Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity

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Contemporary academic discourse is filled with the word "perform". Nestled among a variety of prefixes and suffixes (re-, post-, -ance, -ivity?), the term functions as a vehicle for a host of inquiries. This development is intriguing and complex for students, artists, and scholars of performance and theater. By examining the history of theater studies and related institutions and comparing the very different disciplinary interpretations and developments that led to this engagement, this study offers ways of placing performance theory and performance studies in context.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Highly recommended for its detailed treatment of the obstacles and promise of performance studies." Theatre Journal

"Although a relatively slim volume, Professing Performance is an unusually ambitious, far-ranging and richly textured study." The Drama Review David Savran

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521656054
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2004
  • Series: Theatre and Performance Theory Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 268
  • Product dimensions: 5.43 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.55 (d)

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Cambridge University Press
0521651891 - Professing Performance - Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity - by Shannon Jackson

1 Discipline and performance: genealogy and discontinuity

"Differentiation is one strategy that disciplines employ to protect themselves against incursion and self-doubt. But how about the opposite strategy: emulation, imitation, envy?" Marjorie Garber1

"It is not easy to say something new." Michel Foucault2

Coming to terms

"Isn't 'performativity' the latest thing in 'English' theory?"

It was one of those over-determined moments in the life of a theatre academic. I had been asked as a faculty member in an English department to participate on a panel responding to a production of the American Repertory Theatre. The question came from a dramaturg - the in-house academic of the theatre profession - as we ate dinner before the ART's subscriber event. The director of the production also sat at the table, looking slightly amused.

"Yes, it's actually pretty trendy," I said, picking up my fork and being fairly certain that neither of them really wanted to hear about the trends.

Perform-a-tivity," repeated the director, and then once again, "per-form-a-tiv-ity. That's what they call it?"

"Yeah," said the dramaturg, "I hear it alot."

"So maybe I should start using that," the director was laughing, "No, I'm sorry; I'm not a director. I'm a Performativity Coordinator."

We all laughed. I took another bite of food, hoping that the conversation was finished.

"So what do . . . what does . . . they mean . . . that mean?" the two asked one on top of each other.

I continued chewing. I swallowed.

"Well," I began, dreading what would follow, "the concept of 'performativity' within literary studies is a reworking of the ideas of this guy, J.L. Austin . . ."

This guy, this guy . . .?

". . . and he was, well, a kind of philosopher called a speech act theorist. He wrote a book called How to Do Things With Words . . ."

Did they want to hear this? I found myself staring at the table while I talked.

". . . and there he argued that words are not purely reflective . . . that linguistic acts don't simply reflect a world but that speech actually has the power to make a world."

Reductive but brief. I looked up and was somewhat comforted to see that the two had been listening. The director nodded casually and picked up his fork again.

"Oh," he said, "you mean like theatre."

This type of exchange is fairly familiar in theatre and performance studies. In what follows, I want to work from similar moments - as well as even more bizarre and friction-ridden ones - in order to understand the varied forces that produce such conversations. At dinners, in deans' offices, in department meetings, at academic conferences, in office hours, in rehearsals, such interactions testify to an awkward and emergent period in the study and practice of theatre and performance. I happen to believe that it is necessary both to analyze the dispositions that produce that awkwardness as well as to embrace awkwardness as a condition of emergence. The conversation is familiar in part because it incarnates the scholar-versus-artist divide that persistently shadows a variety of disciplines in the humanities and arts. The provisional resolution at the end of the conversation is perhaps less familiar, entrenched as scholar/artist binaries are epistemologically, professionally, even socially in delineating amongst those of us who have decided to make performance a lifelong preoccupation. Certainly other academic fields face similar theory/practice conundrums and navigate internal divisions within themselves - splits between sociologists and social workers, art historians, and studio artists, political scientists and activists, literary scholars, and "creative writers." One of the tasks of this book will be to trace how the link between scholars and artists has been alternately disavowed and celebrated, touted and feared, re-termed and re-organized - in institutional controversies, in "new" intellectual frameworks, in genre debates, in curricula, in artistic movements, in performance history itself.

