Posts Tagged ‘world history’

The reviews I have been posting for the last few months, centering on Pacific history, come out of my exam reading for a field in Pacific History. However, it was not actually strictly a field in Pacific History, but rather incorporated a component of consideration of how to incorporate the Pacific – so frequently overlooked – into World History. Or, simply, to do a Pacific field in order to not only have it (a) inform my Japanese & Okinawan studies, and (b) allow me to hopefully be able to teach Pacific History courses in future, but also (c) to have a deeper knowledge of the Pacific to incorporate into my World History courses.

So, getting to the point, here is a response essay I wrote some time ago, with some just very preliminary thoughts on how to approach thinking about, and organizing, a World History course. I’ve TAed for a Global Survey of Art History, and for World History 1000-1700 CE, as well as for Western Civ 1000-1700 & 1700-present, alongside numerous East Asia-centered courses, but I have yet to teach World History myself in any form. So, I imagine that if/when I get to TA for the first third or the last third of World History (Prehistory to 1000, or 1700-present), I’ll have more thoughts… But, for now:

The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in Queens NY, erected for the 1964 World’s Fair.

What is “world history?” What is the intention, goal, or aim of a “world history” course?

Is it (1) to convey some kind of narrative of the history of human societies that encapsulates in some fashion all human societies in history, whether in general or on average? Whether by way of a linear sense of progress, or a less straightforward approach, this could be a narrative of the development of kinship groups into clans or villages, then into chiefdoms, with some societies later becoming kingdoms, empires, republics of one sort or another, also addressing the matter of the modern “nation-state.” Is the goal of world history to cover some broad-ranging all-encompassing narrative such as that?

Or is it (2) to discuss more specific historical themes which emerge in specific periods, such as nationalism, Orientalism & racism, colonialism & imperialism, and modernity, with the particular aim of combating old stereotypes, Eurocentric worldviews, and the like, in order to produce more racially/culturally sensitive, critically-thinking, and globally-minded citizens?

Or, is world history about (3) providing a glimpse into a number of different cultures, so as to both inform students about the peoples, places, and cultures of the world they live in and inspire them to perhaps develop a deeper interest and to seek further knowledge?

The first type of class might be the best of the three for providing some historical background and context for courses in social sciences which might focus overmuch on more recent and contemporary events and political/economic/societal structures. The second might be the best of the three for preparing students for History and other courses which require critical thinking and which engage in difficult or complex socio-political issues, such as race and historiographical issues; such a course would, ideally, also help prepare students to be good global citizens more broadly, less racist, less US- and Euro-centric, and more nuanced and critical in their thinking about political, cultural, and social issues both domestically and internationally, and in interactions in their own lives. Finally, the third type of course, I can imagine, might best prepare students for knowing which upper-division courses they wish to take in History (or Art History, Music, Theatre, Politics, Economics, or a number of other disciplines), and might inspire them to travel, to take up interest in particular art forms or historical topics, perhaps even to pursue a job or career related to a particular culture (e.g. cultural or arts organizations, diplomacy, etc.).

A portion of a timeline of Korean-American history, at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. An important history all too overlooked, and not actually representative of the kind of core canon I’m talking about here. But, visually, I think it’s evocative of the idea of a timeline of canonical events to memorize.

A fourth approach, once standard but now widely rejected, involves teaching a particular canon of names, dates, events – in short, facts – with the chief outcome of instilling in students a basic, common, shared knowledge of key referents, allowing them to understand, or “get,” references made in popular culture, the news, and the like. There is, admittedly, some appeal to this approach, insofar as there is a certain fear or disappointment that our students should be going out into the world with no idea (or, only a distorted, pop media informed idea) of who Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, or William the Conqueror were, or what is meant by “Elizabethan.” The impact of this is very clear already, as we look back at older sources – pop media, literature, news – and see them making reference to things that we ourselves aren’t very clear on. And what historical referents we do share today are so watered down into stereotypes that few can really be expected to know anything proper about the history of that subject. To take just one example, let us hope that the average person on the street (or the average student on our campus) has at least some vague sense of that Henry VIII had a lot of wives, and that he killed several/many of them (hilarious!). But do they know anything at all more than that? Is Henry VIII a historical figure, or a caricature? In any case, this fourth approach is lambasted by nearly all of the historians in Ross E. Dunn’s The New World History, and rightfully so. Such a canon, as it already stands, is terribly Eurocentric, and even if some more global canon were to be conceived, by what criteria are we to choose? And unless there is consensus in the choosing, it won’t serve the purpose of being a commonly shared knowledge. And, in any case, a course that focuses too overmuch on simply trying to cover everything certainly cannot cover everything – it’s impossible – and so would just become unwieldy, fractured, and confusing.

