Syllabi for the Future: A Playlist

Strategies for/from Ethnography: Alternatives for Assessing the Political in Performance

Rayya El Zein

University of Pennsylvania


Feeling Politics: The Texture of Tarab in Arabic Rap Concerts

Video Caption

This field research explores the dynamics conducted between audiences and performers in live concerts of Arabic rap. Participant observation meditates on how to push past expectations and celebrations of hip hop in the Middle East in the years of the Arab Uprisings. Edited footage here informs a book project that explores how material considerations of concert space in changing cities influence the affective connections built between MCs and their fans. This is designed to deepen political readings of selected lyrics and performer profiles. Specifically, the wider project from which this is excerpted explores how tarab, an Arabic ethnomusicological term describing feelings of ecstasy in listening to traditional Arabic poetry, song, or religious recitation, can also be found in the live performance cultures of the hybrid genre of Arabic rap. Tracking the emergence of tarab in specific concerts, at specific times, and under certain conditions is a political analysis of evolving youth cultures and class in changing Arab cities.

Course Description

This module uses interdisciplinary exploration of strategies of performance ethnography to propose a methodological intervention into performance theory. It argues for a shift from subject-based readings of politics where demonstrable resistance is presented as performative of political agency. Noting debates about the implications of the boom in “resistance literature” across the humanities, we explore the political potential — and the limits — of the range of ideas about resistance. We ask: in what ways is literature about politics in live cultural production and in the performance of everyday life premised on looking for, finding, and theorizing resistance? Can the implicit expectation that agents perform resistance in order to be dynamic political subjects (and subjects of engaged performance study and research) limit the ways in which both politics in process and political processes may be understood? What orientalisms, racisms, and gender biases are reinforced by celebrative interpretations of resistance in performance? That is, in what ways does academia render resistance attractive when it is performed by people of some demographics, and threatening or invisible when it is performed by others?

Incorporating innovation from the spatial, affective, sonic, and the performative turns across the humanities, the module outlines an invigorated approach to performance ethnography that is better able to illustrate the economies of performance in which live concerts and performances take place, illuminating various aspects of overlapping political resonances not reducible to “resistance.” In doing so, we consider what politics in live performance might look like if they were not (only) understood as expressions of resistance and what implications might follow for theorizations of agency, subjectivity, or change.

The course explores theories of sound, affect, and space and their applications in different kinds of recording and writing about performance in order to build new approaches to the ethnography of performance. These reveal the texture of emergent politics that are neither attached to specific political critiques nor tied to particular efficacies or political outcomes. We ask: what might ethnography attuned to the dynamics of live performance reveal instead about politics in process? What might theories of reception, strategies for listening, patterns of call and response, or analysis of the political economy of performance reveal about politics in motion among specific audiences?

The approach in this module — showcased in the attached video — is informed by extended research on the emergent politics in rap concerts in the Arab world leading up to, during, and beyond the creative and political excitement of the so-called Arab Spring. Readings collected in this module are chosen as a constellation of provocations to move discussions past evaluations of success or failure of the short-lived uprisings of 2011-2013 and the reach and efficacy of cultural production associated with them. Imagining performance theory as an engaged commitment to developing social and political strategies, practices of reading and writing explored here seek to move past the singular modes of confidence, nostalgia, hope, or regret associated with specific political movements or exciting political moments and their aftermath. The ethical urgency of performance ethnography thus lies in its ability to record and testify to the texture of political becoming, without prescribing or attributing to those experiences specific political change. Recognizing the critical value of experiences of hesitation, transition, development, apathy, and despair, this module focuses on how to use performance theory and ethnography as a tool to understand political processes as opposed to celebrations of succinct political events and the creative performances with which they are attributed or associated.

As an alternative to the widespread and, we suggest, limiting frameworks of locating resistance as politics, we thus propose that the future of performance research might imagine a politics in live performance that situates itself in the ambiguity of ambivalence, somewhere alongside but not always responsive to the demand for change. Ultimately, this module explores a performance-based analysis of theory and creative approaches to the ethnography of live cultural production in order to push through and past the binds of agency and subject-based politics.


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