Music, etc. by Eric D. Johnson
Nothing too deep here, but something hopefully worth thinking about and expanding. I should preface it with the caveat that Performance Studies is not my main gig and that I’m not necessarily a reliable guide to readings in the field. But its in the purview of what I’ve worked on and think about. So, besides elaborations on this thought that hit my head as I was on my way to sleep, I’m also looking for corrections, refutations, arguments and tangents.
There are, roughly and broadly, two different normative paths into and out of “performance studies.” One of them is the analysis of staged performances and rituals, that which is set aside from everyday life in some manner. Here, I’m thinking of everything from the vast history of music, dance, and theater criticism to the work of Victor Turner and the scholarship that follows out of that. My favorite marker down this path is that put up by Jose Limon in Dancing With the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican-American South Texas.
The other path is the Ervin Goffman Trail, which tours the performative as it occurs in everyday life: the way that we stage our actions and practices, play roles, and define ourselves against and in response to our own imagined and imposed audient. There are some alliances with Folklore studies here, in the way that folklore imagines the everyday as an object of study, but it does a nice job of removing the historical folklorical reflex to only imagine the lives of others (by which I mean “Others” or “the othered”) as objects of study. When we talk about the performance of everyday life, its much easier to immediately understand that we’re discussing our own lives and performances than it is to hit the some conclusion via folklore.
Just bringing Turner, whose work is anthropological and not dramaturgical, into this discussion this early is a clear clue that this is a false schism, since Turner’s study of ritual is rooted in social practice. I’m not going to pretend that I’m tearing down heretofore unbreachable walls here. But I think that some bridges can and should be built between the study of overt performance (Performance) and undemarcated performance (performance). The need to mark of “the everyday” from staged performance sometimes elides just how transcendent and moving and personal and political our everyday lives in fact are. The analysis of staged performance should start before the show and shouldn’t stop when it ends, for either the performers or the audience, who all have “everyday lives” that these performances/Performances are part of.
Its in the popular analysis of the latter–staged Performances–that I really see this bridge needing to be built. What do we bring to and take from these Performances? How do they infect our everyday lives, whether we are on or offstage? What good are they to us? What do we understand about staged performances if we strive to always see a performer’s (or a composer’s or director’s) onstage as work, as part of their expressly personal and political lives?
The place this train of thought takes me to is the idea of socially symbolic narratives, as founded in Kenneth Burke’s dramatism and as expanded in Frederic Jameson’s political unconscious. The bare bones idea here is that narratives–broadly writ to include virtually everything performative, including that where the “performance” is the subvocalization of a read text–are socially symbolic if they resolve contradictions that are unresolved in everyday life. In my dissertation, I argued that the construction of musical genre, in formal and informal discourse, is an ongoing act of socially symbolic narration; an attempt to come to grips with the contradictions we encounter in our everyday lives through the telling of stories that relate styles and practices, performers and performances into coherent and cohesive catalogs of the transcendent. I also argued that while genres present themselves as these supposedly coherent catalogs, they are more properly understood as arguments about cataloging.
I’ll try to provide some concrete examples of these bridges and the paths across them in another post. Maybe this does go somewhere. We’ll see.