Performance Studies in Critical Communication Studies
Summary and Keywords
Performance studies presumes that political economy, cultural continuity, self-fashioning, and interpersonal exchange are embodied, aesthetic, affective, creative, contested, and rhetorical processes whose work can be understood through analyses of their presentational and representational particulars. Scholars in the field investigate storytelling, ritual, dance, music, and theater: live and mediated, professional and amateur. But they also deploy “performance” as a heuristic tool for examining practices of everyday life, history, the economy and the law, material culture, and other cultural forms not typically considered performance with the goal of excavating their aesthetic, theatrical, spectacular, audience-directed qualities, then explaining how these qualities do cultural and political work. Thus, in performance studies, performance is both an object and a method of study: a mode of communication and a strategy for framing and examining cultural artifacts and processes. Performance practice is a primary commitment in performance studies; it is a site to be investigated, a mode of scholarly inquiry, and a tool of scholarly representation. Within the field of communication, it is most closely aligned with rhetoric and critical cultural studies. But its many interdisciplinary incarnations include those that privilege modes of communication other than the linguistic, including dance studies and ethnomusicology.
The field of performance studies is highly interdisciplinary, with its roots in the practices of elocution, the oral interpretation of literature, and theater, as well as anthropology and folklore studies. The fundamentally contested nature of performance as a concept requires researchers to clarify the parameters and presumptions about performance in their analyses, including who or what performs, and in what sense. The field’s investment in the body as a site of knowledge and cultural production is evidenced in its primary methodologies, including performance ethnography, performance historiography, and oral history. This investment in the body also emerges in the field’s use of performed and written autoethnography and in experiments with performative writing.
Performance in/as Communication Studies
Performance studies presumes that political economy, cultural continuity, self-fashioning, and interpersonal exchange are embodied, aesthetic, affective, creative, contested, and rhetorical processes whose work can be understood through analyses of their presentational and representational particulars. Within the field of communication, it is most closely aligned with rhetoric and critical cultural studies. But its many interdisciplinary incarnations include those that privilege modes of communication other than the linguistic, including dance studies and ethnomusicology. Issues of aesthetics are central to the field; performance studies assumes that matters of aesthetics are historically and contextually particular, are socially produced, and have political economic causes and effects.
Performance studies scholars investigate storytelling, ritual, dance, music, and theater: live and mediated, professional and amateur. But they also deploy “performance” as a heuristic tool for examining practices of everyday life, history, the economy and the law, material culture, and other cultural forms not typically considered performance, with the goal of excavating their aesthetic, theatrical, spectacular, audience-directed qualities, and then explaining how these qualities do cultural and political work. Thus, in performance studies, performance is both an object and a method of study: a mode of communication and a strategy for framing and examining cultural artifacts and processes. The body is central to performance studies scholarship, not only because performance is conventionally understood as an embodied practice, but also because this conventional view reflects the deeper realization that our existence, communication, institutions, and our senses of self are physical, material, and affective: inherently intersectional (Crenshaw, 1991; Flores, 2014) and enmeshed in aesthetic and disciplinary regimes that may be thought of in theatrical terms.
Finally, the field of performance studies insists on performance practice as a mode of scholarly production with activist potential. Performance studies scholars perform and direct performances by others. They produce performance festivals, write scripts, adapt texts for the stage, create one-person shows and installations, create performative prose, make films, and author digital and printed textual products. In so doing, they challenge the text-centrism of the academy, explore the affective and corporeal dimensions of knowledge production in the field and in the archive, and advocate for a “commingling of analytical and artistic ways of knowing that unsettles the institutional organization of knowledge and the disciplines” (Conquergood, 2013, p. 41). Dwight Conquergood, one of the foremost U.S. representatives of the field, provides a useful summary for the multidimensionality of performance studies. According to Conquergood (2013, p. 42), the field triangulates:
1. Accomplishment—the making of art and remaking of culture, creativity; embodiment; artistic process and form …
2. Analysis—the interpretation of art and culture; critical reflection; thinking about, through, and with performance …
3. Articulation—activism, outreach, connection to community applications and interventions.
The analytical and critical potential of performance studies derives from the productive elasticity and epistemologically ambivalent status of performance itself. Performance’s potency as an intellectual formation is affirmed by negation in the antitheatrical prejudice, perhaps best distilled in Plato’s Ion. In this dialogue (Plato, 1998), Socrates ruthlessly dismisses the hapless rhapsode (solo performer), Ion, as lacking any systematic art or domain of knowledge to call his own, as irrational, and as a vector through which this dangerous irrationality infects his audiences. As a performer of Homer’s poetry, Ion is reduced to a degraded copy of a copy: three removes from the Truth. Typically read as Plato’s critique of mimesis (representation), Ion also provides epistemological infrastructure for later views of theater and performance practice, and performers, as inauthentic, intrinsically deceptive, and morally suspect. Yet it bears mention that the dialogue form is a play script—one critic calls it a “spectacle” (Richter, 1998, p. 19)—and Socrates is a character within it. Ion’s performance potential is intrinsic to its intellectual work. Even in this withering critique, performance demonstrates its aesthetic and rhetorical utility, its affective force, and its wily refusal to stay in its putatively degraded and subordinated place.