There is more percolating in this exchange than scholar/artist or theory/practice oppositions, however. When the dramaturg asked about the trend of the word "performativity" in "English theory," he presumed that he was asking about a literary concept with some bearing on, or interest in, his own world of theatre studies. The nature, indeed existence, of either that bearing or that interest is still uncertain. P-words of various sorts - couched amongst various prefixes and suffixes - circulate in the contemporary academic discourse of various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. The specific intellectual roots of performativity to which I referred are located within a genealogy of speech-act theory, a philosophical school that distinguished the performative from the constative function of language and explored how certain types of speech (e.g. promises) enact their world-creating power in the moment of utterance. Such an orientation has tremendous implications for the discipline of theatre studies, though the nature and direction of those implications have been less well-developed and occasionally received with indifference from both literature and theatre scholars. The director's delightfully assured come-back in the phrase "like theatre" would have been roundly contested by J.L. Austin himself who argued against an alignment between speech-act theory and theatre, famously characterizing theatrical language as "hollow or void" and as "parasitic upon its normal use."3 As I explore in a later chapter, Austin reproduced a neo-Platonic notion of derivativeness to add a kind of "anti-theatrical performativity" to the long list of anti-theatrical prejudices that have vexed Western intellectual history. For that reason, scholars within theatre and performance studies have been as suspicious of the language of performativity as they are intrigued by its theoretical potential.

At this point in the differently emergent and partially overlapping fields of theatre and performance studies, it is worth trying to place the vocabularies, goals, assumptions, and objects of inquiry of various critical schools in conversation with each other. Any rapprochement requires some excavation, however, especially of how hybrid intellectual histories get elided by the sledge-hammer dichotomies and false consensuses that surround certain keywords. The fact of the matter is that speech-act theory is only one of the many disciplinary strains that contribute to the intellectual ferment surrounding performance, even if it is the orientation most emphasized in literary and rhetorical studies. Scholars drawing from anthropology, sociology, art history, folklore, and media studies have developed vocabularies of performance to understand artifacts and events ranging from parades to television, from story-telling to religious ceremonies. The aspects of performance that these scholars emphasize can be quite different; the theoretical models that they derive may be incompatible, and even the reality principles that they assume may appear to undermine each other. Scholarship looks uninteresting to some when there is no abstraction, ungrounded to others when there is no description, romantic when there is no consideration of structure, incomplete without an account of production, determinist without a theory of agency, naive when it assumes a real historical referent, apolitical when too theoretical, apolitical when it is not theoretical enough. Such are the opportunities and hazards of interdisciplinarity. Comparisons amongst different types of performance discourse show this complexity and, more importantly, encourage vigilance against various kinds of synecdochic fallacies in cross-disciplinary inquiry - moments when scholars assume that one body of texts adequately represents an entire field.

This book asks how and why all of these kinds of judgements are made and what kinds of enabling illuminations and disenabling blindspots they produce. While my argument develops differently over the course of each chapter, there are some relevant issues and themes that serve as discursive touchstones for the project as a whole. First of all, this book takes seriously Michel Foucault's unsettling notion of "genealogy" in the fabrication of intellectual history, an approach that has appeared throughout Foucault's work. Before his elaboration of this concept in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Foucault's early archaeology of knowledge found that "the problem arises of knowing whether the unity of a discourse is based not so much on the permanence and uniqueness of an object as on the space in which various objects emerge and are continuously transformed."4 The non-unity of discourse is thus, for Foucault, a principle operating assumption. Consequently, my analysis acknowledges the value of assuming the discrete stability of something like "performance" - and related terms such as "theatre," "speech," "drama," or "dance" - while simultaneously tracking the discursive dispersal and decidedly indiscreet saturation of such references with that which they claim not to be. The effort to account for "theatre and performance theory" - to invoke the title of this series - is an examination of the referents in a "unity of a discourse" that paradoxically requires an awareness of "their non-identity through time, the break produced in them, the internal discontinuity that suspends their permanence."5

