Performance and Social Memory

Diana Taylor, NYU

"The Archive and the Repertoire"

Excerpt from The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

My particular investment in performance studies derives less from what it is than what it allows us to do. By taking 'performance' seriously as a system of learning, storing, and transmitting knowledge, performance studies allows us to expand what we understand by 'knowledge.' This move, for starters, might prepare us to challenge the preponderance of writing in Western epistemologies. As I will suggest in this study, writing has paradoxically come to stand for embodiment. When the friars arrived in the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries, as I will go on to explore, they claimed that the indigenous peoples' past-and the "lives they lived"-had 'disappeared' because they had no writing. Now, on the brink of a digital revolution that threatens to displace writing, the body again seems poised to 'disappear' in a virtual space that eludes embodiment. While embodied expression has and will probably continue to participate in the transmission of social knowledge, memory, and identity pre- and post-writing, the threat is that these can be conceived only through writing. In this way, writing almost comes to stand for life itself.
By shifting the focus from written to embodied culture, from the discursive to the performatic, we need to shift our methodologies. Instead of focusing on patterns of cultural expression in terms of texts and narratives, we might think about them as 'scenarios' that do not reduce gestures and embodied practices to narrative description. This shift necessarily alters what academic disciplines regard as appropriate canons, and might extend the traditional disciplinary boundaries to include practices previously outside their purview.
The concept of performance, as an embodied praxis and episteme, for example, would prove vital in redefining Latin American studies because it de-centers the historic role of writing introduced by the conquest. As Angel Rama notes in The Lettered City, "the exclusive place of writing in Latin American societies made it so revered as to take on a aura of sacredness […] Written documents seemed not to spring from social life but rather be imposed upon it and to force it into a mold not at all made to measure."
While the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas practiced writing before the conquest-either in pictogram form, hieroglyphs, or knotting systems-it never replaced the performed utterance. Writing, though highly valued, was primarily a prompt to performance, a mnemonic aid. While more precise information could be stored through writing, and it required specialized skills, it depended on embodied culture for transmission. As in medieval Europe, writing was a privileged form practiced by only the specialized few. Through in tlilli in tlapalli ('the red and black ink' as the Nahuas called wisdom associated with writing), Mesoamericans stored their understanding of planetary movement, time, and the calendar. Codices transmitted historical accounts, important dates, regional affairs, cosmic phenomena, and other kinds of knowledge. Writing was censored, and indigenous scribes lived in mortal fear of transgression. Histories were burned and re-written to suit the memorializing needs of those in power. The space of written culture then, as now, seemed easier to control than embodied culture. But writing was far more dependent on embodied culture for transmission than the other way around. Enrique Florescano, an eminent Mexican historian, notes: "Besides the tlacuilos, or specialists who painted the books, there were specialists who read them, interpreted them, memorized them, and expounded on them in detail before audiences of non-specialists" (39).
To my mind, however, Florescano's description of these mutually sustaining systems overemphasizes the role of writing. It would be limiting to understand embodied performance as primarily transmitting those "essential facts" (Florescano, 39) written in the codices or painted books. The codices communicate far more than facts. The images, so visually dense, transmit knowledge of ritualized movement and everyday social practices. And many other kinds of knowledge that involved no written component were also passed on through expressive culture--through dances, rituals, funerals, huehuehtlahtolli ('the ancient word,' wisdom handed down through speech), and majestic displays of power and wealth. While scribes were trained in a specialized school or calmecac, these schools also taught dancing, recitation, and other forms of communication essential for social interaction. Education focused primarily on these techniques of the body to insure indoctrination and continuity.
What changed with the conquest was not that writing displaced embodied practice (we need only remember that the Jesuits brought their own embodied practices) but the degree of legitimization of writing over other epistemic and mnemonic systems. Writing now assured that Power, with a capital 'P' as Rama puts it, could be developed and enforced without the input of the great majority of the population, the indigenous and marginal populations of the colonial period without access to systematic writing. Not only did the colonizers burn the ancient codices, they limited the access to writing to a very small group of conquered males whom they felt would promote their evangelical efforts. While the conquerors elaborated, rather than transformed, an elite practice and gender-power arrangement, the importance granted writing came at the expense of embodied practices as a way of knowing and making claims. Those who controlled writing, first the friars, then the 'letrados' (literally lettered), gained inordinate amounts of power. Writing also allowed European imperial centers-Spain and Portugal-to control their colonial populations from abroad. Writing is about distance, as Michel de Certeau notes: "the power that writing's expansionism leaves intact is colonial in principle. It is extended without being changed. It is tautological, immunized against both any alterity that might transform it and whatever dares to resist it" (1988, 216).
