“Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?”
Woke has become an almost perfect piece of rhetorical inexactitude for the reactionary right. Encompassing environmentalism, anti-racism, labour rights, decolonialization, LGBTQ+ rights, drag shows, campaigns against police brutality, feminism, and veganism (the list goes on), woke has gained a performative affectivity in its constitution of an elitist group of outsiders determined to control the majority by “privileg[ing] performative displays and linguistic correctness over material change” (Williams 2) requiring “us” (meaning the majority) “to alter the very building blocks of language and thought” (ibid 21). Like all moral panics, the war on woke seeks to “incit[e] in the population a mixture of moral disgust and anxiety about contagion” (Faye 218).
The origins of the war on woke can be traced to the decline of political “isms” shaping political discourse, resulting in the growing popularity of rhetorical performances that draw on “deeper societal cultural-ideological themes” to “dehistoriciz[e] naturalizations of contingent contemporary conceptions of types of persons” (Finlayson 478). Joanna Williams’s pejorative use of performative is ironic considering the war on woke itself is practiced performatively in the sense that it is a set of reiterated behaviours and utterances that construct a subject of discourse (Butler, “Excitable” 203). Dissimulating the war on woke’s historical precedents such as “political correctness” and “identity politics” (Malik 57-94, 134-168) enables the reactionary right to present themselves as defenders of “the last vestiges of traditional values and an older social order” (Williams 192) against a new threat emerging from the margins of the mainstream. Any form of cultural expression classified as the counter to woke constitutes the uncontaminated normative essence of Western culture, politics, society, and art, so does not have to demonstrate its credentials to intellectual, artistic, or ethical fidelity beyond its autonomous claims to authentic representations of a majoritarian position of what is presented as a naturally occurring, almost ahistorical epistemological authority.
Williams cites her argument within the discourse of the Enlightenment story of progress, a liberal telos characterised as scientific rationalism and expressed in the language of universalism and secularization (Hall 118). The imminent banning of free speech is excessively promised by rightwing politicians and media figures to leverage control of political and cultural discourse from marginal voices. The sense of imminent threat can only be sustained as a discourse that centres on wokeness to make the phenomenon of free speech visible, thus citing the anti-woke voice as the source of epistemological authority, a “community and a history” who are “magically invoked at the moment” of an utterance (Butler, “Excitable” 49). Thus, defences of racism and other forms of prejudice in the name of free speech are presented as defences of liberal society where expressions of non-solidarity with anything deemed to be woke “demonstrates fidelity to a political way of life under attack” (Titley 82). Indeed, the performative affectivity of woke is constitutive on its capacity to classify transgressive and non-conformist identities as contagious threats to protect the borders that separate the majoritarian community from such otherness (Butler, “Bodies” xvii).
There is no better example of how this exclusionist performativity operates than the Battle of Ideas festival. Organised by the libertarian thinktank the Academy of Ideas, the festival’s motto “Shaping the Future Through Debate” encapsulates how claims to political legitimacy are inseparable from how such claims are articulated. The Battle of Ideas acts as a case study in this article to argue that the war on woke functions to authenticate only certain kinds of discourse as democratically legitimate. Unlike the toppling of the slaveowner Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol harbour by Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer of 2020, which signified a revolt against hegemonic concepts of race and racism and worked to destabilise and unsettle established narratives of British imperialism and colonialism, debates, panel discussions, lectures, and academic texts are treated as the superior methods of communicating complex ideas. In contrast, toppling a statue is a performative act that is instantly interpreted as a threat to what cultural theorist Stuart Hall calls the “regime of truth’” that determines what is admissible to say about race (57). Exclusion from this discourse constitutes woke as the other, just as every other imposed positionality from above functions to assert the primacy of one group over another:
“To locate oneself within a language is to take up its interdiscursive field of meanings. And since all identities must significantly mark their similarity to and difference from something else – for meaning is always relational and positional – then every identity, however provisionally it asserts itself, must always have a symbolic ‘other’, which is what defines its constitutive outside.”
Performance can create new territories for radical articulations of identity to assert themselves in expressive forms that do not seek to be legitimised within the interdiscursive field of liberalism. An “intertheatrical” (Rai et al. 7) typology – the relationship between different performances across multiple contexts – allows for an analysis encompassing theatre and live art practices. I contend that performativity can work against the logics of liberal identity formation, which enclose all possible articulations of identity within the framework of post-Enlightenment discourse, by creating new sites of self-determination where “glitches, failures, subversions, improvisations, and breakages of the frame become possible” (ibid 9). It is beyond the scope of this article to sufficiently analyse how articulations of otherness are expressed in performance for all those communities, constituencies, and movements that are working in the margins of political and cultural discourse. To attempt to do so risks inadvertently smoothing over their particularities until they become assimilated into a homogeneous mass of ahistorical grievances. This approach would unavoidably emulate the framing of outsiders in the same terms practiced by the reactionary right.
