Text, performance and “entextualization”

What is a text? Is a text opposed to a performance? Or are performances performances of a text? Is there a rigid opposition between written (i.e., closed, fixed) texts and performances?

Friday is for me time for thinking (and writing) about what other people have written, time for reading more. Today I read Karin Barber’s Text and Performance in Africa (2005), following a recommendation by Giorgio Banti (about whom I wrote here), which is an interesting study of a fascinating topic, i.e., the dialectics of  text and performance, and can be enjoyed also by people who, like me, lack any knowledge of African poetry: Barber makes a conscious effort to use Sub-Saharian poetry as a case study of a more general topic and refers, among other examples, to the 16th c. Italian commedia dell’arte.

Barber shows how the relation between text and performance is a complex one, but how the two are not mutual ennemies, as maintained by earlier supporters of the one against the other (Barber mentions R.G. Collingwood, upholding the superiority of the (written, authorial and authoritative) text, and R. Barthes, upholding that of the performance). Now that folklore studies and performance theorists have “won” their battle against an only scriptocentric approach to texts, it is time to think of them as just “configuration[s] of signs that [are] coherently interpretable by some community of users” (Hanks 1989).

Thus, a performance is a performance of a text, and, in Sub Saharian poetry,  its fluidity is made possible by the presence of an “object-like” text. Each performance, maintains Barber, is understood as the performance of a pre-existing text, which can, in fact, be quoted, glossed upon and evoked independently of each of its specific performances. This is also iconically evident because of the existence of objects which act as mnemonic drills in many Sub-Saharian contexts, evoking a “text” and thus prompting its performance. Such objects may bear a close or remote similarity with the text, so that, e.g., a bone may evoke a text centering on a bone-related metaphor (“The hallow-bone, when you lick it, your lips hurt; when you leave it, your eyes trail it”, further examples are discussed here).

Barber further adds to the picture the concept of “entextualization“, a concept developed by American linguist anthropologists (Barber refers to Silverstein and Urban 1996) working on threatened cultures in America, whose members started recording in various forms their myths, which were previously only performed. Entextualization has specific devices, such as the shift from the first and second person to the third one; the shift from the present tense to the past tense, the shift from interrogative [and exhortative, I would add] sentences to declarative ones. All these shifts make the performance “detachable”, and enable its entextualization.

Barber adds that these devices of entextualization involve a certain degree of reflexivity and points to the mutual links among genres in Sub-Saharian poetry, so that one genre uses elliptical epithets while the other uses these epithets as memory drills to start a performance. In a similar way,  Barber explains, one might look at the commedia dell’arte (and I am inclined to say, at much story-telling in South Asia) as a case

where the construction of the drama is distributed between two textual genres—one written and the other oral, neither of the two having priority (p. 271).

In Sub Saharian literature this amounts to a relationship between performance and exegesis, and since the performance can be quoted in the exegesis, this proves that it is a performance of an underlying text. I am tempted to add that, similarly, only codified rituals (so-called “prescriptive rituals”) like the Late Vedic ones become the object of the Mīmāṃsā exegesis, not “performative” ones (on this distinction, see Humphrey Laidlaw 1994).

Long story short: think of the text while working on performances, and vice versa! Although I work mainly on authorial texts, I can understand how the element of performance alters the author’s and the audience’s perception of the text, enhancing the possibility of intertextual relations.


You can read another post on orality (and African poetry) here. For my praise of reading, see my previous blog, here and my methodological manifesto on the same blog, here. For my claim that there is nothing “new” and that one, hence, needs to read more, see here. For my monthly planning of blog posts, see here.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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