PSi#21 Fluid States - The Work of Art in the Age of State Diminishment, by Shannon Steen, India Correspondent

The Work of Art in the Age of State Diminishment

by Shannon Steen

Associate Professor, Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies

University of California, Berkley, United States of America

28 February 2015

PSi#21 Fluid States - India: Rethinking Labor and the Creative Economy - Global Performance Perspectives

PDF available here.


Rustom asked the Visiting Correspondents for the PSi Delhi meeting to extend a topic or issue that we saw emerging during the conference.  Along those lines, I’d like to take this space to open up some ideas about the relationship between the state and the arts that arose over the course of our deliberations. 

There has long been some degree of concern and even alarm over the role of the state in the arts and cultural production among scholars of its history.  When I was a graduate student twenty years ago (when PSi was newly created), the primary concern was over the ways that the state instrumentalized the arts to promote particular – and often particularly narrow, exclusionary, and marginalizing – conceptions of itself.  In other words, the state funded a wide variety of arts forms in order to advance a set of identificatory matrices either for internal consumption or for consumption abroad.  These anxieties rested, however, on a state that seemed quite robust and powerful, as one of the primary agents of power.  The tricky shift that I think we’re all struggling to track or grapple with in the contemporary moment is the relationship between the state and the arts at a moment when the state itself is undergoing political diminishment, especially with regard to its role as a safeguard of liberal citizenship rights.[i]  Anita Cherian noted in her talk “No Outside: Thinking the Creative Economy in India” that the state investment in the arts constitutes a form of biopower, the large-scale management of internal populations.  While Foucault generally emphasized the diffused nature of power, his concept of biopower is perhaps his most centralized vision of power’s action, and while I think this understanding of the state is extremely useful, I also wonder whether it fully encapsulates the dynamics we are watching unfold through the implementation of creative economies ideologies.

At this moment when the state’s relationship to the operations of multinational capital has placed it under all kinds of internal and external encroachment, I wonder whether we might see the its current role in the arts as one of neoliberalism’s particular (even peculiar) modes of cultural formation, defined by Catherine Kingfisher and Jeff Maskovsky as “a set of cultural meanings and practices related to the constitution of proper personhood, markets and the state that are emergent in a contested cultural field.”[ii]  Kingfisher and Maskovsky argue that the neoliberalism emerges not just as a series of policies, but as a reshaping of our identities through cultural operations.  If at its heart neoliberalism is a particularly dynamic and intense moment of refashioning of the state, markets, the individual, and their relationship to one another — and one in which the state is a player of diminishing force — then as Kingfisher and Maskivsky point out the cultural manifestation of that refashioning is in no way epiphenomenal to it, but actually forms its central mechanism.  In many ways, this is not a new story (evinced by our much earlier concerns in the state’s role in the arts — a history that seems at least as old as the idea of participatory democracy itself, and perhaps older).  But if we believe that neoliberalism marks a new order in the constitution of the state itself, then perhaps we need to reassess how we understand its relationship to the cultural realm as well.  Brown’s argument on neoliberalism’s extension of market values to all social activity is critical here[iii] – if she is correct, then the arts are no longer instrumentalized by the state to define itself at home and abroad, but rather to enable the marketization and monetizaion of all human activity, to accomplish what Brown calls the exhaustive reconfiguration of us all into homo oeconomicus.  And this, it seems to me, is where creativity discourses are particularly important to watch – the transformation Brown describes is camouflaged by the seductions of the creative self.  We’re not homo oeconimicus, we’re told, we are homo genero.[iv]  But what sacrifices lurk beneath these ideological transubstantiations? 


Copyright –  Shannon Steen  (2015) “The Work of Art in the Age of State Diminishment”, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available

[i] See Wendy Brown, who claims this diminishment as a hallmark of neoliberalism. Given the extent to which neoliberalism operates in widely varying ways in disparate geopolitical locales, we might note those regions (China, to name one example) in which the state has not diminished at all, but remains the primary agent in managing neoliberalist dynamics within its borders.  Wendy Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory and Event 7:1 (Winter 2003).


[ii] Catherine Kingfisher and Jeff Maskovsky, “The Limits of Neoliberalism,” in Critique of Anthropology 28:2 (Spring 2008); 120. 


[iii] “Neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.”  Brown, aphorism 7. 


[iv]  In recent social and political thought, creativity seems to have become nothing short of the defining element of human being: we are no longer homo faber but homo genero.”  Imre Szeman, “Neoliberals Dressed in Black; or, the Traffic in Creativity.” ESC: English Studies in Canada.  36:1 (March 2010); 15-36; 34.




Tags: Class Labor Economy and Performance  Community and Performance  Daily Life Daily Rituals and Performance   Performance Studies in Asia  Performance Studies in Languages Other Than English  

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