An Apologia (Letter to My Detractors)

Dear Detractors,

This post is addressed to the speakers and audience at a plenary session at this year’s ASTR (American Society for Theater Research) conference, and everyone who heard about it at the time, and everyone who heard about it later, I don’t actually expect any of them to read it, but that doesn’t much matter.

The plenary speakers were two early-career scholars (or maybe one was a graduate student); the audience was rather small, maybe 50-60 people, almost all also early-career scholars or grad students—a fact which I found disconcerting. The two papers seemed to me to be quite good, but I felt there was a significant problem for both of them, and I decided to say as much. Had I been a bit smarter I would have raised my concern as a question, or maybe just shrugged and moved on, but no such luck. I said four things:

  • I’m an older white man, who works in theater studies and social theory.
  • I thought the papers were both quite good.
  • However, performance per se was rather secondary or marginal. Discussing meanings, symbolism and representation is not the same as discussing performance.
  • However, against #3, the papers could have a home, just not here. The two scholars needed to “go big,” as I put it.

These statements were taken as extremely out of line and as in some way blind to the material on performance in them, attacking the papers’ quality and the speakers themselves, and striving to push them out of the field.  Unfortunately I am not very articulate in extemporary contexts (or most social contexts, actually), so I expressed my concerns quite poorly (the third item particular put everyone on the defensive), and with far too much abbreviation because I secretly believe in telepathy.  I ended up appearing as The Face of Oppressive and Narrow-minded Elder Scholars and whatever other horrible things, and word spread quickly.  (The road to hell, and all that.)  It probably didn’t help matters that both speakers were young women.  I did manage to extend a personal apology to each of them, because I had indeed been patronizing and assumed they weren’t already doing what I hoped they would do (one of the two in fact had taken at least one and maybe more steps in that direction), plus to some extent I came bearing a fair amount of disciplinary history and inappropriately projected it onto them; hence also my clarification/self-defense here, intended for the broader community.

Obviously the first two items aren’t controversial.  However, I still think the articles weren’t particularly on performance: they were articles that (to differing degrees) used performance and other approaches to interpret cultural developments or as component subjects and therefore would fit better elsewhere, most likely cultural studies or some cognate discipline.  As the speakers delivered their papers, I looked around the room, its sea of young faces, and thought, How many here have twenty years of experience doing archival work?  Twenty years soaked in the history of New York City or Cleveland?  Twenty years in cultural studies?  Twenty years of arguments on historiography?  Who can support the speakers by giving deeply informed comments?  In an audience this small?  Five?  Two?  Most likely none, which seemed borne out by the questions they were actually asked.  Although the papers seemed quite good to me, I certainly don’t have all the expertise to say they actually were good, and it didn’t seem like anyone else did either.

I’ve been an outside reader for journal articles often enough to know that one of the questions they’re usually supposed to answer is whether the article is a good fit for the journal.  I don’t know whether other readers actually discuss the issue, but I certainly do.  An article on Restoration theater architecture probably won’t fly in Modern Drama.  (It’s conceivable, but a stretch.)  At least once and maybe twice I’ve recommended rejecting an article not because I thought it was bad, but because it was submitted to the wrong journal and consequently wasn’t going to get its best readers.  Given a journal’s limited space, sometimes readers have to make these judgment calls.  The same goes for book publishers: the University of Michigan Press is good for some topics, Routledge for others, and so forth—and if you talk with their editors they’ll tell you so (in fact they often want proposals to explain why they’re the best publisher).

Theater and performance studies people like to be warm and welcoming, which is nice, but unfortunately it hasn’t done much to promote intellectual rigor—performance studies in particular has turned tended to be an amorphous home for “interesting stuff” because there’s no real theory of what performance is.  Sorry, but that’s the reality, and the progressive exit of major senior scholars is telling.  I’ve even overheard grad students grumbling about it.  I’ve attended way too many presentations with inept social analysis and grade-school anthropology that would be laughed off the podium at their respective conferences but get a round of applause from us because we’re warm and welcoming people who fortunately know squat about the other fields.  On top of that, we’re a minuscule field that tends toward parochialism.

