- Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity
In Professing Performance, Shannon Jackson provides a genealogy of performance as a disciplinary formation—beginning with George Pierce Baker's introduction of drama and theatre studies at Harvard 100 years ago. Yet the narrative she weaves is by no means continuous or univocal. On the contrary, she carefully analyzes the many and contradictory epistemologies and institutions that have produced (and been produced by) the capacious field known as performance studies. For Jackson, crucially, performance and performance studies are not set in opposition to theatre, because she sees the latter as an instance of performance (comparable, for example, to the status of linguistics within the more comprehensive field of semiotics). In her view, performance studies and theatre must be understood within "a shared, if internally discontinuous, institutional history" (11). Although Jackson cites Foucault to theorize her genealogical approach, she is, to her credit, an unfaithful disciple. More willing than Foucault to recognize the deterministic force of institutions in the construction of epistemological formations, Jackson rigorously attends to and analyzes the material conditions that produce performance paradigms and practices.
Although a relatively slim volume, Professing Performance is an unusually ambitious, far-ranging, and richly textured study. In what is both a historical and theoretical intervention, Jackson analyzes debates that have long preoccupied performance theorists. She assiduously deconstructs the series of binary oppositions that structure epistemologies of performance—including theory versus practice, scholar versus artist, and text versus context—through rigorous historicization; she considers the development of performance studies in relation to the other disciplinary insurgencies of the 1960s, such as feminism, poststructuralism, and the British model of cultural studies; she provides provocative close readings of works by Adrian Piper, Ntozake Shange, and Anna Deavere Smith; she charts the sometimes erratic operations of antitheatrical prejudice; and she scrutinizes the investments and predispositions of intellectuals and artists as members of the professional-managerial class.
This last point is one of the most impressive aspects of Jackson's book. Writing during a period when high theory is routinely dematerialized, and intellectual labor tends to disappear into what are labeled texts, she examines and critiques "the class privilege of Theory"—the class positionalities and interests of both the producers and consumers of theory and performance (120). She also tirelessly unpacks the often unpredictable and contradictory gender politics involved in the production of theories and practices: for example, the feminization of drama in relation to literature at Harvard, and the "gendered blindspot[s]" afflicting a number of influential theorists—even those, like Paul Gilroy and Joseph Roach, who engage with feminist theory (170).
Although the chapters of Professing Performance proceed in a roughly chronological fashion, and Jackson is careful to historicize the theories about which she writes, I hesitate to characterize her book as a history. Rather, it seems to be best described as a series of thematically linked essays that tell crucial parts of the story of the development of performance pedagogy. In fact, I would argue that the book (after the introductory chapter) is divided into two parts. The first (chapters two and three) charts, in a relatively linear fashion, the historical and institutional development of theatre studies in relationship to literary and cultural studies during the first 70 years of the 20th century. The second (chapters four, five, and six) is far less linear, analyzing particular theoretical problems [End Page 178] and debates that have preoccupied both scholars and practitioners since 1960: questions of the literal versus the figurative, of the ideology of performance paradigms associated with the social sciences, and of racial performativity. And I expect that Jackson would be the first to admit that her book does not provide—or, indeed, aim for—a totalizing narrative.
Yet, like all discontinuous (and in that sense, Foucauldian) histories, Professing Performance leads me to question the shape of her genealogy. I could quibble with her focus on certain formations, like New Historicism, whose impact on theatre and performance studies has arguably been slight. I could question the...