ARC Fellows: Populism, Performance, and the Formation of Economic Subjects

Populism, Performance, and the Formation of Economic Subjects

Submitted by our 2017 ARC Fellow Team:
Christian Nagler (Theater, Dance and Performance Studies) and Angela Marino (Theater, Dance and Performance Studies)

Over the last few years, we have witnessed xenophobic, nationalist and autocratic regimes ascend to power in many parts of the world, with the exuberant support of large portions of their citizenries. In many cases, these regimes have endangered the lives of millions of people, and yet riff from popular vernaculars and style in ways that appeal to an ethos of anti-establishment and change.

With right-wing populist regimes currently front and center, it is easy to forget that much of the momentum of the right drew their energy from critiques well-practiced by the left-–critiques forged by popular movements against neoliberal economic policies, media bias and other forms of structural inequality. Perhaps conversely, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela, and the Broad Front of Uruguay are examples of contemporary “populism” that function through various kinds of nationalisms, and also through participatory aesthetics, popular pedagogies and broadly accessible spaces for deliberation and reflection. With many of these issues debated in everyday media, it can feel like a maelstrom of assumptions where left vs. right, authoritarian vs. popular, high vs. low brow, and affect vs. reasoned debate fall short of explanatory power; in many ways, they are insufficient categories, calling for increased attention to new modes of analysis in the arts and humanistic social sciences. We believe it is a crucial time to be thinking critically—and strategically–through the cultural dimensions of one of the key words, and often a container word for such debates: “populism.”

Some of the central questions that we are asking throughout this semester in working with our colleagues in the ARC seminars involve how informal populist practices are witnessed and articulated through other disciplinary vantage points. Moreover, we are focusing on communities, artists, traditions and initiatives that currently practice “populist” strategies to bring attention to the ways populism relies on performed epistemologies. Based on research by Prof. Marino, we are concerned with the transmission of power among subjects, communities and leaders/parties as performed and embodied dimensions of populism.

The pragmatic aim of our project as ARC Research Fellows is both pedagogical and research-oriented in two areas on what we see as expansions of the critical intersection of populism and performance: the first is to develop a future course and planning for a conference; and second, is to advance new directions in a study of performance of/and economies based on the dissertation research of PhD candidate Christian Nagler.

The first part of the project entails a review of how theorists, commentators, activists and popular discourses represent “populist” political culture. We will then develop a bibliography and preliminary syllabus in preparation for an interdisciplinary class on the subject to be proposed in the fall semester.

The second part of our project—again thanks to the ARC research fellowship—is to think through some methodological questions, both ethnographic and theoretical, regarding “economic populism” in the US. More, specifically, how can investigation into rituals, pageants, pedagogies, festivals and modes of embodiment illuminate figurations of economic subjectivity – that is, the sets of assumptions, aspirations, and dispositions that are consolidated into what has been called the “extraordinary demands” of populist politics? This thread is in line with the broad subject of Christian Nagler’s research, where he’s investigating the ways popular movements and economists’ theories intersect in the lived experience of economic survival in the US. He has previously explored some of these questions in participatory performances and in his recently published novel, Human Capital: A Life. In his dissertation chapter on this subject, he will focus on how discourses of self-investment, popular instructions in rent-seeking and fringe-finance have helped to construct the current form of “economic populism” we see in the US.

Professor Angela Marino serves as advisor regarding the applications of performance analysis to populist politics in this project. Her book entitled Populism and Performance is forthcoming with Northwestern University Press.

We wish to express our sincere gratitude to the Arts Research Center faculty and staff for the opportunity to present and exchange with our colleagues from throughout the Arts, Humanities and Design departments on our campus. It has been a timely and important place for us to develop common aspects of our research, and the feedback helps us identify blind spots and envision new solutions and intersections through other disciplinary strengths.


Christian Nagler is a writer, artist and scholar who works on questions of embodiment and performance in political economies. He is a PhD student in the department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies.


Angela Marino is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley working in the areas of performance studies and theater history primarily in Latin/o America. She is co-editor of Festive Devils of the Americas and is currently working on a book project focused on the intersection of performance and populism in the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela.

Note:Over the course of the spring semester, each 2017 ARC Fellows team will submit a short blog post about their project and findings. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! The Fellows Program advances interdisciplinary research in the arts at UC Berkeley by supporting self-nominated pairs of graduate students and faculty members as they pursue semester-long collaborative projects of their own design. To learn more about the program, click here.