GutosPerformance - 37 Guto’s Performance Notes on the...

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Unformatted text preview: 37 Guto’s Performance Notes on the Transvestism of Everyday Life Roger N. Lancaster THE BLOUSE It was early evening at the end ofa typically sweltering day in Managua.1 Aida. my mmadrt'. had returned home from work with an exquisite rarity in Nicaragua’s devastated economy: a new blouse. a distinctly feminine blouse. soft to the touch. with good threadwork and careful attention to detail. it had been sent from the United States—not to Aida. but to one of her coworkers by a relative living abroad. In Nicaragua. if commodities could speak they’d recount peripatetic tales of endless digres— sions. How Aida had obtained the blouse is its own circuitous story. She had netted this enviable catch through a complex series of trades and transactions involving the blouse’s designated recip— ient and two other coworkers: four transactions in all. Such were the convolutions of everyday economic life at the end of the revolutionary dispensation.2 When Aida arrived home. she beckoned everyone to come see her new raiment. I-Ier teenage brother. Guto. arose from where he had been lounging shirtless in the living room, watching the standard TV fare. The drama that ensued took me. completely by surprise. With a broad yet pointed gesture. Guto wrapped himselfin the white, frilly blouse. and began a coquettish routine that lasted for fifteen or twenty minutes. Sashaying about the three cramped rooms ofhis mothv er’s house, the seventeen year old added a purse and necklace to his ensemble. Brothers, sisters. even his mother, egged on this performance. shouting festive remarks: .‘Qiit”_firta, bom'm. mnfie growl—these cries punctuated by whistles. kissing noises . . . Someone handed (into a pair of clip—on earrings. With cheerful abandon, he applied a bit of blush and touch of make—up. His performance intensified. to the pleasure of the audience. After disappearing for a moment into the bedroom. he returned wearing a blue denim skirt. “Htimltroie” (Big Guy), he shot in my direction. nuancing his usually raspy voice as though to flirt with me. Roger N. Lancaster teaches anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University. He is the author oftwo books on revolutionary Nicaragua, including the critical ethnography Life is Hard: il‘facln'smo. Danger. and the Intimacy tifPewer in Nicaragua (California. 1992). which won both the C. Wright Mills Award (Society for the Study ofSocial Problems) and the Ruth Benedict Prize (Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists). He is currently completing The Queer Body (California. in progress), a book of revision— ist gay theory about carnal desire. sensuous practice. and everyday culture. [560] Roger N. Lancaster I was astonished, and no doubt my visible surprise was part of the clowning of the evening. "See, Roger," Aida kept remarking. "Look, Guto's a cachén," a queer. At first. I had imagined that such banter might dissuade Guto from his increasingly extravagant performance—that the sting of the term, “cochon,” might somehow discipline his unruly antics. Not so. If anything, the chal- lenge prodded him to new heights of dramaturgic excess. The young man luxuriated infiminin- fry. His sisters played the role of macho cat-callers, hooting their remarks. Laughing. teasing, everyone seemed to enjoy the ritual. Guto beamed. THEORY AND LAUGHTER Both body and meaning can do a cartwheel. — Mikhail Bakhtini‘ When later. in solemn seriousness, I tried to “interview” participants on what had transpired, no one would give me a straight answer. Reviving the spirit of the evening, jest, mockery. and levity colored the responses: “Maybe Gino's queer." his sister Clara laughed. No one had ever seriously suggested such an opinion before. Quite the contrary. it was typically Guto who taunted his younger brother. Miguel, calling him a “cochon."4 “Of course. he‘s a little queen,” his mmher said, tossing oiia laugh. “1 was flirting with you, stupid." Guro told me, winking. How to adequately describe such antics? Or better yet, what exactly had happened here? The demands of classical ethnographic description would seem to set before us a series of mutually exclusive options: either this was a serious performance, or it was play acting. Either the onlookers were approving, or they were disapproving. Obviously, these are not the terms of a purely "descriptive" approach—whatever that might be. They are in fact already full—fledged analyses of events: claims about perception, staged in terms of an event. its references. and its broader context. Theorizing these capers proves no less problematic. for theory, too, would put before us a set of dreary options: either Guto was making fun of women, or he was celebrating femininity. Either this was a screen for homosexual flirtation, or it was a way of getting rid of those very desires. Either the audience was making fun of cochones. or it was suspending the usual preju— dices to celebrate them. Either Guto was transgressing gender forms, or he was intensifiring them. Such acts either constitute a radical challenge to the system of gender norms, or they merely effect a periodic blowing—ofi‘ofsteam that enables the system to reproduce itselfdespite its many tensions.5 With such options. we are invited to choose sides, to pick a team, and to play a game whose outcome is already decided. An interpretive apparatus, an analytical technology, hunts its familiar noise: parody or praise. subversion or intensification, deviation or norm, resistant or enabling. play or serious . . . A series ofclaims, a chain of diagrams. All the parts are already in place; a syntax is prepared: categories are allotted. One need do no more than mark off the performance, catalogue its parts, and fill in the details. Such tedious work! Guto's delirious gestures and swirls would thus be packaged into neat little boxes—theoretical closures. as final as the denouement ofa familiar play. In a famous passage, Gecrtz argued that “thick description" is telling the difference between a wink and a twitch.6 Surely, nuance is everything in the phenomenology ofa transvestic perfor- mance. But what ifa dramatic moment an (ours is overwhelmed by nuance and ambiguity? And how does one think through a continuous play of winks and gestures. looks and movements. to read what lies behind it all: from the twinkle in Guto's eye to the tone ofwomen's laughter? It is indeed a slippery task to think about the slipperiness of copy—cat gestures. The whole point of such fun and games is that a final meaning evades us. Guto's Performance [561] What I want to offer here is a set ofclosely woven arguments about performances of the sort just described anti about those rituals of masquerade cast on the wider stages of Carnival. Guto was indeed play acting—and play is fun or it is nothing at all. But play is not a trivial thing, and the simultaneously destructive and creative power oflaughter should never be underestimated. An essay. then. in praise of folly. and sotiie questions about the utility of extravagance. THE CLOSET 0F EPISTEMOLOGY: INTENTIONAL AMBIGUITIES? Now. I can scarcely frame my own presence our of the events I've recounted. l was part of the audience. and such performances are always intended. if not exactlyfiir an audience. then always with an audience in mind. My fiat—footedness when everyone else knew the steps, my not getting it when others were in on a joke. were clearly part of the evenings merriment. In the argot of show biz, I played the "straight man." Or did I? Is it possible that my reactions were being probed here? That Guto and his family were attempting to clarify, by reading my reactions. what I was determined to keep ambiguous if not secret? Certainly. events are more or less cotisiStent with this logic. Although the subject of my own sexual preferences almost never came up as .1 direct topic ofquery. I am relatively certain that suspicions circulated. However. 