The antitheatrical prejudice, coupled with performance’s corporeality, position it within what Michel Foucault (1980, p. 82) calls “subjugated knowledges”: those that are “located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity.” As an embodied practice, it is associated with “body,” not “mind”; as an affective and affecting form, it is linked with the irrational. This subjugated status manifests in performance’s ambivalent place within elite U.S. universities. As performance studies scholar Shannon Jackson notes in Professing Performance (2004), in these institutions, performance practice—whether in the form of drills in argumentation or as actual theater—was dismissed as mere skill building, “equated with the extra-curricular domain of exercise and athletics” (p. 58). Performance, like speech communication, was “applied” knowledge more easily incorporated into technical institutes and land grant universities. The fact that it was inescapably corporeal meant that it was also feminized knowledge, as women were relegated to “body,” opposed to men as “mind.” Jackson notes that performance was suspect in the academy, in part because “[t]he image of a performing professor recalled and reproduced the feminized and amateur display associated with the unprofessional belletrist” (2004, p. 59).
Performance’s early institutional status as subjugated knowledge was cast in opposition to textual/textualized, elite structures of knowledge production and, in this binary, aligned with subjugated peoples whose reliance on orality, putative lack of print literacy, and/or status sans papiers was used to perpetuate their subordination. As Conquergood (2013, p. 35) argued, “The hegemony of textualism needs to be exposed and undermined … The root metaphor of the text underpins the supremacy of [elite] Western knowledge systems by erasing the vast history of the tacit and the habitual.” In challenging both the default primacy of texts and the false opposition of text to performance in epistemological hierarchies, the field of performance studies also attempts to undermine the “apartheid of knowledges that divide theory from practice, scholarly production from embodiment, and thinking from doing” (p. 43).
Performance’s status as a subjugated knowledge within these elite knowledge systems does not position it as intrinsically resistant to or critical of these systems, in and of itself. Indeed, as the example of Louis XIV staging himself through the ballet reminds us, elite individuals, actors, and nation-states routinely deploy performance to assert and affirm their power. Performance studies as a field examines both the role of performance in sustaining hierarchies of power and privilege and its role in resisting, subverting, and navigating within them. The field’s emphasis on embodiment, including its recognition of the intrinsically intersectional and situated nature of the body, makes it a generative intellectual home for critical scholars investigating affect and desire, lived experiences of gender, race, sexuality, ability, and class, and the ways that these forces and multiple dimensions of difference shape and are shaped by cultural, sociopolitical life.
Definitions of Performance
In their essay “Research in Interpretation and Performance Studies: Trends, Issues, Priorities,” Mary Strine, Beverly Long, and Mary Frances Hopkins (1990) describe, rather than define, performance as an “essentially contested concept … its very existence is bound up in disagreements about what it is and disagreements over its essence is itself part of that essence” (p. 183). Conquergood (1995, p. 137) labeled performance “a term on the move.” As these characterizations attest, multiple definitions of performance operate across the field. Folklorist Richard Bauman (1986, p. 3) defines performance as
a mode of communication, a way of speaking, the essence of which resides in the assumption of responsibility to an audience for a display of communicative skill, highlighting the way in which communication is carried out, above and beyond its referential content.
Anthropologist Victor Turner (1982, p. 3) defines performance as a constitutive process, one of “making, not faking” social life and cultural continuity; performance studies scholar Diana Taylor (2016, p. 6) locates performance “between the AS IF and the IS, between pretend and new constructions of the ‘real.’” Theater director Richard Schechner (1985, pp. 35–36) defines performance as “restored behavior” or “twice-behaved behavior.” The contested nature and multiple definitions of performance make it incumbent on researchers to clarify the parameters and presumptions about performance that they bring to their work, including articulating who or what performs, and in what sense.
In addition to performance, performance studies scholars deploy theories of performativity in their research, especially philosopher J. L. Austin and gender theorist Judith Butler. Austin (1975, p. 6) posited the performative speech act as one in which “the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action” when requisite conditions of authority are met. Butler (1990) uses Austin’s formulation to argue that gender is an embodied utterance: one that gains stability through repetition. It is “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeals over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler, 1990, p. 25).
Although Butler uses performance to elaborate on her theory of gender and posits that drag in particular is a parodic practice revealing the constructed, imitative nature of gender production, she does not consider theater per se a viable tool for doing this critical work. Nevertheless, both performance studies scholars in communication and those in theater studies use her conception of the performative to explore a wide range of normative and antinormative actions on stage and off. In such analyses, “[w]hen performativity materializes as performance in that risky and dangerous negotiation between a ‘doing’ (a reiteration of norms) and a thing done (discursive conventions that frame our interpretations), between someone’s body and the conventions of embodiment, we have access to cultural meanings and critique” (Diamond, 1996, p. 5). For example, communication and performance studies scholar Kristin M. Langellier, whose work examines the performance of personal narrative, writes:
Why add performativity to performance? By performativity, I highlight the way speech acts have been extended and broadened to understand the constitutiveness of performance. That is, personal narrative performance constitutes identities and experience, producing and reproducing that to which it refers. Here, personal narrative is a site where the social is articulated, structured, and struggled over. (Langellier, 1999, p. 129, emphases in original)
The fundamentally contested nature of performance, and multiple adaptations of performativity to include performance practice, both reflect and are reflected in the interdisciplinarity and crossdisciplinarity of contemporary performance studies as an institution. As theater historian Tracy Davis (2008, p. 1) notes, in addition to departments of performance and communication studies, “performance scholars can be found under the mantle of philosophy, ethnography, art history, political theory, media studies, music, rhetoric, and literary studies,” among others. Although departments of performance studies are found primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom, performance studies scholars, scholarship, and journals are global. Yet this interdisciplinary and crossdisciplinary diffusion may obscure specific genealogies of the field, including foundational practices, texts, and presumptions that operate within specific institutional locations. Thus, rather than simply ask what performance is, it is more useful to explore its roots in communication, anthropology, and theater studies.
