Notes on: Denzin, N. (2009) A Critical Performance Pedagogy That Matters.  Ethnography and Education. 4 (3) 255--270. DOI 10.1080/17457820903170085

Dave Harris

This is 'relevant to a post modern democracy in a globalised post-9/11/01 world. A militant utopianism'. He wants an 'autoethnography that shows struggle, passion, an embodied life' while critics want to tame and categorise it, 'place it under the control of reason and logic' [citing Ellis and Bochner] (255). This will be an unruly text, like a mosaic, with layers, 'part theory, part performance, multiple voices, a performance with speaking parts'. It is a manifesto, to promote the less well-established performance turn in educational research. Educational ethnography is to be treated 'as performance', that is, 'a way of knowing, a way of creating and fostering understanding, a method that persons used to create and give meaning to everyday life' [citing Pelias]. This will involve a challenge to 'conventional traditional post positive values of objectivity, evidence, truth'. Ellis cites criticisms of Autoethnography as insufficiently realistic, or too realistic in resisting poststructuralist decentring of the self, or 'insufficiently aesthetic or literary… Second rate'

Hammersley (2008) extends this critique and finds little value in the work of 'ethnographic post-modernists and literary ethnographers'. Instead, it 'legitimates speculative theorising celebrates obscurity and abandons the primary task of enquiry, which is to produce truthful knowledge about the world'. Denzin wants to ask 'whose truth though?' (256) [either naively absolute or completely subjective and relativist for him?]. There is no room for the literary performance turn, and it leaves ethnography 'in a strange timeless apolitical space'. Despite Hammersley and others, all forms of knowledge 'involve a politics of representation that is nothing stands outside representation' [including critical performance pedagogy?] Additionally, 'performance and globality are intertwined' — enacted stories 'literally bleed across national borders' so that to be a US citizen is to be enmeshed in US foreign policy including trade and war.

Since 9/11 the performance of racialised identities 'within the minstrelsy [sic] framework' is the major problem of the 21st century. [This  refers to the work of an early theorist of race W Du Bois .From what I can see , though, the minstrel song is low culture, compared  to the truly valuable 'spiritually inspired black folk song'. Maybe this is  the point :  'In Du Bois’s view, double-consciousness obtains when blacks see themselves through the pitying and contemptuous eyes of the racially prejudiced whites whose racial prejudice is one of the causes of the Negro problem.'] People of different races and religions have to be 'integrated into the democratic whole' [citing Du Bois] [looks like classic Durkheimian functionalism to me] we therefore need a methodology that goes beyond 'politically and racially conservative post positivism' that is embedded in state auditing systems like No Child Left Behind. Instead we need ' a militant utopianism which will help us imagine a world free of conflict, terror and death, a world that is caring, loving, truly compassionate and a world that honours healing' [just to imagine one?]. To this end, performance ethnography can be located 'within a racialised, spectacle pedagogy', reacting to the most important events of the last decade — wars, a new surveillance regime in the USA. Surveillance in particular can now be found 'in virtually every educational setting' [then there is a sad little poem of four lines about collapsing towers].

[Typical of the grandiose claims is this:] 'The global interpretive community seeks forms of qualitative enquiry that make a difference in everyday lives by promoting human dignity and social justice'. Again there is a reference to 'critical minstrelsy theory... ethno and performance drama' with references to Elam and Sotiropolouos, both of who seem to have written,  separately, about race as a performance. Apparently, the intention is also to expose and criticise the 'pedagogies of terror and discrimination in everyday life'.

