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December 11, 2004

A Historical Conversation Across Disciplines

I admit that after going over the readings for this week I had to ask a real, live, History professor what precisely constituted a historical methodology/approach. As luck would have it, my girlfriend�s mom, Peggy, is a (now retired) History professor which allowed me the chance to ask the novice question, �what is history?� without fearing to be thought an imbecile. What ensued was not only a dialogue across disciplines but an evocative conversation that answered (or at least responded to) many of the questions that have been nagging at me throughout the semester. By the end of our discussion, not only had the readings been given a whole new richness, but it became clear that my particular methodological bent is decidedly welcoming to historical methods.


The first thing Peggy made clear to me was the difference between a historical object of analysis and historical methodologies. While my project is entirely too focused on contemporary performance to be a suitable object of historical study, historical methods can easily be employed. When Peggy was being trained as a historian she was told that the bedrock of historical analysis is the primary source (i.e. the newspaper, census data, photographs, etc.). It was through the collection and analysis of these �documents� that a narrative account would be drawn. I could not help but note that folks trained in PS also look to these resources for their research. Always the pedagogue, Peggy asked me how I have used primary resources and archival material in my own work. Within her question resides the answer (for me, at least). She did not ask me what materials I look to but, rather how I used them and how these findings fit into the narratives/accounts I construct.

As my project is defined currently, primary/archival materials often come into play not as a context or background for the contemporary performance practices that are at the heart of my work as much as they intensify current work and offer a small fissure into which the richness of the performance can be glimpsed. This is not to imply that there is no break from history and as such performance practices are sutured and bound to the past. Rather, an attention and incorporation of these materials restage my understanding of the performance and often allow me to hear another version of the story. If my project were to be positioned as a historical analysis, the focus of the project would necessarily shift from the action of the �live� performance to what narratives/histories can be said to be embodied in the performance. This is a slight distinction. The most tangible difference inferred here is in shifting the question from how the archival document can answer questions about present-day performance to what does the performance I have just witnessed tell me about a particular moment in history. I see this as quite akin to Ginzburg�s attention to, �the minute investigation of even trifling matters, to discover the traces of events that could not be directly experienced by the observer.� The materiality of the the animal track, gesture or the like allows us to see bit by bit the larger picture we cannot percieve at once.

Dening, of course, would instruct us that even this witnessing of the animal track is theatrically imbued. While I could grasp the urgency of Dening�s article, it was not until I heard Peggy explain her own experience of methodology classes that I could wrap my mind around what Dening was referring to as a �moral force.� In her first methodology seminar, the professor made it clear that if one was trained well enough they would not fall prey to �soft historical analysis,� which was another way of saying interpretation. The idea was that if one learned enough about how to �do� history that one could just effortlessly go into the archives, find the data, compute the findings and voila you would have a chapter of your dissertation. Of course, when she started her own research she found out otherwise. Peggy found herself relying more and more on the methods then being developed in Women�s Studies to augment her research as it gave her more clues as to interpretation. Dening tells us that history, �need only be honest to the uncertainties of knowing� (89). I take this contention along with his avowal of a theatrical sensibility as an acknowledgment of the historian as the instrument through which the historical narrative is told and interpreted.

Foucault poses historical interpretation a bit differently by contending that truth itself is created, �baked� in the process of history. Discontinuity becomes a genealogical tool that can be employed within historical scrutiny. Genealogical research, for Foucault, focuses on a question from the present and then considers the question in terms of a history of the present. To execute this genealogical �history of the present� one must think differently about the traditional understanding of �history.� Foucault�s proposal is that if one listens to history, she might find something altogether unusual and singular (and not a timeless and static record). It is this approach to history that aligns most closely with my own methodological style. Archival materials do not offer us the essence of a performance (or any other object) but, rather, the traces of truth that has sedimented through time. The genealogist, thus, attempts to generate a jagged and discontinuous �history of the present,� a construction which is the inverse of a level and continuous history.

Each of the five following texts speaks to the interstices between PS and History:

1. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth Century Blackface Minstrelsy by Annemarie Bean, James Vernon Hatch and Brooks McNamara. I am currently using this text for a paper I am writing on Native American redface performance. I have chosen this text because of its focus on the minstrel show as a site of historical analysis. What it offers PS is a lucid example of how archival materials such as sketches and sheet music can come together to illustrate not only the history of popular entertainment in the U.S. but the function of the African-American in the U.S. racial imagination.
2. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's Dirty War by Diana Taylor. I first read Disappearing Acts in a Latin American History course. I have chosen it for this exercise because of how it disrupted the flow of that course. Amidst a survey of public policy texts and more abstract cultural studies texts, Disappearing Acts forced us to consider how the �history� of Latin American might be embodied within political performance and spectacle.
3. Gender and the Politics of History by Joan Scott. I just really like Joan Scott! Although, more seriously, I chose this text because of its insistence on the relationship between the body (including even women�s reproductive organs) and the contours of our social world. I always find Scott�s rich historical analysis on how the body is seen and materializes as a sincere warning against quick, easy descriptions.
4. Ghana�s Concert Party Theatre by Catherine Cole. I chose Cole�s Ghana�s Concert Party Theatre because of the skill in which she draw simultaneously on her own participation as an actress in the concert party performances, archival research and oral history to illustrate the complex matrix of British colonial rule and the postcolonial pursuit for national identity of which the concert party theatre is set.
5. Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On & Off the Stage by Jane Desmond. I chose Dancing Desires as my final text for this exercise not only because it takes up the question of what happens to the writing of dance history when the a focus on sexuality and sexual identity is introduced but also for the explicit challenge it poses to the separation of performance and �real� life.

Posted by at December 11, 2004 11:19 PM