Greg Dening’s Performances (University of Chicago Press 1996) is largely a collection of previously published essays. They are a mix, with some being essentially history/anthropology articles on specific topics, such as Captain Cook, the 1814 Battle of Valparaiso, and the first Native-European contact on Tahiti, and others being more theoretical essays on approaches to the practice of history. While the former are great, it is really for the latter that I am adding this book to my short list of things to strongly considering assigning to my own students in future, and something I will very much hold onto, and look back at, to help inform my own approach, in my research.
Perhaps one of the greatest things about Performances is that it serves as a guide to the postmodernist approach – in a nutshell, the idea that there is no singular, knowable Truth, that everything is relative – but in a way which feels genuine, like truly engaging with the lived experience of the people of the past, and not like abstract hand-wavey capital-T Theorizing. Dening writes:
All my academic life I taught history by first requiring my students to transcribe some event or ritual or drama in their lives into narrative. I called this ethnography. They soon discovered how difficult that was to do. They soon learned that there was nothing that they observed but was the subject of some reflective discourse by somebody else. Knowing what that discourse was, what questions shaped it and in what way their own ethnography added to it was to be the cultural persons they needed to be to write history. (30)
And, in discussing whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a god:
Of course the Hawaiians did not call the Euro-American strangers “gods.” They called them akua. Tahitians and Marquesans called them atua. I should have written “Hawaiians,” “Tahitians,” “Marquesans,” of course. In the years of the first encounters, these islanders knew themselves as something else – kānaka, maohi, enata. That is the problem of cross-cultural history. Both sides experience one another in translation. I, for one, believe that cross-cultural history should be written in such a way that the reader is always reminded of strangeness by leaving key words untranslated, and by attempting to describe more discursively what is the cultural experience behind the word. (76)
In emphasizing the use of terms from that culture, and a description and analysis based on the cultural understandings of that culture, rather than the terminology and interpretive structures of Western Theory, Dening advocates an approach which is far more respectful of other cultures, and respectful of the validity of their perspectives and worldviews. This is also an approach which produces, frankly, better history, insofar as it comes closer to the “truth,” such as it is, of what actually happened, or at least of how it was actually understood by the people who were there at the time. Western Theory purports to be universal, but it is a product of the modern or post-modern West, of a particular cultural perspective, and while we can never wholly escape our cultural and chronological biases, we can at least try, by avoiding the skewing impacts of Marxist, Foucaultian, or Weberian approaches. Luke Roberts’ Performing the Great Peace seems to follow in Dening’s advocated approach in this respect, carefully examining how different terms were used in early modern Japanese interactions, in differing contexts, and how this informs our understanding, of their understanding, of their own time.
It is extremely rare, I think, that I feel this way about a book I read, but with Greg Dening’s Performances, I really feel that I wish I could speak with him, take a course with him, rather than get his wisdom only through this limited and mediated form, the monograph. Dening seems like he would have been a marvelous professor for a seminar in Historiography (or Theory and Methodology), and every time he speaks in the book of metaphors, or of his own personal ways of understanding things, I wish I could ask him to explain further just what he means – and it’s not because he’s being obscurantist, like all too many Theorists do; rather, it is only because these are his own personal metaphors, which he has so internalized, and which I am sure one could come to understand better if one were to take a course with him, or to have him as an advisor. The notion of history as performance, for one, and of history as “cargo,” for another.1 I can gather my own imagined understanding of what I think he means when he says these things, but like a primary source history text itself, all I have is the book, and cannot ask the person.
The past is everything that has happened – every heartbeat, every sound, every molecular movement. This totality is both objectively specific (it happened in a particular way) and infinitely discrete (the happenings are not connected). … Yet we have a common-sense confidence that the ‘real’ past, like the ‘real’ present, is much more connected and ordered. We have a confidence that the past is ordered in itself in such a way that we can make a narrative of it. It is text-able. We are confident that our selection is an exegesis of an order already there. It is the same common-sense confidence we have in the cultural systems of our present. … This mythic confidence in a text-able past is the ambience in which histories are made. The past itself is evanescent: it has existence only in histories. Histories are the texted past. (41)
I may be reading into it my own desires, but I think it is valid to say that Dening’s history (or ethnohistory – incorporating at its core an ethnography of past peoples/cultures) exults in the vibrancy of historical cultural life in a way that really emphasizes those aspects of History that attracted me to the discipline to begin with, and then to Art History when I found History surprisingly lacking. For a great many scholars, it is all about types, structures, and forms, and about determining how societies, in general, function. For them, all societies have political leaders – they differ only in type. And all societies have goods that they produce, goods that they buy, and goods that they sell – the only difference is in what precisely those goods are. For these scholars, it is structures and systems that are important, and the moving parts that are the most important are political, economic, or social in nature. All cultures have sacred objects, ritual practices, and art, and we can categorize that into playing some political, economic, or social role, in a system. The differences are unimportant. But, to me, it is precisely those differences which are the most important. It is those differences which make history vibrant and exciting, and which allow history to be a vehicle for celebrating the glorious diversity of our world. And I sense that Dening feels similarly. As he writes on p23, quoting Herbert Marcuse,
“All reification (all essentializing, I would add) is a process of forgetting. Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance.”
