CFP: ‘Historiography as Metonymy’

  • Region: International
  • Type: Call for Papers
  • Cost: Free

Call for Papers – Historiography as Metonymy

Special Issue, Theatre Research International (50.3)


Over the last five years, there has been considerable emphasis on the nature and purpose of theatre historiography. Two authoritative collections, Claire Cochrane’s and Jo Robinson’s (eds.) The Methuen Drama Handbook of Theatre History and Theatre Historiography and Tracy C. Davis’ and Peter W. Marx’ (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance Historiography, underscore the expansive scope of theatre history’s current concerns, probing what the discipline of theatre history has to ‘[offer] to the world’ today.[i] Due to the sweeping breadth of both volumes, which provide surveys of the academic discipline of theatre history and an extensive range of methodological approaches relevant for its practice, scholars have called for ‘a brief moratorium on any more theatre and performance historiography anthologies’.[ii]

In response to this protest, this special issue of Theatre Research International is more limited in size and less comprehensive in its aims yet explores an uncharted theatre historiography approach. It takes as its conceptual starting point ‘theatrical things’ too commonplace to ordinarily deserve scholarly notice – fans, statues, cigarettes, oil lamps, mothballs. The special issue sheds light on how unassuming features of performance practice constitute critical apertures for the study of theatre historiography, telling us something vital about theatre-making and sense-making. In the study of theatre history, Davis says, there is a premium on asserting originality and innovation, so we are ill-disposed to acknowledge consistency, unoriginality, and derivation.[iii] Following Davis’ line of thought, we consider how utterly commonplace theatrical things become interfaces between theatre and worldmaking or microcosms for understanding theatre practice in ways that social ‘context’ does not allow us to imagine. We denote this form of historiography as metonymy.

Conventionally, metonymy refers to the process by which a concept or phenomenon is substituted with a more abbreviated term or phrase closely associated with it, typically based on contiguity or closeness. Historiography as metonymy similarly entails physical proximity rather than symbolic reference (the relationship between signifier and signified) or, in other words, a process of looking beyond archival documentation’s reconstitution of the historical past. Unlike metaphor, which relies on processes of representation – acts of referring to or signifying aesthetic conventions, production and reception habits, cultural assumptions, and socio-political phenomena – metonymy operates through proximity, exchange, and ‘stickiness’.

Following Sara Ahmed’s theory of affective economies in her Cultural Politics of Emotions, we believe that a ‘sticky’ relationship exists between past performances and their ‘relics’ or leftovers.[iv] Stories, images, and feelings stick to the remains of historical performances, generating ‘entanglements’,[v] that is, a blurring of the boundaries between the ephemeral nature of live events and the material objects associated with them. It is this metonymic relationship that has allowed us to preserve, exhibit, and collect performance art over the decades (for example: remnants of land art such as Spiral Jetty; the 2,000lb clay sculpture from Heather Cassils’ Becoming an Image; bricks moved from a wall in Guangzhou in Lin Yilin’s Hotbed; or the taught pantyhose previously worn by dancers in Senga Nengudi’s R.S.V.P.series). Erupting, undulating, cascading, promiscuously proliferating, these artefacts do not simply represent the performance. Rather, their close proximity suggests ‘l’evocation et non l’illustration’, that is, the ability to trigger a tactile gaze or physical response, evoke the pleasure of movement, and thereby capture the essence of a performance and convey it through time. Unlike metaphor, which relies on resemblance, metonymy operates through proximity and exchange, enabling these material remains to metonymically replace the absent performance. While contemporary performance art serves as a compelling illustration, these concerns extend more broadly to all object-remains in theatre history. Prompting fundamental inquiries into the relationship between theatre and its material components, the artefacts leftover from past performances bring to the forefront considerations about the limits of representation in theatre history-writing.

Here, Hermann Nitsch’s reference to a seismometer – the device which measures the movement of the earth during earthquakes – provides valuable insight. [vi] Theatrical relics, we argue, are akin to seismometers in that they capture, record, and transmit (rather than simply depict) the affective vibrations of past performances. Nigel Thrift describes these vibrations as ‘non-representational’ – the background of an event.[vii] Historiography as metonymy can be understood as bringing this background – the sphere of non-representation – to the centre of scholarly interest. In Atmospheric Attunements, Kathlene Stewart usefully explains what a focus on non-representational atmospheres entails. She states, ‘atmospheric attunements are a process of what Heidegger (1962) called worlding… Here, things matter not because of how they are represented but because they have qualities, rhythms, forces, relations, and movements.’[viii]

Following this line of inquiry, we invite essays (6000-8000 words) that probe theatrical remains as conceptual starting points for understanding and doing theatre and performance history. Submissions may include but are not limited to the following questions:

  • What is the phenomenological relationship between a performance and its remains?
  • How does the contiguity between performance and its remnants validate the latter as archival sources of performance?
  • Can an object from a performance approximate or bear a coterminous relation to the absent whole of the performance event and actively participate in the unfolding of the performance’s meaning over time?
  • Can relics be understood not only as physical objects – material remains, documents, and recordings – but also as affects and emotions, past gestures, rhythms, forces, relations, and movements, that is, all that is common, trivial, and rooted in everydayness?
  • Can object-remains function as ‘mnemonic devices for remembering the past’, which make memories of both the living as well as the dead tangible? How do they articulate ‘difficult pasts’?[ix]How do they conjure beings whose bodies are no longer there?
  • Is it possible to surpass the sphere of representation in historiographic thinking? What would be the politics of such a shift?
  • What existing models can help us move beyond the idea of performance history as representation of the theatrical past? For example, renaissance philosopher Giulio Camillo’s Memory-Theatre – a physical model for ‘staging’ and accessing memory inspired by mnemonic techniques of cataloguing knowledge;[x]or Hito Steyerl’s concept of ‘spam’ as a withdrawal from representation?[xi] How can such models help us rethink the practice of theatre history writing?

Please submit your essays to Manuscript Central: specifying that your submission is for issue 50:3. The submission deadline is 15 September 2024. For information about submission, visit:

The special issue editors Rashna D. Nicholson (, Tancredi Gusman (, and Dorota Sosnowska ( welcome questions and inquiries.

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