A model of a Dutch East India Company vessel at the National Museum of Japanese History. Are narratives of travel, trade, and so forth the most necessarily central themes of world history?

So, of the previous three, which should we be aiming for? Is there a way to balance these effectively? Most of the essays in The New World History seem to be focusing on the first two, and especially on political and economic narratives of cultural & economic interactions, the growth of trade routes & economic interconnectedness, leading eventually into colonialism & imperialism, and from there into other issues. Yet, is this the only narrative we can or should be telling?

A chapter on cultural history in Patrick Manning’s Navigating World History seems at first to offer a way towards a different approach, one which might more strongly forefront questions about the role of cultural practices (visual, material, and expressive/performative culture) and aspects of reflective culture (religion, ideology) in different (macro)cultures. Moving beyond the stylistic & formal obsessions of art history, and the disciplinary/departmental divides of art history, ethnomusicology, and theatre & dance, Manning suggests a cultural history approach which might focus on “what sustains traditions over time, and what brings about major innovations,” the role or meaning of arts and traditions in human societies, the different forms cultural practices or cultural production takes in different cultures, as well as how they developed and changed over time due to both internal forces and intercultural interactions. Manning stops short, however, of providing a clear way forward, by way of either examples of how a “world cultural history” course, or even a single lecture, might be conceptualized or organized, instead providing as he does throughout much of the book a dense, thorough, and at times extremely useful and interesting account of the historiography of cultural history as a set of approaches.

The Great Hall at Christchurch College, Oxford. What is the place of tradition in history? How do tradition and history lead to different parts of the world being what they are today?

Art historians, of course, wrestle with similar issues in their attempts to conceive and construct a more global/world approach to art history. As essays in James Elkins’ Is Art History Global? suggest, Eurocentrism presents even more of a difficulty for art historians than for historians. Not only is the master narrative of a Western-centered art history (from classical forms to their re-emergence in the Renaissance, the advent of perspective, the rise of realism, moving to abstraction in “modern” art, and so on) very powerful, but the very concept of “art,” at least as conceived by “art historians” in the Western tradition, is very much a Western invention. Even societies such as those of the Chinese literati, who have a written tradition of art criticism going back to the 5th or 6th century CE, did not conceive of “art” or “the arts” in the same way that Europeans did, and had to adopt new terms in the 19th century to refer to these new concepts adopted from the West (meishu 美術 and yishu 藝術, meaning roughly “fine arts” and “performing arts,” respectively, from the Japanese bijutsu and geijutsu, who engaged with these issues of modernity more directly first, and coined the terms first).

Many scholars of museum studies and of the art history of non-Western cultures have suggested frameworks for approaching the cultural products or practices of non-Western cultures not through the lens of Western aesthetic concerns (incl. form, symmetry, proportion, lines, taking the object in isolation as aesthetic object) but through a focus on its meaning within its native cultural context. However, while Elkins himself suggests the need for a “consistently non-Eurocentric art history” which instead of merely infusing Western art history with native concepts and categories, would instead abandon reliance on Western interpretive methods, Ladislav Kesner’s essay “Is a Truly Global Art History Possible?” reveals that many scholars (including Kesner himself) remain (perhaps problematically) attached to Eurocentric approaches and attitudes. Even as he suggests that art historians must consider objects within specific cultural context, asking “Why does it look the way it does? What did it mean to the people who made and used it? Why was it special or valuable for them?,” he also asserts that “only Western art history – unlike the Chinese antiquarian tradition or other culturally specific discourses on art and images – has been in a position to continually develop and be enriched by contact with other cultures and non-European art.” This of course ignores both China’s long history of intercultural interactions and the failure of Western art history theory to adequately adapt or change away from its own Eurocentrism. Further, while Kesner’s critique of culturally specific frameworks (e.g. categorizing a wide variety of things under the single umbrella of “Chinese art,” and then analyzing them using distinctively Chinese terms and concepts) as being “essentializing” may contain some merit, and is worth further thought, he then returns to assertions of the universal applicability of Western/European critical theory, psychology, sociology and the like, based on the notion that all people are people, and that therefore the understandings provided by these disciplines should apply universally – thus repeating, or reinforcing, the Eurocentrism fundamental to the issue.

