Introduction: the performance of the senses
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett reminds us in her contribution to this anthology (see Chapter 6): “It has taken considerable cultural work to isolate the senses, create genres of art specific to each, insist on their autonomy, and cultivate modes of attentiveness that give some senses priority over others.” The modernist fragmentation of artistic practices into self-contained and autonomous genres would correspond to a fragmentation of the senses into self-contained and autonomous “perceptions.” The essays collected in The Senses in Performance challenge inherited notions of sensorial performances. Taken as a whole, it could be said that a common thread running throughout this anthology can be found precisely in the realization that any body in a performance situation (be it the bodies of the performers or the bodies of the audience) is an inexhaustible inventor of sensorial-perceptual potentials and becomings. In Chapter 13, Maya Roth, when analyzing the work of the Omaha Magic Theatre in the late 1980s, reminds us precisely how a whole new organization of the senses can actually be transmitted to an audience. Moreover, she tells us that this transmission is a mode “to bring the audiences to their bodies,” reminding us that the body is something that may have been stolen from its subject, that the body may not be the full property of its subject’s desire and agency. Roth’s essay reminds us how transmissibility of the senses is one of performance’s most powerful performatives. Processes of invention and becoming, then, are not only purely corporeal but also dialogically tied to technological developments. Two decades before Foucault published his essay on Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin had already remarked that the historical dynamic of the senses revealed how the sensorial and the technological fabricate each other dialectically. In his famous essay on “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproducibility,” Benjamin wrote:
During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.