Journal Article

Precarity and Performance: An Introduction

by Nicholas Ridout and Rebecca Schneider

Ridout and Schneider ask whether performance-based art and affective engagement can help us understand the nexus of capital, neoliberalism, and precarity. 

This issue of TDR is devoted to the topic of “precarity” considered in and through performance. It is a two-part issue — taking place across the journals TDR and Women and Performance. Though the issues are separately edited and separately published, they maintain an affiliation at the level of their concerted call to critical thought and political action regarding contemporary neoliberalism and the scene of performance-based art. The Women and Performance issue (23:1), edited by Tavia Nyong’o, will follow this issue of TDR in March 2013. 

We begin this introduction to the issue with the joint call for papers we wrote with Nyong’o, as we believe that the call was answered in a fascinating spectrum of quite particular and even divergent ways by the articles brought together here. If not all of our points of call were visited (despite our desire for Global South and Asian contexts, the essays here focus on Europe and North America), a good many of our questions have been taken up and engaged in the essays that follow. The call itself, we feel, sets this issue’s stage.

The Call

Precarity is life lived in relation to a future that cannot be propped securely upon the past. Precarity undoes a linear streamline of temporal progression and challenges “progress” and “development” narratives on all levels. Precarity has become a byword for life in late and later capitalism — or, some argue, life in capitalism as usual

Life and work, and their dependence upon one another, are often imagined as increasingly precarious, their futures shadowed by pervasive terror as well as everyday anxieties about work. At the same time, “creative capital” invests a kind of promise in precarity with words like “innovation,” “failure,” “experiment,” and “arts.” The links here between creativity and terror, art and structures of risk and insecurity, point also to connections with performance and the embodied balancing act of the live performer.

How do we pay attention to precarity — economic precarity, neoliberal precarity — through a close reading of the performing body? At one time, claims for resistance to commodity capitalism were addressed through the idea that performance does not offer an object for sale. What of the performing body in an economy where the laboring body, and its production of affect, is the new commodity du jour? Marx already gives us the immaterial commodity that is labor itself. Can we think about this through the labor of performance?

Does the place of the arts in global capitalism, and the particular relations implied by “affective labor,” mean that, in some ways, theatrical labor has a particular purchase on the contemporary scene in which such life and work appears? Might this in part account for the recent (re)turn to performance as the hottest contemporary art of the 21st century in such institutions as MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Tate, and the Getty, all formerly known as devotees of the art object? While precarity has been brought to the fore in European activist circles, we are especially interested in analyses that test its utility in Asian, African, and American contexts. We also are interested in approaches that seek to connect the political-economic usage of precariousness with the ethical and psychoanalytic valences of the term that have emerged.

How might longstanding feminist critiques of unwaged emotional labor (including feminist art practices of institutional critique) be brought to bear on the new configurations of relational and participatory aesthetics? And how do interactive, installation, and ambient art practices take their place within what some have termed “the social factory,” with its scramble to valorize ever-new horizons of volunteered productivity? And how might these debates around precarity be revivified by an analytic attuned to the predicament of the Global South, to the prison-industrial complex, and to contemporary regimes of racialization and neo-colonization?

We aim to explore how theatre and performance studies might resource a continuation of the thinking of precarity. Can the “not not” work of theatre and its production of subjectivities offer productive (or unproductive) ways of thinking about changes in the nature of work, its place in the life of the present, and its relation to futurity?

We are interested in precarity’s affects. The manipulation of affect is stock-in-trade for theatrical and performance labor, and much art production in general, in a post-Fordist economy driven as much by the manufacture of affects as commodities as by material goods. If affect is constitutively relational — or between bodies — how might it be understood as social and political? Are we living in the affect factory?

This Issue in Response

At root, precarity is a condition of dependency — as a legal term, precarious describes the situation wherein your tenancy on your land is in someone else’s hands. Yet capitalist activity always induces destabilizing scenes of productive destructions — of resources and of lives being made and unmade according to the dictates and whims of the market. But, as David Harvey and many others argue, neoliberal economic practices mobilize this instability in unprecedented ways. — Lauren Berlant (2011:192)

If precarity is life lived in relation to “someone else’s hands,” it is also newly experienced by many as life lived in relation to a future that cannot be propped securely upon the past. For some, at least in that part of Europe where capital and labor reached a temporary accommodation in the middle part of the 20th century, the “secure” past might have been capitalism with social welfare. In fact, it was the systematic attack upon the welfare mode of organizing social relations that precipitated the EuroMayDay protests that began in Milan in 2001, widely credited with the emergence of “precarity” as a political idea in new social movements and their theorizations.

