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Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 164-187

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The How of Literature

The Open University

In a challenging article that starts not from the conventional Western literary canon but from traditional Japanese theater, Andrew Gerstle (2000:43) has raised the interesting question of whether the concept of "performance literature" might be illuminating as an analytic and comparative tool when approaching the literatures of Africa and Asia. Further light on this has been shed by the impressive crosscultural range of the articles in this volume of Oral Tradition (20) and the comparative and interdisciplinary workshops that gave rise to them. My article also follows up Gerstle's question, seeing it as of potential relevance not just for Africa or Asia but also for any literary forms in which performance has a part and thus for theories of "literature" more generally.1

It is a question well worth addressing. For despite the now-accepted problematizing of the concepts of "text" and of "literature," conventional approaches to studying literature and literary theory still regularly bypass performance. As pointed out directly or indirectly in several of the articles here (notably those by Peter Middleton [2005] and John Miles Foley [2005]) the implicit starting point still seems to be that the defining heart of "literature" lies in "texts," prototypically texts in writing; and that this is how and where literature exists. Most textbooks and glossaries on literature contain little or nothing about the complex performed aspects of literature in the sense of its realization as a publicly enacted display in the here and now; [End Page 164] if this is mentioned at all it comes in as something marginal to the prior and enduring existence of the written text.2

It is, perhaps, scarcely surprising that the usual dictionary definitions of "literature" focus on "writings" or "written texts" or that scholars have conceived of "literature" as basically existent in this form. After all, we have long accessed past literary enactments—across centuries, even millennia— through the medium of verbalized texts-on-a-written-surface. This is what exists, it seems; here are the objects we can get our hands and eyes on. Non-verbalized and non-writable performance dimensions, ephemeral and elusive, could not be captured or directly transmitted from the past, and therefore (sic) could be passed over as lacking any abiding graspable reality. The written verbal formulation, something hard and permanent, appears as the essence, a notion further reinforced in a range of influential languages by the association of "literature" with alphabetic writing (letters). As a standard reference book has it, "at its most neutral, and broadest, literature signifies textual manifestations of writing" (Wolfreys, Robbins, et al. 2002:51). Or, more directly, in a statement that would probably be implicitly accepted by many, Peter Widdowson defines literature as written works, by which he means "works whose originating form and final point of reference is their existence as written textuality" (1999:15). Literature must be "reproducible in print," and (ibid.:127, 128)

a centrally determining characteristic of "the literary" . . . is that it is realised in a tangible object which is readily present for close inspection or re-reading, and that it does not have to be performed (or pre-emptively interpreted) in order to be read for the first time as unmediated text.

The notion of performance seems to lie outside this ground of literature, even be opposed to it. Indeed those who have pointed to the significance of performance have been less the literary scholars than anthropologists, folklorists, cultural historians, ethnomusicologists, and other scholars (and practitioners) coming to the issues from first-hand experience of performance arts and forms outside the conventional high-art Western canon. These scholars have now been strengthened by perspectives rooted in the continually developing genres of popular culture and by the growing acknowledgment of the wealth and reality of non-Western literary forms. [End Page 165]

This article, then, attempts to take up Gerstle's challenge by some direct consideration of the concept of performance in the context of literature. How, if at all, does literature exist in performance? What has "performance...


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