Politics, Performance, and Non-Participation

Caroline Wake, Emma Willis


I would prefer not to. —Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853)

Like Bartleby, the legal clerk who famously decides that he would prefer not to, this issue of Performance Paradigm investigates the politics and performance of non-participation. The figure of Herman Melville’s Bartleby appears everywhere in political theory and philosophy: in Gilles Deleuze’s “Bartleby, ou la formule” (1989); in Giorgio Agamben’s companion piece (1993; published in English 1999); in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000); and in Slavoj Žižek’s The Parallax View (2010). In performance, his spirit manifests in Noor Afshan Mirza and Brad Butler’s project Museum of Non-Participation (2007) as well as in Mette Edvardsen’s Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine (2010), wherein a single performer recites Melville’s story to a single audience member for half an hour. In performance scholarship, Bartleby recently appeared in Daniel Sack’s After Live: Possibility, Potentiality and the Future of Performance (2015). Perhaps we hear him in phrases such as “don’t do it on my account” and catchphrases like “computer says no.” We might even see him, his slogan printed on a bag or a t-shirt. What are we to make of the fact that more than 160 years after Bartleby first appeared, both pizza ads and productivity coaches proclaim: “No is the new yes” (Huffington Post 2012; Kellaway 2017; Schwartz 2012)? And what is the difference between the “no” and the “non” when it comes to participation? One can choose not to participate (refuse) or one may be excluded from participation, which is altogether different. Is to refuse important in and of itself or should it build towards action; is it, in fact, more a type of action—a striking against—than non-participation? If so, then what can be said about the inaction of non-participation, for it surely produces significant effects?


theatre; performance; politics; participation

Full Text:



Agamben, Giorgio, and Gilles Deleuze. Bartleby: La formula della crellzione (Macerata: Quodlibet, 1993).

Alston, Adam. 2016. Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Arnstein, Sherry. 1969. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” Journal of American Institute of Planners 35 (4): 216–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/01944366908977225

Busby, Eleanor. 2018. “University Strikes to Continue Despite Proposed Deal Between Union Leaders and Employers.” The Independent. March 13, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/university-strikes-latest-pensions-dispute-lecturers-ucu-college-union-uuk-a8254031.html

Cairns, Jon. 2012. “Ambivalent Intimacies: Performance and Domestic Photography in the Work of Adrian Howells.” Contemporary Theatre Review 22 (3): 355–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/10486801.2012.690741

Casemajor, Nathalie, Stéphane Couture, Mauricio Delfin, Matthew Goerzen, and Alessandro Delfanti. 2015. “Non-Participation in Digital Media: Toward a Framework of Mediated Political Action.” Media, Culture & Society 37 (6): 850–66. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0163443715584098

Crabb, Annabel. 2014. “Critics Are Raving About the Biennale’s Big Hit.” Sydney Morning Herald. March 16, 2014. https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/critics-are-raving-about-biennales-big-hit-20140315-34tm5.html

Eckersall, Peter and Eddie Paterson. 2011. “Slow Dramaturgy: Renegotiating Politics and Staging the Everyday.” Australasian Drama Studies April: 178–192.

El Zein, Rayya, Irene Fernández Ramos, George Potter, and Gabriel Varghese. 2018. “BDS and Palestinian Theatre Making: A Call for Debate within the Disciplines of Theatre and Performance Studies.” Theatre Survey 59 (3): 409–18. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0040557418000327

Estefan, Kareem. 2017. “Introduction: Boycotts as Openings.” In Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production, edited by Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni, and Laura Raicovich, 9–17. New York: OR Books.