There are other genealogies of performance studies as well. For example, ethnomusicology emerged from musicology, the study of musical structures, styles, history, and reception, which focused primarily on European canonical texts. Ethnomusicologists deploy methods of participant observation to explore music’s social work with an explicit, though not exclusive, focus on nonelite global and intercultural forms and communities. Dance studies grew from interdisciplinary origins in anthropology, history, movement notation and analysis, and performance practice. Both ethnomusicology and dance studies draw from and contribute to theoretical and methodological developments in performance studies. Within communication departments, journals, and scholarship, however, the genealogies discussed in the rest of this article are primary.
Genealogies of Performance Studies
Performance studies and communication share genealogies of practice; both fields enter the academy as “doings”: elocution and oral interpretation in the case of the former, and public speaking and rhetoric in the latter. Elocution, the practice that first institutionalized protoperformance studies within communication, was both a symptom of and a cause of the emergence of a transatlantic public sphere in the 18th century. Irish actor and educator Thomas Sheridan defined it as “the just and graceful management of the voice, countenance, and gesture in speaking” in a famous series of lectures delivered in London in 1762 (quoted in Bacon, 1960, p. 148). It was a genre of solo performance and a tool for self-advancement.
As a genre, the solo elocutionist’s recitals or lectures were the theater’s more reputable cousins: bourgeois, pedagogical, and disciplined. As a tool for consolidating middle class capital, “[e]locution was designed to recuperate the vitality of the spoken word from rural and rough working class contexts by regulating and refining its ‘performative excess’ through principles, science, systematic study, and standards of taste and criticism” (Conquergood, 2006, p. 143). The elocutionists’ academic and popular performances of literature coincided uneasily with the consolidation of literature as a university discipline in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, contributing to the growth of oral interpretation as a pedagogical and hermeneutic tool: what Jackson (2009, p. 9) describes as “the ultimate form of close reading.”
The oral interpretation of literature found a home in communication departments, particularly, although not exclusively, in land grant colleges and universities. Its status was betwixt and between public speaking, rhetorical criticism, and forensics, the competitive extracurricular counterpart to debate that featured solo and group performances of literature. Indeed, “oral interpretation” as both a term and a performance practice endures in forensics, although it has largely disappeared from the U.S. university curriculum. In its mid-20th-century incarnation, oral interpretation firmly adhered to a New Critical paradigm that posted a stable, self-contained meaning within literary texts. This meaning, as well as the mechanics that produced it, were embodied in performance. Oral interpretation was not acting; performers were not to disappear into the text. Rather, their task was to explicate literary techniques, such as point of view and direct and indirect discourse, presentationally in the works that they performed. While performance in oral interpretation was a critical practice, it was exclusively a formalist one.
Three developments established the foundations for the emergence of performance as a tool for sociopolitical critique within communication. In A Grammar of Motives (1945), Kenneth Burke proposed “dramatism” as a way to explore motive in rhetorical situations. His “pentad”—act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose—established performance as a hermeneutic tool beyond the explication of a text’s formal aesthetic features. Sociologist Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) posited interpersonal exchange as theatrical, including “front” and “backstage” dimensions of behavior. His work expanded the potential of performance as a hermeneutic tool beyond the text. Finally, Wallace Bacon, professor of oral interpretation at Northwestern University and widely credited as a founder of the field, theorized the performance of literature as inherently engaging Otherness. In his foundational textbook, The Art of Interpretation (1979, p. 36), he writes, “For the interpreter, belief in the otherness of the text, full awareness of its state of being, is a major stage in mastering the art of performance.” In Bacon’s view, the text’s fundamental difference from life merited respect; it appeared as a literal presence on stage as a book or a script. Burke (1945) opened the door to performance as a vital lens through which to identify and examine the rhetorical act. Goffman (1959) located performance at the heart of the reproduction of social life. Bacon (1979) established the potential for performance to engage, not subsume, difference in both hermeneutic and embodied practice.
Bacon’s student, Dwight Conquergood, used “sense of the other” as a way to theorize the critical potential of performance, and as the basis for an ethics of performance ethnography—a research method that profoundly expanded the scope of the field. In his widely cited 1985 essay, “Performing as a Moral Act,” he argued that performing ethnographic data offered a way of “deeply sensing the other” (p. 3). Ethnographic performances “explode” the aesthetic distance of oral interpretation’s earlier New Critical paradigm because, in their fieldwork, ethnographers strive “to grasp the native’s point of view, to understand the human complexities displayed in even the most humble folk performance,” and to account for the political economic exigencies that shaped these events (p. 2).
Thus, performance generally, and performance ethnography in particular, were replete with the moral and ethical complexities outlined in Conquergood’s “Moral Map” (p. 5) depicting ethically problematic stances vis-à-vis the Other. He labeled the ethical ideal “dialogic performance”; later in his career, he preferred the term “co-performative witnessing” (2013, p. 37) as a more accurate expression of how researchers and interlocutors constitute and are constituted by their mutual performances for and with each other.
The critical turn in performance studies exemplified by Conquergood’s research was heavily indebted to the critical cultural theory entering the U.S. academy in the mid-1980s, as well as the performance turn in folklore studies. The writings of Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin were especially useful. Bakhtin’s concept of “dialogism” (1981), essential to Conquergood’s formulation of an ethical stance in performance and ethnography, posited that literary works, the micropractices of everyday life, and, indeed, language itself were material, social, and intrinsically in communication with history and context: “Every utterance participates in the ‘unitary language’ and at the same time partakes of social and historical heteroglossia” (p. 272). In addition, Bakhtin’s interest in the body, as well as his theorization of the carnivalesque (1984) as a fleshly celebration that temporarily reversed social hierarchies, supported the increasing emphasis by performance studies on performing bodies rather than stable texts.
