Archive: February 24th, 2009

Norman Denzin: Performance Ethnography

[Readings] (02.24.09, 2:14 pm)

Denzin’s research advocates an approach to ethnography and anthropology that looks beyond the traditional relationship between the anthropologist and the members of the studied culture. His interest has historically been in critical race theory, and his approach uses a political sociology to study race and racism in postmodern America. The particular method endorsed is a critical or reflexive auto-ethnography, which is seen as a poetic and performed text.

In the preface, Denzin describes his aim as to develop a performative rhetoric to transform field notes into a performed text. I can see this as tying the idea of the cultural text (in the sense of Geertz) into an anthropological and ethnographic performance. Denzin’s outlook is rather that the culture is the performance of the text, where the text might be something else that lies underneath. In this view, the culture is not a static text, but the ongoing process and performance. The “written” part of the text could be considered to be some kind of model which gains meaning when it is enacted. The work sees cultural activity as a kind of reading and writing of worlds. There are strong political goals for ethnography and pedagogy.

The Call to Performance

There are three approaches to performance:

  • Mimesis – showing (Goffman). This covers the idea of performance as something that is shown, and used to display one’s role and position.
  • Poesis – construction (Turner). Turner examined performance as something that was used to construct culture and values, culture exists because of ritual.
  • Kinesis – movement/struggle (Conquergood). Performance in this sense is aimed at breaking and challenging established norms and conventions.

The central motivation for using performance is its application ot ethnography, and examined with respect to race, colonialism, pedagogy, and politics. The understanding of ethnography and performance is tied into a definitively utopian vision. The project of performance ethnography should find new meanings and contexts for writing about race and culture, allowing a radically free democratic society. In this vision, existing approaches to race, gender, and sexuality are opened and their boundaries removed.

The use of the term performance is borrowed from Kenneth Burke, then Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and then Schechner. Burke’s approach uses a structure of actors, purposes, scripts, stories, and stages. The function of performance is intervention, resistance, criticism, and agency. Judith Butler argues that there are no original performances, but only an endless regression of copies. This idea pulls back to the idea of simulation and Baudrillard, where performance is imitation of other performance, and if an original existed then it lacks meaning in the system of reference. I find myself a little critical of the inherently liberating and resistant nature of performance, though. Performance may still be anti-critical and hegemonizing, supporting a kind of social order that rejects variation and externality. Denzin is not unaware of this (in a later chapter, he discusses racist performances), but seems to have the perspective that an analysis that focuses on performance will enable an intrinsically progressive kind of discourse.

The Language of Performance

This section describes and explores autoethnography, which might also be called “MyStories”. Normally ethnography is the observer’s account of a culture, but autoethnography is self-written and personal. “Mystories are reflexive, critical, multimedia tales and tellings. Each mystory begins with the writer’s biography and body; mystories relate epiphanic moments, turning-poing experiences, and times of personal trouble–Turner’s ‘liminal experiences.'” (p. 26) Some interesting things about these is that they are fundamentally subjective and embodied, furthermore, they explore liminal spaces, which lie outside the realm of cultural systems of structure.

There are several kinds of ethnography:

  • Traditional ethnography: attempts to write about and define a culture to increase the cultural knowledge and awareness of the audience.
  • Perfomance ethnography: represents and performs rituals of everyday life. Performance ethnography uses the idea of performance both as a method for practice and as a means for understanding.
  • Autoethnography: the researcher includes personal autobiographical accounts into the research.
  • Critical and reflexive performance ethnography: situates the researcher and his or her subjects within a capitalist structure, taking as a given the capitalist preconditions and reframing the purpose of the understanding to be within this framework.
  • Radical performance ethnography: borrowed from McLaren (2001), this goes further and creates a performed narrative space set in terms of “agency, encounter, and conflict.”

What follows is a presentation and discussion of several mystories- or autoethnographic accounts, which are presented againt poetry, and are themselves made into poetic structures. Denzin arranges these biographical accounts like poems, and in doing so, he invites the reader to read them aloud. The questions that are being asked are ostensibly ones of authority: whose story is this? who has authority over it? who does the telling? In opening up the mystories themselves, Denzin invites the stories to be seen as shared cultural history. The stories are conducted in a way to be liminal, open, and unresolved, so that they would not be falsely presented as being completed or answered.

The Cinematic Society and the Reflexive Interview

This section describes how the media genre and format of cinema and television have shaped how people construct mystories. The question is how we represent ourselves to ourselves. Denzin starts with an analysis of postmodern cinematic interview society. The interview and the interviewer are basic elements of society. There exists a circular model, where the cinema shapes the account of the personal and vice versa.

Denzin shows how peoples’ understandings of interviews and actions are deeply wrapped up in filmic conventions, another quiet reference to Baudrillard. The interview society has roots in surveilance and voyeruistic culture. Cinematic realism leads to an terest in the private self as a public commodity. This is linked to the self-watching carceral society described by Foucault.

There are four formats for interviews, the objectively neutral, the entertainment and investigative, the collaborative or active, and the reflexive interview. The interview format is inherently dramaturgical, and is framed by questions and answers, where each question is an invitation to tell a story. The interview structure thus resembles narratives of the self.

Toward a Performative Social Science

The traditional interview structure is essentially colonialist, where the interviewer takes on a moral authority as the voice of the state. Denzin proposes a new form of interview that deterritorializes it (to borrow a Deleuzian term). This is the reflexive, dialogic, or performative interview. The presentations of these interviews are poetic, made to be artifacts of personal identity and beauty. The subject of this is to recapture racial memories.

Reading and Writing Performance

Denzin rejects the ideas of theory-free or value-free knowledge. This kind of ethnographic research and writing was normally thought to be bad, where the researcher brings in their own attitudes and preconceptions. The idea behind this is that every interview and every ethnography will feature the beliefs and biases of the researcher, so the best that can be done is to come forth with them, and view them as clearly as possible. Denzin declines the idea of creating a format or standard for the researcher bringing his or her own opinions, though. If the performative ethnography is set to standards, then it runs the risk of being conventionalized and then institutionalized. Ethnographic research is entrenched in morals and ethics, but at the heart of ethnography is a deeper question: who has the right to speak for whom?

Another dimension is that “It is proper for the ethnographer-as-performer, as cultural critic, to take a side, because this is what politically engaged theater does.” (p. 114) This is a total reversal of conventional values of neutrality. But, this is given as a way to make clear one’s personal beliefs and values. This is also an exercise in transparency. It is relevant in considering the issue of interpretation and the building of models.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorDenzin, Norman
TitlePerformance Ethnography
Tagssociology, specials, performance
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