It is this singing, dancing, world that so intrigues me. A living world, made up of people living complex, colorful lives, filled with historical architecture and fashion, sounds and smells and sights.
Dening writes of the difference between “reality” and “actuality.” In our analytical interpretations, we seek to discover what “really” happened – what was X event “really” about? We place all sorts of analytical structures on it, comparing it to social science constructions of abstract models and types, in order to categorize it. But in doing so, we miss what “actually” happened. As he writes:
Imagine we go to the theatre to see Death of a Salesman, a part of life and life’s relationships and structure, set out, like life itself, in a series of conversations. We hear the sentences of the conversation on the stage – about baseball, about dingy hotel rooms, about careless children and too careful wives … We know the sentences in their unity to be concerned with coping or not coping with the emptiness of public presentations of self. … Let us say we go to the theatre. The curtains are pulled back. There is Arthur Miller sitting on the stage. ‘Death of a Salesman,’ he says, ‘is about Everyman, Willie Loman, in an entrepreneurial society, and Everyman’s inability to cope with the emptiness of the public presentation of self. That will be $10 please.’ We would not know it at all. … The medium of most of our living is conversation, of texted narrative. The clothing of our structures is the trivialities of everyday existence. (47)
Captain Samuel Wallis of HMS Dolphin being received by the Queen of Otaheite, July 1767. Image from a 1773 book illustration plate, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Dening’s “Possessing Tahiti,” which I discussed in a previous blog post, is lively with ethnographic and/or historical narrative. We can picture the people, the events – the costumes, the flag waving in the breeze. We can picture the perfect blue sky, white clouds, gorgeous blue waters, and green swaying trees of Tahiti. And quite central to Dening’s narrative are the culturally diverse ways in which British, French, Spanish, and Tahitian peoples claim “possession” of one another – in the case of the Europeans, claiming Tahitian land, and in the case of the Tahitians, taking down the flag and incorporating it into their chief’s malo ura skirt, thus “possessing” the mana, the spirit-force, of the British captain. We can see the flag, the malo ura, the cross erected by the Spanish and then defaced by the British, and the glass bottle buried by the French. And, as Dening discusses how the Tahitians might have viewed the British – as “gods” or not – it is of course a conceptual argument, in the sense that it deals with perceptions, conceptions, and imagined or metaphorical realities. But it is not conceptual in the sense of being capital-T Theoretical in an analytical sense. These people are not pawns in a Structuralist or Post-Structuralist system, nor merely a case study in some [insert Theorist here]-ian articulation of the functioning of societies. They are real people, with lively, vibrant cultures, engaged in historic interactions. And that is what I wish to be able to reproduce in my discussion of the Ryukyuan missions to Edo. I want my reader to be able to envision the road, the lodgings, the costumes and banners, the music, the local officials formally welcoming the envoys, and the local people come to witness the spectacle – I want my reader to envision these things, and to find it interesting, exciting, captivating even if I can manage it, and most of all, I want my reader to be caught up in the narrative, the ethnohistory, just enough to not say “so what?”, and to not wonder what my argument is. The Ryukyuan envoys are not pawns in my analytical game; they are not merely case studies in the service of my argument. They were real, living people of the past, who like the Tahitians and the British possessed lively, vibrant cultures; and personal interests, attitudes, and desires; and who engaged in historic cultural interactions that should be interesting, and valuable, for their novelty if nothing else.
Ryukyuan officials welcoming a Chinese investiture embassy at Naha harbor, as depicted in an 1788 painting by Japanese artist Yamaguchi Suiô. University of Hawaii Library, Sakamaki-Hawley Collection.
At the end of the day, my analysis and my argument are tools in the service of allowing me to tell this narrative, to share this story. It is not the other way around. I feel quite strongly about that – Dening warns against dehumanizing our subjects, and I feel quite sensitively about that. Early modern Japan, and early modern Ryukyu, were entire worlds unto themselves, filled with real people living real lives. And while I may be guilty of romanticizing them, of over-emphasizing the vibrancy of their cultural environment, I refuse to be guilty of stripping them of their cultural and historical specificity, to make them merely examples of people (any people) in a society (any society) that functions according to X, Y, and Z features, in service of an argument. Just because something is not important to my argument does not mean that it is unimportant for producing a lively and compelling picture of the topic as a whole. This does not mean that I have any desire to run it into the ground by going overboard with detail. I have no desire to put my reader to sleep. No one needs to see extensive lists of precisely which goods they carried and precisely how many of each, or of precisely where in the audience hall each figure sat, down to the precise number of tatami mats north and west of the entrance. But, if describing the appearance of the audience hall, and the impressive impact it may have had on foreign guests, can help bring the event, the experience, to life for my readers, to help present it as a living event and not as a systematic structural procedure, then I want to include that regardless of whether it contributes to an analytical argument.
