(P084)
Aesthetics and Performativity: Form and substance in cultural politics
Location SOAS Senate House - S118
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 15:30
Sessions 1

Convenors

  • Martyn Wemyss (Goldsmiths) email
  • Gabriel Dattatreyan (Goldsmiths) email

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Short abstract

The panel considers the political mobilization of aesthetic forms through performance and citation in online and offline worlds. Papers address the possibilities for an anthropology that takes seriously the generative power of the surface.

Long abstract

This panel invites contributions which engage with aesthetic mobilizations in the service of political ends. Historically, much anthropological attention has been paid to aesthetics as signs or indexes to be charted and interpreted, as 'the stuff' of cultural belonging. Recent scholarship has shifted away from an implicitly essentialist theorization of aesthetics towards an account of the productive agency of things, forms, and appearances and the political work they do in the world. In this re-imagining of aesthetics, 'thin descriptions' (as J. Jackson Jr argues) are as important as 'thick descriptions.' For instance, pithy slogans and hashtags become entry points to engage political worlds which deeper contextualisations might obscure. We seek ethnographic contributions that deepen this engagement with performative aesthetics by analysing the present moment where contingent practices of citation generate hybrid forms of communication, where 'race', gender, kinship and power are re-narrated in social settings or refracted through the digital. How are emergent cultural forms, however fleeting, produced and performed? In what ways do they intervene in the socio-political contexts in which they emerge? How does an aesthetic theory that centres on the ephemeral performance or the production of a substantive 'thing' allow us to see how actors utilize creative practice to contest existing relationships or imagine new relationships with and beyond the state? How is citizenship claimed through cultural stagings at various scales and before various publics? Finally, how are anthropologists positioned and how do they position themselves in these stagings?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Performing Everyday Infinities at the India-Pakistan Border

Author: Urvi Vora (University of Roehampton) email

Short abstract

Using the India-Pakistan border ceremony as a case study, this paper explores the role of hyper masculinity, propaganda, and absurdity in surpassing ideology to create a moment of affect during a political performance.

Long abstract

The Wagah-Attari Border Ceremony in the divided region of Punjab stands testament to the presence of Partition in present-day India. Exhibiting a highly choreographed march consisting of high kicks, ludicrous gestures and absurd one-upmanship, this ceremony sees a footfall of over twenty thousand people who watch and participate every single day. The Partition of British India into two countries - India and (East and West) Pakistan in 1947 left behind a trail of undivided resources, fragmented memories and a collection of stories. This ceremony is performed as an attempt to symbolise peace in a region that suffered unprecedented violence in the aftermath of the struggle for Independence. Drawing upon anthropological fieldwork conducted in and around the Wagah-Attari border, I look at the ritualisation of this political performance and its implications for the spectators. This paper specifically deals with the feeling of 'being affected' during this ceremony and the factors that go into creating it. It studies and questions the role of hyper-masculinity, propaganda and absurdity to understand the felt-quality of this ceremony. Using participant-observation, informal interviews, movement analysis, and the experiences of being affected, this paper explores the power and dominion of political performances and their disposition in a mass democracy like India. It provides a critical perspective on the ways in which the ideas of 'the patriot' and 'the other' are used to go beyond ideology for the purpose of mobilisation.

A Long Portrait: Aesthetics and politics in everyday photography in Manipur, India

Author: Debanjali Biswas (King's College London) email

Short abstract

I analyse the aesthetics of everyday photo-ethnography in Manipur (India) and address how politics, indigenous issues and sense of one's own community is represented through the vernacular lens.

Long abstract

Imphal is a city where the everyday is a conscientious witness to political turbulence that erupt due to indigenous struggles for self-determination, insurgency and counterinsurgency measures by the Indian armed forces. It is within this context, I explore everyday life in India through the works of local photographers who have documented each corner, crevice, rituals and revolutions in a city paralysed by conflict. As informed insider images on contemporary Manipur, they form a meticulous narrative on everyday life under extraordinary circumstances. Many images carry a sense of urgency; many convey an energy that reflects an 'impulse for change' while most mark silences and opacities of dominant political discourses. (Lorenzo & De Gemes 2016; Ram 2015). I analyse the aesthetics of everyday photo-ethnography to address how politics, indigenous issues and sense of one's own community is represented through the vernacular lens. The trove of images I curate, captures two sides of conflict in Manipur - episodes of territorial disputes, contested borders, militarisation, political violence on one side; the flux and flow of ordinary life on the other. The images I analyse come from little-known and nonprofessional photographers in the digital sphere and at local exhibitions, in an attempt to read the quotidian life from the vantage point of visual ethnography i.e. what is documented, what is remembered and in tracing accounts of agency and personhood. This is a part of my ethnographic research on local art practices that offer prospects to critique the state and construct the contemporary idea of Manipur.

Purified pageantry: performing arts in Javanese provincial politics

Author: Heikki Wilenius (University of Helsinki) email

Short abstract

The Javanese performing arts have a prominent role in contemporary Indonesian politics. The paper analyses the 'thin', purified aesthetics of these politicized performances, and argues that the semiotic ideologies of interpretation in Java partially undermine their intended function.

Long abstract

This paper analyses Javanese dance and music performances from two election campaign rallies that took place in East Java during 2013. They were both part of East Java's gubernatorial election, one held by a nationalist party and the other by an Islamic party. In these events, traditional performing arts were featured in an ostensibly purified form, their aesthetics in accordance with the exigencies of contemporary politics. However, like in the archetypical ritual of Javanese society, the slametan, each participant is free to interpret the performances as they see fit, while being particularly conscious of the fact that there is not a consensus of their meaning.

The Javanese performing arts have played a major role in Indonesian politics since the emergence of the national consciousness at the beginning of the last century. During president Suharto's New Order (1966-1998), politicized art was deemed dubious and the government severely restricted the public performance of arts. In contemporary times, the links between Javanese art forms and party politics are again flourishing, particularly during election campaigning.

I argue that due to the historical layers of the art forms and the semiotic ideologies of interpreting them, there is no authoritative understanding of their symbolism or performativity. This ambiguity can be used strategically by the politicians to widen their potential political base, but it also allows for a variety of politically subversive meanings to be mediated in public, something that was not possible in New Order politics.

Political Spectacle and Stagings of Indigeneity in Bolivia

Author: Martyn Wemyss (Goldsmiths) email

Short abstract

This paper describes two 'stagings' of indigeneity in Bolivia through a consideration of their aesthetic and symbolic affects and effervescences, before locating them within a larger framework of the refashioning and subversion of cosmopolitan forms to tell new histories from below.

Long abstract

This paper focuses on the production of political indigeneity through spectacle, and the crafting of indigenous political subjects through various 'stagings' which address, envision and encompass different publics through different aesthetics of performance. The paper addresses two distinct 'stagings': The first is the celebration which took place in La Paz's Plaza Murillo after the Constitution of 2009 was passed by plebiscite. I read this event against popular aesthetic representations of Evo Morales through cartoons. The second staging is that of a wrestling bout in El Alto, in which a transnational form of entertainment becomes an arena in which history is creatively (re)presented and a (female) gendered indigenous political subject emerges triumphant, inverting the hegemonic masculine image which is intrinsic to the form. The paper explores how (trans)national cultural forms provide arenas in which different registers of truth-making can be used to address and fabricate indigenous political subjects through aestheticized performance, and how such performances form a locus for the practice of indigenous governmentality in Bolivia.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.