The separation that Rama notes between the written and spoken word, and echoed in de Certeau, points to only one aspect of the repression of indigenous embodied practice as a form of knowing, as well as a system for storing and transmitting knowledge. Non-verbal practices--such as dance, ritual, cooking, to name a few-that long served to preserve a sense of communal identity and memory, were not considered valid forms of knowledge. Many kinds of performance, deemed idolatrous by religious and civil authorities, were prohibited altogether. Claims manifested through performance-whether the tying of robes to signify marriage or performed land claims ceased to carry legal weight. Those who had dedicated their lives to mastering cultural practices, such as carving masks or playing music, were not considered 'experts,' a designation reserved for book-learned scholars. While the Church substituted its own performatic practices, the neophytes could no longer lay claims to expertise or tradition to legitimate their authority. The rift, I submit, does not lie between the written and spoken word, but between the 'archive' of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the more ephemeral 'repertoire' of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual).
"Archival" memory exists as documents, maps, literary texts, letters, archaeological remains, bones, videos, films, cds, all those items supposedly resistant to change. Archive, from the Greek, etymologically refers to "a public building" to "a place where records are kept." From arkhe, it also means a beginning, the first place, the government. The archival, from the beginning, sustains power-we might conclude by shifting the dictionary entries into a syntactical arrangement. Archival memory works across distance, over time and space-investigators can go back to re-examine an ancient manuscript; letters find their addresses through time and place, and computer discs at times cough up lost files with the right software. The fact that archival memory succeeds in separating the source of 'knowledge' from the knower-in time and/or space-leads to comments, such as de Certeau's, that it is "expansionist" and "immunized against alterity" (216). What changes over time is the value, relevance, or meaning of the archive, how the items it contains get interpreted, even embodied. Bones might remain the same while their story may change-depending on the paleontologist or forensic anthropologist who examines them. Antigone might be performed in multiple ways, while the unchanging text assures a stable signifier. Written texts allow scholars to trace literary traditions, sources and influences. Insofar as it constitutes materials that seem to endure, the archive exceeds the 'live.' There are several myths attending the archive. One is that it is unmediated-that objects located there might mean something outside the framing of the archival impetus itself. What makes an object archival is the process whereby it is selected for analysis. Another myth is that the 'archive' resists change, corruptibility, and political manipulation. Individual things--books, DNA evidence, photo IDs--might mysteriously appear in or disappear from the archive.
The repertoire, on the other hand, enacts embodied memory-performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing-in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, non-reproducible knowledge. Repertoire, etymologically "a treasury, an inventory" also allows for individual agency, referring also to "the finder, discoverer," and meaning "to find out." The repertoire requires presence-people participate in the production and reproduction of knowledge by 'being there,' being a part of the transmission. As opposed to the supposedly stable objects in the archive, the actions that are the repertoire do not remain the same. The repertoire both keeps and transforms choreographies of meaning. Sports enthusiasts might claim that soccer has remained unchanged for the past hundred years, even though players and fans from different countries have appropriated the event in diverse ways. Dances change over time, even though generations of dancers (or even individual dancers) swear they're always the same. But even though the embodiment changes, the meaning might very well remain the same.
The repertoire too, then, allows scholars to trace traditions and influences. Many kinds of performances have traveled throughout the Americas, leaving their mark as they move. Scholar Richard Flores, for example, maps out the way pastorelas or shepherds' plays moved from Spain, to central Mexico, to Mexico's Northwest and then what is now the Southwest of the U.S. The different versions permit him to distinguish among various routes. Max Harris has traced the practice of a specific mock battle, moros y cristianos, from pre-conquest Spain to 16th century Mexico, and into the present. The repertoire allows for alternative perspective on historical processes of transnational contact, and invites a re-mapping of the Americas, this time by following traditions of embodied practice.
