Some Notes on Performance Studies and the More Speculative Genres
Katherine Brewer Ball
Our future syllabus is co-taught and intergenerational — what follows is an incantation and a duet.
Katherine Brewer Ball (KBB): Artist-curator Jaamil Olawale Kosoko recently told me that making a syllabus is like casting a spell and seeing who shows up for the gathering. In the prompt “What is the future of performance studies?”, we respond by world-making, by saying something together in unison over and over until it changes everything. Isn’t that what a spell is? We call a world into being by close-reading the grains of sand, noting the details as our limp wrists reach out in dialogue. We follow along with Morgan Bassichis, Ali Rosa-Salas, Reina Gossett, and Dori Midnight the variegated work of artists who are also scholars, magicians and activists. Spellcasting becomes a way to call out to the people with whom we want to be in dialogue. So, if words are performatives, if saying is doing, then how do we enact a future hospitable to black, brown, indigenous, and queer lives? The classroom, a place we share, is perhaps one place to start.
Juan Gallardo (JG): The spell is a way to bring into the world something deemed impossible by a hegemonic logic. More specifically, for the scientific/colonial gaze, the spell is a cop-out, a way to bypass what passes for knowledge. But if you’re someone who is not primarily concerned with that gaze — even as you are attentive to its dangers and how, in moments, it can affect you — then the spell becomes a way to think appositionally. If, as you mention, the syllabus can be thought of as a kind of spell, as a way to call others and call forth other forms of knowledge, other forms of life, then the classroom is (potentially) one of the places to work our magic.
This year, insofar as I’ve been thinking blackness, fugitivity, and escape from the figure of the Human, Octavia Butler’s novel, Wild Seed, has been a fruitful and generative site. Thinking with Sarah Jane Cervenak’s work, Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom, and Hortense Spillers’ 1987 essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” I returned to the turbulent relationship Butler depicts between Anyawu and Doro, a shapeshifter and a spirit respectively, who roam the world in human guise. I love (and am frightened by) the beginning of that book. Anyawu is hanging out, having a life, and Doro, who has been wandering the Earth in search of specimens, hones in on her, observes her, and decides to make her his lover/concubine. There’s a part of me that feels (a little) sorry for Doro — he wants to find people with whom he can have a life, people who, like himself, cannot die — but I abhor the way he goes about looking for and creating that company. Doro wanders the globe because he’s not quite sure what he’s looking for, but he begins to create a form from his confusion; the world becomes a laboratory in his quest to create beings like himself. It’s no coincidence, then, that the temporality of the novel is also the temporality of the slave trade and the colonization of the so-called New World. More important, it is telling that the slave trade lends itself easily to Doro’s project, even though these two movements, while they intersect, are distinct. I am drawn to Anyawu, on the other hand, because once she meets Doro, her movement becomes a continuous practice of escape. By way of Anyawu, Butler demonstrates how dangerous is the bind of the Human-Being, of being (or becoming) Human: in Human form, Anyawu can be tracked by Doro. It is only when Anyawu refuses the Human body that she can escape his gaze, and it is the realm beyond the province of the Human that Anyawu is able to be with others in a way that is not so easily exploited. It’s funny, informative, and unsurprising, then, that Anyawu finds mating rituals to be much more straightforward (and potentially pleasurable) among the dolphins than among heterosexual men. There’s a part of me that likes to imagine Anyawu in dolphin form as a regular to one of the cruising grounds in Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.
KBB: I love this image. It feels both child-safe and wildly erotic, like Lisa Frank pornography.
JG: Yes, and that’s exactly the point. Performance studies should be thinking reproduction, insofar as reproduction is not conflated with what the heterosexual imaginary often insist is “sex” and insofar as reproduction is not regulated for the sake of a deferred future whose condition of possibility is a stiff, degraded present and erased past. Following Patricia Holland and Darieck Scott, to name but a few, performance studies can and should think reproduction and desire from the vantage points of blackness/queerness without lending (much) attention to how hegemonic discourse overdetermines those ideas.
One of the things I love about Butler’s novel is how Anyawu’s performance of freedom begins as a performance of escape, but then gives over to something more. Attractive to Doro because she can be one with the object of her desire, Anyawu’s shapeshifting abilities range beyond the province of the Human, and it is in these places where she is able to practice “freedom” in a way that is not violent. Doro is “free” to do/kill as he pleases — no one, at least not until the end of Mind of My Mind, can defeat him. But violence and coercion are the conditions of possibility for his practice and understanding of freedom. For me, the future of performance studies is about future-making forms of knowledge that shuttle back and forth between what is yet to come and what is presumed to be past. The future of performance studies is about imagining and creating genealogies and ancestry in the Ellisonian sense. My version of performance studies would signal a turn to Anyawu and Rhinehart, two characters from different novels who are (in)famous and radical because of their ability to improvise, to break with the fantasy of the Self, and perform a variety of identities.
Performance’s desired break from ontology is a chance for promiscuity, to think from a variety of positions — the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic, as the video suggests — precisely because these always-already externally-imposed boundaries begin to fall away, and emerge as a set of fluid relations negotiated from a variety of subject positions of which the speaker is One but not (and this is crucial) a Single Being. Performance’s departure from ontology makes possible “fantasy in the hold” because she who thinks from the hold is not necessarily the object of the colonizer’s fantasy. To think from the hold is to think what it means to be held, and it is to think the question of freedom — “I am bound for the freedom,” writes Robert Hayden, “freedom-bound.” Like those running, falling, rising, and stumbling in Hayden’s 1962 poem, “Runagate Runagate,” the question of freedom becomes a question of movement, movement that is not necessarily forward-thinking — for the mythic North cannot deliver on its alleged promise — even as it is primarily concerned with black futurity.
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–. Mind of My Mind. Doubleday, 1977.
Cervenak, Sarah Jane. Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom. Duke University Press, 2014.
Delany, Samuel. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York University Press, 1999.
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Gossett, Reina (with Grace Dunham and Tina Zavitsanos), Hampshire College Commencement 2016, Hampshire College TV. https://youtu.be/6fwrJjkxEec. Accessed 13 December 2017.
Hayden, Robert. “Runagate Runagate.” Collected Poems. Liveright Publishing, 1985. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52947/runagate-runagate/. Accessed 13 December 2017.
Holland, Sharon Patricia. The Erotic Life of Racism. Duke University Press, 2012.
Moten, Fred. “to consent not to be a single being,” The Poetry Foundation, 2010. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/02/to-consent-not-to-be-a-single-being/. Accessed 13 December 2017.
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Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Black, White and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
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