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September 24, 2004

Objects of Memory

In Theatre/Archaeology Michael Shanks and Mike Pearson offer models for the apprehension of the present-past through objects and events. Shanks writes, �Performance is a mode of cultural production that works with material and intellectual resources to create meaning,� a definition that could work easily as well for archaeology. Unspoken in this definition however is the system of transfer that animates both disciplines. A dialogue with a past through the apprehension of the material trace, both performance and archeology fold time/space at points of transfer (and, I would argue, absence).

Before proceeding it�s necessary to unpack some of the assumptions in Pearson�s use of the term �performance� in this text. He writes, � Performance is a special world set aside from everyday life by contractual arrangements and social suspensions�a devised world.� This, I would argue is a definition of theatrical performance, which exists within (and sometimes against) its own tradition. Performance in a larger sense is not limited by the prohibitions that surround and inform theatrical practice. But rather is an exchange that may occur across space/time through systems of transfer. The �devised world� of a theatrical performance may be set outside of everyday life in order to illuminate it, much like an archeological dig. This space of temporal suspension is the �continuity� Shanks refers to as �the duration of the material find.� This way of timing time, which we might consider �theatrical,� values duration. To illustrate this perhaps I might repurpose Peggy Phelan�s famous dictum, �the only life of (the theatre) is in the present.�

This suggests to me that theatrical performance events, bounded by time, cannot be excavated in the conventional sense. Rather, only the material trace of an affective experience may be captured. This calls for a reverse-archeology that captures traces that gesture toward performance but do not assign them meaning. I question the usefulness of archiving theatrical ephemera unless the artifacts animate the performance, disrupting the bounded-ness of theatrical time and allowing the performance to live in the present-past. Upon considering an archeological artifact Michael Shanks writes, �Do not begin with the question �What is it?� Instead ask �What does it do?�� This question activates/ locates the performance in its artifacts.

Theatre/Archeology offers an approach to artifacts that suggests provocative models in documenting performance. For example Shanks writes,� It is the durability of the perfume jar which allows (for)�different dates which are chosen as the significant moments along (the jar�s) continuity.� This opens the possibility for me of a new valuation of performance, that of durability. A durable performance might be one that is able to travel beyond its temporal origin point. Using this frame, borrowed from archaeology, we might begin to trace the longevity and effectiveness of scenarios across space/time. If the �performative is a dimension of social practice� then we must have a language to explore its persistent material traces and absences.

The use of archeological artifacts to signify ethnic or national identity is a fixed use that seeks to bound objects within a particular subjectivity. �Myths of ancestry were articulated in� national narratives�to provide the new nation-states of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with histories and origin stories rooted in the material remains of the past.� This parallels other dramaturgical projects in nation building, like that described by Jay Fliegeleman in Declaring Independence. Fliegelman's thesis is that eighteenth century modes of persuasive communication-like those employed by Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence- gave rise to a new social dramaturgy that literally spoke the nation into being. The development of key theatrical tropes that spin on such loaded words as �authentic�, �sincere�, �sympathetic� and �modest� are, Fliegelman argues, central to the creation of both nation-ness and Nation itself. The development of rhetorical tools that define the nation as a �realm of mutual feeling� is supported by the �discovery� and display of evidence-objects that might materially justify its performance. Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton has theorized that the agenda of much eighteenth-century aesthetic thought refashions the human subject �from the inside, informing its subtlest affections and bodily responses,� transforming �structures of power� into �structures of feeling.� The transformation of �power� into �feeling� (and back again, I would argue) is the sort of closed loop that is made possible by the use of bounded theatrical time as the framework for national narratives.

A contemporary example of this use of archeology in the performance of nation building is powerfully articulated by Susan Slymovics in her book, Object of Memory, Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village. An Israeli Jew, Slymovics elaborates the use of archeology by the Israeli government to justify the occupation of Palestine in the creation of the state of Israel. Focusing her argument on a single village, Ein Houd, which was forcibly evacuated and then re-imagined as an Israeli artists� colony, Slymovics explores of the attitudes of Jewish Israeli artist-settlers toward Palestinian Arab architecture. She writes,

Consonant with a Zionist and colonialist enterprise, their chosen medium became the local Arab architecture, which is a permanent albeit primitive installation of stones and walls. Arab houses were easily interpreted as�found objects. Ruins�have been structurally reinforced by inserting hidden iron bars to maintain the sentimental look and mood of vernacular architecture frozen in time at the last stages of decay.

This suggests the application of what philosopher Florence M. Hetzler calls �ruin time.� She writes, � A ruin is the disjunctive product of the intrusion of nature upon the human-made without loss of unity that our species produced.� Another framework for timing time through artifacts, ruin time is a causal principle that governs the balance between man and nature to �create the life of a ruin.� The preservation of Palestinian architecture in this context supports the illusion that the ruins are artifacts of an anonymous, ancient past, despite the fact that the displaced Palestinian stone masons and master builders who created them live scant miles away in a shanty village created in the shabby image of the one they lost. Slymovics contrasts this narrative with those created by Israeli journalists of the artist-settlers of Ein Houd who are valorized for their efforts to �build, found, and renew what has been abandoned�� Shanks names such constructed misremembering as processes that �reduce the complexity of the past to the linearity of dramatic narrative, changing the �it was this and this and this� of the visitor�s imagination to �it was this.��

In reality, the narratives suggested by artifacts are varied and open for interpretation (much like texts). An approach to artifacts that allows for the creation of narratives to tie present political concerns to an ancient past, thereby giving them the weight and texture of historical imperatives, may be disrupted through performance. Act-Up members staging a �die-in� at Saint Patrick�s Cathedral in their famous �Stop the Church� action is one example of the generative powers of rupture. Performances that are configured against forces of exclusion and dispossession are by definition ephemeral. But the systems of transfer that transmit these performances across space/time are unbounded and infinite.

Posted by at September 24, 2004 7:51 PM