Academic journal article Ethnology

Poetic Dialogues: Performance and Politics in the Tuscan Contrasto

Academic journal article Ethnology

Poetic Dialogues: Performance and Politics in the Tuscan Contrasto

Article excerpt

Performance can represent politics in a way that empowers the audience, transforming the context from one only marginally political into one in which relevant political decisions may be taken. In the Contrasto, a Tuscan genre of verbal duel, the constant articulation of a dialogue between two points of view allows the artists to dispute social behaviors and political views, while veiling their opinions through the formal structure of the genre. (Verbal art, performance, language and politics, Italy)

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Linguistic anthropologists and other social scientists have argued that social structure emerges and can be reshaped in performance. Unlike other social interactions, performance offers the participants "a special enhancement of experience, bringing with it a heightened intensity of communicative interactions which binds the audience to the performer in a way that is specific to performance as a mode of communication" (Bauman 1977:43). As this augments the authority of the performers, performance can change the perception of reality with performers and audience and present other models of reality. (1) Also, Briggs (1988:15) notes, "Performance features do not merely reflect situational factors; rather, they interpret the social interaction, thus opening up the possibility of transforming its very nature." However, to think of social structure as emergent in performance implies that performance is a highly political activity, a ground where the political views and the political organization of the society may be represented and scrutinized, and where alternative models may be proposed. As an immediate consequence, performance may also be a highly dangerous ground, which explains why performers are often political targets or targets of censure, especially in oppressive regimes.

The present essay, based on my work on the Tuscan verbal art called Contrasto, (2) demonstrates how performance represents the Italian political sphere in a way that empowers the audience, transforming the context from one only marginally political into one actively political. Performance helps define the situation as one where politics is discussed and political decisions may be made. The article shows how the structure of the Contrasto furnishes a protective veiling for the artists by creating for them a poetic space of freedom for expressing their ideas. Finally, it argues that both the contextual changes and the veiling are made possible by the dialogical nature of the genre; namely, the Contrasto's constant articulation of a dialogue, in the form of verbal duel, between two different points of view.

To understand how performance modifies the political realities that it portrays (Bauman 1977:43; Peacock 1968) requires understanding language (and poetic language) as action, and how performance is a reflexive activity created in the interaction of performers and their audience. From this reflexive interaction, performance furnishes a commentary on society and thus acquires agency, or pragmatic intent and force. Thus "performance ... not only fabricates meaning in highly condensed symbols ... but comments on those meanings, interpreting them for the larger community and often critiquing and subverting them as well" (Kapchan 1995:480). Or, as Briggs (1988:15) writes, "Performance features do not merely reflect situational factors; rather, they interpret the social interaction, thus opening up the possibility of transforming its very nature." Performance, rather than mirroring a pre-existing context, allows for a continuous reinterpretation of the social context. Briggs (1988:7) adds, "Performers are not passive, unreflecting creatures who simply respond to the dictates of tradition or the physical and social environment. They interpret both traditions and social settings, actively transforming both in the course of their performances."

The artists' responsibility in their performances is not just aesthetic, but also moral and political. …

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