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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 436-437
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Performance and Performativity
Staging Femininities: Performance and Performativity. By Geraldine Harris. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999; pp. viii + 200. $59.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
This book presents a refreshingly honest account of theory and performance practice, one that is prepared to engage with the difficulties, frustrations, and excitement of theorizing practice and to practice theorizing theory. The study is unusual insofar as it narrows the focus on practice to just three practitioners, or more specifically to three performances: Rose English's The Double Wedding, Bobby Baker's How to Shop, and Annie Sprinkle's Post Post Porn Modernist. One of Harris's stated aims is to examine certain theories in relation to these specific practices and, by doing so, to give more critical attention to the work of women performance artists in a British context than they have hitherto received.
Harris opens with an overview of the works by English, Baker, and Sprinkle to explore notions of performance, performativity, gender, and identity. Because these women work within a tradition of performance art rather than conventional theatre, they can all be said to perform "themselves," or something of themselves. Yet, paradoxically, the idea of an authentic self is one that exists only through performance. This is one of the many "double movements" or "double gestures" that shape Harris's study as she works through contradictions, highlights the paradoxical, or makes a proposal which she then interrogates and pulls apart. "Doubling" and identity are pursued in an incisive second chapter centrally concerned with theories of mimicry and masquerade, discussed in relation to English, Baker, and Sprinkle who have all, Harris interestingly notes, been constructed by critics as "men in drag."
To keep on top of the doubling strategies deployed in the volume, the reader needs to be familiar with the theories of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-François Lyotard, as well as the feminists Susan Bordo, Judith Butler, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. In terms of student readership, therefore, the study is most likely to benefit upper-division undergraduates or graduate students. For colleagues and research students interested in theories of gender and performance, a particular strength of the study is the way in which it engages in a transatlantic dialogue.
The study shows that mixing North American performance art criticism with performance practice in a British context can offer new and different insights into representation and reception issues. Take, for example, the chapter on Sprinkle which details a performance of Post Post Porn Modernist in Glasgow, Scotland (1994) and, in the discussion which follows, re-views Elinor Fuchs's article "Staging the Obscene Body" in order to pursue complex issues of spectatorial identity. Out of Fuchs's original questioning response to Sprinkle, "Is she a woman like me?", Harris--through a discussion that draws on psychoanalysis, feminism, nationalism, and performance context--arrives at another of her double movements, concluding "that if Sprinkle was not a woman like me, she was also not a woman--like me" (164).
At this point, however, the difficulty of not being able to "see" the performance under discussion became an issue. I found myself longing for an accompanying video or CD-ROM package, even though this would in itself create one of Harris's double movements, given that a recording cannot provide the same opportunity for "seeing" the performance the author describes.
It may be because I do have a video of Baker's How to Shop that my own reading of Harris's chapter on Baker differed from the rest of the study: I was reading more to find out how she interpreted this particular show than to follow the book's overarching "narrative" of theorizing gender and performance. My own reading underwent one of Harris's double gestures: in the process of reading to see what someone else had seen, I unfixed my own "seeing." Paradoxically, therefore, my own reading mirrored the mode of contestation that Harris argues for, most admirably in her third chapter on English's The Double...