« Memorials of Oblivion | Main | Performance Biography of Odissi »

October 1, 2004

Ethical Ambivalence: Reading Minority Performance and the Law

The objective of my dissertation is to place critical and theoretical pressure on two predominant narratives that have emerged in 20th Century discourse concerning minoritarian subjectivity (and minoritarian performance) in the US. On the one hand, the prevalent narrative of minority existence in the 20th Century US is commonly constructed as one of struggle, resistance and liberation. Within this narrative the Warren Court is often credited for the commencement of the �Rights Revolution� that significantly transformed the place of minorities in US law, politics, and by extension, social culture. The �Right Revolution� within the Courts ultimately extended into the �public� with the formation (construction) of a �Civil Rights Movement� that culminated in the passing and amending of the Civil Rights Act (1964, 1991). This Act, however, rather than forging a space for �liberation� from State oppression has placed the subject in a precarious position both inside and outside of the State where the only recourse to resistance and liberation for minority communities and individuals has been to call upon a rights based discourse. �Liberation� in this sense creates the following problems: (1) to seek liberation is to charge that one�s �fundamental� rights have been abridged or alienated from the subject which requires the subject to place herself firmly within the structures of the dominant culture so as to be able to access (and restore) her abridged rights, a position that radically weakens her ability to challenge or change the dominant norms as she must now situate herself within them to be able to access the liberty they promise; (2) the only space the minoritarian subject is capable of inhabiting in order to achieve liberty is the always already marginalized space of the resistant subject.

A trend in performance and theater studies is to narrate performance as a space capable of emancipation, liberation, alterity, and resistance. These terms are often employed to describe, celebrate, and critique minoritarian performance (including, but not limited to, queers, feminists, and people of color). Jill Dolan, for example, has recently introduced an anthology of essays on queer theater with the following: �We should transform consciousness with our theaters and our performances, offering multiple representations of desires up for� �sexually transmutable� responses� (Dolan, 8). Alisa Solomon further elaborates the identification between theater/performance and queerness by addressing their shared heterogeneity and performativity disruptive to dominant norms, making theater �the queerest art� (Solomon, 9). Both critics suggest that it is the �heterogeneity� and queerness that challenges the dominant norms. However, as many Marxist critics have argued, one of the primary shifts in post-Fordist production has been to produce not the homogeneous mass that Dolan and Solomon conceive of as the dominant culture, but rather a heterogeneous set of populations (niche markets). �Diversity�, as has been observed by many critical race, queer, feminist, and Marxist critics has been deployed by Capital to reify social hierarchies based upon difference that ultimately reproduce the conditions for Capitalist exploitation, regulation, and developmental ideology (see: Salda�a-Portillo; Joseph; Browning, 141-58; Chow). One need but look to the legal confusion and discord that has surfaced in the years following Brown v. Board seeking to integrate notions of heterogeneity into the social order to begin to see the more general ambivalence (rather than direct regulation) that �public� (legal) discourse produces in response to heterogeneity.

With a different critical imperative, Peggy Phelan provides a Lacanian engagement with performance as that which is always in the act of disappearance and, as such, capable of eluding the economy of representation that requires a reproducible material object of the �regulation and control� of the subject (Phelan, 66). This critique, however, discounts the ways that performance is often very effectively organized (as demonstrated, for example, in claims to the legacy of an often radically decontextualized and depoliticized �Civil Rights Movement� in the current presidential campaign by both candidates) so as to produce culture and communities within the material economy of exchange. Phelan�s model, then, romanticizes performances as existing beyond the realm of materiality, discounting � as Miranda Joseph has argued � an audiences labor and performance�s material significance. In a different example, �identity based� theater groups have often conceived of performance as a way to offer alternative narratives of minority subjectivity. As exampled in the Ma-Yi Theater Company�s mission statement, the company encourages artists to �push Asian American aesthetics beyond easily identifiable Orientalist markers.� In all of these formations, performance is configured as a space of resistance and alterity, belying the deep ambivalence that is shared both in public/legal discourse as well as minority performance to the process of �becoming� a subject within the social. As such, just as with the reduction of �liberation� to the rights based discourse that we have witnessed since the early Civil Rights Movement, the formations listed above produce the minority subject in performance as always trapped in the circuit of performing resistance against regulation, against the mark of social hierarchy. As Rey Chow has acutely observed elsewhere: �In the age of globalization, ethnics are first and foremost protesting ethnics, but this is not because they are possessed of some �soul� and �humanity� that cannot be changed into commodities. Rather, it is because protesting constitutes the economically logical and socially viable vocation for them to assume� (Chow, 48)

