Category Archives: Theory

Reflective Response to Diana Taylor’s Performance

As I’ve already detailed elsewhere on this blog, I’ve not currently got much time available to dedicate to research. In spite of this, I do have a work schedule to uphold as I have a monograph, on performance and politics in contemporary Spanish cinema, under contract (if interested, you can read the proposal here). The monograph is based in part on one of the chapters of my PhD thesis but it radically reworks and expands that material, also incorporating new research. The manuscript is due to be submitted in April 2018. Of late I’ve been trying to spend any research time I have reading as I have a wealth of sources I’m keen to work through prior to getting down to some serious writing. That said, I’d also ideally like to keep up something of a writing habit if at all possible. Inspired by a conversation on Twitter with Dr Nathan Ryder and Dr Helen Kara last week, I thought I’d write a wee reflective blog post on the source I most recently finished reading: Performance by Diana Taylor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

Diana Taylor Performance Book Cover

Originally published in Spanish in 2012, Performance (2016) constitutes not just a translation but rather ‘part introduction and part reflection on some of the uses of performance that interest [the author] most – the power of performance to enable individuals and collectives to reimagine and restage the social rules, codes, and conventions that prove most oppressive and damaging’ (xiv). The original volume was, in the author’s own words, ‘a little glossy book on performance’ and won a design award (xiii). The reworked volume is also very visually appealing, a textual and visual performance in itself due to its layout. Rather than being presented in a conventional format, the book has an engaging textual interface that combines distinct fonts and font sizes alongside bold and capitalised text. There are in addition a plethora of images throughout the work. These images interact with the text in interesting ways, offering illustrative examples of the theoretical frameworks and ideas under discussion. From a disciplinary perspective, Performance presents a playful and innovative means of academic engagement with image and text.

 

In terms of content, Taylor focuses primarily on performance in the context of performance art though she does also consider other activities under this rubric. While my book project concentrates more specifically on cinematic representations of performance, Taylor’s interventions are still of interest to the material that forms the core of my analyses. Her first chapter, ‘Framing [Performance]’, offers an analysis of how she understands and defines performance. She begins by pinpointing the role of the body in art from the 1960s onwards (1) before stressing the wide-reaching character of performance: ‘PERFORMANCE is not always about art. It’s a wide-ranging and difficult practice to define and holds many, at times conflicting, meanings and possibilities’ (6). She offers an overview of how performance has been defined by various people including artists and theorists. She suggests that performance ‘is not limited to mimetic repetition’ but also ‘includes the possibility of change, critique, and creativity within frameworks of repetition’ (15). This therefore reserves a certain potency in performance. It is a mode that challenges existing paradigms precisely through the manipulation of those same paradigms. She also charts the value of performance as ‘vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated actions’ (25). She glosses Judith Butler in a discussion of the relationship between performance and gender (32) before defining performance as ‘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’ (39). At the same time, however, she acknowledges the importance of context: ‘Performances are neither universal nor transparent; their meanings change depending on the time and context and framing of their realization’ (40). This introductory chapter serves as a succinct and yet detailed overview of various definitions of performance and will be of interest to those seeking a way into thinking about performance in its diverse iterations.

 

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are all of notable interest for my book project. Chapter 2, ‘Performance Histories’, surveys the history of performance art. Crucial for my purposes is her assertion of a strong historical link between performance and politics: she defines performance art as ‘anti-institutional, anti-elitist, anticonsumerist’ and contends that it is in this way that performance ‘came to constitute, almost by definition, a provocation and a political act’ (49). Again of interest to my work is her third chapter, ‘Spect-Actors’ in which Taylor unpacks the significance of spectatorship in relation to performance. She charts theoretical paradigms of spectatorship in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Artaud, Rancière among others, reaching the conclusion that ‘Performances ask that spectators do something, even if that something is doing nothing’ (86). Taylor’s fourth chapter is titled ‘The New Uses of Performance’ and surveys contemporary deployments of the rhetoric of performance with a particular emphasis on the political: ‘Political advisers know that performance as STYLE (rather than ACCOMPLISHMENT) generally wins elections’ (90). Through these chapters, the author charts both the emergence of performance as concept via the history of performance art and its contemporary deployments.

 

The middle section of Performance concentrates on the current status of performance art and performance more broadly. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 deal with distinct modes of performance. Chapter 5, ‘Performative and Performativity’, engages with the paradigm of performativity in relation to gender and the body, unpacking the role played by language with regards performance. Chapter 6 explores two key concepts, the scenario and the simulation, and analyses the ways in which performance facilitates the garnering of knowledge. Finally, Chapter 7, ‘Artivists (Artist-Activists), or, What’s to Be Done?’, provides detailed consideration of key works that subscribe to the notion that ‘Performance […] is the continuation of politics by other means’ (147). Read together, these three chapters outline the main conceptual paradigms at work in contemporary understandings of performance.