The “Performances” of the title references both the idea that all of life, both today and in the historical periods & events we study, is performance, and that the writing of history is, likewise, a performance. Dening advocates recognizing, acknowledging, and reviving the vibrant, lively reality of the past, as I have already discussed.
Participles … soften the essentializing quality of nouns with the being and acting quality of the verb: not life, but living, not gender, but gendering; not culture, but culturing; not science but sciencing; not change, but changing. The way we represent the world is hindsighted, past participled, stilled like frames on a film. The way we experience the world is processual, unfinished. We see the real; we experience the actual. (119)
But he also speaks of the writing of history as intimately intertwined with acts of memory, and storytelling, and as a very human thing to do, something that all peoples, of all cultures, in all times do. We all tell stories. We all remember our own histories, in one form or another. I personally have found much post-modern theory to be quite frightening, and stultifying, as it asks us to believe there is no Truth, and then just leaving us out in the deep. For someone who got into history precisely because there were facts to be learned, facts which come together, bricolage-style, to form an ever-more-complete, if never truly completable, picture of a particular time & place, post-modern Theory is deeply troubling. How are we to be able to say anything at all about history, when post-modern theory tells us the Truth is unattainable, and that everything we think we know is inevitably wrong? What are we even doing, as historians, if the only things we can ever say are half-truths, and mistaken guesses? It’s like the rug has been pulled out from under us; no, worse, it’s like the entire floor has dropped out. When I asked one of my more Theory-minded professors what to do, how we can possibly move forward in such a situation, she said that exploring History is like being in a wilderness, and you just have to pitch a tent, and stake your claim. This was quite encouraging in the moment, but I think I may need a re-explanation.
Dening comes to the rescue, however. Whereas most Theory seems to lend itself towards total abstraction, breaking down any Truth you might have ever believed existed, Dening’s “historical ethnography” focuses on the telling of history as storytelling, as contributing to an ongoing discourse of meaning-making. I suppose, in a sense, it’s really not so different from the post-modern critique. Not really so different at all. And, perhaps, depending on how one feels on a given day, or how one thinks about it, maybe this isn’t any more freeing or encouraging; or, maybe the post-modern theorists are, for some of you, plenty freeing and encouraging. For me, the idea of trying to produce academically rigorous analysis amidst a chaotic wilderness of unattainable Truth is terrifying, and paralyzing. But, the idea of being a storyteller, telling and re-telling stories in order to bring them alive again, in order to re-enter them into the collective memory – that is, the idea of the writing of history as a performance, as a performance of that story, is quite freeing in a way. We are, after all, only continuing the same activity all cultures do – telling stories, constructing memory. And so, accepting that it is not about finding real Truth, that it can never be about that, but that it is really about trying to understand others, to see different perspectives, interpretations, and worldviews, and to bring those alive again for others, by re-telling the stories, that, I can do. Or at least I can try. I can do my best. And that’s a start.
Telescoping seeing, whether into the past or into the heavens, is likely to foster a certain delusion of apartness in the observer, a sense of separateness from nature, and in that a sense of ‘objectivity.’ It is microscoping seeing that destroys the notion of passive observation. … Quantium physics … obliges us to take seriously what has been a more purely philosophical consideration: that we do not see things in themselves, but only aspects of things. What we see is an electron path in a bubble chamber, not an electron, and what we see in the skies are not stars, any more than a recording of Caruso’s voice is Caruso. By revealing that the observer plays a role in the observed, quantum physics did for physics what Darwin had done for the life sciences: it tore down walls, reuniting the world with the universe. (220)
Everyone who would represent the past must ‘go native’ in some way or be condemned always only to represent the present. Even the ‘native’ must ‘go native’ in finding a past. We might think we are privileged in some way towards a past by being black or white, male or female, poor or powerful, but that privilege is only towards all the others of our living present. The past to which we each ‘go native’ is a lot farther off and no one gets there but by giving a little. … Few of us can find a voice which is neither white nor black, male nor female, young nor old. Few of us can deny the hegemonic mode in our translations of other linguistic forms into our own. ‘Going native’ … is actually a very difficult thing to do. That is why I used to take comfort from a headstone in the cemetery outside the Hawaiian Mission Archives … ‘Sister Kate,’ the epitaph reads, ‘She Did What She Could.’ (124)
(1) Reading his discussion of this on page 46, I think he might be imagining standing on a beach, and having things wash up on shore which came from another island. Unable to go to that other island, we are unable to know what it is really like. But we can make some educated guesses, do our best, based on what has washed up. Documents and artifacts are all that remain of the past; we cannot visit the past, we can only know it from what few things have survived.
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