Performing Antagonism Theatre, Performance & Radical Democracy Edited by Tony Fisher and Eve Katsouraki

 

Théo Aiolfi, University of Warwick

 

Performing Antagonism Theatre, Performance & Radical Democracy

Edited by Tony Fisher and Eve Katsouraki

London: Springer Science and Business Media: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp, 351
ISBN 978-1-349-95100-0 (e-book); ISBN 978-1-349-95099-7 (hardcover); ISBN
978-1-349-95727-9 (softcover)

 

The most striking element that emerges from Performing Antagonism: Theatre, Performance & Radical Democracy, coedited by Tony Fisher and Eve Katsouraki, is the constant presence of Chantal Mouffe’s scholarship,1 which acts as both a focal point, a unifying thread and a conversational partner for the eclectic collection of contributions that constitute this work. Most notably, it is her concept of antagonism that underpins “the tragic conception of the political”2 developed throughout the book, and skilfully detailed by Tony Fisher in his introductory chapter. In opposition to the liberal ideal that the final aspiration of politics is to reach a definite form of consensus among all members of a society, the contributors of this book criticise this very prospect by stressing the deeply conflictual nature of the political, and exploring how ‘performance attests to a fundamental insight into the essentially “agonistic” nature of the political’3. As a consequence, democratic societies are condemned never to reach ontological completeness, ‘without any possibility of a final closure, or any reconciliation that would put an end to social conflict’4.

While, in the light of such a radical statement, one might expect cynical disenchantment to prevail, this edited collection takes instead a resolutely hopeful stance. Following Mouffe, the authors argue that, since attempting to suppress (or repress) antagonism is a lost battle, one should rather seek the possibility of ‘translating the relation of friend and enemy into […] an ‘adversarial’ relation in which the adversary is not an enemy to be destroyed’5, or in other words, to encourage the shift from antagonism to agonism. In addition to that, the various contributions to the book demonstrate the creative potential of antagonism to re-politicise the public sphere, in which technocrats and experts have sought to deny the possibility of what Fisher calls ‘dissensual speech’6. Thus it is through the lens of the ‘fundamentally transformative’7 power of antagonism that the authors frame the role of theatre and performance, as illustrated by Eve Katsouraki in her inspiring epilogue.

One of the strongest assets of this volume is that it manages to strike a delicate balance between the abstraction of philosophical reflections on the relationship between the political and the theatrical, as developed for instance within the contributions of Peter M. Boenisch and Goran Petrović Lotina, and chapters with a more empirical dimension that cover a myriad of topics broadly related to the central question of antagonism. Broderick D. V. Chow builds one of the most thought-provoking arguments of the collection by discussing the tension between citizenship and national identity embodied by Olympic wrestlers in the United Kingdom. Drawing insights from a surprising parallel with pro-wrestling, which he dubs the ‘embarrassing, spectacular, and excessive little brother’8 of wrestling, he argues that ‘the staged agonism’ of Olympic competitions conceal ‘a deeper, greater antagonism’9 which only appeared through public debates on the identity of the wrestlers.

Other contributions to the volume showcase the versatility and the strength of the scholarship assembled by the editors. As a testimony to both its rich past as the birthplace of theatre and its vibrant contemporary political life, it is worth noting that Greece has a preponderant place within this book. Expanding on Tony Fisher’s foray into the agonistic mores of Ancient Greece10, Olga Taxidou develops what she calls ‘the Mother-trope’11 through a meticulous analysis of female characters in Antigone and The Bacchae, while Simon Critchley reframes tragedy as ‘a dialectical mode of experience’12 by adopting a remarkably engaging tone and bringing a modern twist to the classics. Closer to current debates on antagonism and the articulation of resistance, Eve Katsouraki and Gigi Argyropoulou explore the consequences of the Greek financial crisis through, respectively, the tragic angle of political suicides, and the rise and fall of the creative occupation of Embros Theatre. A similar interest in the events linked to the Occupy movement is developed in two of the most remarkable contributions to this edited volume, Polyanna Ruiz’s fascinating account of the use of spatial metaphors by protest movements,13 and Theron Schmidt’s plea for accepting ‘representational pluralism’14 in radical politics.