Thinking about precarity in relation to a past that might already have been only temporary undoes a linear streamline of temporal progression and questions “progress” and “development” narratives on all levels, challenging us to rethink all kinds of stories that we make for ourselves in order simply to carry on: stories about jobs, institutions, social and sexual relations, health and its preservation. But as a byword for life in late and later capitalism some have argued that “precarity” is life in capitalism as usual: “Capital is precarious, and normally so” (Mitropoulos 2006). The secure “past” upon which a future had once been balanced turns out not to have been a very deep past, after all, but more a brief respite from a precarity that is basic to capitalism as such. What many call Fordism might best be understood as a holding pattern during which capital, confronted with labor’s clamorous demands for something more than precarity (something more like livable life, perhaps), reconstituted itself in order to seek some way of meeting labor’s calls without being compelled to undo itself altogether.

EuroMayDay and the numerous related initiatives through which the idea of precarity has circulated as a way of describing the condition of labor in the increasingly self-confident regime of capitalism variously known as neoliberal, post-Fordist, and so forth, seemed to present a novel political formation — so much so that some analysts have been moved to write of a “precariat” as a “class-in-the-making” (Standing 2011). While this claim has been robustly contested as an overstatement (see, for example, Seymour 2012), it is certainly true that the wave of collective actions in public spaces that has spread around Europe and into the Americas throughout the period during which this TDR issue was being conceived and prepared, demands some new thinking about political subjectivities and about how common cause might be constituted.

Waves of the European experience intersect with a rather different wave-formation issuing from the opposite shores of the Atlantic, where an ethical and political discourse about “precarious life” has taken shape, at least partially in response to the US “War on Terror” (Butler 2004). On both sides of the Atlantic, then, life and work and their dependence upon one another are increasingly imagined as precarious. Our futures seem shadowed by pervasive terror-mongering (increasing privatization, surveillance, incarceration) as well as well-founded anxieties about sustainability (of means of life in the form of stable work, and means of life in the form of stable environmental well-being).

Euro-American anxieties, however, cannot be isolated as regional, for they are born in relation to the global. US actions in the form of the Occupy Movement, such as Occupy Wall Street, are directed at global multinational capital(ists) despite the radically localized actions, city by city, of camping at the front doors of temples of finance. Such actions are clearly inspired by the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring as well as the EuroMayDay protests. And labor, in general, is increasingly globalized in its concerns. Not only is “outsourcing to Asia” a constant bone of contention in the US imaginary, but “the precariat” cannot imagine itself as discretely national in any register: the spine of “flexible” or temporary labor is increasingly built of migrant labor in global, mobile form.

At the same time, in what might be regarded cynically as a spin on this state of affairs, neoliberal rhetoric promotes “creativity” as the font of economic promise. The cynicism of this discourse is that the value it claims is appropriated from sincere (even, perhaps, romantic) attempts to make a life at some distance from the demands of work. By appropriating these romantic impulses, such rhetoric compels an ever more frantic psychic investment in the constant audition that has become the work of getting work. All of these connections can be made to point to the embodied balancing act of the live performer. And this is where a journal dedicated to thinking broadly about performance as a social practice might hope to offer its own take on this historical conjuncture.

How do we pay attention to precarity — economic precarity and the sheer vulnerability of a body in tenuous relation to modernity’s “human rights” — through a consideration of the performing body, in all of its multitude? We began our thinking about this issue from a particular interest in the performative production of affect. In Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest that under neoliberal expansion in a post-Fordist age labor and production are increasingly affective, or immaterial, creating “not only material goods, but relationships and social life itself” (2004:108–13). And as many have noted, the guiding affects of this manufactured social life mirror the increasing economic precarity of its condition. Melissa Cooper has argued that the “operative emotions” under neoliberalism have ceased to be either “rational interest [or] rational expectations” but have become “the essentially speculative but nonetheless productive movements of collective belief, faith, and apprehension” (2008:10). In Brian Massumi’s words, building on Foucault, “Everyday fear [...] is the correlate of neoliberal freedom” (2005:1). In this strange and potent mix, “creativity,” also now synonymous with neoliberal “innovation,” has become oddly twinned with a circulating, affective reliance on terror and threat — the “risks” in artistic and critical innovation strangely linked to increasing economic and environmental unrest. Brian Holmes, too, notesthe crossover:

Freedom has always been the great neoliberal watchword, from Hayek and the Chicago economists to the right wing libertarians and the Cato Institute. In their theories, it is constantly identified with economic initiative. On the left, the economy had traditionally been seen as the opposite of art, just as the act of selling is the opposite of the spontaneous gift. But the aesthetic strategies of the “counter-culture” — difference and otherness, the rhizome, the proliferation of subjectivities — could be exalted and set to work. (Holmes 2008:19)

In short, to animate the multinational circulation of wealth ever upward to the extreme few, neoliberalism effectively occludes any distinction between counterculture and commerce and traffics in the speculative affects of faith and fear as those affects accompany and are exacerbated by strategic elimination of commons, dislodging of infrastuctural securities, and proliferation of risk.