1 am not willing to simply settle on this reading of the situation, for one's social identity is scarcely a unidimensional or straightforss-ard matter. Ifimplicirly conducted as some— thing of an experiment in which 1 was the subject. my hosrs might have been trying to get some insight into my reactions as a person of unknown sexuality. Or they might have been probing my reaCtiotis as a representative North American, as a white person, as a college—educated man, as a somewhat awkward person . . . The possible bases ofincluiry. the. kinds ofquestions that might be posed, are perhaps too numerous to count. To make matters yet more complicated. cultural ditTerences occlude the medium ofcommu- nication. problematizing any notion ofa straightfoward inquiry into stable identities. As l was constantly reminded. my own conceptions ofhoniosexuality did not exactly match up with those of my informants.H It is not even quite clear to me. what would have constituted a “queer” response on my partv—to play along, as the coclion‘s iiriirliti companion? Or to join in the trans- vestic frolic? To stand agape? These are questions that one cannot settle definitively or unequivocally, for what would count as evidence? The word of ones informants counts for something, but in this case those words were double-edged [and necessarily so. as playful speech). And even assuming a serious response. how would one weigh divided 0r shifting subject matters? More vexing still. the acts ofnotjust one but of plural edit-rs almost never offer themselves up as a transparent window on intention. And when plural others are playing. ambiguities multiply geometrically. [n such situations, by their very nature. the one intention conceals the other, takes refuge in the other, leads to another. I dwell on this point to put aside the obvious temptation toward ready finality and easy closure. In both cultural feminism and in a section of gay/lesbian studies, it has become commonplace to olfer one's own sclfup: as subject, evidence. argument. and analysis." Like Descartes’s philo- sophical introspections. this approach begins with what is most proximate and can—presum— ably—be best known: one's own self. one's own body. one's own experiences. From a fortified interior, one can then venture generalizations about an exterior—about others, about the social world. Only a naive and vulgar model could delude us into thinking that the selfenjoys some special access to Its self. In the first place, the presence of the selfand its effects on others are necessarily occulted. We can never quite see our own eye seeing. hear our own ear hearing. or touch our own finger touching.m A self. then. cannot directly observe itself. Precisely because all knowledge filters through a situated self. that self. the nature and scope ofits efi'ects. constitute something of [562] Roger N. Lancaster a blind spot—and necessarily so. It is a problem no mirrors or interlocutions can ultimately solve (for they can only provide additional refractions. each with its own blind—spots). in the second place, a self is ever only partially revealed. even to the self, for consciousness is always “consciousness ofsomething." A selfexists because it projects into the world. lfa selftries to trap itself, ifconsciousness tries to recover itself. to coincide with itself. all warm Inside with the shutters closed. it becomes nothing. This need of consciousness to exist as consciousness of something other than itselfis what llusserl calls "intentionality."'l As a swarm ofintentions, interlacing with the world, the selfis always beyond itself. [ts effects are infinitely refracted in the world and through other selves. To narrow the. practice ofinterpretation to one or two singular dinienstons. as recollected from the position ofan authoritative self, is to short—circuit everything that goes into the com— plexity ofa moment. the richness ofa situation, the contingencies ofself—understariding, and the very sociability of the. social. For much of what happens in the give and take of social life is tenta- tive. unarticulated. inarticulate. Meanings are negotiated: we don't quite know what we meant until a response comes from someone else. Our best thinkng is serendipitous: we‘re not quite sure what we suspected until some evidence appears. We're not quite sure what we‘re looking for until we find it. A gaze roves until It catches something unexpected _. . as we might have expected. What is self, no less than what is other, is out there, in the world. between US. and in play. Unless it is to decompose into a virtual parody ofits nemesis, positivism. reflexivity, too. must practice a sort of reflexivity—and be modest in its pretensions. In the end, I cannot say whether Guto's performance was a testfiir me. and if so, how it was conceived or even how the evidence would have been read; whether it was an a prinri event. and my reactions were probed ex pesrfitct‘o; whether it would have happened in my absence: whether it was staged for my benefit or for others' amusement. it happened, and I was there. a part of it. That is all. EXISTENTIAL Fuzz: A DRAMATIZATION So I can only begin to fathom the complexities ofintention that lay behind Guto’s performance. This is notjust a problem of audience reception but also of perforn'tative conception. Trans— vestism lends itself to performances of gender and sexuality. race and class. desire and repulsion. ego and alter—not to mention the physical body, its carnal practices, and its ideal representations. Such practices are multiply nuanced—and without doubt. complexly intended. I hope I am being clear about the nature of this enigma. It is really an extension of the blind spots ofself-knowledgejust described—as seen from the other side. If one's own identity is always and necessarily complex. compound, and multifaceted; ifone’s own intentions are therefore somewhat ambiguous. even to ones own self: and ifone's own self. and its effects. are therefore multiply refracted in the world of others, then one can hardly expect less from others. lftimliiqinty rules a wide continent of the self, its intentions. its tefractions through others, then amlir'wi't'nre is the degree zero of such performances that dramatize and intensify everyday existential fuzz. [n such moments, identity. identification, and intention