May 10, 2011

What is Performance?

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What is performance debate?

Just a little over a year ago I was called a "project debater", then since the summer of this season I've been called a performance debater? The questions that I have is what makes a performance debater different from a regular debater, and what makes a regular debater not a performance debater? Isn't all debate a performance?

Over the summer Ryan Wash from Emporia State told us during a lecture at the Nebraska Debate Institute that a Performance debater is no different than a regular old K debater, it was just a name that was given to debaters like him. It would seem that their are two justifications within the community that I've noticed for being called a "Performance Debater": The first of which would be the K debater who goes all out, I'm talking 1 off style K debaters who can go a whole year without having to cut a single politics update, and is willing to act a fool in a debate round/speech. The second justification I've seen is for K debaters who like to sing, rap, play music, talk about structural violence or whiteness... who would carry themselves in a different manner or act different from other debate teams. Should we perhaps call into question what the reasoning for this process of naming is? For example, is it possible for someone to run whiteness, or structural violence arguments, maybe even go one off for a whole year and not be called a performance debater? I have yet to see so...

I think that a part of discovering the meaning of a performance debater is lies within discovering what it means to perform. What is to say that the act of reading fast and speaking in jargon isn't a performance? Or could it be that a Performance means presenting things in a way that isn't status quo, maybe that means putting yourself out there in a way that is different, the willingness to sing, dance, rap, stomp and clap your hands and present arguments in a way that is germane to yourself rather than the rest of the world. From this we have a sort of double standard, you could see the title as two things, either the title is given to glorify a given debater for the way they present arguments, or it can be used to tokenize debaters for the type of argument they chose to represent themselves with.

So at the end of this post I still have no clue what it really means to be a performance debater, but perhaps we should critically view the title and question the reasons behind it whether that justification be a positive or negative reason behind bestowing that title upon a given debater, team, or squad.


  1. Brian I'm not sure I'm following you on this. For example I have gone 1 off with the K for the past 3 years and yet I have never been called a performance debater. To me the distinction between "a K debater", "a project debater, and "a performance debater" has never been a real difficult or vague distinction. They are not separate for example both project debaters and performance debaters are K debaters as well, but not all K debaters are performance and/or project debaters. In the same vein one can be both an performance and project debater, but can also be performance without a project or have a project with out performance. The common contextual definition of these terms me (and most I know) subscribe to is this:

    k debater: One who runs arguments in debate that normally utilize continental theory, post-colonial theory, and/or philosophy (as well as other schools of thought). These arguments are commonly include a Link, an Impact, and an Alternative.

    Project debater: a debater or team who utilizes the argument structure and/or theory from K debate in order to advance an ethical or micropolitical activism for a (generally local) cause. I think a good example of a "project" that is still separate from an "performance" is the Rural Activism aff that both me, Chris, and others ran at TFA state.

    Performance debater: A debater who utilizes some act of performativity ( to advance their argument in debate. This is done in a debate round by utilizing by having a "performance" that might include personal narrative, song, dance, poem, prayer, etc. A good example of debaters who are performance debaters but not essentially project debaters might be Loyola who act cathartic and obtuse during their first speeches to be a representation of their arguments (form AND content).

    [side note: a team who would be a good example of a performance and project team would be Beacon who utilizes a performance of playing music to contextualize their project]

    Finally the last thing is that the labeling of "performance" is not a category that the debate community made up, the term comes from established academic tradition. If the wikipedia article above dosen't do a good job the Ecocide Project that is currently going on in New York is an attempt to "perform" and queer ecology.

  2. this is very true, there are definitely ways in which we can define the differences between a performance,project, and k debater... the thesis of this post wasn't to state that you can't do that, but the thesis was rather to explain how on the high school national circuit specifically the meaning behind the labels have been blurred to the point where we can identify people as such without even fully knowing what the term means.
    an example of this would be at the TOC i was addressed by all three of those titles (which is true of the arguments i run), however it has become apparent from my experience that the use of the term "performance" has become a proxy for the term "project". so basically there is definitely a way to distinguish and identify the difference between the two terms, but sometimes people use them as if there is no difference.

    also i understand that the "performance" label wasn't created by the community, but rather collectively members of the community have created separate meaning to the term whether these new meanings are for positive reasons or negative reasons.

  3. also i've heard folks refer to OPMC as a performance team before, i don't know about what you've been called through your school team though.

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