Volume III, Number 1, Spring 2007


"What's Performance Got to Do With it? Interview with Jane Desmond about Performance Studies, Cultural Studies and American Studies" by Éva Federmayer

Éva Federmayer is Associate Professor at the Departments of American Studies, Eötvös Lorand University, Budapest, and the University of Szeged, Szeged. Email: Eva_Federmayer@lit.u-szeged.hu

Jane Desmond is Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at the Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (formerly at the University of Iowa, Iowa City) and Director of International Forum for U.S. Studies. Email: desmondj@uiuc.edu

One of the keynote speakers of our conference American Studies as Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, Professor Jane Desmond from the University of Illinois has been making crucial contributions to American Studies by incorporating Performance Studies to Cultural Studies scholarship. Herself a dancer and choreographer by training, Professor Desmond has been, for long, intrigued by the interplay of somatic experience and cultural representation; indeed, as an American Studies and Women’s Studies professor, she has been particularly teased by issues of embodiment and disembodiment, relations between the body’s materiality and identity, and the complex factors that mesh to form racial, sexual, class and gender identities through representations and embodied practices in dance as well as in a broad range of public performances, including museum displays and zoos.

Her publications include Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display from Waikiki to Sea World (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1999.), Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities on and off the Stage (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), “Displaying Death, Animating Life: Fictions of Liveness from Taxidermy to Animatronics” in Representing Animals, Nigel Rothfells, ed. (Indiana University Press, 2002: 159-179); her latest book, Displaying Death/Animating Life, is under contract with the University of Chicago Press.

As a born globetrotter reveling in adventure within and without her home turf, Professor Desmond taught dance, theater, and American Studies at Duke University, Cornell University and at the Department of American Studies of Eötvös Loránd University. Until 2006 she served on the American Studies faculty at the University of Iowa where she was also Associate Dean of International Programs. She has recently accepted a new position as Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

ÉF: Let me begin this interview with reference to one of your reading packets you gave to your Hungarian students when conducting a course “Theories and Methods in American Studies” in the fall semester of 2000. When thumbing through the pile of readings for the seminar to address relevant issues, such as concepts of ideology, cultural hegemony, paradigm dramas in American Studies, Black feminist theory, the invention of tradition, identity as history, popular culture and cultural theory in American Studies, all of a sudden I came upon an article you wrote with Virginia Dominguez, which seemingly stuck out of the pile. It was about the Navajo weavings that you saw at an exhibition of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. Can you recall what you intended to discuss with your Hungarian students about that traveling display by way of “Theories and Methods in American Studies?”

JD: First let me say how much I enjoyed working with the Hungarian students and my colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University. It was the first time I’d taught about the U.S. outside the U.S., and the experience helped me learn a lot about different training systems and different conceptualizations of “American Studies.”

The particular article you mention is a very short piece, but it makes what I think is a crucial point: as scholars we should not take institutional conventions (like what counts as “art”) for granted. We must seek to understand their histories and the cultural influences they have. In the case of this exhibit of Navajo weaving exhibited in an art museum, Dominguez and I noted the difference in how the modern art painters were exhibited (each piece labeled only by date, type of material used, and artist’s name) vs. how the weavers’ work was exhibited on the very same floor of the museum. Although specific weavers were named, the whole exhibit was surrounded by “ethnographic” material discussing the practice of weaving, how it is passed down through the generations, how it is sold, and so on. Upending the convention of ethnography vs. art, we suggested that ALL works in the museum would benefit from similar contextualization, explaining, for example, the international art market that determines the price of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, and noting her lineage of training. This would reveal the workings of the art world as a social and political arena, not just an aesthetic one. The larger point was about the necessity of understanding the functioning of cultural institutions and the power they wield.

ÉF: How would you chart the territory of Performance Studies? What spheres of cultural life and social structures is Performance Studies specifically concerned with?

JD: I see “Performance Studies” as a set of scholarly investigations concerned with two primary arenas. The first of these is the most obvious. Performance Studies scholars analyze the cultural work done by the arts, including theater, dance, music, and popular performance like the circus. In most but not all cases the emphasis is on live events. The second stand of Performance Studies work steps off the stage and out of the concert hall into the happenings of everyday life. Selected sites might include parades, political rallies, the conduct of war, festivals, spectacles like the Olympics, tourist shows, and sports. The realm of daily life is also key and includes: foodways, entertaining in the home, conversational styles, and rituals like those associated with religion, death, citizenship, play, leisure, and social unions like weddings.

ÉF: How do you see Performance Studies related to Cultural Studies? Can you perceive any difference between Performance Studies as practiced in the UK and in the US?

