Performativity and Reenactment

Lise Zurné MA, PhD project
Performing sensitive pasts: Exploring historical re-enactments in Europe and Indonesia

Lisa is currently in the final stages of her PhD project at the Centre for Historical Culture at the Erasmus University. Her project investigated historical re-enactments of twentieth-century violence.

Historical re-enactments, the recreation of historical events, have been often regarded as a hobby of ‘boys and toys’. Until recently, academic historians have been skeptical of such practices. However, the field of re-enactment studies is developing, as an increasing number of scholars have argued that re-enactments allow participants to critically investigate history and its representations. As a result, re-enactments could provide opportunities for the expression of local voices that have been neglected in hegemonic historical representation.

The main research question that directed the research was therefore: How do re-enactors negotiate contested episodes of 20th century war violence?

The first case within the study explored the annual commemorative re-enactment of the March 1st, 1949, a counter offensive against the Dutch reoccupation in Indonesia. This case explored how the organizers of the re-enactment have dealt with competing historical narratives in Indonesian historiography. Through extensive research among the reenactors, I analysed the power structures between and within re-enactor communities and other parties involved in facilitating such events.

The second case of the dissertation focussed on the performance of WWII gender roles. As a pastime dominated by men, most literature on re-enactment and gender however has emphasized the subordinate position of women. Within this case, I analysed the strategies women re-enactors use in the remediation of what they consider to be the ‘invisible’ histories of women in the armed forces. The findings demonstrated a complex negotiation between historical notions of ‘femininity’, contemporary understandings, and the affordances of digital platforms in the redefinition of gendered memories of WWII.

The final case explored how re-enactors create intimate encounters with World War II through collective multisensory experiences. It showed how physical and emotional sensations associated with the “discomforts” of war are considered authoritative and experiential evidence and mediate one’s position within the re-enactment community. Further, by drawing on Victor Turner’s concept of the liminoid, I explored re-enactment as a ritualized practice in which shared experiences of hardships serve to access certain sentimental and emotional states, in particular a sense of belonging. The analysis also showed how these immersive experiences are susceptible to conflicts, when re-enactment moves from play to obligation

Dr. Robbert-Jan Adriaansen
Historical Reenactment as Simulation of the Past: A new Paradigm for Research

History didacticians teach us that historical consciousness is shaped by stories about the past. It is narratives that give meaning to historical facts and events, thereby providing a framework for orientation in time. Unlike traditional media such as books, films or theater, historical reenactments are not by definition formally structured narratively as individual decisions, and improvisation carry weight. Interaction with the public, simultaneity of performative acts, and a variety of unforeseen circumstances all dilute narrative clarity. Do we have to conclude from this that re-enactments hardly contribute to historical awareness? Do they only lead to an antiquarian interest in historical facts and objects? This project aims to reinterpret historical reenactment as a form of play and thereby in terms of historical simulation rather than representation.

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