Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race

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Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race

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Title: Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race
Author: Bernstein, Robin M
Citation: Bernstein, Robin. 2009. Dances with things: Material culture and the performance of race. Social Text 27(4): 67-94.
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Abstract: Proceeding from Robyn Wiegman's call for a transition from questions of "why" to "how" with regard to formations of race, this article proposes a heuristic, the "scriptive thing," to analyze ways in which racial subjectivation emerges through everyday physical engagement with the material world. The term scriptive thing integrates performance studies and "thing theory" by highlighting the ways in which things prompt, structure, or choreograph behavior. A knife, a camera, and a novel all invite—indeed, create occasions for—repetitions of acts, distinctive and meaningful motions of eyes, hands, shoulders, hips, feet. These things are citational in that they arrange and propel bodies in recognizable ways, through paths of evocative movement that have been traveled before. I use the term script as a theatrical professional might, to denote not a rigid dictation of performed action but, rather, a necessary openness to resistance, interpretation, and improvisation. A "scriptive thing," like a play script, broadly structures a performance while unleashing original, live variations. Like the police in Louis Althusser's famous scenario, scriptive things leap out within a field, address an individual, and demand to be reckoned with. By answering a hail, by entering the scripted scenario, the individual is interpellated into ideology and thus into subjecthood. I conduct close readings of scriptive things, including a photograph of a light-skinned woman posing in about 1930 with a caricature of a young African American man, a set of twentieth-century arcade photographs, a viciously racist 1898 alphabet book by E. W. Kemble, and a black doll called "Uncle Tom" that was whipped in the 1850s by a white girl who would grow up to write best-selling children's books. These readings show how interpellation occurs through confrontations in the material world, through dances between people and things.
Published Version: doi:10.1215/01642472-2009-055
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