JD: It is hard to accurately describe an emergent set of scholarly conversations, practices, and concerns among a loosely federated group of people, which is how I see Performance Studies right now. The emergence of Performance Studies roughly coincides with that of cultural studies, and both have expanded not only the sense of what humanities scholars can analyze as cultural “texts” but have underlined the politics of culture in the broadest sense. As Cultural Studies was imported to the U.S. from the U.K., where it had developed under the leadership of scholars like Stuart Hall, it lost much of its emphasis on social class and social community, and emphasized instead cultural products and their use by gendered and raced consumers. There are, of course, important exceptions to this broad characterization. Likewise, Performance Studies with its emphasis on embodied practices as “texts” has emphasized class less than the categories of gender and “race” in its investigations.

ÉF: How is Performance Studies incorporated into American Studies? Would you briefly describe the position of Performance Studies in American studies today?

JD: Let me sketch this in terms of the U.S. American Studies community, the one I know the best. Up until the last 8 years or so, Performance Studies scholars were most tightly linked with theater studies. But recently this has begun to change as more Performance Studies scholars attend the U.S. American Studies Association meetings, due in part to the active recruitment by some of us associated institutionally with AS. There is now an increasing breadth of work on the annual program, including papers on African American music, gay “cruising” practices, Chicano low-rider car caravans, racial “passing” as a cultural performance, and many other topics. Of these, I’d say that work on music predominates. In 1999 this surge of interest was institutionalized with the formation of a “Performance of the Americas” Caucus within the ASA. In addition, those national conferences have begun to feature live performances as a part of their programming. Often experimental in nature, these performances have addressed issues such as social citizenship, cross-racial relationships, and Native American storytelling. Although I am not familiar with the practices of “American Studies” everywhere else, my experience with colleagues and conferences outside the U.S. indicates that these types of investigations are not as foregrounded outside the U.S.

ÉF: In one of your essays you suggested that Performance Studies can also help us explore how the struggle over meanings is played out in distinct spheres of culture. Would you elaborate on what you mean? I would be particularly interested in how you think Performance Studies could tease out the gendered and raced signification of cultural practices.

JD: A good example might be analyses of public celebrations of holidays. Take Christmas in the U.S. for example. Public debate has heated up in the last few years about the separation of church and state as far as the marking of this holiday in public schools. Celebrations once termed school “Christmas” parties are now called Winter parties. Decorated trees are not allowed in some schools because they are associated with Christians. On the other hand, Christmas trees abound in shopping mall decor. Kwanzaa, a holiday recently developed by African Americans to celebrate around the same time, offers its own parties and even Hallmark cards. Are there “black” and “white” Christmases? How would we analyze this change? Halloween poses a similar “text” to chart social struggles and change. In the local public elementary school down the street from my house, certain types of costumes are now prohibited at school Halloween parties because they can be seen as racially, ethnically, or culturally denigrating. Children can still come dressed as princesses or pirates or ghosts, but not, say, as gypsy fortunetellers. Analyzing these holiday rituals and the public debates and practices they engender over time from a performative point of view—i.e. who does what and what does it mean?—can be very useful in revealing cultural tensions and change.

ÉF: How do you analyze performances and/or ‘embodied practices’? What are the critical tools and vocabularies you draw on? I assume there is a distinct difference between the way a Performance Studies or, say, a Dance Studies scholar approaches her subject.

JD: You are certainly right that Performance Studies emphasizes the body and the way that bodily practices encode and engender social meaning. There are a wide variety of intellectual tools available and more emerging all the time. Music analysis, movement analysis, audience reception studies, semiotic analysis, Marxist analysis, feminist analysis, and the use of critical race theories are all important. The interdisciplinarity of Performance Studies is one of its strengths. When analytical tools have been developed in relation to other realms, for example literary analysis, they must be changed and adapted to deal with “texts” that live and breathe and make noise and move through space in real time.

ÉF: What special skills do scholars need to develop to do Performance Studies?

JD: I always advocate training in a number of analytical methods. Each project will make its own demands. Just to give one example though, one of my American Studies Ph.D. students, Ulli Adelt, is completing a dissertation on the development of a white audience for blues music in the 1960s. Trained in ethnomusicology as well as social analysis, Adelt is using skills in visual analysis (what did the record covers look like?), institutional analysis (how did blues festivals position the performers and draw their audiences?), economic analysis (Who paid for the music? Who received payment?) and musical analysis (Did the vocal inflections change to sound less “black” in vocal styling?). How did audiences feel about the shift in audience make- up from predominantly black to predominantly white? (For this last he is interviewing elderly African Americans in nursing homes in Chicago for their memories of their attitudes towards blues music in the 1960s). This exciting dissertation is a great example of Performance Studies meeting American Studies.

ÉF: Since the early 1990s, theories of performance and performativity have occupied center stage in Gender Studies and literary analysis. Would you suggest concepts of performativity in Performance Studies facilitate a better understanding of women, for example?

