods entirely. Often the rest of our lives as well. It replaces our hopes and dreams with hopes of survival via official approval and dreams of showing up naked to algebra class. Enough school so cripples your life, between losing time and being saddled with debt, that it severely damages your ability to have children. To get our children into slightly less dystopian prisons, we bid up adjacent housing and hire coaches and tutors to fill our kids’ every hour with the explicit aim of better test and admission results rather than knowledge. Then college shows up and takes everything we have left and more, with a 100% marginal tax rate.

 * * *
That’s most of the human capital you get from school anyway: Reading, writing, basic math and shutting up. You get selfish returns to school by signaling conformity, conscientiousness and intelligence. To not follow the standard procedure for signaling conformity and conscientiousness is to signal their opposites, so we’re caught in an increasingly expensive signaling trap we can’t escape.

My experience with school was not quite the same, but it’s certainly worth considering the possibility that our current system of education does not produce people who are effective at doing things rather than signaling about things.

Signaling in Anthropology

The anthropology part of the Wikipedia page on signaling in biology includes a lot of material on using costly signals to avoid free riders in religious communities.  It seems highly unlikely to me that this is the most important example of signaling behavior among human groups.  But the concept of signaling primarily arose from a socio-anthropological context, not an economic context, so perhaps the economists are just having trouble quantifying it.

Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, long ago in the BC era (Before Computers), tried to figure out boundaries between tribal groups by building giant matrices showing the presence or absence of cultural artifacts and practices, by which he identified differing cultural “styles.”  In hindsight this was an obvious application of signaling, but Kroeber was thinking in pre-post-modern anthropological terms.  He was mainly looking to classify groups and quantify change over time. . As one anthropologist wrote recently:

Kroeber believed that styles are propelled in one direction or another by some unidentified internal force.  Innovations in accordance with that force become adopted and thrive; those that move in a contrary direction are rejected.

Kroeber’s effort to quantify cultural differences did not get far.  Even today, with computers having nearly infinite memory, this sort of classification stumbles on the difficulty of deciding what differences matter and judging shades of difference.  Of course, you could always outsource the task to Artificial Intelligence, relying on a large but poorly defined body of data.  I’m sure it would produce a “result.”

A 1977 article by Martin Wobst is often credited with the idea that “style” in cultural artifacts represented a “strategy of information exchange.” People signal their loyalty to a group by adopting the style of that group, thus putting a theory behind Kroeber’s attempts to establish cultural boundaries. Wobst’s article is pretty straightforward and is not full of post-modern jargon.  It is, however, still behind an academic paywall 46 years later.

In the anthropological sense, the people doing the signaling probably have varied levels of understanding and intention behind their signaling behavior.  Most people signaling loyalty to a conventional order by performing a ritual they learned as children probably haven’t thought about it much (see discussion of Rappaport in the August post).  People who are engaged in warfare with shifting alliances between groups may think about signaling a great deal.

Rappoport began his career studying a sub-tribe of the Maring people of Australian (now Papua) New Guinea  Rappaport’s main points were not actually about signaling, but the signaling is pretty obvious.  Rappaport described how the people planted trees to signify a state of war or peace, and raised pigs as a means of showing their allies that they were worthy of support. Today our leaders wonder “how will our allies/enemies react to all those Ukrainian Nazi tattoos”?  Then our leaders suppress any mention of Ukrainian Nazi tattoos in the media outlets they control, and try to get the media to signal something else.

Is the signal-to-action ratio for our current leaders higher or lower than the Maring as interpreted by Rappaport?  I’m not sure.  This post is already too long even though it is only halfway done, so suffice it to say that most anthropologists today recognize there is a signaling aspect to many things humans do.

How is Performativity Different from Signaling?

Some scholars claim that J. L. Austin invented the idea of performativity when he gave a talk at Harvard explaining that language can be a form of action rather than a true or false description of facts.

The concept of performative language was first described by the philosopher John L. Austin who posited that there was a difference between constative language, which describes the world and can be evaluated as true or false, and performative language, which does something in the world.  For Austin, performative language included speech acts such as promising, swearing, betting, and performing a marriage ceremony.