The field of performance studies was critically and theoretically omnivorous, drawing from and applying a wide range of approaches to power and resistance. For example, the critical method of deconstruction, most frequently associated with philosopher Jacques Derrida (1978), exposed the text itself as intrinsically unstable and porous, making the New Critical presumption about self-contained meaning untenable and freeing performers to explore intertextual relationships. Critical race theorists and activists, feminists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) scholars forcefully challenged the presumptive universality and putative political neutrality of the normative subject and arts canons, marking them as hegemonically white, heterosexual, and male. Creative production was increasingly viewed as intrinsically shot through with power relations and enmeshed in history and political economy. Postcolonial theorists critiqued the implicit and explicit Eurocentrism of canonical texts and aesthetic practices, while highlighting the strategic and resistant practices of colonized and subaltern peoples. Performance studies scholars deployed insights from all these theories and methods, while challenging them to account for embodied practices as sites of cultural production and crucial public discourse.
During this same period, folklorists, especially Richard Bauman (1986), Roger Abrahams (1972), and Dell Hymes (1981), were increasingly moving away from simply collecting folk texts, instead emphasizing the embodied performance practices that constituted such texts: what performance studies scholar D. Soyini Madison (1998) describes as engaging the “telling” and not simply the “told.” In addition to reinforcing the embodied practice of performance per se as a crucial object of study, the performance turn in folklore expanded the critical genealogies of performance studies beyond white male progenitors of the mid 20th century. An especially notable example is African-American novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960). Hurston studied the tactical and pleasurable performances of her African-American interlocutors, presenting them in vivid prose that preserved the textures of their voices. In addition, she presented her fieldwork through performance: the theatrical review The Great Day, which premiered in New York City in 1932, discussed in Kraut (2008). Hurston’s use of performative writing, her incisive readings of African Americans’ practices of resistance to white hegemony, and her commitment to publicly staging her fieldwork make her a foundational contributor to performance studies.
In addition to these theoretical, methodological, and artistic developments, changes in performance practice were enfolded into the emerging discipline of performance studies. For example, in his influential courses on performance art, Leland Roloff extended the genealogy of performance in communication to include European and U.S. avant-garde movements that staged provocations and performance-based works (e.g., futurists, dadaists, and surrealists). Happenings, live improvisational art events, and the works of Fluxus, an interdisciplinary, conceptual art movement emphasizing eventness over the production of objects, likewise were viewed as useful progenitors. These movements’ investment in the body—rather than the object—as the artwork, their rejection of canonical theater conventions, and their use of highly charged personal and affective material contributed to performance studies practice as well as to the contested definitions of performance itself.
Outside of communication, performance studies per se emerged betwixt and between theater and anthropology. Anthropologist Victor Turner’s (1982) formulation, “social drama,” is central to this genealogy. Turner’s four-stage model—the breach of norms, crises, redressive actions, and resolution—offers a template for analyzing the contestory, emergent nature of cultural continuity. These four stages operate within structures of authority, as well as antistructures that include activities outside or beyond the reach of authority.
Crucial to social drama is Turner’s foundational idea of “liminality”: the threshold state, neither here nor there, that is perilous but replete with the potential for social change. Liminality emerged as so central to performance studies that theorist Jon McKenzie (2001) views it as a disciplinary norm. He writes that
we have come to define the efficacy of performance, and of our own research, if not exclusively, then very inclusively, in terms of liminality—that is, a mode of activity whose spatial, temporal, and symbolic “in-betweenness” allows for social norms to be suspended, challenged, played with, and perhaps even transcended … (McKenzie, 2001, p. 50)
Turner’s productive collaborations with theater director Richard Schechner generated crucial conceptual infrastructure for this emerging field. Schechner (1985) posited theatrical performers themselves as intrinsically liminal figures: “not” themselves but “not-not” themselves either.
Contemporary critical performance studies scholars in communication draw primarily from both the communication and the anthropology-theater genealogies in their work. In addition, they deploy critical race, gender, and LGBTQ theory, media theory, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and British cultural studies, among many other conceptual and analytic tools. In so doing, they also argue for the utility of performance within these critical projects. This diversity of theoretical approaches parallels the diversity of sites examined by performance studies researchers, as well as the wide range of methods and modes of scholarly representation that they use to do so.
The remainder of this article offers examples of performance studies research projects and is not intended as an exhaustive canon. These examples are primarily, though not exclusively, the work of scholars who identify or have institutional affiliations with the discipline of communication, broadly construed. Performance studies research explores such a wide range of practices and artifacts that it is not possible to account for them all. The examples discussed here are grouped according to some, though not all, of the key methods that performance studies scholars use to collect and present their data.
In his now-canonical essay “Rethinking Ethnography,” Dwight Conquergood (2013) detailed the fundamental epistemological and praxical connections between participant observation research and performance studies. He writes, “With renewed appreciation for boundaries, border-crossings, process, improvisation, contingency, multiple identities, and the embodied nature of fieldwork practice, many ethnographers have turned to a performance-inflected vocabulary” (p. 92). “Performance ethnography,” as a distinct methodological practice, is the result of these affinities. As performance studies scholar and ethnographer D. Soyini Madison explains in her authoritative book Critical Ethnography (2012), performance ethnographers “describe and deepen [performance’s] multiple operations” (p. 166) by immersing themselves in specific sites to probe the embodied, processual, and contested nature of these locations. Like all participant observation research, performance ethnography triangulates personal experience and observation; the insights, explanations, and theorizing of site interlocutors; and secondary scholarship. While other genealogies of fieldwork also include embodied knowledge gained through shared physical practice—dancing and making music with one’s interlocutors, for example—performance ethnography goes further: exposing the presentational, theatrical, and performative structures of cultural life; using theatrical performance as a hermeneutic tool to investigate contested dimensions of a particular site; and, frequently, circulating insights from the field through performance.