are simultaneously revealed. concealed. performed, manipulated, and denied . . . To leave matters in their properly productive ambiguity: Guto was acting the part oi‘a woman. no doubt. He was also imitating queers, as the audience's cries suggest. But he was also playing the role ofa man in drag—that is, he was performing a performance. And that is something too. and not at all the same thing simply practicing a gender or sexuality. For in reality. what woman. what queer, what cochon. really acts that way—unless they, too. are deliberately underscoring Guto's Performance [563] their action with a broadly perfortnative gesture? No matter who acts them out. such performa- tive performances can never simply imitate or mimic some original practice, person. or type—for they are always in exrt'ss of their target. That is what distinguishes them as “performances.” This “exceSs” invariably slides around; Guto is now a woman. now a cochon. now a lowwclass prostin tute, now a refined and alfccted matron, now new-a, now Manta. nowjust Guto. his own self. in a dress. now something else entirer . . . in this manner. transvestic performance is multiply transversal. It effects a rapid shuttle between shifting subject matters: between male and female, between femininity and effeminaey, between the real and the imaginary. between the given and the improvised. it is thus not quite correct to say that transvestisni defines a space ofparody or transgression. 12 Nor is it correct to say that it represents a ritual ofmtensilication. Rather. it represents a profound equivocation. It takes up a space in between. Contrary. even antagonistic intentions are held in suspension. but nothing is canceled out. Not only are multiple intentions refracted through a given gesture. but moreover many possible selves—and others—are always in play. The performanve performance is a rich. nuanced. and crowded practice. PHENOMENOLOGY 0F TRANSVESTISM A movement is learned when tin: body has understood it. —Merleau—P0ntylj Such is the everyday world of transvestic performance. a mode of physical simulation far wider than literally cross—dressing—and far broader than any genre of gay camp: A man quotes .1 woman. He pitches his voice. high to mimic a woman’s speech; he thereby takes her part in some reported conversation. Neither in Nicaragua nor in the United States is this an unusual occurrence. Men do this all the time. Or. to seal an argument or establish the reality of a claim. a man extends his gestures a little further than usual to affect either a feminine or homosexual role—:1 roll of the eyes. a flick of the wrist. a toss of the head . . . [n recounting events or developing an argument. he thus slides into a genre ol"‘transvestic" performance: that is, he strikes a pose. intended to act out the part of some other person. some other role, some other being . . . He thus models his body's demeanor and disposition in the style. ofanOthet. In these everyday miniature theaters. a sort of momentary stage arises: the performer necessarily monitors his audience. his interlocutors. to see whether a performance is working or misfiting, to gauge whether his act is appreciated or resented. to know whether it is amusing or annoying, and to decide how far he can take the conceit. A woman does the same when she enacts the presumed radical alterity ofcochones—a gesture in the air. a swirl ofthe hands. a facial expression. a niincing gait, an inflection understood as “etfeminate” . . . a glance at the audience. out ofthe corner other eye. And in a less parodieal context. women are always appropriating what are otherwise marked as “male” words. male speech patterns. male roles. “I am the head of the family now." I told my children. “the mother .md the father. and what i say goe‘i-n Thus Dona jazmina recounts herself speaking to her children in a new paternal voice after the death of her husband. Just before taking aJob in a factory to do "men’s work."” Her statement itself is a kind of doubly transversal act: she is quoting herself at some past moment affecting a man‘s role: a performance of self performing another gender. My own citations keep the cir- cuitry gomg—triply. quadrupally. Like ventriloquism. these practices “throw” one’s voice. one's gestures, one’s demeanor—one’s self—into the position ofanother. This happens more often than we might at first acknowledge. [564] Roger N. Lancaster Conversation would likely be impossible without such give and take, fer transvestic figuration is aImOst implicit in “reported speech," which is itselfa necessary component of dialogue. 15 If we thus marked as “transvestic” every iteration, quotation, and pantomime that crossed the lines of gender or sexuality, we would understand such performances in all their startling density: as rou- tine, habit, convention, and second nature. These transvestics, whether linguistically or theatrically performarivo—whether affected through words, tone ofvoice, or physical comportment—all involve whatjuclith Butler describes as a kind of“citationality."16 In other words, they trade against some representational convention or shared image: a standard gender, a normal body, a scripted role, the usual way some being is thought to act. But as long as the analysis remains fixed at this preliminary level, the analyst can only chose between two equally improbable options: either the performance enacts or it violates an ideal script.” Perforiiiativity becomes a variant ofNormativity, and we fall into the familiar trap of seeing every practice as the blossoming Forth of an Idea. Since everything happens on the plane ofan abstract and disembodied concept, we fail to understand, and cannot even really pose, the question of performance in its carnal materiality. At the same time, we forget what physical fun it is to play. A more impractical understanding of practice, and more disembodied approach to the body, would be hard to imagine. For the moment we reduce carnal perception to symbolic language. the body becomes non—sense. In making the body one representation, one meaning, among others, we necessarily withdraw analysis to a contemplative retreat far removed from all those carnal ways olknowing and making the world that ought to properly focus the construc- tionist interrogative from the start: viz., how human subjects are crafted through the practical engagements oi'living flesh with the fabric of the world. Before treating performance as a question ofcitation, then, it might be more productive to think through how a being moves, perceives, and practices. For what occurs in any transvestic perfor— mance is an extension and dramatization of rather more mundane movements, themselves implicit in the work of perception and in the logic of the senses. Telescoping arguments from Merleau—Ponty: “to perceive" something is "to figure" it: to Fore- ground it while backgrounding everything else.18 Perceptual attention thus draws us both “toward” and “into” the thing attended. Necessarily, we do not attend to the eye when seeing, but jirom the eye to what is seen.” In reaching, we do not know the body but rather what is touched or grasped. In the absOrption of observation, subject/viewer