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December 13, 2004

Against History, Towards a performance studies sense

Ginzburg proposes that �textual criticism� fits neatly into neither �evidential and conjectural disciplines� that speak qualitatively from numerous examples of individual cases , nor those that take their model from Galileian science that speak in quantitative terms that cannot speak about what is individual. He makes the case that this is because textual criticism focuses on that which is reproducible, evading tests of quality, and yet potentially rigorous in such a way that is not possible for Galileian science that speaks of generalities. Ginzburg makes a statement as he nears his conclusion that contradicts the conclusion that might be seen to have come from Foucault�s analysis of similar data.

Ginzburg writes:

For the natural philosopher as for the philologist, the text is a profound, invisible entity to be reconstructed independently of material data: �figures, numbers and movements, but not smell, nor tastes, nor sounds, which I do not believe are anything more than names outside the living animal.�

With these words Galileo set natural science on the anti-anthropocentric and anti-anthropomorphic direction which it would never again abandon.

Foucault writes in The Order of Things of the emergence of an understanding that our own consciousness mediates that which we observe, as the turn that created the study of man, or what might be called the anthropocentric and anthropomorphic.

Anthropology as an analytic of man has certainly played a constituent role in modern thought, since to a large extent we are still not free from it. It is necessarily at the moment when representation lost the power to determine, on its own and in a single movement, the interplay of its syntheses and analyses. It was necessary for empirical syntheses to be performed elsewhere than within the sovereignty of the �I think�. (Foucault, 340)

He calls this moment when man becomes an object of analysis, �an event in the order of knowledge.� (Foucault, The Order of Things, 345) Of course this is quite different from the anthropocentrism that placed the Earth at the center of the universe which Galileo argued against, but it is quite similar to the anthropocentrism which Ginzburg extrapolates from it. Perhaps Ginzberg intended the �living animal� which smells tastes and hears, to imply life that is more inclusive than the life of man. But it is more likely that what he refers to here is the �living animal� as that which encompasses all those who share a sign system in which �names� are recognized tools of communication, which is perhaps more limited, and more unstable, than �mankind,� rather than less. Because of this specificity, Ginzburg�s �textual analysis� is quite different from Foucault�s analysis of Nietzsche�s �geneology,� which opposes origins, and Dening�s �reflective history� which understands itself as part of what it�s own object.

To get from 1) how textual analysis evades the trap of quality (that faced early venatic models of documenting history) by only looking at the reproducible portions of the text, to 2) the huge difference between the Galileian physicist who ignores his senses and the contemporary scientist who embraces them, Ginzberg points at contemporary physicians who understand themselves to mediate what they observe, understanding that there can be no truly objective perspective, no best quality image, just different images. Perhaps, as I will consider, in a way, the specificity of his example, leads to its limited applicability.

As far as my project is a historical project, that will be one which attempts to go beyond �recounting� a temporally ordered list of visual images and objects to get at some of why a physician�s acknowledgement that his own sense of smell is a tool, is (as the differentiation I�ve made between Ginzburg �textual analysis� and Foucault�s �geneology� and Dening�s �reflective history� point to) wholly different from being aware that one is part of the object under observation. Any narration that I might include, my narrative abilities, may make it easier for a reader to include me, as well as my object, as part of their own object of study, but as an isolated characteristic, it can easily serve to reveal me as an object of study simultaneously obscuring that which I take as my object of study. I write this not so much to discount the possibilities of narrative voice, but simply to speak to how it cannot be a catchall for writing history that evades previous indescretions.

By including the written text of law as an object, Roach�s "performance geneology" of Carnival in New Orleans is a good example of a history which (though without narrative in this 1993 essay, when expanded into a book in 1996, narrative is used, sparingly but purposefully) is aware of how the writing of history both scripts, and is scripted by, contemporary practice. He looks at how both the unwritten and the written, for Roach, tradition and law, are both agents of cultural transmission and of contestation and change. In this way, Roach constructs a text that cannot be ignorant of the eliminated distance between itself and the Mardi Gras Carnival it takes as its object.

Regarding my list of 5 books that would provide a basis for explaining what performance studies has to offer the study of history, I�m interested in re-phrasing the question a bit. I understand history as a discipline weighted down by what Foucault describes as �History,� with a capital H, of �immobile forms,� an �inviolable identity� of the origin of things, and, of all things, �truth.� I find I have significantly less faith in it�s ability to support me and my project than in even the tentativeness of performance studies which could be understood as a discipline that finds itself tentative enough so as to take a more than usual interest in having its students attempt to justify it�s value to other disciplines. My hope is actually that performance studies can offer some permutation to what Foucault's historical sense, a performance studies sense. At this point I find myself much less interested in declaring myself a scholar of performance studies than in identifying this particular department of Performance Studies as a place that allows me to do my work precisely because of its lack of definition. For me it makes more sense to ask the question about which books will help me to explain ps to history and vice versa by switching performance studies out and inserting instead, the particularity of my own project, and then to switching out history and instead asking, which books will provide a basis for how my project will be able to address some of the shortcomings that the discipline of history has already identified in its own self-reflexivity? Shortcoming identified in examples such as when Roach, in his book, Cities of the Dead, incorporates the �historical sense� that Foucault formulated to counter �History,� to consider how genealogies of performance, that of memory by individual bodies, can be part of a breaking apart of the oppressiveness of what Foucault identified as �History.�


My own project is one which will take up the challenge of understanding how the objects and images available through the display of visual art are signs through which various artistic and curatorial projects act as historical documents to mediate communication. All of the following books, in various ways, consider performances of visuality as real political communication.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought. (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1994)

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1985)

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 2003)

Mu�oz, Jos�. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 1999)

Chuh, Kandice. Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique. (Duke University Press, Durham: 2003)

Posted by at December 13, 2004 2:32 AM