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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Jesús Martín Barbero

Interview with Jesús Martín Barbero (2002)
Jesús Martín Barbero is Spanish by birth, Colombian by adoption, and Latin American by vocation. He has been the president of the ALAIC (Asociación Latinoamericana de Investigadores de Comunicación; the Latin American Association of Communications Reaserchers), and is one of the founders of the Department of Communication Sciences at Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia. He is research associate of Universidad CES and Universidad Nacional de Colombia and is advisor of cultural policy at UNESCO and OEI. He is the author of Comunicación masiva: discurso y poder (Ciespal 1978), De los medios a las mediaciones (G. Gili 1987; translated to English, Portuguese, and French) Televisión y melodrama (Tercer Mundo 1992), Los ejercicios del ver, with German Rey (Gedisa 1999), Contemporaneidad latinoamericana y análisis cultural, with Hermann Herlingahus (Iberoamericana/Vevuert 2000); Coord. Imaginarios de nación, (Ministerio de Cultura 2001); Oficio de cartógrafo (F.C.E. 2002); coauthor of El espacio cultural latinoamericano. Bases para una política cultural de integración, (CAB/ F.C.E 2003).X

Diana Taylor: In performance studies, we work with exactly that aspect of life, of the body, of the person who sees, who reacts, who acts. What would be, maybe, the possibilities for thinking about performance studies in Latin America?

Jesús Martín Barbero: Based on what I know, I think that performance studies today is a theoretical, methodological, and strategic space in which to think through the multiplicities of conflicts that traverse the body. Latin America is very corporeal. Latin America is very expressive, sometimes too much, and it can betray itself with that expressivity, becoming vulnerable. What I want to say is that Latin America lives, on one hand, in this virtual late modernity, which to some extent displaces the body: it displaces it, shifts it out of place, but in the middle of certain cultures in which the body is very important. The body mediates everything. I would say that bourgeoisie education, in quotation marks, hasn’t succeeded with the Latin American body. It hasn’t been able to reduce it to an instrument of reason. And this causes us problems. At the same time, however, it is a space with potential for subversion. Everything that in Latin American creativity continues to be a waste, excessive, is a potential space of subversion. This undoubtedly clashes with the rationale that prevails in society.

Latin America, we live, perhaps, more intensely than in Europe or the United States. This contradiction in a society where, on the one hand, everything is constructed around flow—of information, knowledge—and on the other, this need, each time stronger, to recuperate the sensual, corporal, and affective dimensions—in the strong sense of the Spanish word affect: it’s something very powerful, because it means to be affected by another. In this sense, I mean, performance studies would be for Latin America a strategic space in which to think about the conflicts that traverse the body—from the obsession with the body that lives in this late-modern society, in terms of beauty, youth, of obsession with youth, obsession with beauty. This type of revolution signifies that now the old aren’t worth anything, after thousands of centuries in which the old were valued for their knowledge, their experience, which was what allowed for the survival of human groups. Today, the old are unproductive, unwanted objects, and the ideal is youth, but the ideal of youth isn’t intelligence, but rather the body. So, this obsession with the body as youthful beauty, freshness, like health, like hygiene, this carries over to all of the situations we are living today, with the terrible juvenile illnesses, like bulimia. And, on the other hand, it proposes to us that this body that ages and looks like an old body, because each time our populations, including in Latin America, begin to have expectations for longer lives, and the result is—obviously less, but also, above all, in the richer countries—that they are filling up with old people. Never in humanity has anything like happened. The other day I read about the life expectation in the 19th century, compared to today, when millions of people older than 70 can expect to live for another 15 years.

"Performance studies today is a theoretical, methodological, and strategic space in which to think through the multiplicities of conflicts that traverse the body."

On one hand, we attend to this idealization of corporeal beauty, and on the other to this enormous population of elderly people who remind us of the aging process of the body, like figures of death, like imminent death, as that which changes society most. So the body is this big metaphor of the contradictions in society, of the contradictions between its obsession with youth and its increasingly aged population. From these contradictions comes this search, at all cost, for immortality, for eternity, for all of these drugs that are going to permit us to live who knows how long, and on the other hand, this fear of death, this desire to retreat from death, to retreat from culture, to retreat from the gaze of children, et cetera. And, on the other hand, I’d say, finally, that the body is living a profound crisis in its relationship with the virtual—what to do with the body in a society in which everything happens via mental skill and small movements of the fingers. What for me is increasingly significant along side this is the relationship with the accelerating obsolescence of objects, objects that last less and less time. When I was young, objects were made to last forever—tables, chairs, everything that we had in the house was made to last. Not now. Everything is made to fall apart within a certain timeframe, and if we do not switch to a different object, the system collapses: this relationship between obsolescence of objects and the acceleration of the obsolescence of the human body. I don’t want to get too far into this subject, but it’s a very powerful one, and it is, to the extent having taken antibiotics has made us, in terms of bodies, much more vulnerable than our grandparents to the various infections around us.

We live in a permanent contradiction, between everything that medicine has accomplished and the human body, which is becoming everyday more and more vulnerable to everything around us. And, finally, this has a lot to do with the breakdown of the narrative. Now, we only have micro-narratives. This fermentation, this sedimentation of narratives, is, for me, a result of the breakdown of society, of the breakdown of the city that sees its own body more and more devalued. This has been a line that has continued since the beginning of my research on marketplaces. 

In the center of my work on communication are cities. But these cities are in double play: on one hand, they have become computerized, and those who live within them escape because the cities have become insecure, aggressive, and people avoid cities. The studies we do in Latin America, show that, including Latin America, the majority of people use less and less of cities. There is a profound deurbanization of life. On the other hand, what matters in cities, is that they permit rapid transit; therefore, cities are becoming a pass-through, displaced to open bigger and bigger avenues, and land has value if it is close to an avenue. The city's ancient body becomes devalued. This body has no value. What has value is the speed with which one can traverse the city. And it is what gives value to all land surrounding a roadway. And the only things its inhabitants get are noise and traffic jams. 

I would say that somehow performance studies has to be in charge of this multiplicity of metaphors through which today’s body has become a catalyst both for the biggest nightmares and the biggest hopes of human creativity.

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