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December 12, 2004

Fiction Not Fantasy: The Performance of History

Greg Dening�s �The Theatricality of History Making and the Paradoxes of Acting� and Michel Foucault�s �Nietzsche, Genealogy, History� seem positioned in these readings as opposites, since the former seeks (among other things) a return to the �moral force� of writing and the latter writes against essentialized meanings. (The contributions of Roach and Ginzburg work with and against these poles, complicating them, I will address them presently.) I can anticipate arguments designed to negate one of these positions in favor of the other and I find little value in rehearsing them in the context of this essay. Indeed, it seems that Dening and Foucault themselves foresee the objections to their respective arguments in these works and write explicitly against them. For me, this defensive use of intellectual labor is unproductive. I prefer to imagine that the products of intellectual labor are not ends in themselves but rather opening gambits in an ongoing conversation. Therefore rather than aligning myself within the reductive binary they may represent I�d like to explore the features of these readings that resonate for my work, even as they contradict and play against one another.

In his essay �Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,� Michel Foucault employs genealogy, exemplified by his use of the term descent, as a theoretical model to approach historical analysis. With this he moved away from archaeology, his previous frame, which suggests that �civilization�, may be imagined as a relation of fixed layers. Foucault writes, "The search for descent is not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself." Foucault expands genealogy�s scope, illustrating how power inscribes itself on the body. He argues that his task in this is "to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history's destruction of the body." This emphasis on corporeality, its processes and apperception, a trait shared by all of this week�s readings, is a major point of connection with my work, which is concerned with the changing life of the body in relation to power.

Foucault posits that a genealogical frame explicates ��various systems of subjection; not the anticipatory power of meaning but the hazardous play of dominations.� Rather he insists, �The role of genealogy is to record�the history of morals, ideals, and metaphysical concepts, (which) must be made to appear as events on the stage of historical process.� He argues for the development of an �effective history,� which is a self-reflexive application of his genealogical method.

This emphasis on self-reflection gestures toward Carlo Ginzburg�s analysis of venatic lore that prefigures the development of the historical method in his essay �Clues, Roots of an Evidential Paradigm.� He argues that the interpretive leaps required of hunters in stalking prey are the profound beginnings of narrative. Ginzburg employs literary terms carefully, maintaining that the �reading� of droppings, broken branches, and footprints etc. that hunters undertake is a wholly physical experience, rather than purely mental one. He writes, �Knowledge is characterized by the ability to construct from apparently insignificant experimental data a complex reality that could not be experienced directly. Also, the data is always arranged by the observer in such a way as to produce a narrative sequence. (However) �To decipher� or �to read� animal tracks are metaphors. We have tried� to take them literally, as the verbal condensation of a historical process which brought us, perhaps over a long span of time, to the invention of writing.� Mediating between the perception and apperception of data is seen as a bodily process. This use of marks that are �materially understood� is, in Ginzburg�s thesis, paradigmatic. �For the first time, He writes, �The body, language, and human history�were exposed to objective examination, which on principle excluded divine intervention.� Taking this simple construction further as a proposed methodology Foucault writes,

If interpretation were the slow exposure of the meaning hidden in an origin, then only metaphysics could interpret the development of humanity, But if interpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game, and to subject it to secondary rules, then the development of humanity is a series of interpretations.

Ginzburg complicates his construction by tracing its distortion through the development of formal writing and printing. He writes,

The elements tied to orality and gesture and later even those tied to the physical characteristics of writing were thought to be irrelevant to the text. This twofold process resulted in a progressive dematerialization of the text, which was gradually purified at every point of reference related to the senses; even though a material element is required for a text's survival, the text itself is not identified by that element.

For Ginzburg (and for me) the culturally specific choice to separate the text from the body is a degradation of particular modes of experience. Diana Taylor�s acts of transfer go some way to describing these and the transmission of venatic lore in Ginzburg�s essay resonates here as well. In different ways, both Ginzburg and Taylor assume that there is a quality to experience that may not be captured through words. Indeed a reliance on written language as the exclusive creator/transmitter/ inscriber of culture represents for me a colonial impulse to destroy the elements of culture that resist commodification.

Which brings me to Dening.

