Performance Studies: A Hemispheric Focus

Diana Taylor
Lima, Peru
July 2002

My particular investment in performance studies derives less from what it is than what it allows us to do.What I want performance studies to do is provide a theoretical lens for the sustained historical analysis of performance practices in the Americas. The many definitions and understandings of the word ‘performance,’ as everyone has noted more or less generously, result in a complex, and at times contradictory, mix.For some it is a process, for others the ‘result’ of a process. For some it is that which disappears, while others see it as that which remains as embodied memory.As the different uses of the term rarely engage each other, ‘performance’ has a history of untranslateability.Ironically, the word itself has been locked into the disciplinary boxes it defies, denied the universality and transparency that some claim it promises its objects of analysis.These many points of ‘untranslateability’ of course, are what make the term and the practices so culturally revealing. While performances may not give us access and insight into another culture, they certainly tell us a great deal about our desire for access and the politics of our interpretations.

‘Performance’ has no equivalent in Latin America.Translated simply but nonetheless ambiguously as masculine (‘el performance’) or feminine (‘la performance’), it usually refers to performance art. Nonetheless, scholars and artists have started to use the term to refer more broadly to social dramas and embodied practices. What this ‘performance studies’ approach allows us to do is crucial: rethink cultural production and expression from a place other than the written word which has dominated Latin America thought since the conquest. While writing was used before the conquest—either in pictogram form, hieroglyphs or knotting systems—it never replaced the performed utterance.With the conquest, the legitimation of writing over other epistemic and mnemonic systems, assured that colonial power could be developed and enforced without the input of the great majority of the population, the indigenous and marginal populations without access to systematic writing.While some scholars engage in ‘indigenismo’ by focusing on oral traditions, the schism does not lie between the written and the spoken work but rather between discursive and performative systems.

Western culture, wedded to the word, whether written or spoken, enables language to usurp epistemic and explanatory power.Performance studies allows us to take seriously other forms of cultural expression—dance, festivals, political protest—as both praxis and episteme.Performance traditions also serve to store and transmit knowledge.

Performance is as much about forgetting as about remembering, and a ‘hemispheric’ focus indicates just how much “America,” as the U.S. likes to think of itself, has forgotten about America, whose name, territory, and resources it has fought so hard to dominate. Though a-historical in much of its practice, performance studies can allow us to engage in a sustained historical analysis of the performance practices that both bind and fragment the Americas. That’s what I’m asking it to do.