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On the Road to a New Ethnography: Anthropology, Improvisation and Performance

“For the first time we may be moving towards a sharing of cultural experiences, the manifold “forms of objectivated mind” restored through performance to something like their pristine affectual contouring. This may be a humble step for mankind away from the destruction that surely awaits our species if we continue to cultivate deliberate mutual misunderstanding in the interests of power and profit. We can learn from experience-from the enactment and performance of the culturally transmitted experiences of others-peoples of the Heath as well as of the Book.” (Turner, 1982)

The Anthropology of Theater and Performance was pioneered by Victor Turner through his experiences and experiments with Richard Schechner. Turner moved the notion put forward by Erving Goffman of performance as imitation (Goffman, 1959)– mimesis – to one of creation – poiesis – or in the words of Turner himself “making, not faking”(Turner, 1982). Turner set the stage for further work with a more post-structuralist and political emphasis. Homi K. Bhabha links the performative with fluctuation, and the pedagogical with sedimentation (Bhabha, 1990). Thus we see the performance move from an emphatic view with Turner to a more politically urgent view with Bhabha. This move takes us from poiesis to kinesis, from “making, not faking” to “breaking and remaking” (Conquergood, 1992). More recent scholarship has focused on performance being a new realization of ethnography, and that the current centralization of ethnography in the written word is another manifestation of western hegemony and maintaining a system of othering by excluding all who have not been trained in the code of social theorizing or all those who cannot read (Conquergood, 2002). The assertion is that the performative opens the intercultural and ethnographic dialogue to all.

There is another exciting element to the drafting of this overview, and that is the relevance of my own performance experience. I have experienced a number of the elements that the authors I’ve researched have discussed first hand, and, as an insider, I understand the power and value of the ideas that they describe. I will include some of these experiences in hopes of further explaining and highlighting the notions brought forth in this discussion.

Social Dramas and Intercultural Theatric Interpretations

Victor Turner worked with Richard Schechner’s company, The Performance Group, back in the 1970’s. He was impressed by Schechner’s approach in coaching and directing his actors. Turner saw Schechner’s process “as constituting a kind of liminal phase in which all kinds of experiential experiments are possible, indeed mandatory.” Turner felt that this approach would be valuable to anthropological teaching because it forces one to recreate behavior from within, which he felt left the learner able to handle the unfamiliar material by contextualizing it with elements that were familiar to the learner (Turner, 1982).

He went on to describe an instance in a workshop where he asked participants to enact roles of a very specific Ndembu rite into modern American terms. Someone volunteered to be the focus of the rite, and he asked this person to “give [him] the name of a recently deceased close female relative of an older generation who had meant much in her life.” In this way, Turner went about setting the stage for the re-enactment of the ritual using elements that would help to contextualize it in a meaningful way for the participants. Turner was able to elicit a visceral understanding of a cultural practice well outside of the experience of the workshop participants. This is what Turner means when he asserts “making, not faking”. The re-enactment goes beyond copying to the point where the experience is made again for the participants with its power and personal meaning intact and palpable.

A similar technique is used by practitioners of psychodramas in the forum of “Playback Theatre”. “Within the structure of a ritual framework, the performance is spontaneous – it is theatre created through a unique collaboration between performers and audience. Someone tells a story or moment from their life, chooses actors to play the different roles, then watches as their story is immediately recreated and given artistic shape. Many artistic variations are possible within the clear ritual structure and rhythm of a performance event” (IPTA website). The Playback performances are improvised as were Turner’s social drama experiments. The goal is similar in that the participants are seeking a deeper understanding of a situation in order to claim its power and meaning anew. The difference is that Playback focuses on interpersonal dialogue, and Turner’s social dramas focus on intercultural dialogue; the understanding of the other rather than the understanding of the self.

