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Interview with Richard Bauman, part 1

Richard Bauman chatted with Ilana Gershon over coffee about his career upon receiving the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology.  Below is the first part of an edited transcript of the informal conversation.

Richard Bauman
Richard Bauman. James Brosher

Over the course of your career, you have had many insights that have opened conceptual paths for others around performance, intertextuality, and so on.   Could you talk about the origins for one of your ideas and how your understanding evolved over different research projects, such as entextualization?

For me, being part of a closely engaged circle of colleagues has been absolutely critical.  For the first phase of my career, it was my colleagues at Texas.  For the second phase of my career, it was the group at the Center for Psycho-social Studies and then its various transformations into the Center for Transcultural Studies and the Michicagoan Faculty Seminar in Linguistic Anthropology.  When Greg Urban and Michael Silverstein were convening a working group on texts and power at the Center, they invited me to join the group. At the same time, virtually the same time, I had a series of conversations with Charles Briggs about our mutual interest in performance.  Both of us were beginning to feel that we had reached the limits of what we could do within the framework that we were using.  That is, the frame of reference, the unit of analysis, was the speech event. We got quite good at analyzing language in its situational context with attention to interactional power, energized by other work going on in social interaction, Goffman, Garfinkel, all kinds of related work.  Meanwhile there is this other influential work developing on language and power—Foucault is talking about language and power and epistemes, these long stretches of historical duration, and various of the European cultural studies folks are talking about language and political and institutional power out there.  So how do we go from the performance event to these larger scale issues, how do we transcend the boundaries of the speech event?

That is the problem that Charles and I began to work on together.  Well, that is exactly what the text and power people were starting to think about, in discussions that yielded Natural Histories of Discourse.  We were already good at the interaction order; now we have gotten into interdiscursivity, we have some pretty productive handles for thinking about how utterances reach back and look forward and how textuality works.  And the next big thing is to carry it even further in terms of ever larger scales in terms that build on what we have learned.  If I was going to draw in very broad terms the trajectory of what I have been interested in, it starts with the ethnography of speaking and the speech situation, then it gets to interdiscursivity and intertextuality, and then gets us out into larger scales.  I had already approached my Quaker research as an attempt to build in a larger temporal reach than the ethnography of speaking generally engaged.  Instead of restricting myself to what goes on in a Quaker meeting, my question was how Quaker speech practices and language ideology were transformed from the first emergence of this Society of Friends in the early 1650s to Toleration in 1689.  I didn’t have many texts to work with, so it was largely the routinization of charisma that provided the framework. But the struggle with larger social formations and larger temporal formations has moved things along.

All of us are constantly being misread in imaginative, unexpected, but also irritating ways.   Is there a misreading of your work that you very much wish people would stop doing?

There are all too many instances in which if an idea is traveling, it is traveling light.  But it is not just my ideas, all ideas can travel light.  In Verbal Art as Performance and other writings on performance and what not, I am trying to suggest, by what I call keys to performance, that performance is an interpretive framework that has to be triggered somehow.  So how?  Well, there are some ways that seem very widely documented in the world’s cultures, just to give you an idea.  This is not a checklist.  And by God, if it doesn’t become a checklist: “Bauman says performance is ‘bing bing bing’ and here is ‘bing bing bing’ in my example.” I have never been happy with it fits scholarship. But then to take it as a checklist when it isn’t one—no!  You have to discover ethnographically what is going on.

There have been other much more productive engagements.  In my experience, the most productive critical take on my work has come from feminist critics.  Patricia Sawin and a number of others who say: “Okay, what Bauman is talking about is performance as a mode of display—‘look at me, watch this’—whatever the mechanics and situation or ideological context can be. Yet for women, in many of the world’s cultures it can be awfully rough to say ‘look at me, watch this, I’m on, I’m in charge here.’   And then women are way out of line. Women are not licensed to do this, or if they are, it is at the risk of being termed brazen, sexually available, etc. etc. And it doesn’t always work.”  When Patricia came out with that interpretation, I was delighted. All that I ask, you don’t have to follow my line, just take it seriously and see what you can do with it.  And if this is a critical insight, this is great.

The other direction which I think people have developed productive critiques has to do with bringing together various phenomenological takes on reflexivity.  What I did early on had more to do with formal reflexivity, language about language, meta-levels, and so on.  But to think about what it means to be a performer or a member of an audience in those kinds of phenomenological terms enriches the anthropological literature.  And again, these are my former students who are doing this.  There are people who say “what in the world is Bauman going to think of this?” “Great!!”

Read Part 2 of this interview here.

Richard Bauman is a professor emeritus of anthropology, folklore, and communication and culture at Indiana University.  He received the Franz Boas Award of Exemplary Service to Anthropology in November 2016.

Ilana Gershon curated this article.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA contributing editors Anna Babel ( or Ilana Gershon (