Disenchanting Les Bon Temps: Identity and Authenticity in Cajun Music and Dance.
In a quote that the author borrows from Todd Mouton ("Checking the Rear View", Offbeat, July 1999, 37-41), Zachary Richard articulates the paradoxical sense the term les bon temps, which literally translates as "the good times," has for Cajun and Creole musicians:
The basic contradiction of Cajun music ... is that you have songs which are about nothing but heartache, loneliness, loss--loss of love, loss of property, loss of stature in the society, all of these things--on this music that is absolutely joyful. So it's this incredible contradiction that is part of the Cajun soul, I think. You know, that even in pain you celebrate. (2)
The author of Disenchanting Les Bon Temps, Charles J. Stivale, borrows the term "disenchanting" from Sylvia Winter ("On Disenchanting Discourse: 'Minority' Literary Criticism and Beyond," Cultural Critique 7:207-44, 1987) to characterize the way in which he seeks to demystify and deconstruct the various facets of cultural representations that sustain the spiritual and mythic force of this term as they simultaneously celebrate it. As Stivale points out, "the constructions of identity and authenticity in the Cajun dance and music arena manifest ways in which contemporary societies and social groups deploy cultural representations for a broad range of strategic and ideological ends" (3). To this end, Disenchanting seeks to explore the intersection of local and global social-cultural activity by demonstrating some of the ways in which the practices of various local cultural agents affect wider global representations of Cajun music and musicians.
Stivale draws on his extensive personal experience with the community he studies in his effort to pinpoint issues of identity and authenticity as constructions situated in social spaces, inextricably tied to loci of their cultural production. He attenuates this first-hand experience through a combined theoretical lens of cultural studies literature and the scholarly output of theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (cf. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). Consequently, the work's purview includes a wide variety of cultural contexts in which identities are constructed and authenticity is debated, including personal accounts about the dance floors of various venues, song lyrics, perspectives of various Cajun and Zydeco artists on the trajectory of their performance and recording careers in relation to these issues, and their negotiation and representation in both the motion picture industry and in Cajun dance instructional videos.
In Chapter 1, Stivale discusses the process of his "becoming Cajun" (an identity process many native and nonnative Louisianans refer to as "Cajun-by-choice"). In doing so, he reflects on the relationship in this work between the personal, the scholarly, and the disciplinary dimensions, highlighting points of contention as well as complementarity. Stivale also describes in detail two terms essential to the original conceptual framework for his research: "spaces of affects" (arguing that "affective renewal occurs through the dynamic and creative exchange between musicians and fans in multiple dance sites in and outside southern Louisiana") and, using syntax borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari, "becoming-Cajun." Stivale explains the latter term as the creation of a collective enunciation of Cajun music and language in way that contains its own political force and "both a temporal passage through successive experiential phases and an experimental and spatial process of engagement with diverse cultural practices" (21).
In Chapter 2, Stivale considers the concept of dislocation, which he calls (de)paysement (translated literally as "[un]countrying") in the Cajun music repertoire. The term is used to describe the instability of fixed settlements evoked in song and inscribed through lyrical references. As Stivale writes, "This instability is manifested lyrically as the displacement to, from, and between different parts of the pays--that is the local region understood as a distinct land or territory" (42). Stivale then extends this thematic reflection to the recent poetry and music of Zachary Richard in an effort to understand the ways in which one Cajun artist relates to issues of location and identity.
In Chapter 3, Stivale turns to three visual forms of representation as case studies of the ways in which film has been used to construct Cajun identities. In these films, Cajun cultural agents have communicated various forms of authenticity through self-representation in a variety of capacities. Specifically, Stivale examines two examples of the familiar dominant/dominated dialogue within commercial cinema of the 1980s, Southern Comfort and The Big Easy. In Walter Hill's 1981 action drama, Southern Comfort, for example, National Guardsmen are at war with the residents of rural Louisiana's swamp who are depicted as dark and foreign in an attempt to illustrate the film's larger allegory about U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Cajun music, musicians, and dance play a significant role in this film's cathartic climax. Stivale also explores the construction of Cajun cultural identity in the documentary genre, focusing specifically on director Les Blank's three films French Dance Tonight, J'ai Ete au Bal: The Cajun and Zydeco Music of Louisiana, and Marc and Ann. Stivale concludes the chapter by examining the representation of Cajun identity in three different dance instructional tapes produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Betty Cecil's I Love to Cajun Dance (1988), the New Orleans restaurant Michaul's Cajun Dance Instruction (ca. 1992), and J. Randolph (Rand) Speyrer's Allons Danser (1987) and its 1993 two cassette follow-up with Cynthia Speyrer, Introduction to Cajun Dancing and Advanced Cajun Dancing.
In the remaining chapters, Stivale first draws upon his own experiences in Cajun dance and music venues to discuss how vibrant exchanges between musicians and dancers transform mere physical locales to "spaces of affects." He then considers a number of sociopolitical issues and tensions underlying les bon temps cultural practices that constitute their active construction and expression. Stivale concludes the book with an exploration of ongoing cultural initiatives authored by folklorists, musicians, dancers, and fans that demonstrate the possibilities for maintaining the vitality of Cajun music and dance.
This book is a uniquely theoretical and scholarly-grounded addition to the canon of writing on Cajun music and dance. Though Stivale's adaptation of theoretical frameworks from Deleuze and Guattari will be challenging for readers not familiar with this particular mode of analysis, the rest of the book provides enough rich detail in the form of case studies of specific works, artists, and the author's own experiences to balance and explain these theories, and show how they play out in particular contexts. Stivale provides extensive notes and works cited, though it would have been useful to have a separate discography and videography. Readers searching for a complete ethnography of New Orleans and Cajun culture will be disappointed, but that is not this book's intent, and Stivale provides a clear and cogent discussion of his own positioning in the context of this music and the people that engage in it. Readers should also be aware of the book's tendency to overemphasize the uniqueness of some of the processes described here involving the negotiation of identity and authenticity on the part of cultural/ethnic minorities.
Indiana University, Bloomington, USA
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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