Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·Public Sentiments
·Archives of Trauma
·Aftersight: Photographic Remains
·Afterwords: Testimony in the Public Sphere
·Documenting AIDS Activism
·Performance Works
·Audience Making: Affect and Effect
·World Making: Performance and Cultural Formation
·Feeling Public
·Open Endings: Towards Hope
·Works Cited

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Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, "Introduction" (page 3 of 4)

Performance Works

In the second half of this special issue we turn more explicitly to the matter of performance, asking how performances, both on-stage and off, might help to generate different kinds of publics. This division into halves ought not suggest an impenetrable divide, however. It is rather a matter of leading and trailing edges. In any case, and as will become clear below, the essays in "Performance Works" intersect in sometimes surprising ways with the issues of testimony and documentation first raised in "Archives of Trauma."

To testify about trauma is a form of giving witness to it; but, such acts of witness demand also a witnessing act or agency on the other side. Importantly, this audience of witness does not come ready-made, but is actually forged in the "space of performance," as speaker meets, or seeks to meet, hearer. The space between telling and hearing is not pre-ordained; testimony, like other performative speech acts, may miss its target or hit elsewhere than hoped, for better and for worse. This question - what it means to bear witness - has especial resonance in the context of theatre and performance; it also joins the two halves of "Public Sentiments."

As Pellegrini reminds us in a forthcoming essay,[11] the association between theatre and witnessing is a long-standing one; the English word "theatre" comes from the ancient Greek verb theáomai, meaning "to view, gaze at, behold." "Behold" is perhaps the best translation of this deponent verb, for it preserves the self-reflexivity otherwise lost to translation. As a deponent verb, theáomai has no active form, but is used in the middle voice to communicate the active sense of viewing (as opposed to being viewed). The middle voice, though, reverberates with the promise (and risk?) of a double movement: out into the world and back onto the self. Theatre, when it works, is the activity of witness - an activity that takes place, as it were, on both sides of the stage. The challenge to spectators is not just to sit and watch a play or other performance, as if it were some passive object to be quickly consumed and forgotten; rather, spectators, if they are also to be witnesses, are in some fundamental sense taken in and transformed by what it is they watch. This is more than empathic identification. Witnessing as beholding requires an open-ness to the surprise of the other - and of the self. This is among the reasons that theatre and performance more broadly offer such potent sites for representing and even working through trauma.

The category of performance not only captures activities explicitly marked as theatrical, such as the work of Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Jones highlighted here, but also refers to such purposive activities as testimony and everyday expressions of affect. In the documentary theatre work of Deavere Smith, Jones, and Steven Reisner, all of whom, albeit in different ways, use testimony and oral history as the basis for performance, the line between performance, in the expanded sense described above, and theatre "properly speaking" blurs, if it does not disappear altogether. What is the difference between Anna Deavere Smith's or Sarah Jones's re-presentation of the words of others, and Nieves Ayress's scripted performance of her own words (which, in the case of the plenary, were actually delivered in English by a translator)? In each case, the words of "real people" are performed for an audience, with the intention of soliciting response. And each performance also involves editing.

Is it a matter, then, of mediated versus unmediated speech? Although Deavere Smith and Jones perform verbatim the words spoken to them by others, they are not and can never be the people who first spoke those words to them. They repeat the real but are not the real itself. A few things to be said here. First, for many of those listening to Ayress's testimony "live," their access to her words was mediated through the mouth and body of another, the translator, a situation that certainly undercuts claims to immediacy. (Of course, those who couldn't understand Ayress's Spanish words might still have been listening to her affect as it was expressed in her tones and gestures.) But even for Spanish speakers, is it really the case that their access to Ayress's testimony was unmediated? To assent to such a view of the matter requires assenting as well to a notion of memory, the ground of testimony, as unmediated, immediate, transparent - in other words, a kind of instant and untroubled recall.

Nor is this a problem only for traumatic memories, although the situation may be more acute in such instances. The process of remembering and retelling is always selective, necessarily partial. We could retell the most banal of stories - our first driving lesson, say, or what we did last weekend and with whom - in any number of ways, with varying emphases and exclamation points, including and excluding details depending upon the audience, the time allowed, the energy required, the imagination available.