How can we think rigorously about the neoliberal traffic in affect in the interests of capital? The production of feelings has been, of course, stock-in-trade for theatre and so in launching the call for papers we were eager to prompt essays addressing performance-based art’s complicity in or critique of neoliberalism’s social factory. Analyzing the production of feelings and the various practices or structures through which affect circulates is essential to understanding the neoliberal condition. And while there are ongoing debates over distinctions between affect, feelings, and emotions, we are of the opinion that thinking about theatre can only aide us in this effort.

Something we did not foresee at the time of our call for papers was that several of the essays in this issue would come to explore affective engagements at borderlines (literal or imagined) between life and death. As life appears more broadly vulnerable in relation to global capital marketing in uncertain futures, what critical promises might we explore for rethinking not only the “good life” but also, as Jill H. Casid suggests here, the “good death”? Do classical capitalist relationships to living labor and dead labor, work and idleness, change as neoliberal policies promote the immaterial registers of affective engagement and speculative finance? Can labor relations between “live” and “dead” be reimagined through performance practices such as the Occupy Wall Street tactic of public living as well as their deployment of the collective dead in zombie marches?

Another question that arises across the essays concerns the tension between what might be called “good precarity” and “bad precarity,” as limiting as such appellations admittedly appear. As we’ve said, neoliberal rhetoric fronts “creativity” as a font for freedom, innovation, and economic promise, at the same time that it sets stock in fear and collective disenfranchisement. Thus creativity and terror, art and structural insecurity, become uncomfortable affiliates. As the essay by Critical Art Ensemble in this issue reminds us, “precarity” has long been a vital and necessary tool in actions that critique capitalism, at the same time that life in neoliberal capitalism appears increasingly precarious. Several of the essays ask implicitly here whether what CAE terms precarity’s “positive qualities” — leaning away from habit, stepping outside of comfort zones, chancing the speculative and uncertain act of critical thinking — can be used to undermine or interrupt neoliberalism’s negative, fear-mongering mode of precarity that imposes insecurity for the many in the interest of enormous wealth for the few. Deploying precarity to critique precarity might in some ways be reminiscent of Brecht’s deployment of the alienation effect as a form of materialist critique. While Marx critiqued alienated labor as a negative aspect of capitalism’s use and abuse of labor for the gains of the capitalist, Brecht attempted to deploy alienation positively in order to provoke critical thought that might lead to actions of resistance and change. Might a similar technique regarding precarity be emerging in performance-based art, in which a body producing affective engagement simultaneously critiques deployments of affective engagement in the neoliberal affect factory? Can affect critique affect? Can complicity critique complicity? If not only “creatives” but also “artistic critique” has been coopted by neoliberalism’s management modes of “flexibility,” “disalienation,” and “freedom,” as Holmes has argued, what kinds of art activity promote non-capitalist modes of exchange (2008:10–13)?

This collection of essays cannot quite fix these questions into singular answers, and we wouldn’t want them to (suggesting, perhaps, an intransigent taste for flexibility and instability that aligns us with the very structures we critique?). But the volume does, we feel, multiply its call in a variety of responses — and thereby keeps the call open for further thought and exchange. The essays and roundtable collected here are each deeply thoughtful, and in our opinion each poses excellent prods toward further askings, further leanings, further pursuits for and against precarity and its (dis)contents.


Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

Cooper, Melinda. 2008. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2004. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin.

Holmes, Brian. 2008. Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering. Brooklyn, NY:Autonomedia.

Massumi, Brian. 2005. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact.” Paper presented at the conference “The Sinues of the Present: Genealogies of Biopolitics,” Workshop in Radical Empiricism, Montreal, October. Revised and published as “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” In The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, 52–70. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Mitropoulos, Angela. 2006. “Precari-us.” Mute 1, 29. (9 July 2012).

Seymour, Richard. 2012. “We Are All Precarious — On the Concept of the ‘Precariat’ and Its Misuses.” New Left Project, 10 February. (9 July).

Standing, Guy. 2011. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. (9 July 2012).

Article Information

Special Issue editor(s): 
Nicholas Ridout and Rebecca Schneider
Publication title: 
TDR: The Drama Review
Volume number: 
Issue number: 
Publication date: 
January 01, 2012


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