The relevance of these art historical discourses for the cultural historian attempting to conceive of approaches to “world history” (within the History discipline/department) is not entirely clear. But, it has nevertheless given me much to think about. While I certainly have some ideas for which aspects or elements of the histories of particular non-Western cultures I might use to illustrate particular concepts within a world history class, and how their use can contribute to presenting a more powerfully non-Eurocentric or even anti-Eurocentric vision of the histories of the peoples of the world, much about the structure of such a course, the main themes or narratives, remain unclear.

All photos my own.

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After some various travels & other events this summer which inspired a number of blog posts on other subjects, it is now time to return to my post-exam book reviews. This, as it happens, is the last of those on Pacific history, though ironically(?) the first I actually wrote, at the beginning of reading for my Pacific history field.

Today, I’m discussing Matt Matsuda’s book Pacific Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 2012). In Pacific Worlds, Matt Matsuda seeks to tell a different history of the peoples and places of the Pacific Ocean from that which might normally be told, focusing not on the individual cultures or polities in a narrative fashion, addressing each dynasty separately, as historical surveys in the standard academic tradition might, but instead focusing attention upon the interactions between these many peoples and places. This is an approach seen, too, in Walter MacDougall’s book on the history of the North Pacific, Let the Sea Make a Noise, which I read many years ago, and should probably re-read, but which also treats the subject of “Pacific history” less as the histories of a grouping of specific cultures and more as that of a purely geographical region within which a variety of events and interactions took place. As this was the first book I read for my Pacific Islands field, I’m coming at it relatively fresh in this review, and you won’t find any reflection upon the books I read later (but blogged about earlier), or incorporation of what I learned from them.

Matsuda explains, or justifies, this approach by citing Fijian scholar Epeli Hau’ofa, who advocates “envision[ing] the Pacific … not [as] a vast, empty expanse, nor a series of isolated worlds flung into a faraway ocean, but rather [as] a crowded world of transits, intersections, and transformed cultures.” Further, Matsuda notes that “the Pacific,” as a unitary entity, and as a bordered, defined region, is a European invention, suggesting in his introduction that Pacific Worlds will instead relate Pacific history from the islanders’ perspectives, counteracting the Eurocentric viewpoint already/previously prevalent in scholarship. Indeed, Matsuda does share with the reader quite a number of local indigenous legends that suggest historical origins or developments, and treats them as such, not dismissing them as mere myth or superstition. To give just one example, he writes of the Saudeleur Dynasty of Nan Madol that “their influence extended out from the ‘other side of yesterday,’ likely the tenth century, when traditional tales say that two powerful holy men, Ohlosihpa and Ohlosohpa, had come from the west bearing sacred works and ceremonies.” He then goes on to summarize further traditional stories which relate the Saudeleur’s forced exile of a local god of Pohnpei, the god’s marriage to a human woman on another island, and the ensuing battle between their demigod son, seeking to regain his ancestors’ lands, and the armies of the Saudeleur, a story which may well contain within it elements of genuine past events. Not only does Matsuda include stories such as these, but he does so without making explicit arguments as to their validity as sources of historical knowledge, instead simply presenting these stories alongside other forms of evidence as if their validity, and their equality with archaeological and European textual sources, goes without saying. This, perhaps, is an even more powerful and more effective tactic than arguing for their validity explicitly.

