An Evolutionary Perspective on Live and Mediated Popular Performance

Bruce McConachie


Deploying philosopher Mark Johnson's idea that all cognitive operations in Homo Sapiens must be continuous with those of other higher mammals, this article takes issue with those theorists who posit an ontological difference between live and mediated performance. Rather, just as all human performances emerged out of animal play, so did mediated performances emerge from live ones (including live popular entertainments).  Filmic and electronic media, however, do require actors and spectators to make a few cognitive adjustments, the most notable of which is the unconscious application of our Hypersensitive Agency Detective Device (HADD) to translate the images and sounds on film and radio, for example, into a fully embodied live performer with agency. Given the ontological similarities and the historical distinctions among the many kinds of live and mediated performances in human history, the article suggests that the theories of McLuhan and Ong, updated to take account of the new cognitive sciences, may help us to write empirically responsible performance history. It concludes with three implications of this evolutionary perspective for the study of popular entertainment. Bruce McConachie is Professor of Theatre Arts, University of Pittsburgh, USA. His latest book is Engaging Audiences: a cognitive approach to spectating in the theatre (2008).

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Popular Entertainment Studies ISSN 1837-9303