Thursday, July 9, 2015

Performing & Storytelling Theory: A Future Perfect Possibility by Rachel Ceasar

Performing & Storytelling Theory: A Future Perfect Possibility Lamenting his poverty and lack of a sleep pillow, a young boy approaches us. With his head cocked to one side, he begs in words we do not understand nor stop to listen to. We do not stop to listen and in our response, we give him coins and containers of curry. Back on the bus, my riding companion awes at the way the boy put his head, the way he spoke and made a face—what a performance, it is all a performance, he tells me. Performance is a theme that comes to mind when I was running around the city this weekend. From Friday to Sunday, we took to task to perform our way of being in a world that is Joburg. Performance occurred in many ways this weekend: We spoke about how certain people perform (aggression no, humorous yes) but in secret terms and texts exchanged across tables. We spoke about taking part in performances (strip clubs no, Soweto and pap yes), but judged too quickly instead of asking more questions. We spoke about our own performances with the city (dinners on WhatsApp yes, more poses yes! yes!) but filtered it through stacks of photos and Facebook curations. We enacted the performativity of our encounters between us and the city of Joburg through aspirations of happiness: we aspired to take part in the biggest club experience in Sandtown, the most delicious food, the best rooftops and poses. In the pursuit of a "future perfect” happiness that knows no past (to paraphrase Zadie Smith), we strove for the meta with little reflection for the now and present in front of us. At times, we forgot to take care of each other in the hope of a larger, better kind of possible happiness that was perhaps somewhere out there in Joburg. We can see this same kind of performativity in our scholarly presentations and discussions. What would it look like to introduce care into how we share our life’s work and research? To give vitality and context to theory, to speak plainly from a place of intellectual generosity (instead of intellectual vomit)? Theory need not mystify our thoughts, but act as a tool to share our stories with others. It is in spaces like JWTC that I see the potential for care to meet performance in the form of storytelling. To be an academic then comes with the responsibility of being a storyteller, as the good doctor Ike Anya encourages us to do. Storytelling our research can be a kind of performative practice, a methodology, and even a form of entertainment. Who said theory had to be dry and boring? Colleagues this week have encouraged me to storytell my work in various ways, a couple of which I share here: 1) One way we can story tell our work is by writing for blogs like Chimurenga, Africa is a Country, or The Conversation, the latter being an online collaboration between editors and academics to provide research-informed news and analysis. Writing in different registers for a more public audience is one way we can get the good word out there into the world. 2) Another way colleagues encourage me to practice my storytelling skills is to use the reminder of the JWTC workshop to think of possible ways to engage beyond theory in very concrete, practical ways: What if we spoke plainly enough at workshops like JWTC so that actual practitioners and persons of the community would want to come? Where are the Global South biologists, psychologists, journalists, and entrepreneurs with whom we can bounce ideas with, generate back and forth conversations, and possibly come up with solutions? These storytelling modes of exchange may sound idealistic, but I believe that, with a little bit of care and performance, such theoretical conversations are possible and damn right necessary for academia. Rachel Ceasar University of the Witwatersrand

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