However, he does not, as we might expect, reverse the perspective to present a more thoroughly indigenous history of the region, a history which might draw more exclusively upon oral histories and other traditional, indigenous modes of knowledge. Rather, Matsuda is more balanced in his approach, countering Eurocentrism not with a native-centrism, but with a narrative we might describe as relatively un-centered, drawing upon multiple perspectives and types of sources, and modeling a mode of history writing that suggests a vision of the peoples of the world, and their cultures, as all equal in their difference, and equally significant. Matsuda’s history gives no more priority to English or French stories, or perspectives, than to Tongan or Fijian ones, and does not boldly or starkly elevate or denigrate either Europeans or natives. In contrast to the more standard narratives of the nobility of European exploration & discovery, and of the wonders of European technology, with which we might be familiar, Matsuda emphasizes the ways in which the Europeans were often woefully unprepared for their Pacific voyages (e.g. three months at sea without enough food; stuck in the doldrums; missing numerous landfalls), had considerable flaws or failings in their understandings, and were “late to the party,” so to speak, “discovering” lands, peoples, and routes already well-plied not only by the islanders, but in many cases by Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian sailors as well. He also counters over-simplified narratives of European/indigenous binaries by describing how Polynesian people in Melanesia were no more resistant to disease, often no more culturally or linguistically capable than Europeans, and held similar prejudices against the dark-skinned Melanesian islanders. The result is a more nuanced understanding of “Pacific Islander” identity, agency, and victimhood, and a more balanced and inclusive vision of world history.

Matsuda’s account is a translocal history, which shows how phenomena such as the spread of Christianity, shifts in the sandalwood trade, and beachcomber1 involvement in local politics played out across the region. Anecdotal examples provide a rough, general sense of similarity and difference. Christian missionaries landed throughout the region, reaching some island groups earlier and some later, building missions in some places and not in other places; on some islands, for this or that reason, islander missionaries known as “local agents” were more successful than Europeans, while in other places the reverse was true. However, this translocal approach does a considerable disservice, one might argue, to the distinctive cultures of the Pacific, and their individual histories, not to mention a disservice to the reader seeking something of a thorough survey of each specific culture. Matsuda paints in broad strokes, describing small island societies based on kinship groups and more complex hierarchical societies of some Polynesian archipelagos, providing little explanation of what he means by “kinship groups,” “clan,” “tribe,” or “aristocratic hierarchy.” He also provides only the most minimal explanation (and sometimes none at all) of native terms like ali’i, marae, and iwi, leaving the reader in the dark as to the political structures of the Hawaiian kingdom and cultural or religious attitudes towards their nobility; the architectural style and cultural meaning of Maori and Tahitian sacred spaces; and the internal organization or inter-relationships between Maori tribes or clans.
That said, while Pacific Worlds lacks for providing an impression of cultural color, and falls short of a proper history of any one of the cultures of the Pacific, it does serve as an informative and not-too-Eurocentric survey of major political, economic, and social developments in the region, and the ways in which these developments affected the people of each island group differently. Its argument for approaching this and other regions of the world with an eye to interactions, rather than separate, isolated histories, is also of great importance.

Matsuda’s rejection of the artificial (European-constructed) boundaries of the Pacific also means the incorporation of considerable attention paid to events and developments in maritime Southeast Asia, including the Malay peninsula, Indonesia, and so forth. While the argument for the artificiality of boundaries is valuable, and the histories of this region genuinely interesting, however, it still distracts even further from devoting further attention to deeper or more detailed descriptions of the Micronesian, Melanesian, and Polynesian societies so overlooked in World and other history books.

(1) “Beachcomber” refers to people of European descent who stayed in the islands, not necessarily “gone native,” in the sense of adopting native customs or joining native society, but most often disconnecting themselves from Europe, and seeking to create a new life for themselves in the islands, whether in an entrepreneurial fashion, or otherwise. Some beachcombers became quite influential in local events, society, and/or politics, while others lived quiet lives alongside or removed from the locals.

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Well, here’s something. I don’t typically wear makeup, have almost never worn makeup, do not self-identify as female, and am generally (but not always) not identified by others as female, so, I can’t pretend or presume to know how others feel about makeup. (Well, I can’t presume to know how others feel about anything, really, seeing as how I am not them.) But, this brief John Green video makes some really interesting points about why some people enjoy wearing makeup.

I was going to summarize / write down those points, but, I think the video speaks for itself, so I’ll just leave it to you to watch it.

