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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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The (Un)translatability of Performance Studies

The (Un)translatability of Performance Studies

Marcos Steuernagel, New York University Abu Dhabi

As performance studies—a field defined by a word that has no exact translation in Portuguese or Spanish—continues to expand throughout the non-English speaking Americas, questions about how “American” it is are inevitable. Of course, I do not use the word “American” unproblematically here. I would much rather use the Portuguese or Spanish “estadunidense,” but, tellingly, the English language does not give me that option. Most importantly, however, “Americano” is actually the word used again and again by Latin Americans themselves when discussing the politics of the genealogies of this field. Rather than try to find unproblematic solutions to the (un)translatability of these words, I would much rather follow the advice of Diana Taylor, who ends her essay “Acts of Transfer”—included in this digital book—with the proposal that we proceed from the premise “that we do not understand each other.” As she argues, “the problem of untranslatability[...] is actually a positive one.” How gringo is performance studies, then, and how much does that matter?

Of course “performance” is not the first foreign word used to describe embodied practices in the Americas. “Teatro” and “dança/danza” were once Portuguese and Spanish words trying as hard—and failing as bad—to grasp what we would now call performance practices of pre-Conquest indigenous peoples. The etymological roots of the word “performance” itself, as Taylor also points out, are not English, but French. How far back do we have to go, therefore, before it ceases to matter if “performance” as a word—and performance studies as a field—is foreign, as opposed to, say, Brazilian theater or Colombian dance?

This is one of the many ways in which the Scalar platform—upon which What is Performance Studies? is built—proves itself most productive. Instead of trying to trace the origins of Latin American performance studies, the multiplicity of essays, tags, and interviews in this book is an attempt to do what Michel Foucault describes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (1984) as the work of the genealogist: “[to] record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality.” In this famous essay, Foucault rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations in history that work towards the construction of indefinite teleologies, proposing instead that the work of the genealogist is not the search for origins, but the meticulous description of descents and of moments of emergence. I would propose that the multiplicity of ways in which What is Performance Studies? can be read offers a digital alternative to the “entangled and confused parchments” and the “documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times” that Foucault identifies as the tools of the genealogist. It is not that there is no answer to the question the title of this book asks; it is rather that the genealogy it provides in return is an “unstable assemblage of faults, fissures, and heterogeneous layers.”

This is not to say that Latin American performance studies—if we can even speak of such a thing—does not also run into all series of contradictions. The reader need only randomly browse through the many different interviews in this book to find them. But aren’t these inconsistencies the mark of the field itself? Perhaps it is precisely when it is forced to cross national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries, precisely when words slightly fail to apply to the practices they engage with, that performance studies is most successful. Perhaps the “out-of-placeness” of performance studies in Latin America can help genealogists locate history in what Foucault calls “the most unpromising places:” in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts. This affective mapping of the many genealogies of performance studies in the non-English speaking Americas starts to surface as we listen to the voice of Zeca Ligiéro describing how he was accused of being “nostalgic” for using the word “performance,” a word his critics associated with performance art practices of the 1970s. Or when Ligiéro describes the visceral reaction of Brazilian scholars against using an “American” word in relationship to Amerindian and Afro-Brazilian practices.

It is also the digital format of What is Perfomance Studies? that allows us to see that, just as there is no single answer to this question, there is no single language in which to ask it. The trilingual subtitles and transcripts work to demonstrate that to ask the question in Portuguese or in Spanish is to ask it differently. As Diana Taylor points out in her interview, Latin American theater is thought of as following colonial models. The concept of “performance,” however, allows for the inclusion of “groups that are not normally represented,” encompassing “theater, and ritual, and dance, and public performance.” Of course, this is true for performance studies in general, but it is even more relevant in Latin America, where the deep historical connections between systems of validation of local embodied practices and the perceived epistemological superiority of colonial models are so acute. Books on the history of theater in the Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking Americas, for example, tend to be full of teleologies of origin, usually tied to dates in which certain European practices emerged in each country. To ask about “performance,” on the other hand—not despite but precisely because of the broad range of ways in which this word is used in English-speaking countries—allows for a multiplicity of descents and emergences that challenges the colonial weight that “theater” carries with it.