All of the pieces discussed resonate with Ahmad Sadri’s argument that political art should show audiences what is possible not what ought to be (1994 180) through their representation of resistance to the liberal consensus of what constitutes legitimate forms of ideological contestation. Apart from Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again the performances have been chosen for their engagement with the subjects of race, racism, and imperialism. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again has been included as an example of how performative writing works to represent what cannot be expressed about feminist liberation in language that “dramatizes the limits of language, sometimes as an endgame, sometimes as the pleasures of playing…in an endlessly open field of representation” (Pollock 82). The sensation of evocative representation Pollock infers is present in all of the performances discussed below, as transgressive and non-conformist identities existing at the margins of mainstream discourse become temporarily visible without becoming codified into the interdiscursive language of liberalism. The examples of performativity I cite are juxtaposed against established forms of political discourse which are reified as the most effective and, crucially, politically, and culturally legitimate means of establishing a consensual understanding of the world. This approach allows me to interrogate the ideology inherent within the manifestation of an argument, the very forms of discourse the war on woke is shaped within, to disavow the ostensive neutrality of the kinds of public the Battle of Ideas exemplifies par excellence as the superior conveyer of knowledge.
All the speakers at the Battle of Ideas reified debate as an almost sacred rite without which it would be impossible to engage with politics and culture. The director of the Academy of Ideas Claire Fox opened the festival by saying its mission is to build a “new politics” at a time when the space to contest political orthodoxies is shrinking. Conservative journalist and general secretary of the Free Speech Union Toby Young invited the audience to imagine we were in the apartment of the Czechoslovakian playwright and former president Vaclav Havel. This historical allusion cast the audience into the role of courageous defenders of freedom against the forces of leftwing tyranny, which in the present context is expressed as “cancel culture,” critical race theory (a metonym for any discussion about the history of the British Empire and structural racism) and “gender ideology.”
Banners were emblazoned with the motto “Free Speech Allowed!” Dotted around the cavernous Church House in Westminster were stalls from Don’t Divide Us, a group created in the summer of 2020 to challenge the campaign against structural racism that gained prominence after the Black Lives Matter protests that year; Restore Trust, a group who campaign against what they see as the National Trust’s woke agenda; Sex Matters, who deny the existence of trans and non-binary people; and the Common Sense Society, a conservative network celebrating the cultural inheritance of western civilisation. Every panellist averred that contemporary British culture is becoming characterised by conformist, humourless, and censorious attitudes. Politics professor Doug Stokes argued that western societies had lost a “foundation of truth” due to the “epistemological genetic fallacy” of wokeness. The only way for the West to “re-discover” its “civilizational mojo” was to expunge cultural institutions of the woke values by asserting the supremacy of western civilisation within the indisputably superior paradigm of post-Enlightenment liberal philosophy.
Despite what figures such as Fox, Young and Stokes claim, today’s culture wars are not without historical precedent; nor are demands for recognition and respect from marginalised voices a contemporary phenomenon signifying a creeping authoritarianism. Mobilising the value of debate against so-called woke orthodoxy reveals how reactionary rightwing performativity operates as a performance of ideological Eurocentrism that seeks to monitor, regulate, commodify, and authenticate all expressions of identity. This involve assimilating those demands for political agency from outside of the “common ground” to “challenge and reshape it” (Táíwò 40) into the liberal regime of truth in order to construct a hegemonic otherness. Only those challenges originating from within the territory under ideological contestation are recognised as legitimate within this regime. Indeed, the sociologist Paul Gilroy was arguing as long ago as 1987 that racism
“has been redefined as the product of black and anti-racist zeal that is both destructive of democracy and subversive of order. The right to be prejudiced is claimed as the heritage of the freeborn Briton and articulated with the discourses of freedom, patriotism, and democracy while despotic anti-racism is associated with authoritarianism, statism, and censorship.”
