Event-making: Performance, Performativity, and Political Activism

For years event-making has been part of my research & pedagogical practice. This year, I finally wrote a little thing about it for the WGSS newsletter. Dedicated with love to all of the GLITTERverts out there who, when they have a great idea, think “This would make a FABULOUS event and I know JUST the BRILLIANT people to invite” before they think “I should write an article about this.”

Visiting Scholar, T. L. Cowan, Explores Performance, Performativity, and Political Activism






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I came to Yale this year as the Canadian Bicentennial Visiting Lecturer and Digital Humanities Fellow and was very happy to have WGSS as my “teaching” home. In the Spring Term, I taught two courses, “Performativity & Social Change” and “Transgender Cultural Production,” and organized four public events, presented in conjunction with these WGSS courses and in collaboration with several sponsoring units, including the Digital Humanities (DH) Lab and the Native American Cultural Center (NACC), and the Mellon Graduate Concentration in the Digital Humanities, “(En)Visualizing Knowledge: Text Mining, Mapping, Network Analysis, Archiving and Big Data,” taught by Inderpal Grewal and Laura Wexler.

As a long-time cabaret performer, curator and producer, I continue to use methods of the event as central to my scholarly practice. I believe that creating intra-disciplinary spaces through which folks come together to share in the project of building understanding across difference contributes to an ethics of accountability within and between communities of scholars, artists, and activists. It’s an engaged pedagogy (thanks, bell hooks & M. Jacqui Alexander).

Two of these events were offered as part of a DH LAB series that my collaborator Marijeta Bosovic (Slavic Studies) and I curated, entitled “Digital Non-Neutrality: Decolonizing and Queering DH Tools and Practices.” This ongoing series aims to center the work of scholars, artists and activists who are building and transforming DH pedagogy and scholarship in the activist intellectual traditions of WGSS (especially Transnational, Women of Color and Third World US Feminisms), LGBTS (especially Queer of Color critique), Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, Indigenous Studies and Critical Disability/Crip Studies—using grassroots- and humanities-based analyses to engage with emerging digital methods and materials. In early February, Dorothy Kim (Vassar) joined us at Yale and presented new work entitled “How to #Decolonize the Digital Humanities: or, a Practical Guide to Making DH Less White.” In late March, Moya Bailey (Northeastern) and Jalylah Burrell (Yale) presented “Sounds of Digital Joy: Black Women’s Sonic Space,” a hands-on workshop drawn from their own scholarship and community-based DJ and podcast practices.

March was a busy month.

On March 8th (International Women’s Day), Jaskiran Dhillon (The New School) and Maria Hupfield (Independent Artist, Anishinaabe) joined us in WGSS and the NACC for “Accomplice & Art Practice: Indigenous Feminist Activism & Performance.” This event drew together the integral intersections of performance, activism and scholarship in Indigenous political struggles, including struggles against gender-based violence and struggles for territorial and cultural sovereignty in the ongoing settler colonial histories of the past and present. In this event we began with presentations in William L. Harkness Hall, where WGSS lives, and then we moved together to the Native American Cultural Center for a really fabulous reception, hosted by the NACC. I am very grateful to Kelly Fayard, NACC’s Director, for making this happen. On March 28th, the first day back after Spring Break, novelist Imogen Binnie and publisher Tom Léger made their way to New Haven for a special presentation of Binnie’s novel Nevada and a discussion about transgender literary production in contemporary cultural scenes.

The common denominator across all of these events is that they were all embedded in the project of building accountability into our scholarly, artistic and activist practices. Rather than imagining scholarship as a project that studies activist and cultural phenomena and formations from an objective distance, these events helped those who participated to think about the ways in which we inhabit—are implicated in and might contribute to—the generative, often-difficult, joyful, and historically and geographically-situated formations and phenomena that we study.

And all of this would not be possible without the people in WGSS & LGBTS—especially Linda Hase, Maureen Gardner & Margaret Homans; the DH Lab—especially Catherine DeRose, Monica Ong-Reed & Peter Leonard; and the MacMillan Center—especially Lisa Brennan, Marilyn Wilkes, Whitney Doel, Lourdes Haynes, George Joseph, Elisha Cruz and Rahima Chaudhury. Thank you!