Situating precarity between the body and the commons | Tavia Nyong'o

It is a mark of the acceleration with which ideas now circulate that the two years since this special issue of Women and Performance was first floated, “precarity” has crossed over from the European and Latin American Left to the United States. Already, the academic database Project Muse connects to more than 100 articles and books containing the keyword “precarity,” a word not yet included in standard English dictionaries.1 Thanks to Occupy Wall Street as well as new journals of left tendency like Tidal, n + 1, and The New Inquiry, students and activists readily identify and organize as the “precariat”: that class of workers who own nothing beyond their own elastic adaptability to the ever-intensifying rigors of the social factory. The “flexibility” of this precariat melts the solidities of industrial trade unionism and party hierarchy into the air, as the multitude organizes its sentiments along horizontal axes of social media and mutual aid.

Precarity is at least provisionally a term shared between the academic seminar and the general assembly. It is almost as if, as Sanford Schram has put it, precarity is one of those rare concepts to have successfully moved from a “philosophical abstraction” to an “actually existing discursive practice operant in movement politics.”2 Such a sequence should, however, perhaps be reversed. Perhaps it is the academic Left, and some liberals, who in this case have eagerly followed activism and politics. The contagious sense that something might be happening, that another world might be not only possible but indeed be actually coming into view, seems to have been occasioned by street theorizing as much as by straight theorizing, and to owe its existence less to the acts of the charismatic artist or academic superstar than to the steady clamor of the murmuring multitude.

We can see such a virtuous circle of incitement and theorizing in the recent political writings and speeches of Judith Butler, who has been a guiding theorist of performance studies and queer studies for over two decades, and now directly engages the subject of precarity, which she explicitly links to her earlier work on queer performativity.3 The subversion of identity through the iteration of norms has found an apt, if unlikely, sequel in the political contestation of what constitutes a livable, or grieveable life. Butler's account of precarity draws deeply from the well of moral philosophy, in which it finds an anti-foundational foundation for our grievances against war, racism, and capitalism in the constitutively open, finite, and vulnerable human condition. Perhaps precarity is not solely intrinsic to life in its individual existence but also in and through its collective repetition across lives. Perhaps this collective persistence is why precarity is always on the move, why it forms such a fugitive, provisional scene of study—as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten might have it—an undercommons whose proper location is missing from any map that still relies on the crumbling division between town and gown, between the philosopher and the poor.4

The rapid spread of the concept of precarity has given some critics pause. “Precarity” teeters on the edge of tipping over into an “empty buzzword,” in Rob Horning's summation, “a trendy thing to say to forestall rather than develop analyses.”5 It was in hopes of delaying this decay of precarity into a buzzword in performance studies that Rebecca Schneider, Nicholas Ridout, and I set out to collaborate on this two-part special issue, of which this is the second, on the relationship between performance and precarity.6 In their introduction to the Winter 2012 issue of TDR, Ridout and Schneider republish our original joint call, and outline the genealogy of precarity as a political keyword for Left organizing against economic austerity and casualization. Their introduction, as well as articles by Randy Martin, Shannon Jackson, and others, takes up what Ridout and Schneider term “the place of the arts in global capitalism, and the particular relations implied by ‘affective labor.’”7 Rather than rehearse those points, in this brief introduction I seek to develop the conversation in some new directions. I have been especially keen to track difference within the at-times universalizing vocabulary of precarity, a concept which may accurately limn one aspect of neoliberal governmentality, but which fails to adequately represent the full violence of global capitalism in all its dimensions, and which may therefore prematurely limit our affective mapping of the possibilities for resistance.8

The keywords surrounding precarity—affective and cognitive labor; contingent and flexible employment; amateurism and virtuosity—have assuredly opened up new thresholds in activism and theory. At the same time, the very scope of the critique of contemporary capitalism threatens to generalize precarity as a ubiquitous and therefore undifferentiated condition. If “precarious life” is to offer a means towards new solidarities based on shared vulnerabilities, then those who proceed under its sign must remain scrupulously attentive to the constitutive and uneven distribution of that vulnerability, and must not simply fall back upon a well-meaning but empty humanism. For instance, there is a growing interest in considering black politics under the rubric of precarious life. This formulation of mourning as a dark power of the black multitude, an innovative expression of the black counter-public, contains both chances and dangers. It would prove most useful if it were invoked alongside Ruthie Gilmore's influential definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death.”9 Can we ask: is racism precarity? What opportunities are there in following Gilmore by bringing state and law, production, exploitation, and death, and the twin operations of collectivity and differentiation into our analyses of what precarity is or does?

