Inomata and Coben's Archaeology of Performance: Theaters of Power, Community, and Politics

Tamara Underiner | Arizona State University

Takeshi Inomata and Lawrence S. Coben, eds. Archaeology of Performance: Theaters of Power, Community, and Politics. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2006. 352 pages.

Archaeology of Performance

Performance studies has long taken as axiomatic the centrality of performance practices in the constitution of culture—a claim that is easiest to explore in modern contexts of viewing and ethnographic praxis, and possible to posit from whatever traces of historical performance are discernible in written records. But getting the stones of antiquity to speak across the ages is a bit more difficult. Archaeologists, for their part, are long practiced in the art of reading the material record, and yet until recently have tended to view performance, spectacle, and ritual as “epiphenomenal to fundamental material needs” (vii).

The essays collected in the new Archaeology of Performance seek to bridge that disciplinary divide. Gathered together under the sign of “performance” encompassing ritual, spectacle, and theatricality (both public and domestic), the ten contributing archaeologists take seriously the role of such practices in the constitution of social life. Working in distinct sites ranging from the pre-Columbian Americas to pre-historic Turkey and Egypt to 18th-century Madagascar, each reflects on what it is possible to know and say about such practices in pre-modern society, from his or her own disciplinary and methodological perspectives.

The collection registers the range and recent history of attempts to meet the past somewhere between its own terms and ours: from the very positivist approaches taken in the opening scenes, through modes of analysis borrowed from linguistic theory, to the playful and performative last essay in which I learned, to my delight, this Malagasy conundrum: “If you tend to the milk that is boiling over, what becomes of your in-laws at the door and your loincloth that is falling down?” (309).

Expressing the dilemma of being pulled in a hundred different directions at once, the saying also illuminates one of the challenges the editors must have faced in bringing these diverse studies together, especially since several of the contributors debate amongst themselves about the meaning of the term “spectacle” itself (more on that in a bit). The editors' solution was to order the essays according to a theatrical metaphor that starts “behind the scenes,” proceeds to an “overture,” and then moves through two additional “Acts,” each comprising four and five “scenes” respectively. Though theatre scholars might find in such a device an index to a rather prosaic form of theatre, it does serve to organize the array of perspectives.

After Act I/Overture lays out the theoretical stakes, Act II comprises four essays theorizing sensation, performance, performativity, and spectacle in ancient contexts. In its opening scene, Jerry D. Moore raises a fundamental question of human sensation: if it is possible to reconstruct ancient spectacle, is it also possible to reconstruct the ways such spectacle and display were experienced? To get at this question, he uses color perception—a category of experience universally shared but with variations across cultures—as an analogue for understanding the experience of other phenomena in cultures separated from us by vast stretches of time. This allows him to speculate about how ancient Andean funerary processions were experienced by ancient Andeans.

Next up is Ian Hodder, who, in his study of daily performance at Çatalhöyük (Turkey), insists on a broad definition of spectacle as a “seeing and a looking.” Many of the other contributors use their essays to take him to task for this, but this stance allows him to challenge conventional definitions of spectacle as necessarily public and of grand scale, by looking at how ritual actions at the household level had the effect of disciplining the bodies of the people who lived there. Thus, he also challenges Foucault's differentiation of the pre-modern state-as-spectacle from modern systems of disciplinary governmentality, by examining the case of daily performances in ancient Anatolia, where “docile bodies were produced by the mechanisms of power working within the daily practices of social life” (83).

Scene 4's Adam T. Smith is concerned with how images of spectacle worked within the realm of political aesthetics to help reinforce social positioning in ancient Urartu (eastern Turkey). He examines a number of representations of Urartian spectacle both mimetically—for what they can tell us about political spectacle in ancient Urartu—and aesthetically, for what they can tell us about the Urartian “way of seeing.” He argues that contemplating images of political spectacle provided and reinforced the Urartian beholder's “pleasure of position, a sense of emotional commitment to the polity that involved not the sublimation of the individual to the mass but rather an effective locating of quotidian practices of subjectivity within a cosmic order” (127).

