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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Rossana Reguillo

Interview with Rossana Reguillo (2011)
Rossana Reguillo Cruz is a professor and researcher in the Departamento de Estudios Sociales, ITESO (Department of Social Studies) at Universidad Jesuita de Guadalajara. She is a member of the National System of Researchers (level III) and the Mexican Academy of Sciences. Reguillo has a PhD in Social Sciences from the CIESAS and is the holder of the Andrés Bello Chair (Cátedra Andrés Bello) at NYU (2011). She has been visiting professor at various universities in the US and Latin America. Her research topics revolve around urban cultures, daily life and subjectivity, social construction of fear, and youth violence and drug trafficking. Culturas Juveniles. Formas Políticas del Desencanto (Siglo XXI 2012) is one of her recent books.X

Diana Taylor: Thanks so much for being here with us. Could you give me a little information, just your title, where you are from, what city?

Rossana Reguillo
: Okay, sure. I am Rossana Reguillo. I hold a PhD in Social Sciences, specializing in Social Anthropology, and I am a researcher and professor in the Department of Sociocultural Studies at ITESO in Guadalajara.

Diana: Now, I know you work a lot with the ideas, the methodologies of performance studies, although you, yourself, might not refer to it that way. may not call it such. So, can you explain a little about how you understand performance studies, how you utilize methodologies or questions that came from there?

: Sure. Look, I think that there was an eruption in the field of communication studies, where I initially trained, very early on, perhaps in the middle of the 1980s. There was an eruption of a deep urge to understand the aesthetic and semiotic dynamics of social movements. So, we could say that my first approach to the subject has precisely to do with a question that aimed to articulate the aesthetic dimensions with the political dimensions. For me, it was that very important early work that gave me enormous leads and also allowed me to make an opening, let's say, in terms of bibliographical articulations, disciplines, approaches, methodologies, which focused the lens precisely on the ways in which performance—in Mexico we are not able to agree on whether it is “el” or “la” performance [feminine or masculine], which is very interesting, I mean, as a fact—came to feed a series of vital questions. And it seems to me that this was a time of an outpouring of interdisciplinary articulations. Since then, what I think happened in Latin America in the interface of anthropological, cultural, communication studies is an increasing overlapping that was emerging from the literature on performance, from performance studies, without ever consolidating a field of studies as such. And, in that sense, I think that, in my case at least, even if it sounds a bit crazy, it seems to me that it can spread more widely to other academics. The work of [Jürgen] Habermas, the least known of Habermas’ works, which is exactly his proposal of what he calls “dramaturgical action:” that which he understood as directed, articulated, to produce a political effect through a performative act, to me was, let's say, just what I needed to complete the work. And so linking cultural studies, especially [Jesús] Martín Barbero’s work, Renato Ortiz’s study, but fundamentally articulating this perspective, what I did was develop a group of methodological schemes. Sometimes an obsession of social scientists, very reprehensible and with good reason, it is our methodological obsession to make everything rigorous, that the category is expressed well, et cetera, et cetera. But let’s say, to be very artificial, that the schemes that I was able to suggest were precisely about how to understand social action, social practices linked to a question or a social mobilization through the decomposition or deconstruction of its aesthetic, ethical components; the use of language, the use of the body, turned into a nodal point. That made me look to other types of literature, et cetera.

And so it seems to me that the tremendous challenge we have before us today, of what we could call “cultural studies in performance” or “dramaturgical action of political persuasion” has to do with exactly how to reincorporate the empirical dimensions that one constructs while doing research towards a theoretical reformulation. Or, it seems to me that the moment has arrived in a very special way for Latin America and Mexico to open a very serious debate about the constitution of an academic field of performance studies (which, said as a footnote, continues to generate a slight discomfort among more conservative or orthodox academics; or it’s as if they think that it is not relevant to the social sciences, and I think that is a total mistake.) So, in short, what I think we need is a multiple methodology, made from different stages and strategies, that allows us to see exactly what the contribution of the performative dimension is to the construction or the consolidation of situations or of political and public scenes;a methodology that allows us to restore complexity to what it means for social movements to sew their mouths shut, as has happened with teachers in Mexico, what the pink crosses in the case of murdered women in Juarez signify. That it not remain reduced to an aestheticizing dimension of culture, but that it becomes incorporated in all its complexity, as the languages of Others, other languages, which are being generated by social movements. Or, here it seems to me that social movements are moving faster than the capacity of social science to address these dimensions of political culture.

“[Performance is] like a ghost, a little ghost running around social science, making mischief... it is that elf that suddenly pops up and that we can now clearly see, with the playful capacity of social movements, with the capacity to laugh at power, with the capacity of imagination that social movements possess.”

Diana: It is very interesting that you say that they say el performance and la performance [masculine and feminine], something that I have also noticed as a very interesting type of transvestism in relation to performance. Why do you think that, especially in Mexico, they use el performance and la performance, and what would be the difference in use if there is any?

: Sure. Look, I observe it in two territories. In one, more colloquial and informal, that relates to when one when one hears someone speak at a conference and they suddenly say, “la performance... no, no, no! el performance.” This, it seems to me, has to do with what I just said a little while ago: in the realm of the colloquial, there is a certain discomfort, a certain embarrassment in the face of what the incorporation of performance studies as a very serious dimension would imply for the so-called “formal” sciences, as they are called in the social sciences. I think they are stammers that have more to do with discomfort rather than with an incorporated reflective stance. But in the other territory, one that is more formal and more within the field of study, I think that the feminine and masculine are more linked to the near impossibility, I would say, of epistemological character, to isolate what is so complex using the article. Or, I think that—I don’t know if in English it is “the performance studies"–but I think what the article does, in the case of Spanish, the “la” or the “el,” is precisely to provide a unique dimension to something that is extremely complex, and we turn to one and then turn to the other without ever resolving the underlying contradiction. I don’t think it is a gender issue; I believe that it alludes to a much more complex problem and has to do with, for example—and perhaps this helps me a bit in explaining what I am trying to say—when I began to speak about “violences,” many people would say, “but it is incorrect, because it is singular.” But I think not. I mean, that is why I have insisted on speaking of “violences” in the plural and not of "violence," because it seems to me that the complexity that envelops the problem demands that one not use the article in the singular, which makes you substantiate it. So it seems to me that this is a bit what happens with performance or performance studies, and many people resolve it by adding “los” in studies ["los estudios de performance"], but “performance” stays there, as a word, like a ghost, a little ghost running around social science, making mischief, making many people want to get into it but... it is that elf that suddenly pops up and that we can now clearly see, with the playful capacity of social movements, with the capacity to laugh at power, with the capacity of imagination that social movements possess. And there is the elf, making the rounds, gnawing at that orthodox base that has impeded the development of this in a much faster fashion.

Diana: Thanks, Rossana.

: You’re welcome. On the contrary, thanks to you.

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