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In 1905, Professor George Lyman Kittredge, Chairman of the English department at Harvard University, dropped a note to his colleague Professor George Pierce Baker. The latter had been concerned that one of Kittredge's new hires might have designs on the teaching of "the drama" and thus designs on Baker's own curricular territory. Kittredge sought to mollify Baker's anxiety. "You may feel quite secure," he wrote, "as to any cutting into your special field" (in Baker, 19 March 1905). The sentence reproduced the content and form of an all-too-familiar interaction between empowered chairman and paranoid colleague. And, as is often true of such interactions, it also revealed a hint of intellectual condescension within its gesture of institutional assurance, one that left flexible whether the word "special" had the connotation of the extraordinary, the narrow, or the peripheral.
Lately, I have been looking at documents surrounding individuals like George Pierce Baker and other white academic American men--Hiram Corson at Cornell, Brander Matthews at Columbia, Thomas Dickinson at Wisconsin, Frederick Koch at North Carolina, Thomas Wood Stevens at Carnegie Tech--who figure prominently in the early institutionalization of "performance" in the United States. This is to trace something that most often called itself drama at that point, later dance, sometimes rhetoric, oratory, or speech. Spending so much time with such documents would have been inconceivable to me a few years ago and is still sometimes only barely sustainable. What does sustain me is an interest in understanding their implications for the institutionalization of performance studies now. My effort is a little different from others that have speculated on the future of our field. Rather than venturing into what the 1999 conference of Performance Studies International (PSi) called "the hinterlands," this article is a return to areas already mapped--fortressed castles such as theatre departments, speech departments, and literature departments--seeing in them less stability and more cartographical complexity than it might always be expedient for performance studies scholars to acknowledge. Investigating issues of performance's institutionalization is lamentably not always the same as investigating developments in performance scholarship. Indeed, this study came out of my naive frustration in recognizing how little the institutional operations with which performance studies contends seem to "know" what performance studies scholarship says it "knows." Confronting mechanisms such as department divisions, school divisions, job placement, graduation requirements, building infrastructures, curricular breakdowns, and departmental divisions of labor have thus provoked my heretofore inconceivable research. Part of a larger project that will explore a number of institutional relationships among performance and other fields such as anthropology, folklore, classics, cultural studies, and more, these reflections will focus on only one historical network of relations between speech, theatre, and literature. I hope that my reasons for picking up this corner of the rug will become clear as I continue. Rather than defending or rejecting terms such as "drama" or "theatre" or "speech" or "literature," I am most interested in thinking about how such concepts become discursive touchstones for certain kinds of principles that fare better or worse at different historical moments in the academy. Often this is about re-casting stories that we already know about past disciplinary history into a differently aimed kind of argument.
What I have decided and will schematically argue is that such institutional questions and their very complicated histories turn out to unsettle the somewhat oppositional epistemology driving, for instance, the provocative title of the 1999 Performance Studies International conference: "`Here be Dragons': Mapping the Undiscovered Realms of Performance Studies." I am neither the first nor the last person to deconstruct our "dragon" metaphor and the quest for the "undiscovered realms" that permeated that gathering. But consider in this light Baker's paranoia and his concern about remaining "special." It derived of course from a particular kind of marginality, one that wants recognition but not in a form that jeopardizes its self-constructed identity as an outsider. In our current discourse, there is a danger now of turning such an internally conflicted predicament into a jealously held position. There is a strange paradox in the attempt to position oneself as an inhabitant of unclaimed territory, for the gesture itself not only maps that territory but also stakes the claim. It simultaneously suggests that no one was there before, disavowing its relationship to the practices of earlier, colonial cartographers. Nevertheless, the divisions, buildings, maps, and curricular structures generated in the early professing of performance remain in altered forms today. Even though Baker and his like developed their special field into a highly mapped terrain from which many of us would say that we are departing, we still unevenly enjoy and endure its operations, discourses, and professional privileges. As such, a consideration of institutional history can, in Brechtian fashion, be an illuminating exercise in defamiliarization. It further demonstrates how saturated oppositional discourse is with what it claims not to be and how necessary the notion of the dragon-filled zone is to the idea of a dragon-free zone. At the same time, and even more pointedly for a field enamored of its renegade status, such institutional history illustrates how over-written (or over-mapped) …