Sample Syllabi

Course Proposals

1.  Popular Performances of Race, Disability, and Virtuosity

What is contained in applause? This seminar locates historical and contemporary discourses of the “freak” in order to conceptualize convergent bodily fetishizations of race, ability, and abnormality. From the “Wild Men of Borneo,” featured in ethnological freak shows of the late nineteenth century, to the late twentieth century’s labeling of Michael Jackson as a “freak,” central to our investigation is the dual attraction and repulsion found in displays of what Rosemary Garland Thomson calls the “extraordinary body.” We will situate the tradition of “freakery” (Thomson’s term) within a history of racial fetishization that made possible what Eric Lott refers to as the “contradictory impulses…of blackface minstrelsy.” Working with the idea that race, disability, and hyper-ability are performed (and perceived according to cultural orientation), this course will investigate the terms “performance,” “race,” and “dis/ability” to introduce students to important intersections between performance studies, critical race theory, and disability studies. While keeping in mind the performance of everyday life, we will pay even closer attention to deliberate performances and displays of freakery in order to understand how society defines normalcy by delineating the abnormal. Through performance analysis, we will take into consideration the dual issue of stasis and motion, as the freak show has been referred to as a static genre (one in which the viewer scrutinizes a motionless body), while much staged dance relies on motion. We will ask what it means for the racialized and/or dis/abled body to be still in certain contexts and kinetic in others. Furthermore, we will interrogate the interrelatedness between conscious deployments of freakery and the development of performers’ status of celebrity, and how such a dynamic places the performer in the realm of the commodity. In doing so, we will question the role of freakery as a socio-cultural and economic survival strategy closely related to the liminal, the carnivalesque, and the transgressive. Students will develop tools of discourse analysis while practicing critical performance ethnography that makes evident the complex relationship between the “I” and the “Other.” In addition to reading texts on disability, race, and performance by Rosemary Garland Thompson, Michael Chemers, Lennard Davis, Petra Kuppers, Eric Lott, Anne Anlin Cheng, Sianne Ngai, Joseph Roach, Daphne Brooks, Michael Omi, Saidiya Hartman, and Susan Manning, students will focus their essays on historical and contemporary performances as they appear on film and in live performance. We will attend live performances as they relate to course material.

Weeks 1-2 — What is Performance?

Readings: Shannon Jackson, Richard Schechner, Peggy Phelan, J.L. Austin,

Judith Butler (all on performance as a field, a term, and an analytical mode

of inquiry)

-Students will share with the class one question emerging from the readings (1

page single spaced)

Weeks 3-4 — The Social Model of Disability Studies

Readings: Lennard Davis (disability studies), Rosemary Garland Thompson

(disability), Susan Schweik (on the “ugly laws”)

-Writing Assignment: Please write a reaction paper based on the first two weeks’

readings on a keyword such as “performance,” “disability, or “ability” (4-5

double-spaced pages)

Weeks 5-6 —  Betwixt and Between: Liminality and the Carnivalesque

Readings: Victor Turner (the liminal), Mikhail Bakhtin (the carnivalesque),

Erving Goffman (on stigma)

-Writing Assignment: What are the limits and/or potential of the term “liminal” or “carnivalesque” when discussing the “disabled” body? (4-5 double-spaced pages)

Weeks 7-8 — The Freak Show and Static Spectatorship

Readings: Rosemary Garland Thompson (on freakery), Michael Chemers (on

freak shows), Petra Kuppers and Carrie Sandhal (on contemporary disability

performance)

-Writing Assignment: Choosing one example from the readings, please discuss

the relationship between temporality and speed (stasis or motion) in a freak show

display; be prepared to share with the class (3 pages double-spaced)

Weeks 9-10 — From the Ethnological Freak Show to the Minstrel Show

Readings: Eric Lott, Louis Chude-Sokei, W.T. Lhammon, and Michael Rogin (on

blackface minstrelsy), Linda Williams (on racial legibility), Daphne Brooks (on

late 19th century performances of blackness)

-Writing Assignment: What is the relationship between historical freak shows and

minstrel shows, either implicitly or explicitly discussed in one or more of the

readings? (4-5 double-spaced pages)

*Please speak to me in office hours during week 9 as you develop final paper

topics. Prepare a one-paragraph abstract of a possible topic or thesis.