Importantly, the two presentations did not seem like scholarly slop, hence my desire to speak up.  But if scholars want to do interdisciplinary work, they need to get out—get out, that is, of our parochial corner and into the (probably) larger field that knows a whole lot about what you’re discussing and possesses the expertise to comment on work that isn’t specifically on performance but rather uses performance as one approach to larger topic.  Even better, you should show how powerfully the performance approach can inform their understanding of topics in that field.  The greatest compliment I’ve received in my entire scholarly life came from a professor of sociology and social theory (my “other” field), who in effect said, “Damn, you theater scholars are smart!”  Why the hell would you not strive for such a compliment?  And if you want it, where the fuck do you think you’re going to get it—from other theater and performance scholars?  In other words, as I put it (too elliptically) at the conference, “go BIG.”  That doesn’t mean (as apparently some people thought, including the speakers) “Go away, I don’t want you here.”  Hell no.  Like parents pushing the kid out of the nest, they (hopefully) don’t mean “Get lost, we never want to see you again,” they (hopefully) mean “We love you and we want you to become the best at whatever it is.”  And I’ll add, “Please come back whenever you have things to say specifically focused on our interests and expertise!”  You get very limited funds to attend conferences, so why the hell waste it on people who can provide warm and fuzzy applause for your interdisciplinary work but no real help?  An audience of 10 people who have the expertise to help you is worth 100 who don’t.  It’s fine to feel that you’re not ready yet—but in the case of the two speakers’ papers, my sense was that they were already or are close to being able to head into the Big Leagues, and I wanted them to give it a shot.  These two papers were not built for the ASTR audience, they were built for a different audience, whatever the authors and audience imagined.  Conversely, if you just want to get the warm and fuzzies for a bit longer by presenting ill-suited papers at ASTR, you certainly have that right—but don’t for a moment assume everyone in the audience will be thrilled.  Certainly not me, I’m both intellectually honest enough and stupid enough that I might accidentally tell you what I think.  (Nicely, if I can, but I had to construct my scant social graces through careful observation and they aren’t reliable. If you want to avoid me, just present really, really bad papers and I’ll give up on you.)

“But Tobin,” you might ask, “who’s to judge whether something’s sufficiently on performance or not?”  Pffttt, push comes to shove, that’s dead easy.  It’s certainly not me, I’ve never had a tenure-track position giving me power over anyone, my only powers are to comment and to be an asshole (independent scholarship means never having to be cordial to get tenure).  It’s not most of the professors either.  In fact it might be people who never participate in conferences at all.  It’s editors.  Book and journal editors.  Focus, people!  The law of the academic jungle isn’t “Present papers or perish,” it’s “Publish or perish.”  Presenting papers is merely a way to sharpen your articles.  Remember what I said about outside readers screening articles for their suitability to the journal?  Well, we’re only the second pass: the first pass goes to the editor.  The editor has only limited space and they’re committed to serving the journal’s/book publisher’s mission and intended audience (within which they or may not have room for personal goals), which may or may not match yours.  They’re also swamped with submissions.  They simply can’t afford to send all of them to outside readers, who incidentally are hard to come by: they may need to reject articles based on their own quick overview (or in the case of journals, possibly a grad student’s, which is pretty frightening). So you’ll have to be very clear about why the editor should give a damn about you, and if you submit to the wrong journal or book publisher, you’ll waste a whole lot of everyone’s precious time and effort, most of it yours.  Ditto for attending the wrong conference.  Though I’m an older white man who works in theater studies and social theory, you shouldn’t assume I was there to gate-keep, which is all too tempting (and lazy).  I was certainly acknowledging my potential biases, which is de rigueur despite being blindingly obvious, except for the crucial part about my work in social theory.  But also subtextually: “I’ve been around the block a few times with interdisciplinary work, I can tell you a thing or two about the roadblocks and shortcuts and strategies, please listen up!”

If you’re worried about my politics and biases, you’re welcome to plumb my personal history and my publishing work (new edition of Theatre Histories textbook now in progress, and the team of writers I gathered is stellar and wonderful). You might be able to dig up some of my history with ASTR, though probably not the juicy bits during my tenure as Treasurer when I wanted to put dues and conference fees on an income-based sliding scale, which turned into a nasty battle that I lost. (Some people’s politics transform when you touch their pocketbook. Years later, most of the idea was finally instituted.) And you probably won’t discover my two stints of union organizing. But a lot of info is publicly available. Or just ask me: I’m both honest and stupid enough to tell you.  Am I going to meet all your political purity tests? Hell no, concrete reality hasn’t enabled me to meet even my own, that’s probably true for everyone else in my generation, and the generation after you will definitely excoriate you for your own failings, so grow some humility and get off your ivory tower. Plus, statements that were completely acceptable a mere five years ago could be out of pocket today, which is fine but presents interpretive challenges. As Fredric Jameson says, “Always historicize!” (Wait—you don’t know who Jameson is??)

Look: if you’re going to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship—real scholarship, not the warm and fuzzies—you better gird up because in many of these fields, scholarship is a blood sport. Like Katniss Everdeen, you’ll need to be bow-and-arrow sharpshooters.  A few of your scholarly predecessors on this end are so horribly oppressive and narrow-minded, they’d like to give you a couple thoughts for your advancement and survival. To wit: go out, get big, and go get ’em, tiger.  We’ll always be here for you.  But make us proud, goddammit. Make us proud.

With love and battle axes,