and object/viewed are momentarily Fused. Vile thus lose ourselves in finding the object, only to recover ourselves among objects—which become extensions of‘ our Own limbs. “encrustations in our own flesh."30 The “operational intentionality" or better yet, the carnal “ecstasis"2[—of sense perception means that we are always entangled with others, with objects, with the world; that by its very nature, the body locates itselfonly by going beyond its place ofstanding,’ that we find ourselves and lose our— selves in the same gesture, the same glance. Now if'this work of the senses is interactive and creative; if in the primacy ot'perccption we are always losing and finding ourselves: ifour bodies are open to the experiences of other bodies; then the senses themselves are given to carnal cross~overs, to physical empathies, and—if you will—to assorted transvestics and polymorphics. Every act of attention, every physical appropriation, every empathic power of the flesh, involves a kind of crossing—over, a loss and recovery of the self. These quotidian practices are continuous with a host of other cross-over desires, and would seem implicit in the social structure of perception. It could not be otherwise. Because we are social creatures, “self” is always found in an “other.” And because our sociability is carnal in its very nature, the desire For another, the desire to be another, is part ofthe fundamental magnetism the world exerts on us. Perhaps the Full impact of these arguments ought to be stated carefully. First, all reported con— Guto’s Performance [565] versation, even self—reportage. and all instances of acting-out—even the acting out of one’s own self—entail a kind ofcross—over. Therein lies the power—~and the risk—of the practice. Second. all practice. insofar as it engages the senses. lays the body open to the world and to others in the fashion dramatized—fitarkly but not uniquely—by transvestic performance. Finally. no one learns (or unlearns) anything—a gender or a sexuality or an identity or even a meaning—except through some process of physical modeling, sensuous experimentation, and bodily play. In the least perception. we are perpetually crossing over and becoming entangled, finding and losing the self. making and dissolving the world. HOSTILE MIMICRY AND PLAY ACTING When gays perform drag, when straights pantomime gays. when men mimic women. when chil- dren act our adult roles. what often happens is a mockery or a burlesque. We need not imagine that these acts are complimentary. Yet even in the worst-case scenario—even in. say, a homophobic performance ofliomosexu— ality, a rnisogynist enactment offemininity. in clear cases ofhostile mimicry—a certain other lesson is also. undeniably. drawn. or at any rate made available for those who might draw it. For to act out the part of the Other plays off the contingencies ofidentity: it implies that one‘s body is mal— leable; that these gestures are. after all, just extensions of the gestures one already makes—indeed. that everyone is capable ofmaking. As a problem ofmovement. the transversa] performance is an exploration ofa space nor appropriate but proximate to the space already known. One attempts to abandon one's own horizon so as to see another's horizon, a different landscape. In inhabiting that space. the Other is a possible Self given to extravagance and excess. Performances can. of course. “misfire.” As Austin shows in his catalogue ofpcrformative typesv—a typology organized precisely aronnd how performances might fall short of or exceed their intended mark—the definition of a misfire depends on nonperformative constraints: on context.22 In gay camp, one mimics the gesture or words or another (even if that other is some~ times the self) not quite literally. but ironically. The audience must both see the irony and find it amusing. In this case. a performance misfires when its irony is lost or when its intention isjudged too mean or too obvious. (Of course. all thesejudgments are relative to the taste, sophistication. and demands of the audience.)23 In certain Drag Balls. however, a “good” performance is a convincing one. As deBarge inti— mates. and as every commentator on “Paris Is Burning” has noted. effective drag produces “the effects of the real." In this case a misfiting is one that fails to achieve the illusion of “reality.” For a parodically intended straight male performance of either women or gay men, however, a “misfired” performance is one in which the style of being of the other all too readily sticks to the self of the performer. The act is all too convincing, for not enough space lies between the actor and the acted. The parody thus lacks its intended irony—or, that irony is deliberately denied as a countermove in the game ofnegotiated meanings. A hostile critic of the transvestic perfor— mance in this case might note: i‘lt is altogether quite conceivable that this is the way you act. that you are at home in this style. that these gestures become. you. that this is the way you are. Your gestures. your own body. give you away.” This implies, further, a category of“nonvoluntary per— formances"—by definition. misfirings of attempts to affect one or another effect. To return to the performance that stimulated these arguments: It would be altogether too easy to understand Guto's drag act as hostile mimicry. There was that, no doubt, but there was also an affectionate. almost sentimental staging ofthe stock—figure queen, in lord. There was. certainly. the sense that the transvestic cochén is exotic, but attractively. copiably so. with a force that draws imitation. There was indeed the indication that such antics are extreme, but in pleasurable senses: in physical abandon, visceral mirth. creative frivolity . . . Performances ofthis type suggest a variant oftransvestics, partly taking in several other genres. _ ii_. [566] Roger N. Lancaster and making them all possible. It involves trying things on. trying things out. Playful. exploratory. and ambiguous. this mode belongs to the genre of children‘s games, to free play. to friendly banter. and to Carnival. 