Popular Performance I

Wilson Loria

Disappearing act: being accepted as an intellectual in a globalized world

When I first heard that the theme of our present seminar would be Globalization, Migration and Public Sphere, I at once thought of Diana Taylor's Disappearing acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War," a book which I had recently read. In most of its 290 pages, Taylor's book deals with how national identity is shaped, gendered and contested through spectacle and spectatorship. Its very first chapter Caught in the Act visibly touches a very important issue for those who are directly involved in the performing arts today either by writing about them or by actually being on stage. In it, Taylor describes her feelings and ideas about Paso de dos, a play written by Argentine playwright/psychotherapist and actor Eduardo Pavlovsky, dealing with the concerns and emotions in 1990's Argentina. The play also shows a torturer's perversity, how his victim becomes his "necessity," and how "his dependency makes him feel vulnerable, violent, and insanely jealous."1 The play not only touches on the concern with national memory and forgetting but also "the need to re-imagine community." Taylor compares Paso de dos to a "theatrical disappearing act," which "all too clearly illustrated the mechanics of nation-building that I had previously associated with the Dirty War."2 At two meetings which Taylor attended in Buenos Aires - one being a public forum on Authority and Authoritarianism, and another at a private interview with the author of Paso de Dos - she then writes that both meetings, "proved explosive."3 When Taylor suggested that, "the performance reproduced rather than dismantled the military's authoritarian discourse,"4 one of the speakers at the forum ordered Taylor to be silent. I confess that when I came across that line I feared for Taylor as well as for any person who tries to voice his or her opinion in an open-minded fashion at a supposedly open-minded discussion. Freedom of speech was definitely not one of the priorities of such forum down in Argentina. And then my worries were subsequently confirmed when - a paragraph below that line - I read, "Someone from the audience called me a fascist for trying to restrict or censor what could or could not be shown."5 And of course, Taylor heard what I most feared reading; that she hadn't experienced torture and she should be quiet. And to top it all off, Taylor was dismissed as a "yanqui feminist." And there the words were: yanqui and feminist. In sum, Taylor was being harshly criticized and labeled as an "outsider."
What is then the role of an intellectual in today's "globalized" world?
An attempt to investigate that question eventually turned to be the aim of this paper.
During his stay in the presidential office, Argentine President Menem pardoned hundreds of high-ranking military personnel who were undoubtedly involved in the disappearing of thousands and thousands of Argentine citizens. That was without a doubt the bureaucratic recourse used by the establishment to make a whole community forget its history, and its own place in history. Wouldn't the intellectual's role then be of the one who sees that the communal history should never be forgotten? I wholeheartedly believe so.
Cross-cultural communication should unarguably be the most important precedence in today's world if this very world shall be willing to overcome situations like the one Taylor saw herself in at that forum. It is widely known that one is able to enjoy things that were created at somewhere else rather than one's own place. Taylor gives us examples of people - and here I refer to the participants of that forum - who were, and most likely, are culturally fearful and who, at that moment, underestimated Taylor's ability to learn, write and/or voice her own opinion about Argentina's Dirty War through the staging of Paso de dos without going through that horrific experience herself. By saying that Taylor did not have the right to talk about torture since she herself had never been tortured is like saying that no one is to write or talk about the construction of Machu Pichu because he or she was not there, piling up those immense stones. The reaction towards Taylor's viewpoints proves how those people, calling her a fascist and a yanqui, only wished once again to discard any outside opinion as if they could safeguard their own cultural nationalism, keeping out any possible outside intervention. I strongly believe that this "guarding one's cultural nationalism" does not reflect or fit in today's world, but it shows how dangerous and debilitating insularity can be.
As an intellectual, Taylor was justly trying to exercise her profession of an acute observer, a theorist who has been writing about performance and politics for quite a few years. She certainly hadn't lived in Argentina in order to witness the atrocities committed
against the Argentine people. However, gathering theory, book reading, people interviewing, and good sense must have been Taylor's instruments in order to feel comfortable enough to express her opinion at that aforementioned forum. As John Stuart Mills, the 19th century British intellectual wrote, "if we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and our duties unperformed." 6
In the preface of her book, Taylor writes that she views the "divides", (e.g., U.S./Argentina, "outsider"/"insider", voyeur/witness, theater/politics) as conceptual barriers. Wouldn't the role of an intellectual be more understood and accepted in this so-called global community we presently live in, if both parties (artists and intellectual) broke down with those boundaries beforehand? Wouldn't then truth between those parties come more smoothly out of this breaking of boundaries? And here once again I quote John Stuart Mills who wrote that, "truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining the opposites that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners."7