PS, the professor I’m TAing for this summer has been showing some clips from John Green’s Crash Course video series. I have to admit I wasn’t too taken with the series at first, given his mangling of Japanese pronunciation. But, actually, a lot of these videos are really quite good, and I’ve been learning a lot about random topics like the Kievan Rus, the Seven Years War, and Indian Ocean Trade. When my professor showed a Crash Course video for the first time, I was like “omg, you know of and like John Green!? I’ve been watching so much VlogBrothers lately, and I was even thinking of going to VidCon (more like simply sitting at home and fantasizing about having gone),” and she didn’t really know anything about him but had just found the videos when searching for good videos to show in class. Which is great too. I’ve kind of fallen down the rabbit hole of YouTube vlogs and such the last year or so… but, that’s me, and I’m weird. So, yeah, makeup and feminism and stuff.

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A week or so ago, a colleague pointed out to me a new journal article by theatre scholar Steve Tillis, entitled “The Case Against World Theatre History.”1 Don’t be fooled – the article really should be called something like “On the Case against World Theatre History,” or “Against the Case against World Theatre History,” as this is precisely what Tillis argues. In the article, he lays out a number of the most common arguments made against “World Theatre History” as a subject for scholarly study, and then rebuts each of them. There is great relevance to this discussion for anyone thinking about “world art history,” “world music history,” or “world history” in general. Why is it that we study history on the global scale, and is it a valid, relevant, and useful pursuit?

This is a fascinating issue, far more intriguing and engaging – and far more relevant to my own interests – than the needlessly dense Theory essays I’m reading right now for my mandatory Historiography seminar. In crafting my response/review for this article, I couldn’t help but to write quite a few pages before I decided I ought to scale it back and focus in, rather than posting pages and pages here on the blog. For that reason – i.e. for the sake of length – I have omitted discussion of “world theatre history” or “world art history” as a subject of undergraduate courses, i.e. as a mode of organizing teaching the subject. Perhaps I will consolidate my thoughts on that matter into another blog post. In the meantime, this post has still ended up quite long, and for that I sincerely apologize. After sitting on it for roughly a week, I figured it was better to just get it out there than to put it off until I felt like refining it down – it might have gotten left for a pretty considerable amount of time had I done that.

So, please try to bear with me as I try to summarize the arguments & rebuttals in this paper, along with my thoughts, regarding “world theatre history” as a subject of research and study.

The stage set for a jingju, or Beijing opera, “The White Snake,” at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Winter 2010.

First, we have to see what it is Tillis means by “world theatre history.” According to him, it is not simply a matter of describing theatrical traditions in a variety of places around the world. Rather, “world theatre history” in his eyes is about considering the cultural exchanges and connections between traditions from around the world, as well as the slightly more abstract or theoretical-level underlying phenomena of how “theatre,” regardless of culture, functions. In his own words,

[“World theatre history”] seeks to investigate and explore the linkages between theatre forms of different world regions … and it seeks to understand how those linkages reveal structures that might have had a widespread effect on theatre: the relationship between theatre forms across the breadth of Eurasia, for example, or the widespread propensity to make use of meta-dramatic figures to supplement the dramatic characters themselves. And it seeks, finally, to analyze whatever interregional trends might be discovered in those links, such as the rising importance of urban forms of theatre (p381).

With this as his working concept, Tillis addresses seven arguments against “world theatre history” – three practical, and four ideological. As you will see, (spoilers!), I agree with Tillis on some of these, and disagree with him on others – as to what constitutes a problem, and as to the solutions or rebuttals he proposes.

(1) The problem of manageability – World history, as the argument goes, is simply not manageable – to address every period in every culture would result in a complete chaos of dissimilar, disconnected, cases and narratives.

Of course, this is not what Tillis is really talking about. Yes, in an undergraduate survey course, one could get into problems of how to fairly cover everything, and to do it in a cohesive way. But, for scholars trying to examine “what is theatre?” from a global perspective, I don’t think this idea of “completeness” or manageability is the problem. The problem comes in how you generalize, something we’ll get to with some of the later arguments.

