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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Ann Pellegrini

Interview with Ann Pellegrini (2007)
Ann Pellegrini is Professor of Performance Studies and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, where she also directs the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. She is the author of Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race (Routledge 1997); co-author, with Janet R. Jakobsen, of Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (NYU Press 2003; second edition, Beacon Press 2004); and co-author, with Michael Bronski and Michael Amico, of "You Can Tell Just By Looking" and Twenty Other Myths about LGBT Life and People (Beacon Press 2013). She is also the co-editor of two volumes: Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, with Daniel Boyarin and Daniel Itzkovitz (Columbia University Press 2003) and Secularisms, with Janet R. Jakobsen (Duke University Press 2008). Pellegrini is the general editor, with Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong’o, of the book series Sexual Cultures (NYU Press). In 2007, she was the Freud-Fulbright Visiting Scholar of Psychoanalysis at the Freud Museum in Vienna. More recently, in 2012-13, she was a faculty fellow at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. She is currently a training candidate in psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City.X

Diana Taylor: Ann Pellegrini, thank you so much for being with us. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, what you do professionally?

Ann Pellegrini
: Well, I have a joint appointment at NYU [New York University] in Religious Studies and Performance Studies, so I teach classes that have to do with the role of religion and American public life. I’m particularly interested in how questions of religion often lead to questions of sex, and vice versa. 

With my other hat, in Performance Studies, I do a lot of classes having to do with questions of trauma, especially work engaging psychoanalysis and the problematics of witnessing, and anything to do with Foucault.

: Could you tell me what you think is performance studies, how you would define performance studies, from your professional perspective?

Ann:Well, I think I want to answer... to paraphrase Stuart Hall’s response to the question, “What is cultural studies?” to say that performance studies is not any one thing, it has never been any one thing. So, in some sense, my first response is one of a kind of negation, a not wanting to close it down, I mean, obviously, its lineages are multiple, we could trace it to a focus on ritual, through either religious studies or anthropology; we could take it to speech act theory, with J.L. Austin’s notion of performativity; connect it to theater studies, with its interest in live performance and the very focused area of the stage; or to questions of literary studies, around textuality. And I think my own work tends to range across these examples. And, of course, I don’t want to leave out psychoanalysis, which asks about, really presses the question of intention with performance. What I particularly like about performance studies, though, and how, as an inter-discipline perhaps, it helps us think about how we would connect these diverse lineages, what’s the through-line? For me, it has to do with the ways in which I think performance studies is interested in how the body is so crucial in shared time in space—the body is so crucial to the making of meaning, not just the conferral of meaning, and the ways in which the body is oftentimes pre-given to us, we think we know what it means—but it also... in interactions between bodies in space and time, produce new meanings, and I think this is very helpful, to keep the body present to analysis. Even when the body disappears, it could linger in people’s memory of it. I know certainly your own work has really pressed the question of what do we mean by archives and how can we think differently about how memory remains. One of the reasons I’m so interested in the question and size of the body, I suppose, is that because I’m in religious studies and performance studies, to me what joins these two interdisciplinary endeavors, because they’re both interdisciplinary projects, is what... they have one common question they share, which is how people make meaning together. And often, if you think of religion and performance, how do they make meaning in a context which somehow gets set apart from everyday life? But, you know, in some sense, anthropology asks that question, maybe even cultural studies considers that; but if we bring the body back in, I think we get a dimension that also brings in questions of material existence very strongly.

“Performance studies is interested in how the body is so crucial in shared time in space... in [how] interactions between bodies and space and time produce new meanings, and I think this is very helpful, to keep the body present to analysis. Even when the body disappears, it could linger in people’s memory of it.”

Diana: Tell me how you think about psychoanalysis and trauma and how performance studies might be a useful lens. What does that give you that perhaps we don’t get from another discipline?

: Yes, I think that’s a great question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially in connection to the question of war. And there’s a particular essay of Freud’s that I’ve been reading and re-reading. It’s from 1915, which he wrote in the early days of World War I, called “Thoughts for the Time on War and Death,” and one of the things he seems to be arguing is that a tendency towards death-denial, our inability or refusal to imagine death, to take it seriously, is something that will come to us, and even a refusal to take seriously the ways in which it will affect those we love leaves us in this denial to act out the inevitability of death against others. So there’s a connection between death denial and our capacity and willingness to go to war and not see this as actually creating deaths that we might mourn. So it’s obviously of great importance and urgency, I think, with the current moment. And he has this short passage in the midst of this speculation about the relationship between death denial and war and war making that basically I think is an invitation to performance studies to step in and help us imagine the consequences of violence, and help us imagine what death actually means. What he basically says is that because we’ve lost this capacity to imagine death, we are even more dependent upon literature and theater to give us these renderings, because in these imagined depictions, we can recover something of the risk and importance of vitality of life by risking the finality of death. So there’s something about this proxy witnessing, which theater gives us—and especially in its liveness. He doesn’t talk about theater in its liveness, but I think there’s something especially about the shared time and space of witnessing of theater that gives us a sense of the plurality of lives and the risk of living and the finality of death that’s so important. So I want to sort of take up that invitation and really think about this: how can the projects of performance and the intellectual project of performance studies recall to us how important it is ethically to witness so as to forestall trauma and to stop the reenactment of trauma and the passing of trauma along to others.

Diana: What are some of the objects of analysis that you look at, given the kind of performance studies lens?

Ann: Right, well, right now I have been thinking a lot about the question of trauma and repetition compulsion of it—the way that rather than mourn, we act out, for example. So I have been certainly thinking about the rush to war in the United States after 9/11. I mean, President Bush even declared, I think about 10 days after 9/11, "the time for mourning is over, the time for action is upon us," which is an extraordinary foreclosure of the urgency of mourning and the kind of actful stillness of mourning and witnessing. So, that’s one thing, but my work is also... In religious studies I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which dominant notions of what constitutes religion—and in the United States this means particular understandings of Protestant Christianity and the importance of freedom of conscience and the notion of belief—actually restricts our capacity to act and to forms of conduct that other people understand as being religious and vital sort of world-making. And that’s also a connection between religious studies and performance studies, to think about the forms of life that are about producing not just meaning, but also producing forms of ethical relation. And the very narrow understanding of what counts as religion, which the Supreme Court produces and reproduces time and time again, reduces the possibility for more robust political contestation in this country, about questions of ethics and values, and about how religion does or does not fit into American public life. So that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about as well, especially looking at the Supreme Court cases.

: Okay, thank you so much.

Ann: My pleasure.

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