Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance
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65  II Ethnography Performing as a Moral Act Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. . . . The self has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities such as those of the family, the neighborhood, the city, and the tribe . . . . Without those moral particularities to begin from there would never be anywhere to begin; but it is in moving forward from such particularity that the search for the good, for the universal, consists. —­ Alasdair MacIntyre (1984, 221) During the crucial days of 1954, when the Senate was pushing for termination of all Indian rights, not one single scholar, anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or economist came forward to support the tribes against the detrimental policy. —­ Vine Deloria, Jr. (1969, 98) Ethnographers study the diversity and unity of cultural performance as a universal human resource for deepening and clarifying the meaningfulness of life. They help us see performance with all its moral entailments, not as a flight from lived responsibilities. Henry Glassie represents the contemporary ethnographer’s interest in the interanimation between expressive art and daily life, texts, and contexts: I begin study with sturdy, fecund totalities created by the people themselves, whole statements, whole songs or houses or events, away from which life expands, toward which life orients in seek- 66  cultural struggles ing maturity. I begin with texts, then weave contexts around them to make them meaningful, to make life comprehensible. (Glassie 1982, xvi) Joining other humanists who celebrate the necessary and indissoluble link between art and life, ethnographers present performance as vulnerable and open to dialogue with the world. The repercussions for “thinking,” which Clifford Geertz attributes to Dewey, can be transposed to a socially committed and humanistic understanding of “performing”: Since Dewey, it has been much more difficult to regard thinking as an abstention from action, theorizing as an alternative to commitment , and the intellectual life as a kind of secular monasticism, excused from accountability by its sensitivity to the Good. (Geertz 1968, 140) This view cuts off the safe retreat into aestheticism, art for art’s sake, and brings performance “out into the public world where ethical judgment can get at it” (Geertz 1968, 139). Moral and ethical questions get stirred to the surface because ethnographers of performance explode the notion of aesthetic distance.1 In their fieldwork efforts to grasp the native’s point of view, to understand the human complexities displayed in even the most humble folk performance , ethnographers try to surrender themselves to the centripetal pulls of culture, to get close to the face of humanity where life is not always pretty. Sir Edward Evans-­ Pritchard wrote that fieldwork “requires a certain kind of character and temperament. . . . To succeed in it a man must be able to abandon himself to native life without reserve” (Geertz 1983, 72–­ 73). Instead of worrying about maintaining aesthetic distance, ethnographers try to bring “the enormously distant enormously close without becoming any less far away” (Geertz 1983, 48). Moreover, ethnographers work with expressivity, which is inextricable from its human creators. They must work with real people, humankind alive, instead of printed texts. Opening and interpreting lives is very different from opening and closing books. Perhaps that is why ethnographers worry more about acquiring experiential insight than maintaining aesthetic distance. Indeed, they are calling for empathic performance as a way of intensifying the participative nature of fieldwork, and as a corrective to foreshorten the textual distance that results from writing monographs about the people with whom one lives and studies (Turner performing as a moral act  67  1982). When one keeps intellectual, aesthetic, or any other kind of distance from the other, ethnographers worry that other people will be held at an ethical and moral remove as well. Whatever else one may say about ethnographic fieldwork, Geertz reminds us, “one can hardly claim that it is focused on trivial issues or abstracted from human concerns” (Geertz 1968, 139). This kind of research “involves direct, intimate and more or less disturbing encounters with the immediate details of contemporary life” (Geertz 1968, 141). When ethnographers of performance complement their participant observation fieldwork by actually performing for different audiences the verbal art they have studied in situ, they expose themselves to double jeopardy. They become keenly aware that performance does not proceed in ideological innocence and axiological purity. Most researchers who have extended ethnographic fieldwork into public performance will experience...


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