1 shall call this variant by its familiar name. play acting. As infectious as laughter itself, it necessarily invites us to play along. Guto's performance was almost certainly an example of this genre. CARNIVAL DREAMS: BENT-OVER Acrs AND CRoss-Ovstt DESIRES “Let's go to Camavctl to see the cochones," people often say upon the approach of Masaya's har- vest festival.24 Someone will invariably note, without apparent irony or guile: "The cochones at Carnival are very, very beautiful." And then someone else will launch into a generous enumera- tion of the characteristics and qualities of transvestic beauty. perhaps illustrating his argument with a mincing gait. or by clutching an imaginary skirt . . . The pleasures we partook in Guto’s performance were very much in the spirit of Carnival. “the festival ofdisguises." Indeed. his antics put people to talking for several days abriut the visual and visceraljoys of that much anticipated ritual. At Carnival. audience reaction to cochones is much what it was with Guto‘s Carnivalesque performance: solicttous festivity. teasing banter. and good-spirited encouragement. Many of the “cochones” performing on the stage of Carnival are indeed "queers" in real life. But some are men who are not. The difference is not always apparent. Some affect their role with regal demeanor and glamorous adornment. Others arejust men in rather plain dresses. No matter. Although onlookers clearly savor flamboyance over simplicity, all are graced with the familiar sobriquet “queer.” The best performers receive this mockery in the good spirit of Carnival humor. giving as well as they get. A stately queen approached tne at one Carnival procession— coquettishly, fiirtatiously—but upon closer approach, reacted sharply, as though a bad odor were emanating from me. Tlieatrically, she tool»: leave . . . to gales oflaughter from onlookers. Such is Carnival’s humor, with its turning of tables and inversion of expectations. One could make selective sense ofCarnivalesque festivities through the idioms of gender and sex— uality, which are visibly salient features of the experience. Carnival is. in part. the Revolt of the Queers. Much ofits whimsy plays offslippagcs. contradictions. and ambiguities in the PTOPOSI- tions of the prevailing sexual culture. Much ofits “gay ambivalence" reverses the usual valences associated with queers, homosexuality, effeminacy. and desire.25 Things hidden somersault into the open; passivity and activity exchange places; bad sport becomes good humor . . . [n the ensu— ing vertigo, everyone becomes a little bit queer. The whole worid IS flaming. But Carnival also—wildly—exceeds questions of gender and sexuality. One might say: the theory and practice of the flesh renewed each year at Carnivaltinie striatemis questions of gender and sexuality. If Carnival lends itselfto ritual reversals in the performance ofgender and sexuality. it no less takes up questions of race, class, and ethnicity. The famous peach—coniplexioned masks of Monimbo, with their rosy cheeks and pencil inustaches. recall the Spanish gentry and reveal the colonial dimension of Carnival’s history: Indians take on the color. wear the face. mimic the dances—and thereby mime the powers—of white Spaniard rulers.26 More modern Carnival images likewise traffic in depictions of class, administrative. or neocolontal power. Images include a transvestic whiteface jazzercise class, white-coated physicians with vaudevillian implements, bankers, politicians. interimritmaiisms . . . Carnival. then, is the occasion for remembering. interrogating. and playing with the history of systems of domination. This reading locates Carnival in its proper historical and political—eco- nomic context. But such an approach still remains limited. The danger of leaving matters here is the danger ofa false reduction, where everything is settled even before a question can be posed. Like transvestic performance. Carnival becomes either a contestation or a ratification of the forms of power It so clearly dissects. yet we have short—circuited the whole inquiry. We never under— stand him» it could, in and ol'itself. perform either function. or why the other should be so fasci- Hating to start with. An alternative reading: When Carnival comes to Masaya. when the Fiesta de Santo Domingo is celebrated in Managua. or when any ot'a dozen such festivities comes to towns and barrios across Nicaragua. what happens is a profusion ofmasks, a merry confounding ofintentions, and a pro- liferation ofcross—over desires. In Carnival time. “gay ambiguity" embraces not just the imagery of the social, political, and economic world but also the physical world. the natural world, Car— nival's working materials are sights. colors. smells, and tastes. lts repertoire is the entire sensorium. an ever—shifting kaleidoscope. Consider. then. a host of' other images. Humans take on animal forms. and people become fantastic creatures; cows, bulls, birds, insects. Diablos. Diablitos . . . Saints walk among savages. alongside an occasional beast comprised ot‘sparklcrs and fireworks. images pile up: not as a com- posed and singular picture. but as a work in progress; as an unfinished process oi‘experimentation, excess. and play _ . . These images play at sacrilege: a travestied crucifixion scene. with a Trans- VCSthJCSUS and two Drag Thieves. all bearing crosses . , . They also risk a rupture with coherence altogether; animated objects gambol perplexinglv among funny monsters, fused bodies. and crea— tures that are halt—human and half-aniinal—dike the stirrings ol‘a psychedelic dream. Transvestics become panvestics. as social discriminations oscillate, natural distinctions blur, and the contours of the body are stretched and tested}? Bakhtin's discussion of the sensibility of the mask is instructive; The mask is connected with the joy ofchange and reincarnation. with gay relativity and with the. merry negation oi'uiiifornutv and similarity: it rejects confimniry to oneself. The mask is related to transition. metamorphoscs. the violation of natural boundaries. to mockery and familiar nicknames. It contains the playful element in life; it is based on a peculiar interrelation Ol-TCfllilfy and image. char— acterisuc ot‘the most ancient rituals and siriect'acles.3"S Beside Bakhtin's celebration of Carnival metamorphosis. we might set Merleau-l’onry‘s under— standing. ol'the body in its very existence. For it is precisely,i in n'ietamorphosis, Fusion, and con— fusion—em that space in between perceivcr and perceived—that body and selftake shape. A human body is present when. between the see—er and the Visible. between touchng and touched, between one eye and the other. between hand and hand a lcind of crossover occurs. when the spark ol‘the sensrngz’sensible is. lit.3'J Like the. "mirrors phantom" contemplated by Merlcau—Ponty, the mask draws my flesh into the outer world, and at the. same time . . _ my body can inveSt its psychic energy in the other bodies I see. Hence my body can include elements drawn From the body of another. just. as my substance passes into them_-‘“ Reflections of beings, infiniter refracted. Carnival whimsy plays olT those powers ot‘perccption that extend the bod),r beyond its contours. to consolidate the body in and through the world—-—in the very act ofdispersmg it. Masks-—crossovers. transvestics—uo less than mirrors, "are instruments of' a universal magic that converts things into spectacles, spectacles into things. myselfinto another, and another into myself. "-"l The horizons oi" Carnival are as wide as perception itself. and as sensuous as practice itself. lntentionality and identity are caught up in playful equivocations that are simultaneously produc— [568] Roger N. Lancaster tive. destructive. and instructive. Abandoning the self-conformity ofour own contours, our own horizons. we try out other bodies. other horizons. all possible worlds. Hand with eye and body to world, the Carnival celebrant grapples with the problem ofaesthetics in its original and broad- est sense: the perception of reality"2 Through nOn-sense, we unmake a sense of self, while making a new sense of reality~——in open air, as play. Seen in the context ofCarnivalesque festivity. impersonations like Guto's are most