My contention, however, is that an account of scholarly development offers only a partial accounting of the space in which knowledge is produced. Hence, I have also found it necessary to focus on what might be called the "institutional genealogies" of knowledge formation. The modern university is itself a formidably complex and self-contradicting array of institutional practices. Its modes of knowledge production are propelled by the vagaries of institutional power, pedagogical process, and occupational structure as much as by felt desire and intellectual curiosity. In addition to such consideration, I also take seriously critiques of the professional intellectual and of the role of the arts and humanities in higher education. As it happens, such critiques are particularly resonant for (and made more resonant by) comparison with the discontinuous cluster of knowledges that come under the term performance. Consider, for instance, John Guillory's critique of the class status of the intellectual and the assumption of the knowledge-worker's progressivism.

While it has always seemed necessary to define intellectuals by their inclination to dissident political stances, it has also been possible to ground the analysis of intellectuals in the socioeconomic domain by positing a constitutive distinction between intellectual and manual labor, a distinction that for good historical reasons implicates intellectual labor in the system of economic exploitation. It is quite difficult on that basis to demonstrate how the fact of intellectual labor becomes the condition for the innate tendency to progressive or even leftist politics that is assumed to characterize intellectuals. . . . What troubles such an account is certainly not its "optimism of the will" to use Gramsci's phrases, but rather an unfounded optimism of the intellectual, an analysis of intellectuals in which identity is defined by generalizations about their innately progressive political nature or tendencies.6

The suggestion that the phenomenon of the intellectual rests upon an opposition to manual labor reflects back on the conversation that opened this introduction. As much as the opposition between "theory" and "practice" is erroneous, as much as both terms have a hugely complicated set of references, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that this conversation took place across different occupational positions. I will suggest that the enmeshment of "practice" and "production" in performance-related fields is one that blurs and hence exposes the opposition between the intellectual and the manual on which so much humanistic knowledge-making relies. This is just one of many moments where an awareness of the institutional genealogies of knowledge help to give a keener, albeit more confounding, picture of the internally discontinuous status of performance knowledge in the academy.

This predicament relates to another issue that will return throughout the book - what might be called the hyper-contextuality of performance. The enmeshment to which I referred above characterizes not only the occupational life of performance but also its intensely contingent status as a research object, a radical contextuality that makes it difficult to locate as a research object at all. The production and reproduction of knowledge is, to some extent, a formalist operation in de-contextualization. To the extent that the discernment and dissemination of knowledge requires boundedness and containment, performance has faired unevenly in the academy. The imprecise boundaries of the theatrical event made it difficult to know where the research object ended and its relevant context began. The intensely intimate, varied, social, and inefficient character of performance pedagogy make it less amenable to mass reproduction on the grand scales of a modernizing university. For Foucault, of course, every knowledge formation resists such structures. For me, however, performance tends to flout the conventions of knowledgeability more explicitly. If Foucault's project and that of cultural materialism more generally is to expose the contingencies of apparently pure forms, then we have in the case of performance a form that knows contingency all too well, indeed, was too manifestly enmeshed in context to effect the disavowal of materialism even when it was trendy to do so. As such, performance sometimes calls the bluff of more recent critical turns toward material analysis as well as more recent calls for innovative pedagogy.

