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  • The Drama of Social Life by Jeffrey C. Alexander
  • Richard K. Sherwin (bio)
The Drama of Social Life. By Jeffrey C. Alexander. Malden: Polity Press, 2017; 180 pp. $69.95 cloth, $24.95 paper, e-book available.

The Drama of Social Life. By Jeffrey C. Alexander. Malden: Polity Press, 2017; 180 pp. $69.95 cloth, $24.95 paper, e-book available.

In the penultimate scene of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna gathers citizens to witness a carefully staged public display that he hopes will restore the authority of law while safeguarding his own reputation against accusations of tyranny. Jeffrey Alexander's recent collection of essays on the cultural pragmatics of social performance echoes the Duke's performative designs—though it plays down the hollowness of political contrivance that Shakespeare envisions. For better or for worse, Alexander exhorts us to note well this kind of political [End Page 169] staging if we are to properly understand what makes social movements succeed. Drawing upon the emotional intensity of Émile Durkheim's concept of ritual and Richard Schechner's broadening of ritual to include social performances more generally, Alexander describes what a successful social performance requires: namely, the fusion of actors, audience, and script.

With examples that sweep readers from the civil rights movement in the US during the 1950s–'60s under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the pro-democracy uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in 2011, to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US following a spate of police killings of unarmed black citizens in 2015–16, Alexander presses home his point: it isn't organizational tactics or compelling ideas alone that make for successful social performances. Political and social leaders fare best when they construct narratives in conjunction with living symbols that inspire the popular imagination. Larger than life leaders need to speak and dress for their role—whether it is Mao trading in his scholars' phrases and robes for more earthy substitutes or Black Lives Matter leader DeRay McKesson making the daily rounds on TV news shows sporting his trademark bright blue Patagonia vest. It's the symbols and gestures together with the words and actions that arrest the collective imagination.

The theory of social performance that Alexander propounds squares well with what successful rhetors, including lawyers, have always understood. Persuasion in law and politics is a matter of stagecraft. The professional persuader, along with his or her clients (or constituents), always remains ripe for casting—along with everyone else in public assemblies where power moves belief into action. What characters are they playing? What story genre is being enacted? What central images will rivet the attention and distill the issues at stake? Perhaps it'll be a matter of activating resentment toward endemic police racism, as Johnny Cochran angled for in his defense of OJ Simpson when Simpson stood charged with double homicide. "Only you police the police!" Cochran urged the jury (see Sherwin 2000:45–47)—as if to say, what is more important, solving a forensically flawed murder mystery, set up by racist cops, or sending the racists themselves an unmistakable message: that their corrupt practices will rebound against them? Cochran grasped what Alexander advises—you have to fuse actors, audience, and script in a grand shared action. If the jurors—or any social actor for that matter—can be made to believe the cause is right and the power to do great things is at hand, successful collective action remains possible.

Not surprisingly, Alexander's brand of social performance theory takes issue with advocates of the postdramatic, such as Hans-Thies Lehmann. In a similar vein, Alexander argues that the notion of a "de-dramatized reality" bruited by theorists of the society of spectacle, such as Guy Debord, or the society of endless simulacra, such as Jean Baudrillard, needs to give way in the face of new forms of myth and social ritual. As Alexander puts it, "deflationary symbols can be dramatically re-inflated" (126). In this view, the vitality of performance studies is hardly a matter of "romantic sentimentality" (127). Of course, that is not to say that advocates of performance studies get off...


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pp. 169-171
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