richly under— stood not as discrete representations, nor even as enactments of gender or sexuality alone. but as practices continuous with the expression of other crossover desires. Such performances turn on physical excess, carnal ambivalence, and gay ambiguity. They model a body exposed to the grav— itational pull ofother bodies: an open, ambiguous body. given to all kinds ofcrossovers and rever- sals; a body malleable and in flux. because perception opens it to the world; a self thus lost, and recovered. but only in others and in the world. THE SOCIABILITY or THE SOCIAL: Gar LAUGHTER A helicopter passes overhead. A bad omen, the helicopter, in war—torn Nicaragua. On its first pass. it drops loads and loads of dirt on us. It turns. preparing for a second pass. With grit In our mouths and shaking dirt from our hair, we Carnival celebrants scramble to take refuge under the awnings of the buildings that line Masaya's narrow. cobbled streets. But on its second pass. the helicopter drops gently scented flower petals. which slowly rain on the panicked people left stranded in the street. And now we are laughing. all laughing at life, at ourselves. at our bodies, at our fears no less than out pleasures. Carnival is like that: it assaults you and it pleasures you; it plays bait-and-switch with your sensibilities; it plays tricks on you. and it makes you laugh. 1 always leave these festivities more than a little giddy: intoxicated from so much laughter. and largely unable to explain later just what was so funny. Laughter—deep. visceral laughter—resonates throughout the Carnival experience. An inti— mate breath reverberates From the belly. acqurres a voice, gushes through the air. and Flows from body to body. Like that very "respiration of Being" Merleau—l’onty writes about.33 this inspired laughter erases the distinction between seer and seen. performer and audience. laugher and laughed at. Such laughter is the very medium of Carnival connectivity, its carnal Form of socia— bility. This laughter is an. intimately and viscerally, but it is also shared and universal. [n the dialectical play OFOppOSite‘fi described by Bakhtin. laughter lifts us up even as it debases; it “dootns the existing world to the regenerating flames ofCarnival."3'l All the popular genius ot‘Carnival, all its mastery of visual tricks and physical games. come to so much funny playing. so many ways of trying things 0th. THEORY Posr-FEsTUM: PLAYING AND KNOWING C-uto, ol'course, was just playing around. At first [ dismissed his eruption as an unusual and mar— ginal occurrence—until [ considered just how densely such ludic interludes punctuate daily life. Guto's performance suggests that Carnivalesque leaps ofbody arid meaning are implicit in a wide range of figurings. Andjust what happens when these everyday suspensions of‘the normal break out? What happens when people play act? W’har might it imply to get “carried away" by an act a mask, a dramatic moment? Are we transported. as it were, bodily. to another space? Do we live. if only for a moment, that which we do? Taken as a total situation and seen in the wider context of“ Carnival. Gum's Performance and his audience‘s interactions suggest the special allinities between play and exploration. knowledge and jest. There was a practical knowledge. a kind of t'aiiiiliarity. to it all. and everyone—save rue—seemed to know their parts. Once Guto initiated the evenings gag, my hosts all played along. with a physical understanding. much as one might Follow the steps old a dance. There was ajoke it was all so much tomlbolery—but it is precisely the “gestic” or gestural element onest —-— ____——.—_——-.— Guto's Performance [569] that, In catching the gist of what it mimes, allows it to conceal so many obscure truths. so much manifold sobriety. such a detailed and carnal knowledge ofthe world.35 Huizinga‘s classic, Home Liideiis, provides a set oi‘useful insights for thinking about the relation- ship between play and other forms of practice, and for theorizing play as both a human universal and as a base condition of culture. in a narrow sense. play is easily distinguished from routine activity and work. Play is "fun." It is some surplus exertion beyond utility and in excess of reason: unproductive, impractical, even irrational. As superfluous activity, voluntarily chosen, play is “free.” and this “quality of action" distingisbes it from the practices of ordinary life. Thus, play is bounded against nonplay: as a playtime. on a playground?“ But in a broader sense, play has consequences far beyond its own space and time, and any dis- tinction between play and nonplay begins to waver. As a functional matter, play and rules imply each other. Through repetition. variation, and meniOry. “play creates order. is order"; at the same time, an action becomes playful only through the gridwork of certain expectations, certain reg- ularities. lf“play" and "rules" thus come into being simultaneously, the forces they set in motion are anything but CTlVlfll.37 l-luizinga's generalist anthropology traces the play—spirit through a variety ofserious practices. l’lay's affinities with ritual are especially compelling: both are time—bounded activities, restricted to a special place, simultaneously rule governed and rule generating. As suspensions of the ordi— nary, both involve a “loss of self" in the action of the event. Despite its “imaginary” or “make- believe" character, play is efficacious: it creates a community ofplayers, a community that lingers after the play is over—just as ritual leaves in its wake a community of believers-'58 Finally, as an open—ended alternation ofgive-and—take, move—and—eountermove, play is tense.39 lt solicits us. Poised to move in response, we want to see what happens next. This dynamic often— sion and solution both gives play its Fascination and fosters the cultivation of certain habits, the development of certain skills. The conduct of play brings together physical attention, mental alertness, bodily exertion, carnal learning, and tests of performative competence. As a result, the player‘s body and dispositions are, to varying degrees, reshaped by his engagement with sport. From Huizinga’s perspective, play embraces culture: it comes before it; it lies beneath it; and it is spread out before it. If the play-spirit lies at the origin of aesthetics, art, myth, ritual, and religion, then it is difficult to think ofany “higher order" activity that is not infused with the spirit ofplay. Play is the very quality of action that built eiiroiiipusses structure and makes it possible. Is it such a far step to ask whether what social constructionism attempts to describe is also a kind ofplay? Would it really be 50 outlandish to suggest that play is “the matrix ofidentity."40 that very surplus ofactiviry whose consequences entail “subjects,” "selves," and “groups?” I: no doubt goes too far to suggest that we literally become. what we play at being, that we make the make-believe become the real. Only a charlatan or a madman claims that. Play, by meg: has no power to make anything happen. “Play is tense" means, in part. that sinew and fiber resist certain activities. The Freedom of play is meaningful, and faculties are reshaped by its exertions, precisely because both body and world are encountered as obstacles, resistances. counter-forces. Play is exhilarating because it is experienced counter to work, to routine, to other practices. Huizinga's heuristic origins stories aside. we are. never in the position ofthe first to play. We thus play our games freely, but we are not free to play them just any way we choose. And yet, play does come to something. Put another way: Play is a special genre of practice—— that form most perfectly aligned with what Marx calls “sensuous practice.” or "practice as sensu— ous activity."