Madison’s monograph Acts of Activism: Human Rights as Radical Performance (2010) exemplifies these multiple dimensions of performance ethnography. The text itself is structured in theatrical terms: divided into “Acts,” both to underscore activism as bodily doing and to insist on performance practice—that of her Ghanaian interlocutors as well as her own—as vital public discourse on behalf of human rights within neoliberal globalization. She opens by explicitly situating performance within theories and practices of human rights:
Performance, as a tactic and as emergent, in the service of human rights and social justice is variously effective and affective. By tactic, in this instance, I mean creating a means and a space from whatever elements are available in order to resist or subvert the strategies of more powerful institutions, ideologies, or processes. (p. 2; emphasis in original)
Madison (2010, p. 224) argues that “performance and activism are mutually constitutive because performance demands that we pay attention to the deep particularities of human action,” including the “layers of contexts and motivating factors” that generate such action. After operationalizing the relationship between performance and human rights, she turns to detailed analyses of debates over Trokosi/Troxovi, the traditional practice of consigning girls and women to shrines where, depending on the point of view, they are enslaved or ennobled; resistance to water privatization within neoliberal economic restructuring; and Ghanaian demonstrations against U.S. racist police brutality and local domestic violence.
In addition to performance ethnography, Madison uses oral history and close readings of street demonstrations, as well as the research, development, production, and close reading of performances: both those that she creates and those created by her interlocutors. Here, the development of a performance is not directed toward a simple product. It is an analytical tool: a way to think deeply about the ethnographic terrain, a materialization of the struggle over an ethical interpretation of a complex debate, and a tactic for investigating her own intersectional positionality as an African-American scholar investigating a Ghanaian practice.
For example, Madison draws on interviews and field data to create “Is It a Human Being or a Girl?”: a performance that dramatizes the highly contested nature of Trokosi/Troxovi in Ghana, sets the practice within local negotiations of tradition versus modernity and debates over the comparative virtues of indigenous practices versus Westernization, and explores its “deep particularities” (p. 60). Crucially, the performance does not simplify the debate, nor does it reduce its complexities to easy pieties or slogans. It does not stage or represent Trokosi/Troxovi subjects for the voyeuristic gaze of spectators. On the contrary, “Is It a Human Being or a Girl?” presents Madison’s and her interlocutors’ efforts to “interpret both the symbolic universe and the face-value veracities of the field that are deep with particularities and change” (p. 83). Madison critiques the U.S. media’s sensationalization of the practice, the attendant minimizing of its contested nature in Ghana, and the scant attention paid to local initiatives to curb its abuses. In this context, theatricalizing Trokosi/Troxovi risks reinscribing these dismissive characterizations. Instead, Madison’s performance materializes public deliberations around the practice, with the goal of moving beyond reductive binaries. Her script uses “Recorders” and “Performers,” not characters. This performance strategy of staging the debates rather than individuals operates in tandem with performances organized by local activists, including graduation ceremonies for women who have left the shrines and government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) initiatives in support of women and girls. Madison includes the script for “Is It a Human Being or a Girl?” in her book, expanding the public stage for debate to include the reader. The inclusion of this script—and others— is itself an act of activism: “What I had ‘to do’ in bearing witness and in the spirit of ‘artistry, analysis, and activism’ was to provide an opportunity for others to respond that is, to provide the opportunity of response-ability to an audience” (p. 225).
Madison’s intersectional analysis, focus on embodied practices as both objects and methods of study, minute attention to the imbrication of global political economy in local particulars, and use of performance as an analytical and presentational tool are hallmarks of performance ethnography. Two additional works highlight the unique ways in which performance ethnographers address these elements in their very specific sites, while underscoring the overall interdisciplinarity and critical potential of the field. Both take up core performance studies themes of embodied practices and affects as resistance to structures of domination; the material and corporeal effects of globalization, including migration and tourism, on performers and audiences; and a range of intersectional frictions in local aesthetic productions.
In his multisited ethnography Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics (2012), performance studies scholar Ramón H. Rivera-Servera defines latinidad as “an identity-in-process” (p. 28), not as a stable essence shared by Latinos and Latinas. Consistent with the field’s emphasis on identity-as-enacted, Rivera-Servera argues that latinidad is produced though daily interpersonal and theatrical performances. Drawing on performance studies scholar E. Patrick Johnson’s (2001) influential conception of “quare,” a vernacular theorizing of queer identity that challenges presumptions of LGBTQ communities as normatively white, Rivera-Servera traces interconnections between queer latinidad, movement, and migration as they emerge in specific U.S. contexts.
Two examples, one examining onstage performance and another focusing on performance in everyday life, expose the ways that these interconnections are always local and become visible in acts of self-presentation. Rivera-Servera analyzes the repertoire of renowned dancer and performance artist Arthur Aviles as queer Latino/a “homemaking”: a paradigm for building complex solidarities and institutions through dance. As an embodied and performative practice, queer homemaking challenges conventional paradigms and characterizations of arts organizations that reinscribe and reinforce tropes of the heteronormative family. Yet homemaking is also a fraught, contested, and ongoing process, as Rivera-Servera finds in his ethnography of queer nightlife in Phoenix, Arizona. There, frictions between upwardly mobile queer Latinos and Latinas and working-class queer Latino/a immigrant laborers play out in dance club locations and hierarchies, dance vocabularies, and mutual suspicion of taste and aesthetics. Yet even amid these undeniable frictions, the transnational conviviality of the dance club and the embodied intimacies of moving with one another are “choreographies of resistance”: embodied practices that performatively produce vital utopian queer cultural spaces of latinidad that challenge debilitating encounters with racism, homophobia, and their imbrication in state practices (p. 43).
