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  • Performance Studies and Negative Epistemology: Performance Apophatics by Claire Maria Chambers
  • Jonah Herzog-Arbeitman
Performance Studies and Negative Epistemology: Performance Apophatics. By Claire Maria Chambers. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Paper $99.99. 301 pages.

"To perform is not to know" (1). Readers may be uncertain what to make of this slippery statement initially, and this is as it should be. In Performance Studies and Negative Epistemology: Performance Apophatics, Claire Chambers welds the traditions of theology and performance theory to assemble a new framework of performance apophatics. Probing the fundamentals of performance, Chambers asks how we may enact knowledge of the other without presumption, or how we may preserve "concern for the indistinguishable" (21), even how we might possibly make sense of "the unknown, which is very likely the unknowable" (22). Such questions tread the brink of contradiction, but Chambers navigates them using the language of apophatic theology, the age-old tradition of negative knowledge. [End Page 167]

Chambers crystalizes two central concepts from the theological tradition. She explicates how knowledge "performs against itself" to give theorists a language to address the fundamentally unknown without destroying it, and how actors (as selves) must "deny experience" to productively understand their perception of reality as true yet fallible (3). After introducing the premise of apophatics in chapter 1, chapter 2 solidifies the theoretical foundation by locating the mystic tradition of resistance in current thinking. In this chapter, Chambers demonstrates how these theological notions dovetail with the central epistemologies of performance studies, offering a selection of examples where authors from performance studies and theatre call upon apophatic principles, or pose questions that apophatics may answer. In Grotowski's paratheatre, for instance, Chambers identifies the desire to "abandon performance itself" as "achieved through a negative 'stripping away'" and so situates his method of acting within an apophatic scheme (39). Later, in the section of chapter 2 entitled "Apophatics, Feminism, and 'Entanglements,'" Chambers examines the destabilizing power of apophatics, noting that "Negative theology shares with… certain forms of feminism the notion that complete otherness disbands the power of language," initiating a dialogue with Luce Irigaray, medieval mystic scholars, and practitioners of postcolonial performance (54). Chapter 2 is an essential and pragmatic account of the apophatic roots of modern theatrical ideologies.

The following three chapters rise from these theoretical foundations to substantiate the utility of negative language. These chapters serve as case studies where the tools of performance apophatics can be seen in action, demonstrating the nuance and care inherent in the method. Chapter 3 considers intercultural performance in South Korea, studying primarily an adaptation of Douglas Maxwell's Our Bad Magnet. Chambers uses performance apophatics to study the queering of the work, identifying the "trap of upholding alterity as an end in itself" which negative knowledge naturally eludes (82). Chambers then steps back in chapter 4 to apply the method outside of traditional performance. She turns to the notion of archive in the legacy of Li Tim-Oi, a Chinese Anglican priestess, and explores her own personal and academic account of Tim-Oi's living archive. Chambers accesses the apophatic discipline as a way of understanding the nonsense of archives which "promise origins, but return none" and "intentionally create excess to delimit the specific" (143). Her work is fruitful here, but for some readers will stray from relevance.

"The Playwright as Negative Theologian," chapter 5 of the work, is one of Chamber's most effective, mapping the negative thinking of Kierkegaard and Heidegger onto the character arcs of The Amen Corner and Blues for Mister Charlie while continuing the powerful synthesis that chapter 2 began. Chambers draws attention to the internal conflict of "'anti-conversion,' the inability, despite the desire, to give oneself over to absolute faith" as an example of a negative ontological experience (165). As phrased in her reading of The Amen Corner, "Baldwin's [End Page 168] impossible faith is a political challenge to the oppressive presence of a white god within the seductive allure of absolutist religion" (173). But going farther, she uncovers an apophatics in power dynamics, demonstrating how "absolute faith" is a kind of "social oppression" and "dominion" (175). Here Chambers demonstrates how apophatics is almost an essential language...


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pp. 167-169
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