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September 25, 2004

Blurred Genres, Desire Maps and Sensoriums

Performance studies promises a reformulation of the approach applied to objects of scholarly and artistic contemplation. Its potential as a method lies in the way it recasts and liberates the content, procedures, and analytical frames associated with discrete disciplinary domains, enabling an appraisal of the processes of knowledge creation that subtend and authorize them. By rendering transparent their governing ideologies, the performance studies approach demystifies and denaturalizes the originary and sustaining premises of separate scholarly fields. Moreover, it attaches a new significance to knowledge produced in the zone of the interstitial, privileging the allegories of rupture, encounte, and palimpsest.

Dwight Conquergood eloquently champions performance studies as a mode of interrogating, then collapsing, the arbitrary divisions between theory and practice, art and scholarship, academics and activism. Arguing that the valuation of liminality is central to the performance studies project, Conquergood suggests that its intersectional nature moves us out of a segregationist view of epistemology, provoking reflection on models that are multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, post-disciplinary, and ultimately, perhaps, anti-disciplinary.

Conquergood considers "performance" to be a dynamic, transformative framework for rethinking the object of study, the lens through which it is viewed, and the context in which it is deployed. He conceptualizes three of its significant dimensions: "(1) as a work of imagination, as an object of study; (2) as a pragmatics of inquiry (both as model and method), as an optic and operator of research; (3) as a tactics of intervention, an alternative space of struggle" (152). Thus, he strategically positions performance as creative matter, method, and politic.

Conquergood's utopic vision dovetails beautifully with Pearson and Shanks' ideation of performance as a "blurred genre" in service of hermeneutics. In their experimental manifesto, the authors appropriate "performance" as the ideal conceptual ground for generating a productive conversation between theater and archaeology. The authors define performance as the collection of phenomena that "stage the subject in process" and attend to "the making and fashioning of certain materials, especially the body and the exploration of the limits of representation-ability" (xi). Their performative text is a demonstration of an interdiscipline-in-progress, the creation of a new epistemology in a sphere constituted both by confrontation as well as complementarity.

The implications of the ideas promulgated by Shanks, Pearson and Conquergood are manifold, as I meditate on my project of analyzing the South Asian classical dance form, Odissi. My impressions of significant themes in these readings, and their application in my work:

1. Approach. A performance studies mindset forces me to be actuely aware of the dangers of privileging a single theoretical framework or research method. Practically speaking, my analysis cannot be primarily allied with the concerns delineated by the singular fields of politica science, fine arts, sociology, anthropology, area studies, history, religion or literature; it needs to locate itself between these dwellings, and erase the artificial borders that partition these disciplines from each other. By applying a PS method, my hope is to unsettle and recast the ways in which dance is conceived in these respective domains - and thus continue the work of destabilizing the presumed coherence of the fields themselves. By unmasking their position as hermetically sealed fields of study, my application of a PS method can promote critical reflection about their raison d'etre. For South Asian dance studies, the promise further lies in allowing the subject to speak to multiple audiences, augmenting its status as a legitimate archive for a variety of cultural agents, enriching and complicating its reception in the process. Finally, the PS method can assist in the generation of new types of scholarship that do not simply focus on the aesthetic qualities of dance in actontextual, ahistorical, and apolitical ways.

2. Sensoriums: A performance studies pedagogy requires a multi-media approach which involves all the senses - and which doesn't prioritize the written word as the primary, privileged and preferred source of data. A positivist stance of distantiation is often reinforced through a pure concentration on textual matter, where meaning is always mediated.

Pearson and Shanks argue for the creation of subjectivity through sensuality and sentience, rather than the totalizing regime of rationality. They state that "the social needs to be understood as an embodied field" because it is "felt and suffered as well as rationally thought and understood" (xvi). Transposed to dance studies, where the body directly serves as the object of inquiry, their arguments lead to the conclusion that the matters of viscerality, movement, and affect have to become central concerns. The body is treated as a sensorium, a house of flesh and perception. A phenomenological approach, as a kind of excavation that considers "the articulation of space, body, and action in bounded contexts" (xi) is then essential in analyzing dance. Sensual engagement is equal to intelligibility. Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste all commingle in the development of an experiential epistemology.

3. Desire Maps: Pearson and Shanks' "desire maps" provide an intriguing strategy for gathering materials for an incorporated epistemology, if the body replaces the city as landscape. To make such a map is to "begin by knowing what [the researcher] wants to look at, and proceeding without fixed itineraries, without maps; to work at ground level, eyes down, close to the surface; to reveal the city through purposeful activity, taking full responsibility for their own actions and intrusions" (147). Such an approach is appealing because it requires an openness to risk, a focus on the moments of revelation inherent to the research process. Much of the scholarly method focuses on proving a hypoethesis, of moving towards a destination in advance; but the desire map highlights the valence of the voyage as a poetic enterprise of collecting impressions and evocations.

4. Reconfigured Time: Pearson and Shanks report that the critiques of archaeology that circulated in the 1970's inaugurated a new awareness of temporality as a politically charged construct. They delineate the ways in which archaeology ascended as a corollary to imperialism and industrialization, becoming a critically self-reflexive field very recently. As focus on the descriptive ceased, and ideology and interpretation became heightened concerns, there was a turn towards a recognition of the field as "a practice of cultural production, a contemporary material practice which works on and with the traces of the past...Archaeologists craft the past...Archaeology...consists of a work of mediation with the past" (11).

What is clear in this passage is that the past is not at all a neutral category that can be endlessly mined for objective information. Moreover, the past is not really the past at all - it codefines the present (and future). Shanks and Pearson's work allowed me to situate "the past" as a category that harbours several significations, which I need to be aware of in my work:

-the past as a temporal construct - here, time is organized into the familiar tenses of past, present, and future. This linear, evolutionary model enables history to be viewed through a chronological perspective that orders events sequentially, such that they can be comprehended logically. Time is the story of progress. This is the dominant, but by no means most self-evident, notion of time. Other philosophies describe time as cyclical, multiple, parallel, and still.

-the past as a spatial construct - here, time is directly tied to an architecture. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, certain monuments, tourist sites that are reproduced for the sole purpose of freezing time in space for educational or preservationist purposes might be examples of this phenomena.

-the past as an affective construct - here, the past is mined and appropriated for its nostalgic value; feelings, gestures, memories, and sentimental objects bring it vividly into the present.

There may be other ideas of temporality to consider, but these three are immediately evident as a consequence of archaeology's entry into the arena of performance.

Posted by at September 25, 2004 1:36 AM