Certainly it is true that individual instances of performances disappear from the repertoire. This happens to a lesser degree in the archive. The question of disappearance in relation to the archive and the repertoire is one of kind as well as degree. The 'live' performance can never be captured or transmitted through the archive. A video of a performance is not a performance, though it often comes to replace the performance as a thing in itself (the video is part of the archive; what it represents is part of the repertoire). Embodied memory, because it is "live," exceeds the archive's ability to capture it. But that does not mean that performance-as ritualized, formalized, or reiterative behavior-disappears. Performances also replicate themselves through their own structures and codes. This means that the repertoire, like the archive, is mediated. The process of selection, memorization or internalization, and transmission takes place within (and in turn help constitute) specific systems of re-presentation. Multiple forms of embodied acts are always present, though in a constant state of again-ness. They reconstitute themselves-transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next. Embodied and performed acts generate, record, and transmit knowledge.
The archive and the repertoire have always been important sources of information, both exceeding the limitations of the other, in literate and semi-literate societies. Moreover, they usually work in tandem. Innumerable practices in the most literate societies require both an archival and embodied dimension-weddings need both the performative utterance of "I do" and the signed contract. The legality of a court decision lies in the combination of the live trial and the recorded outcome. The performance of a claim contributes to its legality. We have only to think of Columbus planting the Spanish flag in the 'New World' or Neil Armstrong planting the U.S. flag on the moon. Materials from the archive shape embodied practice in innumerable ways, yet never totally dictate embodiment. Jesús Martin-Barbero, the Colombian theorist who works in media studies, illustrates the uses that viewers make of mass media-say the soap opera. It's not simply that the media imposes structures of desire and appropriate behavior. The ways in which populations develop ways of viewing, living with, and re-telling or re-cycling the materials allow for a broad range of responses. Mediations, he argues, not 'the media' provide the key to understanding social behaviors. Those responses and behaviors, in turn, are taken up and appropriated by the mass media in a dialogic, rather than one-way, manner.
Even though the archive and the repertoire exist in a constant state of interaction, the tendency has been to banish the repertoire to the past. Jacques Le Goff, for example, writes of "ethnic memory:" "the principal domain in which the collective memory of peoples without writing crystallizes is that which provides an apparently historical foundation for the existence of ethnic groups or families, that is, myths of origin." He suggests, thus, that writing provides historical consciousness while orality provides mythic consciousness. Pierre Nora's distinction between the "lieux" and "'mileux' de mémoire" creates a similar binary whereby the milieux (which closely resembles the repertoire) belongs to the past and 'lieux' is a thing of the present. For Nora, the milieux de mémoire, what he calls the "real environments of memory" (284), enacts embodied knowledge: "gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body's inherent self-knowledge, in unstudied reflexes and ingrained memories" (289). The difference between my thinking and his, however, is that for him the 'mileux de mémoire,' constitutes the primordial, unmediated, and spontaneous site of "true memory," while the "lieux de mémoire"-the archival memory-is its antithesis, modern, fictional and highly mediated. A "trace," "mediation," and "distance," he argues, has separated the act from the meaning, moving us from the realm of true memory to that of history (lieux de mémoire, 285). This paradigm polarizes history and memory as opposite poles of a binary. Nora does not differentiate between forms of transmission (embodied or archival), or between different kinds of publics and communities. His differentiation falls into a temporal before and after past (traditional, authentic, now lost) and present (generalized as modern, global, and 'mass' culture).
The relationship between the archive and the repertoire, as I see it, is certainly not sequential (the former ascending to prominence after the disappearance of the latter as Nora would have it). Nor is it 'true' versus 'false,' mediated versus unmediated, primordial versus modern. Nor is it a straightforward binary-with the written and archival constituting hegemonic power and the repertoire providing the anti-hegemonic challenge. Performance belongs to the strong as well as the weak; it underwrites de Certeau's 'strategies' as well as 'tactics,' Bahktin's 'banquet' as well as 'carnival.' The modes of storing and transmitting knowledge are many and mixed and embodied performances have often contributed to the maintenance of a repressive social order. We need only look to the broad range of political practices in the Americas exercised on human bodies from pre-conquest human sacrifices, to Inquisitorial burnings at the stake, to the lynchings of African Americans, to contemporary acts of state sponsored torture and 'disappearances.' We need not polarize the relationship between these different kinds of knowledge to acknowledge that they have often proved antagonistic in the struggle for cultural survival or supremacy.
