05th Oct2012

Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism

by emilywarheit

Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism: Thinking the Political Anew. By Maurya Wickstrom. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism: Thinking the Political Anew presents a series of case studies illustrating aspects of political theatre in which the author identifies (or sees possibilities for) alternative politics. The author uses four performances to explore the question of whether there is an alternative to neoliberalism, and if theatre and performance could be a site for it to flourish. The author says “My intention in this book…is to propose ways in which performance, that at first glance seems to be lodged in politics-as-is, can be thought about differently through the use of what I think of as radical philosophy” (4). Performance can and should be “rethought and remade in a way that is attached to a new politics” (4).

Throughout the book, Wickstrom takes the position of genuinely questioning this possibility, giving the book a sense of exploration. At the end she comes down on the side of hope, saying “Theatre is proposed here as a place in which a profound practice and exploration of new politics might occur and, is, by my account, occurring” (188). I believe she is successful in finding and illuminating places in the performances that exemplify neoliberalism and politics-as-is, as well as places and performances that resist it. This is a difficult task because of the pervasiveness of our own “politics-as-is,” (her term for our unquestioning acceptance of the neoliberal worldview) but when she demonstrates a good example it is very illuminating.

Wickstrom’s introduction is quite extensive, and includes an excellent overview of neoliberalism and democratic materialism that would be useful on its own to anyone looking for an introduction to the topic. The introduction also includes a large introductory section on each chapter, for the most part introducing the major theories that readers will encounter, notably the work of Alain Badiou, and Giorgio Agamben’s biopolitics. While it was helpful to have a theoretical primer up front, I do wonder if some of the information could have been presented within the chapters in themselves.

Chapter two presents several examples of political theatre in Palestine, after a thorough introduction to the situation and the author’s own experience at the border between Israel and Palestine. Her analysis of the work of the three theatres focuses on the geographical and political circumstances and how their performances allow them to resist Israeli as well as American and European neoliberalism. In the third chapter, Wickstrom looks at theatre for development (as a general category) and one particular example of humanitarian theatre in the form of The Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City, a touring installation exhibition by Medicins Sans Frontieres. In this section, Wickstrom identifies the “divide” between theatre practitioners or humanitarians and “those-to-be-developed,” whereby the typical process of this type of performance automatically positions those who are meant to benefit from the work as sufferers or victims. She posits that before this type of work can be truly productive, theatre and development workers must bridge the divide by relinquishing their position of privilege.

In chapter four, Wickstrom makes a compelling analysis of theatre produced by Irish Travellers, a formerly nomadic group that has been forcibly “settled” by the Irish government. The author argues that nomadism is in conflict with neoliberalism, which values the ownership of property and labor. The neoliberalism of the Irish government has suppressed the Traveller’s actual mobility, but through the plays illustrated in the chapter, Travellers have maintained some elements of cultural nomadism. Chapter five, perhaps the most disturbing, looks at two plasticinated body exhibits: the popular Bodies: The Exhibition and the original Body Worlds. The author analyzes the controversy over the way in which the bodies for Bodies: The Exhibition were procured through the lens of neoliberalism and the concept of the homo sacer, and the exhibits themselves as examples of spectacle. The book has no separate conclusion, but includes a short “coda” section at the end of the final chapter. The author ends on a hopeful note, having identified at least the potential for alternative politics in performance.

Both in the introduction and in each section, Wickstrom does an excellent job of explaining concepts and theories, including those like Badiou that may be unfamiliar to the reader. Theory is elegantly tied in to analysis of performances in a readable way. Chapter three is particularly enlightening, and provides a much-needed critical perspective on theatre for development. Chapter four was the most interesting and innovative, as it both introduced an unfamiliar form and, in my opinion, the most clear illustration of resistance against neoliberal politics. Despite their disparate subjects, the chapters flowed well and created a through line without seeming forced.

That being said, the lack of conclusion made for an abrupt ending, and I had hoped at some point the various chapters would be tied together in a more complete way. In some places the author’s somewhat performative style made the text pleasantly readable, but in other cases phrasing was awkward and only made sense when read aloud. Disappointingly, editing problems such as missing words and inconsistencies were common.

Overall, this book offers two important things: a thorough explanation of what neoliberalism is and how pervasive it is even (or especially) in activist theatre, and a model of how theatre scholars can look for alternative politics in the works we encounter. The entire book, or any of its easily excerpted chapters, would provide fruitful material for graduate seminars delving into political theatre or neoliberalism and performance. While the frustrating question of an alternative to neoliberal politics still remains, this book provides a glimpse at an alternative, and most importantly, opens up possibilities to think about political and applied theatre differently.

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