Turner also ran into certain instances of ambiguity in translating certain cultural narrations to a dramatic stage product. The instance in question was the staging of a girls’ puberty ritual of the Ndembu. Prior to the staging, an anthropology graduate student had given some instruction to the performers on matrilineal kinship systems and problems. These women decided to begin the piece with a ballet that set the women up as a circular frame in which the male political action could take place. Turner states, “Somehow this device didn’t work-there was a covert contemporary political tinge in it which denatured the Ndembu socio-cultural process. This feminist mode of staging ethnography assumed and enacted modern ideological notions in a situation in which those ideas are simply irrelevant” (Turner, 1982). This begs the question of whether or not westerners are capable of enacting cultural narratives that accurately – or perhaps adequately – represent the culture they are portraying. Secondly, will notions like cultural relativism be considered in determining representations? These are salient notions when considering that dramatic representations can depict, describe, elevate, lampoon, and parody both peoples and ideas.

Turner addressed this by stating, “The movement from ethnography to performance is a process of pragmatic reflexivity. Not the reflexivity of a narcissistic isolate moving among his or her memories and dreams, but the attempt of representatives of one generic modality of human existence, the Western historical experience, to understand “on the pulses”…other modes hitherto locked away from it by cognitive chauvinism or cultural snobbery.” (Turner, 1982)

The main message of Turner’s drive towards “ethnodramatics” was to move away from the obscurity of anthropological scholarship to have it “become something more than a cognitive game inscribed in…somewhat tedious journals” (Turner, 1982). He felt that dramatizing ethnography required one to seek to understand things in a more contextual manner by investigating setting, props, and other elements of the mis en scène, as well as the meaning of cultural practices. As anthropological scholarship continued, Victor Turner’s cry was not unheard.

Ethnography as Performance and the Tyranny of Text

Dwight Conquergood, known for his role in the popular book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, had been one of the more notable voices in ethnodramatics up until his death from cancer in November of 2004. He founded the Performance Studies program at Northwestern University, and wrote extensively on the subject of the anthropology of theater, and dramatizing ethnography.

Conquergood was distinctly concerned with questioning the operation of the academy and was fond of what Foucault termed “subjugated knowledges”, which “include all the local, regional, vernacular, naïve knowledges at the bottom of the hierarchy-the low Other of science” (Foucault, 1980, Conquergood, 2002). In making his arguments, Conquergood often refers to Michel de Certeau. Particularly, he is concerned with the notion that “scriptocentrism is a hallmark of Western imperialism”, in that the written word and the weight that it holds for international scholarship, economics, and law is central to the domination of non-westerners (Certeau, 1984).

Conquergood vaults off of this idea into the radical pronouncement, “The hegemony of textualism needs to be exposed and undermined. Transcription is not a transparent or politically innocent model for conceptualizing or engaging the world. The root metaphor of the text underpins the supremacy of Western knowledge systems by erasing the vast realm of human knowledge and meaningful action that is unlettered, “a history of the tacit and habitual”” (Conquergood, 2002). This captures the sentiment of the opening quote by Turner in which ethnography is for the “people of the Heath as well as the Book”. The hegemony of the text keeps access to the knowledge of other cultures (and other cultural understandings that defy being written) from being communicated. To write or read a description of a kiss is far less instructive than seeing or participating in a kiss and coming to understand a kiss’ meaning by its physical and social context, all of which can be viewed and experienced, but not all of which can be ‘transcribed to’ and ‘gleaned from’ the page.

From experience, this same dynamic is sometimes present in contemporary theater contexts, wherein scripted theater is considered the ‘more legitimate’ form of dramatic art, and improvised theater can be devalued as trite enactments of the lowest common denominator or as a tool for rehearsal in the eyes of script actors (rightfully so in some instances). Either way, it is often viewed as a means to an end rather than a means and an end in itself. I have a friend who was denied entrance into a theater company based on the fact that she was an improviser, and she was told that they felt that because of this she wouldn’t be capable of serious and meaningful work. The irony of this was that she was, at the time, employed as a theater counselor who was using improv techniques to give voice to the experiences of female prisoners and homeless youth. If that is not serious or meaningful work, then what is? Unfortunately, popular media has helped to cement the notion of improvisation being trite.