The tensions developed historically between the archive and the repertoire continue to play themselves out in discussions about "world" culture and "intangible heritage." While this is not the place to rehearse the arguments in any detail, I would like at least to point to some of the issues that concern my topic. As laws have increasingly come into place to protect intellectual and artistic property, people have also considered ways to protect "intangible" property. How do we protect the performances, behaviors, and expressions that constitute the repertoire? UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is currently wrestling with how to promote the work "of safeguarding, protecting and revitalizing cultural spaces or forms of cultural expression proclaimed as 'masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity." These safeguards would protect "traditional and popular forms of cultural expression" such as, their example, storytelling.
Insofar as the materials in the repertoire participate in the production and transmission of knowledge, I agree that they warrant protection. Yet, it is not clear that UNESCO has been able to conceive of how best to protect this "intangible heritage." While they recognize that the "methods of preservation applicable to the physical heritage are inappropriate for the intangible heritage," these differences can only be imagined in language and strategies associated with the archive. Masterpieces points not only to objects, but to an entire system of valorization that Artaud had discarded as outdated in the early 20th century. Heritage, linked etymologically to inheritance, again underlines the material property that passes down to the heirs. Humanity might well be considered as both the producer and the consumer of these cultural goods, but its abstraction undermines the sense of cultural agency. Moreover, UNESCO's goal seems to protect certain kinds of performances-basically those produced by the 'traditional' and 'popular' sectors. This move repeats the salvage ethnography of the first half of the 20th century, implying that these forms would disappear without official intervention and preservation. Part of UNESCO's project involves moving materials from the repertoire into the archive ["(a) to record their form on tape"]. However, UNESCO is also consciously trying to protect embodied transmission ["(b) to facilitate their survival by helping the persons concerned and assisting transmission to future generations"]. But how will this be accomplished? The one program they have developed thus far, "Living Human Treasures," protects the "possessors of traditional cultural skills." To me, this conjures up visions of a fetishized humanoid object that Guillermo Gómez-Peña might dream up for a living diorama in an installation. These solutions seem destined to reproduce the problems of objectifying, isolating, and exoticizing the non-Western that they claim to address. Without understanding the working of the repertoire, the ways in which peoples produce and transmit knowledge through embodied action, it will be difficult to know how to develop legal claims to ownership. But this differs from the 'preservation' argument that, to my mind, barely conceals a deep colonial nostalgia.
The strain between what I call the archive and repertoire has often been constructed as existing between written and spoken language. The archive includes, but is not limited to, written texts. The repertoire contains verbal performances-songs, prayers, speeches-as well as non-verbal practices. The written/oral divide does, on one level, capture the archive/repertoire difference I am developing in this study insofar as the means of transmission differ, as do the requirements of storage and dissemination. The repertoire, whether in terms of verbal or non-verbal expression, transmits 'live,' embodied actions. As such, traditions are stored in the body, through various mnemonic methods, and transmitted "live" in the here and now to a live audience. Forms handed down from the past are experienced as present. While this may well describe the mechanics of spoken language, it also describes a dance recital or a religious festival. It is only because Western culture is wedded to the word, whether written or spoken, that language claims such epistemic and explanatory power.
The writing=memory/knowledge equation is central to Western epistemology. "The metaphor of memory as a written surface is so ancient and so persistent in all Western cultures," writes Mary Carruthers, "that it must, I think, be seen as a governing model or 'cognitive archetype" (16). That model continues to bring about the disappearance of embodied knowledge that it so frequently announces. During the 16th century, de Certeau argues that writing and printing allowed for "an indefinite reproduction of the same products" as "opposed to speech, which neither travels very far nor preserves much of anything […] the signifier cannot be detached from the individual or collective body" (1988, 216, italics in the original). [Parenthetically, the limitation that de Certeau attributes here to speech-the signifier cannot be detached from the individual or collective body-also of course contributes to the political, affective, and mnemonic power of the repertoire, as I argue in this study.]
Freud's "A Note Upon the 'Mystic Writing-Pad'" by-passes the historically situated human body in his theorizations on memory. By using the admittedly imperfect analogy to the 'mystic writing pad,' Freud attempts to approximate the "unlimited receptive capacity and a retention of permanent traces" which he sees as fundamental properties of "the perceptual apparatus of the mind." A modern computer, of course, serves as a better analogy, though it too fails to generate memories and its exterior body-a see-through shell in the new Macintosh models-serves only to protect and highlight the marvelous internal apparatus. Neither the mystic writing pad nor the computer allow for a body. So too, Freud's analogy limits itself to the external writing mechanism and the pure disembodied psychic apparatus that "has an unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions and nevertheless lays down permanent-even though not unalterable-memory-traces on them" (228). The psyche can only be imagined as a writing surface, the permanent-trace only as an act of writing. Writing, instead of reinforcing memory, or providing an analogy, becomes memory itself: "I have only to bear in mind the place where this 'memory' has been deposited and I can then 'reproduce' it at any time I like, with the certainty that it will have remained unaltered" (227).
