restricted access Performing Cultures: Ethnography, Epistemology, and Ethics
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

15  I Performance Performing Cultures Ethnography, Epistemology, and Ethics At last there is a species of anthropology that is processual and participatory, it has the candor to view its fieldwork as dialogue. The conversation between investigator and investigated is not a ‘means to an end’ or a ‘necessary evil,’ but the Object itself in the process of projection. Such science grows accurate through self-­ study. It belongs to a larger and unnamed area of investigation, which could be called the History of Conscious Discourse or the Archaeology of Conversation. —George Quasha With the “interpretive turn”1 in the human sciences, researchers have begun restoring and unpacking the ancient theatrum mundi topos for fresh ways of thinking and talking about social life. Victor Turner summarizes this current shift in his field: Anthropology itself is shifting from a stress on concepts such as structure, equilibrium, system, and regularity to process, indeterminacy , reflexivity, resilience . . . There is also a renewed interest in “performance,” partly stemming from sociolinguists such as Dell Hymes, partly from modern folklorists . . . , and partly from the fundamental work of Gregory Bateson and Erving Goffman. (Turner 1983, 337) With the importance of Kenneth Burke to American communication studies, the dramaturgical perspective has been influential since mid-­ twentieth century, but recently there has been rekindled interest (see Fine and Speer 1977, Gronbeck 1980, Conquergood 1983a, Pacanowsky and O’Donnell-­ Trujillo 1983). The danger with analogies and concepts that seem so apt prima facie is that they produce a satisfying sense of closure before all the comparative complexities can be opened and drawn 16  cultural struggles out. To prevent foreclosure on a potentially rich concept—­ e.g., “Yes, life is like theatre, isn’t it?”—­ I would like to discuss dimensions of performance within two intersecting planes of “ethnography of performance research”2 : (1) performance as cultural process, and (2) performance as ethnographic praxis.3 Performance as Cultural Process The concept of culture an ethnographer takes into the field will determine his or her “positionality”4 within the field, thus shaping how the data are collected, or construed, and represented. Nonetheless, ethnographers are least reflective about the concept of culture. Surveying anthropological scholarship, Mary Douglas concludes, “Culture is a blank space, a highly respected, empty pigeonhole” (Douglas 1982a, 183). The social theorist Zygmunt Bauman opens his book on concepts of culture with this statement, “The unyielding ambiguity of the concept of culture is notorious” (Bauman 1973, 1). Is culture a system, a cross-­ hatch of rules, a pattern of meanings, a deep storage vault, a set of distorting filters or blinders, a worldview, or so on? Instead of entering into an idealist-­ metaphysical debate about the essence of culture, its “true” nature and ontological status, I shall take the philosophical stance of pragmatism and put forth the view of culture as performance. This view of culture commends its use not according to presumed correspondence with reality criteria, but with a simple criterion of usefulness (Rorty 1983). To paraphrase Rorty, what kind of stories does it enable us to tell about fields of experience and how do they fit with the other kinds of stories we want to tell about these and other local fields? Construing culture as performance is useful to the interpretive researcher because it will help her withstand cognitive reductionism. What Jonathan Culler urged his literary-­ critical cohorts to confess—­ “We are all New Critics” and therefore must strenuously resist the notion of the autonomy of a text (Culler 1982)—­ can be transposed for all the human sciences—­ “We are all naive empiricists.” Rabinow points to one of the ironies of contemporary scholarship: whereas on the one hand “the bankruptcy of the mere observer position today manifests” through the “vast array of theoretical arguments brought into play against it,” on the other hand, “the scientistic paradigm still holds sway in the everyday practices of the discipline” (Rabinow 1982, 174). It will require struggle for interpretive researchers to escape the performing cultures  17  domination of our positivistic past. Rabinow points to the depth of the ideological struggle: “The sustained hold which the model of science for anthropology maintains is a tribute to the deep embeddedness of these assumptions in our culture and how much interest there is in protecting them” (Rabinow 1982, 174). Construing culture as performance can be a radically discomposing idea, profoundly threatening to positivist scientists because the concept of culture is rendered solvent. A performance paradigm prevents the reification of culture into variables to be isolated, measured, and manipulated. Moreover...


pdf