The agency of the spectator in the individualized society

Arts and Law
Wednesday 3rd December 2014 (16:00-17:30)
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  • Drama research seminar

Speaker: Dr Liz Tomlim (University of Birmingham)

Title: The agency of the spectator in the individualized society

Venue: SR1, OLRC, Selly Oak Campus

Leading sociologists, such as Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck, have been defining global capitalism as the age of ‘institutionalised individualization’ since the early 1990s, yet such theories retain their currency and urgency today. This research presentation will highlight key aspects of their analysis in order to ask difficult questions about the efficacy - or inefficacy - of theatre as a vehicle for political change in the twenty-first century.

Beginning with the premise that political theatre, as understood by theorists as ideologically polarised as Bertolt Brecht and Hans-Thies Lehmann, should seek, in the broadest terms, to shift each spectator’ perception of the reality in which they live, I will suggest that this emphasis on the individual spectator, and his or her own responsibility for change, runs up against problems in the light of recent theories of individualization. Such theories suggest that the onus on the individual to identify and resolve what appear to be problems within the realm of each individual’ control and range of potential actions, is no more than a sleight of hand to outsource the damaging consequences of capitalist systems into the private realm of individual choice and personal moral compass. As Beck described in Risk Society (1992:137), ‘ones lives become the biographical solution of systemic contradictions’. A theatre practice that likewise seeks to ‘effect’ the individual ‘s perspective in the hope of aiding systemic change, might inadvertently be collaborating in such mythology.

I will address these questions specifically to examples of existing contemporary practice which seek to effect the spectator’s perspective on the ideological basis of their reality, and to engage the spectator in reflection on their own responsibility and agency within that ideological real. The research presentation will include a short spoken word performance, The Cassandra Commission, which was written in tandem with this ongoing research project as an attempt to respond directly to some of the questions that were emerging.

The challenges raised by the theories I will draw on are far reaching in their implications, and the ensuing discussion will encompass, not only responses to these particular case studies, but reflections on diverse contemporary practices, including applied theatre and direct action performance. Can the ideal of individual agency and the aim of political efficacy be retained within progressive performance practices that seek strategies to evade or directly challenge the ‘systemic contradictions’ of late global capitalism?

For information please contact Eleftheria Ioannidou at