Does Meat Have Human Rights?
This is an oddity. I do two different kinds of writing - playwriting and academic writing - and they rarely overlap. I'm very sceptical of the 'performative writing' thing where an academic writes in a kind of ghastly prose-poetry about, not the performance, but their experience of the performance, which seems to me horribly self-regarding (and more often than not gauchely written). I find it difficult, though not impossible, to get one side to speak to the other, as, for example, when I have had to write academically about my own creative work.
So this piece is an unusual one.
It was written for the PSi [Performance Studies International] conference held at Queen Mary University of London in June 2006. I got the idea from a conference in Glasgow, I think, at which Professor Vera Gottlieb of Goldsmiths College London was due to give a paper, but was ill and so (do I remember this rightly?) faxed a copy of the paper to Glasgow - and the then-lecturer Steve Bottoms had to read it allowed. It struck me then that it was both a very odd event and also, for a theatre conference, wholly familiar. It was, after all, a piece of writing being performed by someone else. We're kind of used to that in theatre.
I must also say that I remember finding her paper rather infuriating - I tend to disagree with her take on contemporary theatre and what seemed to me then a holier-than-thou approach to political debate - and I was interested by the odd experience of not having her there to hear the responses.
So for PSi 2006, I thought I'd try to do this myself.
I submitted a paper under the name Simon Karera, who was purportedly a Rwandan academic and theatremaker. He would not be able to make the conference, because, as the paper would make clear, he was currently in detention prior to a United Nations trial for war crimes committed during the Rwandan Genocide of April-June 1994. I would then read the paper aloud, in Karera's absence. I should say, I did this with the full knowledge of the PSi organising committee, in particular Adrian Heathfield, who encouraged the fun.
It was not simply a joke. I had been reading a number of postmodern arguments against the notion of human rights, which I'd found deeply unpleasant. It seemed to me interesting to present a just-about-plausible version of these arguments but from someone who, we would discover, had a very different kind of disregard for the notion of human rights. There was also a challenge in there about representation: there's an identity-politics worry about people representing each other, which leaks into theatre criticism. Broadly, that men cannot represent women, white people cannot represent black people, and so on. This seems to me outrageous, anti-political, and to lock us all into our own identities, by denying the power of the imagination. The pugnacious side of me wanted to represent a black character in the paper.
So the piece starts as an academic paper, reveals itself as a creative fiction, and then, I think, or rather I hope, becomes a hybrid between the two.
It went okay. There was a fairly small turnout, principally I imagine because no one had heard of Simon Karera and, when there are so many parallel sessions to choose from, name-recognition does get a lot of footfall at a big conference like PSi. But we probably had ten people in the room, which is not bad.
I realised, on reflection, that I'd slightly misjudged the tone. The idea of the paper is that it starts 'fooling' people but then slowly the fiction becomes more and more ridiculous. Karera describes a theatre company in which Greek tragedies are performed solely by dogs, let out into a rope circle in town squares. Towards the end he even starts to announce that he is completely fictional. I intended the structure to allow the audience to twig that this is fictional, before the final declarations of fictionality acted like a great dragnet, sweeping everyone else up.
What I hadn't quite appreciated is that PSi is the kind of conference where a dog theatre company is not out of the ordinary and where it is perfectly commonplace for an academic to give a paper in which she declares that she is a fiction.
So most people but not everyone realised, even by the end, that this was a fiction. And without that work, the 'real' argument doesn't make an appearance, nor does the intended shift of focus in the paper get experienced.
But I like it as a piece of writing. so I've scanned it, with my last-minute additions, and it's here.