Reflecting on Resistance: Definitions and Dissonances
In reflecting on resistance and its relationship to performance, I revisited in my mind the experiences that first led me to question the term’s common usage. From 1990-2001 I lived and worked for extended periods in Ecuador, performing with an experimental dance company, el Frente de Danza Independiente, and teaching social science theory at a research institution, la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales. As the inheritors of an ongoing legacy of enduring Yankee imperialism for over a century, many of the intellectuals and cultural producers I met viewed the United States’ culture, policies, and consumer goods with everything from glee to militant disgust or detached bemusement. At the same time, several of my friends had been trained in top universities in the US, or “la Yoni,” as that geography was called in slang (albeit without any ironic reference to the similar-sounding Sanskrit term). Some had relatives living there, attended conferences and festivals there, or even went on holidays. In other words, they were people who— to paraphrase the words of Cuban writer and national hero José Martí — had lived in the monster and knew its insides. On several occasions, when we weren’t cutting it up about more scintillating topics, these colleagues would comment on the state of reflection in the arts and social sciences in La Yoni. I still recall jokes about “los gringitos y su resistencia” (the little North Americans and their resistance).
Their laughter rang in my head when I entered a PhD program in Performance Studies at New York University in the mid-90s. There I often listened to classmates invoke the term “resistance” in our seminar discussions. Wise teachers would push us to clarify what we meant, but by this time the genie was pretty much out of the bottle and strutting around with little felt need to interrogate its own magic. Resistance had become fashionable, as it were, even for those of us who were studying and participating in cultural practices distanced from the contestations of peasants, the underclasses, and the world’s many subalterns who face violence, injustice, and unwinnable challenges to subsistence on a daily basis. In informal conversations, program notes, and in dissertations we would parrot the term by means of attributing inherent validity to our objects of study and our art making. The term was often taken as self-evident. Moreover, a user’s mobilisation of this vague concept served as much or more to bolster her/his authority as an artist and/or writer associated with being “progressive” or speaking on the side of “the oppressed.”
My Ecuadorian friends did not see this impulse towards valourising resistance as exclusive to US cultural producers. Some equally decried ways in which the term had been celebrated by some politicians and members of the intelligentsia in Latin America who replicated colonial ideas of the “noble savage” in constructing a national culture through nostalgic fantasies of primordial, rebellious, indigenous cultures, without much actual contact with those cultures nor any awareness of their unique state of hybrid modernity. A few of my friends also expressed mistrust of some strains of Marxism which, strongly tied in that era in Central and South America to dependency theory and Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis (1974) , painted a portrait of a postcolonial condition that did not address the ways in which local elites benefitted from structural inequality and/or patriarchy. Some friends also criticized the ways in which a certain breed of activists, artists, and thinkers used revolutionary ethos as the emblematic badge of a sexy Latin American strand of leftist machismo to seek international opportunities for themselves with sympathisers in La Yoni and Europe. In other words, in the hands of a privileged few, resistance had become a commodity for sale on the international markets of the academy and contemporary art.
These memories of my friends’ skepticism are of another time and place. Yet I believe they gesture towards questions that are still worth asking, namely: what exactly do people mean by resistance and what are the various agendas they satisfy in aligning themselves with it? Considering models of power and resistance that developed in the social sciences in the US and Europe can be instructive for understanding the tacit assumptions frequently at work in references to the concept across scholarly disciplines and artistic endeavours. Since many scholars and artists from around the world have been trained in the countries of former colonisers, just as studies of resistance are indebted to scholars from the postcolonial world who work in and have transformed research institutions of the “global North,” it is reasonable to argue that the ideas explored in that geography have been influential in other places, acknowledging always the ways in which these ideas have been contested and adapted. I draw a very rudimentary sketch here of a few of the arguments from the 80s and 90s, when there was an outpouring of work about power.
I do not raise questions in relation to any particular context, although the topics under discussion cannot be thought about in universal terms. What constitutes resistance in one place might not in another. Secondly, rather than engage in exhaustive discussion, it is my purpose to take note of a few essential ideas. These ideas suggest lines of inquiry that could be put at the service of interrogating resistance as it has been made— too easily in my view— into a political claim, a category, and an evaluative rubric for the varied forms of art and performance which find their way into the contested nomenclature of “the contemporary” in many places.
The anthropological gaze – closely tied as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries to the apparatus of colonial control – was never blind to the possibilities of unrest within any political system. The interest in the dynamics of power began to sharpen, however, after the middle of the 20th century with growing independence and counter cultural movements. At this time social scientists saw resistance in largely binary terms, power being fixed and institutionalised, and resistance being its organised opposition . By the 1970s the attention to politics began to expand as anthropologists observed the devastating effects of capitalism on rural societies (Vincent as cited in Sivaramakrishnan 2005: 346 ). This shift was prompted at least in part by the desire to explore “why class-based organising did not occur on the mass scale that Marxists had predicted” .