We need 'morally informed disciplines and interventions that were help people recover meaning' in this post 9/11 world with George Bush as president. 'There is a deep desire' to overcome psychological despair and end the 'eight long years of cynicism, fraud and deceit' [no clue that Trump will take over. Lots of optimism about Obama instead -- see notes at the end]

Our paradigms should move through action research in case study to queer studies, modern and post-modern, global to local, 'from the real to the hyperreal' [a category denied in the earlier piece on Goffman], to the liminal spaces in culture politics and pedagogy. Performance should be seen as 'intervention interruption and resistance' and as 'a form of enquiry… Activism… Performative praxis that inspires and empowers persons to act on their utopian impulses. These moments are etched in history and popular memory' (257) [precious little interest of any evidence in them, at least those based on class struggle — the Wobblies, the Autonomists or syndicalists]. The example is provided by a play about events in Laramie [the murder of a gay man, Matthew Shephard], or the trials of Oscar Wilde. 9/11 as well. These moments are to be addressed as examples 'when power and politics come crashing down on ordinary people and their lives'. Staged performances can 'interrogate the cultural logics of the spectacle itself' asking how did this happen what does it mean or what are the consequences 'for the lives of ordinary people'.

Apparently there has been 'critical indigenous performance theatre, featuring 'doubly inverted minstrel performances' where performers force spectators to confront themselves as mirrored in the minstrel mask. There are also native Canadian white-face performers which end with someone who 'taunts the audience' [by saying they are the savages]. These are examples of resistance and utopian performance spaces. These can operate 'throughout the Academy in classrooms, hallways and athletic fields' at multiple levels, although sometimes they fail. In another example a scholar from India presents a paper which records an exchange with a security guard who wants to check her laptop [oppressive or what? (258)]

There is also performance autoethnography. Autoethnography is 'that state where the personal intersects with the political, the historical and the cultural' (258) it can take a radical performance form where it's 'explicitly critiques the structures of everyday life. There is also 'mystory' with which autoethnography intersects — 'simultaneously a personal mythology, a public story, a personal narrative and the performance that critiques. It can often take the form of different quotations documents and texts together providing 'a decentred multi voice text with voices and speakers speaking back-and-forth. Quoting the present back to itself exposes the contradictions in official history' [a reference to one of his earlier pieces]

There follows a 'dramaturgical insert' referring to the flying of US flags after 9/11, noted by Denzin himself. He saw flags everywhere. When asked why they were still flying flags years after the event, 'storeowners reacted in anger', and said the questioner was 'being unpatriotic'. In 2008 the flags were still there and are taking over Christmas. Denzin wonders whether this is 'an aftermath of the 2008 election? Is it one of Bush's last gifts to us? And this so-called 'just war' against evil and terror continues. I wonder what Obama will do' (259). Elsewhere, flags still fly, perhaps because they have 'taken on new meanings. But just what are the meanings any more?' Would it still be possible to have public spectacles without flags; what would be forgotten if they did not have them?

A visit to the Thomas Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Museum beneath the St Louis Gateway Arch. A park service officer asks what the observer has in their bag, bringing a comment: 'so now the Park Service operates as an arm of Bush's Security Administration!' The observer's wife says 'be quiet'. The observer's grandson has to hand over his transformer toy for inspection, attracting another comment 'Another Bush legacy. Seven years and counting. Every visitor to this park is searched!'.

Another dramaturgical insert refers to a news item where an Islamic woman was pushed over a railing, falling to her death in Boston. The 'narrator' describes this as 'hell to pay' — 'when will everyone come to their senses and realise that not every Arab is to blame for what's going on' [so the narrator has lent this event political significance and assumed that it was some revenge attack]. Another comment is added, referenced to an article by Hakim [which turns out to be an assignment handed in at the University of Illinois]. 'You fucking camel jockey, piece of shit sand nigger...' [Is this verbatim, is it a reconstruction, is it entirely fictional? It is put alongside reconstructed actual dialogue inviting us to assume that it has the same status?]

Within education we have to develop critical performance studies moving from classic ethnography to performative autoethnography. It will involve us in 'the study of personal troubles, epiphanies and turning point moments in the lives of interacting individuals; the connection of these moments to the liminal, ritual structures of daily life; the intersection and articulation of racial, class and sexual oppressions with turning point experiences; the production of critical pedagogical performance texts which critique the structures of oppression while presenting a politics of possibility that imagines how things could be different' (260).

