Of Caravans and Carnivals: Performance Studies in Motion
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26 Of Caravans and Carnivals Performance Studies in Motion Peggy Phelan has presented us with a challenging exercise: to identify a key issue, a pressing point of intersection between our local institution and the more expansive future of the field—­ and, she has enjoined us to be brief. I offer the following principle more as a catalyst for opening conversation than a proposition for closing down controversy. The starting point for discussion that I affirm is this: Performance is an essentially contested concept. I borrow this idea from Strine, Long, and Hopkins’ fine metadisciplinary essay, “Research in Interpretation and Performance Studies: Trends, Issues, Priorities” (1990).1 Thinking about performance as an “essentially contested concept” locates disagreement and difference as generative points of departure and coalition for its unfolding meanings and affiliations. Any attempt to define and stabilize performance will be bound up in disagreement, and this disagreement is itself part of its meaning: Thus, we understand not just that others disagree, but that this disagreement is inevitable and healthy. [ . . . ] Factions in the controversy do not expect to defeat or silence opposing positions, but rather through continuing dialogue to attain a sharper articulation of all positions and therefore a fuller understanding of the conceptual richness of performance. (Strine, Long, and Hopkins 1990, 183) The idea that performance is a contested and contesting practice rings true for me in my dual role as an ethnographer of cultural performance and as an administrator of an academic department of performance studies. What I have learned from both fields—­ethnographic “fieldwork” as well as the disciplinary “field” of performance studies—­ is that perfor- of caravans and carnivals  27  mance flourishes within a zone of contest and struggle. That observation is as true for the everyday resisting performance practices of subaltern groups as it is for performance studies programs. Life on the margins can be a source of creativity as well as constraint, what Michel de Certeau described as “makeshift creativity” and a mobile art of “making do” (de Certeau 1984, xiv, 29). Performance studies is a border discipline, an interdiscipline, that cultivates the capacity to move between structures, to forge connections, to see together, to speak with instead of simply speaking about or for others. Performance privileges threshold-­crossing, shape-­ shifting, and boundary-­ violating figures, such as shamans, tricksters , and jokers, who value the carnivalesque over the canonical, the transformative over the normative, the mobile over the monumental. Victor Turner, inspired by his performance ethnography collaborations with Richard Schechner, coined the epigrammatic view of “performance as making, not faking” (Turner 1982, 93). His constructional theory foregrounded the culture-­ creating capacities of performance and functioned as a challenge and counterproject to the “antitheatrical prejudice” that, since Plato, has aligned performance with fakery and falsehood (Barish 1981). After his sustained work on social drama, cultural performance, liminality, and, of course, definition of humankind as homo performans, it would be hard for anyone to hold a “mere sham and show” view of performance. Turner shifted thinking about performance from mimesis to poiesis. Now, the current thinking about performance constitutes a shift from poiesis to kinesis. Turner’s important work on the productive capacities of performance set the stage for a more poststructuralist and political emphasis on performance as kinesis, as movement, motion, fluidity, fluctuation , all those restless energies that transgress boundaries and trouble closure. Thus, postcolonial critic Homi K. Bhabha deployed the term “performative” to refer to action that incessantly insinuates, interrupts, interrogates, antagonizes, and decenters powerful master discourses, which he dubbed “pedagogical” (Bhabha 1994, 46–­ 49). From Turner’s emphatic view of performance as making not faking, we move to Bhabha ’s politically urgent view of performance as breaking and remaking.2 Donna Haraway argues for a performance-­ friendly worldview, a “reinvention of nature,” in which “objects” of study are actively engaged and seen as dynamic “agents”: “we must rethink the world as witty actor and agent of transformation, a coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse” (Haraway 1991, 201). Performance studies, in Haraway’s view, would be the search for trickster figures “that might turn a stacked deck into a potent set of wild cards, jokers, for refiguring possible worlds” (4). 28  cultural struggles Kinesis unleashes centrifugal forces that keep culture in motion, ideas in play, hierarchies unsettled, and academic disciplines alert and on the edge: “the guerilla tactics of multiple, uneasily jostling theories and stories can at least disrupt the smug assumptions of comfortably settled monologics ” (Tsing 1993, 33).3 And now I...