My computer’s being extremely finicky today, so I hope that this post goes through, but if it does not, I can assure you that it was epic.
I mentioned the other day that I finished two books. I reviewed one, so now here’s a review of the other. It’s slightly older (1990), but still a good read: Johannes Fabian’s Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire.
While doing research for my master’s thesis, I came across a book that cited something that I liked that came from this book, and the title itself hooked me in. Ethnography, performance, power structure – what’s not to like?
To briefly summarize, Fabian went to Elisabethville, Shaba, Zaire (now Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1986 to do some delicious fieldwork with locals, creating a performance piece that ended up involving an entire town and even some higher-ups. It is pretty evenly split between theory and practical information; the first part details the events leading up to and surrounding the rehearsals and performances, and the nuances and situations that came up, and the second part is more or less a rudimentary script of the piece. Fabian writes the Swahili versions of the scene first, following it up with one or more English translations. I didn’t even bother reading the Swahili or the notes on the Swahili parts and just flipped to the English. Part of me is thankful that I got several respites, but a part of me might have put the Swahili script together, and the English script after, or vice versa, as new characters kept getting introduced, and by the time I picked the book back up again after a break from reading and wading through the footnotes, I had to go back and refresh myself on what was going on.
The play is actually not the focus of the work; it’s the theory that provides the most insightful information. In a rather unusual move, Fabian starts out with a criticism of himself and of “the field,” writing that “[a]lthough we do our field research on the premise of coevalness, of sharing time with our interlocutors on equal terms, we then go on to produce an allochronic discourse based on temporal distacing; we construct an Other whom we relegate to times other than our own” (4-5). I couldn’t have said it better myself; what Fabian is telling us here is that we put too much emphasis on comparison and judgment in ethnographic fieldwork that it can blur what’s going on in front of our faces.
Fabian also dips into the history of theatre in Lubumbashi, back when it was called Elisabethville in the mid-20th century. He talks about Bwana Cheko, giving a very detailed description of their performance practices and dramaturgy on pages 72-73. One of the main focuses of his discourse, though is a phrase he keeps returning to: le pouvoir se mange entier, which is a French phrase meaning “power is eaten whole.” Interestingly, this proverb is well-known in Shaba, where is has different associations with different stories in varying languages. As Zaire/DRC used to be Belgian Congo, it’s not surprising that a French phrase would be in the national consciousness, but to have it appear among a multilingual discourse and have it mean different things in each is something unique indeed. On page 73, however, Fabian points it out on a conducteur (mission statement) from Bwana Cheko that reads “MORAL: LE POUVOIR SE MANGE ENTIER, i.e., the chief is there for everyone and cannot take sides, he must serve his people as an equal but with authority” (73). This gives a new meaning to power, as does the play text that succeeds it, about a chief who exercises power, but in a different way than one would normally expect.
I could go on and on about the concepts and context, but it’s an incredibly dense text and I think either by this point you’ve clicked away or your eyes are closing, so I’ll wrap up with a takeaway thought from the author’s section entitled “Reflections and Afterthoughts”
Inasmuch as proverbs and plays are statements (which perhaps should be questioned), they need authors and audiences, positions to be made from and situations to be addressed to. As performances they need occasions and “repetitions.” As artistic creations they require material – shared experiences, habits, images – from which they can be construed and canons according to which they may be judged and appreciated. Propositional content, event, and rhetorical form are inextricably related; temporarily to focus on one of them does not constitute it as a distinct object of investigation. Literary deconstructivism may be an approach congenial to this view but does not have to be applied as doctrine. In my view, moving in several directions at once is the only realistic way to deal with the complex context from which le pouvoir se mange entier emerged (even though to invoke realism is certain to rub deconstructivists the wrong way) (Fabian 263).
Basically, parts of this text really got my rocks off, theory-wise. I can see myself reading more Fabian in the future and maybe even citing his work should I end up doing fieldwork in Africa – probably highly unlikely, but you never know.
On a different subject, thanks for another six-continent day, and oddly enough, Europe was the last continent to show up on my blog. So, hello to those from North America (Canada, USA, and Antigua & Barbuda), South America (Colombia and Chile), Europe (Ireland, Ukraine and Sweden), Africa (Ethiopia [welcome!] and South Africa), Asia (India, Pakistan, Philippines, Taiwan and Japan) and Oceania (Australia).
Fabian, Johannes. Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba, Zaire. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.