Dwight Conquergood and Performative Political Economy
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303  IV Critical Responses Micaela di Leonardo Dwight Conquergood and Performative Political Economy Dwight Conquergood has received and will continue to receive wild encomia for his extraordinary contributions—­ as writer, filmmaker, and teacher—­ to performance theory and practice. But it is the particularly political-­ economic nature of his work that I most appreciated, as his colleague and friend, and that I continue to treasure. Dwight’s work, I would say, offered us a vision of how to do and how to understand performative political economy. What do I mean by this phrase? First let’s consider the term political economy, the eighteenth-­ century term used to describe the whole-­ society but economically based analytic writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Mill, and others. Marx so used the label, and famously envisioned his work turning political economy on its head. He meant that in the sense that the classic political economists assumed a priori that capital preexisted labor—­ that societies sprung into being whole, with some owning land and/or other wealth, while others owned only their ability to work. Instead, Marx and other socialists assumed that over the course of human history, innately social humans cooperating with one another and acting on the environment in order to maintain and reproduce themselves had created various kinds of economies, with varying levels of private property and wealth, of power and powerlessness . Nowadays the term political economy refers, ironically, to a broad modern-­ day Marxist analysis that includes the consideration of shifting economies, politics, and states and other institutions. Many scholars add adjectives to indicate the development of interdisciplinary Marxist thought beyond the midcentury ahistorical economic reductionism with which many identify it—­ “historical political economy” or “culture and political economy” (di Leonardo 1991, 1998; Lancaster and di Leonardo 1997). The late anthropologist William Roseberry articulated the “cul- 304  cultural struggles ture and political economy” vision well: it attempts to “place culture in time, to see a constant interplay between experience and meaning in a context in which both experience and meaning are shaped by inequality and domination,” and to understand “the emergence of particular peoples at the conjunction of local and global histories, to place local populations in the larger currents of world history” (49). This difficult, many-­ balls-­ in-­ the-­ air kind of cultural and economic analysis is precisely what Dwight’s magnificent work—­ his articles, his films, his teaching—­ so well instantiated, with the organic addition of the performative lens. Dwight’s justly famous article “Life in Big Red,” for example , simultaneously analyzes the global, national, and local political-­ economic forces that brought impoverished people from elsewhere in Chicago and from the global South to one down-­ at-­ the-­ heels neighborhood , how they made ends meet, how they related to one another and inhabited space, and how they and others in Albany Park apprehended their presence and its meanings. Dwight moved seamlessly between the precise demographic, labor, and property history of Albany Park and Chicago (replete with statistics), and deep ethnographic narrative. These narratives, more often than not, gave us windows onto the contingent, bricolage performances of the urban poor—­ turning an alley into a bracero party site, indoor hallways into sociability havens, an outside courtyard into a safe children’s playground, policed ironically by gang members. When the city turned off the building’s water because of the absentee landlord’s nonpayment, in the midst of a major summer heat wave, Dwight, a participant in the subsequent events, gives us the precise accounting of neighbors’—­ including adjacent home-­ owners’—­ cooperation first to provide some water for households, but finally to dig into the water department’s equipment, fashion appropriate tools, and then illegally turn the water back on. In all of these vignettes, we see “the interplay between experience and meaning in a context in which both experience and meaning are shaped by inequality and domination”—­ and we see that interplay as bodies moving in space, making meaning, and being observed to do so. Heart Broken in Half, Dwight’s ethnographic film on Albany Park, also gives the viewer an excellent sense of contrasting senses of neighborhood , illuminating in particular what he labeled the local “rhetoric of transgression and redevelopment”—­ the ways in which those whose interests lay with urban growth politics, of which gentrification is the most obvious contemporary example, discursively framed their realities. But in this film he also delves deeply into the life-­ worlds of kids who are or were members of the local Latin Kings...