restricted access Response-ability,Vulnerability, and Other(s’) Bodies
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306 Judith Hamera Response-­ ability, Vulnerability, and Other(s’) Bodies I am responsible for the other insofar as he is mortal. —­Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning In a tribute to his friend, the late Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida observed: “Death: not, first of all, annihilation, nonbeing or nothingness , but a certain experience for the survivor of the ‘without-­response.’”1 Dwight Conquergood was so articulate, brilliant and bitingly funny, and intellectually and socially generous that even now, years after his death, I am not yet fully resigned to the reality of his nonresponse. I suspect this arises in part from teaching Dwight’s work again and again in course after course. My students seem to actively elicit his responses to their methodological dilemmas, or demand my imagining of his response, or perform their own, or produce some other performative ventriloquism that comfortingly if temporarily defers the finality of postmortem silence. Simply put: Dwight always seems to answer back, reminding me that the stages of grief are very like those in the birth of a critical performance ethnographer. Both processes move one from denial-­ as-­ fictive-­ innocence to confrontation with radical vulnerability, radical contingency, and radical alterity. The persistence of Dwight’s (non)response is also intimately tied to the presence/absence oscillations that characterize ethnographic inquiry and performance itself. Whether on stage or in print, performance ethnography demands that we evoke, translate, and hold ourselves accountable to others’ bodies: bodies, in all their precious, impossible specificity , that challenge us to analyze the forms of their persistence even as we reckon with their inevitable disappearances. Richard Schechner uses the “not-­ not” formulation to describe this double consciousness of pres- critical responses  307  ence/absence: not simply my body present onstage but also not the absent other’s. Not the field on the page but not-­not it either. Despite its obvious utility, I’m uncomfortable with this double negative construction, perhaps because syntactically it seems less an assertion of possibility than a double interdiction: no and more no. I prefer the admittedly more cumbersome metaphor of the asymptote, the line a curve approaches but does not cross, in Elizabeth Bishop’s words “closing and closing in, but never quite.”2 We can never “fully capture” the field, “accurately” perform the other, “hear” from the dead. Alterity is our absolute limit. But alongside such inevitable “nots” is the imperative to approach, even as we continually identify the material and representational gaps separating us from one another into infinity. As Dwight so ably demonstrated, negotiating these gaps means avoiding the enthusiast’s infatuated insistence that they don’t exist and the cynic’s refusal to even approach. Negotiating the approach means resisting exhibitionist and entrepreneurial motives. Dwight grounded these ethical obligations in an epistemology privileging the body as a site of knowing: “The same bodily participation is at play whether one moves into the center of a village or inside a text through performance—­ one is attempting to understand a form of life by learning ‘on the pulses,’ dwelling within it.”3 “Bodily participation,” “life,” and “pulses” animated his work, but so did corporeal absences, deaths, and silences. Herbert Blau famously observed that a universal of live performance is watching someone die on stage. This recognition of mortality—­ shared mortality —­ is no less true of fieldwork: another reason why performance–­ ethnography is such a potent partnership. The tribute essay is the paradigmatic genre for wrestling with the messy, painful vexations of presence and absence, alterity and responsibility . Dwight wrote a number of them. What comes through very powerfully in these pieces is the idea that vulnerability—­ irreducible corporeal vulnerability—­ is ethical and methodological prerequisite to performance ethnography. Perhaps the reflections on mortality these essays require bring vulnerability to the fore with special clarity. In a tribute to Victor Turner, Dwight writes: Performers . . . submit themselves to the gaze of multiple onlookers , offering themselves to the variable apprehensions of audiences . It is a kind of sparagmos, dismembering of the body. . . . For performing researchers the body becomes the porous boundary of exchange, the interface.4 308  cultural struggles The image of dismemberment recurs in Dwight’s tribute to Wallace Bacon : Sacrifice, rending, wounding—­ opening up the self and turning it outward, inside-­ out, is, paradoxically, as Bacon understands, a rebirth , a remaking, a coming into being for the self. . . . This breaking and remaking of the self through performative exposure to Others is echoed in Richard Schechner’s idea of performance as moving between identities, the...