As a trade-off for this impressive versatility of topics within a single book, the volume suffers at times from feeling disjointed, stretching the red thread of (ant)agonism too thin when moving from one chapter to the next. Since this is partly due to the ambition of Mouffe’s approach to encompass essentially every human phenomenon within her concept of antagonism, I must commend the editors for the effort put into the structure of the book, which is surprisingly coherent, given the breadth of disparate themes covered. That being said, I would advise most readers to focus on the chapters that will be most relevant to their interest, rather than trying to read exhaustively all of the chapters, which do overlap, notably in their appraisal of Mouffe’s work.

Finally, I would argue that the most valuable contribution that Performing Antagonism makes to the literature relates to its treatment of the complex relationship between politics and performance. Standing in firm contrast to Shirin M. Rai and Janelle Reinelt’s attempt to chart a common grammar uniting politics and performance15, Fisher criticises the very possibility of this endeavour. Arguing that politics is composed of a multitude of potentially conflicting grammars, he furthermore claims that ‘performance itself is not a ‘grammar’ but the mode by which a specific grammar [of politics] is articulated in relation to other possible grammars’16. The rationale is that performance in general, and theatre more specifically, merely possesses ‘a power of ventriloquism’, the capacity to ‘clone the space of politics without thereby reproducing its effect’17. As a thought-provoking and extensive collection of reflections on the limits of the political and the theatrical, this collection develops a radical Post-Brechtian stance that makes it a recommended read for all scholars with an interest in antagonism.


  • 1. See in particular Mouffe, Chantal. The Return of the Political. Vol. 8. Verso, 2005. Or more recently, Mouffe, Chantal. On the Political. Routledge, 2011.
  • 2. Fisher, Tony, and Eve Katsouraki, eds. Performing Antagonism: Theatre, Performance & Radical Democracy. Springer, 2017, 6.
  • 3. Ibid., 3.
  • 4. Ibid., 12.
  • 5. Ibid., 14.
  • 6. Ibid., 198.
  • 7. Ibid., 289.
  • 8. Ibid., 63.
  • 9. Ibid., 74.
  • 10. Ibid., 9.
  • 11. Ibid., 44.
  • 12. Ibid., 41.
  • 13. Ibid., 131.
  • 14. Ibid., 123.
  • 15. Rai, Shirin M., and Janelle Reinelt, eds. The Grammar of Politics and Performance. Routledge, 2014.
  • 16. Fisher, Tony, and Eve Katsouraki. 2017. Op. cit., 8
  • 17. Ibid., 9.

Bibliography

Mouffe, Chantal. The Return of the Political. Vol. 8. Verso, 2005.

------. On the Political. Routledge, 2011.

Rai, Shirin M., and Janelle Reinelt, eds. The Grammar of Politics and Performance. Routledge, 2014.

Author

Théo Aiolfi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies of the University of Warwick working in conjunction with the School of Theatre and Performance Studies. His interdisciplinary research at the intersection of politics and performance is centred around the concept of populism. By focusing in particular on right-wing populism, he seeks to apply an approach to populism as a political style to the cases of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. His research interests also include discourse and visual analysis, semiotics, popular culture and theories of International Relations.

Théo Aiolfi est chercheur doctorant au département d'études politiques et internationales de l'Université de Warwick où il travaille en coordination avec l'école d'études du théâtre et de la performance. Sa recherche interdisciplinaire se situant à l'intersection de la politique et de la performance est centrée sur le concept de populism. En se spécialisant en particulier sur le populisme de droite, il cherche à appliquer une approche du populisme comme style politique aux cas de Marine Le Pen et Donald Trump. Ses centres d'intérêts académiques incluent également l'analyse rhétorique et visuelle de discours, la sémiotique, la culture populaire et les théories des relations internationales.

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