On comparable grounds, we might point to Angela McRobbie's critical review of the literature on precarity to query the assumption that simply because of the origins of affective labor-theory origins in feminist sociology, precarity comes with its feminism “preinstalled.” McRobbie critiques “a lively debate on affective and immaterial labour where the focus is (implicitly or explicitly) on women but where there is either an absence of a feminist perspective or else a reliance on vocabularies which, while prevalent in late 1970s Marxist-feminist debate, are now exhausted and in need of revision.” 10 The modal subject of many studies of gendered precarious labor, McRobbie notes, are “highly educated […] beneficiaries of second-wave feminism [… with] no children [and] freelance careers […] characterised by constant change […] predominantly white [… with] training and education prior to this entrepreneurial activity.”11 Needless to say that accounts of performance and precarity that restrict their concern to the orbit of the Euro-American artworld will, for the most part, find such subjects to be their primary locus of concern. The coeval precarity of other women's lives consigned to “life-times of disposability” elsewhere in the production cycle of global capitalism, as well as the grounding of precarity in the domestic and unwaged servitude Angela Mitropoulos rightly casts as the “norm” rather than the “exception” of capitalism, will be correspondingly neglected.12 But there is another way.

The consideration of race, gender, and nation would not simply be additive (we are also precarious) but transfigurative. To reintroduce difference into theorizations of precarity is to insist, paraphrasing Spinoza, that we do not yet know what a precarious body can do. In particular, we do not yet know how it comes into contact, into assembly, into collective and distributed agency, into “being singular plural” with others.13 The “group-differentiated vulnerability” that Gilmore writes of might also go by a series of other noms de guerre: the “undercommons of black study” (Harney and Moten), the “punk rock commons” (Muñoz), and “shadow feminism” (Halberstam).14 Under any name, a consideration of how we are held in violent relationality by the group differentiations that are reproduced by racial capitalism summons us towards a precarity that is less economistic or moralistic, less concerned with either embracing or refusing flexibility: a precarity that is instead more concerned with compassion, with co-passion, co-presence, a being in common with that which we do not know, and with those whom we can not speak for. For “compassion is not altruism,” Jean-Luc Nancy insists, “nor is it identification; it is the disturbance of violent relatedness.”15

This special issue opens with examinations of two distinctive moments in the articulation of labor with performance. Jisha Menon considers the cosmopolitics of the call center, a lightning rod for debates surrounding the raced and gendered global division of labor under transnational capital. Alex Pittman revisits one classic mode of capitalist production, the assembly line, and one technique of surveillance, the time clock, and shows how both are disarticulated in performances that track the shift to post-Fordism. Delving deeper into the history of contingent labor in the arts, Emily Klein opens up the archives of the New Deal in order to illuminate the ways in which the theater has long been constituted through contingent labor practices that reinscribe gender and racial hierarchy.

The next series of articles take up the aesthetic staging of art as labor and life as precarious, through focal studies of particular artists. Lydia Brawner and Abigail Levine employ critical and autoethnographic lenses to grapple with the questions of consciousness, agency, and esprit de corps raised by recent artworld performances staged by marquee artists Marina Abramovic and Yvonne Rainer. Malik Gaines considers the consciousness of a diva of another genre, the pianist and singer Nina Simone, who, he suggests, retrieved and reimagined Brechtian tactics of theatrical alienation in order to enlist her audiences in the active labor of unworking racism. Anna Dezeuze takes up the case of another virtuoso of precarity, the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark. Detailing how Clark was among the first to propose “precariousness” as a response to the cultural ferment of the Sixties, Dezeuze, like Klein, offers a deeper history, and more hemispheric geography, than accounts which tie precarity to the rise of neoliberalism.