Austin put forward this idea in the early 1960s, culminating in an article published in 1965.  Of course, the idea that speech can accomplish things goes back much further than that.

I’m a lawyer, so I do not have easy access to paywalled academic journals, but I do have access to paywalled legal materials.  For many decades before the 1960s, American courts recognized that a “verbal act” is an exception to the hearsay rule.  See, e.g., Bourn v. Beck, 116 Kan. 231 (1924).  The hearsay rule generally forbids evidence that somebody made an out-of-court statement if the statement is offered as evidence of its truth.  But if the statement has legal significance, such as agreeing to a contract, then the statement is a verbal act offered for its legal significance, not for its truth.  This is the same distinction made by Austin, but in a legal context rather than a philosophical journal.

Fast forward to recent decades, and the notion of performativity proved a very fruitful angle for generating published articles without saying very much.  A law professor had this take on performativity a few years ago:

Performativity suggests that to succeed, representations of the world do not have to be accurate so much as ‘felicitious’.  Certain conceptions of property are dominant, on this view, because of their ability to enrol resources and arrange other representations.  In so doing, they can help constitute a world in which they become true.

 * * *
[P]roperty does not pre-exist its performances.  The sites for such performances are diverse:  real property, for example, is produced through humble acts of fence building, mortgage foreclosures, judicial pronouncements, debates around the use of force in the protection of one’s home, burglary, instructions to children not to cross someone else’s lawn, the installation of security systems, law review articles, the creation of a cadastre, the cutting of hedges, World Bank funding initiatives, struggles over gentrification, property registration, indigenous mobilizations and on and on.  Similarly, we can think of particular expressions of real property, such as acts claiming possession of colonial land or the construction of residential property markets as coming into being through multiple performative acts.

SSRN draft here).   The Blomley article goes on to say:

An American economist can characterize the property of the Innu of Labrador as an example of the successful internalization of externalities, and achieve considerable scholarly status.  Yet, the Innu themselves struggle to have their claim to their traditional territory recognized as ‘property’ at all.  Not all performances are successful, it would seem.  Tracing how this is so becomes an urgent analytical task.

So performativity has effects until it doesn’t.

The Blomley article was by far the best example I could find of a legal academic applying the concept of performativity in a useful way.  His application of performativity is elegant and contains insight, but at the same time it is certainly confusing.  I can see how ordinary people trying to understand a lesser example of the genre would simply call it bullsh*t, and would heap ridicule on people who spend their entire professional lives spouting it.

The academic concept of performativity was not without allure to academically minded persons over the past 40 years or so.  When handled by a talented thinker and writer, the concept can make an ordinary undergraduate feel like she is seeing something other people are not seeing.  This makes the word a good insider signal among would-be intellectuals.  The real-world utility of the concept is less clear.  Unlike signaling, performativity appears to have lost almost all of its original meaning in popular usage.  It went from a defined term for verbal acts, to a concept that social reality is jointly created by people engaging in speech and acts, to an assertion that by being performative a person is avoiding any meaningful action.

Everybody knows that people say stuff that is intended to accomplish things (the original concept of performativity), but most of us are more concerned about end results.  This leads to the situation where insiders are using a word like performativity to signal smartness and education to each other, while outsiders are using the word as a marker to identify annoying and ineffective people, or even as a broader term for hopelessly ineffective actions and words.  Today, the pejorative use of the term by outsiders seems to be in a winning position.

As Aurelien suggested, one possible reason why our so-called elites seem stupid is because their so-called education has left them genuinely confused about the difference between saying something and doing something.  Taking the academic concept of performativity too seriously could perhaps lead one to believe that sending a message about getting the rubbish collected is the most important part of getting the rubbish collected.  This confusion is even more understandable when most “journalists” base their “reporting” on “quotes” from “people” in their “rolodexes”3 rather than any sort of direct investigation.  The people who get quoted saying something about an issue are perceived by the audience as the people working on the issue, regardless of whether they ever produce the results that were performatively signaled to be intended.

