- Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism: Thinking the Political Anew by Maurya Wickstrom
Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism, one of the newest monographs participating in a recent trend to place neo-liberal critique at the centre of the political project of theatre and performance studies, is, in some ways, the most ambitious of the genre. Aided by the writings of the Maoist-influenced philosopher Alain Badiou, Maurya Wickstrom’s target in her new book is nothing short of politics-as-is, the consensus of humanitarianism, liberal tolerance, and rights-based praxis that dominates and enables the present world order. Wickstrom’s project is to propose a set of working theories by which artists may marshal the apparatus of live theatre to produce what she, via Badiou, calls an “Idea,” a universal but locally applicable truth that opposes existing arrangements of power and prevailing modes of thought.
The universality of the Idea is part of its potency, and in Wickstrom’s case studies, the Idea is rooted in the equality of subjects left out of more dominant discourses. Being equal, though, is not the same as being the well-behaved victims of “human rights” abuses, who must accommodate themselves to the world that wounded them. For Badiou, politics is fundamentally about rupture, and so, according to Wickstrom, must be political theatre. The right of bodies to speak for themselves and the power of spaces to become sites of antagonism, in both cases discomfiting the very institutions that aim to serve them, hold out a unique hope, for Wickstrom. The “blockades” of her title are not simply walls and borders but rather the “entrapped situations of people violently evicted, disappeared, whose lives are subsequently lived in situations of injustice and exposure” (1). Her study, therefore, is addressed to those navigating a political terrain in which both identitarian and humanitarian politics have come up short.
The Palestinian theatre companies Al Rowwad, ASHTAR Theatre, and Inad Theatre, which comprise the book’s first case study, set the paradigm for Wickstrom’s later chapters. As she represents them, their practitioners must wrestle not only with Israel’s attempt to define the spaces they inhabit as apolitical but also with a funding terrain that renders them dependent on NGOs, the UN, and the United States. These institutions, which some companies reject and others embrace, demand a humanitarian politics that prohibits militancy, terrorism, or accusations of occupation. Wickstrom traces how each of the companies manages to “keep destroying the notion of [Palestinians’] incapacity” (58) and to assert the “Idea” of “equality” (11), despite the many limits on such assertions.
The tone of Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism is predominantly ethnographic. Wickstrom is not a polemicist but an explorer, seeking new experiences and new answers to old questions. Having travelled extensively to each of her sites, she writes to test her ideas, following lines of [End Page 290] argument until they prove dissatisfying, then retracing her steps to find more surprising conclusions. Take, for example, her analysis, in chapter three, of The Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City, a “public education exhibit” created by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the mid-1990s. Wickstrom pairs the event with Theatre for Development, the practice of using live performance as an international development tool, to reveal how both re-establish a hierarchy between the Third World sufferer and the First World altruist that depoliticizes the former. Wickstrom’s critiques are devastating and necessary reading in themselves, but even more impressive is how she goes on to reconceptualize humanitarianism itself – using the work of Rony Brauman, one of MSF’s founding members. The opposition to “politics” that Brauman desires for MSF’s “humanitarianism” specifically refuses “the competing business agendas and stakes of institutions and people,” in other words, “politics-as-is” (117). Wickstrom turns MSF’s own philosopher against his institution, and she uses him to describe her own, ideal “Theatre for Redistribution” (89). True to the materialism of Badiou, Wickstrom finds...