Perhaps the distinction to be drawn between the two types of testimonial performance we are describing has to do with affect's historical burden, up to and including its burden on and for the body. In saying this, we do not deny the emotional power of documentary theatre. Far from it. One of the achievements of documentary theatre - and other kinds of theatre as well - is that it can make "real life" seem more real and up the emotional stakes of the everyday. So, in pointing to an affective difference between these forms of testimony, we are speaking about something more intangible. But it goes something like this: Were Anna Deavere Smith or Sarah Jones to perform Nieves Ayress's testimony, however virtuoso the performance, the words would not be freighted, nor floated, with the same affective burdens or bodily history. However, it is precisely because of this difference that documentary theatre is able to perform important kinds of affective work. For example, it can spare the trauma survivor the grueling necessity of repeating the same story over and over by shifting the burden onto the performer (although mediated documentary forms such as the films and videos Meg McLagan discusses do this as well), and it can also enable the audience to move beyond the silent awe or standing ovation that sometimes seems the only appropriate response to more direct forms of live testimony. The mutual influences of testimony and performance have been highly productive, and it would be a mistake to privilege one over the other as a more effective form of public sentiment.

Audience Making: Affect and Effect

Both Sarah Jones and Anna Deavere Smith are interested to make an audience into something more. Their documentary theatre, then, aims at more than entertainment; more even than faithfully representing those too often left out of view. The performance work of Jones and Deavere Smith rather - or also - aims to press the audience to see itself anew. In the post-performance discussion between Jones and theatre critic Jonathan Kalb, the two discuss the possibility that the dramatic arts might help to incite new forms of social consciousness and, from there, social activism. This utopian dare, that theatre might help to reimagine and remake the world, is the focus also of much of the discussion between Deavere Smith and Pellegrini.[12]

Deavere Smith's and Jones's work suggests that performance based on testimony may be an especially powerful medium for exploring racialized experience and racialized conflict. Their power to mime other people's words and gestures is particularly dazzling because they cross racial lines in order to inhabit other lives, staging a kind of dialogue on race within their own bodies. Their work suggests the power of theatre to serve as the vehicle for the creation of a public dialogue around race that has been completely lacking in the media, which have too often produced only sensationalizing representations of the topics, such as migration and racialized violence, that Deavere Smith and Jones tackle. Indeed, the post-performance conversations with these performers that are included here are as much a part of their work as the performance itself, providing an opportunity for audiences to discuss the implications of their performance, including its emotional effects.

World Making: Performance and Cultural Formation

If theatre is capable of moving an audience to its feet (whether in applause or horror) and launching new social worlds, this derives in large part from theatre's ability to stir the emotions. (This ability is also among the reasons that anti-theatrical prejudice has outlived both Plato and the Puritans.) Live performance is emotionally demanding, and in a way that other cultural forms are not. What do we mean by this? Arguably, theatrical emotion pulls on the body in a way that other entertainment forms do not. One of the things that distinguishes theatre from other representational media is its liveness and its embodied-ness - not just the bodies of the actors, but also the bodies of the audience, usually seated, usually in the dark, often in cramped seats in an over-cooled or over-heated space as they watch a story unfold. Theatre and other live performance demand a kind of bodily attentiveness that watching a television show at home or even sitting in the movie theater watching a film (super-sized popcorn in hand!) do not. We might call this the "theatre-ness" of theatre - live bodies, on both sides of this stage, sharing time and space - and what it generates eludes easy documentation: the actor missing his or her line; the audience delighting at this slight error, which not only marks the performance as live but will also distinguish this performance from tomorrow's of the same play. The liveness of live performance means that it never returns (as) the same.

Paradoxically, this ephemerality and the impossibility of a self-identical return seem to heighten theatre's power to give flesh to collective and individual histories as it brings them back to life, if only for the length of the performance. As one of us has suggested (in "Before A Live Audience"), this is theatre as re-living. One consequence of this is that theatre can provide a relatively safe, because bounded, space in which to explore and play out cultural responses to trauma. In a provocative meditation on the trauma/drama connection, theatre artist and psychoanalyst Steven Reisner argues here that theatre can be a way to make the process of memory that is so integral to public acknowledgement of trauma more active - more agentic - such that people are not just left with feelings of loss and passivity.

It is important, though, not to romanticize liveness as such. As Saidiya Hartman and José Esteban Muñoz have both cautioned, liveness can also be a burden - from the "command performances" of the slave auction to the contemporary demand that, as Muñoz puts it, "the minoritarian subject" perform "his or her alterity as a consumable local spectacle" (Disidentifications, 182). These cautionary notes are not reasons to abandon live performance as such, even as we do well to remark, with Muñoz, not just the unequal "burden of the live" but also the unequal access to larger venues and channels of representation.