By critiquing the �resistance against regulation� liberation narrative, I mean to demonstrate that the reliance upon this narrative has come, precisely, to reproduce the marginalized resistant minority, and hence the conditions for liberal pluralism in contemporary global Capitalism. Attempting a reading of the ambivalences in both legal discourse and minoritarian theater, I hope to explore incidences of ambivalence in minoritarian performance that provide and ethical critique of the dominant culture while acknowledging the minority subject�s dangerous position both within and outside of the dominant culture. It will be a critique of the ways that the dominant culture is reliant upon producing the minority subject as a resistant subject so as to circumvent the possibility of any form of truly revolutionary social transformation.

Structurally I imagine the dissertation will begin with a section that will map the formation and turn to rights based discourse within the liberal public. Specifically, I will trace the emergence of this failure through the transition from the Court�s landmark Brown v. Board decision, to the appointment of Thurgood Marshall onto the Court, and Marshall�s famous dissent in a case that sought to limit the potential of affirmative action, Regents v. Bakke. Bringing the reader from the �Civil Rights Movement� to the present, this section will explore the limitations of rights based discourse as witnessed in the Court�s performance of integration with Marshall�s ascendance to the Court. This section will rely heavily upon the internal documentation of the Court, most specifically on the archival resources in the form of the Justice�s papers (most importantly of Justices Marshall and Brennan), donated for research purposes to the Library of Congress. Sound documentation of key cases, most importantly Bakke will be called upon as well as the external reportage by the for-profit media. The research for this phase of the project will require a temporary relocation to Washington DC in order to be able to access the Library�s archival material. I have already determined my eligibility for most of the material that I need, and will need to plan in advance with the library before undertaking this segment of my research.

I will then move into the dominant part of the dissertation that will provide a critique of the oppositional narrative mapped out above by linking key theater pieces with cultural manifestations of the situations the plays address in the form of legal discourse (and analysis of relevant cases). As a means of delimiting the wide range of theatrical traditions that I could pull from, I will focus the project predominantly on plays drawn from the blossoming range of institutionally supported �minoritarian drama� that has emerged (especially) in the past two decades since Bakke. All the plays analyzed will have been produced in not-for-profit theaters that place special emphasis on cultivating minority artists. The plays/productions to be analyzed are either explicitly or implicitly concerned with national subject formation and often engage with the ways that legal performativity defines and produces the subject.
Beginning with a discussion with the way that the rights based discourse interpolates the subject in specific ways I would engage the production of Suzan-Lori Parks� Venus with a case such as Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Demonstrating the ways that rights based discourse is always already gendered; both Venus and Casey demonstrate a significant ambivalence to effects of gendering the subject. In Venus, the ethnic and gendered subject is forced to perform her ethnicity and gendered sexuality as the only way to become visible within a market economy that otherwise renders her a complete object. Again, relying upon archival material from the Public Theater�s controversial production of the play, I will explore how it was precisely the ambivalence that Parks develops towards this process that challenged a public who required, instead, the traditional narrative of resistance against regulation.