Signaling Theory as Applied to Real Life

Accusing people of signaling in a pejorative sense is one way the concept can be useful, although it is a blunt instrument and could be replaced by many other words.  Unlike performativity, I think signaling as an analytical concept is not beyond redemption.  It is useful for both academicians and ordinary people to keep in mind that sometimes people’s words and actions have a signaling purpose in addition to (or instead of) an operational purpose.  We can then ask interesting follow-up questions, such as who are these people signaling to?  Or when might they be signaling different things to different people?

It is also worth keeping in mind that signaling may be less than fully intentional.  By telling people on social media that you enjoy consuming movies about a comic book multiverse, you might be signaling that you <s>have given up on ever finding meaning in your life</s> are a hip, youngish person with tastes that are both discerning and yet extremely similar to everyone else.  You are part of the tribe.  Or perhaps you just like the movies, who’s to say?

The best I can do to sum up the point of this post is to say that figuring out how the world works is astonishingly difficult, even for geniuses like Kroeber and Rappaport.  The rest of us can only try to sharpen our critical tools and make the best of it.

Next up:  based on a comment on the August 14 post, a review of Neil Howe’s latest book, The Fourth Turning is Here.


1  Personal note – throughout my twenties and thirties, “pejorative” was a word I could never remember when I needed it.  This was before the days of Microsoft thesaurus and other internet workarounds for finding words.  The fact that I had word-finding problems in my twenties and thirties gives me some comfort in my dotage, and the fact that I can remember the word now allows me to use it often.

2 See

3These are Chris Farley finger quotes, not actual quotes  They are used in the pejorative sense against the journalistic profession as practiced in the United States. I have been told that apostrophes (single quotes) are sometimes used as an indication of Chris Farley finger quotes, but I do not think this usage has become general.

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    Thanks, albrt. Your ideas and your sources are all intriguing. Now, though, I am going to turn some questions on their head. First, I’m going to point out something I have been harping on: The Anglo-American world is a kind of echo chamber, and it has been more than hard for many writers and observers to poke their way through the firmament (as in the Flammarion engraving).

    I’d argue that symbols and rituals have been empty for some time in the Anglo-American world, which places much (too much) stress on a requirement to signal and to be performative. (Performative doesn’t mean perform, though.)

    As I sometimes mention, too much of Anglo-American discourse is Baptist testifying and Methodist sermonizing. In short, post-religious signaling and performativity.

    The gay pagan writer, Rhyd Wildermuth, now in Luxembourg, although brought up in Ohio, considers wokeness to be a religious impulse. It’s one of the reasons the faith-based squabbles are so deadly (and deadly dull).

    In the Catholic and Orthodox countries along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, as well as Turkey, with its Sufi traditions (Albania, too), the signaling and performance don’t have the same meaning–or they haven’t been drained of meaning by the terrors of Calvinism. Sufi chants and dancing are about divine ecstasy. The Divine Liturgy is divine. Even as these countries secularize, the empty gestures–the hollow men and women of the Anglo-American world–are not yet the “norm.” (What a word.)

    I’m not sure that the elites live in a world of illusion and performativity. I have feeling that it may be good old-fashioned greed, self-regard, ignorance (there’s so much ignorance), and self-dealing. Just as handsome is as handsome does, the banality of evil among the Western elites is because banal evil pays for the house in the country and the club memberships. And the Western elites have insisted on impunity.

  2. .Tom

    To your first question in the bullet list of four, I don’t think signalling itself is directly the answer. I wrote a half-joke blog years ago that looked at the question: when someone in an organization is busy doing something other than what they ought to be doing, look for the impediment to doing the real work. What’s the reason they are not doing their real work. It can be intrinsic (incompetence, laziness, confusion, insecurity etc.) or in their work environment (peer pressure, lack of resources, poor management guidance etc.). The joke part was that under these conditions someone will choose a substitute behavior, a not-work, that has the approximate appearance of work. This appearance is the signalling. But I don’t signalling explains the “why?” in your question.