Another place in which the specificity of each genealogy becomes evident is in the different departments in which performance studies is practiced. Whereas in the United States there is a tendency to create new departments for each new field of study, in Latin America this scholarship tends to happen within more traditional departments, such as theater, language studies, or the social sciences. These trajectories are not arbitrary, however, as they reveal histories of influence. Javier Serna speaks of the tensions of bringing performance studies into the field of theater studies in Mexico, since “performance is understood as something from the visual arts.” Anabelle Contreras Castro speaks of performance studies as an opportunity to change the direction of the school, “which was exclusively focused on theater.”

In his interview, Antonio Prieto articulates quite precisely the relationship between these inter-departmental tensions and the European and US influences in Mexican academia. “Researchers from fields such as linguistic analysis, anthropology, sociology,” says Prieto, “are apparently more open to adopting the performativity terminology[...] In theater studies (where there is a more clear and direct genealogical connection to French, German, and Italian theorists), there has been more resistance.” Prieto is not the only one to draw these connections, as Leda Martins describes in her interview the tensions in Brazil between the “United States performance studies[...] particularly from New York” and studies influenced by French ethnoscenology. One thing that becomes clear in the history that Martins tells, however, is that these influences are not simply theories imported from other places, but that the connections happen because of work that was already being done, a point that Beth Lopes reinforces in her interview: “The work already existed before knowing about this US-American approach[...] what comes to the surface, what responds to this conceptual perspective, are sources that already exist.”

Although the most common place for scholars of performance studies in Latin America is within theater departments, there are also clear genealogies within other fields, especially in language and literature (“departamentos de letras”) and the social sciences. In this sense, the diversity of What is Performance Studies? also allows for dialogues that would not necessarily take place otherwise. Soledad Falabella, for example, clearly states that her experience with performance studies in Chile comes from the perspective of literature, a trajectory she identifies as distinct from the studies of performance coming from the visual arts, “a genealogy that is more Anglo and linked to England and the US in the 1960s and 70s,” in which she would locate the work of CADA. Rossana Reguillo, on the other hand, is explicit in speaking of “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’” in Mexico.

One of the reasons behind this discomfort is the confusion throughout Latin America between performance studies as a field of knowledge and performance art as an artistic practice, a point that several of the scholars from different countries make in their interviews. Antonio Prieto reminds us of how, at the 2001 Encuentro of the Hemispheric Institute in Monterrey, “there was a lot of confusion exactly because people didn’t know how to distinguish between ‘performance’ and ‘performance studies.’” These confusions, of course, are extremely productive. As Rossana Reguillo’s elaborate analysis of the unresolved gender of performance in Spanish (“el performance” or “la performance?”) reminds us, the confusion generates “stammers of discomfort” that are linked to “the near impossibility of epistemological character[...] a unique dimension to something that is extremely complex.” How would we know this if we didn’t stammer? And how would we stammer if performance was not so delightfully untranslatable?

It is in these miscommunications that the genealogist works, not in order to correct them, but to insist on the need to keep translating. As long as English-speaking performance studies can also try to translate Leda Martins explaining why, in Brazil, the broader term is not “performance” but “corporality,” or Diamela Eltit insisting on describing the Chilean student movement as “performatic” rather than “performative” (which would lead back to language), it, too, might learn to stammer. And by stammering it might grasp what Jesús Martín Barbero means when he says that “performance studies would be for Latin America a strategic space in which to think about the conflicts that traverse the body.” After all, the work of the genealogist is to describe histories not as ordered and translatable sequences of events, but as events that are inscribed upon bodies that escape translation.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Nietzsche, Genalogy, History.” In The Foucault Reader, 76–100. New York: Pantheon Books.
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