- Performance and/as History
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 67]
TDR, the journal dedicated to the study of performance and performance studies, has turned 50. One way of honoring the particular history of performance studies I glean through this journal is by returning to the perennial question of the relationship of performance and performance studies to history and historical studies. How does performance transmit knowledge about the past in ways that allow us to understand and use it? While I posed this problem in The Archive and the Repertoire (2003), this essay pushes the problem further to explore how performed, embodied practices make the "past" available as a political resource in the present by simultaneously enabling several complicated, multilayered processes. By this I mean that a performance may be about something that helps us understand the past, and it may reactivate issues or scenarios from the past by staging them in the present.1 But performance does more than that. The physical mechanics of staging can also keep alive an organizational infrastructure, a practice or know-how, an episteme, and a politics that goes beyond the explicit topic. To elaborate on this, I focus on a fiesta celebrated annually in Tepoztlán, Mexico, that repeatedly enacts a history—one that affirms a sense of identity and agency quite different from the one found in history books. However, the fiesta is illuminating for other reasons: the same organizational structures that allow for the massive performance-of-communal-self year after year have simultaneously sustained the sturdy, community-wide infrastructure and networks that date back to the pre-Conquest period. The continuity of these ancient networks grounded the town's claims to communal land rights, made to the Mexican government in the mid-1990s. This astonishing act in which performed history trumps official written history, and communal organizations stymie governmental structures, suggests a reevaluation of old questions. How can "performance," often thought of as ephemeral practice, as taking place only in the here and now, give evidence of past behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes? If archival evidence (documents, records, ruins) sustain historical inquiry, is the repertoire of performed acts by definition, un- or even anti-historical? Does it have explanatory potential? What standards of inquiry would have to be met if performed behaviors were to be recognized as socially legitimate ways of understanding the past? And insofar as the future is linked to the past, can the repertoire of embodied actions claim predictive power? The stakes are crucial. Few claims by individuals and communities for legal status, self-governance, and land rights, based on embodied action and customs rather than on documentary evidence, are currently accepted by government and official authorities (see Cruikshank 1992; Clifford 1988). Performances may be granted some degree of "truth"-telling validity in existential and epistemic questions, but these rarely hold up in court. Do we need to redefine or rethink performance if we want to understand the force of embodied practice in relation to historical claims, or do we have to redefine and rethink history, or more precisely historical studies, a discipline founded on assertions of archival stability? The "answer" I will rehearse in this essay is "both": we need to reconsider how performance studies and historical studies construct and position themselves in relation to their objects of analysis—the activated now of performance, the performed past of history.
All disciplines construct and define themselves in relation to the status of their objects of analysis. Literary studies primarily examine literary texts, film studies looks at film and so forth. The "object" can be quite different; so too the methodologies that simultaneously come out of them, create them, and shape what we can learn from them. As a discipline, history looks at change over time by grounding claims in archival sources. Its object of analysis, supposedly, is out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, interpreted, and revealed by the investigator. As historian Hayden White puts it, "For historians the past pre-exists any representation of it. [...] That this target-object...