    If I’m right then the question remains, how did signalling (doing something that has the approximate appearance of real work) become so widely acceptable? I think Graeber’s Bulls**t Jobs has part of the answer.

      1. .Tom

        Haha, I remember that one now that you mention it. And yes, it’s like that. Except looking busy as the boss walks by can turn out to be quite elaborate depending on the situation. For example, executives doing silly mergers and acquisitions is very common. It can impress their directors/investors and the business press. Some of these MnA artists, if they have a suitable personal style, can make a career out of a string of long and complex projects all ultimately net destructive. But for many execs successfully managing a business is difficult, boring, and won’t get you any press attention. Here it seems the signalling is external to the business itself, not just the boss,… or Jesus.

    1. Lexx

      Officially, it was called ‘side-work’. It was a list of tasks that kept the restaurant running ‘in the front of the house’ that we were expected to do, when not waiting on customers. The managers never wanted to see us at rest, we had to be in a constant state of motion unless on an officially sanctioned break. Those were to be enjoyed in the back of the house out of sight. ‘If you have time to lean, you have time to clean,’

      But the managers too performed ‘busy work’, like observing what the wait staff was up to during lulls. It was usually a cursory glance across the floor at our activity, not an investigation. So I could fly through ‘side work’ and then play the game of looking busy till the end of my shift and rake in the big money of $2.15 an hour back then. We all played our roles. I hated the managers, especially that slob of an assistant manager, Andy. Referred to as ‘Handsy Andy’ back in the break room. (He was fat and married with three small children, natch.)

  3. Debra

    I read Austin many years ago.
    I agree with the idea that when someone SAYS “I do” in a marriage ceremony, that is words in action, and what they do is very important for society. (If words aren’t… doing things somewhere, why are we spending an enormous amount of time chattering with our mouths and fingertips, too ?)
    Words keep us occupied, you might say, and while we are so busy being occupied we are not doing other things. For the worse, but for the better too, maybe ?
    I am critical of the idea of “real work” because so much of our “work” has been scaled (down) for the machines, so we are really NOT DOING VERY MUCH ANYWAY, regardless of what we say. Looking at screens, typing on them, trying to make the REAL WORK fit into the screens, no ?
    Admittedly, this is extremely disheartening for the people like me who like to get my hands dirty.
    I put the word “work” between quotation marks because I am not sure that we really have any kind of consistent or coherent idea of what the word means anymore. Pretty frightening.
    I do believe one thing about the situation : all hell breaks loose when in a given society people lose any kind of faith to the degree that they believe that anybody who has faith is a(n) 1) idiot 2) mental case 3) innocent. When too many people think that they are sophisticated, critical and savvy while the others are dumb beasts… business goes down the drain, and society too.
    And the problem is not really about the academics, either. In Athens, in 500 B.C. (before Christ, and not the computer, and before an organized public education system), society went down the drain too for precisely the reasons that we can see right now. Then, as now, there were SOPHISTicated people (not academics, either) who set Athenian society on its head.
    Timeless. Human nature doesn’t really change all that much.
    … Is wrangling for hours in the courts “real work” ? The Sophists seemed to think so…and Athenian citizens paid them to learn how to wrangle effectively in the court system.
    You could make a case against justice and its system on this one. They sully the reputation of our words, and have done so for centuries now, if not millenia.

    1. .Tom

      How about reading the riot act as words in action? Magistrate reads the act and then after an hour can legally send in the goons.

  4. Eclair

    Thank you, albrt.
    From multiple recent NYT (or WSJ, or FT, or ….) articles: The Biden administration signaled that it …..

    I am become increasingly cranky with age, but why can’t the Biden administration simply ‘say,’ or ‘announce.’ Or are they not really ‘signaling,’ because ‘signaling’ is non-verbal and don’t translate well into written or spoken language (or, if it does translate, can be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on the translator’s experience and on the context in which the ‘signaling’ occurred,) but the writer of the article (the ‘stenographer?’) is trying to sound super-smart? Or is the Biden administration (just to use an example) really non-verbaly ‘signaling’ because it can be interpreted in different ways, and confusion and deniability is the goal.