Conquergood is right to see performance as a way of knowing, showing, interpreting and building shared understanding. It is 'immediate, partial, always incomplete and always processual' [sounds like Gale and Wyatt]. In a post colonial world, 'performance, hybridity, globality and transnational racialised identities are intertwined'.

Another dramaturgical insert, a scene from a live performance of The Visitor, based on a book on Spectacle Pedagogy ( Garoian and Gaudelius). One of the characters learns to play African hand drums but is 'uncomfortable, embarrassed'. Narrator asks the audience whether this is not 'a local performance of the global, identities bleeding across national boundaries' [or context free cultural appropriation?]. The character steps out of the film to address the audience directly and says that he now thinks that playing the djembe is more important than writing scientific articles because he now feels connected as a public performer. Additional commentators add that this 'cuts to the heart of the post-modern' and reminds us that the djembe teacher is to be deported for violating immigration laws. A commentator asks whether this might be an example of an 'embodied pedagogy of war'. Another one asks how long the Iraq war will last and who is actually likely to be winning. The section ends with the two know-all academics listing a set of similar issues — 'Iraq, round-the-clock media coverage, Abu Ghraib, Katrina, disaster tourism, pathologising pedagogies, Drill Baby Drill, Wall Street Bailout, Bye Bye Mr Bush' [it's all grist to the mill to your post-modern utopians!]. Apparently it 'narrates and performs the complex ways in which persons experience themselves within the shifting spaces of today's global world economy and its pedagogies of deceit and destruction'.

Some more terms are defined (261). Conventional pedagogy is ideological, but performance centred pedagogy 'uses performance as a method of investigation' A spectacle is 'an interactive relation between people and events mediated by images', like the images of the two aircraft hitting the twin towers. Spectacle pedagogy refers to 'the performative visual cultural codes of the media, fuelled by corporate, global capitalism, which manufacture our desires and determine our political choices… An insidious ever present form of propaganda in the service of cultural imperialism' [citing the two who wrote the book on critical spectacle pedagogy again]. Critical spectacle pedagogy is its opposite — 'the form of radical democratic practice that enables a reflexive media literacy [sic -- that old bourgeois hangup] which aspires to critical citizenship and cultural democracy… A critique of theatricality, as in the staged photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib'. We can combine critical spectacle pedagogy with performance autoethnography — the former politicises the latter.

We can't just interpret the world as with traditional ethnography. 'Today we are called to change the world… Resist injustice while celebrating freedom, and [develop] full inclusive participatory democracy'. We move from global to local, political to personal, pedagogical to performative and this makes the political visible 'through the performance of scenes of liberation and oppression'. Back to The Visitor again where the hero visits a detention centre trying to free his djembe instructor. This segues into a reconstruction of the notorious torture photographs in Abu Ghraib, with swaggering guards humiliating naked detainees. 'An obscene theatrical display, beyond Baudrillard's pornography of the visible' (262). Rush Limbaugh's attempt to dismiss it all as rather like student frat house hazing is denied: these 'spectacles of torture sent an approved US military message… Methods for generating intelligence about the insurgency'.

This sort of thing focuses on the body which 'brings a reflective embodied presence to autoethnography, illustrating how everyday language and ideologies 'instill compliance with the needs of global capital' we need to generate spectacles of resistance instead to create a critical consciousness that 'leads empowered citizens to take action in their neighbourhoods and communities'. We have to reflexively critique cultural practices that reproduce oppression, perform within these repressive practices, create discourses that make struggle for democracy more visible. In performances like this 'artists, teachers, students and other cultural workers' tell stories invoking their personal memories and histories. They testify, showing how performances are linked with history. Cope performances enable them to critique and evaluate culture, rethink history, create new possibilities for 'historical ideas, images, new subjectivities and new cultural practices'. Performances are pedagogical in that they 'make sites of oppression visible' and in so doing 'affirm an oppositional politics'that stresses 'self-determination and mutual solidarity' [no oppositions between those last two?] This is a pedagogy of hope and it will rescue democracy from Conservative neoliberalism [citing Giroux] (263). It is 'militant utopianism', with a 'new language of resistance in the public and private spheres' and this will energise 'a radical participatory democratic vision for this new century'. [Entirely voluntaristic with some dubious claim about the march of history].