JD: Yes, the analysis of performativity—that is how something happens—is especially useful in analyzing those realms of social meaning which are dependent on the anchoring of meaning to bodily difference, like gender, or the presumed visual determination of “race,” or age. The key difference between the study of performativity in literature and in “Performance Studies” more broadly is the emphasis on lived embodied practice in the latter rather than verbal representation and its reception.

ÉF: What are the limitations of Performance Studies within American Studies approaches as they are currently evolving?

JD: Wonderful work is being done, but I’d like to see more emphasis on everyday life and more historical anchoring of interpretation. Historical analysis is one of the defining strengths of American Studies in the U.S., and much of Performance Studies is, not surprisingly, present oriented. In addition, it would be really illuminating to bring class analysis to the fore. How is class positioning experienced and performed in the body? Can we “read” social class off of the use of space and through modes of personal presentation in public, including hair style, dress, walk, speech, and so on? Of course we can, and do. This is one of the areas of socialization all of us learn in the home and to some extent in the school. As scholars we learn to make such analysis self-reflexive, and to decode it.

ÉF: What is the significance of ’field work’ in your practicing Performance Studies? Would you tell me an example?

JD: Let’s go back to the previous question. To analyze bodily performativity in terms of the public display of social class, you really have to do live observation on site. While fieldwork as a methodology linked to anthropology usually implies the long term embedding in a community not one’s own, I use the term more loosely here to imply a live engagement. The amount of time can vary depending on the project and goals. Participant observation is a great tool in some instances.

ÉF: In what sense could the incorporation of Performance Studies into American Studies change the contours of American Studies training and research?

JD: It would place the body, bodily sensation, and the interpretation of embodied events and meanings into the mainstream of the American Studies conversations. To do so in a meaningful way will require institutional and curricular change. Right now, the participation of Performance Studies specialists on U.S. American Studies department faculties is very limited. Only a handful of us hold such full time appointments. This means that the American Studies curriculums do not consistently provide theoretical and methodological training in this arena, and they should. It also would require, for many research projects, the acquisition of new skills, such as movement analysis, and the accounting for time spent researching social practices on site.

This last is a particular challenge for those scholars working outside the U.S. But, should they be interested in this approach, there are ways of doing it from afar. For example, a scholar could research shifting social dance styles in the 1960s to assess the influence of African American dance styles among white teenagers by watching videos of the television shows Soul Train and The Dick Clark Show, as well as teen movies. However, these analyses would have to account for the mediated presentation of these practices through commercial television, and the way that the production of the show may have emphasized certain practices over others for commercial gain.

ÉF: In your book Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display from Waikiki to Sea World you have a chapter, “Performing Nature,” in which you explore themes parks, bird, tiger, and whale shows, as well as zoos. You also include a photo you took of the Elephant House in the Budapest Zoo. How does this Hungarian Elephant House come into the picture—I mean, what does the Hungarian zoo have to do with American Studies?

JD: I remember the cold, rainy day I went to the Budapest zoo, and how amazed I was when I walked into that hundred-year-old Elephant House. I felt as if I was walking into a bit of history because I’d been reading about the history of zoo design, and here was a display site seemingly unchanged for a century! The architecture of the elephant House, unlike other parts of the zoo, had not been redesigned according to newer models. Instead it still encoded a particular historical mode of interaction between the visitor and the elephant, putting the single elephant on display like a jewel to be contemplated up close under the shaft of sunlight from the window above. The oriental style dome and single scraggly palm tree in a pot also framed the visitor’s perception, situating the elephant, and by extension the people who lived in the countries where elephants came from, as a symbol of “the Orient.” I felt then in an embodied way (!) what it must have been like to visit zoos during the time the zoo was first built. The closeness of the elephant in that exhibit, so unlike the habitat displays of today where the animals roam freely in large spaces, allowed for my up-close, leisurely contemplation of the elephant’s body because he literally could not escape my gaze. The heavy metal bars, keeping the elephant in so I could look at it, became symbolic of the cultural force of late 19th century European imperialism that made the capture and transnational transport of such an animal possible and desirable during that historical era. That this design matched that of a lion display from the same period in the San Diego Zoo indicated the transnational character of European and European-American relations with such exotic animals at the turn of that century.

In encountering that architecture, and that elephant, I realize now looking back that I was interested in the performative dimension. What did the elephant do, what were its movement limitations, could it escape my gaze if it wanted to? What did I do and feel upon that incredibly close encounter with a giant elephant just a few feet away from me? How did these embodied elements of the encounter reveal not just architectural design history but also a cultural formation of belief about other places, other cultures, and “the wild?” This is a good example of the integration of performativity and American Studies to end on!