    Gah! Now, I am off to ‘carefully curate’ a collection of such articles, illustrating my point.

  5. John

    Interesting concept.

    I have for several years struggled with an observation that media and academia seem to believe that saying something makes it true. It has felt like a “reality disconnect” that has blanketed the social sciences, and makes push pack to reality almost impossible. The working classes in their day to day lives have to deal with real things, so at least in respect to those real things resistant to the “reality disconnect”. So a technician who has spent years fixing energy systems, is very skeptical about “Green Technologies” because they have been dealing with making these technologies work in the real world, and faced the truth that they don’t work, despite all the propaganda telling us they do. Media, and the academic communities however only see the propaganda and don’t have to deal with a frozen battery on a January morning. The end result is the working class is becoming very skeptical about “climate change” and 15 minute cities, because in their world the solutions being presented don’t work. The white collar classes on the other hand who have never had to deal the real world accept the narratives as true. For them, the cost is the social cost of not adhering to the “signaling”.

  6. Acacia

    Today, the pejorative use of the term by outsiders seems to be in a winning position.

    This is reassuring. Hope this position gains further ground.

    Thanks much for the deep dive.

  7. Skip Intro

    The preference for signaling and performativity seems to be a natural tendency for a caste of symbol manipulators, since in a sense, their actual work in creating statements of code or law or PR or whatever is inherently performative. This may offer a deeper reason for the constant preference of our political ‘leaders’ for fixing messaging over fixing policy, than the general assumption that they are corrupt figureheads, mere signals of Democracy hoisted by oligarchs.

  8. Grayce

    Richard P. McKeon wrote an article for Berkeley, “The New Rhetoric as an Architectonic and Productive Art” (The Center Magazine, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions). His notions of being architectonic, or constructive, would be like the performativity mentioned here, but with a desired tangible result. Think Einstein and theoretical physics–“just so much talk.” Hands-on experimental physicists disdained such work, but it certainly proved to be productive. So, maybe performativity is not always shallow. Signaling, though, seems to be the shallow partner.

  9. JE McKellar

    There’s also the sense that speech can actively shape consciousness, from garden-variety marketing, Marxist consciousness-raising, and then to the deliberate wishful-thinking of ‘The Secret’.

    The takeaway I got many years ago from Rappaport’s big book was that reality was messy and ambiguous, and ritual, religion, and speech was an attempt to distill all that messiness into simple, comprehensible ideas. Deciding what gets said and what gets left unsaid decides what sort of conscious reality we live in.

    I haven’t finished my fist cup of coffee, and I don’t want to give you homework, but I think Bourdieu’s ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’ is needed here. He lays out that speech (Doxa) is divided between two different sides of an argrument, the Heterodox and the Orthodox–people generally don’t bother to talk about something unless there’s a disagreement somewhere. Everything else ‘goes without saying because is comes without saying’, which Bourdieu grounds in physical practice: habitus (an old word from Aristotle).

    It’s my conceit that a lot of what goes unsaid would cause a bit of discomfort, consternation, and outright conflict if it were made explicit, so a lot of human chatter and activity is about sickling-over such conflict, pasting it over with comfortable old grievances and well-rehearsed bickering.

  10. Carolinian

    Interesting post and useful too. One might almost say that thinking and talking versus doing is the intellectual curse. Or as Hamlet (and Shakespeare) put it, “to be or not to be.” One could perhaps expand the notion to explain the very changes in our society from one that is about making things and hands on experience to a knowledge economy based on a formal education that, as the articles says, can be very dubious.

    And the peacock analogy is entirely appropriate. Some of us would contend that much of our behavior tracks back to instinctive drives that are sub rational. The religious ascribe these urges to “sin” and “all are sinners” while the non religious still adopt a good versus evil framework while leaving off the Devil, thereby “signaling” their supposedly superior rationality.

    Yes, it explains a lot.

