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December 10, 2004

Impressionistic Vignettes

History is dead, long live effective history!

This week�s authors advocate � some in theory, some also in practice a reassessment of history telling, since they agree on the fact that the focus should be individual stories, marginal cases, and examples of difference.

With his metonymic approach. Ginzburg looks for clues that illuminate and document a larger picture, period, or issue, as opposed to the illusionary quest for exhaustive history.
Similar intellectual operations are involved as in quantitative science � analyses, comparisons, classifications � but the focus is on individual cases or symptoms that are then brought together as a constellation. Ginzburg is more interested in the fact that something happened than in the number of times it happened. It is what Dening calls �what actually happened� v. �what really happened� (77).
Ginzburg shows the process that led to �a progressive dematerialization of the text, which was gradually purified at every point of reference related to the senses�. Performance Studies takes the route in reverse, and revitalizes history and text by re-integrating senses, bodily perceptions and marginal symptoms (or considered as such).

Both Dening and Roach perform the point they are making about bringing back lived experience, embodiment, and performance in historical studies.
Dening does it by organizing his essay in sections that borrow from theater in title, form and content. �The narrating in history making is itself lived experience, not something apart from lived experience� (74).
This goes against the established illusion that history should be studied as a chronological sequence of events, an exhaustive approach that consolidates facts and is consolidated by them, at the risk of ignoring marginal data, and suppressing symptoms that cannot support the larger issue.
On the contrary, mediation of past events should be lively, embracing multiple sensory approaches, using narrative props, in other words, be a lived experience itself. Dening sees history in the making and history telling as movement, action, agency, and remembers that things actually happened before they were turned into dry dates, facts and statistics. History should also go back to the audience, at the time of the event and at the time of the narration of the event, and consider absences: �discover ways to make the silences present� (Dening, 82).
Roach shows the intersection of history and performance by looking at the history New Orleans Carnival in its multiple transgressions of law (gender, race, class). Further, he reaches a point where �carnival becomes law� (45), blurring for good the line between history (in its intellectual, elitist and quantitative dimensions) and experience (in its symptomatic, marginal and qualitative dimensions). Roach is interested in the questions of �where one participates, with whom, at which occasions, public and private� (46), and hence offers a new interpretation of history in regards to the performance of the law (fees, permits, procession regulation, official ruling (Code Noir) and implementation.

Foucault is more direct in showing what history is not (linear, repetitive, evolutionary, sequential, or origin-driven). He addresses the polarity in terms of continuity v. disparity, and, like Roach, advocates for the study of transgression, loss, absence, This phenomenological approach iconicizes heterogeneity and paradox, and argues that �the way we experience the world is processual, unfinished� (Dening 84). �Effective history�, as Foucault calls it, avoids common denominators, looks for differences, and refuses the illusion of total knowledge.

However, there is a risk to be blinded by this individualistic approach and miss the relation between symptom and disease, between detail and panorama, or difference and similitude. Margins and discontinuity are categories that exist only in their relation to a center and to continuity; they are ontologically dependent on a hierarchical construction. Otherwise, we should stop using such terms. Rather than fall into the trap of radical individualism and idolatry of the marginal, a more inclusive perspective would indeed consider looking at the different rather than suppress it for the sake of proving a theory; at the unseen rather than ignore it for the sake of giving a monochromic portrait of an event, at the uncommon rather than diminish it for the sake of fitting a smooth equation. A collection of vignettes that sweep across the unique and the repetitive, the different and the similar, the minoritarian and the dominant would offer an impressionistic tableau of a place, time or issue, shedding different but equal lights rather than privileging the homogenous or the heterogeneous perspective only.

I could see my project not as an evolution of memorials or commemoration, but rather as an investigation of individual cases, which are then mixed, confronted, and through which new threads could be interwoven. Performance Studies encourages us to look at the understudied, or the outsider, while using interdisciplinary tools. For me, this means researching the making of memorials in relation to attendance, religious, social, and personal rituals, liveness (survivors, families, officials, tourists). Dening is interesting in the making of history and the telling of history. I could translate this into the making of memorials and the telling of memorials. In other words, looking at a tragedy in relation to missing bodies, to the performance of memory, to the embodiment of remembrance. Exploring the margins in relation to the center, I would be interested in those who don�t recognize their experience in the memorial, those who even fought against it, those who embody individual stories v. national memory, who favor emotions rather than statistics or politics (both are part of the linearity and the illusion of wholeness that Foucault et al. despise).
The impressionistic vignettes that I mentioned earlier would each carry specific colors, perspectives, points of focus, light exposure, and still echo with each other, by ways of difference or similarity � even in the tiniest detail � which would then insure some cohesion.

Geoffrey Wigoder�s article �History Begins at Home� is to me a model for the intersection of PS and history. He illustrates the performance of memory, unfolds the layers of photography and visual material in relation to history, and develops a personal thread into the theoretical debate between Kracauer and Barthes.

Another example is Edward Tufte�s "Explaining Magic: Pictorial Instruction and Disinformation Design," in which he not only explores a popular, �low-brow � cultural phenomenon both from a history and a performance point of view, but also looks at it from a multiple perspective: the magician (and the trick) and the spectator (and the illusion). His other example, the chess automaton, is also taken from the margins of entertainment history, but together, these individual and heterogeneous cases confirm his point about the limitations of visual representation.

Fictions of feminist ethnography. by Kamala Visweswaran, is an interesting case of what I called impressionistic vignettes (confirmed by the fact that her book is a collection of essays), because the symptomatic issues she analyzes contribute to shaping a contrasted image of ethnography from a feminist perspective, mixing the question of positioning with interviews, with historical background of her work, with discussions about narrative techniques and practical attempts to translate interviews, observation and history into a new narrative.

This effort to walk on the tightrope between effective history and performance, or rather, a hybridization of disciplines, is successfully achieved by Louise Meintjes� �Sound of Africa!�, where the author looks at a symptomatic case of a recording studio in all its dimensions � timbre, sound, recording and mixing, interaction among musicians and with producers, listeners, businessmen. This close-up that borrows from PS is then combined to the recent history of South Africa in order to offer a new take on race, gender and class relations, which a classical historical approach would not have been able to do so deeply and so vividly.

In �Kodak Moments, Flashbulb Memories: Reflections on 9/11� Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett offers an interesting model on the crystallization of memory of a recent � even immediate � tragedy. We here have a case of history in the making, in parallel with memory in the making, and an exhibition of the vast array of media that built the bridge between the event and its memorialization within an extremely short timeframe. BKG looks at the spontaneous, ephemeral, and personal ways of making sense and remembering this moment, and how the marginal, individual, whether kitschy or tasteless, whether intellectual or popular, contributed to building the memory of 9/11, away from political and official lines. In other words, she shows how different ways of performing memory are essential tools for �effective history�, especially in the case of history in the making.

Posted by Brigitte Sion at December 10, 2004 9:43 PM