Performing Dialectics

A symposium at Queen Mary University of London, hosted by the Departments of Drama and Geography

29th – 30th January 2015


What is dialectics?

A method of reasoning and argumentation which holds that the understanding of processes, fluxes, relations, and change can reveal more about the world than the study of fixed elements, formal structures, and organized systems.

‘The dialectical worldview sees individuals and society in a process of perpetual dialogue which, through contradiction, brings about change in perpetuity.’ (Barnett 2013: 49)

‘[A] tree is not just a tree, it is only a tree because it is a particular tree, because it has leaves, fruit and blossoms; the blossom becomes fruit, which becomes another tree in time. It is a relationship of change and becoming.’ (Elden 2004: 33)

‘The point of dialectical analysis is to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance, in its very heart.’ (Žižek 2012: 8)

As an interdisciplinary symposium, Performing Dialectics seeks to provide a platform for conversations about an underexplored area of scholarship, by animating the interrelations between dialectics and performance. In an era of increased global socio-economic instability, the event will ask why might a theory of flux, change and emergence be particularly vital within the contemporary performance industry and wider society today? When thinking of alternatives to neoliberalism in the sphere of cultural production, why might we return to a mode of thinking which places fracture and antagonism at its very heart? How might the playful and dialogic engagement that dialectics promotes speak to the creation, process and experience of contemporary cultural activity?

In theatre and performance studies there is a tendency to look across disciplines and utilise scholars from fields such as geography and philosophy whose working method is intrinsically dialectical (e.g. Marx, Lefebvre, James, Harvey). As fruitful as this turn can be, there is a danger of not fully engaging with the implications and possibilities of a dialectical methodology. Performance scholars who do engage with dialectics directly (e.g. Lott, Read, Steen, Barnett, Boenisch) have taken the first step towards bringing dialectics into the field, but there is still more work to be done.

In recent years dialectics has been undergoing something of a resurgence in wider critical practice. Ollman and Smith (2008) draw attention to the lack of understanding surrounding dialectics in Marxist studies, and address this through a collection of essays recuperating dialectics within Marxist theory. Since Ollman and Smith posed this challenge, further work has been undertaken across the humanities to recuperate dialectics as a way of thinking and working (c.f. Harvey, 2009; Jameson, 2010; Žižek, 2012, 2014). This symposium seeks to explore whether dialectics can offer performance studies a method of reading the present cultural, theoretical and social moment, in a way that allows for movement, critique and transformation.

Keynote discussion: 29th January

To reflect the theme of the event, rather than a traditional keynote paper, this public evening event will take the original form of a ‘dialectical discussion’ between theatre scholar Dr David Barnett (University of Sussex) and urban geographer and social theorist Dr Andy Merrifield (Murray Edwards College, Cambridge). The speakers will respond to a shared stimulus on the theme of Performing Dialectics, and the discussion will be chaired by Professor Alan Read (King’s College London).

Convenors: Philip Watkinson and Eleanor Massie


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