(2) The second argument that Tillis addresses is the problem of detail. How do we cover all of the history of the theatre of the world without inevitably skipping over really big name individuals or events? Or, rather, how do we skip over subjects generally seen as of extreme significance and get away with it, justifying such omissions in pursuit of the study of the whole?

By way of solution, Tillis offers simply that every level of scale has its merits, that the global scale has its merits too, and that all of that lost detail is still there – to be addressed by other scholars, in other works. It’s not lost. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Still, there are serious dangers in generalizing too broadly, in essentializing cultures, and in ignoring significant counter-examples.

Reading this article, I find myself also thinking about the inevitable choice I will have to make as to my ‘fields’ of study for my PhD qualifying exams. There is a lot of pressure to do “world history,” but, if that “world history” is the same as that which Tillis is talking about here – focusing on the interconnections and broader themes – then that is decidedly not the type of history I am interested in, personally. In theatre, as in art and in history in general – I am interested in color, sound, movement, and stories. I am interested in the vivid ‘world’ of a specific time and place, such as the cities and post-towns of early modern Japan, as composed of the architecture, clothing, systems of social classes, logistics of travel and urban planning, elements of elite and popular culture, and the countless other aspects of that time and place that, when taken altogether, combine to provide some semblance, some hint, of the feeling of actually being there and experiencing it. I am not interested in how “societies” (in general) work, how “regimes” (in general) rise and fall, or how “art” or “theatre” function in some universal, pan-cultural, human sociological or psychological fashion; and I am most certainly not interested in taking historical events or cases as mere examples in arguing some broader point. I’m interested in the specifics, and in putting the specifics first, as interesting and worthy of attention in their own right. So, I think I need to talk to my professors about what exactly a study field in “World History” means, and whether I would be better or worse to focus on something that more specifically, directly, interests me, such as “Early Modern Britain & the Netherlands.”

The Noh stage at the Ôe Nôgakudô in Kyoto.

(3) Tillis’ third argument addresses the supposed problem of the world historian’s reliance on secondary sources, but, frankly, I see no problem with this. Operating on that scale requires one to understand (or at least claim to understand) a very wide range of cultures, events, trends, structures – in the case of theatre and art history, perhaps the most relevant word is “traditions” – and so, of course, one would have to rely on the syntheses produced by other scholars. No one can know enough about every culture, about the complexities of the cultural context in every historical period, nor possess sufficient language skills, to do sufficient research from scratch to understand each of these different traditions well enough to talk about them in a comparative mode – not to mention the inconceivable amount of time it would take. Besides, what use is it, really, to be examining a 17th century playbill or translating an 18th century play, word by word, when your argument concerns kabuki (or jingjiu or Randai) as a whole? The idea that the reliance on secondary sources is problematic seems, to put it plainly, stupid.

The trick is, simply, that the scholar does need to be relying on reliable sources, and to have a good idea what she is talking about. The danger in using secondary sources is that one can get an incomplete or misguided understanding of the subject – but, so long as one reaches out sufficiently to his colleagues, experts in those respective theatre forms, to help guide her to the right sources and the right understandings, the reliance on secondary sources should not be seen as such a problem. Moving on.

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as reconstructed in London today.

Thus, we finish with the practical problems, and move ahead to the ideological ones.

(4) The next issue Tillis presents is the argument of Western dominance – that is, the argument that it is only natural that a treatment of “world history” (or “world theatre history”) would focus chiefly on the European path.

The first ideological argument seeks to justify a Eurocentric approach by appeal to what it takes to be historical fact. Europe, it argues, has been at the centre of history for many centuries – in theatre history and general history alike. To deny this centrality is to deny the facts of history. We can call it the argument of Western dominance. … For many centuries, the argument contends, only the West experienced historical progress. (p384)

Wow. I couldn’t say this more boldly or directly if I tried.

For anyone who has studied (anti-)Orientalist theory, in the vein of Edward Said, the above statement that only the West has history or progress is not only patently absurd, but downright offensive.

I am sorely tempted to hold onto this article to assign to my eventual future students. Sure, the overall argument of the paper – the topic of whether or not we should consider ‘world history’ a valid field of study – along with the theatre focus, might not be perfectly relevant to, for example, a general course in Historiography. But, the paper is decidedly historiographical in its approach, and addresses numerous important points, addressing and refuting arguments for a Eurocentric or Westcentric approach to history, and introducing the reader to the basic concept of Whig History, as well as to the Orientalist idea that only the West has history while the non-West is unchanging, and saying it all boldly, clearly, and directly.

