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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

Keffie Feldman, Response Paper for Week 4

I find this question posed by Marvin Carlson (2004) particularly provoking: To what extent does performance itself result from something done by the performer, and to what extent does it result from the particular context in which it is done? In short, how much of performance is self-determined and how much is culturally or contextually determined? This further brings up the issue of whether performance is comprehended apriori and universally, or whether its “true” or “intended” meaning is communicated only to those who have the cultural or conceptual framework with which to understand it (or, even whether the meaning is established more by the reception of the performance, than that intended by the performer).

We must first consider differing definitions of “performance”. Milton Singer (as paraphrased by Carlton 2004: 16) in his study of Indian cultures (1959) argues that specific cultural media and human carriers transmit the culture content of a tradition. He argues that South Asians, and perhaps all peoples, think of their culture as represented in discrete events or “cultural performances”. In contrast, Hymes (as paraphrased in Carlton: 14) attempts to confine and define “performance” by contrasting it to two activity categories often confused with it: behavior and conduct.

Does one “perform” one’s culture, or does one behave or conduct oneself within a cultural framework? Given that some theorists, such as Singer, conflate performance and behavior, is it possible to establish a separation between these terms within the context of culture? This brings up the question of gesture. Can gesture be considered to fall under the umbrella of performance?

If one considers performance to be within the sphere of the everyday habitus, in reference to Bourdieu’s conception, then we can consider gesture to be a cultural performance. Further, Hodder argues that the definition of performance should include room for its dual nature as “meaningful and practical, bodily and political. That performance is an interpretation acted out for someone (including oneself). It is always, consciously or not, staged and thus it is always theatrical” (Hodder 2006: 85)

Gesture is complex because it has a dualistic nature. It can be employed as a learned “technique of the body”, which follows Mauss’s argument (1973), or it can be considered a sign that communicates some meaning. Gesture can be considered a performed symbol, a sign with a meaningful referent. For example, I spent several years living in Italy and I was able to observe the differences between the gestures of Italians, specifically Romans, and the gestures to which I am accustomed from living in the United States. The Italian gesture meaning, “come here” is the same movement that in the United States means, “go away”. This certainly led to confusion on my part until I learned the meaning behind this performance. It was not until I gained the knowledge of the cultural framework in which this gesture was acted that I was able to understand the meaning behind the performance. While living in Italy my friends and I used to play a game where we would try to guess the nationality of tourists on the street. More times than not we were able to guess correctly based on the way people dressed. However, the way they carried themselves-- the way they manifested their culture through gesture, posture, and mannerism-- was very revealing.

This begs the question of whether people “perform” their culture or whether they are simply acculturated (or enculturated)? Can gesture, expression, and mannerism be considered “cultural performance” (in opposition to Singer’s definition of “cultural performance” as discrete events)? Does there necessarily need to be an audience for this cultural performance and how might one define cultural performance within a homogenous cultural context?

Work cited:

Carlson, Marvin. 2004. "The performance of culture: anthropological and ethnographic approaches" in Performance: a critical introduction. Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Hodder, Ian. "The spectacle of daily performance at Catalhoyuk," in Archaeology of performance: theaters of power, community, and politics. Takeshi Inomata and Lawrencee S. Cohen (eds.) Lanham: Altamira Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1973 (1935). "Techniques of the Body," Economy and society.

Posted at Oct 19/2006 03:55PM:
omur: Really enjoyed your response. The question you have raised concerning the gesture is a vital one and a very compex one: it is wonderful that you have attempted to develop a more articulate understanding of it. One question I have always in mind concerning your question "whether performance is comprehended apriori and universally, or whether its “true” or “intended” meaning is communicated only to those who have the cultural or conceptual framework with which to understand it" is that such inquiry is based on the idea that all performances are "communicative" and they always have a communicable meaning, whether successfully received or not. As you have shown with reference to Hodder, if we can speak also of a non-discursive category of performance in the everyday context (say my brushing of my teeth before going to bed) that doesn't necessarily entail a structured meaning, while it may be understood as "meaning-ful". Compare that for instance to my brushing of my teet specificly in front of my 14 month old child to teach her how to brush her teeth! Here it is communicative (even pedagogic) therefore self-conscious as well as being gestural, habitual, automatic.

I had a similar experience with the symbolic meaning of culture-specific gestures not getting across. When working for an architectural office, we had a colleague from Albania. As I was explaining a project to him, he kept on shaking his head sideways right to left and left to right which means a "no, I don't understand it!" or "I completely disagree!" in Turkey. Seeing that I proceeded to reexplain what I was saying. Bored with my repetitions, he finally screamed "yes I understand it!".. That gesture in Albania stood for a solid "yes!" (while the up and down shake of the head meaning "no!", weird...).

I think the question is fascinating. I feel like our gestures seem to be hybrid bodily performances between intended, staged action and learned bodily habits.