This unequal access is among the reasons the small performance space remains so vital to "subcultural" life. The affect-production experienced in theatre's shared space and time potentially offers conditions of emergence, as well as ongoing creative sustenance, for individuals and communities at the margins of the dominant public sphere.[13] The essays by Steven Reisner, Rachel Lee, Daphne Lei, Judith Halberstam, and Janelle Reinelt help us see theatre, and live performance more generally, as rich and richly embodied occasions for generating and documenting alternative forms of social life and collective belonging. Theatre's talking cure (Reisner), Margaret Cho's transgressive stand-up (Lee), the queer stylings of dyke subculture (Halberstam), feminist theatre and performance (Reinelt), and Cantonese opera in diaspora (Lei): all of these theatrical idioms use the space of culture to present other ideas and feelings. Together, these essays powerfully illuminate how theatre and performance can work to produce publics and sentiments eccentric to the national.

Feeling Public

Emotional life, in its public dimension, is not only and always about excess and the exceptional. Indeed, as the final cluster of essays makes clear, "excess" and the "exceptional" hardly do justice to what it means to talk about and conceptualize, let alone experience, "the traumatic." Nor are traumatic feelings necessarily "extreme." This final cluster of essays seeks to document the feelings that are part of everyday life; in so doing, the writing frequently becomes experimental, even "performative."[14] As Kathleen Stewart suggests, when the distinctions between private and public have grown confused, tracking the current cultural conditions requires crafting a language for the "perfectly ordinary life," with its dream of everyday happiness. Rebecca Schneider seeks to counter another kind of dream, the patriarch's. Her documentation of the detail militates against the monumental "feel" of certain kinds of public memory. Writing against the monument and the urge to monumentalize, as Schneider is doing, is a writing towards different ways of remembering and grieving 9/11, towards forms of recollected life that do not entomb past, present, and future alike in pious fealty to fatherland.

In the U.S. context, "race" and racism have been central to the forging of national identity. Sharon Holland's essay articulates the quotidian moments through which racism remains active, part of a long legacy that includes the more overt traumas of slavery, lynching, and violent repression. (Indeed, Holland's essay serves as an extension of Saidiya Hartman's remarks on the original plenary session.) She explores the contradictions of being both African-American and middle-class professional, revealing how the privileges of class and education are more likely to expose her to than protect her from all too ordinary instances of racism that are, if not traumatic, then certainly crazy-making. Like Patricia J. Williams, a legal scholar, and Phillip Brian Harper, a fellow literary critic, Holland must break with the norms of professional writing and turn to personal anecdote in order to capture what Harper calls "the evidence of felt intuition." As he puts it, "I would argue that minority existence itself induces such speculative rumination, because it continually renders even the most routine instances of social activity and personal interaction as possible cases of invidious social distinction or discriminatory treatment" (643).

Jason Tougaw's and Alyssa Harad's essays on pedagogy form an important component of this final section, speaking back to questions of trauma raised in the first section. Rather than seeing trauma as something that effectively brings teaching to a halt, Tougaw and Harad both emphasize the everyday encounter as part of pedagogy, whether they are teaching 9/11 or teaching a particularly challenging film such as Requiem for a Dream. Their analyses of trauma and pedagogy have been influenced by Shoshana Felman's work on teaching Holocaust testimony, but they resist Felman's notion of crisis as they search for ways in which trauma intrudes upon and is spoken in the everyday world of the classroom. Moreover, their essays remind all of us that teaching is a kind of performance, a transaction between teacher and students in which students seek to record their own affective experiences and link them with world events. Although the public space of the classroom may seem like a strange arena in which to share intimate experience, in fact, it offers a too-rare site for exchange across difference. Also important here is the documentation of that classroom work as one way we can learn more about the public nature of feelings.

Finally, Kathleen Stewart's lyrical approach to documenting the emotions and sensations that are part of everyday life turns the ordinary into something strange and thus renders it visible or public. She suggests that the consumer desires and dreams of domestic happiness that are held out as safety and refuge from the anxieties of geopolitical turmoil need to be understood as part of public, not private, life. For Stewart, affects are often too contradictory to be linked in any predictable way to an agenda for social transformation, and her persistence in tracking affect's subtleties and ambivalences helps to generate a new archive of public sentiments.

The public sentiments articulated in this concluding section may seem far more "ordinary," far less traumatic or spectacular than those discussed elsewhere; they may even seem, well, "anti-climactic." But that is precisely our point. Although September 11 is still present, for example, in Schneider's, Harad's, and Stewart's essays, it is displaced and contextualized by being put in relation to other events and locations, especially those in which we conduct our daily lives - the restaurant, the classroom, the grocery store parking lot, the home. As Stewart frames the issue, "When the planes crashed into the world trade center they said everything had changed. But to her it seemed more like something had snapped into place that had been building for a long time. And things would snap out of it too. It wasn't like shock was anything new."

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.