First Symposium: Performance and Political Subjectivity Workshop

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By Helen Arfvidsson · 1 April 2012
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Twenty four participants took part in the workshop on ‘Performance and Political Subjectivity’ held on 9 February 2012 as part of Oecumene’s First Symposium.

The workshop included two presentations, a number of interventions and an open discussion that included all participants. Shifting between performance studies and political theory, the workshop provided an inspiring discussion on theorizing the political.

Edward Ziter's paper on street protest in Syria compelled us to think about what happens when performances are dispersed in time and space, relocated and taken up in different circumstances. By exploring performances of abjection and martyrdom, Ziter explored contemporary references on the streets of Syria and in social media to the official ceremonial calendar of martyrdom and rituals at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Ziter asked us to consider how the current protesters evoke and appropriate performances of past martyrs, and when doing so, how they in turn challenge dominant nationalist narratives.

Deena Dajani's paper presented three theoretical claims (which she called 'stories': Habermas's bourgeois public sphere, Arendt's political traditions and Foucault's subjugated knowledges) and read them against three hakaya (Arabic for 'tales'). They included an eighth century Abbasid live theatre performance, a thirteenth century shadow-theatre script performed in Cairo's marketplace and an oral tale from Tetoun in Morocc. Dajani experimented with these parallel 'tellings' in order to raise questions about the categories of political thought and the articulations of political subjectivities that are recognized, and to point to other forms of being political that remain in-articulable within current definitions.

The four interventions that followed addressed the theme of performance and political subjectivity in a range of examples by drawing attention to the distinction between doing, performing and everyday enactments (Michael Saward); how, in the case of schizophrenia, authority is tied to performances of inequalities between knowledges of expertise and experience (Claire Blencowe); Trinidadian carnival practices, strategic un-essentialism and invented ethnicity (Gabrielle Hosein); and finally Sicilian puppeteers celebrating cohabitation and hybrid settlement practices in Tunisia (Sarah Demott).

A compelling argument that came out of the discussion pointed to the need to pay closer attention to the very idea of the interpreter who looks for a politics to come in a 'performance'. The notion of resignification was further emphasized as a means to explore when performativity has done the trick; in other words, when the performance has been twisted and appears in a new light without deciding in advance what it necessarily signifies. Themes of iteration, circulation and asymmetry were raised to account for how performance does not simply happen in a given moment - it has a context as well as specific ramifications, and will change when relocated and reiterated. We therefore need to look at each performance and draw attention to how it circulates in order to better understand how it is resignified. There is also the need to ask what it is that is being repeated. Performances are readily relegated to those in subordinate positions, but they can also be performances of authority.

The three hour workshop ended with an open-ended call to collectively continue to explore the ways theories of performance and performativity can enhance our thinking on opening the boundaries of citizenship.

Workshop organiser

Deena Dajani

Invited attendees

Helen Arfvidsson, James Arvanitakis, Claire Blencowe, Anita Bressan, Sarah Demott, Kate Hepworth, Gabrielle Hosein, Engin Isin, Anna Rader, Michael Saward, Yoko Taguchi, Edward Ziter

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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