- We Keep Living
A forum on contemporary women playwrights ought to include women who are still carrying on long and varied careers, working in the contemporary moment even if they are not, in conventional terms, of it. Over ten years ago, I wrote on the performances of Peggy Shaw's You're Just Like My Father (1994), Robbie McCauley's Indian Blood (1987), and Deb Margolin's Carthieves! Joyrides (1995) in the final chapter of my book Unmaking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Performance.1 I had noticed a convergence of ideas about fathers in these otherwise quite different performances. Since Margolin, McCauley, and Shaw are political women who find edge and energy in feminist and racial struggles, since personal storytelling for political women is always a deep encounter with experience in history, the personal fathers remembered in these performances emerged from the force-field of American society of the 1940s and '50s. The fathers beckoned seductively from a late-capitalist phantasmagoria of shiny new things—cars, stereos, televisions—things that were also wish images compressing both the dreams of an earlier era, when the fathers themselves were children, and of a future one—the present of the 1980s and '90s when these women were performing.
"Where there is experience," Walter Benjamin writes, "contents of the individual past combine with materials of the collective past."2 In Unmaking Mimesis, I torqued the words of this melancholy philosopher to release his unlooked-for feminist energies. Benjamin offered up many of the suggestive tropes in the chapter: Jetztzeit (now-time) and auratic bodies, but most of all dialectical images, those strange montage constructions blasted out of dead history by the present-time recognition of a reader or spectator; the past and the now coming together in a flash that awakens us from the dream-story of historical "progress" under capitalism. Shaw, McCauley, and Margolin's relations with their childhood fathers were memory fragments electrically joined to the popular culture of the postwar United States—dads as sharply pressed American soldiers or [End Page 521] as triumphant providers bringing home a Cadillac or a brand new Buick. With words and music, the performers inhabited their fathers' wish images and transmitted them in the fierce now-time of performance. They invited us to experience the world we have inherited, suggesting that if only we were to wake up, we might someday resist or transform that inheritance. For even if we no longer believe in the capitalist dreamstory, it still impedes our vision as we navigate the gigantic boom-and-bust cycles of today's turbo-capitalism, wobbling down the road on our frail bicycles trying to avoid the potholes on our way to the present. "Imagining the present," as Barbara Johnson once put it, is what we look for performance to do.3 When Shaw, McCauley, and Margolin put their words, images, and bodies before us—however mediated the distance between spectator and performer, however much the apparatus of performance distorts and intrudes—they give us news about the state of play in the here and now.
The confessional, autobiographical tendency of solo performance can be, as Mc-Cauley puts it, part of the "personal bigger."4 Feminist performance can light up dark corners of the social matrix—it is what good political performance has always done, but the solo performer, close enough to her spectators to kiss or kick them, registers through her vulnerability the world we are too inured or distracted to feel. Since I wrote my book, the women of chapter 5 have aged and are bringing us the news of their aging bodies, particularly the most powerful encounter that most of us will ever have with forces beyond our control: the encounter between our personal bodies and the biopolitics of medical science. Western women experienced this encounter when pregnancy was medicalized and pathologized in the nineteenth century. Women of color have been the object of medical pathologizing far longer. Yet the surprise of injury or disease seems to wipe the historical slate clean. Thirty years of brilliant theorizing and agitation over medical politics in the feminist health movement and by the HIV/ AIDS community leave us informed...