 2002 313
Performance artist Coco Fusco made the critical point at the National Review of Live Art (NRLA)1993 that liberal ideals of universalism do not describe an objective reality but represent the views, aspirations, and interests of the most empowered community. Further, conservatives have invented inward enemies since the end of the Cold War “to destabilise sites of non-conformity and access to public debate on national culture” from transgressive and non-conformist identities. This historical context illuminates how the centre of cultural authority- which in the British context continues to be structured by an imperialist and colonialist mentality – is being fortified against challenges to its epistemological hegemony, thereby creating new spaces of exclusion within the discourse of race. The Battle of Ideas shows that the articulation of normative identity practiced by the reactionary right relies on established forms of political and cultural expression being perceived as under threat. In other words, it derives its meaning from a material reality the public can imagine becoming altered from the outside. The kind of performativity I discuss here, in contrast, allows both artists and audience members to assume multiple and ever-changing positionalities and identities within what performance artist and activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña calls an imaginary “border zone” where
“the distance between us and them, self and other, art and life become blurry and unspecific even if only for the duration of the piece. We do not look for answers. We merely raise impertinent questions. [The artist’s] job may be to open the Pandora’s box of our times, smack in the middle of the gallery, the theatre, the street or in front of the video camera and let the demons loose.”
The non-conformist and transgressive identities who live in this zone are articulated in performance as immaterial potentials haunting the margins of established political and cultural epistemologies. Consider this speech:
“[I]t turns out we stopped watching and checking and nurturing the thought to become the action at some point because at some point I opened my eyes at some point I looked up and it felt like wastelands and wastelands and wastelands and wastelands had grown where we thought we were building mountains.”
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is not a “well behaved” play (ibid 9). At one level playwright Alice Birch is referring to the hallmarks of its postdramatic form, with an absence of psychologically grounded characters or fixed setting. But more fundamentally Birch’s language embodies a restless dissatisfaction with how conceptions of women’s liberation – liberation as a practice transforming extant social norms and precepts; liberation understood as a politics encoded by the potential to discursively imagine the human subject in new ontological formulations – have become assimilated by liberal expressions of tolerance, equality, and universalism. The “thought” evokes the possibilities of women’s liberation that are inherent in all feminist epistemologies. Just as these ideas must be translated into actions to actualise the revolt against the status quo of post-Enlightenment epistemes of freedom and emancipation, so does Birch’s text embody a deep antagonism with the narrative of progress, which remains heavily indebted to the measure of an individual’s capacity to participate within capitalist systems of accumulation, production, and consumption. Dramatic narrative, in the Aristotelian sense, represents for Birch the impossibility of revolt against a preordained telos of emancipation from the invisible authors of history. Underneath the “wastelands” lie buried all potential feminisms that were erased at the moment they encountered the systems of epistemic subordination that dissimulate political and cultural expressions which “render imaginable, and thus tangible, alternative rearticulations” (Mercer 29) of identity.
Yet Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again points to the possibility of birthing such articulations not merely through but as performance. In its very refusal to ‘behave’ it resists the hegemonic discourse of liberation prevalent within western democratic politics by presenting women and gender as subjects that cannot be fixed as subjects within discourse. What does not yet exist as a fixed subject cannot be studied, examined, classified, and interpreted within those hermeneutic systems that structure how knowledge is created, and therein lie their power to disrupt the epistemological foundations that sustain exclusionary and chauvinistic politics. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again sits at the border between the wasteland of progress from which liberatory feminism finds itself imprisoned within and an unmapped territory of possibility. Birch’s language possesses a performativity distinct from that used by the reactionary right; where the discursive effects of the war on woke produce identities that are inadmissible to the realm of legitimate political discourse in their refusal to assimilate into the narrative of Eurocentric superiority, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again reveals how performance can effectuate horizons of possibility (Muñoz 99) for new identities to transform those territories controlled by those who espouse universality as their ideological lodestar.
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World interrogates how these epistemological foundations continue to shape western audiences’ understanding of the legacy and colonialism in the Global South. The show’s dramaturgy emulates an Internet deep dive by interweaving a fictional true crime podcast series and a meta-theatrical meditation on subaltern knowledge. The podcast investigates the real-life murder of 1970s Iranian pop sensation Fereydoun Farrokhzad. The podcast is framed as a media format that, much like the nineteenth century novel (Said 1994), is inscribed with the assimilationist trope of liberalism in its reliance on translating otherness using cultural references immediately familiar to Western ears. Describing Farrokhzad as the “Iranian Tom Jones” immediately gave the audience a model to base our interpretation of his cultural significance on Iranian society upon, but modelling our understanding of his murder within a knowledge domain utterly disconnected from the reality of the political context Farrokhzad lived within brought us no closer to seeing the discursive territory his life as an artist and political exile originates from. The space between knowledge and understanding is called the “void” in the performance, expressed by Iranian-Canadian singer King Ram as the space that exists between “the world you want to live in and the world you are forced to live in.” Subaltern knowledge is generated from the politics that occurs beyond the gaze of the “panoptic, universalist eye” (Hall 55) of Enlightenment conceptions of civilizational progress.
