Kinaesthetic Language

Research through the lens of Performance Studies requires a rethinking of the way in which we do history, taking into account the question of disappearance. It is both helpful, and unhelpful, to think about everything through a ‘performance’ lens: the frame is difficult and enabling at the same time.

Life through a Lens - Image Credit: ZebrowskiPhotography

The subject matter of the research shapes what the research method can be, and what it can do; in performance we must look at the ‘traces’ of history, and compare practice with the record, considering the relationship between the written and the living records. The research method carries the idea of inter-relational and interdisciplinary methodologies

Joseph Roach writes that ‘One important strategy of performance research today is to juxtapose living memory as restored behaviour against a historical archive of scripted records’.[1] Reading the body as archive we see that memory becomes action, action becomes record, record informs memory, and so on. Bodies are scripted and coded, maybe more so than text: for example, a person could maybe get away with saying something silly, more than they could act against social conventions. Maybe this is because language is more abstracted and fluid, than the physicality of a body?

I’ve written previously about language, and an inherent, and inherited, Westernised sense of the primacy of the written word over the embodied. However, language has infinite potential and plasticity: writing is an engine of invention, not just record, and where it archives, it records movement as much as moment. Words are embodied and living; we need our bodies to both write and speak; to record.

Body as Record
Image Source: ChloeHenderson -

So, can kinaesthetic memory be as valid as recorded action? Diana Taylor wrote that ‘written documents seemed not to spring from social life but rather be imposed upon it […] Histories were burned and rewritten to suit the memorializing needs of those in power.’[2] Performance researchers are able to privilege embodied knowledge gained through performance and performativity rather than written study, which has often come from an etic, or triumphalist, ethnography. We can’t just rely on written history: previously, because writing and reading could only be accessed by a few, written words represented power and control over the majority. History is both archive and creation: history is created, archives are curated. Even in the terms of ‘reading’ a painting, or ‘writing a behaviour’ we privilege the actions of reading and writing over behaviours! The colonial imposition of written behaviours on unscripted bodies results in changing behaviours to erase kinaesthetic memories.

However, Taylor also wrote that ‘writing provides historical consciousness and orality provides mythic consciousness.’[3] We need both the telling, and the doing. A Performance Studies lens allows researchers to shift the frame, to take both an etic and an emic view, and a Lacanian positionality: the human subject is created through social interaction, meaning that bodies are record and archive, even as they are witness of transformation.

Language, even, troubles itself: alterity of language is imbricated in a culture, and, as I’ve written about several times before, culture creates culture, in what Roach calls ‘internal cultural self-definition’[4] If we can only understand a thing through what it is called, the language both describes and delimits the potentiality of that thing. We are trapped in a system of language where there is a space between what we say, what we hear, and what we understand.  Taylor notes the un-interpretability of the word ‘performance’, which lends a certain beautiful ambiguity to both the term, the field, and the method. 

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Language, then, tells the story of itself: Arts and Humanities scholarship reads against the grain of structures of authority. While not denying a certain actuality, and performances of factuality, the lens of Performance Studies is able to offer cultural stories that are contingent, provisional, and subject to change.

[1] Joseph Roach, ‘History, Memory and Performance’, in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p.9.
[2] Diana Taylor, ‘Acts of Transfer’, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, (Durham: Duke University Press: 2003), p.17.
[3] Taylor, ‘Acts of Transfer’, p.21.
[4] Roach, ‘History, Memory and Performance’, p.4.


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