On Performance and the Body

A major theme in our course syllabus, and in particular Diana Taylor’s 2016 book Performance, is the question of memory, as well as memory as body. For Taylor, “performance is a practice and an epistemology, a creative doing, a methodological lens, a way of transmitting memory and identity, and a way of understanding the world” (Ch 1). She also notes that “in relation to other cultural practices and discourses, performance offers a way to transmit knowledge by means of the body.” While writing the performative body as an epistemological vehicle, Taylor underlines the power of “collective testimonial,” which can “[make] visible the line or scar that historical events . . . have left on the social body.” Thus, the body signifies not only the disciplined individual, but the racialized population marked by traumatic memory. In conversation with women-of-color feminists such as Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, Taylor thus highlights the body as a site of autobiographical contestation (“testimonial”), and a platform for the visualization of collective trauma (“social body”). However, she reviews women-of-color feminist themes with a poststructuralist eye, turning to thinkers such as Butler to discuss the importance of “mirroring, empathy, and intersubjectivity” to embodied performance.

Taylor’s notion of performance productively reveals sights/sites of resistance in the amnesic climate of global racial capitalism. In her discussion of Fulana’s oeuvre, she reads satirical pieces such as Amnezac (2006) to highlight the side-effects of “atrocitate obvlium-induced amnesia . . . consumerism, xenophobia, . . . greed, and blindness to . . . injustice.” The piece, in mobilizing pharmaceutical metaphors to critique the forgetting and oblivion of neoliberal culture, highlights the “transition from the political body to the individual body” as it “passes through the circuit of pathology and medicalization.” Drugged by Amnezac, Fulana suggests, individual bodies can no longer register the repetitive legacy of US intervention: first in Latin America, then in Iraq. Resistant visions such as Fulana’s thus summon precisely those images that “big business, big pharma, and the military industrial complex try so hard” to erase, offering the body as resistant, creative instrument of recuperation.

Though compelling, engaging, and theoretically sophisticated, Taylor’s Performance also forwards a few unanswered questions. First of all, to what extent does Taylor’s category of “the body” privilege certain subject-positions over others? The assumption of a discrete “body” certainly elides forms of subjection such as transgenderism and disability, eccentric modes of being that defy the coherence of embodiment. To what extent, then, would Taylor’s concept of performance apply to subjects who abandon the body? Some black feminists might even argue that black women, and perhaps women of color in general, exist first in the explicitly racialized state of “enfleshment,” a la Hortense Spillers, rendering “embodiment” irrelevant. My point: despite the racialized subject matter of Taylor’s book, its poststructuralist analytics may deracinate the body as a neutral, transposable, and transparent category of analysis. To reframe this observation as yet another question: is it possible to employ theorists such as Butler to discuss race, gender, etc. without ironically presupposing a disinterested subject who transcends such forms of difference?

[Map of Guatemala, performance artist Regina Galindo’s place of residence.]