‘” it embodies practice at its freest and most creative. In this engagement ofbody and world, we test the plasticity of the world against the dexterity of the body—not "to do" some— thing else (as in work). but for no good reason at all. Play can either follow or violate a script, but that is not the major point. If play has some part in making the world, as Huizinga argues, it also [570] Roger N. Lancaster has a part in unmaking the world, as Balchtin shows. Either alternative is possible because play engages sense. body, and world in a particularly i'iiiprartiral way—and thereby liberates practice from its seriousness. its commitment to a given end. its inertia. In the form of play. practice dis— plays its most potent possibilities (but not its most direct results]. In the model suggested here. play is to identity as sense is to body: it locates and orients us, but It also goes beyond and exceeds us. In this making ofidcntity, the body is neither “given” nor "made—up." A body is a self not by transparency. like thought. which never thinks anything except by assimilating it. constituting it. transforming it into a thought—but a selfby confusion, narcissism, inherence ofthc see-er in the seen. the toucher in the touched, the Feeler in the felt—a self, then. that is caught up in things.42 All of existence is caught tip together as an unbroken circuit ofperception and practice, but to play is to leap and throw oneself, consciously (ifnot always voluntarily)-—an especially instrucrive way of being “caught up in things." It is a way ot'knowing. we learn something when we play. The body remembers it. But against all temptation to see the body as a kind of clay, passively stamped by other forces, and permanently shaped into a closed subject, play also reminds us that plasticity is reciprocal; that body and world come into being together. IDENTITY, POLITICS, PRACTICE ln ordinary life. ambiguities and crossovers—the promiscuiry of the senses—are held in check. Routine. practices constellate narrow and habitual relations between self, others, world. When the world is thus held constant. the polymorphous potential ofthe flesh is still at work, but its surplus capacities are bracketed olTand—as it were—backgrounded. “Being” thus brokers a compromise with the forces ot‘its own composition: we attend to certain regularities, and thus from a body. a self, held constant. Understood this way, “identity” means nothing more than a temporary cessa— tion of the overflow of the senses. (It is to this side of perception that Bourdieu's theory ot‘prac— tice restricts itself: that is, with what memoryforgcts, With what perception emits”) And yet, in the give—and-takc ofsocial life. carnivalized subjects and dispersed intentionalities are perpetually breaking through all that is stable, structural, and singular. In the metamorphic fig~ urations of everyday practice; in the implicitly transvestic conceits of reported speech; in specu— lation on the compound identities and mixed motives of other people; in deconstructive double~talk. pun. and verbal play: in every way of longing for a new identity, another body. a fresh perspective—by myriad such devices, what is alter is also ego, what is “beyond” is also “within,” and ambiguity lives at the core of‘identity. Implicit in the nature of our bond with the world, even the most habituated habitus can be the source of new experiences. Through the magic of perception. even the most objectified object can be dislodged from its inertia to reveal new facets. Even the most consolidated self retains in the. senses a perpetually—available resource for going beyond its self. “All flesh, even that ofthe world, radiates beyond itself.”14 The kind ofplayfulness I have been sketching—aesthetic, plastic. and creative—is often under— stood as a variety ofleisure, as an index of education, or as a function of privilege. Bourdieu thus separates critical thought from ordinary perception, and reflection From activity.“ But perceptual intelligence is not necessarily on the side otnthc higher orders. with inertia on the side of the lower. No one is ever so impoverished or exploited as to be without capacity for empathy, mim- icry. laughter, and double—talk. Even at the height of war. social dislocation, and economic scarcityflespccially their—people make time For funny games and Carnival laughter. Not all cultures publicly elaborate these powers: some celebrate Carnival; others do not. Yet like the cxistentialist idea of' freedom, these capacities are always there, always here, always avail- able for some engagement. Play is always available for sortie work. Everyday transvestics, assorted plays offambiguity, and temporary transpositions ofidentiry are simultaneously so germane and so mundane that the work they do often goes unnoticed. Guto's Performance [5?1] Here, in a nutshell, is my argument about that work: identity, like hermeneutic knowledge. is a matter of locating and stabilizing a sclfby way of the detour of the other.“ Identity, then, is not self-identical. Experience is not a receptacle. Like learning to see, or learning to walk, learning a gender or a sexuality—or any other kind ofself/idenrity—relies on physical explorations, carnal transpositions, corporeal learning, and practice. Transvestics and other kinds of body—play are absolutely necessary to secure stable genders—but they also carry the danger that play always implies: a game can. at any moment, run away with the players. in engaging the world and each other. subjects make themselves, but they also—through intentionalities without intention—lay themselves open to risks without which they could not “exist” at all. This volatile and creative capacity is not simply “given,” a force outside of history, society. and meaning. Like language, it is a universal human capacity that must nonetheless be learned and developed in all its specifies, in all its variable forms. Although it is "volitional," it represents the will of no given subject; rather, it is that very plurality of wills through which subjects are real— ized. It takes distinctive forms but is not just a terminal form of social practice: it is also both a medium and afem ofsociability. Surely, it is meaningful, but not in the purely "conceptual" sense of Saussurean semiotics; it is, rather, that creative and slippery way of grounding meaning, through perception, at the interface between flesh and world. This "ecstatic" power, then, is his— torical but it does not beIOng to history the way an object fits in a box. We should say, rather, that this capacity—what we do when we play no less than when we labor—is both constitutive in and constituted by history. it is the flesh and blood of history.