TDR Comment: Performance As a "Formation of Power and Knowledge"
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TDR: The Drama Review 44.4 (2000) 5-7

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TDR Comment

Performance As a "Formation of Power and Knowledge"

In this issue of TDR, Craig Latrell argues for a more complicated, nuanced response to intercultural borrowings--on both sides of these exchanges. Latrell notes that "[..I]nterculturalism is portrayed as something that can only be 'explained' by inequities of power between East and West [or North and South]." And he asks:

Why should we assume that intercultural transfer is primarily a politically based, one-way phenomenon--a cultural monologue rather than a dialogue? [...] Why not start with the assumption that other cultures are not just passive receivers of Western ideas and images, but active manipulators of such influences, and that intercultural borrowing is not simply a one-way process, but something far more interestingly dialogic.

Good observation, good questions.

To what degree are power imbalances in the process of being rectified? And do power balances reflect a parallel cultural imbalance of trade? Do artists have to pay as much attention these days as before to whom they borrow from, what use they make of the arts and rituals of other cultures, and how individual works might exacerbate or ease the imbalances? Ought there be different rules governing borrowings depending on whether one is a Western or non-Western artist? And what do these categories--"Western," "non-Western"--mean in today's globalized world?

There is a triple whammy of concerns. First, Western artists use non-Western performances as materials from which to make their own "original," "innovative," "avantgarde" works, which then in turn affect the world arts market, both economically and conceptually. In other words, the old colonial cycle: raw material from the colony at a cheap price, manufactured items back to the colony at a high price. Second, building on the colonial cycle, will Western arts--the "finished products"--appear so alluring that they are everywhere emulated, accepted as the standard of excellence and accomplishment? Third, and this goes beyond the arts, will sheer economic power result in the whole world becoming McDisney in taste, Microsoft in digitization, Mega-Merger in corporate structure, Nike in manufacturing, and Benetton in feel-good cover-up? Given the triple whammy, one can readily understand why Iranian clerics regard the U.S.A. as the Great Satan. [End Page 5]

But the above argument is actually too simple. A core part of the complication is that West no longer equals West, South no longer equals South, East no longer equals East. Globalization is not only a system of dominance, it is a system of dissolving boundaries and mixing up populations. Significant pockets of "West" exist everywhere; and equally significant cultural presences of "non-West" exist in the West, especially in the great metropolises. Although most of the heat has been applied to white Western artists such as Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine, Philip Glass, Paul Simon, and so on, what ought one say to artists of color who are also Western? Can Bill T. Jones do what Mnouchkine cannot? Is Suzan Lori-Parks absolved from restrictions binding Brook? What about Guillermo Gòmez-Peña whose work depends upon borrowing, parodic distortion, and making art in the interstices separating/joining Mexican, gringo, and Hispanic cultures?

And when we move offshore, the situation gets even more complex. What of artists hooked into various global circuits but residing in São Paolo, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Jakarta...and many elsewheres? To take but one example: Japan is culturally "Japan" at one level, but also very much part of the West, or the emergent "global culture" (if you prefer that term) at other levels--and I don't mean just economically. In Japan, alongside traditional performing arts such as kabuki, noh, and bunraku exists a thriving generations-old avantgarde (engura, or underground theatre), a more than century old modern theatre (shingeki), and a tradition of combining the old, new, Western, Japanese--as in the work of Suzuki Tadashi, Min Tanaka, Ohno Kazuo (and other butoh performers), and Kawamura Takeshi (see T165, a special issue on Japanese performance...