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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Daphne Brooks: Transcript: English

Interview with Daphne Brooks

Diana Taylor
: Thank you so much for coming to be with us, and to talk to us. Could you tell me just a little bit about yourself?

Daphne Brooks
: Sure, I’m Daphne Brooks, I teach in English and African- American Studies at Princeton University. My fields of specialization include African-American literary cultural performance studies, especially 19th century and trans-Atlantic culture. I also do popular music studies in a contemporary context, so I work as a rock critic on the side, and write in different ways about rock performance from the 1960s to the present. I’ve a couple of books: one, Bodies in Dissent, focuses on transatlantic performance culture, spectacles of race and the body from 1850 to 1910; and then I have this quirky little book that’s about the quirky other side of me, it’s called Jeff Buckley’s Grace, and it’s about this late, fabulous white male musician, rock singer, who drowned in the Mississippi River in 1997, and who channeled Nina Simone and Led Zeppelin, and was really, to me, kind of this iconic representation of post-civil rights, complex racial identification politics. So that’s the kind of thing I’m interested in, and performance studies has really allowed me to move in fluid and, I hope, adventurous ways across the spectrum of thinking about live, embodied, kinds of cultural moments in US culture.

: How would you define performance studies?

: Oh, how does one define performance studies? I can only talk about it in relation to me, and my evolution as a scholar, and for me it represented a field as I was coming into consciousness as a scholar that allowed me to think about amplifying my analytical exploration of black cultural production. So, for instance, I imagined when I went to graduate school that I would be working on black 19th century literary discourse and I immediately found that the ways in which I wanted to think about those texts, by everyone from Phillis Wheatley to Frederick Douglass to Holly Hopkins, as being alive, was by putting those discursive moments in relation to embodied cultural sites of enactment that various black figures were negotiating and improvising in the antebellum and post-bellum era so, to me, performance studies is a discipline that enables you to radically contextualize how we think about the production of culture and, as a black feminist scholar it enables me to think about the body and the corporeal as being central to our understanding of cultural production. So, what is performance studies? It’s thinking about embodiment as somehow enriching our understanding of text. That’s one way I think about it. I’m sure there are multiple ways, I could keep pushing.

: No, of course, everyone has their own definition. Some people have talked about performance studies as a discipline, some people say it’s not a discipline, some people say it’s a post-discipline, you just said there was a discipline, so I’m wondering if you thought that, or if you have any thoughts about how you would qualify it.

: Wow. I guess it’s a discipline but it’s also a methodology that courses through my disciplinary home, which is African- American Studies and English. I think it can be both. I like to think of myself from the standpoint of being interdisciplinary from the get-go, as someone who imagined myself as a scholar of black studies, but it was always about thinking heterogeneously about disciplines, so I guess in terms of its heterogeneity, it represents a discipline to me, but it’s also a methodology. That’s a little bit circuitous.

: So what kinds of things does performance or performance studies allow you to do that you couldn’t do just, with say, textual analysis? How is your work different because you come at it from the angle that you do?

Daphne: Sure, you know, when I was thinking about my research that went into Bodies in Dissent, I was trying to imagine a way to understand a multiplicity and range of texts that were in conversation with each other, and for me, the methodological tools that I was able to utilize in performance studies allowed me to create a broader, richer, more colorful kind of landscape, a constellation of moments that I could turn into a narrative that was able to historically mark various critical moments in African-American history. So it was really about trying to utilize performance studies as a way to pull together the rich and multi-textured ways that quotidian life really matter for African-Americans, and I think it helps me archivally, because I wanted to be able to understand how these texts were alive. Within the opaque realm of the archive, I wanted to be able to bring them back to life, and to understand how they were produced and enacted in their own time. I think performance studies really served as a portal for me to think in imaginative ways about how those texts came to life.

Diana: Thank you so much, it’s so interesting.

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