8 dic. 2008

I'm slated to teach a graduate seminar on poetry and performance in the fall of 09, with another colleague in my department, Jill Kuhnheim, a specialist in Latin American poetry who shares my interest in performance. I thought I would figure out what I need to learn about the theory of performance before I could teach it. So I made a list of 10 things that I think I know about this subject. A follow up will be 10 idea that are more or less original to me, or that aren't obvious things everyone alraedy ought to already know about the subject.

My first thought was that I knew nothing at all about the subject, but that's not quite the case. This is not everything I know, but the listing of 10 major points seems like a convenient starting point. Here goes:

1) Theory of theater. One place from which performance theory emerged is from work in drama and theater. The basic idea is that the literary study of the theatrical text on the page is not sufficient without a look at the impliciations of how theater is performed and the concrete circumstances that surround performance. In Aristotelian terms, this is spectacle, one of six major elements (and a bit of melos too).

2) Semiotics.. Barthes's essays on Brecht, for example, point to a semiotics of theater. The idea is that elements of spectacle are signs in the same way that words are. Theater can be studied as a total signifying system in which language is only one element. Dramatists who de-emphasize verbal signifying in favor of other performative elements lead to this study (Artaud).

3) Anthropology. But Performance is not just theater. From an anthropological perspective, theater is but one kind of performance. Game, rituals, and the performance of "roles" in everyday life are also part of a larger category. Artaud's exposure to other forms of theater in Bali was influential in his ideas. The anthropological perspective entails a less ethnocentric view of things.

4) Ethnopoetics. Rothenberg's Ethnopoetics is based squarely on performance practices, taking an anthropological perspective.

5) Poetics Beyond Ethnopoetics. The contributors to Bernstein's Close Listening bring performance studies into the orbit of Language Poetry, with a critique of conventional poetry readings and an exploration of many issues involved in the oral performance of poetry, also from a less theatrico-centric perspective.

6) Orality. Walter Ong's distinction between orality and literacy is a significant backdrop to performance theory. Not all performances imply an opposition to literacy, but all are in some sense "oral," in that they involve spoken language (if they have language at all). Previous work on Serbian oral epic lays behind some of this thinking.

7) Cultural Studies. Performance theory fits the agenda of Cultural Studies, in its emphasis on popular culture, the performance of social roles in subcultures, etc...

8) Performativity. Theory of performance might bring into play Chomsky's competence / performance distinction, or Judith Butler's sense that social roles are performed, or the performativity of speech act theory. In short, there is a kind of fruitful punning on the word performance itself.

9) Audience. A theory of performance is a theory of the audience, usually involving the physical presence of a public and some notion of reception. It's true that the "reader" is often invoked in discussions of literature, but in discussions of performance the spectator is more alive and concrete, not a reader merely posited as a theoretical construct.

10) Body. With performance, the body of the performer comes into play. Not the merely theoretical body involved in writing from / with the body.

What will be fun is to see what I know after teaching the course.