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Identity and culture

By Alan Gilbert

Each of the four weeks at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program is organized around a theme. Invited faculty and the workshops they teach, the panels they sit on, and the talks some of them give are loosely grouped according to these themes. The one for this summer’s fourth week is “Performance. Community: Policies of the USA in the Larger World.” Monday’s panel focused on the performance side of the equation, and included Dodie Bellamy, Bob Holman, Kevin Killian, Anne Tardos, and Steven Taylor.


Anne Waldman moderated, and immediately invoked the notion of identities as performances (Bellamy returned to it at the conclusion of the panel). It was, of course, Judith Butler who critically-academically popularized this idea, and I wouldn’t be the first to point out that there’s a certain privilege that goes along with the space and leisure to perform an identity. The process is probably more like enact for those who aren’t always free on Saturday nights. I tend to think that human subjects are generally slotted (interpellated, Althusser would say) into a set of prescribed identities that they then use a variety of means (e.g., from mass culture to poetry) to contest—or not. This isn’t to say that individuals don’t contest at least some aspects of their identity/ies, even if unwittingly. It’s very complicated, especially where the increasing flexibility of identity rubs up against the status quo-mandates of the state and community. Perhaps this is what Waldman was alluding to when she referenced the tension between traditional and non-traditional performance, sometimes within the same performer.
Taylor expanded upon this relationship of the micro to the macro by discussing the interconnections between art and society. Given these direct links, in Taylor’s proposed schemata changes in artistic form have the potential to provoke changes in society. He cited studies from cultural ethnography that showed the ways in which political-economic structures reflect cultural forms, and vice versa. For instance, in hunter-gatherer societies where women procure the majority of the food, musical forms are dominated by collective singing by females and dancing that imitates their work; where food is hunted by solitary males, solo male singing is featured. The symphony orchestra mirrors industrial society, with orchestra members divided into regimented sections according to the labor they perform. They are then guided by a composer’s score and a conductor’s directions, much the same way that owners, managers, and workers interact in a factory.
Taylor himself described as “Romantic” the idea that transformations in artistic form can alter society (which places most 20th-century avant-garde movements closer to Romanticism than they’d probably care to admit). The historical materialist in me tends to think that new artistic forms are most likely the result, not the instigators, of developments in economic and social structures. Besides, power flows through—and at best is redirected by—institutions. Power doesn’t flow through poems. This isn’t to say that the shape of an institution like Naropa may not have been partly influenced by the kinds of poems its founders and contributors wrote, and perhaps even the lives they lived. But the ability to motivate larger change in society arises out of the institutions—however informal, however non-institutional—that offer counter-practices. In other words, we’ll see just what Barack Obama can do.
Killian described an anthology of poets’ theater texts that he’s editing, and outlined an illuminating history of the genre going back to the mid-18th century as it fell in and out of and—recently—back in favor again. Holman echoed Killian by presenting a history of spoken word poetry during the 20th century. Holman’s version began with the disappearance of elocution classes from U.S. schools, and ended with a mention of one of my favorite younger poet/performers, Celena Glenn (currently on tour with New York Times Magazine darlings CocoRosie). Holman also pointed out that there are currently 6,500 languages in the world, one of which becomes extinct every two weeks. He then described his latest ambitious project for poetry, which is to travel the world Anthony Bourdain or Eric Idle style—beginning in Africa with his mentor, griot Papa Susso—in order to document with a series of films various poetic traditions.
Tardos touchingly told how after the death of her partner Jackson Mac Low she’s moved away from collaborative performance and writing. Like a standard artist talk in which representative images from each major body of work are shown and discussed, Tardos then read passages from her published books, chronologically tracing a route that ended with the more solitary dialogues of I Am You. Bellamy presented last and the most briefly, and bravely spoke up for us publicly stiff, non-performative performers. I personally happen to think that Bellamy is among the most underrated writers in the United States, but her transgressive subject matter—and in a rare instance, the description actually means something—makes greater recognition challenging. Where other better-known writers move within a similar terrain (Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, “JT LeRoy”), the more overt class component to Bellamy’s work gives it an edge that can be harder to assimilate. She described performed identities of the self as the product of larger cultural vectors and contexts, thereby introducing a feminist formulation to the panel’s overall discussion.

Comments (3)

  • On July 9, 2008 at 11:26 pm Jasper wrote:

    Hi Alan,
    I’ve been enjoying your posts. I wanted to add, however, that while there’s certainly lots of good reasons to argue with Butler’s notion of performativity, your characterization of it (if that’s what follows your invocation of the idea) isn’t quite right. Butler has been very clear that her notion of identity isn’t a voluntarist one (Cf. the introduction to Bodies that Matter; identities aren’t freely chosen in her view. And of course, she herself makes rather explicit use of Althusser’s account of interpellation. For Butler, performances are always compelled, they always come at the behest of a certain violence, even (or maybe even especially) those performances that seem free. So, while it’s true that to conceive of performing (freely, choicefully) a culture or identity necessitates a certain degree of privilege, this isn’t at all what Butler is getting at. . .
    I’ll leave what I think might be wrong with all this, and how privilege might be still in play, for another conversation.

  • On July 10, 2008 at 1:18 pm Alan Gilbert wrote:

    Jasper—
    Thank you for the clarification. I realize that I was being reductive in my characterization of Butler’s idea, and it was the “popularization” side of her notion of performed ideas that I was taking issue with more than specific formulations in her books (that said, I do see shifts in the idea of performed identities between Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter). I’m still trying to figure out the blog-writing format, especially its more informal and chattier style. I tend to end up writing little mini-essays that at the same time don’t allow for much intellectual nuance. I appreciate you providing some of that in your comment.
    —Alan

  • On July 11, 2008 at 10:03 am Emily Warn wrote:

    Yesterday, I was chatting with a clerk at the post office about the risk of paying bills online vs. sending them via the notoriously slow Chicao USPO. He said, “If someone would take my identity, they would be doing me a favor. My credit score would go up.”


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, July 9th, 2008 by Alan Gilbert.