An act of revolt for Birch is to occupy discourses of liberation that subordinate freedom to equality, non-conformity to tolerance, and transformation to incrementalism. The play’s refusal to exist comfortably within the borders of liberal feminist discourse, to be “well behaved,” prefigures the occurrence of actions that do not draw their epistemological authority by citing established, and thus discursively permissible, precedents of emancipation. This absence of precedent enables radical articulations of identity to be expressed without having to reference extant narratives of progress to become meaningful political and cultural demands for democratic agency. Similarly, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World situates subaltern knowledge in antagonistic relations with Western unipolar narratives of the politics of the Global South. Marginal voices are not represented in the performance as subjects to be engaged with; instead, performativity is mobilised through multimedia scenography, documentary evidence and personal testimony to evoke the absence of these voices as autonomous agents of change within liberal discourse. Both plays articulate radical formations of identity by fracturing the edifice of the other as it has become established within the rhetorical framing of the culture wars.
Selina Thompson’s interactive installation Race Cards (Thompson 2015) and solo show salt. (Thompson 2017) pose tough questions about modern understandings of race and racism in Britain today. In Race Cards, Thompson sits in a room writing one thousand questions about race on white cards and pins them to a wall so that “they don’t live in my [Thompson’s] body in quite the same way anymore” (Thompson 164). The audience are invited to write one answer to a question “that is difficult to answer” and give it as a “gift” to Thompson (ibid 165). The questions themselves veer between the politically hypothetical (“How do you go about exposing white supremacy in liberalism and the left in general?”) (ibid 166) to the autobiographical (“Do I really look like the other little black girl from the brownies group?”) (ibid 170). But this kind of academic distinction is problematised in Race Cards. For Thompson, a black woman, such distinctions are a luxury of whiteness when race is not just a subject of theoretical enquiry but constitutive of people’s embodied-social reality. The sheer volume of text that surrounds Thompson in the installation effectuates a performativity exposing the torrent of ideas and narratives black people are forced to navigate to participate in the discourses that shape the meaning of their lives within the liberal paradigm of whiteness, demanding subordination, and conformity within a political system they have no meaningful control over (Andrews 157).
Thompson expresses this experience as the burden of Europe in salt. Europe is symbolised by a huge lump of rock salt onstage signifying the history of imperialism and colonialism that continues to be inscribed on the bodies of black people and continues to structure responses to racist violence: “I am growing accustomed to a timeline, an endless feed of black pain, black rage and black people having to assert that black lives matter because black death is normal, the aberration, the deviation from the norm is refusing that” (Thompson 20-21, my emphasis). The act of smashing the rock salt with a hammer (Thompson 18) and the naming of this violence as imperialistically codified racism are performative acts that pivot Thompson away from the discourses of race and racism that she is enveloped within in Race Cards towards a new means of constructing an identity on her own terms, beyond the reach of liberal centres of epistemological authority. The performative iterations of race and racism in both shows acts a violent refutation of the conservative position that “we cannot speak from anywhere accept from inside our own histories.” (Rutherford 2022). The “we” presupposes a unitary epistemological community that can only maintain its ideological purity through the exclusion of histories that overlap with its narratives of imperialism and colonialism. Thompson speaks from many contested histories as a multitude of ideas and experiences. Her performative utterances splinter narratives into shards piercing established narratives of race and racism.
Controlling the Territory
Thompson’s refutation of the Enlightenment episteme of race places her work firmly within the excluded zone of interdiscursivity in contemporary British culture. But here it is important to be aware of what the filmmaker and installation artist Isaac Julien called the “fiction” of a “unitary notion of blackness” at the NRLA 1993. Essentialist notions of blackness dissimulate the vibrancy of ideological contestation that occurs from within the margins of cultural discourse. The case of Brett Bailey’s re-enactment of the nineteenth century human zoo Exhibit B (Farrington 2019) shows how the representation of difference is itself subject to the same strictures of commodification as the most authentic and legitimate forms of discourse with the liberal paradigm.
