What is “performance,” and how can it inform and be understood better in the context of the historical expressive cultures of the Americas? These are questions at the heart of Diana Taylor’s book The Archive and the Repertoire (Duke U. Press, 2003).[†] More fundamental, at least for the moment and for the archivist, is the distinction that she makes between archives and the “repertoire.” One might briefly understand this distinction as an epistemic separation between knowledge as fixed and knowledge is/as acted/done. In other words, a focus on performance, in Taylor’s terms, suggests a shift of focus in knowledge structures (epistemes) from written to embodied culture.
Taylor draws a contrast between embodied and disembodied ways of transmitting knowledge. Thus, performances become embodied “acts of transfer.” These are stories, songs, dances, habits, customs, and other bits that communicate and preserve ways of being. In other words, performances function to transmit “social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated, or what Richard Schechner has called ‘twice-behaved behavior'” (2–3). We often use performance in ontological ways, for example in saying “That was a great performance!” after attending a concert. This essentially affirms and defines a portion of time just cowitnessed with others as a coherent and definite event. On the other hand, performance has come to be applied as a methodological lens that allows bits of behaviors to be analyzed as performances. Thus, gender, ethnicity, and identity come to be “performed” (as in Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everday Life ).
Crucial to Taylor’s position is that performance constitutes a valid way of knowing. “We learn and transmit knowledge through embodied action, through cultural agency, and by making choices. Performance, for me, functions as an episteme, way of knowing, not simply an object of analysis” (xvi). This body of knowing, which Taylor describes as the repertoire, is inherently “nonarchival” (vxii). Pressuring this distinction, Taylor asks, “is performance that which disappears, or that which persists” (xvii)? This questions the warrant of written, “archival” knowledge, which is constructed as fixed and policed (by the writers and the archivists) as the more reliable. The importance of the question deals, in fact, with the construction and control of knowledge: “If performance did not transmit knowledge, only the literate and powerful could claim social memory and identity” (ibid).
Taylor pits fixed against fluid knowledges. I’d like to propose an alternative viewpoint. Rather than opposing the repertoire of performance with the contents of an archive, might we not join the two? In Taylor’s terms, might it not be possible to bring the archive within the “performatic space”—that is, a space that is not only constructed through discourse and logocentrism? At a presentation at the 2011 conference of the Association for Asian Studies, I suggested that one might define an archives as that which transmits knowledge across a timespan.
This line of thought expands on and stems from Jeannette Bastian’s suggestion that “cultural performances” (a term borrowed from Milton Singer) may be considered as archival records.
The goal is to pluralize the way that we think about what is “in” an archives and where we might draw the boundaries of an “archives.” Deep understandings of cultural “bits” (i.e., those strips of twice-behaved behavior, and likewise the sheets of paper in many archives) require multiple and varied understandings as well as interpretation by multiple individuals. Thus, by understanding archival as a function, we begin to see that many things, not just an organization’s or individual’s noncurrent papers, we might construct more culturally meaningful archives that speak to and empower communities.
†Numbers in parentheses throughout this post refer to this book’s print edition.
1Museums, libraries, and schools also do this, but emphasize various areas such as display, access, and education respectively. In contrast, archives emphasize preservation. This is, of course, slightly different than the “official” definition put forth by the Society of American Archivists.
2Jeannette Bastian, “‘Play Mas’: Carnival in the Archives and the Archives in Carnival: Records and Community Identity in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Archival Science 9:113–125.