Go back to article: A symposium on histories of use and tacit skills

Yves Winkin: Restoration of behaviour and re-enactment

While the notion of re-enactment is well-known in the history of science, the notion of ‘restoration of behaviour’ seems to be confined to anthropology, where it was developed in the late 1970s by Richard Schechner. My suggestion here is that the two notions could be complementary and put to good use in either discipline. I am going to sketch the history of ‘restoration of behaviour’ and suggest usages in the history of science, especially when history is reconstructed in science museums, as is the case with Roger Kneebone’s re-enactment experiments.

Richard Schechner (born 1934) was trained both in drama and anthropology, and his entire career reflects that double interest, as expressed in the title of his 1985 book Between Theater and Anthropology, and shown in the content of The Drama Review of which he has been a long-standing editor. Schechner also co-founded and led for many years the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, which is unusual in its blending of humanities and social sciences, under the aegis of the over-arching notion of performance.

A word about performance before moving to restoration of behaviour: performance as conceptualised by Schechner is never solely a piece in a theory, as philosophers of language would have it. It is both acting on stage, in a very physical way, and acting on stage, in a very metaphorical way (Schechner, 1985, p 296):

There are two main realms of performance theory: (1) looking at human behaviour – individual and social – as a genre of performance; (2) looking at performances – of theatre, dance, and other ‘art forms’ – as a kind of personal or social interaction. These two realms, or spheres, can be metaphorically figured as interfacing at a double two-way mirror. From one face of the mirror persons interested in aesthetic genres peep through at ‘life’. From the other side, persons interested in the ‘social sciences’ peep through at ‘art’. Everything is in quotation marks because the categories are not settled. The very activity of peeping through unsettles the categories. Or, as Erving Goffman slyly remarked in 1959, ‘All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify’ (1959, p 72).

Erving Goffman and his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) is seminal here because he offered a dramaturgical reading of face-to-face interactions, which was both deeply embedded in a long Shakespearian tradition and very fresh in the vocabulary used and the perspective developed. Speaking of front stage and back stage, Goffman saw interactions as performances: ‘Once we begin a performance, we are inclined to finish it, and we are sensitive to jarring notes which may occur during it. If we are caught out in a misrepresentation we feel deeply humiliated’ (1959, p 244). Schechner relied heavily on Goffman’s vision of the social world, as developed in his Presentation of Self. But another book by Goffman often quoted by Schechner should also be mentioned here: Frame Analysis (1974).

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson published a paper ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ (1955), which also deeply influenced Goffman through the notion of ‘frame’. Bateson, a British-born anthropologist (or natural historian, as he liked to call himself), developed too many ideas to be presented here, but of particular relevance is his idea of frame in which every public activity has to be cued in order to be properly understood: ‘I am joking here’, for example. The cue does not need to be said: a smile or a wink may be sufficient to send the message, or rather to frame the wording as ‘this is play’. Goffman picked up this idea and developed it in 576 pages in his Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Frame Analysis is Goffman’s magnum opus, in which he tries to rebuild sociology from scratch. The book has not been as influential as Presentation of Self but it is a regular source of inspiration for Schechner. So, when the latter had to define ‘restored behaviour’ he went immediately to Frame Analysis: ‘Restored behaviour is living behaviour treated as a film director treats a strip of film’ (1985, p 35), with the ‘strip’ being defined by Goffman as ‘any arbitrary slice or cut from the stream of ongoing activity’ (1974, p 10).

An example of restored behaviour may make the idea clearer. We are in Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts, 1627 – or rather in the immersive experience offered to visitors since the late 1960s. Actors dressed in seventeenth-century clothes speak to visitors in seventeenth-century English while going about their business, such as baking bread or cooking pork (with seventeenth-century recipes). This is what Schechner calls ‘restored behaviour’. We are indeed close to ‘re-enactment’ – to the point we may ask what is the difference, except for disciplinary origins?[2]

In order to suggest an answer, a third term may be injected into the discussion: replication. Since the early 1980s, as we all know, there have been ‘replications of historical experiments’ by historians of science such as Peter Heering (1992), Otto Sibum (1995), Elizabeth Cavicchi (2003), Alberto Martinez (2006) and many others. Those historians do not seem to use the terminology of re-enactment – and certainly not restoration of behaviour. They may at times use reworking, restaging, if not simply reproduction. But replication is their favourite term, and French-speaking historians have also adopted it, either as such: réplication (Gaudillière, 1994) or in French translation: reconstitution (Pestre, 1994).

Most replications focus on the construction of instruments as close as possible to the historical originals. Martinez (2006) is painstakingly meticulous in that respect, in order to debate with Heering (1992). But other scholars try as well to reconstruct the context around the instruments. Otto Sibum stands out here as the historian closest to an anthropological approach with his notion of ‘gestural knowledge’. Such a notion is certainly nothing new to scholars inspired by Marcel Mauss or André Leroy-Gourhan, but it certainly is a real breakthrough in the world of historians of science. Sibum applies the notion to both the tacit knowledge of the scientist who conducted the original experiment (such as Joule, who tapped into his brewing culture) and to the ‘complex of skills and forms of mastery developed in these real-time performances’ (Sibum, 1995a, p 76) by the historian replicating the experiment.

Playing with bodily orientations in space and bodily rhythms in time is essential in order to get in touch with the instruments, other people and processes involved in the experiment. Material objects (as well as accompanying texts) serve as a kind of choreography for this performance because they provide partial direction of our thinking and acting (Sibum, 1995b, p 27).

We see how close Sibum stands to the notions of re-enactment and restoration of behaviour, while not using either of them. But he does see his work as a performance, just like scholars who speak of re-enactments or restorations of behaviour. We could also show how close Sibum is to the notion of embodiment. When he uses ‘gestural knowledge’ to both explain how Joule was able to produce such refined results and how he was able to understand ‘from within’ how Joule worked, he becomes Joule in a sense – he embodies Joule to the rhythm of his body, to the flare of his nostrils, to the light rake in his fingers. Exactly like the nurses and doctors of Roger Kneebone’s surgical re-enactments, who play their own role in order to revamp a memory partially lost. Exactly like Schechner’s observations of seventeenth-century behaviour restored by actors who confine their gestures and words to the world of seventeenth-century American settlement. But there is a limit to the possibility of historical embodiment: Sibum will never be Joule, and a twentieth-century actor will never be a seventeenth-century settler – while older Kneebone may be younger Kneebone at the time of a performance.

All this is to say (to return to our question) that there is no fundamental difference between restoration of behaviour and re-enactment. Both notions have to do with performing the past, embodying characters and framing activities. Both notions can be applied in a wild range of contexts, from the re-enactment of military battles to religious festivals (seen as restoration of divine behaviour). However, while re-enactment may have saturated its analytical potential in the history of science, and may just be used today as a methodological label in the field (like replication), it may well be that restoration of behaviour still has potential for analysis (like gestural knowledge) because Schechner spent quite some time conceptualising it and modelling it. Just apply this excerpt to Otto Sibum enacting Joule while accumulating ‘gestural knowledge’:

Put in personal terms, restored behaviour is ‘me behaving as if I am someone else’ or ‘as if I am “beside myself”, or “not myself”’, as when in trance. But this ‘some[one]else’ may also be ‘me in another state of feeling/being’, as if there were multiple ‘me’s’ in each person […] Restored behaviour offers to both individuals and groups the chance to rebecome what they once were – or even, and most often, to rebecome what they never were but wish to have been or wish to become (Schechner, 1985, p 37 and p 38).

 Richard Schechner and Otto Sibum ought to get together at some point.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170808/005