I come from an experience that going to slums, subway stations and institutions for abandoned street children in my hometown of São Paulo in the 70's to present plays to disfranchised people - was my praxis. And, of course, I cannot deny that on one side I still wish and dream of seeing an intellectual roll up his or her sleeves, so to speak, to participate in the process of any political activity, but on the other, I simply cannot forget
that an intellectual's goal, as Taylor brilliantly points out in her book, is "to examine the politics of looking."8 And after observing, no one can deny that theory may be the inevitable output coming from an intellectual's fountain pen or a word processor. As Brazilian Professor of Education, Lúcia Bruno, writes in A Heterodoxia no pensamento de Maurício Tragtenberg, "Theory is not the expression of the intrinsic truth to a "thing." Theory thinks and comprehends praxis about the thing, not the thing per se. The reality of a thing, in Bahkunin's words, 'is to disappear or transform itself.' Thus, the only function of theory is to indicate possible paths, and never to rule over praxis."9 No sooner theory seizes control and takes over, than authoritarianism will surface through dangerous doctrines, be it from the empowered government or some other institution such as the Church or other religious groups. In Taylor's case, it is quite evident that the forum participants were not willing to accept the fact that Taylor was not there to impose her views about the play and its unique interpretation of the Argentine past, but Taylor somehow was to point out other ways of grasping what the play firstly attempted to convey onstage. Once again, those participants seemed to be culturally fearful of any possible path for comprehending their reality through an "outsider's" point of view. Their only preoccupation, it seems to me, was to reject and silence the yanqui in the audience.
Therefore, what is the actual and straightforward repercussion of an intellectual's ideas on a so-called democratic environment? What can an intellectual do to help the working class, artists, performers, political activists and institutions? Can an intellectual make himself or herself understood by his or her own community? How can he or she then reach out for other communities without being eventually labeled as an outsider? I believe these questions sound quite pertinent to the moment we have been sharing these past few days. What are we but people who are interested in the "other"? What kind of sharing experience can we obtain if criticism is the one and only output at any given forum or discussion? If we thinkers, artists, activists and intellectuals from the Americas keep on erecting walls around us, how will we be able to know what the other thinks of and writes about us? If a new process of understanding and sharing experiences with one another were not initiated, wouldn't we naively be reproducing the same old story, the same old litany which has been following us since the Conquista? It is about time we opened up. Name-calling is undoubtedly a deterrent to this process of getting to know one another. And most important, freedom of speech must be the sine qua non element for this broader communal project to come to fruit.
Being a writer and performer myself, I cannot deny that criticism may at times either help or impair an artist's work. However, I cannot deny either that having a critic, an intellectual observing and eventually writing about one's work is definitely a very sound tool for any artist who is willing to improve his or her art. Hearing others' opinion about one's work should be a valuable reminder that one's work is seldom finished. It is rather difficult for me to understand what we mean by globalization, at this moment, if artists themselves are not prone to be criticized, written or talked about.
And as R. Tagore, a Bengali poet, wrote:
"Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours,
wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine."10
If an artist or an activist cannot be open to criticism coming from an "outsider" or rather, from oneself, than globalization (and here I mean a truthful one, where everyone shall incontestably be part of a broader, worldwide project and which we all so much today yearn for) shall be destined to be nothing but another disappearing act!


1 Diana Taylor. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War." Durham and London: Duke University (1997): pp. 2.
2Diana Taylor. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War." Durham and London: Duke University Press (1997): pp. 17.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 John Stuart Mills. Of Thought and Discussion in On Liberty. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc. (1978): pp. 18.
7 John Stuart Mills. On Thought and Discussion in On Liberty. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc. (1978): pp. 46.
8 Diana Taylor. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War." Durham and London: Duke University (1997): pp. xii.
9 Lúcia Bruno. A heterodoxia no pensamento de Maurício Tragtenberg in Maurício Tragtenberg: Uma vida para as Ciências Humanas. São Paulo: Unesp (1999) pp. 114. (My translation.)
10 Amartya Sen. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books (1999): pp. 242.