The Barbican cancelled its run of Exhibit B in 2014 following protestors’ accusing the show of perpetuating colonialist representations of black history to absolve white audiences of intergenerational guilt. Claire Fox branded these expressions of anti-racism as “intolerant” reactions that were inviting “authoritarian” and “illiberal” impulses into British society (BhamUrbanNewsUK 2014). The act of protesting was not treated as a serious response to the subject of race because as a disruptive act it could not be permitted to transgress the discursive boundaries of imperialist and colonialist history. Further, Fox’s comment about the potential impact on public perceptions of anti-racism reveals how acts of dissent are regulated and constrained to control the discursive territory of race. Her comments classify the protests as illegitimate responses to the representation of colonialism, when in fact they constitute “an emission of speech [refusing] to let the representation of black bodies serve as the objectified voice forever signalling the pain and shame of European colonial history” (McGuinness 212) emanating from the margins of the common ground of artistic criticism.
The panel discussion “Identity Politics: Just Skin Deep?” at the Battle of Ideas demonstrated how branding anti-racism as part of the woke agenda has led to its historic and contemporary demands for racial justice and equality to be framed as a sustained assault on what the former duty leader of the extreme right United Kingdom Independence Party Peter Whittle vaguely called “Western cultural values”. Whittle went on to call identity politics as the suppression of white working-class men and the “enemy of beauty.” Representing himself as a member of the majority protecting British culture from foreign ideas codified the language and actions associated with anti-racism as transgressing acceptable levels of tolerance for otherness. But the majoritarian perspective was expressed in the language of revolt against the supposed hegemony of woke on British culture. The performativity of the discussion turned woke ideas into spectres that haunted the fringes of the discussion but were not permitted to become present as autonomous agents within the discourse of identity politics. The performativity of free speech sutured the speakers and the audience to the material culture of liberalism by dissimulating alternative forms of political and cultural expressions.
Jackie Sibblies Drury examines how the commodification of difference performatively manifests as the white gaze in theatre brutally effectively in Fairview (2019). The play shows how popular representations of the American black middle-class in popular television serials such as The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are structured by white audience’s expectations, even desires, for how they believe black people should live their lives. After a run-of-the-mill sitcom scenario involving a Thanksgiving dinner, the Frasier family’s home is invaded by a white group of spectators playing their black guests who the live theatre audience have been listening to comment on a silent replay of Act One. The racist character Jimbo’s declaration that it does not matter whether the audience think him a villain or a hero because “you’re in my fucking movie, motherfucker. And it’s a good fucking movie” (77). Sibblies Drury shows that even performative disavowals of racism are only deemed to be legitimate when they are articulated within established cultural forms, rendering their effectivity null if the outcomes of this performativity have historical precedent. The play ends with the teenager Keisha inviting the white members of the audience onto the stage with the actors: “Look out from where I am. Let me and my family go out to where you’ve always been” (110). No resolution is reached because switching roles between the subject of performance (blackness) and those for whom the subject is performed (white audiences), even at the symbolic level, signifies the beginning of what Selina Thompson calls “a commitment to the radical space of not moving on, and all that it can open” (“salt.” 51).
The performative acts of radical dissent from hegemonic liberal orthodoxy discussed in this article articulate otherness not as an idea but as an imagined territory. Whether we call these territories the wasteland, the void, a demilitarised zone or a radical space, they all signify a need to move away from the common ground of debate that codifies understandings of the other as the enemy, and it is on this ground that the reactionary right demand transgressive and non-conformist identities assert their right to be included in the practice of ideological contestation. Performance can act as an alternative language, an alternative gesture, of transgression that does not require marginalised voices to articulate their differences only for the reactionary right to position them as cultural contaminates. This is not to advocate a position of ideological entrenchment, but to argue that it is only from this imagined territory can transgressive and non-conformist identities be constituted as the origins of a new interdiscursive relations not constituted within hegemonic epistemologies of race, racism, colonialism, and imperialism. Such systems determine the meaning of political transgression before it can be expressed as action.
I wish to conclude by acknowledging the omission of gender nonconforming people in my argumentation. Transgender, non-binary and gender queer people have become targets of intense hatred for conservative and far-right movements in western societies. The reasons for transphobia becoming a lightning rod for reactionary politics to centre around deserve much more critical attention than I could provide here. It is my intention to investigate performance works by transgender, non-binary, and queer artists to adumbrate my theories into the capacity of performance to articulate identities that do not sit within patriarchal heteronormative paradigms as part of my I’m Being Cancelled! Project (Dunne-Howrie 2022). For now, I quote Amelia Jones’s understanding of trans- as a critical term “implying exceeding, moving towards, changing; going across, over or beyond” (1) to express a hope that liberals and the reactionary right now fear their ideational authority is under genuine threat from the margins. Performance gives audiences a glimpse of the many possible worlds that can be created from within those margins.
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