Derrida, in "Freud and the Scene of Writing," refers to the "metaphor of writing which haunts European discourse" without expanding towards the idea of a repertoire of embodied knowledge. Even when he points to areas for further research, he calls for a "history of writing" (214) without noting what that history might disappear in its very coming to light. When he writes, "writing is unthinkable without repression," the repression that comes to my mind is that history of colonial repudiation through documentation that dates back to the16th centuries Americas. For Derrida, those repressions are "the deletions, blanks, and disguises" of and within writing itself-surely an act of writing that stages its own practice of erasure and foreclosure.
The dominance of language and writing has come to stand for meaning itself. Live, embodied practices not based in linguistic or literary codes, we must assume, have no claims on meaning. As Barthes puts it, "the intelligible is reputed antipathetic to lived experience." While this suggests that Barthes disagreed with situating intelligibility as antithetical to lived experience, in other essays he asserts that everything that has meaning becomes "a kind of writing."
Part of what 'performance' and performance studies allows us to do, then, is take seriously the repertoire of embodied practices as an important system of knowing and transmitting knowledge.

i. Angel Rama, The Lettered City. Translated and edited by John Charles Chasteen. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996, pg. 29-30.
ii. Enrique Florescano, Memory, Myth, and Time in Mexico: From the Aztecs to Independence. Trans. Albert G. Bork, University of Tress Press, 1994.
iii. A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Rev. Walter W. Skeat, New York: A Perigee Book, 1980, pg. 24.
iv. A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, pg.443. I use 'repertoire' over 'repertory' for totally obscure reasons. Repertoire, according to the OED refers to "a stock of dramatic or musical pieces which a company or player is accustomed or prepared to perform" (Vol 2, 466). Repertory, on the other hand, refers to more 'archival' kinds of knowledge: "An index, list, catalogue or calendar" and a "storehouse, magazine or repository, where something may be found" (467).
v. Flores, Los Pastores, ch.
vi.
Harris,
vii. "Memory and Form in the Latin American Soap Opera, in Robert C. Allen's To Be Continued… Soap Operas Around the World, pg 276-284.
viii. Quoted in Abercrombie, pg. 12.
ix. Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire." History and Memory in African-American Culture. Ed. Geneviève Fabre and Robert O'Meally. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, pg. 284-300.
x. While it seems intuitive that the live event associated with the repertoire would precede the documentation of the archive, this is not necessarily the case. An original 'live' theatre performance might well interpret an ancient text. Or, to give a very different kind of example, obituaries of famous people are usually written before they die, so that the media immediately has the materials when the time comes.
xi. "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" http://www.unesco.org/culture/heritage/intangible/index.shtml.
xii. The UNESCO document on "Masterpieces of the Oral" continues: UNESCO seeks to draw attention to cultural spaces or traditional and popular forms of cultural expression. We have to be quite clear about the difference between a cultural space and a site. From the standpoint of the cultural heritage, a site is a place at which physical remains created by human genius (monuments or ruins) are to be found. A 'cultural space' is an anthropological concept that refers to a place or a series of places at which a form of traditional or popular cultural expression occurs on a regular basis. But the value of such cultural expression is not necessarily dependent on a particular space. For example, when storytellers traditionally play their art either at the same place or at fixed times, we have a cultural space. But other storytellers may by tradition be iterant performers and their performance a cultural expression. Both cultural spaces and cultural expressions qualify to be regarded as masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity."
Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Sigmund Freud, "A Note Upon the 'Mystic Writing-Pad'" The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press, XIX, pg. 229.
Jacques Derrida, "Freud and the Scene of Writing" in Writing and Difference, translated Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Barthes, Image-Music-Text, 32.
Barthes, Mythologies, pg. 110. He adds: "We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual […] even objects will become speech, if they mean something" (111). In his posthumous work, Empire of Signs, Barthes refers to "three writings" in Bunraku performance to signal "three sites of spectacle: the puppet, the manipulator, the vociferant: effected gesture, effective gesture, and the vocal gesture," pg. 48-49.