- Cultural Struggles: Performance, Ethnography, Praxis by Dwight Conquergood
As literary executor of Dwight Conquergood’s work after the author’s death in 2004, E. Patrick Johnson has pulled together a valuable collection of articles by one of the founding fathers of performance studies. The introduction provides a thorough overview of Conquergood’s professional experience and theoretical contributions, and describes the interdisciplinary background that was instrumental in forming his methodological approaches. Johnson’s admiration for Conquergood is evident, and he puts great care into describing exactly how Conquergood worked not just on, but also with the people, and how he helped to popularize performance as an effective conceptual tool. Cultural Struggles is an important archive of a prominent scholar who passed away at a young age. Critical commentaries conclude the book and explain how Conquergood’s ideas have influenced scholarship: how performance as a theoretical concept and as social action relates to political economy and class, vulnerability and social responsibility, politics of the disenfranchised, subversive spaces, and artistic advocacy. Johnson and his contributors aim to demonstrate how Conquergood’s work has “withstood the test of time long after his passing” (13), but the collection is most valuable in that it brings together a large selection of works by Conquergood that are otherwise very difficult to find.
The volume contains four astutely arranged sections: 1) Performance, 2) Ethnography, 3) Praxis, and 4) Critical Responses. Although there is repetition in Conquergood’s writing, especially in sections 1–2, it would have been difficult for Johnson to cut any of the selections, since each presents particular theoretical thrusts that mark Conquergood’s contributions to the field. Conquergood is perhaps best known for analyzing the essential relationship among creative practice, theoretical analysis, and research methods (ethnographic, performative, dialogic). He alliterates them as the three “C”s of performance studies: creativity, critique, citizenship; the three “A”s: artistry, analysis, activism; and the three “I”s: the work of imagination and object of study, pragmatics of inquiry as model and method, and tactic of intervention and alternative place of struggle (41). Conquergood situates his theory “on the ground”—based on ethnographic data—and stresses the need for ethical research. “Both performance and field research are public, embodied, vulnerable, and risky ventures,” he writes, wanting to instill the value of creating a [End Page 646] “performance community” and also a “community of fellow fieldworkers” (5).
Section 1, “Performance,” delineates the foundations of Conquergood’s approach. With a nod to Victor Turner’s groundbreaking interest in performance and process in the field of anthropology, he explains the “interpretive turn” in the human sciences, and describes cultural performance as both a unit of analysis and a methodology, not just the “thing” to be studied. Writing of the complex relationship among “co-actors” in a research setting, Conquergood includes interactions with outside researchers, such as himself (17–18). Research must be “dialogic,” he asserts, since “the relationship between ethnographer and native is not a natural one: it is absolutely constructed” (20). Conquergood’s ideas return to the notion that “what keeps the performative nature of culture as enlivening energies in perpetual motion is that people continuously enact—perhaps it is more fitting to say ‘transact’—culture” (17). He focuses, finally, on the ability of performance studies as an interdiscipline to move among structures, and considers (following Homi Bhabha) how the notion and activation of the “performative” may interrupt and decenter powerful master narratives. By continually stressing the differences between the “view from above” and that “from below,” Conquergood ethnographically examines “ways of knowing,” “subjugated knowledges” (via Foucault), counter-hegemonic discourses, and legibility (33). He critiques the “hegemony of textualism” and proposes methods to dislodge the trend, stressing the effectiveness of both written scholarship and creative work (35).
The second section, “Ethnography,” further explicates participant observation as a powerful research method and also as performance itself. Conquergood argues that researchers have unavoidable subjectivities that should be put into play, asserting that sensitive engagement is unavoidable. The obligations (and the performance) do not simply stop when the...