|Kurt Lancaster, Tom
Mikotowicz (eds.), Performing the Force. Essays on Immersion into
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Environments, (Jefferson:
McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001). 207pp. Pbk. ISBN: 0-7864-0895-2,
Reviewed by Susana P. Tosca
This is a timely book dealing with the very interesting question of participatory forms of audience performance in relationship to various popular culture genres. The essays deal with concrete examples of role-playing games, computer games, fan fiction, fan websites, cult films and tv series, action figures, ghost hunts and amusement park rides. It has been edited by Kurt Lancaster and Tom Mikotowicz, who introduce the 27 short (around five pages each) essays that ‘grew out of a performance studies course Kurt taught at NYU’, placing them in the general context of performance studies as understood by Richard Schechner. The editors quickly warn the reader that the authors of the different papers are not scholars, but ‘fans who have explored firsthand what it means to become immersed into new sites of performance’, even though the back of the book identifies the authors as ‘experts’ in the various subjects they address. But the book reads as a collection of final course papers, where all authors use exactly the same three paragraphs from Schechner (about ‘strips of behaviour’), Goffman (‘presentation of self in everyday life’), and Barthes (cultural codes and mitology) and apply them to different phenomena, without discussing them in depth or relating them to other relevant theories in this context (cultural studies, media reception studies, semiotics, digital textuality or computer games theory, for example).
Performance is the central idea that unifies the papers, but the concept is stretched to its limits, without any distinctions between the different degrees or kinds of performance: a live role-playing game doesn’t, for example, offer the same degree and quality of performance to its players than shouting lines in the screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Also, if a website about a science fiction film director is ‘performing’ him (p.29), an interview with an actor who talks about a director has the director ‘performing through’ the actor (p.39), and attending a book signing is performance (p.68), among other examples from the essays, then anything can be performance, which empties the concept of its scientific value. Moreover, the excessive stress on performance dilutes the other significant aspects of the examined cultural products; for instance, the discussion about computer games concentrates so heavily on performance that none of the articles mentions that people might actually play Wing Commander for the very effective and fun gameplay instead of just with the intention of performing Star Wars. The book would have benefited from thorough content editing or a consistent discussion of the main topic preceding the essays.
The book doesn’t live up to the expectations that it sets itself in the introduction and the titles of the sections, which in some cases are spectacularly misleading (for example, ‘Interactive Movies’ grouping two articles about audience participation in movie theater screenings, when the term has another very different, well-established meaning in digital culture). The introduction states that people want to immerse themselves in these fantasy worlds through performance in an ‘attempt to find satisfaction in a life that is lacking fulfillment. Thus, in our postmodern world, people desire to turn to the fantastic, which is ultimately a turn to the transcendent’ (p. 6); but this is not investigated or proven. The reasons (psychological, social, ideological or other) behind the performances or the effects that they have on people’s lives are not addressed in this book, which is ultimately a catalogue of pointers to very heterogeneous performative experiences.
Having said that, the book can be considered an extremely interesting introduction to the enormous variety of popular culture audience participation formats that are nowadays thriving in virtual and real environments, and it is a valuable source of information for scholars wishing to get a broad view of a field that is rapidly expanding due to the pervasiveness of information technologies. I would also like to emphasize that the authors’ dedicated first-hand experience of the said environments and their engaged (sometimes very personal) writing make for a very enjoyable read. However, I found myself wishing that they had tried to go beyond the anecdotal re-telling of lived experiences into a deeper level of analysis. Sometimes the conclusions are based on a very reduced amount of data (for example a single web page about a film director), some papers lack a conclusion (like the one by Christopher Kam, p.187-195), and in others, authors get carried away and extract conclusions that are not supported by the previous argumentation; for example, after having described a role-playing session: ‘it may be that they [the players] function better in everyday life because they have another world in which to live. (…) exploration of behaviors and relationships in an imaginary world may lead to self-understanding’ (p.178, emphasis added).
The fact that a growing number of people are actively and creatively trying to interact with the contemporary cultural products that we ‘are fed’ by the entertainment industry is a phenomenon whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated. This book is a first attempt at describing these (in some cases new) forms of participation, and it will hopefully contribute to the academic study of this fascinating field.
Dr. Susana P. Tosca is Assistant Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Her research interests include digital textuality, hypertext, computer games and popular culture. She is the author of, among others, award-winning paper ‘A Pragmatics of Links’ and editor of the peer-reviewed journals JODI and Gamestudies.