This was originally performed at Greetings, from Queer Mountain on February 24, 2016
What I know is that the stories we tell matter. The stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell each other, and the stories our culture tells us. But what I mean by that might not make sense to you if you aren’t used to thinking of the world that way, so let me give you a little background.
I have a Master’s degree in Performance Studies, which is an interdisciplinary Humanities degree. The short of it is that in the 1970s, scholars in Theatre, Communications, Linguistics, Folklore, Dance, and Ethnomusicology realized they were talking about the same things but not talking to each other, and what if they did? Now, Performance Studies has expanded to include History, Sociology, Anthropology, Religious Studies…basically anything useful to your research is up for grabs.
Performance Studies considers performance as an object of study. So, I could research a particular live performance like Queer Mountain and its impact and effects on the Austin community. Or, I could look at the history of a place like Cheer Up Charlies and the creation and re-creation of queer music spaces in Austin. I could research a festival like SXSW and its relationship to development and gentrification in Austin. That all probably seems pretty straightforward, right?
But, what is possibly even more interesting and exciting (to me) about Performance Studies is that it also allows performance to be used as a methodology. Which means that I can study the performance of queer identity. Or the way a storytelling practice like coming out shapes the boundaries of a community. I could research how the City of Austin creates a narrative about the city to encourage a certain kind of person to move here, or to rationalize cutting away the cliff face behind me to create a parking lot.
Those of you familiar with Judith Butler’s work might already understand the notion of performativity, but that was borrowed from a communications scholar named JL Austin. Austin wanted to explore the implications of phrases like, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” which not only describe reality but create it. A performative utterance DOES something – acts on the world around it.
Since then, Austin’s work has been extended to all language. Rather than seeing some statements as declarative and others as performative, ALL language is actually performative. Language itself creates a filter and a limitation on the world as we know it. We can only understand as much as we can say with language. There is no world before language, either, because we hear adults talking while still in the womb.
And saying by extension that identity is performative or gender is performative doesn’t mean that it’s somehow fake, deceitful, or inauthentic. It rather means that what we say and what we do has an impact on the world around us – we create ourselves and our world via our habits of speech and action. It also doesn’t mean that we are necessarily totally free to choose, either, because the culture into which we are born has already decided on limits around appropriate and acceptable behavior, and as we all know, there are real consequences for deviating from those norm. But performativity provides a way towards agency in that if enough people speak or act in a certain way for long enough, if new identities are repeated often enough and for enough time, then change is possible.
Shakespeare famously wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players,” and what I know is that this is absolutely true.
One of the most valuable things I learned in graduate school came from my thesis advisor. I was doing ethnographic research – which means that instead of using the archive to research a historical or current event, you go into a community and talk to the people there to understand them. But rather than the colonial gaze of much early anthropology, ethnographers are now participant-observers. It is key to be a member of the community and to be actively participating in it. Performance Studies does not believe in objectivity. Rather, all research is inherently subjective and it’s better to be transparent about our stakes in it than to pretend we’re not biased.
There had been an upset in one of the student groups I was studying and the membership was divided. Many of those I was interviewing were also my friends. I asked my advisor, “How do I know whether I agree with them because they are right or because they are my friends?” My advisor responded, “It isn’t about right or wrong. What is the story they are telling and what is it doing for them?” I have found that lesson to be invaluable in my life post graduate school. People become attached to certain points of view, certain narratives, certain stories about the world and how it works. If someone is strongly attached to a particular point of view, it’s because it is doing something for them. Whether it’s filling a need for safety or continuity, or rationalizing a behavior, or is a denial tactic to avoid the discomfort of admitting you were wrong. Knowing what a particular story is doing for someone is the key to real change because it lets you see how they shape their world.
What I know is that everything is a performance. Everything is a narrative. The voice inside your head telling you who you are and what you should do. Your opinions about other people. The speeches given by Presidential candidates. The moment of conversation between you and the bus driver. The comments on that article you share on Facebook. Everything your parents, teachers, and mentors have ever taught you. We are what we repeatedly do. Everything about our culture is a story our ancestors made up. That those in power make up. It worked for them. It was doing something for them. If we don’t like what it’s doing now, we can change it. But it takes practice. And repetition. And there will be consequences.
But what I know is that those stories matter, possibly more than anything else. So tell yours.