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TDR: The Drama Review 44.3 (2000) 4-7

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TDR Comment

Post Post-Structuralism?

In my last comment, "Mainstream Theatre and Performance Studies" (T166), I urged the building of bridges between PS and the mainstream. I argued that PS methods of analysis could very fruitfully be deployed to examine mainstream performance--such as Broadway, the regional theatre, classical and modern dance. But that is only part of the program. Performance studies also needs to generate theories based on performance. Up till now, PS has relied too heavily on theory coming from outside the discipline, and this has led PS to converge on cultural studies. I would like to see PS assert more strongly its own disciplinary independence.

The turn toward cultural studies is related to something I have long advocated--the "broad spectrum approach," the assertion that anything and everything can be studied as performance. But what I meant was that in studying phenomena as performance one must interrogate these subjects with "performance questions." That is, questions of behavior, enactment, and reception. Events, situations, and even objects need to be examined in terms of the behaviors that animate and/or surround them. I did not mean to encourage "reading" events as one would read literary texts. In this regard, I believe that performance studies remains lacking in not fully developing methods that do not rely so heavily on the tradition of "close reading" derived from English and comparative literature. I even want us to be very cautious about accepting Clifford Geertz's well-known advice to "read" cultures as if they were texts comparable to great novels.

On the contrary, we in performance studies need to pay closer attention to behaviors, to actions enacted, and of course to the complex social, political, ideological, and historical contexts not merely surrounding behavior, but profoundly interacting with it. Meaning radiates from these interactions, from what happens among performers and between performers and performance contexts. There is no meaning inherent in objects or events treated as settled or finished "things." Meaning--and the bodies and objects and relations of which meaning is a function--is always unstable, shifting as circumstances and historical process shift. If we attend more carefully and precisely than we have done to behaviors, events, and enactments, we will put more performance into performance studies, and in so doing more clearly differentiate it from cultural studies or other disciplines allied to but necessarily different than performance studies.

A decisive case in point is the relation between performance studies and post-structuralism. Post-structuralism has had, and continues to have, a fruitful and formative influence on performance studies. Under the aegis of post-structuralism, new ways of studying performance have been introduced into [End Page 4] performance studies. Post-structuralism has helped expand the range of what is considered "performance," including but far surpassing the "performing arts." Performance, and its sister, the performative, now are seen to inhabit just about all aspects of human thought, expression, and behavior.

Post-structuralism, including deconstruction, began as a revolt by French intellectuals against the rigidities of structuralism. The movement spread far beyond France. In the English-speaking world, post-structuralism merged with theories of the performative; and to a degree post-structuralism was aligned with critical theory, especially that of the Frankfurt School. These fruitful alliances helped make and/or transform many fields from philosophy to psychoanalysis, Marxism to postcolonial studies, gender to queer theory, cultural studies to performance studies, and more. Hereafter in this writing, when I say "post-structuralism" (or "-ists") I am referring to the full panoply of ideas, works, and persons clustered around post-structuralism. Much robust work was done, and continues to be done, by both established and younger adherents to post-structuralism, including several of my colleagues in the Department of Performance Studies, TSOA/NYU.

But despite these ongoing accomplishments, I believe post-structuralism is in need of an overhaul in its relationship to performance studies. Before being specific, let me acknowledge that I am not an expert on post-structuralism. I am speaking from my more general position as a performance...


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