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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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José Muñoz

Interview with José Muñoz (2002)
José Esteban Muñoz was Professor of Performance Studies at New York University. Until his untimely death in 2013, he was a theorist in the fields of performance studies, visual culture, queer theory, cultural studies, and critical theory. He received his undergraduate education at Sarah Lawrence College and his doctorate from the Graduate Program in Literature at Duke University, where he studied under the tutelage of queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. He wrote about important artists, performers, and cultural figures, including Vaginal Davis, Nao Bustamante, Carmelita Tropicana, Isaac Julien, Kevin Aviance, James Schuyler, and Andy Warhol. Professor Muñoz’s book Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (University of Minnesota Press 1999) is a foundational text in queer of color critique and a major contribution to minority scholarship in the field of performance studies. He also co-edited Pop Out: Queer Warhol (Duke University Press 1996) with Jennifer Doyle and Jonathan Flatley and Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America (Duke University Press 1997) with Celeste Fraser Delgado. New York University Press published his most recent book, Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity, in the Fall of 2009.X

Diana Taylor: José Muñoz, welcome. We would like to introduce José Muñoz, who is an Associate Professor in Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts NYU [New York University]. José, what do you think are the basic tenets of performance studies?

José Muñoz: Well, you know, performance studies as a mode of analysis is how I approach it. That is linked to theories of performativity and the linguistic speech act more than anything else. So, performance studies framed through doing as opposed to a more epistemological perspective, a knowing. When I was in graduate school I was in a literature program and it was very, like, epistemologically heavy. It was all about what we know about a text or the infinite play of interpretation. There’s a thing about performance studies that's really useful to me because it’s more about what a text does or what something that’s not a text, is it paratextual, does in the world, what it does politically and materially. So that’s what it does for me.

Diana: What would you say is your contribution to performance studies, the way that your own interests... the way that you would like to use performance studies in your own academic research and teaching?

José: Well, you know, one of the things that is really attractive to me about performance studies is that it’s always already interdisciplinary, always already pulls from different theoretical sources, different mappings of the world, and that’s really useful. So, in my case, in my first book
Muñoz, José Esteban. 1999. Disidentifications: Queers of Colors and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press.X
I looked at anti-normative performances by people of color, by gays and lesbians or other sexual minoritarians, and looked specifically at the work their performances did in the world. And, in the next project, to a certain extent, I think about it with a kind of more powerful lens insofar as I’m more interested in the details of how people do this not only in quotidian performances, not only in theatrical performances, in spectacles, but the way they do things in everyday life or performance venues that are somewhere between everyday life or the theater. Like church, for example.

So some of my research lately I’ve been going to churches in the Lower East Side and in Miami and observing different performances of religiosity—people’s bodies, people’s speech acts, the kind of religious transport that individuals and groups experience. And I’ve been trying to think about that in relationship to their particular position on a map that is attuned to globalization as a process and to think about the ways in which different new immigrants or new exile communities are disenfranchised in US late capitalism and don’t have an anchor to a sense of community or place. And they find that again through religiosity or spectacles of religiosity, like they do in these churches. And that’s all well and fine, but then for me the glitch is that the way in which the right in the US has been able to tap into those spectacles of religiosity and harness that as electoral power. And then the connection of that to what’s happening in Latin America right now and the de-Catholicization of Latin America and the new Protestant conversions to an ultra-right wing, ultra-conservative mode of Christianity that was, as far as I can tell, minted in the US and exported out.

“Performance studies is framed through ‘doing’ as opposed to a more epistemological perspective- a ‘knowing.’ There’s a thing about performance studies that is considerably useful to me because it’s more about what a text does in the world, what it does politically and materially.”

Diana: So, you’re suggesting perhaps that there is also, in addition to an interdisciplinary, a kind of international focus: that when you’re looking at these performance practices, you’re almost by definition looking across national borders and ethnic boundaries. Is that correct?

José: Yeah, with my archive definitely, and I encourage that in my students’ work, but I think it’s hard to think about US Latinos, for example, without thinking about Latin America and particular political formations that set different patterns of flow and migration into movement.  So it would be hard to think about the Nuyorican situation without thinking about Puerto Rico’s colonial conditioning. It would be hard to think about Miami and its sort of “media conglomerate” status without thinking about Cuban exile capital and how that functions. So there are different ways in which you can’t disassociate the connections. They’re very strong.

: How does your research interest affect your teaching, or what’s the relationship?

José: Oh, I get to teach what I’m working on, which is definitely one of the things I love most about my job. So, you know, I recently taught a class on emotion and performance where I looked at all sorts of theoretical resources to think about feeling, including phenomenology, some interesting moments in psychology, historical work by people like [W.E.B.] Dubois, and I pulled together what will start to be the kind of theoretical engine for this project I’m working on right now.

: Great, thank you very much.

José: Okay.

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