Another episode, based on Laurel Richardson's views about 9/11. She worried what the children would be told, and what the images seen on TV would be telling them. She worries about her own children and 'my heart breaks for the children whose lives are broken'. She cannot intellectualise or 'academize'. Denzin sees this as performative autoethnography, with a narrative anchored in a moral dialogue with members of the local community and family. 'Troubling the usual distinctions between self and other, she folds her reflections into the stories of others' [a massive talk up].

Spectacle pedagogy by definition means a politics of resistance. Apparently performative autoethnography 'connects critical pedagogy to Marxist participatory action theories [says McLaren and Kincheloe], and there are connections with liberation theology, neo-Marxist approaches to community development, human rights activism and nonviolent civil disobedience. Performance autoethnography can be civic participatory and collaborative, and extend moral dialogue about who owns the performance project. Performance texts and events can be empowering. [But are they? Who actually attends them?]

Back to the Laramie Project and the play. Apparently, the playwright interviewed the people of Laramie [old-fashioned ethnography then?]. A member of the community was asked for reactions and complained that nothing had been done about hate crime. One of the actors remembered  the lights of Laramie sparkling in the evening, supposed that that might have been one of the last things seen by the dead man, permitting this: 'Matthew's legacy, the pure sparkling lights of Laramie, what a town could be' (264). When the team returned 10 years after, they reinterviewed people but were particularly 'disappointed to learn that nothing had been done to commemorate the anniversary of Matthew's death' and that there were no new hate crimes laws. However, they detected a change in Laramie — 'bias crimes' were now tracked, there was an AIDS walk, some residents came out as gay, the University hosted a four-day symposium for social justice, 'and there is talk of creating a degree minor in gay and lesbian studies'. But there is no memorial.

Denzin sees all this as 'performance ethnography disguised as spectacle theatre in the service of memory, social change and social justice'.

He says these examples represent 'at some deep level' [I thought he didn't approve of these] a commitment to community action, a potential release from repressive constraints, especially that embedded in the OK  Corral and Western mythology — 'repressive racist and homophobic' (265). We see the personal intersecting with the historical. We see identity construction made problematic as Walter performs with the djembe. Participants use their imagination to develop 'a positive utopian space where a politics of hope is imagined' and this produces a foundation for social criticism and concrete analysis of programs and policies. Performance shows us the impact on everyday life. Members of the community are invited to become 'co-performers in a drama of social resistance and social critique'. Co-performers are informed by ethics. They offer emotional support to one another. They show 'involved social citizenship' and enact a politics of possibility to mobilise memories, guilt, desire and so. 'They do something in the world. They move people to action' [while I would like to see some evidence, just to be positivist for a moment]. They have clear consequences. For example the Laramie Project brought homophobic fears and prejudices out into the open and thus opened up new possibilities.

This is political theatre, like Brecht. It 'shapes subject; audiences; and performers'. It is a form of praxis that can 'shape a cultural politics of change'. The performance 'gives the audience, and the performers, "equipment for [this] journey: empathy and intellect, passion and critique"' [citing Madison]. We can now call it an enactment of 'Performance -centred evaluation pedagogy' [then more repetition of the claims to deliver enquiry, developed understanding engage in collaborative meaning, mobilise people to take action]. It 'privileges experience, the concept of voice, and the importance of turning spectacle sites into democratic public spheres' And inform practice and support emancipatory politics (266).

