fragments

Last week, at THATCamp CHNM, I somehow found myself giving a 5-minute talk with slides. If you’ve been to an unconference, you know this is a crazy thing to have done—the joys of THATCamp is that you don’t give or listen to talks read at you. Instead, you discuss and make things. But in this case, this was an experiment proposed by Tom Scheinfeldt to see what happened when you uncoupled slides from talks, with one person writing the talk and one person building the slide deck having only the title of the presentation in common. (As it turned out, I ended up doing this with slides from Tom, which he advanced as he heard my talk, and automatically timed slides created by Mark Sample.) In any case, the experience was weird and mildly terrifying: THATCamp isn’t a space where I’m used to behaving like a talking head, and I had no idea what Tom or Mark had done or how it would fit with what I had done. I’m still not entirely sure what they did—the one time I turned to glance at the images I think I saw a photo of naked folks standing around a campfire, and that was so distracting I turned and faced forward again. But there’s a kernel of something real in my talk, an idea that I’ve been mulling over and that I’ll be returning to in the next year or so (if all goes well, I’ll be talking about this at a conference this fall and writing about this for a forthcoming collection on Shakespeare and performance). So to keep it from disappearing into the ether, I share with you my text:

Fragments of study

Think of the most remarkable performance you’ve seen. Think of everything you remember about it—what it looked like, what it sounded like, how it made you feel, the holistic experience of it. Now imagine writing about it. Describe it, record it, explain it. This is what people in my field do—my field being, in this instance, the study of modern productions of Renaissance drama. One of the big exciting things at the moment is the development of apps and online editions of Shakespeare’s plays, sites that combine the text of the plays with clips of performances. Instead of just reading Macbeth, you can experience it. Here’s Joe Shmoe reciting “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”; now here’s Kiran Singh doing the same speech in a different production. These fragments of productions give a sense of access to live performance in a way that most readers of a script cannot achieve on their own.

If we take seriously the idea that Shakespeare’s plays continue to resonate with us centuries after they were written, then we have to take seriously the understanding that they do so because we continually reinhabit them and make them speak to us anew by performing them. It’s not the words that are timeless, but the voicing of the words that reinscribes them for each time. If we teach in literature classrooms, if we read in armchairs, then we have to find ways of conveying the importance of performance to our reception of Shakespeare.

But clips of performance are only clips; they reproduce fragments of something that is more than the sum of its parts and in breaking that larger whole into smaller bits, they diminish what it means. Talk to any actor and ask whether there’s any connection between what they do in the last act to what they did in the second act. Talk to any director and suggest there are no patterns and resonances across a production. See what sort of response you get.

And yet this is what we do when we study performance in this way. We quote moments of it, and we move on.

And this is what we do when we study literature, is it not? We quote moments of it, and we move on.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is [.....]

I understand why we do this. How do you quote a whole? Don’t we have to break it down into smaller pieces to serve as our landmarks? How do you make sense of what is large and magnificent and full of meaning without finding details to hang onto?

But I want to pause and ask: what damage are we doing by breaking the whole into fragments? Why do we prioritize the convenience of clips over the messiness of art?

Maybe I needn’t be so melancholy about this. It’s also true that fragments can be tantalizing, full of exciting possibilities that make you want more. Some of the most exciting finds in my field are fragments of objects—my field in this instance being early modern book history. There are bits and pieces of old manuscripts and printed works that survive only in remnants. There are inky fingerprints left by printers, fragments of identities long since lost to us. Archaeologists, art historians, historians, literature scholars—we all dwell in fragments and discovery.

But I think that’s precisely the difference. The fragments that survive? They’re links to a past that would otherwise be lost; they spark our imagination and light our curiosity. But the fragments that we create out of other people’s creations? They serve us. We use them to make our points, we scatter them behind us, we move on.

[....] a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Or maybe not nothing—I certainly don’t want to claim Macbeth’s viewpoint as my own. But maybe we should be resisting the ease with which we fragment art to dissect it.