Performance ethnographer and communication scholar Renée Alexander Craft likewise sees performance at the center of communal identity, while resisting fictions of that identity as stable, homogenous, and friction free. In her book When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness (2015), she examines the Africana tradition of Congo festivities within Carnival in Portobelo, Panama: cultural performances of the type that served as prime sites for examination by the field’s folklore and anthropology progenitors. Initially a crucial site of resistance against Spanish colonizers and the Catholic Church, Congo performances continue to celebrate and performatively insist on the country’s black cultural past, while also performatively producing a black cultural present that is radical in its ambitions and effects.
These performances operate as a form of resistant cultural nationalism for those who produce them. Their resistant potential is inseparable from incarnation in performance production, even in highly commodified contexts like tourism. Rather than examine tourist iterations of Congo festivities as intrinsically inauthentic, Alexander Craft posits a schema that avoids a simplistic binary of “authentic” and “fake,” while theorizing the ways that the traditional Congo form inevitably shape shifts with its audiences. “Local” performances during Carnival “are produced and consumed primarily for the community,” while “like-local” events are “for the consumption of global tourists” (p. 140). Indeed, tourist contexts demonstrate the crucial role of the audience in performance’s critical work. In the case of Congo as resistant cultural nationalism, performers’ ability to “trick back” on power depends on “an in-group that gets the joke and an outgroup that is the joke” (p. 142).
Alexander Craft uses Victor Turner’s “social drama” as theoretical infrastructure but forcefully adapts it to explicitly address intersectional dimensions of race, class, and gender—which are largely absent from Turner’s analyses—while highlighting the everyday logistical performances that sustain the framed performance events. She insists on the inextricability of cultural performance from local and global political economy: emphasizing both the “circum-local” migrations of people, narratives, and performance practices that have sustained Congo performances in Portobelo and the role of national infrastructure like superhighways in increasing tourism. By attending to microruptures, such as those between young and older performers and audiences, she also demonstrates the highly contested nature of crucial, intermediate stages of cultural performance as social repair, too often generalized in the field’s privileging of liminality.
Like Madison, Alexander Craft performs her ethnographic work both for and with her Portobelo interlocutors in Panama and for U.S. audiences. She forthrightly addresses the points where her performances seem to “fail … No one could have convinced me otherwise” (p. 166), as in one case when she scheduled her event against both bad weather and an National Basketball Association (NBA) game eagerly anticipated by her Portobelo audiences. In addition to these live performances, Alexander Craft has created “Digital Portobelo: Art + Scholarship + Cultural Preservation” (http://digitalportobelo.org/), an interactive, online archive of interviews, videos, archival data, and maps that capture the performative productions of Portobelo itself in both “storied” and “lived” views. This is an activist project, one that explicitly blurs the boundaries of ethnography, curatorship, and cultural advocacy.
Autoethnography and Performative Writing
Performance studies scholars deploy autoethnography and performative writing to challenge norms of academic representation that privilege the distance between knower and known, the detachment from affect and embodiment, and the presumptive neutrality and transparency of conventions in academic writing. Autoethnography and performative writing often, though not always, operate in tandem with the goal of calling attention to how knowledge is produced through these conventions, as well as how identity is produced through conventional narrative. Performance practice is central to both methods.
Autoethnography emerged as a critical response of subaltern subjects to the colonial roots and impulses of classic anthropology, particularly the practices of Western European and U.S. ethnographers who cast racial and ethnic others as representatives of “vanishing” or “primitive” cultures. Autoethnography was a way that those who were written about could turn the tables on and control scholarly representations of themselves and their communities. As literary theorist Françoise Lionnet (1989) has written of Zora Neale Hurston’s autoethnographic text, Dust Tracks on a Road, this scholarly strategy
evokes the ethnic reality of which it partakes but, in so doing, puts into question the mimetic principles of description and classification which inform its writing. It thus simultaneously demystifies the writing of both the self (auto) and the culture (ethno) because it involves the self and its cultural contexts in a dialogue that transcends all possibility of reducing one to the other. (p. 122)
Performance studies scholars recognized the critical affinities that link autoethnography to the work of queer solo performance artists, especially Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, who used elements of autobiography to challenge the homophobia and gender revanchism of the United States during the Reagan era. Further, they deploy some of these artists’ performance strategies: direct address to the audience, solo embodiment of multiple characters, and interweaving of highly lyrical language with conventional narrative. Although autoethnographic texts and performances are challenged by some in the field for their potential to reify a seemingly stable and essential self (see, e.g., Terry, 2006), other performance studies scholars use autoethnography to probe the political economic regimes through which intersectional selves are produced in dialogic relation to others.
An exemplary illustration of the dialogic potential of autoethnography is the exchange between performance studies scholars Tami Spry and Bryant Keith Alexander. In her 1997 performance “Tattoo Stories,” Spry reflects on her relationship with her mother and, in so doing, on the race and class privilege and gendered constraints that shaped but do not fully define her. In a follow-up publication (2000), which includes the text of the performance, Spry writes, “I believe I exist somewhere amid the sociopolitical narratives written on my body; I hover, duck, and dodge to resist a reifying surface/body politic of mother, daughter, woman, white, heterosexual” (p. 84). The live performance offers a materialization of this “ever-fluctuating” identity and its relationship to the body. In the performance, Spry (2000, p. 84) relates a story that her mother repeatedly told her:
When I was little, like three, and four, and five, up until I was a teenager, my mom used to tell me that I wasn’t really hers, that I wasn’t really her child and that my real father was the garbage man and that he might come to get me some day. And she would go on to say that she found me one day in the garbage can … and that she took me in. And it was like this family joke, that she wasn’t really my real mom, and that I was the garbage man's kid and that he could show up any day. It was supposed to be this funny joke.