Another radical theatre advocate, Boal, talks of 'the Theatre of the Oppressed', to foster a dialogue between stage and audience, to create 'a shared field of emotional experience' which will awaken critical cultural awareness [same old claims, much rebuked by Ranciere]. Apparently Boal directs us to see 'every oppressed person as a subjugated subversive', but argues that we submit to oppression because of 'the cop in our head'. We all have the ability to be subversive and critical pedagogical theatre will empower us as well as 'making their submission to oppression disappear' [!].

We also add that there is a need for 'a feminist communitarian moral ethic' [1st appearance for feminism]. This 'presumes a dialogical view of the self and its performances', seeks ennobling narratives and tries to facilitate civic transformations, both public and private. It dignifies the self and honours personal struggle. Cultural criticism is seen as empowerment, led by an ethical moment when we realise that there are 'troubling spaces occupied by others' leading to co-performance. We can distil a number of ethical injunctions. Does the performance 'nurture critical race and gender consciousness? Use historical restagings and traditional texts to subvert and critique official ideology? Heal? Empower? Enact a feminist communitarian socially contingent ethic? Enact a pedagogy of hope' [all of them? Most of them? Are they all the same anyway?].

[Now let's bring in Freire]. 'The critical imagination is radically democratic, pedagogical and interventionist', and it provokes conflict, curiosity, criticism and reflection, leading to Freire's pedagogies of freedom and hope. It is about acting on the world in order to change it, enhancing 'moral agency [citing Christians], moral discernment, critical consciousness and a radical politics of empowerment and change'.  Critical imagination is pedagogical. It is 'a form of instruction' [!] that encourages critical historical and sociological thought; it exposes pedagogies of oppression; it produces ethical self-consciousness; it provides practice that turns oppression into freedom, despair into hope; it 'shapes our critical racial self-awareness' leading to 'utopian dreams of racial equality and racial justice. Building on Freire and Boal, we can see that performance ethnography is about freedom showing that persons produce history and culture, '"even as history and culture produce them"'. It shows how concrete situations can be transformed through acts of resistance and in this way it advances liberation and critical awareness [the two are seen as the same?].

Hope is both peaceful and non-violent [always?] It's grounded in concrete practices struggles and interventions 'that espouse the sacred values [sic] of love, care, community, trust and well-being', based on Freire again. It confronts cynicism and believes that change is possible it 'works from rage to love' it rejects '"Conservative neoliberal post-modernity"' [Freire again] and rejects terrorism. [Then, curiously] 'hope rejects the claim that peace comes at any cost'.

[Happily] it also can 'strengthen the capacity of research groups to implement qualitative research as a solution' to social problems. That will also strengthen 'interdisciplinary formations and interpretive communities within the Academy' and between research groups in different countries. It will encourage policy research groups to generate critical knowledge to tackle social problems, while staying with 'social justice and empowerment ethics'. This will itself enable exchanges with other researchers and foster networks and joint research projects.

So, we are now at a crossroads. We need an emancipatory discourse that addresses racial inequality, taking into account 9/11 'forms of democracy and neoliberalism' (268). This requires performance-based approach to politics and spectacle pedagogy, and how 'performance autoethnography and critical pedagogy' can help us enact a politics of hope.

We end with the sad poet asking about how to pick up the pieces after the twin towers collapse. She is looking for a word to follow. 'And I, Norman K Denzin, replied, give me one more wild word to follow: [dramatic spacing] and the word was hope, the end.'

[What a bunch of repetitive exhortations and circular self defining terms, based on the clapped-out notion of the pedagogic role of critical theatre. It is worth noting his own marvellous hopes for Obama, as he writes this stuff four months after the election — 'it is clear that Obama is systematically dismantling the spectacles of fear and terror that propped up the Bush administration. Obama's odyssey is amazing… Who are his ancestors? Who our our ancestors? (See Bob Dylan on Obams...' [sic]]

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