 

The final two chapters offer a nod to what awaits both performance as mode and performance studies as a discipline. Chapter 8 considers the future of performance, but of course to invoke the future is also to invoke the past. Taylor explores the significance of the archive in relation to performance and performance art, paying particular attention to the Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present as an instance of how both past and future are imbricated in performances. Chapter 9 continues with the notion of the future in relation to performance by surveying the discipline of performance studies. She proposes that ‘If the norm of performance is breaking norms, the norm of performance studies is to break disciplinary boundaries’ (200). After examining distinct ways in which performance is thought of within the field, she concludes that ‘What they have in common is their shared object of study: performance – in the broadest possible sense – as a process, a praxis, an episteme, a mode of transmission, an accomplishment, and a means of intervening in the world’ (202). Ultimately, Taylor contends that ‘performance constitutes a means of communication, a doing, and a doing with and to’ (208) and that ‘Performance is world-making. We need to understand it’ (208).

 

In sum, this is an engaging and insightful volume that offers a reflective overview of the concept of performance in contemporary society. Taylor does focus on the field of performance art specifically which, for my purposes, makes the work less relevant to my book project on performance and its representations in contemporary Spanish cinema. That said, the author does also provide an original take on the theoretical paradigms governing understandings of performance both historically and nowadays.

 

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Transnational Cinemas: Deborah Shaw Talk and Workshop, Durham University

Last week – amidst the chaos of A LOT of exam marking – I had the pleasure of attending a talk and workshop on the topic of transnational cinema delivered by the brilliant Deborah Shaw, Reader in Film at the University of Portsmouth. These events were organised by the World Cinema and Cosmopolitics research group, an interdisciplinary research cluster in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University, coordinated by Abir Hamdar, Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián and Dusan Radunovic. Having found these events particularly productive and inspiring at such a challenging and intensive time of year, I wanted to write a post to reflect on some of the topics of discussion that arose from Deborah’s talk and the related workshop. This post by no means accounts for the breadth and depth of the discussions that took place over the two events but rather focuses on what, at least for myself, were the salient points addressed.

Continue reading Transnational Cinemas: Deborah Shaw Talk and Workshop, Durham University

Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part Two

Back in October, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One’.  I expected to return to the topic in my subsequent post; however, that was not the case.  Finally, I revisit this theme – a mere three months later!  I have no idea as to where the time has gone.  But I do think that the PhD path never turns out quite as one may expect.  And no matter how well or how much you plan things, there are always interruptions, distractions, and unexpected twists in the road that end up leading you down a different route.  The last few months have seen me alter my working methods dramatically (see my previous post ‘On Working Methods’), and this has entailed a shift in focus.  Throughout my PhD, I’ve tended to work on one particular topic/chapter at a time, concentrating on the reading, watching, and thinking associated with that aspect of the thesis before moving on to the next section.  In the last few months, I’ve begun to move between and across the three chapters as I tie up the loose ends of research I have to complete for each chapter.  This is at once a deliberate move to keep my interest alive, as well as part and parcel of approaching the final stages of the project.  The reason I return to my work on cinema and death now is because I have to submit words shortly to one of my supervisors, and so I’ve chosen to rework that particular section of my thesis.

In my last post on cinema and death, I offered a very broad overview of the history of death in theoretical meditations on the medium of photography and cinema, summarising the stances of Walter Benjamin, André Bazin, and Roland Barthes.  I then briefly described the conceptualisation of early cinema as both a storage vessel that protected against death, and as a medium that had the ability to capture the moment of death; this line of argumentation has been extensively explored by film scholar Mary Ann Doane, in her book The Emergence of Cinematic Time.  In this post, I reflect on the status of cinema as a spectral medium, utilising Jacques Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as a framework.  This is still something I’m working through in my thesis so I appreciate any comments, feedback, ideas, and suggestions.

My research on the significance of death in the context of film theory has revealed an interesting trend.  From a chronological perspective, there are two key moments in which death emerges as a theoretical concern: the first is in the late 1970s, evidenced by Barthes and Susan Sontag; and the second is at the turn of the millennium, exemplified by the work of Doane, but also D. N. Rodowick and Laura Mulvey.  Of these two moments, the latter is of the most importance for me, given that the films I analyse in my chapter on the immigrant – of which this section on cinema and death is a part – were all produced in the last ten to fifteen years.  Death thus emerges as a theoretical concern in connection with technological change: the late 1970s brought the shift to video and the inauguration of a new generation of special effects, while the 2000s bore witness to the widespread employment of digital filmmaking.  In each case, these changes specifically concern the materiality of the medium, a topic which is further emphasised by contemporary digital culture and its increasing immateriality.

