Performance History vs. Textual History in Roach’s IT

As I’ve been thinking about our exchanges about Roach’s book over the last week or so, I’ve come to feel that we need to reflect some more about the nature of Roach’s object of study–performance–and how studying that field of activities affects the questions of evidence we’ve been discussing, especially in regard to the genres of historical writing.

One starting-point would be this passage from David Simpson’s well-known discussion of the varieties of history and the New Historicism, in “Is Literary History the History of Everything“:

New historicists have been noticed for their eschewal of grand theory and their alternative reliance upon anecdote and happenstance; for their immersion in the empirical plenitude of antiquarian history, from which items are plucked like rabbits from a hat, which turn out to illuminate a more traditionally “major” text or topic; and for their general effacement of hermeneutic problems about doing history in favor of the sheer vividness of the data of history. Nietzsche hoped for just such a history, one whose value would not lie in “general propositions” but in its “taking a familiar, perhaps commonplace theme, an everyday melody, and composing inspired variations on it, enhancing it, elevating it to a comprehensible symbol, and thus disclosing in the original theme a whole world of profundity, power and beauty” (92).

I think many of the terms plucked out of Nietzsche here could be applied to Roach’s work: the “empirical plenitude” of his discussions of wigs and the early history of Hollywood, and their surprising relevance to the topics usually found in monumental histories (e.g., monarchy and popular government); how the vividness of the data of “antiquarian history” may very well make this mode of history-writing more illuminating than the materials of monumental history; how the point of antiquarian history’s “everyday melody” is the extent to which it inspires rococo “variations”; most importantly, however, antiquarian history’s “commonplace theme”may be “elevated” into a “comprehensible symbol” in which we discover a “whole world of profundity, power and beauty.”  This, to me, is a good description of what Roach has achieved in his study of the “It-effect”: this book has disclosed a whole world of performance, one whose profundity, power and beauty seem closely related to its roots in “the deep eighteenth,” the never-quite completed transition to Modernity.

Simpson seems to assume that in the current discursive environment, with its suspicion of grand narratives, that certain kinds of Monumental history have become difficult or perhaps even irrelevant to readers, critics, and scholars:

It is within this climate of expectation, wherein grand narrative is morally discredited and (perhaps more important) massively difficult to perform, that the anecdote and the contingent connection do their work.6 Levi-Strauss wrote of biography and anecdote as “low-powered history,” requiring subsumption within a “form of history of a higher power” for significant intelligibility. But he also noted that while low-powered history is the least explanatory, it is “the richest in point of information, for it considers individuals in their particularity and details for each of them the shades of character, the twists and turns of their motives, the phases of their deliberations” (261).

I appreciate Simpson’s observation that certain forms of anecdotal or contingent history really do rely upon earlier or more general narrative frameworks to become intelligible.  But when I think, for example, about Simpson’s opposition between anecdotal, and therefore “low-powered,” histories, and the more synthetic “high-powered” academic history, I immediately recall Boswell’s powerful mythologizing of Johnson, and wonder how that could be distinguished from the kinds of work Roach does with Garrick and Siddons and the rest of performance history.  Isn’t Boswell as much a historian of gesture and dress as he is a writer of dialogue?  Conversely, we can cite Thackeray’s equally powerful biographical mythologizations of figures like Swift and Sterne, and wonder whether Simpson’s distinction between the high-powered and the low-powered approach really holds in literary history, which seems absolutely dependent upon the anecdotal and the contingent in its most powerful instances, and certainly in its earliest phases.  So Simpson’s distinction, I think, ultimately rests on a hierarchy of textual over non-textual history that seems untenable, at least for any model of performance studies, and perhaps for literary and cultural studies generally.

And, indeed, Roach’s book demonstrates precisely the need for such biographical and anecdotal materials in performance history, because of these materials’ value as a hitherto-unnoticed archive for the cultural contexts of performance.  So even if Simpson seems (ultimately, though I think grudgingly) to endorse some version of the “antiquarian” history of everything, I think that a book like Roach’s argues much more persuasively for this kind of approach, largely because it is able to document and thereby raise the It-effect into a comprehensible symbol of one of the hallmarks of Modernity, synthetic experience.



2 responses to “Performance History vs. Textual History in Roach’s IT

  1. Dear Readers,

    In thanking all of you for your careful reading of (and wonderful insights into IT), I want to respond briefly to David Mazella’s concluding entry on David Simpson’s distinction between how-powered and low-powered history refracted through the special case of the history of performance. Peformance history is special, of course, because it is the history behaviors that vanish almost without a trace as a condition of their iteration. Theatre historians spend their time working in the space of that “almost,” among the ephemera that ultimately reminds thoughtful scholars in all specialties of the fragility of the past in the writing of any archival history, high powered or low. David Mazella expresses my sense of this better than I have ever managed to do myself. Putting the issue of method in my own words, however, the distinguishing feature of the history of behaviors is that their genealogy can be both documented archivally and observed in the bodies and practices of living human persons. The artistic director of my World Performance Project is a ballerina whose daily class preparation starts at the barre (before the theory-practice seminar we co-teach): her every movement would be instantly intelligible (and nameable) to any educated European in the eighteenth century. Ballet technique, like other behaviors disseminated during our especially successful period (enduringly so in the history of performance particularly), isn’t over yet. So doing performance history might be likened to paleontology after the general acceptance of the evolutionary link-up between dinosaurs and birds. You can (and must) study the old bones, drawing your best guess about the nature of the anciently extinct creature to which they belonged, but you can (and must) also look on the feeder outside your window on a fine spring day. Intellectually defensible inferences may be drawn about behaviors evolving over millions of years, but I’m sticking to my more carefully limited speciality, 1660-2008. In that regard, I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible in a few weeks.


    Joe Roach

  2. dave mazella

    Thanks, Joe. What I noticed about the book was that it captured a lot of the intuitions I’ve been having about archival research lately–about the paradoxes of temporality in scholarship, about the necessity of folding the visual, the gestural, the non-verbal, and the ephemeral into historical research, and about the expressive possibilities of temporalities and periodizations. These were elements I found articulated in your book, and which I will surely refer to while I do my own work. I’m convinced that this book’s insistence on incorporating the idiosyncratic elements of “fantasy” into historical reconstructions will be useful to others as they think about their own research projects.