To go a step further in detail, even within improvised theater, there is a penchant to become mired in the verbal. Western European and North American improvisers tend to center their activities and concerns in the verbal portion of a performance. Such was the consensus at one of the two panel discussions at the 2004 Slovenian International Festival of Improvisation (Personal Communication, 2004). This is more prevalent in persons who are newer to the art. When I train performers, I must constantly remind them of the power of the unspoken, or more importantly that powerful things can be said without words. A subtle gesture, a lingering look, a well-placed sigh can all add layers of meaning that would require many more spoken words to describe. Many of the most meaningful, powerful, despicable, and noble things that occur between humans are not heralded by words, but occur silently in the form of actions and gestures. This concept has been distilled into the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’.

Conquergood centers in on this same notion by stating, “Oppressed people everywhere must watch their backs, cover their tracks, suck up their feelings, and veil their meanings. The state of emergency under which many people live demands that we pay attention to messages that are encrypted; to indirect, nonverbal, and extralinguistic modes of communication where subversive meanings and utopian yearnings can be sheltered and shielded from surveillance.” (Conquergood, 2002) It is by the right of the pervading eye of western systems of power, that disenfranchised people are driven to show their notions rather than tell them aloud lest they be, at best, catalogued and consumed, thus stripping them of their essential meaning, or, at worst, lead to one being captured, tortured, and killed for speaking out against a regime. As they bow to hegemony, they also subvert it through subtle active resistance. An epigraph of a cheeky Ethiopian proverb is a great example of such actions: “When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts” (Scott, 1990).

By locating ethnography and cultural meaning in the living frame of behavior as performance, we come to the anthropology of performance as ‘kinesis’….

 

If you like this article and want to read the rest, you can find it in my book or eBook.

 

Works Cited:

Bhabha, Homi K., “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern
Nation,” Nation and Narrative, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 291-322

Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life, Translated by Steven Rendall.
Berkely: University of California Press, 1984

Conquergood, Dwight, “Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics”,
Communication Monographs, 58, June 1991, pp. 179-194

Conquergood, Dwight, “Ethnography, Rhetoric, and Performance”, Quarterly Journal of
Speech, 78 (1992): 80-123

Conquergood, Dwight, “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research”, The
Drama Review 46, 2, Summer 2002, pp.145-156

Conquergood, Dwight, “Of Caravans and Carnivals: Performance Studies in Motion”,
The Drama Review 49, 4, Autumn 1995, pp.137-141

Fabian, Johannes, Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through
Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba Zaire. Madison, WI: University of
Wisconsin Press. 1990

Fabian, Johannes, “Theater and Anthropology, Theatricality and Culture”, The Journal of
Research in African Literatures 30, 4, Winter 1999, pp. 24-31

Fadiman, Anne, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: a Hmong Child, Her
American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1997

Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge, New York: Pantheon, 1980

Goffman, Erving, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Anchor Books, 1959

Haraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York:
Routledge. 1991

International Playback Theatre Network, http://www.playbacknet.org/iptn/index.htm,
2005

Scott, James C., Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990

Turner, Victor, From Ritual to Theatre, New York: PAJ Publications, 1982

Turner, Victor, “Dramatic Ritual/Ritual Drama: Performative and Reflexive
Anthropology”, Kenyon Review, Summer79, Vol. 1 Issue 3, p80, 14p

Turner, Victor, The Anthropology of Performance, New York: PAJ Publications, 1986

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3 comments on “On the Road to a New Ethnography: Anthropology, Improvisation and Performance

  1. Brad,

    Thank you very much for this post, which I think is excellent. This is a topic I’m just beginning to investigate as a result of seeing a video of a portion of Olga Alexandrova’s performance, “Three weddings songs,” which I just blogged about here: http://extravagantcreation.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/three-wedding-songs/.

    I will definitely be following up by checking out some of the works you reference and, in particular, by reading more by, and about, Turner and Conquergood. Again, thank you for taking the time to post!

    All the best,
    Michael McIntyre

    • You’re welcome, Michael. I’m glad that the piece was of use to you. I was hoping it would have some impact. Glad to hear it. I’ll check out your piece this week. Cheers!

      Brad

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