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American Quarterly 55.3 (2003) 515-523
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College of William and Mary
IN THE PREFACE TO LINES OF ACTIVITY, SHANNON JACKSON CALLS HERSELF AN "untrained historian" (vii). Two hundred seventy-three stunning and challenging pages later she admits to having produced "a performance historiography of Hull-House" (272). The initial demurral is not coyness. It's an effect of being trained in performance studies. In the early 1990s, when Jackson's alma mater (Northwestern) and mine (New York University) offered the only major American programs in the then-newish field, rumors would occasionally erupt among graduate students about a contest to define performance studies in no more than twenty-five words. (Long-time NYU department chair Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett would lament that hardly a day went by without her having to explain to someone that, no, it wasn't a field devoted to the performing arts.) My own entry was always "an interdisciplinary discipline (oxymoron intended) that examines anything that can be done with the body for efficacy." This worked well enough for studies of ritual, sports, games, shamanism, healing practices, dance, performance art, shadow puppetry, drumming, aspects of industry or advertising, acting, religious ceremonies, and even linguistic utterance and gender. We knew then and know now that objects and methods of performance study are moving targets. What few of us talked about, though, was our publicly secret problem child: history. Lines of Activity [End Page 515] is not the first major work to show dazzlingly the value of a performance paradigm in doing history (Joseph Roach's 1996 Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance was a major pathbreaker), but it is part of a still-too-small cohort. 1
Jackson's exemplary project is guided by the idea that "time has more than one writing system. The transmission and interpretation of history occurs in embodied, spatial, imagistic, and sonic media as much as in linguistic markings on paper. These other media are not necessarily more authentic, but they do testify to the multiple ways that the past (sometimes quite literally) takes shape" (emphasis in original, 204-5). What takes shape in this dense, meticulously researched study is a history of the first decades at Chicago's Hull-House, with an eye to two things: first, understanding "the messy and paradoxical nature of reform work" (5) as it took effect in and through individual bodies, challenging the idea that the history of reform can be understood primarily as "a series of legislative and policy changes (205-6) and second, bridging the "epistemological break between disciplines in the humanities and in the social sciences—allowing the latter to construct the former as unimportant, allowing the former to construct the latter as deterministic" (17). Jackson brings the methodologies and perspectives of the two into conversation in an "attempt to create, however improbably, a cultural history of social work" (18).
This multi-track, multi-disciplined approach results in a study that, if it were a play, would be far more Chekhovian than say Sophoclean or even Shakespearean. Jane Addams is the main character, but not the only significant one and not the only one whose perspective counts. The setting is a big house full of quirky inhabitants who comprise a kind of extended family and whose location far from the center of bourgeois or intellectual urban doings defines their daily struggles. Servants and workers challenge over-identification with the privileged. The final scene—the departure of the last remaining residents so that a powerful member of a new social order (Chicago Mayor Richard Daley) can pull down the house in the name of progress while ironically invoking the ideals of its founder—feels both bittersweet and inevitable. It's a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but in keeping with the Deweyism and pragmatism that so often recur in Jackson's theorizing, this is a book about process, not product—about "the...