Go back to article: Threading through history: the vertical transmission of Davy, Faraday and Tyndall’s lecture demonstration practices

Embodied knowledge transmission: Roach, Taylor and Carlson

Before applying this idea to the context of the RI and the Science Museum it is necessary to extend the framework of Performance Studies theories to bolster ideas of verticality. In the following two sections I synthesise a complex of conceptions from Joseph Roach, Diana Taylor, Jacky Bratton and Marvin Carlson under the term ‘embodied knowledge transmission’, to understand the mechanisms by which verticality is achieved. Schechner’s notion of ‘restored behaviour’ is a good starting point:

Physical, verbal, or virtual actions that are not-for-the-first time; that are prepared or rehearsed. A person may not be aware that she is performing a strip of restored behaviour. Also referred to as twice-restored behaviour.

(Schechner, 2006, p 29)

Restored behaviour hinges on the perception that all human behaviours are multi-authored composites of actions that have already been practised, that the ‘units of behaviour that comprise “me” were not invented by “me”’ (Schechner, 2006, p 35). Positioning Schechner’s restored behaviour as ‘fundamentally repetitive or reiterative (…) necessarily bring[ing] back the past to unsettle the present’, performance historians Gilli Bush-Bailey and Jacky Bratton (2011, p 100) show how it offers one approach to dealing with the impact of historical performance events in the present day. Research into performance history, in this instance the performance of RI nineteenth-century lecture-demonstrations, presents a specific problem, one that Joseph Roach refers to as ‘the issue of absence [in] performances of the distant past’ (Roach, 1996, p 2) due to its transient and ephemeral form. Roach observes that one significant method of approach used by performance researchers today is to ‘juxtapose living memory as restored behaviour’ against the available tangible archival material, an approach that is useful to this enquiry.[5] By suggesting that living memory can be a form of restored behaviour, Roach implies that behaviours and actions from a previous time can be unknowingly trained for and practiced, and leave an imprint on the corporeal and cerebral faculties of those living who encounter traces of those past behaviours. In this sense it is as though the legacy of a particular skill or style of performance may be recreated, or restored, in present actions some time after the original has ceased. Important to note here is Schechner’s assertion that no two performances/restored behaviours are exactly the same – the contexts and conditions of reception are unique – but that thinking about performance in the sense of restored behaviour means it is never uniquely for the first time: ‘Performance means: never for the first time. It means: for the second to the nth time. Performance is “twice-behaved behaviour’’’ (Schechner, 1985, p 36).

Diana Taylor (2003) expands this idea by drawing a distinction between ‘the archive and the repertoire’. As Gale and Featherstone observe, ‘For Taylor, the historical prioritisation of the text-based archive has meant the repertoire […] has been given less significance than it might have been’ (Gale and Featherstone, 2011, p 20). Taylor is particularly interested in the ways in which knowledge is produced and transmitted through embodied means. In making the distinction between the hard, tangible contents of the archive, ‘supposedly enduring materials (i.e. texts, documents, buildings, bones)’ and what she refers to as ‘the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e. spoken language, dance, sports, ritual)’ (Taylor, 2003, p 19 italics in original), she highlights how the former separates the knowledge from the knower. Taylor argues that unlike the objects in the archive, which although open to interpretation essentially remain constant, the actions of the repertoire are flexible and unfixed:

The repertoire requires presence: people participate in the production and reproduction of knowledge by “being there”, being a part of the transmission.

(Taylor, 2003, p 20)

This transmission may incorporate changes and additions as the participants appropriate the embodied knowledge. As with Schechner’s restored behaviour, Taylor recognises the possibility of a state of ‘againness’ (Taylor, 2003, p 21), acts of behaviour that are played out in subtly different forms with each new iteration, as if the memory is being replayed, ‘They reconstitute themselves, transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next’ (Taylor, 2003, p 20).

This idea intersects with what Marvin Carlson in The Haunted Stage refers to as ‘recycling’ (2003), a concept he applies to theatrical text, body, production and space. Building on the notion that ‘all texts are in fact haunted by other texts and can be best understood as weavings together of preexisiting textual material – indeed, that all reception is based upon this intertextual dynamic’ (Carlson, 2003, p 17), he argues that all the constituent parts of all theatrical production have been recycled or reused, an idea that complements Schechner’s notion of restored behaviour.

Accepting that nineteenth-century lecture-demonstrations and the work of the Explainer antecedents at the Science Museum constitutes performance, this framework of embodied knowledge transmission from Performance Studies might help explain the embodied history of contemporary forms of SMG explaining, suggesting it as a ‘reusing’ of nineteenth-century lecture-demonstration performance, a central tenet of my argument here.

Figure 1

Coloured lithograph of Michael Faraday lecturing in the Theatre at the Royal Institution circa 1856

Alexander Blaikley’s lithograph depicting Michael Faraday delivering the RI Christmas lecture before Prince Albert, December 1855

The extant documentation of these nineteenth-century performances takes a variety of forms including written eyewitness accounts, the letters, lecture-notes and diaries of the scientists themselves, and lithographs – the mediatising paraphernalia of the time – and this documentation contributes to and enhances re-presentation and re-imagining. In the instance of RI lecture-demonstrations there is also a further layer of complexity since the performance here is of the production of scientific knowledge – the lecture-demonstrations were/are tangible and physical, if fleeting moments of its presentation. Once the moment of performance has passed, the remaining capital – the knowledge itself – resides in the memories and experience of the spectator and the scientist-practitioner. Later still it may also be present in any associated written, visual or aural documentation. In this respect there are echoes of Diana Taylor’s positioning of performance as something ‘which persists, transmitted through a nonarchival system of transfer that [she] came to call the repertoire’ (Taylor, 2003, p xvii). Taylor, as I have said, identifies the repertoire as that which ‘enacts embodied memory: performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing – in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge’ (2003, p 20). The lecture-demonstration practices of the nineteenth century have not before been thought of in this way, but considering them as part of a repertoire appropriately recognises how the embodied traditions of two hundred years ago have, in Taylor’s words, been ‘transmitted “live” in the here and now to a live audience. Forms handed down from the past are experienced as present’ (Taylor, 2003, p 24). The ‘here and now’ practices at the RI remain little altered since their earliest days, but as I argue later, traces of them also reside in the ‘here and now’ practices of the SMG Explainer.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/003