By the 80s and 90s many scholars were grappling with resistance, including from a historical perspective. As a result, models of power and opposition became more sophisticated. Several observers of power’s fragmented manifestations found support in the reflections of French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Unlike earlier constructs of power as a totalising force emanating from a single entity, Foucault envisioned power at work across all areas of public and private life. Power is both formed through and formative of multiple, complex social relationships, spatial arrangements, and bodies of knowledge (1978a) . This perspective on the pervasiveness of power has inspired scholarly efforts to explore how it “disciplines” and “surveils” citizens in multiple spaces (1978b) . Foucault’s portrayal of power residing everywhere has also enabled claims that action taken in any arena – not just those corresponding to electoral politics or mass movements— has the potential to constitute an act of resistance. Foucault’s attention to the ways in which power is inscribed on the body speaks to ways in which dance and theatre can perform resistance, the same body disciplined by power becoming instrumental in the production of alternative meanings. Varied readings of Foucault have been important in establishing the power of the body’s enactments in everyday life also, as in the compelling argumentation of Judith Butler for a theory of gender performativity in which gender is a “stylised repetition of acts” . The breaking or subversive repetition of that style, she argues, constitutes a powerful attack on one of the basic, binary categories that structure patriarchy. Foucault also reminds, however, that resistance, while inevitable, relies upon the same forms of legal, medical, and sociological knowledge produced through and aligned with power.
Although Foucault asserted that power established the very conditions for its own opposition, his commentators and critics went further in detailing the ways in which individuals could resist its mandates through ordinary activities. Among these was another French philosopher, Michel de Certeau. In his tome, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), de Certeau argued that people were not passive subjects, but could resist through minute “tactics,” including consumption. The capacity of people to protest on a micro level opened up new possibilities for understanding people’s behavior and attitudes, and to recognize non-conformity in the context of seemingly immutable circumstances. Opposition is not only a question of overthrow, which occurs infrequently, but also of less organised, individual strategies that subvert rules in specific spaces. Scholars in various fields debate this concept of “agency,” lively conversations ensuing around “intentionality” and the relationship between individual agents/actors and collective action , .
Neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, writing from an Italian prison in the early 1930s, was another significant theoretical source for scholarship on resistance. Gramsci’s idea of hegemony offered a framework for understanding how power compelled consent by instilling ideas and moral systems in citizens no matter what their position within the socio-economic hierarchy. The dominated accept the possibilities and limitations offered to them by society— meaning the worldview of ruling elites – as common-sense or natural . This view affirmed the importance of looking at culture— that is the constellation of meanings, symbols and systems of value— to understand both how power relations reproduce over long periods of time as well as the ways in which cultural practices can become weapons for attacking the premises on which structures of inequality are built. Scholars who developed Gramsci’s ideas argued that hegemony is in a constant state of flux, continuously adapting to the threats posed to it from the emergence of oppositional ideological blocs . That society has inherent fissures is a starting point for the many who have sought to identify agency in people’s interactions with institutions and popular culture.
Gramsci’s affirmation of the centrality of culture in a system of domination was a point of departure for media and cultural studies from the 70s onwards. Forms of representation could be “read” as important sites for the dissemination and contestation of hegemonic ideas about identity and history. The scholars of the Birmingham School, a cluster of intellectuals associated with the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the UK, began to articulate how the ideas presented in film, television, and advertising were not at all totalising and hermetically sealed from alternative interpretations, as earlier Marxists had asserted. Consumers of media are active participants in the construction of the meanings of cultural texts and can engage in “counterhegemonic” readings . Of particular interest was the interaction of the working class with popular media, yet many scholars began to pose the question of the meaning of works of literature and art more broadly. The intention of an author (if such a thing can ever be knowable) can be distinct from a work’s “reception”  ,  , . Furthermore, art’s political significance lies less in objects and more in the social relationships and conditions of artistic practice . Scholars committed to exploring the interaction between communities, culture, and media also sought to affirm the importance of expressive culture that represented oppositional views or experiences not commonly portrayed in the mainstream. In this way hairstyles or genres of music, for example, can constitute significant modes of dissent  ,  ,  , .
In the social sciences Gramsci was reworked in the highly influential work of political scientist and anthropologist James Scott. In his ethnography of peasant labourers in Malaysia, Scott sought to demonstrate the ways in which resistance constitutes a routine occurrence (1985) . He later built on this work in looking at multiple historical and cultural contexts in which he refers to the open, public interactions between dominator and dominated as “public transcripts.” He identifies this realm of behavior as one in which the dominated appear to acquiesce. He contrasts this illusion of consent with “hidden transcripts,” meaning the ways subordinate classes mock rulers and represent their ongoing refusal of the status quo (1990) . This can include behaviors such as the use of argots, the telling of jokes, and rituals that enact defiance “offstage.”