Returning, in conclusion, to the present and its prognosis time, the issue concludes with Coleman Nye's careful assessment of the relationship between the anatomopolitics of bodily precarity and the biopolitics of populations at risk for breast cancer. Tracing how rhetorics of “hope” and “deadline” circulate in feminist organizing for a cure, Nye points to the political ambivalence of the very concept of “economy,” as she tracks the gathering and dispersion of the individual in the group trial, the demographic statistic, and in the common cause that is also, ineluctably, a singular case: one life irreducible to any other.

In the “Ampersand” section, Branislava Kuburovic presents a photo essay of the work of Margarete Kern on guest workers in Germany. Online, Katherine Brewer-Ball interviews the artist MPA on her performance work, artistic labor, and Occupy Wall Street.


1. Precarity in English follows cognate usages in French (précarité), Spanish (precariedad) and so on.

2. Schram (2013).

3. Butler (2003; 2009).

4. Harney and Moten (2013).

5. Horning (2012).

6. Ridout and Schneider (2012).

7. Ridout and Schneider (2012, 6); Jackson (2012); Martin (2012).

8. On “affective mapping,” see Flatley (2008). The interventions of Angela Mitropoulos (2005; 2012) have also been crucial in bringing gender, national, and racial difference more centrally to bear on discussions of precarity.

9. Gilmore (2007).

10. McRobbie (2011, 69).

11. McRobbie (2011, 72).

12. Tadiar (2013); Mitropoulos (2005).

13. Nancy (2000).

14. Harney and Moten (2013); Halberstam (2011); Muñoz (2013).

15. Nancy (2000, xiii). See also Flatley (2008), for a discussion of how W.E.B. Du Bois exemplified and indeed anticipates such an orientation. “Such a compassion (a disturbance of one's own being by one's relatedness) involves a recognition that one's own being is always already tied up with the being of others, and others not only in the present, but from the past as well. Our mood is never ours alone. And no person's being can be safeguarded against the being of others. Thus, Du Bois's response to ‘being a problem’ is not to somehow reinforce the ontology of blackness but to expand the sense of problematicity so that no ontology escapes it.” (Flatley 2008, 116).


Butler, Judith. 2003. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York: Verso.

Butler, Judith. 2009. “Performativity, Precarity And Sexual Politics.” AIBR: Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4, (3): i–xiii. doi: 10.11156/aibr.040306

Flatley, Jonathan. 2008. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, And Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press.

Halberstam, Judith. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred, Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions.

Horning, Rob. 2012. “Precarity and ‘Affective Resistance’.” The New Inquiry, 14 Feb 2012. [Accessed 1 May 2013].

Jackson, Shannon. 2012. “Just-in-Time: Performance and the Aesthetics of Precarity.” TDR: The Drama Review 56(4): 10–31. doi: 10.1162/DRAM_a_00211

Martin, Randy. 2012. “A Precarious Dance, a Derivative Sociality.” TDR: The Drama Review 56(4): 62–77. doi: 10.1162/DRAM_a_00214

McRobbie, Angela. 2011. “Reflections On Feminism, Immaterial Labour And The Post-Fordist Regime.” New Formations70(1): 60–76. doi: 10.3898/NEWF.70.04.2010

Mitropoulos, Angela. 2005. “Precari-Us?” Web.

Mitropoulos, Angela. 2012. Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

Muñoz, José Esteban. 2013. “Gimme Gimme This . . . Gimme Gimme That”: Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons” Social Text 116.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2000. Being Singular Plural. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ridout, Nicholas, and Rebecca, Schneider. 2012. “Precarity and Performance: An Introduction.” TDR: The Drama Review56(4): p5-9. doi: 10.1162/DRAM_a_00210

Schram, Sanford F. 2013. “Occupy Precarity.” Theory & Event 16(1). Project MUSE. Web.

Tadiar, Neferti X. M. 2013. “Life-Times of Disposability Within Global Neoliberalism.” Social Text 115: 19–48.

The Precarious Situations issue can be found here