Moving into the dangerous domain of the �hate crime�, I would pair Mois�s Kaufmann and Tectonic Theater Company�s The Laramie Project and the Matthew Shepard murder trial with Chay Yew�s Porcelain and the murder trial of Vincent Chin. In The Laramie Project the �victim� is conceived of as Matthew Shepard, however the production displaces Shepard�s death entirely to construct a romantic narrative about a community, Laramie. Although the Chin and Sheppard trials culminated in radically different verdicts, in both trials the specter of the �victim� was reformatted as the contaminating agent to dominant norms. Yew�s play, then, resists the idealizing turn to humanist ideals in the Laramie Project and constructs an ambivalent portrait of a young gay, Asian man on trial for the victimization and murder of his closeted, white lover.

Finally, I would move into an analysis of Jos� Rivera�s Marisol as read against the legal and developmental reformation in the New York City courts and public sector during the Giuliani administration, particularly focusing on the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo scandals. The call to respect civil rights in either of the police abuse scandals demonstrated the subservient grounds minority subjects become situated on when demanding/begging for their �rights� to be restored. Rather than conceiving of his title character as a resistant ethnic subject, Rivera�s Marisol embodies the ambivalence that many assimilated minoritized subjects feel in relation to subjection, race, citizenship, and the violence that often links these three concepts. Rivera�s revolutionary act, then, is to dissolve the world of reason and enlightenment, to construct a landscape of transformation and potential, signaling the possibility of a �new history� (Rivera, 68).

This project will explore the ways both minoritarian performance and the legal performative produce ambivalence that critiques (or reveals) of the insufficiency of rights based discourse that circumscribes the minority �citizen� to the marginalized field of resistance and alterity. It is also, then, part of a broader critique of performance scholarship�s disciplinary impulse to continually reify the minoritarian subject as in a mode of resistance against regulation. This impulse is insufficient in attempting to deal with the heterogeneous complexities of subjection under globalization, nor can it acknowledge the interconnected ways that race, gender, sexuality overlap and work in relation to each other. Because the project will rely heavily upon materials from cases and productions that have long since ended, the majority of my work will turn to the traces left in the wake of these acts: court materials on public record, the texts of the plays, reportage, archival material from the theaters involved in the productions, interviews with participants in both the productions and the trials when accessible. My analysis will heavily reliant upon the theoretical methodologies put forth by a number of critical theorists (queer, critical race, psychoanalytic, Marxist, and poststructuralist) that have inspired my inquiry.

Approaching the human subjects activities requirement, I don�t anticipate any great challenge, as I am not proposing an anthropological nor scientific study. Criterion for subject selection will be individuals directly involved in the production of performances (playwrights, actors, administrative staff members) or the proceedings of the trials (lawyers and witnesses, predominantly). Because subjects will be contacted individually, I can provide the review committee with the information that I will provide those that I would interview with, as well as any confidentiality agreements that I would provide. Concern about risk or benefit is non-applicable.

Funding Resources

Ford Foundation Diversity Fellowship: Dissertation Fellowship
Deadline: December 1, 2004

Milton Fellowship for Dissertation Research
Deadline: November 15, 2004

American Society for Theater Research Dissertation Award
Date not specified, no response yet from contact.

The Point Foundation Scholarship
Deadline: March 15, 2005


Browning, Barbara. Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Dolan, Jill. "Introduction: Building a Theatrical Vernacular: Responsibility, Community, Ambivalence, and Queer Theater." The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater. Eds. Framji Minwalla and Alisa Solomon. NY: New York University Press, 2002. 1-8.

Joseph, Miranda. Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London/New York: Routledge, 1993.

Rivera, Jos�e. Marisol and Other Plays. NY: Theatre Communications Group, 1997.

Salda�a-Portillo, Mar�a Josefina. The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development. London/Durham: Duke, 2003.

Solomon, Alisa. "Great Sparkles of Lust: Homophobia and the Antitheatrical Tradition." The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater. Eds. Alisa

Solomon and Framji Minwalla. NY: New York University Press, 2002. 9-20.

Posted by at October 1, 2004 1:34 PM