In the rest of this chapter, I want to think more specifically about the notion of disciplinarity as it affects the study and practice of theatre and performance. In theatre, in performance studies, and in related fields such as dance, rhetoric, visual arts, and cultural studies, participants continually enjoy and endure the paradoxes of interdisciplinary exchange. Sometimes these encounters happen self-consciously. Indeed, origin narratives behind the formation of performance studies are filled with interactions between theatre directors and anthropologists, between folklorists and psychoanalytic critics, all working to graft a conversation based in avowedly different modes of knowing. At other times, these encounters happen less self-consciously, often in situations where epistemological consensus is assumed only to be thwarted by the return of repressed difference. I want to examine such instances of intended and unintended boundary crossing even as I critique assumptions of where such boundaries lie. In the current context, the term interdisciplinary serves sometimes as a facile index of the "new," opposing itself to a disciplinarity retroactively construed as old. As such, these terms function as fundamental, if not always helpful, pivots on which questions of theatre and performance studies turn. By extension, questions of interdisciplinarity broach the obscure operations of boundary formation, asking what is inside and what is outside - which may or may not line up with the question of what is "in" and what is "out." An analysis of interdisciplinarity asks what kinds of knowledge formations are considered multiple and which are considered singular. What gets labeled generalist and what is specialist? universal and particular? different and the same? What may seem inter-disciplinary in one locale can be experienced as solidly intra-disciplinary in another. Indeed, a historical, institutional, and theoretical consciousness of disciplinary formation demonstrates how variable and contextual the boundaries of knowledge can be. It also reveals how very difficult it is to say something new.

After introducing the range of debates and the range of associations attached to the term "performance," I situate its study historically in a changing modern university. Focusing on the issue of "interdisciplinarity" in theatre and performance studies allows a point of entry into a number of other contemporary concerns - debates about scholars and artists, about canons and counter-canons, about professionals and amateurs, and about movements in feminism, multiculturalism, and "theory" of various guises. The problem of interdisciplinarity further provides a way of analyzing the relation between disciplines and institutions, a saturation between scholarship and employment that is not always transparent. The chapter concludes by offering a vocabulary for analyzing the epistemological glitches that such debates leave in their wake - a set of conceptual tools that will reappear in the case studies of subsequent chapters.

Discontinuous performances

At this point, it is worth reflecting briefly on the framing of disciplinary debates in theatre and performance - the two terms that title the editorial series in which this book appears. In the United States, disciplinary change has clustered around two institutional narratives at New York University and Northwestern University, what Jon McKenzie calls the "Eastern" and "Midwestern" strains of performance studies.7 The more oft-repeated origin story involves Richard Schechner and a cohort of thinkers at NYU. The narrative focuses on Schechner's generative interactions with the anthropologist, Victor Turner, who took the study of performance beyond the proscenium stage and into the carnivals, festivals, protests, and other cultural rituals of an intercultural world. As Peggy Phelan notes, this Performance Studies story is an intriguing one in which "two men gave birth."8 It is also a heroic story of disciplinary breaking and remaking, one framed by the language of the rebel, the renegade, and later, incorporating new schools of critical theory, the subversive and the resistant. Key moments in this "Eastern" institutional narrative note the avant-garde experimentation of the 1960s, the transfer of location and orientation of the Tulane Drama Review to New York's TDR, the hiring of an interdisciplinary faculty of anthropologists, folklorists, musicologists, and dance theorists at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, the Performance Studies name change in 1980, and the hosting of the first meeting of the eventually incorporated Performance Studies International at NYU in 1995. Another notorious moment in that history occurred at the 1992 meeting of the Association of Theatre in Higher Education where keynote speaker Richard Schechner called for the abolition of theatre departments, for the Kuhnian adoption of a performance studies "paradigm" shift, and for an acknowledgment that the art form of theatre had become "the string quartet" of the new era.9 A decided irony, noted by many, was that field practitioners continually invoked the language of rebellion and subversion while simultaneously seeking institutional solidity and professional security.10 Others were distressed to hear that an articulation of epistemological transformation - something to be expected in any field - needed to cast theatre and performance in oppositional terms. While the scholarly rhetoric called for cultural inclusion under the performance umbrella, the institutional rhetoric sounded much more adversarial. As I hope to show, this kind of irony is not specific to performance studies but can be seen as symptomatic of a larger set of paradoxes in the institutionalization and employment of the arts and humanities at the end of the twentieth century.

