Genealogies & Performance

what Christopher Lirette has been doing in Atlanta & what he might do next

It is very confusing what I do; luckily, my graduate program makes first year students make a story about what they do. Here’s my (unedited) narrative statement:

In Spring of 2012, I was living in New Jersey, teaching classes on comic books, hip hop, and creative writing at Cornell, and co-running a nonprofit in Louisiana via the internet and coach airline tickets. Hence my proposal to work on the subjects of popular expressive culture and the specific social milieu of southeastern Louisiana. In a way, these interests have not changed. I still plan to do “field” research in Louisiana. I still plan to figure out how television and Facebook and pro wrestling and superheroes fit into the collective identities that make up Louisiana culture(s). In another way, though, my trajectory into graduate study has been thick with detours and sinkholes. I came in thinking I might turn toward sociology or anthropology to fill out methodological gaps. But I’ve grown to be a very suspicious person.

I blame Professor Bobby Paul. In the fall, he taught the first-year foundations course, which in this specific instance involved reading some serious social theory. Some I’d read before: Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Nietzsche. Others—such as Foucault and Butler—I had a frail familiarity with. But on the whole, each text unearthed me. It became hard to see myself participating in the “human sciences” as I began to see those fields so fraught with the totalizing force of the Enlightenment. Alfred Schutz, weirdly enough, was a wake-up call writer, probably because he was among the first unfamiliar writers I’d read of the semester. It was bizarre because he was a sociologist, and one who seemed to not have the punk politics of Nietzsche or Marx. He was like a slightly “off-kilter” Durkheim: a person who was quietly logical, but who acknowledged that we live in multiple registers of reality, that we order these according to relevancies, that we embody (happily, unconsciously) contradictions. Among that early part of the course, Schutz and William James cleared a way for the voices of late 2012 that took hold of my voice.

Foucault and Butler. I had, of course, read them before. But in this class, I found myself on the brink of understanding: discourse and iteration, power and agency, the limits and possibilities of a science of what people do. I thought about the term “genealogy.” This term, beloved by everyone in my home town only interested me during my most nostalgic-towards-a-Louisiana-I’d-been-away-from-for-years (and had never been never like that anyway) phase (fall 2005–spring 2007). And it only interested me in the way it interested my dad: where we came from, where the genetic line branches, what boat one came in on. But now I have the genealogy of fragmented and divergent lines of discourse, the threads that somehow conspired to come together in some places, for some time, and then were unsewn. I began to think about how there are a lot of so-called natural things we perform: heritage, family, community—especially as I continued to return to Louisiana to help run a festival (bracketing, let us say, some of my wilder critiques of Louisiana and facticity). I began to see how my project was neveras split as I imagined it, how it was joined by the twin joinders of genealogy and performance.

I found another odd angle in while taking a class called Video Games taught by Professor Tanine Allison of the film department. While working through some of the Foundations theory in the context of video games, I began thinking about the process of playing, especially narrative-heavy games, or virtual experiences (like Second Life) that gave people “freedom” to inhabit other selves. While looking up articles on online virtual communities, I followed a wayward curiosity about where the term “dungeon” comes from in its erotic context. Turns out the word is first traced to a personal ad in the L.A. Free Press from 1974, the same year Dungeons and Dragons, the first table-top role-playing game, was published. Yowza! This happy confluence set off some heavy (fun) theoretical meditation: both phenomena, public alt-sex and RPGs, are excellent examples of how one might deal with an oppressive, restrictive power structure (a dungeon): turn it in to a place wherein fantasy is reality, wherein one incarnates the imagination into one’s living flesh. I began to strategize about how I could consider Louisiana culture, especially as it interfaces with both its own self-perception and the broader micro-fictions it encountersthrough popular media, in this lens. My paper for my video games course led me to the PCA/ACA conference in March where I began beta testing (ok, alpha testing) this idea on other scholars writing about kink and fetish and RPGs and TV, etc. In addition, I took Text, Images, and Sound with Professors Moon and Goldberg, which explored ekphrastic literature and foregrounded many of the questions of representation, reading, and the performance of different modes of “reality” or the “extradiscursive” or “material traces” through engagement with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Giorgio Agamben among other critics.

Now, I’m in the middle of a Digital Humanities class, Postcolonial Theory, and Placing American Religions, encompassing three fields (media studies, theory-writ-large, and human geography) that will probably eventually name my comp reading lists. The theorists I’m falling into now are the likes of Michel de Certeau, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Trinh T. Minh-ha. And more Foucault (with some Derrida, Deleuze, and Lacan thrown in). My class on postcolonial theory, with Professor Sean Meighoo, has been especially useful in conceiving and reconceiving my project, the ethics of writing, my own position as a person who studies and who makes interventions. The religion studies class, taught by Doctor Bobbi Patterson, re-introduced Foucault’s “heterotopia,” another term that I hope to interpret and reinterpret in the context of Louisiana and the imaginary spaces it contains. Joining the chorus, my DH class is helping me rethink the borders of scholarship, especially as it pertains to the manipulation of technology as a way of both broadcasting and critiquing. I am currently creating a mass wiki that will act as both a repository for annotated bibliography and a visual map of scholarship (this is a long-term project) using semantic data harvesting, crowdsourcing, and visualization techniques. Although one might consider this a “tool” in the way the digital humanities are normally considered (Zotero, distance reading), I am architecting the program myself and hope to figure out different, procedural, object-oriented, modular, paratactical, metonymic ways of performing scholarly intervention.

This summer I plan on both gaining competencies in software development and media creation and doing field research in Louisiana. I am completing an online computer science class right now through Harvard and hope to take more courses throughout the summer (perhaps with PDS funds). At the end of May, I am travelling to Louisiana to consider what I might need to do in order to best “study,” to meet with Louisiana scholars Nick Spitzer and Richard Campanella, and to begin preliminary research through interviews, filmmaking, and continuing to run my nonprofit. I will be back over the summer to work on the Battle of Atlanta project with Southern Spaces which will also increase my media and development competencies. Right now, my main methodology is textual analysis, although I am growing very interested in how to combine that with expressive scholarship: studying through writing, creating, programming, etc. I plan to remix archival ephemera in my studies, including a syncretic use of theory, history, primary documents, video clips, records, industrial tools, statistics, cuisine, and maps.

In the fall, I hope to take Experimental Scholarship with Professors Bammer and Grimshaw, Pedagogy with Professor Loudermilk, and either Biopolitics with Professor Johnston of Comp Lit or Foucault with Professor Huffer of WGSS (I hope to T.A. for the one I don’t take). I see myself growing more suspicious of myself and any assertions that focus on reality and more obsessed with artificiality, hybridity, monstrous forms, and ambivalence. Even as I feel that my studies have taken me (intensely) into fields I didn’t quite imagine myself in (say, pure theory and computer science), my interests have also remained exactly the same. Consider that my writing sample for the ILA was on the subject of professional wrestling, specifically that though it is almost always dismissed as something fake, the brutal corporeality of this hippodromed sport undoes an easy dichotomy between real/fake, fact/fiction. My underlying goal (besides spreading my love of excess, physicality, and theatricality to scholars) was to bypass the question of authenticity altogether. I am still here, trying to carve up the real world to open the visceral world of the imagination. I want to say that yes discourse is oppressive, especially when it seems like it’s not there at all, but that if we know this, and we take performativity seriously,then we should also know that any reality can be reproduced in new, stranger, hopefully more gentle ways.

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