Bryant Alexander is the child of a garbage man; he does not share Spry’s racial and heterosexual privilege. In his response to Spry’s reference—one that also appears as a scholarly article and a performance text—he writes:
As the “real” child of a garbage man, the joke forces me to reflect on my own
incomprehensible projections of self as other, which resulted from internalized
racism and classism. My response is what Charles E. Semmes calls the “taking in and believing” of racist and classist prejudices that demonize and minimize specialized groups. (Alexander, 2000, p. 105)
The journal article “Skinflint (or, The Garbage Man’s Kid)” (Alexander, 2000) is his outing of himself: a public performative claim of identity. In it, Alexander writes that Spry’s performance
causes me to make the reflexive move as an audience member and revisit my own implication in telling and living tragic family stories. In the process I came to a new understanding of self. Today I take the public opportunity to out myself:
[As myself—in a confessional mode] “I am the son of a garbage man.”
I say that for the first time after 34 years of subterfuge and euphemistic
descriptions such as:
[As myself—embarrassed, hesitantly grappling] “My dad is a … My dad is a …
My dad is a … a truck driver.”
“My dad works f o r … the … the city.”
[With an increasing rate and frustration] “My dad is a san … n i … tational
engineer.” (p. 106)
Spry’s and Alexander’s generative dialogic autoethnographies do not stabilize identities outside of intersectional political economic dynamics. On the contrary, the exchange emphasizes the ways that race, gender, and class shape jokes and shame, as well as the ways these are performed by the self, both for the self and for audiences of external others. These autoethnographies “interrupt” putatively smooth processes of self- and cultural knowledge (Alexander, 2006, p. 27).
Spry and Alexander mark affect and movement in their texts: the parenthetical references to emotions building and to bodies swaying and wandering. This is both a convention of performance scripts and, in the context of their scholarly essays, an example of performative writing. In performative writing, the author attempts to make the written word operate as a “doing,” and thus to expose the scholarly enterprise as a form of poiesis, as saturated with affect and as highly situated. In performance and communication scholar Della Pollock’s (1998) influential essay, “Performing Writing,” she characterizes it as “an important, dangerous, and difficult intervention into routine representations of social/performative life” (p. 75). This writing is evocative, subjective, and citational: reflexive about its own materiality and conventions.
It is also controversial, as the example of performance and communication studies scholars Frederick Corey and Thomas Nakayama’s (1997) essay “Sextext” demonstrates. Drawing on Roland Barthes’s influential book The Pleasure of the Text as an interlocutor, Corey and Nakayama presented a performatively written, sexually explicit account that examines the interrelationships between the body and the text as sources of queer pleasure. The narrator, a fictional queer doctoral student, also assumes the identity of gay porn star Mark Stark and probes economies of desire in the flesh and on the page. The essay presents multiple scenes of desire, satisfaction, frustration; it ponders whether “academic writing, like pornographic writing, is an explosion of desire” (Corey & Nakayama, 1997, p. 65). Immediately after its publication, it was vehemently denounced on the Communication listserv CRTNET as pornographic, as not being scholarship, and as a threat to the respectability of communication as a discipline. It was defended equally vigorously, including by those calling out potential homophobic anxieties of the essay’s detractors. Indeed, the entire field of performance studies, including its critical commitments to engaging embodied intersectional identity and its explorations of affect in the field and on the page was both attacked and defended in these exchanges. So volatile was the conversation around this example of performative writing that, 15 years later, the editor of CRTNET published an analysis of this “Scandal in Academia” (Benson, 2012).
Performance Historiography and Oral History
Performance has a complex relationship to the archive, and, indeed to attempts at preservation. For example, performance studies scholar Peggy Phelan (1993, p. 146) argues that “performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” Such a view is resisted by those who argue that it assumes a pure, “unmediated” live performance: an unproblematic “original.” Others posit a relationship between performance and the archive as a complex interaction rather than a binary opposition. Diana Taylor (2003) uses “archive” and “repertoire” to distinguish between artifacts that “exceed the live,” like “documents, maps, literary texts, letters, archeological remains, bones, videos, films, CDs, all those items supposedly resistant to change,” and cultural productions that “enact embodied memory” respectively (pp. 19–20). Both are mediated; they work “in tandem” (p. 21).
Still other performance studies scholars theorize performance as a driver of cultural continuity. Theater historian Joseph Roach (1996) posits a complex relationship between memory, performance, and the ongoing (re-)production of culture, using “surrogation” to describe how such operations work. “Surrogation” is a process of substitution that fills vacancies in the social fabric: routine vacancies created by deaths or lapses in memory, and highly fraught vacancies generated by cultural ruptures or cultural genocide. These substitutions materialize through performance. Roach (1996, p. 3) writes, “Performance, in other words, stands in for an elusive entity that it is not but that it must vainly aspire both to embody and to replace.”
Performance studies scholars who do archival research inevitably confront these multiple dimensions of performance—as disappearance, as traces of repertoires within the archive, and as strategies of cultural continuity—but they also remind us that such research is itself an embodied and highly affective practice. In her history of Hull House performance, Shannon Jackson (2000, p. 3) notes the researcher’s “[c]allused fingers, numb limbs, and swollen feet … the bodily basis of research.” Performance historian Lisa Merrill reflects on her own intersectional position as a lesbian scholar researching 19th-century actress Charlotte Cushman, “a lesbian in an era before some claim the word—or the self-identification—existed,” in her award-winning biography When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman (1999, p. 2). She writes, “What do I see that they have not? How has the shared referentiality of lesbian experience and recent work in gay and lesbian history allowed me to see and understand the apprehensions and the longing Charlotte felt …” (pp. 1–2).