Unlike Gramsci, who believed that people are mostly unaware of how they have internalised the logics of the ruling classes, Scott believes that they both actively seek to subvert domination as well as invent forms of non-compliance. This includes actions performed under the nose of those in power yet that do not foment outright insurrection. This argument raises the question of whether resistance is to be identified necessarily in relation to its producing social change – and how change is to be measured . Some hold the position that resistance need not be recognised by dominators in order to have legitimacy, nor do those who engage in resistance necessarily need to see it as such .
Anthropologist William Roseberry, among others, criticises Scott’s overestimation of the potency of “hidden transcripts.” Subordinates, he argues, do not inhabit an autonomous sphere. Their appraisals and courses of action are entirely dependent on the cultural, political, and economic relations that make their resistance legitimate to begin with. Moreover, similar to Foucault’s positing of the close relationship between power and its opposition, “languages of contention” rely on the symbols and images available in a society for generating meaning and therefore are inevitably haunted by hegemonic values (1994) . In other words, the hidden transcript is directly linked with the public transcript. As such resistance is inevitably contradictory in nature. Its ambivalence is underscored by the observation that while subordinates may dispute some aspects of a prevailing system, they may often accept others, including opportunities they may have to dominate other subordinates .
All of the foregoing models and assertions, propagated further through the uncountable elaborations and critiques made of them, have propelled an avalanche of ethnographies and cultural and historical studies about the nature of resistance. There have been numerable criticisms of this trend as well, too many to delineate here. First, in anthropology, resistance has been used too frequently and with too little reference to the ethnographic details of actual situations . Secondly, the tendency to romanticise resistance has diverted research attention away from a more precise understanding of how power operates  as well as analytical focus away from other valuable forms of action such as cooperation. Moreover, in some cases, a priority given to identifying practices as resistance allows researchers to claim a superior moral position for themselves .
What then might be the most productive ways to think about performance in relation to resistance? First of all, as I hope to suggest through the signposting I have done here of some major arguments in philosophy, the social sciences, and cultural studies, summoning resistance requires a model for thinking about power and its manifestation in everyday life. As the trajectories of Foucault and Gramsci illuminate, power is complex and flexible. It is generative of the knowledge and meanings that allow statements to become intelligible. If one is going to engage in an oppositional practice, then it is productive to have a sense of what one is resisting and the ways in which one might be complicit with hegemonic institutions of art making as an artist or scholar of art, perhaps without even knowing.
Going along with this it is necessary to make distinctions between symbolic resistance and other forms of action, meaning that one should not fetishise the symbolic or overestimate its relationship to how the body is experienced and understood . The trenchant analysis of James Scott addresses the power of images, gestures, and narratives in performing defiance. Scott’s ideas, however, and their development by numerous other anthropologists, emerge largely from the study of the attitudes and actions of people rendered marginal by systemic oppression. The social worlds of contemporary performance sit in an uncomfortable relationship to the abject, prompting a series of questions. How much should a belief in symbolic resistance account for the class, caste, racial, and in some cases, gendered identities of the those seeking to enact it? Do identity politics oblige us to dedicate even more vigilant attentiveness to the thorny question of whether social change can be made synonymous with performative imagery? Whether one believes that resistance must be recognised by dominant interests or not, what is the value of a work that functions solely at the level of spectacle? What are the ethics of a resistance that offers artists and audiences an aesthetic politics that may obscure existing power structures?
Along lines similar to asking how performance intersects with “real life,” understanding how art constitutes resistance must include some insight into the art market. Since a world in which the possibilities for art to operate autonomously from its status as a commodity are shrinking, the relationship between performance and activism needs to be rethought. Some argue that we live in an era in which political art of all kinds runs the risk of becoming an art that “feels like posturing most than protest” . Already, decades ago, pioneering dance scholar Susan Foster observed how “resistive conventions,” such as the disruption of narrative, the incorporation of the technical means of production into the performance, etc. appeared in choreographic works but with a result that was “slick and fashionable.” She suggested a future for resistance could only lie in a “sustained, critical self-commentary” (1985: 64). Others have proposed that the last frontier of emancipatory potential can only be found in operating at the margins of hegemonic spaces of presentation and even in a refusal of so-called professionalisation .