‘U Since playful practice is a social power, its effects are differentially distributed. The politics of play is thus anything but a straightforward matter. Fascist Right no less than anti—authoritarian Left embodies a kind of play—spirit. No one wants to be on the receiving end of certain kinds of play—to be “toyed with." as a “play-thing." Dona jazmina is being inventive. but she is not being funny, when she appropriates a partly masculine identification. Cross-dressing has different social implications, depending on who crosses to what, for whom, and in what context. Men and women, rich and poor, "straight" and “queer,” all piny, but they do not and cannot all play the same way, with the same intentions. to the same efi'ects. Understood in this sense, such fun and games become diflicult to distinguish rigorously from ritual at its most solemnu—or from the seriocomic practices of gender in everyday life. In this wider sense, Guto’s performance was neither the exception nor the rule. Rather, it embodied the kind of practice capable of making or breaking rules. These practices locate us at the heart of practice and in the matrix ofidentity—not where identity is “produced” or directly made as the consequence of some activity, but where unmotivated intentionalities are caught up with unin- tended consequences; not where signifier joins signified, nor where a code is either cited or par— odied, but rather where sense both precedes and exceeds meaning; where hand and eye connect to the world; where, between eye and hand. body and world, ego and alter, a kind ofcombustion occurs; where the creative powers ofperception bear witness to the birth ofthe world, and where the world is made new again at every moment. These practices happen, unnoticed, all the time. Hand to substance, we give something shape; we know it by its touch and feel. We then indicate that something with a gesture. when the word escapes us. Hand with eye and touch to matter, we learn a technique oflabor or a style ofexpres— sion. We know something because we have explored it from all its angles; we have passed into it, and it into us. There is no cultural activity that is without some element ofphysical play and cor— poreal learning. Applying hand to object, we learn the materiality of things. Applying sense memory to body image, we practice at being someone. This is not to say that transvestiSm lies at the Origin of culture, which is Maijorie Garber’s provocative claim in Vested Interests.“ People have argued that stranger things lie at the origin of culture, but it seems to me that this staging of the claim pus the terms backwards. Undoubtedly. transvestism is implicit in any gender system—and is likely necessary for gender to exist at all. But [572] Roger N. Lancaster it might be better to say that the kind ofmanipulation, learning, and play that goes into a trans— vestic ritual goes into every other cultural practice as well; that where there is gender. there must also be transvestism. Sometimes this playful practice or sensuous epistemology is understood as "rnimesis."49 But as l-luizinga notes. play is less “mimetic” (imitative representation) than “meriterric”: “a helping out of the action." lts efficacy implies less a distinctive “play instinct” or "mimetic faculty" than the general powers of perception and practice. It would also be too straightforward simply to assert that all identity is playfully performa— tive—that. for a moment there, Guto really was a cochén, or a woman. or a transgendered person: that play directly makes things happen; that play is construction; that gender is transvestism. Rather, it might be better to say that playful practices put us at the fulcrum ofa phenomenolog- ical vector. into a position from which we might spring in any number ofdifferent directions. To play act, to play at Carnival, to play at transvestism, is to explore those possibilities. Guro’s “BREASTS”: THE TRansvrsrtsu or THE BODY There are several ways for a body to be body . . . —Merleau—Ponty5‘l I do not want to close out this essay with a sense of finality—a notion opposed. at any rate. to Carnival play. I do not even know whether it is germane—how does one ever claim to know such things?—to mention this: After adolescence, Guto. like some other boys in his extended family. had begun to grow small breasts. His older brother Charlie claimed that his own nipples sometimes produced lathe, milk, as I discovered one day when I encountered him, concentratedly squeezing his nipples and asked him what he was doing. Now. other than Guto’s small "breasts" and Charlie's occasional “lacta— tion.” the young men‘s physiques were scarcely “feminine.” if anything, their solidly muscular frames could only be seen as “masculine.” I surmise that, as Dona Flora’s family had come from a rural province. where they lived until moving to Managua. her children may have been exposed to pesticides, including DDT. Some pesticides. when they decompose, mimic the effects ofestro— gen, giving rise to such phenomena as “breasts” in young men. When Guto acted out his transvestic part, he had recently undergone a minor operation to remove the breasts. A pair ofsmall, crescent-shaped scars cupped his nipples. Guro made no efi‘brt to conceal them and did not seem self~conscious about these odd—looking marks, which resemw bled nothing so much as happy-face smiles inscribed on his chest. NOTES Thanks to Florence Babb, Danie] Balderston,]ohn Beverley, Samuel Colon. Micaela di Leonardo. Jean Franco. Donna Guy, Lois Horton. Ann Palkovich, Ileana Rodriguez. and Paul Smith for critical readings ofearly drafts. Additional thanks to those who were collegial during trying times at Columbia. and who gave my work supportive criticism and helpful feedback: Caroline Bynum, Elaine Combs—Schilling, Linda Green.jean Howard. Katherine Newman, and Gayatri Spivak. Students rarely get the credit they deserve for stimulating a professor's thinking; special thanks are in order for Andy Biekford. Alex Costley, Marcia] Godoy. And ofcourse, thanks to all the cultural studies students at George Mason Univemty. Finally, these arguments are deeply indebted to Judith Butler's sharp and disciplined formulations—when departing from them no less than when applying them. 1. Some readers may recognize these characters, the subjects ofmy book, Ly} Is Hard: Mathismo, Dari— gt’r, and the Iminmcy of Power in Nicaragua (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). i 2 lbid.. 52—68. .3. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rnbelai’s and His l’lr'im'd (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). 415. 4 Lancaster, Life Is Hard, 245. ...
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This note was uploaded on 12/07/2010 for the course ANTHRO ANTHRO 121 taught by Professor Sheilagailo'rourke during the Spring '10 term at UC Irvine.

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GutosPerformance - 37 Guto’s Performance Notes on the...

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