Stephen D. Houston's essay on “Impersonation, Dance and the Problem of Spectacle among the Classic Maya” closes Act II with a review of what has gone before, and of discussions outside the scope of the collection, in order to reclaim the power of spectacle as a valid concept through which to think. Taking exception not only to Hodder but also to Debord and Erving Goffman, he prefers to think of spectacle as “large performance at the outer limits of markedness” (149). His essay argues for a particularly Mayan view of spectacle which could encompass nonhuman actors in a performative scheme that was more transubstantial than representational: actors became deities, and ancestors and gods shared space with living audiences for the spectacle.

Act III collects five essays that move from the theoretical questions above to more descriptive analyses of how public performances worked in their various pre-modern settings. Daniela Triadan surveys anthropological, ethnohistorical, and archaeological research about the Pueblo peoples to examine the role ritual has played over time in integrating people socially, and specifically to look at the role played by the performance aspects of ritual in that coherence.

Like Triadan, Takeshi Inomata in “Politics and Theatricality in Mayan Society” surveys available evidence from pre- and post-Hispanic sources, to argue for the political implications of “theatrical events” in the Classic period. His interest is in how they “shape social relations among participants, in what contexts such symbolic acts become meaningful, and how dominant ideologies are imposed, resisted, and subverted, rather than asking what performance specifically means.” Surveying a variety of public ceremonial, theatrical and ritual events that were as powerful economically as they were symbolically, Inomata finds that such events “cannot simply be viewed as tools for the elites for their ideological propaganda; rather, they were arenas of negotiation and conflict of power” (211).

Elsewhere, whole cities themselves became stages for the display of power, as Lawrence S. Coben describes in his study of the ancient Inkan political, religious, and cosmological center of Cuzco. He draws on semiotics and the Peircean notion of the “replica” to show that Inka imperialism depended for its effectiveness on literally replicating Cuzco—as well as the spectacular performances of power that originated there—when it established outposts in other sites. Like Inomata, he shows that this power did not operate in the monolithic, uni-directional way that someone like, oh, Mel Gibson might have us believe.

The penultimate essay sounds a cautionary note, toward the same ends but from a different set of concerns. Writing about ancient Egypt, John Baines is less sanguine about the constitutive nature of public performance, because there is so little left to argue for it in the material record available to him. While the enormous scale of the pyramids suggests vast public performances, he reminds us that the most important aspects of ritual took place behind closed doors in the temples within. He reminds us that the selection of sources dictates the scope of interpretive possibilities, and from the sources he examines, it is far easier to make claims about the exclusionary aspects of Egyptian ceremony than for their function as agents of social coherence.

Finally, Susan Kus and Victor Raharijaona explore an 18th-century event, in which a sovereign of the early Merina (Madagascar) state took power in an audacious series of speech acts. Here, the vocal and visible performance (elucidated through recourse to missionary accounts, ethnohistorical research and contemporary sources) becomes emblematic of the “embodied and experiential nature of thought and metaphor” in pre-modern societies. Examining the speech acts' “metaphorical entailments” across the society, they help to show exactly how they worked to effect a new sovereign and a new statehood. The writing here is the most experimental, but no less evidence-based, providing many pleasures of the text along the way. This may be the most satisfying to readers in theatre and performances studies if, like mine, your mental gears grind when you see a tabular display of data or a set of excavation groundplans—the stuff and substance of archaeological representation.

Such stuff is integral to many of the essays included herein, and while I may not fully appreciate the import of the table comparing heavy residue materials in floors of different types in the north area of Hodder's site, I am grateful for the care he and all the contributors take with their material. I look forward to more crossover work in the intersection between theatre and archaeology. As I imply in my mention of Apocalypto, Gibson's Grand Guignol fantasia, the stakes are certainly high enough, now as much as ever.


Tamara Underiner is Associate Professor in the School of Theatre and Film at Arizona State University, where she directs the Ph.D. concentration in Theatre and Performance of the Americas. She is the author Contemporary Theatre in Mayan Mexico: Death-Defying Acts (University of Texas Press, 2004), and has published essays on indigenous and U.S. Latina/o theatre in Theatre Journal, e-misférica, and critical anthologies from the University of Arizona and Routledge Presses.