Tillis goes on in this section to talk about the argument that since non-Western art forms tend to remain fairly constant, like animated museum pieces (as we do see, admittedly, to varying extents in Noh, kabuki, etc.), these cannot be so relevant to a history of the evolution/development of theatre. In other words, if Noh and kabuki are relatively unchanging, then all innovation and progress is to be found in the West. This is an argument that we very often see argued, as well, in regard to Modern Art. We can see this at play in Wikipedia’s article on Modern Art. Twentieth-century developments in the non-West (e.g. Nihonga, Guohua, not to mention the countless prominent non-Western modern and postmodern artists, from, for Japan, High Red Center and Gutai, to Murakami Takashi) are ignored at the “global art history” scale to instead devote attention almost exclusively to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, up through Fluxxus, Warhol, Pollock, Mondrian and the like. A Westcentric mindset as to what constitutes progress, or what is to be defined as “modern art,” imposes itself upon the choice of which artists, artworks, and movements to discuss.

This idea is supported by the assertion that since Western theatre (or art) has been so influential all around the world, and so widely adopted, this justifies focusing on it. Tillis rebuts this, saying that “the notion that we should study Western theatre history because of its current global status is … both politically motivated and breathtakingly teleological. Because it looks at history only as a pathway to the present, it cannot help but offer a deeply skewed vision of the past” (p385). Tillis rejects, of course, these assertions, saying that in fact Western theatre has remained extremely conservative in certain respects as well – note the proscenium stage; the architectural form of the theatres we build and use follows much the same form throughout the Western world that it has for at least 100 years. And opera, to name one example of a Western theatrical form, hasn’t changed much either.

Preview/excerpts from a University of Hawaii performance of Randai, a Sumatran theatre form combining dance and martial arts with dialogue and plot.

(5) The Argument of Western Relevance – A similar, but less biased, argument, argues that we should focus on the West not because it’s inherently better or more important, but because it is more relevant to what the students (whether as performers or as audience) will encounter and experience. Nationalism plays a part in this argument as well, as it is felt there is a need to devote considerable time/attention to American theatre history when teaching in the US, or to British history in Britain, French art history in France, etc.

Tillis rebuts this one quite nicely, as well, writing that even putting aside other arguments as to the relevance, importance, or simple appropriationability of other traditions in developing one’s own art, at the very least, the global perspective is important in allowing performers within the Western tradition to see that tradition from an outside perspective. To not take things for granted, but to recognize and be aware of the artificiality of our assumptions. Assumptions about the shape a stage should take, the structure of a play or of a cast (i.e. how many lead actors, what it means to be lead), about the way the audience ought to behave, and about the way the actors ought to interact with (or ignore) the audience. Rethinking our assumptions helps us understand our own culture in much fuller, more complex, more nuanced ways, and thus helps us to be creative, innovative, inventive with it.

(6) The Argument of Western Inevitability – In short, the argument that all the world has come to perform theatre in a Western way, and that therefore, it’s okay to use Western definitions/conceptions of “theatre.”

It is true that “world theatre history,” like “world art history,” like “world history” in general, all too often rest on Eurocentric definitions of what does and does not count as “theatre” or as “drama” (or as “art”, or countless other descriptors). This results in statements like: “With a few possible exceptions, there is no tradition in Africa of artistic performances which include all the elements which might be demanded in a strict definition of drama – or at least not with the emphases to which we are accustomed” (387).

This makes me wonder if even Western theatre necessarily always contains all the elements which might be demanded of such a strict definition. What is necessary? There is not always music. There is not always a set, or props. Sometimes there aren’t even costumes – see: Naked Boys Singing. (Better yet, don’t.) There is not always a stage. There is not always a curtain. I suppose there must always be performers. But, there need not necessarily be dialogue. There need not necessarily be a plot or narrative.

