I did my MA in English, in the 1990s, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The English Department occupied a couple of floors in an undistinguished 1970s concrete tower block called Curtin Hall. Though the building offered nice enough views over Lake Michigan from the upper stories, for the most part it comprised a series of windowless corridors and linoleum floors lit by fluorescent lights, lined with identikit pine doors leading to faculty and grad student offices. Many of my classes took place in the same non-descript seminar room at the end of one of these corridors. I believe that the room number was Curtin 466.
The only distinguishing feature of Curtin 466, which might draw your attention if class discussion seemed to be going nowhere in particular, was a dent in one of the walls, near the door. It was a fairly deep dent, which had broken the surface of the wall, revealing the hollowness within, and it was about the size and shape of a human fist. Rumor had it that the dent’s author was none other than one of the department’s more distinguished professors: Herb Blau. It was said that, perhaps in precisely one of those lulls, to invigorate things he had punched the wall with his bare hand.
I have no idea if that story was true, but it might well have been. For Herb, who died on Friday at the age of 87, wasn’t someone to let the little matter of a plasterboard wall get in the way of a robust exchange of ideas. And despite first appearances–by the time I knew him, he was already close to retirement age; short, balding, mild-mannered–he would soon remind you that his training was on and around the stage. He was a performer, or rather, he wanted to point out that we are all always called upon to perform when the spotlight, perhaps suddenly, comes our way. The only doubt is whether we are going to be up to the task. In class, he liked to draw attention to one of us in a quick instant that showed the way in which he was constantly thinking like a director: he put us on stage and challenged us to respond.
I took a course with him in that same seminar room with the fist-sized dent in the wall that could be read as a promise or threat of what we might expect in the Herb Blau classroom. The course was on fashion, slightly incongruously as I suspect that neither Herb nor I, in our different ways, have ever been accused of being particularly fashionable. But Herb was interested in fashion as performance, as a system of display that we could never simply evade. He was keen on the intricate play of gazes and (admiring or condescending) looks that constitutes a fashion system. We read an eclectic mix of texts, on topics from Renaissance cross-dressing to Coco Chanel, from Pirandello to pop.
Herb had an oblique relationship to academic fashion, too. I gleaned that he was very important in a field, performance studies, that he had in some ways invented. Indeed, he often told us directly or indirectly, through anecdote or declaration, of his own importance. But we young bucks were perhaps tempted to see Herb as something of a holdover or anachronism, in part precisely because of his stories of hanging out with Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. In what was still the heyday of high theory, the notion of performance or performativity was associated with figures such as the poststructuralist feminist Judith Butler and a whole other series of references from Louis Althusser to Michel Foucault. Herb, though he read voraciously and was no foe of Theory, was perhaps too eclectic, or even too grounded, to be hip.
But Herb grew on you, and I grew to be a little less superficial in my judgments. He was extraordinarily generous with his advice and time, and in talking to him you realized that he had been watching and listening to you carefully: sympathetically but not uncritically. I remember when he dissected some of the questions I had asked in the regular department seminar where we hosted visiting speakers. He reminded me that I had, after all, been performing, and that his was above all a consummate eye (and ear) for performance. And that by pointing this out, and so by revealing that there was something hollow in every academic fad or fashion, he wasn’t necessarily denigrating it. After all, Herb had long been in the business of performance; he wasn’t one to oppose it to some simple notion of authenticity.
As with the seminar-room wall, Herb would puncture performances; he would leave his mark and offer a glimpse of the mechanics and subterfuges that hold up the structures (social and cultural as well as architectural) that we inhabit. But he would also therefore give us a sense of the complexity of those structures, and perhaps leave us with admiration (however grudging) for all that had gone into the construction of something that we otherwise might take for granted. Ultimately, Herb’s critiques, his provocations and even his self-dramatizations were aimed at one end: to get us to think, and so to learn; to keep us on our toes, so that we could reach higher.
I saw Herb just a few months ago, after an interval of many years. I was giving a talk at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he moved not long after I left Milwaukee, and where his wife Kathy Woodward directs the Simpson Centre for the Humanities. He was visibly older and frailer than he had been a decade previously, but he was undimmed and astute as ever. My talk was on affect, violence, and death. Afterwards, in the question-and-answer session, he made the point that we are all dying in front of each other, all the time. He looked unwaveringly at me and said: “As I watch, you are inching towards death.” I wondered how to respond, realizing that Herb had done it again: he had put me on the spot; he’d made me think, made me struggle to find words; and he’d reminded me of that dent in the seminar room, of that mark of decay and ruination that we all carry with us.
Herb Blau has now finished that movement towards death that we call life. But I can’t imagine him wanting to rest in peace; and he certainly wouldn’t want us to do so. I take his legacy as, in part, an injunction to recognize the challenge, the inevitability but also unpredictability, of the performances demanded of us even in the most non-descript of surroundings. For we can always enliven them with a well-thrown (and well-thought) punch.