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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Tavia Nyong'o

Interview with Tavia Nyong'o (2007)
Tavia Nyong'o is Associate Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. He graduated in Social Studies at Wesleyan University and later obtained his Doctoral degree in American Studies at Yale University. Professor Nyong'o is a cultural historian with a focus on racial formation in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. He has taught courses on black performance, on the history of the body, and on subcultural performance. He has lectured extensively in the United States and abroad and has published reviews and essays in Social Text, Theatre Journal, GLQ, TDR, and Women and Performance. He is also the web editor of Social Text. Professor Nyong'o's research interests include the intersections of race and sexuality, visual art and performance, and cultural history. He also investigates performance in the black diaspora, cultural studies, queer and feminist theory, and history and memory. His book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (University of Minnesota Press 2009), investigates musical, aesthetic, and political practices that conjoined blackness and whiteness in the 19th and 20th centuries. Professor Nyong'o's fellowships and honors include the Marshall Scholarship; the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship; the Ford Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship; the Graduate Fellow from the Center for Humanities at Wesleyan; and the Graduate Fellow from the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. His forthcoming book, titled Race Against Time: Afrofabulation in Contemporary Black Art and Performance, will be published with New York University Press.X

Diana Taylor: Hi, Tavia, thank you so much for joining us. Could you tell me just a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Tavia Nyong’o
: Okay. I teach in Performance Studies here [at New York University], and before that I was in American studies where I did my doctoral work. I also did some work in cultural studies in Birmingham, England, and my undergraduate thesis was on drag balls in New York City, so I’ve kind of been interested in performance studies all along, before I even knew that the field existed.

: Well, how would you define performance studies?

: Uh, that’s a really difficult question to answer. What drew me to performance studies was an interest in... it was an ethnographic interest at first. I was doing the work on drag balls, I was interested in urban ethnography, I was interested in questions of race and gender and sexuality in the urban environment, and, over time, I kept looking for historical precedent, and I did some historical research into the development of the balls and became fascinated in that, in the sort of undisclosed or undiscovered performance history and ended up writing a dissertation about the 19th century, about black performance and national identity in the antebellum, which I think of as a natural progression from my original interest in the drag balls. When I met Joe Roach at Yale he served as my co-chair for my dissertation and introduced me to performance studies proper, and I got to know it at the graduate level. So it’s been, on the one hand a way for me to kind of follow in the footsteps of one of my mentors and also to practice a kind of cultural history that is not always easy to do in history proper, because of the attention to embodied behavior, to memory, and to forms of archival evidence that aren’t necessarily part of the larger teleological narrative. So for me performance studies is both an extension and a dialogue with other forms of cultural history.

: And what’s particular about performance studies? What does performance studies as a lens bring us that perhaps these other forms of cultural history, cultural studies, American studies don’t give us?

: Well, all of them have different emphases and different bodies of literature. For me, in my current work, I’m interested both in the history of performances and also the performance of history. And I think that that latter aspect of performance studies, which is to attend to, not simply the historiography of specific performances, but also how thinking about the practice of history-making as a performance process both in terms of performances and in terms of the performativity of things like archival research. So in my classes I work a lot with having students attend to the archive not simply as transparent evidence that gets you back into the imagined past, but as itself a kind of cultural practice with its own forms of encoding and implicit narrative even before you’ve narrativized it in your own research. And I think of that as very much in the spirit of performance studies because you are looking at the performativity of archival evidence alongside the performativity of restored behavior and ritual and ceremony.

“Performance, I think, equips us to look at those things which used to be seen as more marginal in the making of, writing of history as actually more central... There is, or there should be, a lot of overlap... between [performance and history], because the more we attend to the processes of making histories, the more alive to the similarities between those processes and the ways in which culture performs more generally.”

Diana: So how would you describe the relationship between history and performance? Because, you know, usually we think of them as antithetical: as performance being about the now and the here, and history thinking about the past and somehow grounded in some kind of documented account of the past.

: Sure. I mean some people say that we’re in the midst of a performative turn in historiography. I think they may be optimistic, but I think there is a growing interest amongst historians with regards to performance studies and performance methods. And that has something to do with the interest in fields more about the epistemology of history, like meta-history or historiography, historical theory, really moving more into the center of the field, and performance, I think, equips us to look at those things which used to be seen as more marginal in the making of, writing of history as actually more central. So, for me, I think that although performance is often conceived of being about the now, history is also, in my view, a history of the present: it’s written from a particular now and towards a historical now. And therefore there is, or there should be, a lot of overlap and mutual enlightenment—probably a poor choice of words—between the two fields, because the more we attend to the processes of making histories, the more alive to the similarities between those processes and the ways in which culture performs more generally.

Diana: Well, thank you very much. Thanks, Tavia.

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