  11. Lexx

    In the background while I read I could hear ‘Blurred Lines’, not the lyrics because that wouldn’t work (but sorta…), mostly the music and the refrain. Didn’t we used to call this ‘passive aggressive’? And something about the consequences. We used to be more certain of who we were talking to, what the conditions of those relationships were, and what the consequences would be to us for crossing lines and boundaries. Now unless explicitly stated, we can’t be sure who were communicating with and in the process what lines we’re crossing, or what the consequences might be, directly or indirectly. Fortunes in money/reputation to be made or lost on a whim of a pretext of a ‘relationship’. Best to play it safe. It’s bit like art appreciation. ‘Well, what does this piece say to ‘you’?’

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      locks one in to the Hyperindividualism part of the Neoliberal Catechism…the Human Being as a Brand to be managed….and an Enterprise, in competition(holy) with all the 8 billion other Enterprises(plus Multinational Corps(e), i would suppose)

      divide and conquer taken to reductio ad absurdam levels of ruthlessness.
      and we’re all but forced to be that way(system selects for psychopathy).
      by the crap we must do to tread water.
      remind us of our differences at evry opportunity, deny our commonalities even more often.
      solidarity is just so…silly, innit?
      this is the culmination of the mindfuck begun 50 or so years ago, by the Right(weyrich, et alia)…now taken over both parties(thanks, bill) and the MSM(again, thanks, bill) and academia(long a Right aspiration), and now culture, itself(at least the online portion, but with ubiquitous fondleslabs gazed at by everyone walking i see in big towns…)
      war for your mind.
      sounds crazy until its already happened.

    2. .Tom

      Last week Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi talked on their podcast about The Lottery of Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges about how a society evolved into a condition in which people could not know if anything that happened, including their own death, was directed or just happened.

  12. GlassHammer

    Perfomativity always takes center stage when Mastery has been utterly removed. And today there is no Mastery at the top because there is nothing to Master at the top there are only things to Measure (i.e. cost, schedule, and performance).

    What is Measured is the Mastery of those at the very bottom but what is a person to do about anothers Mastery or lack there of?

    Well one could invest in them by providing training or better tools for the task or….. one could simply remove their Mastery and replace it with an assortment of individuals, systems, and machines that combined achieve an approximate level of Mastery.

    We have been doing the later for many decades and now Mastery is so diffuse it’s barely Measureable by anyone at the top which means they have to be even more Perfomative because they removed their one and only reason to be at the top.

  13. samm

    Thanks for the interesting post. lots to think over here. I’m surprised the Wikipedia entry on economic signalling didn’t mention neoliberal saint Hayek, whose “market signals” are the mechanism in which one can discover that mysterious and heavenly substance known as “price.”

    Anyway, that’s one spin on signalling and performativity: perhaps it is a behavioral mirroring of neoliberal market activity.

  14. JBird4049

    I like this post. Let me note that in the mid and early twentieth century America, there were entire shows complete with stage-walks where they showed men and women how to be well dressed and groomed. They also showed to repair and make your own clothing.

    I think the purpose was to shown that you should considered respectable because you made the effort to be presentable. Your might be wearing the $89.95 Sears special, and the clothes might be dated and a bit worn, but all the all the holes were patched, everything matched, the shoes shined, wearing a nice hat, and finally well groomed. It was not just about class even though the style and quality of the clothing would give that. It was more about being respected with all that the word implies.

    Somewhere during the late twentieth century it went from please respect me to respect my class, (you peasant). This looks like it happened right along with the growing incompetence, the disappearing middle class, and the atomization of society.

    I am being extremely broad here, but people do complain about the formality and stiltness of the dress code that existed even in the first half of the twentieth century. There is some truth to that, but just as with architecture, but within those boundaries, there was more variety, and when someone decided to seriously go avant-garde, there was an effort to do something other than to just shock.

    Like with modern architecture, there is a blandness and oppressiveness of style. Sure, if you are in those increasingly rare areas with real money, then maybe you will see something, although I see more McMansions than anything else.

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