Fensham, Rachel. 2012. “Postdramatic Spectatorship: Perform or Else.” Critical Stages/Scènes Critiques 7: n. pag. http://www.critical-stages.org/7/postdramatic-spectatorship-participate-or-else/

Hammett, Richard S., Joel Seidman, and Jack London. 1957. “The Slowdown as a Union Tactic.” Journal of Political Economy 65 (2): 126–34. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1827368

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hartman, Yvonne, and Sandy Darab. 2012. “A Call for Slow Scholarship: A Case Study on the Intensification of Academic Life and Its Implications for Pedagogy.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 34 (1–2): 49–60. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714413.2012.643740

Harvie, Jen. 2013. Fair Play: Art, Performance, and Neoliberalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heddon, Deirdre, Helen Iball, and Rachel Zerihan. 2012. “Come Closer: Confessions of Intimate Spectators in One to One Performance.” Contemporary Theatre Review 22 (1): 120–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/10486801.2011.645233

Huffington Post. 2012. “‘No is the New Yes’ Domino’s Pizza Ad Offends Some With Apparent Rape Innuendo.” Huffington Post. July 12, 2012: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/11/dominos-artisan-pizza-ad-rape-_n_1665612.html

LaFrance, Mary. 2013. “The Disappearing Fourth Wall: Law, Ethics, and Experiential Theatre.” Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law 15 (3): 507–82. http://www.jetlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LaFrance.pdf

Kellaway, Lucy. 2017. “Why Most Successful People Just Say No.” Financial Times. June 11, 2017: https://www.ft.com/content/0a7977ac-4cf5-11e7-919a-1e14ce4af89b?mhq5j=e3

Koch, Alexander. 2011. “Out of Practice, Out of the Picture. An Introduction to Leaving the Art World Behind.” KOW 8 (General Strike). https://kow-berlin.com/events/kow-issue-8

Machon, Josephine. 2013. Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mac Ginty, Roger. 2012. “Between Resistance and Compliance: Nonparticipation and the Liberal Peace.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 6 (2): 167–87. https://doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2012.655601

McGranahan, Carole. 2016a. “Refusal and the Gift of Citizenship.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 334–341. http://dx.doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.03

———. 2016b. “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 319–25. http://dx.doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.01

McKenzie, Jon. 2001. Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance. London: Routledge.

Mezzadra, Sandro, and Brett Neilson. 2013. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mirza, Noor Afshan, and Brad Butler. Museum of Non-Participation http://www.museumofnonparticipation.org/index.php

Mountz, Alison, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Lloyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu, Risa Whitson, Roberta Hawkins, Trina Hamilton, and Winifred Curran. 2015. “For Slow Scholarship: Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 14 (4): 1235–259. https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/1058

Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sack, Daniel. 2015. After Live: Possibility, Potentiality and the Future of Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Schwartz, Tony. 2012. “‘No’ Is the New ‘Yes’: Four Practices to Reprioritize Your Life.” Harvard Business Review. January 17, 2012: https://hbr.org/2012/01/no-is-the-new-yes-four-practic.html

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2002. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawkus Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

———. 2016. “Consent’s Revenge.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 326–33. http://dx.doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.02

———. 2017. “The Ruse of Consent and the Anatomy of ‘Refusal’: Cases from Indigenous North America and Australia.” Postcolonial Studies 20 (1): 18–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2017.1334283

Simpson, Leanne. 2001. “Aboriginal Peoples and Knowledge: Decolonizing Our Processes.” Canadian Journal of Native Studies 21 (1): 137–48. http://www3.brandonu.ca/cjns/21.1/cjnsv21no1_pg137-148.pdf

Sobo, Elisa. 2016. “Theorizing (Vaccine) Refusal: Through the Looking Glass.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 342–50. http://dx.doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.04

Warsza, Joanna, ed. 2017. I Can’t Work Like This: A Reader on Recent Boycotts in Contemporary Art. Sternberg Press.

Weiss, Erica. 2016. “Refusal as Act, Refusal as Abstention.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3): 351–58. http://dx.doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.05

White, Gareth. 2013. Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zahara, Alex. 2016a. “Ethnographic Refusal: A How to Guide.” Discard Studies August 8, 2016. https://discardstudies.com/2016/08/08/ethnographic-refusal-a-how-to-guide/

———. 2016b. “Refusal as Research Method.” Discard Studies March 21, 2016. https://discardstudies.com/2016/03/21/refusal-as-research-method-in-discard-studies/


  • There are currently no refbacks.