The Persistent Liminality of Performative Representations of the Past

In his essay “Tourist Performance in the Twenty-first Century,” Scott Magelssen describes his experience of participating in a simulated illegal crossing of the U.S.-Mexico border within the broader context of the recent “boom” in performative/participatory events within the tourism industry. This boom is “fostered by a particular set of discourses and economic shifts that shape the tourism landscape,” a landscape becoming increasingly integral to economic and cultural policies that strive to meet consumer demands for more immersive and active experiences (175-177). Whether such immersive and active experiences take the form of battle reenactments, simulated border crossings, living history, museum theater, etc., what remains consistent across all the essays in Enacting History is that the performance of history generally functions to supplement the “archive” as it is defined by Diana Taylor: the written, stored knowledge that selectively valorizes and grants permanence to some memories at the expense of others (Poole, 68-69). Taylor offers the performed knowledge of the “repertoire” as the counterpoint to the archive by way of the repertoire’s performance of “something that can’t be housed or contained in the archive.” Although the archive and repertoire work together to “constitute and transmit social knowledge,” Richard L. Poole finds “three liminal spaces” that exist between the “repository and the performance:” the first “between the repertoire and the playwright, where fashioning the repertoire into a play takes place;” the second, “between the play’s creation and performable acts;” and the third “between the performance and its reception by the audience” (Poole, 69). While the performance of history is “about the praxis of the performance itself, which offers an agency and authenticity outside the discursive boundaries produced and policed by academics,” it still seems that performative/immersive/active historical interpretations, although they exist within the liminal space between the archive/repository of “official” history and the repertoire of knowledge performed for the public, are nonetheless fraught with the same tensions and issues that plague the production of historical scholarship in general (Magelssen, 6-7). The persistence of liminality in the production of knowledge—whether its through the performance of “abject lived experience” or versions of the past “remembered in textbooks and written sources”—renders any testimony, narrative, or performance subject to the contestation and contradiction woven into the complex web of political, economic, and cultural factors of the contemporary context in which performances of the past are enacted (Magelssen, 195; Clemons, 15).

Is the production of historical or cultural knowledge just inherently fraught with “struggles for the right to determine identity, history, and meaning in a given society,” as Leigh Clemons points out? Is it a good thing to include audiences and participants in the process of representing historical events, despite the likelihood audiences will coproduce meanings and narratives that are outside those intended by producers? Magelssen links the emphasis on performative events in cultural heritage tourism to growing economies, the woes of postindustrial society (nostalgia for an imagined past), growing demands for the consumption of entertainment, etc. Given the nature of such factors shaping interpretive history (in that they aren’t likely to go away anytime soon and will instead permanently alter the ways historical sites and museums are experienced), are issues regarding the liminality of producing and transmitting knowledge not really issues at all, but have instead been part of the discipline of history all along? Are we just more aware of such complexities, contradictions, contestation, etc. because of the proliferation of virtuality in day-to-day experience?

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About jessicalkeys

M.A. student in History at Georgia State University
This entry was posted in heritage, Interpretive issues, living history. Bookmark the permalink.

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