The question of (im)materiality in relation to cinema invites, for me at least, a reading through the lens of spectrality.  I’ve already detailed my struggles with Jacques Derrida (read my post entitled ‘Digesting Derrida’ here).  However, in reworking my ideas on cinema and death, I’ve begun to see his usefulness in terms of cinema, spectrality, and the immigrant.  To summarise, the concepts of spectrality and hauntology constitute the framework of Derrida’s seminal text Spectres of Marx[1].  In the book’s preface, Derrida outlines four key aspects of his analysis: presence, justice and the other, and time.  With regards presence, Derrida details the curious status of the spectre that is at once both present and absent.  In this way, the spectre defies the framework of ontology, and exposes its limitations.  Because of this problematic, Derrida coins the term ‘hauntology’ as a means of discussing the extraordinary existence of the spectre.  The spectre’s paradoxical state of being chimes with the medium of film – if we reach back beyond the digital culture of our contemporary age – insofar as what it produced were not actual, material bodies, but were rather, images, projections, shadows of human figures on screen.  The shift from film to digital does not, however, alter the medium’s spectral quality.  If anything, it increases the spectrality of the cinematic image, given that images are no longer dependent on an indexical trace, but rather can be created digitally from a string of numbers.  Further enhancing the spectral aspect of the cinematic image is its potential for repetition and reiteration.  The distribution, circulation, and screening of films are even more widespread nowadays due to the global networks within which films are produced.  To relate it to the films I analyse, the immigrant character may die but he or she is immortalised through the film image, and can be brought back to life through rescreening the film.  In this way, the cinematic medium underscores Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as ‘A question of repetition: a specter [sic] is always a revenant.  One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back’ (Spectres of Marx, p.11).

Returning to Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre, and to the themes of justice and the other, he remarks that his meditation on ‘ghosts, inheritance, and generations of ghosts’ is in other words a means of speaking about ‘certain others who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us’ and that this is conducted ‘in the name of justice’ (Spectres of Marx, xviii).  The idea of the spectre who returns because of unfinished business has become a common trope in popular culture – examples include The Others, El Orfanato, or The Sixth Sense.  However, Derrida’s linking of justice and the other is of particular significance for my work on the immigrant, given that the majority films I consider are by Spanish, rather than migrant, filmmakers.  They thus do not just speak of the immigrant, but inevitably speak for the immigrant.  I am still thinking through what this means in the context of cinema as medium.  Does the alignment of immigrant with spectre in contemporary Spanish immigration cinema evidence a call for justice?  Does this line of argumentation risk falling into the trap, so beautifully outlined by Sara Ahmed in her book Strange Encounters, of universalisation and/or romanticisation of the immigrant other?

Finally, Derrida’s text centres on the question of time, circling around the idea, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of the time being ‘out of joint’.  For Derrida, the spectre’s relationship to time is epitomised by this idea: ‘Furtive and untimely, the apparition of the specter [sic] does not belong to that time, it does not give time’ (Spectres of Marx, xix).  Again, I’m still thinking through the significance of this both for the immigrant, and for the medium of cinema.  However, I have noticed that this idea is indeed dealt with in one of the films I work on: Biutiful.  The film begins and ends with an encounter between protagonist Uxbal and his dead father, who fled Franco’s Spain and went into exile in Mexico only to die two weeks later of pneumonia.  In this encounter between father and son the time is most certainly out of joint, given that the father is in his twenties and the son in his fifties.  In addition, it is spectral, insofar as both characters are dead.

To conclude, and as I said above, I’m very much still working through these ideas concerning the link between cinema and death, and in terms of cinema as a spectral medium.  Derrida’s conceptualisations of spectrality and hauntology should prove useful as a means of interpreting this link with respect to the representation of death in Spanish immigration films.  Any comments, questions, feedback welcome!


[1] DERRIDA, J., 2006. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. New York; Oxon: Routledge Classics.

Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One

Over the past few weeks, my PhD research has been focused on the convergence of cinema and death in Spanish immigration films. At the level of narrative, death is a prominent theme in my corpus of films – which includes Biutiful, Amador, Retorno a Hansala, and Ilegal. However, the significance of death extends beyond narrative, given its prominence in theoretical explorations of cinema, and of visual technologies more generally. Indeed, the spectre of death that haunts cinema does not originate with the medium of cinema, but rather is inherited from cinema’s representational predecessors, in particular photography.

Theoretical explorations of death and photography begin with three B’s: Benjamin, Bazin, and Barthes. In 1939, Walter Benjamin remarked, in his essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, that ‘The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock’. In the mid-twentieth century, in his essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image, André Bazin posited photography and cinema as the latest incarnations of the plastic arts, whose aim is to embalm the dead. And in the 1970s, Roland Barthes conducted a slightly bizarre personal reading of the intersection of photography and death in his book Camera Lucida, firstly through his search for the essence of his dead mother, and secondly through the presence of death within the photographic structure, given that each image contains the potential for ‘the return of the dead’. While Bazin views photographic technologies as a means of preservation against death, Benjamin and Barthes tend towards the photographic image as a prediction of death-to-come.

Like photography, the medium of cinema has been haunted by death since its inception in the late nineteenth century. Early cinema is imbricated with death in two ways: firstly, initial reactions to film are characterised by the Bazinian view of this new technology as a medium capable of combating mortality due to its ability to preserve the image of those no longer present; and secondly, early cinema witnessed the emergence of death as subject matter in the subgenre of the execution film, examples of which are here and here. For more on this, see Mary Ann Doane‘s The Emergence of Cinematic Time.

My interest lies in cinema’s conceptualisation as a spectral medium, an idea which has gained further currency in the last decade with the transition to digital, and which has been explored in detail by D. N. Rodowick in his book The Virtual Life of Film. In my next post, I’ll write more about the connection between cinema and spectrality, and how it relates to my chapter.