Annie MacDonell Holding Still // Holding Together, capture vidéo | video still, 2016.
Photo : permission de l’artiste | courtesy of the artist

Disrupting Authoritarian Performance Through Bodily Resistance

Heather Rigg
In her essay “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness” (2011), Lauren Berlant defines ‘authoritarian performance’ as the need for ruling bodies to ensure that the ordinary people they govern continue to believe in their stature as autonomous, sovereign, and unfailing. Berlant locates a recent root for this need in the 2008 financial crisis, which proved that “the state was in the same abject and contingent relation to private capital that ordinary people are.”17 17 - Lauren Berlant, “Austerity, Precarity. Awkwardness,” Supervalent Thought, November 2011. https://supervalentthought.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/berlant-aaa-2011final.pdf. If “ordinary people” were to realize that their fraught relationship with capitalism is the same as the state’s, the truthiness of neoliberal infrastructures that keep the concept of capital — and authoritarian states — afloat would be exposed for dismantling. In this moment of exposure, authoritarian performance was therefore concerned with ensuring that citizens continue to comply with the notion that upholding capitalism will maintain stability and therefore law and order, and perhaps most importantly, the need for governing bodies.

Throughout the essay, Berlant unpacks what she sees as the precarious relationship that both citizens and states have with capital. Although opaque at times, especially through her use of terms such as ‘genres,’ and ‘events,’ Berlant’s ideas are most clearly revealed through her close reading of Liza Johnson’s short film In The Air (2009). The film climaxes with an awkward, campy dance routine performed by the inhabitants of a midwestern town. The dance functions as a mode of bodily resistance to the daily oppression of capitalism’s failings and what I perceive to be the state’s authoritarian performance. The collective gesture that Berlant points to in Johnson’s film is both pivotal and ambiguous; the powers that be are absent and therefore cannot be confronted directly. Rather, the dance is an act of bodily revelation and resistance in the face of an absent demand for meaningless labour. 

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This article also appears in the issue 96 - Conflict
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