Emotions, Politcs, and Performance: fear and messianism

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about emotion, politics and performance–as the conventions these past weeks have showcased all three at deafeningly high decibel levels. The most potent of these–the one that is both most prominently on display and in dire need of diffusion is, of course, fear. This is an especially effective strategy this year because it taps into what, for me at least, has been a very real and nearly paralyzing anxiety about the state of the world–between the police violence/brutality, racism, terrorism, authoritarianism, and generally inexplicable psychopathy that seem to be unceasingly on display this summer. Rather than create the space to consider how to tangibly confront each of these complex and at times interrelated issues, fear indiscriminately bundles these events into a general wash of apocalypticism into which no party platform, no actionable solutions, can intervene. The answer, in the face of such fear, can only be a messianic figure–which Donald Trump is happy to cast himself as. It’s a familiar figuration–an outsider, with innate gifts, upending the rules, bringing in swaths of people who felt previously unrepresented, who can act as their surrogate: “I am your voice.” Donald Trump’s so-called “dark” convention speech–which was light on policy and high on emotion–was constructed in order to cast himself as messiah–a role that justifies itself by its exceptionalism and therefore renders irrelevant traditional qualifications such as expertise in areas of public service, foreign policy or governance. Furthermore, fear and messianism work together to erase the need for, and even possibility of, debate, nuance, and reflection. Fear and messianism are in fact, antithetical to deliberatory democracy–critique, resistance and debate are all shamed and cast out (as in the treatment of Ted Cruz, or calls to jail Hillary Clinton) as the messiah/fear construction casts the situation as an either/or binary (already latent in the U.S.’s two-party system)–either fear (death, destruction) or total consensus in support of the messianic figure.

Fear’s all consuming vagueness makes it hard to resist or counter–and because Trump’s convention cast the campaign in these terms–and because the fear is, well, very real–the Democratic response has played into this in toxic ways. This is present in the Clinton campaign’s overwhelmingly negative campaigning—rhetoric that is itself a kind of acknowledgement of his messianic positioning–and desperation to forge consensus, as in the shaming of those still holding onto Bernie Sanders’ campaign. The Clinton campaign has also tried its hand at messianism as well, particularly in its rhetoric of feminist triumphalism. Though of course here messianism meets misogyny and this strategy does not seem to be as effective for HRC as it is for Trump (or Bernie, for that matter). Trump’s behavior is excused by exceptionalism, whereas Hillary is granted no exceptions and scandals prove themselves very sticky. Female messiahs are, after all, rare. That, I think, would be of great benefit for politics—as it creates the space for political engagement and dissent.

So while I acknowledge that I am deeply susceptible to the fear of Donald Trump, I take serious issue with the Clinton’ campaign’s negative campaigning and cooption of the rhetoric of fear. It allows Trump to cast and dominate the terms of the election. And I’d like to think that Hillary’s wonkiness, listening tours, willingness to “evolve” on positions (not a liability in my estimation) indicate that she is better–or at least more complex–than that. Furthermore, the DNC should not be shutting out protestors because of fear, but instead endeavor to hear, respond, embrace and champion them as vital participants in a democratic process. And though fear has taken center stage for real reasons, we must acknowledge that there is room for the machinations of politics to operate in other emotional registers that invoke alternative values—as we’ve seen speakers such as Michelle Obama try to (very effectively) do. And we, as participants in our political system, ought to be very conscious of the way emotions—in particular fear—are performed, manipulated, and harnessed to constrain democracy and preclude debate.

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El año en que nací

Lola Arias’ El año en que nací, currently performing in the Under the Radar festival, is a collaborative piece depicting the lives of young Chileans and their parents during the Pinochet dictatorship and the years following. The piece is structured as a series of testimonials in which the performers describe and reenact the events of their birth and their parent’s lives against the backdrop of the political unrest of the late twentieth century in Chile. The play has a theatrical, “devised” kind of aesthetic, but the bulk of the play’s content consists of these stories and their straightforward tellings. Arias selected a range of individuals—some actors and performers, others not—with a variety of political affiliations and economic and cultural backgrounds to explore this period in a multi-perspectival manner.

The result is an experience that is theatrical but is also somehow other. The historical and the personal intertwine as political events are viewed through the lens of individual lives. The events’ reality and their embodiment in the people who actually experienced them gives the piece a kind of devastating urgency. There is the sense that the ramifications of the events depicted are still unfolding, so the work feels unfinished, evolving in the moment of its telling. As the performers flip a coin to divine Chile’s political future, spectators are confronted with the fact that these events will continue to impact these individuals’ lives for better or for worse. One of the performers, a woman named Viviana, began working on the piece not knowing her father or where he was. She imagined a variety of potential identities for him, but she did not know which was true. During the performances in Chile, she showed his picture and gave the audience her phone number as she asked for any information regarding his whereabouts. A spectator contacted her and she was able to locate him—he had been a policeman during the dictatorship and was now in prison for murder. At the end of the piece she stated that her mother no longer speaks to her because of her participation in the play. As a friend who I saw the show with commented, applauding a woman who has alienated herself from her family because of the piece she just performed feels very different—much more complicated and confusing—than the usual curtain call.

The piece is further complicated by its performance in the United States.  Occasionally, the performers allude to the United States’s complicity in the Pinochet coup (which is overtly, if briefly, discussed in a program note) as well as to the impact of neoliberal economic policy on their lives. Though this was not emphasized, it did challenge our position as spectators. How do you sit and watch while your country is complicit or fostering devastating and repressive actions? How does this change when the ramifications of these actions are made individual and personal, and its long term effects apparent?

This is powerful, confusing stuff. The performers demonstrate a tremendous bravery and the piece is captivating. But it is also troubling and problematic and left me feeling frustrated and saddened by my position as a spectator in this narrative.

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Theatre and Community Engagement

Was excited to see an email yesterday in my inbox requesting that past and current actors at Florida Studio Theatre participate in their online forum on themes relevant to their production of Thurgood. An academic project of mine has gotten me thinking a lot about theatre and its participation in dialogues surrounding social justice (more on this soon, I promise), as well as how theatre’s impact in that discussion can be discerned. Thought this forum was an interesting way to engage in that dialogue, as well as to get a sense of how a given production of a play interacts with its community. 

Check it out here. 

Way to go FST!

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