In his essay �The Theatricality of History Making and the Paradoxes of Acting� Greg Dening writes, �History making�transformations of lived experience into narratives�is a universal and everyday human phenomenon.� My assumption is that a scholar of his rank wouldn�t use the term �universal� indiscriminately so I began to wonder why he employed it in his text. Initially repelled by his use of this taboo qualifier I immediately found myself in dialogue with Dening, in a way that I hadn�t been with the other authors. A gauntlet, it seemed, was being thrown. Could it be that the Australian Dening is �taking the piss� out of his more Francophilic colleagues? I can imagine the sucked teeth and violent exhalations of breath that this opening gambit must engender and it makes me laugh. Although I began this essay by asserting my disdain for academic territorializing I have to admit that I find Dening�s hubris thrilling. (Although, ultimately, I wonder if his playfulness undoes the power of his argument�a question for another essay.) At any rate, the point of the second half of Dening�s opening gambit is well taken: the nature of historicizing representations is quotidian. Reading this in dialogue with Ginzburg I wonder if the divinatory paradigm he suggests is still at work for Dening�perhaps ameliorating the latter�s �universal�, or at least bringing it into context? Dening makes a distinction between this everyday historicizing and the job of the historian, which he imagines is caught between the struggles to free itself from colonial narratives and the proscriptions of post structuralism. As an alternative to literary models of historical practice Dening provocatively offers the theatre as a rhetorical frame. Whatever other issues he may (consciously or not) provoke with his essay this contribution is a significant one. Dening writes, �The theatricality of history making is to narrate the paradoxes of the past out of the paradoxes of the present in such a way that our readers will see the paradoxes in themselves.�

In �Carnival and the Law� Joseph Roach exemplifies this approach through his use of Mardi Gras as both frame for and site of racial representations. Roach describes the Byzantine racial politics that have swirled around the festival as an �agonistic struggle over a specific �place of memory.�� He imagines Mardi Gras as �stage of misremembrance on which whiteness is traditionally performed.� It is through performance that Roach examines two interlocking systems of collective memory, carnival and the law.

The use of the term �carnival� is a conscious evocation of Bakhtin�s construction of a liminal space in which �seasonal revelry and masquerade offers release from the oppression of official culture. The thrilling temporary inversion of authority, made possible in these spaces, allows common people to become powerful and the culturally powerful to be laid low. Although this construction is often described as a kind of lawless space Roach uses the example of Mardi Gras to illuminate its proscriptions. According to Roach the illegalities that go unpunished during the festival are carefully coded into the spectacle. Louisiana law itself becomes fluid (in a perverse inversion of a carnival structure) and absorbs the offenses it declines to prosecute by legalizing them. This is a shift from slavery when the offenses perpetrated by whites were simply ignored. This shift makes visible what heretofore had been simply understood, that white privilege is not endangered by the space of carnival. Roach writes, �what kind of carnival is this? Not an occasion for seeking a release from a way of life�but an institution dedicated to its perpetuation.� His perception of carnival, as an accretion of gestures that conspire to craft a �contingent margin of behavior that remains easily within� the reach of the law, is provisional, requiring the unspoken assent of people in power. In this the Mardi Gras celebration is performed as a scenario of white privilege.

In my conception Roach marries Dening�s use of the theatrical as a frame with Foucault�s assertion that �the world of speech and desires has known invasions, struggles, plundering, disguises, ploys� from which genealogy retrieves an �indispensable restraint.� For Foucault the scenes and roles that are portrayed in relationship to power resist �monotonous finality.� While for Dening �immediate meanings are mediated by cultivated signs.� Freed from the morass of their respective academic positions these arguments actually work together for me quite well. My project, an exploration of the performance of terror in a specifically Palestinian context, necessarily draws from features of both of these. Where Dening offers a truly performance studies methodology by suggesting the theatre (and to an extent acting itself) as a frame, Foucault provides a multivalent approach to the construction of historical events that opposes thoughts of origin. I locate my own project in the spaces of gap and overlap between these lines of thought (among others).

In that light I would offer the following texts as models for a performance studies approach to history:

The Archive and the Repertoire, Diana Taylor

The Archive and the Body, Allan Sekula

Cities of the Dead, Joseph Roach

Dancing With The Virgin, Deidre Sklar

The Object of Memory, Susan Slymovics

Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, Michael Taussig

The Abu Gharib Investigations, Ed. Steven Strasser

Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson

Posted by at December 12, 2004 9:14 PM