Location: Providence, RI, U.S.A. For a change of pace, and as a treat for the end of the Global Humanity's BIARI's "Performance as Memory" section, the group convened today in the Rites & Reasons Theatre instead of the Brown/RISD Hillel. The first session of the day was more performance-oriented, and led by Zubin Mohamad from Kuala Lumpur. It's hard to put the intent and effect of Mohamad's dance into words, and the lighting conditions were unfortunately too dim to capture clear video. But his "Archaeology of Hidden Memory" zeroed in on the politics of cultural performance and history, in a nutshell. He invited scholars in the audience from other Asian countries to dance with him in different styles, and later explained his interest in studying the past across multiple civilizations.
In particular, he expressed interest in tracing the history of mak yong, and its roots in many places over a long period of time--"mak yong before mak yong," as he called it. The second session of the morning was similarly rooted in roots. Greg Tate, an American author who writes about the history of black American identity, likened his field of focus to the history of black music. Identity and performance, he said, are intertwined for African-Americans, and have been for centuries. Tate's fast-paced presentation blended complex arguments together with elements of church sermons and spoken word poetry. I'll admit that I got lost in his masterful blizzard of words a few times, and I'd be willing to bet that those scholars in the audience who didn't learn English as a first language faced an even steeper challenge. In any case, Tate's presentation served as a complement to John Akomfrah's talk at Hillel yesterday, delving into the links among black American societies and their various forms of musical output, from blues to jazz to rap. In particular, he harped on hip-hop's evolution to the point where now, the energy for political messages is getting drowned out by pop culture's demand for musical gimmicks like Auto-Tune. Black music today amounts to "the bodies of black women and the mechanized voices of black men," Tate said. He added that the popular musicians heard on the radio had lost touch with music's power to be a ""great fusion of anarchy and democracy," connecting people with more radical messages that they wouldn't hear otherwise. I had the luxury of more than an hour's break between the Global Humanities sessions and my last of the day, a Development & Inequality session over at Kassar House. So, pardon my jarring transition from hip-hop to the politics of rural China. MIT professor Lily Tsai's presentation on "Accountability Without Democracy" addressed a completely different type of performance: the performance of the state in delivering public goods to the countryside. This task has a profound impact on the government's legitimacy, she said, but rural villages with lots of investment in public goods are in the minority. Tsai's research showed that in the absence of the state, villages with specific types of social groups wee able to take the place somewhat of more formal institutions, holding local officials accountable for the goods they were expected to provide. Not all social groups had this effect: the only ones that did were all-inclusive, based on shared responsibility and embedded alongside and within whatever institutions of local governance were available. For instance, a temple council in one Chinese village emphasized shared traditions and the benefit of doing things for the society as a whole. Focusing on these messages rather than any particular religious text, the society managed to acquire a sanitation service to take away garbage regularly. By contrast, a Christian church had less success in effecting social change. Tsai theorized that this is because Chinese government officials are not allowed to belong to the church, and so did not face the same level of scrutiny from their peers as did the local officials confronted by the temple council. The most interesting take-away from this talk was the idea that a town's wealth and its access to services like paved roads and clean water didn't necessarily correlate. Indeed, Tsai said wealth was not a guarantor of public goods and good governance. Drawbacks include that this rule may only apply on the local level. But the key insight was that moral authority and soft power matter, especially for people living in inferior conditions. That's all for today--for tomorrow, I'm looking forward to more sessions from these two BIARIs, and possibly one from one of the others that started up yesterday. I'll blog again then. All photos by Eric Johnson.