Performance studies historiographers excavate the little-known or undertheorized political economic contexts, aesthetics, and legacies of theatrical performances and performers. (see, e.g., Raphael, 2009; Perucci, 2012; Goltz, 2015; Paredez, 2009). In addition to analyzing historical performances, they tease out the residues of everyday embodied practices from the archive, and sometimes deploy performance to understand the potency of cultural production, even in contexts where it seems counterintuitive. For example, in Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011), performance studies scholar Robin Bernstein uses performance as a strategy for analyzing the sociopolitical work of everyday material culture, labeling her method “reading scriptive things” (p. 8):
The method entails using archival knowledge and historical context to determine the documented, probable, and possible uses of a category of object. This horizon of known and possible uses then informs a close reading of an individual artifact. The operative questions are, “What historically located behaviors did this artifact invite? And what practices did it discourage?”
Bernstein analyzes the “topsy-turvy doll,” with two heads at opposite ends—one black and one white—and a shared skirt, as such a scriptive thing. Pulling the skirt over one head exposed the other. As Bernstein (2011, p. 87) points out, the doll “determinatively scripts one action: any user, regardless of age, race, gender, or historical context, necessarily obscures one character pole to play with the other character pole.” The two positions cannot exist at the same time. The “topsy-turvy doll” did crucial work in everyday pre– and post–Civil War contexts: among other things, affirming putatively immutable racial binaries. But Bernstein notes that the doll also included the possibility that playing with it could rehearse the ways that racial hierarchies could flip.
These dolls were made by enslaved African-American women, raising two additional scriptive possibilities. Bernstein (2011, pp. 88–89) writes, “When an enslaved woman sewed a topsy-turvy doll for her enslaved child, typically a daughter, she offered that child an opportunity to own and to have complete power over a representation of a ‘white girl.’” In addition, when an enslaved woman sewed such a doll for a slaveholding white child, she “sent that child to bed with a sign of systemic rapes committed by members of that child’s race, if not that child’s immediate family … a sign of the child’s enslaved half-sibling, either literal or symbolic” (p. 89).
As Roach’s (1996) theory of surrogation suggests, performance studies scholars view the production of history itself as a performance; this is especially apparent in the method of oral history. In the oral history interview, the performance studies researcher engages with an interlocutor to produce history as both the “narrated event”—the “told”—and the “narrative event”—the affect, embodiment, tone, and attentiveness to the interlocutor (i.e., the process of “telling”) (Bauman, 1986; Madison, 1998). That is, oral histories are produced through and as performances: making, not faking history-as-memory.
As Madison (2012, p. 34) notes, they “present to us one moment of history and how that moment in history is remembered through a particular subjectivity (emphasis in original).” Performance studies scholars are keenly attuned to these performance dynamics: noting that identities are affirmed and resisted, stakes in events and insider interpretations asserted, and self-presentation managed through the oral history encounter. In addition to conceptualizing the oral history interview as a performance, scholars in the field stage oral histories. As Della Pollock (2005, p. 3) argues, “Staged performance or ‘reperformance’ [of oral history material] appreciates the magnitude of the primary interview encounter by expanding it to include other listeners … It moreover does so live, not only mirroring the primary telling but actively favoring oral history as a mode of embodied knowing … (emphasis in original).”
E. Patrick Johnson’s book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (2008) exemplifies the performance studies scholar’s engagement with oral history performance in narrative and narrated events, as well as in reperformance onstage. Early in the book, Johnson (2008, p. 8) notes that he is less interested in creating conventional historical narratives than he is in
understanding the meanings and symbols embedded in the act of storytelling—of bearing witness to one’s life and then co-performatively interpreting the significance of that story. To construe this research as co-performance means not only acknowledging that both the researcher and the narrators are performing for one another; it also entails “paying attention” in a way that engages the bodily presence of both the researcher and the researched in the narrative event.
The coperformative nature of the book’s narratives and analyses are especially apparent in Johnson’s self-reflexive discussions of his own performance practices. As is typical for performance studies scholars, these practices provide a shared basis for theorizing embodied and affective experience. For example, in his discussion of the comfort that African-American gay men find in the black church despite its condemnation of their sexuality, Johnson describes the pleasure and acclaim that he found as a young singer in his church choir: “What I realize now, but didn’t back then, was that I was a budding diva who was using the medium of gospel music to express not only my spirituality, but also my gender and sexual identity” (2008, p. 185). Johnson extends this shared embodiment, the “I-to-eye encounter” (p. 547) of oral history, to the stage with a widely praised play, also entitled Sweat Tea.
The Productive Plurality of Performance Studies
Performance ethnography, autoethnography and performative writing, performance historiography, and oral history are not the only methods used by performance studies scholars. That said, the projects surveyed in this article give a sense of the scope of performance studies research: examining everything from the biographies of individual performers to the intersectional autobiographies of scholars in the field (e.g., Gingrich Philbrook, 2013), from race and utopia as performatively produced (Alexander, 2012; Dolan, 2005) to culture and the law as constituted in performance (e.g., Chambers Letson, 2013). Although the field resists reduction to a strict canon of texts or themes, the works surveyed here share a set of common theoretical and methodological commitments: the imperative to articulate how and what performs, rather than assume that definitions of performance are obvious and uncontested; the understanding that performativity materializes in performance; the obligation to account for the intersectional particulars of performing and audiencing bodies; and the deep investment in performance practice as both a rigorous mode of knowledge production and a rigorous mode of scholarly communication.
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