On page 388 we find another of Tillis’ brilliantly bold and direct statements – a wonderful rewriting of the typical Eurocentric discourse: “At least until recently, [Europe] has been a dependent part of the general development of civilization. Rather than standing astride history like some Colossus, Europe spent numerous centuries playing catch-up with the rest of Eurasia.”

The first part of the Kumi Udui play Nidô Tichiuchi, a theatrical form from Okinawa.

(7) The Argument of the Metanarrative – Tillis ends with the argument against “world theatre history” that

Any totalizing metanarrative [e.g. some attempt to explain or to investigate “theatre” as a whole, regardless of when or where it occurs] will advance one or more particular ideological positions, and in doing so, will distort history to an unacceptable degree. … Such [master or grand] narratives offer totalized versions of history that use a homogenizing process in which a dominant ideology is imposed on any text … thereby eliding its diverse elements. (388)

Tillis concludes by arguing against this idea, that is, arguing for metanarratives, saying they are essential towards avoiding the chaos of disconnected mini-narratives. Of course, this is true. And there is, certainly, some merit to the kinds of investigations that question the effect of an actor on an audience, or what (in general) it means to “perform,” or any number of other, similar, fundamental or basic “performance studies” types of questions. However, in the end, I do believe that the argument about ideological impositions being inevitable is a valid one, and that we must either learn to live with that and be okay with it (as we do in all of our scholarship), or acknowledge the serious flaws with any sort of meta-narrative that claims to understand everything from Shakespeare to Broadway to kathakali to manzai, taishû engeki, and kagura, to Native Hawaiian forms of storytelling, well enough to draw conclusions valid to all of these traditions.

What do I have to say myself, in conclusion? I don’t know. There’s just so much here. I think that shifting both the academic discourse and the content of what we teach away from a Westcentric-perspective is of profound importance.

Personally, I am far more interested in the specific case – in kabuki, or Noh, for those things that make those particular artforms particularly interesting. My own scholarship will never address the “big questions” on a global scale, nor those that operate on a particularly fundamental level, nor those on a theoretical one. Some of these questions, many of these questions, are quite valid and of great importance. But I also am very hesitant about arguments that claim to speak for all traditions, all cultures, overlooking the possibility of counter-examples, of difference.

I guess I still stumble, or quibble, on the point of it being world “theatre” history. Sure, if you’re going to restrict your comparative studies to those art forms that match certain criteria – the focus on entertaining an audience, and lack of religious ritual purpose being a key one to my mind – then I suppose you could go and call it “theatre” history. Otherwise, if you’re going to include all sorts of ritual dances, then perhaps you’d be better off calling it “world performance history.” Yet, this still produces problems. Noh, for example, is very widely accepted as a form of “theatre” or “drama,” but is highly ritualistic, with a powerful spiritual component, and even in kabuki, which is absolutely a popular entertainment form, there are many ritual or ceremonial performances, which once may have been thought of as truly being performed ‘for the gods’ yet which are still today associated with bringing good luck, good fortune. And perhaps most problematic, ironically, is modern (Western) experimental theatre and the like. No one would argue that this is not theatre. And yet, it often disturbs, confuses, or thought-provokes rather than entertains, and often lacks discernable plot or characters, as well as, perhaps, costumes or sets. If we are to include this in our definition of “theatre,” but exclude cham dances or kagura performances not meant to be performed in secular contexts, on a stage, for an audience, then how do we define theatre? I guess I’ve set it up for the religious/ritual element, and/or the presence of an audience, to be the key deciding factor. But is this the case? Is this something we can agree upon? How do we define “theatre” in a non-Eurocentric, and culturally sensitive way? How do we approach and study theatre in a globally-minded way, guided not by Eurocentric assumptions? Or, do we not care that we are working based on Western assumptions?

Reading this article has gotten me quite curious, and interested, to go out and read more about contemporary historiographical debates on these subjects. How do we address “theatre history” or “art history”? How do we address “world history”? How should we maybe be doing it better? There are, I am sure, pages and pages and pages of journal articles on these subjects… Perhaps the 2004 issue of Theatre Survey, a special issue focusing on historiography, might prove a good place to start.

1) Tillis, Steve. “The Case against World Theatre History.” New Theatre Quarterly 28:4 (2012). pp379-391.

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