Volume 3 Issue 2 (2007): On Beyond Interdisciplinarity
Crossing the Boundaries

Beyond the Archive: Cultural Memory in Dance and Theater

Carol L. Bernstein
Bryn Mawr College
Published November 15, 2007
  • cultural memory,
  • archive,
  • dance,
  • interdisciplinarity,
  • comparative literature,
  • testimony
  • ...More


This essay uses the concept of the constellation to characterize the relations among interdisciplinarity, cultural memory, and comparative literature. To do so entails: (a) reviewing the paradoxical interdisciplinarity of comparative literature, (b) tracing its establishment at a liberal arts college (Bryn Mawr College, USA), and (c) describing a course on “The Cultural Politics of Memory” that tested the limits of scholarship and testimony. The discussion includes an account of an unusual conference on cultural memory: that is, the ways in which different cultural groups identify and describe their shared pasts. The informality and collegial dialogue of the conference were associated with a liberal arts context. It then turns to the question of theorizing aspects of cultural memory that are conveyed at the margins of conventional discourse: by what is largely unsaid, or represented in dance or pantomime. Because each of the performances discussed here is related in a distinct way to a preceding historical trauma (the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, African American slavery in the USA, the terrorism of the Shining Path in Peru), it was important to determine what source of memory, what archival materials, could persist through traumas that often suppress memory. Traditional archives consist of written documents. Moreover, they often support or represent official histories. New ways of thinking about archives--their composition, their place in cultural history, and their theoretical dimensions--have suggested new approaches to cultural memory. The essay ends with accounts of three forms of dance or pantomime that convey cultural histories informed by trauma in significantly different ways. A narrative thread foregrounds the close relations between scholarship and pedagogy.