Gramsci’s observations about power’s relationship to culture – culture being the terrain in which battles over the fundamental suppositions that support hegemony are waged – affirm art as a site for critical thinking and debate. Yet there are multiple modes of artistic endeavour that seek legitimacy in equating themselves with political praxis, and surely there are distinctions to be made. When we speak of contemporary performance, for the most part, we are not referring to the mass mediatised and popular forms in which many thinkers have seen the importance of counterhegemonic interpretations because of their ubiquity. Many contemporary dance and theatre forms require knowledge of technical and aesthetic vocabularies most frequently acquired through highly specific forms of education. Their production and reception, therefore, take place primarily amongst people who have this knowledge or participate in social networks of those who do. As de Certeau and Foucault remind, power is not abstract but spatialised. Performance is in conversation with the site in which it takes place . The “professionalised” worlds of contemporary performance are largely confined to spaces of bourgeois consumption. Do the resources mobilised by such contexts contribute to the meaning of the performances that happen within them?
Just as artists and scholars who espouse and see resistance need to build a model for understanding power, so too the concept of agency needs to be argued rather than offered as a self-evident truth about the social world. Too much is swept under the carpet in blithely supposing that individuals exert a will that is not determined by culture and history. As Roseberry asserts in his critique of Scott, power establishes the conditions for its opposition and critique does not inhabit an autonomous sphere. On the contrary, some thinkers argue for the existence of a psychological interiority unique to a subject and manifesting an idiosyncratic will even as that same subject is constituted through multiple social relationships . Either way, to see resistance in the romantic terms of some pure radicalism is naïve. It follows that in calling an art work an act of resistance one must be observant of the ways in which the work’s form and message conform to convention and prevailing ideologies as much as how it offers critique. Moreover, given the ways in which a person’s position within a system of inequality shapes all aspects of their lives, agency cannot be construed in absolute terms but must as a concept account for the fact that some individuals have more agency than others. A corollary of this is also true, that for some people to exercise agency is to invite more immediate and dire consequences than what might be meted out to others.
None of this is to advocate for some kind of hierarchy of levels of resistance. On the contrary, arguing for a more conscious use of the term is to resist (as it were) the converting of a vague concept into a sign of inherent artistic value. To reference resistance as if self-evident, without any consideration of the genealogy of the concept or what interests are at stake, is to risk establishing an essential, ideal image of what artful resistance looks like and does. Facile characterisations of given performances as constituting acts of resistance can too easily devolve into the creation of a system of classification in which some “edgy” works are meant to gain notoriety and value precisely because they can be readily identified and – importantly – promoted in these terms, including in international contexts far away from the performance’s local significance. To engage in a marketing of symbolic contestation is an ironic contradiction.
Moreover, reading works according to simplified notions of art’s oppositional capacities would confine thinking of a performance’s implications solely in relation to its status as a final product for consumption, rather than as a process. A work of art is made through the efforts of a network of presenters, critics, suppliers, etc. along with the artist . If one were to account for the social and economic relations that constitute the “art world” of the piece, including sources of funding and the interests those sources represent, who is paid how much, whether the creative process is hierarchical, etc., one might develop a more nuanced view of a work’s politics. It is important to note at this juncture that single and collective authorship offer different possibilities. Although critics and scholars of art still seem committed to the idea of authorial autonomy, more work is being produced collaboratively across the visual arts and forms of performance in ways that offer new forms of identification and agency .
And then there is the audience. Just as scholars have interrogated the notion of authorial “intentionality,” they have also drawn attention to the importance of the spectator in the construction and critique of a work’s meaning  ,  ,  ,  , . Performance that acknowledges the centrality of the spectator, inviting that person to participate in the active formulation of its political implications is not the same as performance which makes the audience into a passive consumer of the artist’s perspective. Some argue that a work that offers “freedom” to the spectator can present more emancipatory possibilities .
To conclude, claims for making and thinking about a work of performance as “resistance” are well served by an understanding of the varying ways in which this frequently cited concept has been defined and in acknowledging the ambivalent relationship any form of resistance has with dominant structures of power. Furthermore, in my view, as both an analytical framework and artistic objective, resistance’s potency can be summoned only when wedded to a commitment to excavating one’s own subject position and how that position enables one access to particular courses of action. This self-reflexivity includes a fearless willingness to interrogate one’s motives and see a performance— whether as a maker or a scholar— within a broader context of the social processes of its production and reception.
Shanti Pillai is Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts at California State University at Long Beach. Her writing has appeared in The Drama Review, Conversations Across the Field of Dance Studies, Theatre Topics, Women and Performance, and Dance Research Journal. In 2017 she received a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship for research on women artists’ and contemporary performance in India. Shanti is a performance maker with a background in multiple forms of dance and experimental theatre. From 2005-14 she collaborated with dancers and actors in Cuba to create multimedia works. In 2016 she co-founded Third Space Performance Lab with actor Marc Gomes to explore collaborative art making.
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