Weeks 11-12 — Race in Motion

Readings: Sianne Ngai (animatedness), Anne Anlin Cheng (mutability and

surface), Joseph Roach (surrogacy, race, and performance), Thomas DeFrantz (on

black dance and beauty)

-Writing Assignment: Using an example from contemporary performance culture

(on stage or screen), please discuss the relationship between freakery and race,

using a concept from these readings as a lens (animatedness, mutability,

surrogacy, or beauty)

Weeks 13-14 —  Final Presentations, Complete Final Papers

*Final presentations are an opportunity to share your final paper topics with the

class in a format that allows for media such as film, online clips, music, or even

your own original in-class performance. (15 minutes, including media)

*Final papers due on the last day of class. (20 pages, double spaced)


2.  Performance and the Social in the Space of Death

This seminar investigates dance and theater in spaces of death. Paying particular attention to urban postcolonial environments, we will consider the political potential of bodies in performance. Achille Mbembe has written, “Late-modern colonial occupation differs in many ways from early-modern occupation, particularly in its combining of the disciplinary, the biopolitical, and the necropolitical.”[1] In conceiving of the performer as continually engaged in processes of corporeal discipline, this course is particularly interested in how the performing body reflects and refigures the biopolitical and necropolitical. In do doing, the course analyzes dance and theater that works in the service of both nationalist and non-nationalist aesthetic agendas, culminating with an examination of arts practices that deliberately eschew institutional affiliation. We will look at contemporary performances (and development processes) that directly confront death and urban life, including Batsheva Dance Company’s “Mamootot” (Israel), Bill T. Jones’ “Still/Here” (U.S.), Paul Chan’s “Waiting for Godot” in post-Katrina New Orleans, Ralph Lemon’s “How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?” (U.S.), Germaine Acogny and Kota Yamazaki’s “Fagaala”
(“Genocide”; Senegal/Japan), and Faustin Linyekula’s “more more more…future” (Democratic Republic of Congo). These performances variously grapple with questions of race, diaspora, and mourning in urban contexts haunted by specters of death, and create alternative spaces of civic imagination. Readings will include Michel Foucault on discipline, Michael Taussig on the space of death, Achille Mbembe on the necropolitical, Mamadou Diouf on civic imagination, Filip de Boeck on postcolonial imaginary, Arlene Croce on “victim art,” and Shannon Jackson on social art practice. In addition to weekly readings, collaborative presentations, and short essays that focus on the terms “performance,” “necropolitics,” and the “imaginary,” students will generate substantial research projects or senior thesis topics, employing methodologies of performance ethnography, discourse analysis, and archival research. Students will ultimately gain an understanding of the anthropological strain of performance studies as it intersects with African Studies and critical race theory.

Weeks 1-2 — What is Performance?

Readings: Shannon Jackson, Richard Schechner, Peggy Phelan, J.L. Austin,

Judith Butler, Diana Taylor (all on performance as a field, a term, and an

analytical mode of inquiry)

-Writing Assignment: share with the class one question emerging from the

readings (1 page single spaced) and prepare a 3-double spaced page response to

the readings.

Weeks 3-4 — The Space of Death and Ethnography

Readings: Michael Taussig (space of death), Victor Turner,

Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, Gayatri Spivak, Dwight Conquergood

-Writing Assignment: focusing on two readings, prepare a 4-double spaced page

response focusing on the question of the limits (or potential) of ethnography in the

space of death.

Weeks 7-8 — Necropolitics

Readings: Michel Foucault (Biopolitics), Achille Mbembe (Necropolitics)

-Writing Assignment: Using performance examples, please discuss the

relationship between corporeal discipline in dance/theater performance and the

way the “body” is disciplined by the State in the context of the biopolitical and/or

necropolitical.

Weeks 9-10 —Civic Imagination and Social Art Practice

Readings: Filip DeBoeck (Kinshasa and the imaginary), Mamadou Diouf (civic

imagination in urban Africa), Shannon Jackson (on social art practice)

-Writing Assignment: Citing one piece in a particular urban context, discuss the

relationship between the imaginary, civic imagination, and social art practice,

keeping in mind the question of the labor of imagination and the labor of art-

making. (4-5 double spaced pages.)

*Please speak to me in office hours during week 9 as you develop final paper

topics. Prepare a one-paragraph abstract of a possible topic or thesis.

Weeks 11-12 — Transnational Performance

Drawing from previous weeks’ readings and performance examples, we will

interrogate the nationalistic and institutional impulses behind transnational artistic

collaboration, especially those between the U.S. and West Africa that engage with

the concept of Diaspora. We will also engage with performers (especially itinerant

or exiled) who eschew institutional affiliation. Come prepared with questions and

observations for discussion.

-Continue to work on final papers and presentations.

Weeks 13-14 — Final Presentations, Complete Final Papers

*Final presentations are an opportunity to share your final paper topics with the

class in a format that allows for media such as film, online clips, music, or even

your own original in-class performance. (15 minutes, including media)

*Final papers due on the last day of class. (20 pages, double spaced)


[1] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture (15:1), 11-40.