Can the Thing Talk? Commentary on Robin Bernstein’s ‘Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race’
“A thing demands that people confront it on its own terms” – Robin Bernstein
Robin Bernstein’s (2009) article on ‘Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race’ invites the reader to embrace a new way of reading the past as inscribed in artifacts. In a significant way, the article, which, as she notes in her official Harvard webpage, appears, in part, in her forthcoming book on Racial Innocent: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, is a bold and ambitious attempt at ‘reinventing the wheel’. In it, as Bernstein puts it in her webpage, she “develop a new methodology by which to analyze material culture so as to uncover otherwise inaccessible evidence of past performances”. 
A close reading of the text, which also entails making sense of what made it win two prizes and prompt an interview, reveals that it indeed provide one with novel, albeit subtle ways, of historicizing and thus interpreting the past as poetically captured in the phrase ‘past is present’. The author starts by presenting – and then analyzing step-by-step by way of adding interpretive nuances and parallels throughout the article – a ‘racialized’ photograph that is captioned as being taken sometime in the 1930s. In her preliminary ‘racial’ description, it is a picture of “a light-skinned woman” standing “behind a larger-than-life- size caricature of an African American eating a slice of watermelon”.
The choice of the term ‘light-skinned”, instead of ‘white’, is neither random nor insignificant, a fact that becomes clearer towards the end of the article when the author reveals the potential shifting racial identity of that woman through analyzing the censuses and laws of the times. Using the term ‘African American’, instead of ‘dark-skinned’, indicates that the author knows for – or claims to be – sure about the identity of the image of the boy and thus fixes in historical time. To her it is not – and cannot be – ‘Caribbean African’, ‘British African’ or even ‘African African’. She thus won’t even stop to ask if it was modeled on a person who was alive. Nor would she use her “new methodology” to unearth its crafter.
How does she arrive, methodologically, to that conclusion? By simply using the ‘old’ methods that she is attempting to transcend, if not do away with, through her “new methodology” that insists that “historians must place our living bodies in the stream of performance tradition”. Even though the author provides possible answers to what the identity of the dark-skinned image of a boy is/was from what she refers to as “panoply of racist libels”, the possibilities, also couched in the terms “might”, “suggest” and “could”, are taken as a given as she determined a priori – i.e. stereotypically – that image is of an “African American”.
It is in this regard that the author betrays her own “new methodology” to the extent that she specifically concludes that the image of the boy as a “thing does not come alive” and that, generally, things “are not alive”. Indeed they are not literally alive but figuratively they are. These are the very things that are personified/animated, through individual and collective lives that construct(ed) them as ‘subjective objects’, to interact with living beings such as the one the author conceived as a “living woman” who “becomes a thing” and those who are engaging with that photograph such as the author and readers. To her credit, though, in an endnote she notes that the “photograph continues to script actions in the present, from its location”. Being alive is thus its “ontological scriptivity”.
A thing is a projection or extension of its creator. The same can be said of those who follow in the footsteps of its constructor. As such it can outlive its maker yet do his/her biddings as if s/he was living in it. Like its inventor, it’s not innocent.
Expectedly, the author is also scripted/schemed by the caricature – the thing – that invites, even instructs, her, as an ardent critic of racism, to thus continue to denounce racial violence in the past as a way of denouncing it in the present also:
In these readings, the caricature embodies a dehumanizing expression of racism or a tool by which white Americans could symbolically commodify or otherwise control African Americans long after slavery ended (Bernstein 2009: 68).
Nevertheless, the “new methodology” is hence only applied, painstakingly, to the “light-skinned woman”. It entails analyzing the way the woman is “scripted” by three material things, namely the cutout caricature of the dark-skinned image of a boy, the unseen camera of the photographer, and the then photograph-to-be. By scripting, the author generally means the ways material things invites or prompts a person to act/react or behave as if one is dancing to the choreography of those things. In other words, things, lifeless as they may be, embody a script that can be read in predetermined ways by someone and thus influence his/her actions in coded ways. Even though there is a room for modification and even resistance to the scripting, a person is generally expected to dance to the tune of the lyrics of the script as if s/he is being remote-controlled by the personal or institutional force behind the thing. Thus socialization is analogous to scripting.
In employing this ‘novel methodology’, the author of the article does not only consult the “archival” “memory” of “written and material text that can be housed in an archive” to unearth the identity of the “light-skinned woman” in relation to the dark-skinned image of a boy, but she also incorporates “repertoire” memory described as being “embodied memory of traditions of performance” or “acts usually thought of as ephemeral” such as “gestures, orality, movement, dance,” and “singing”. Herein – in the subtle and simultaneous invocation of archival and repertoire memories – lies the theoretical basis of the author’s celebrated “new methodology”. To her, the archive should thus be conceived as a “ghostly discotheque where things of the past leap up to ask scholars to dance” and sense:
Scriptive things are simultaneously archive and repertoire; therefore, when things enter a repository such as the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the repertoire arrives with them. Scriptive things archive the repertoire—partially and richly, with a sense of openness and flux (Bernstein 2009: 89).
To put it simply by way of paraphrasing, the author is saying it is not enough to use and privilege the archive after all it is usually a site of history as written by those in power hence it is equally important to use and privilege the repertoire of those who writes back by way of performance in response to the dominant historiography – they are not merely frozen and stilled in the material culture.
In the author’s parlance, to be ‘performance competent’ enough to employ the “new methodology” effectively, one has “to understands a thing’s script both by locating the gestures it cites in its historical location and by physically interacting with the evidence in the present moment.” This is what the author does with the photograph though, by hastily “accruing contextualizing knowledge” of the ‘dark-skinned’ image of a boy, she does not dance with it as much as she does with the “light-skinned woman” thus failing to live up to the highest rigorous standards of “holding a thing, manipulating it, shaking it to see what meaningful gestures tumble forth” set by her proposed “new methodology”.
Regardless of whether only one was alive in a literal, as opposed to a figurative, sense during the photographing, both the ‘dark-skinned’ and ‘light-skinned’ are now images. They are all things that demand “people to confront them in their own terms”. And the terms have changed since then. Both can now talk more.