The development of Northwestern's department of Performance Studies proceeds from a different direction. To some, its narrative is less often recounted. To others, of course, it is the only one that matters. There are occasional stories of men giving birth - though Wallace Bacon and Robert Breen are a generation older than Schechner - and of performers meeting anthropologists - though the figures might be Dwight Conquergood and Mary Douglas. The institutional landscape of such stories is quite different, however. The department of (Oral) Interpretation had a decades' long existence in a very different institutional milieu - that is, inside a School of Speech, one that also housed distinct departments of Communication Studies, Radio/TV/Film, and Theatre. Thus, unlike the progenitors at NYU who broke from a prior institutional identity as Theatre, Northwestern's department had considered itself something other than Theatre for its entire institutional existence. Oral Interpretation was most often positioned as an aesthetic subfield within Speech, Communication, and/or Rhetoric. Its proponents drew from a classical tradition in oral poetry to argue for the role of performance in the analysis and dissemination of cultural texts, specializing in the adaptation of print media into an oral and embodied environment. Northwestern was unusual for devoting an entire department to this area. Most of that faculty's colleagues and former graduate students would find themselves in the oral interpretation slot of a larger Communication department - in the Midwest, the South, the Southwest, the West, and on the East Coast. This made for a dispersed kind of institutional network. It also meant that the decision to shift nomination and orientation to Performance Studies occurred within that network rather than exclusively within a department. The division within the National Communication Association was renamed Performance Studies, and field practitioners around the country followed suit. Thus, while it is large-minded of McKenzie to note regional variation in the formation of Performance Studies, the East/Midwest focus on two departments actually obscures central figures and deliberative societies in other parts of the United States.

If these two stories show that institutional contexts differently constitute disciplinary identity, they also imply that the history of a discipline changes depending upon where one decides to begin. One way to resituate this two-pronged story of a late twentieth-century formation is to cast Performance Studies as the integration of theatrical and oral/rhetorical traditions. This framework necessarily invites reflection on a longer history of separation between the theatrical and the rhetorical or, as it often appears institutionally, between Theatre and Speech. There are many ways one might take up this relationship and, after Foucault, pursue its "non-identity through time."11 One might note classical antagonisms and alliances in the history of poetics, rhetoric, and the performer/orator, investigating nineteenth-century discussions on the role of elocution and argumentation in higher education, attending to the cultivated antipathy between proponents of theatre and proponents of oratory at the turn-of-the-century, attending to the cultivated alliances between proponents of theatre and oratory in their shared effort to distinguish themselves from the solidifying profession of literary studies. Such reflection might also include the transformation of speech under the influence of social science, the transformation of theatre within an arts and liberal arts education, the return of rhetoric in a new form under the legitimating paradigms of Theory in the late-twentieth century, the return of performance in a new form under the legitimating paradigms of Theory in the later twentieth century. Whatever corner of the rug one decides to pick up, whatever moment in time one decides to posit as a relevant origin, such investigations can only be done with an awareness of the contingent, slippery, and decidedly contextual nature of knowledge formation. Behind a story of disciplinary docility there is no unitary knowledge formation from which "new" epistemologies break. This also means using Foucault to temper the Kuhnian language of "paradigm" in order to suggest a "genealogical" awareness of the partial and entangled relationships amongst knowledges that are too conveniently opposed and aligned.12 The predecessors of one's current allies turn out to be antagonists. The predecessors of one's current antagonists were once allies. Somewhere in this history that many of us unwittingly share, there are too many alliances and oppositions to imagine unbroken chains of continuity or radical breaks from the past.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Discipline and performance: genealogy and discontinuity; 2. Institutions and performance: professing performance in the early twentieth century; 3. Culture and Performance: structures of dramatic feeling; 4. Practice and performance: modernist paradoxes and literalist legacies; 5. History and performance: blurred genres and the particularising of the past; 6. Identity and performance: racial performativity and anti-racist theatre.

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