Defining Culture via Performance – Roach and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett?

Preface: This is a meandering post. In reading Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s chapter for my performance theory class a few weeks ago, I found myself constantly writing “Roach?” in the margins. I thought it was about time to get some of these swirling ideas out and attempt to articulate the connections I want to make between these two writers. These are early, half-formed thoughts, but I hope to make something more of them in the future.

Both Joseph Roach and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett make arguments that are predicated on memory and forgetting. In Cities of the Dead, Roach discusses a kind of social memory that works with surrogation – “how culture reproduces and re-creates itself by a process that can best be described by the word surrogation” (Roach 2). In “Destination Museums” in her book Destination Culture, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett discusses the creation of heritage and its foundation in memory. One possibility for today’s museum, she poses, is as “a theater, a memory palace, a stage for the enactment of other times and places, a space of transport, fantasy, dreams” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 139). At one point, their ideas connect almost uncannily down to the word, although I’m still deciding whether or not they’re actually just contradicting one another here:

-“Memory is a process that depends crucially on forgetting” (Roach 2).
-“Paradoxically, remembering is a prelude to forgetting, and the collecting of error an overture to its eradication” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 159).

There’s an obvious element of performance in Roach’s article. He announces his very specific definition of the term: “Performance, in other words, stands in for an elusive entity that it is not but that it must vainly aspire both to embody and to replace” (Roach 3). Kirshenblatt-Gimblett does not use the word “performance” as a foundation for her arguments, but her use of “theater” and her argument about the way heritage is embodied and enacted cull up the word subtextually.

Roach uses this idea of performance to discuss his “circum-Atlantic cultures.” He writes, “The key…is to understand how circum-Atlantic societies, confronted with revolutionary circumstances for which few precedents existed, have invented themselves by performing their pasts in the presence of others” (Roach 5, emphasis my own). Similarly, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s cultural examples work to define themselves as places and nations in order to market themselves for tourism – “tourism can be taken as a barometer, and it operates as an instrument, of local and national self-understanding” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 141). In answer to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s questions about the creation of heritage – “How does a way of life become ‘heritage’? How does heritage become an industry? And what happens to the life world in the process?” – I might offer up Roach’s argument and the idea of cultural invention through performance (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 144).

Roach brings up Pierre Nora’s “places of memory,” defining them as, “the artificial sites of the modern production of national and ethnic memory, in contrast to ‘environments of memory’…the largely oral and corporeal retentions of traditional cultures. Modernity is characterized as the replacement of environments of memory by places of memory, such as archives, monuments, and theme parks” (Roach 26, emphasis my own). These places of memory seem very similar to Kirshenblatt-Gimblatt’s “destination museums.” Although, Roach stops at the general categorization, whereas Kirshenblatt-Gimblett seems interested in the distinctions between memory keeping and building in a place like a theme park versus an archive.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: