Introduction: Performing Refusal/Refusing to Perform | Lilian G. Mengesha and Lakshmi Padmanabhan (29.1)

It is a peculiar triumph of society—and its loss—that it is able to convince those people to whom it has given inferior status of the reality of this decree; it has the force and the weapons to translate its dictum into fact so that the allegedly inferior are actually made so, insofar as the societal realities are concerned.
— James Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel," in Notes of a Native Son, 1955


This special issue emerged from an enduring fatigue whose causes are multiple. First, in response to an enduring a scene of racial misrecognition—two young scholars, two queer women of color—repeatedly mistaken for each other on a campus where our blackness and brownness were often coveted and simultaneously invisible. Our particular racial histories bore little similarity, yet marked by our skin and our stature, and perhaps by virtue of our politics and shared intimacies, we were often mistaken for the other. And what we first found amusing, eventually was encountered with a small sigh, momentary pauses of racialized exhaustion accumulated over the years. After all, to be misrecognized is to still be recognized. And as what would we truly want to be recognized, anyway? The project of political recognition for minoritarian subjects is undergirded by a false promise of inclusion that consumes difference in service to assimilation. This minor and quotidian exhaustion has grown vast over the two years that we have conceptualized this special issue, fed by the ongoing political violence against all those we refer to as “our people,” and bloated with the demands of political action that have accrued upon the shoulders of minoritarian subjects in this period of upheaval.1 As James Baldwin (1955) so clearly explained in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “we find ourselves bound by the nature of our categorization.” In response, we have gathered here an archive of refusal,chronicling the everyday forms of inaction, inscrutability, and non-productivity that mark the ways in which racialized life endures under current regimes of political violence.

In setting the scene of an embodied history of refusal and its relationship to production and reproduction, we could turn to the radical act of sitting, popularized, though not originating, in a pivotal moment of the Civil Rights Movement soon to be known as the Greensboro sit-ins, where four young black men refused to leave the whites only lunch counter at a Woolworth's. The scene of sitting where one is not allowed to sit, and continuing to do so in the face of violence, illustrates the high stakes of refusal as a form non-engagement.2

Another scene emerges in the late summer of 2018 where nationwide prison strikes across the United States––instances where inmates refused to work––swung the spotlight away from the rhetoric of their criminalization and onto the prison as a system of modern slavery under racial capitalism. In their refusal to labor, they challenged what Marx had called the “hidden abode of production:” (1977, 280) that subterranean sphere outside of the well-policed realm of the free market where wages are paid in exchange for labor. As the list of demands issued by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee clearly laid out, the violence of the prison is not only the exploitation of the incarcerated population through underpayment of wages and inhumane working conditions, but simultaneously the violence of racial discrimination that unfairly targeted black and brown bodies for incarceration, and pursued discriminatory policies against minoritarian populations once within the prison system. In doing so, the IWOC demands clearly explain the way in which racial discrimination and labor exploitation are woven together through the penal system. Their refusal to work, therefore, demands a conception of refusal including and extending beyond the Marxist critiques of labor exploitation. In these cultural and political examples, refusal emerges through non-engagement, inaction, and bodily incapacitation.

At the same time as refusal demarcates this structural critique, we also extend this discussion to the more individual forms of refusal and exhaustion. In the last few years, a whole host of racialized complaints have collectively been referred to as “racial battle fatigue” through public discourse: describing the collateral damage (the price we pay, our cost of living) of surviving as black, brown, queer, femme, indigenous, migrants in social institutions that were not built for us. In an age of increasing surveillance and political agitation, a cottage industry has sprung up around mindfulness, self-care, and managing the generalized anxiety of being politically engaged. Yet, it must be clarified that the quotidian exhaustion we’re describing here is neither new nor exceptional, though our political landscape has recently undergone major upheavals with the return to power of fascist political leaders, openly racist rhetoric in our public sphere, and the largest displacement of refugees since World War II, to name a few.

Our current fatigue is not just a response to all these political shifts, though it is certainly that as well. Rather, it is of a piece with a much older and decidedly modern problem: the tragic quest for identity that Édouard Glissant (2010) describes as the condition of the colonized. Glissant, describing the conceptual violence enacted by colonization, links the valorization of authenticity to the totalitarian desire for “roots,” manifested in the nationalism that emerges with the Western conception of the nation-state. Indeed, as he reminds us, figures of exiles and errancy only become tragic within the nation-state as a frame, i.e. without a definition of belonging to a particular land, language, and people (and the consolidation of this quality into the legal apparatus of citizenship), there wouldn’t be much to lose for the refugee, or much to gain for the racialized minority (Glissant 2010). Following Glissant, the discourse of “identity,” “authenticity,” and the rhetoric of “roots”(drawing on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s contrast between root and rhizome (1987)) set up a founding problem of identity for the colonized: we must conceive of ourselves within the problematic laid out by civilizational discourses either by identifying with and assimilating within dominant social relations, or by identifying in opposition to them. When those are the only two possibilities, you can see why the demand for identity is an exhausting and exhausted field of politics for minoritarian subjectivity. The essays curated here depart from these debates on recognition to explore the aesthetics of racial obscurity, avoidance and fugitivity.

This special issue builds on recent work in critical indigenous studies, critical ethnic studies, black studies, and postcolonial studies that have all wrestled with what Gayatri Spivak has named as the epistemic violence enacted in and through forms of colonial knowledge formation (1999). Her critique echoes what Sylvia Wynter has diagnosed as the coloniality of Being under the legacies of slavery and colonization, wherein a western bourgeois ethnoclass over represents itself under the sign of “Man,” claiming a universal designation and simultaneously excluding whole populations from the field of the Human (Wynter 2003).3 It is against this conceptual limit that we have been exploring the possibilities of refusal: what we conceive of as disruptions to the vicious dialectic of assimilation and resistance.

Refusal, or, how not to do things with words

Distinct from its occasional cognate, “resistance,” we follow conceptions of refusal articulated by Audra Simpson as “a willful distancing from state-driven forms of recognition and sociability” (2014) and Tina Campt’s working definition of refusal as, “the urgency of rethinking the time, space, and fundamental vocabulary of what constitutes politics, activism, and theory, as well as what it means to refuse the terms given to us to name these struggles” (Campt, this volume). In contrast to its cognate, resistance, refusal names precisely those tactics of illegibility, opacity, and inaction, that remain outside of the field of political action properly conceived.4 Indeed, the charge of refusal as a concept is to pay attention to those forms of relation that challenge the discursive infrastructure that makes political action legible, that renders minoritarian bodies as such, and that reiterates dominant norms about the place and time for political recognition. Crucially, practices of refusal are never a program of action, and such practices have occurred continuously in the history of political struggle without always being recognized as such.

What would it mean to do away with bodily action as the fetishized object of performance studies? It is here that questions of “performance” and “performativity” rise to the fore. On the one hand, conceptions of performance contain a spectatorial relation by very definition: spectators are tasked to use bodily sensations to recognize a performance as such. Here, tactics of refusal that engage with opacity, illegibility, or occurring at a minor level such as a passing facial expression, or gesture of withdrawal, often occur without immediate recognition. At the same time, performance studies’ critical engagement with embodied experience and the micropolitics of gesture allow us to approach questions of bodily inaction, silence, and non-speech as performances of refusal. It is crucial to note here that our characterization of refusal as those quotidian and minor acts that may remain outside the field of political action was, until recently, one dominant understanding of what performance itself is. Peggy Phelan’s (1993) intervention defined performance as that which disappears, and therefore that which escapes the logic of commodification that underpins our capitalist political economy. We could say that performance is what refuses to be political (within the definition of politics as operating within a means-ends logic). Taking this approach, it is easy to see how performance and refusal are concepts that could be synonymous. Yet, as performance theorists have already argued (Conquergood 2002; Taylor 2003; Schneider 2011; Vazquez 2013) performance doesn’t so easily evaporate into the air, often remaining through forms of bodily training, re-enactments, repertoires, and re-mediation, as material cultural objects. As Fred Moten (2003) reminds us, “the conjunction of reproduction and disappearance is performance’s condition of possibility, its ontology and its mode of production.”

More recently, performance theory has also focused on “living labor,” the entwined sense of practices of living and everyday labor materialized in the body of the artist as worker, as a potential site of opposition to capitalist exploitation. Here again, performance becomes the exemplary paradigm by which to understand both the social reproduction of capital, and the potential site of resistance to capitalism’s violent exploitation, through the re-vivifying activity of living labor.5 Indeed, if commodity fetishism names the mystical power by which value congeals in the commodity as a deadened object, Joshua Chambers-Letson (2016) argues, “the performance of living labor reanimates and reproduces this trace of life.”

Our goal in this issue is to approach these debates within the field between performance as repetition and performance as laboring activity, by questioning the protestant work ethic that underpins even (and especially) the most resistant performances of minoritarian subjectivity. Here, we take up a strand of Marxist feminist criticism to argue that an attachment to the liberatory potential of both performance and living labor can traffic in a productivist work ethic (Weeks 2011) manifested as the internalized faith and expressed call for minoritarian subjects to perform the labor of activism—by advocating for ourselves, diversifying the institutions we live and work within, and speaking out against our domination—and generally engaging in activities that reproduce us as protesting and protestant subjects. As Rey Chow (2002) has so cogently argued, it is by our very labor of protest that we are produced and managed as ethnic and racialized subjects. In denying to act as such, to act as expected, or even to act at all, these minoritarian performances undo themselves as a thing to do.

Within this issue are prismatic valences of refusal, in the sense that they are often perceptible when thrown into distortion. Cast in one light, refusing to perform requires an obstinance, a bodily comportment of stillness and non-productivity such as a worker’s strike, or a moment of leisure, particularly as a mode of negating an expectation on the body. In its inverse valence, performing refusal details methods of wielding of opacity and obscurity, as a tactic to negate the call of minoritarian subjectification, though these conceptual differences are not so neatly held apart in each specific instance.

Performing refusal requires obstinance, bodily comportments that disassociate and emanate the desire to not be included. Our focus on “refusal” aims to highlight performative modes of non-productivity and non-reproductivity. Importantly, they challenge the episteme of performance as dependent on repetition, on “twice-behaved behaviors” (Schechner 1985) that avoid a categorization of action at all. For what is a body if it is inactive? The essays in this issue critically explore scenes where ethnic labor fails to work appropriately (Chung), refuses to reproduce the relations of exchange and spectatorship that performance is assumed to facilitate (Schriber), refuses speech and normative bodily comportment (Adeyemi), and fundamentally refuses to care for the body, as a way to challenge the biopolitical regime under which life itself becomes the object of governance (Velasquez-Potts).

Refusing to perform: abstraction and fugitivity

Obscuring the event of action, even dwelling in its absence, connects the writings of Kelly Chung and Abbe Schriber in this volume. In doing so, fugitivity becomes a central theme, where the fugitive names a movement away from an intended path; one who refuses location, sight and recognition. Scholarship within the black radical tradition has long theorized states of fugitivity as a mode of fleeing of the self. Keguro Machariz (2013) details the embodied measures of this flight: “Fugitivity is seeing around corners, stockpiling in crevices, knowing the un-rules, being unruly, because the rules are never enough, and not even close.” Resonating with this conception of fugitivity, Chung and Schriber each advance conceptions of refusal where black and brown bodies do not comply with the demands for normative visibility and racialized recognition, while simultaneously challenging their erasure from political life.

In “The Defiant Still Worker,” Chung addresses the limits of a Marxist approach to performance, which is driven by a desire to expand the realms of “labor” to include those everyday performance of inaction and scenes of waiting that are central to domestic labor. Through a close reading of visual artist Ramiro Gomez’s paintings of racialized domestic workers, Chung contrasts and extends Marx’s understanding of “abstraction” as the basis of commodity fetishism as it manifests in the aesthetics of abstract expressionism. For Chung, Gomez’s abstract paintings provide an understanding of bodily stillness and non-productivity through the aesthetic potential of abstraction, providing scenes of contemplation for the workers that Gomez paints, while denying the spectator any concrete or legible representations of domestic labor and the racialized bodies that perform them.

Schriber’s essay takes up a related tactic in David Hammons’s performance art projects, Pissed Off and Shoe Tree (1981), which were conceived in response to Richard Serra’s public sculpture, T.W.U. (1980–81). Through close readings of Hammons’s projects, both of which are inconclusively documented and archived, surviving primarily through rumor, word-of-mouth, and grainy uncertain images, Schriber conceives of Hammons’s fugitive art practice that circumvents the expectations of the black artist as commodity within the contemporary art market, while remaining committed to black social life and community.

Performing refusal: apathy and incapacitation

Apathy, colloquially a form of disinvestment in the world around us, and incapacitation, a state in which the body is unable (perhaps from or related to being unwilling) to act shapes the writings of Kemi Adeyemi and Michelle Velazquez-Potts. They address the challenges posed by a minor gesture such as leaning (Adeyemi), or by denying quotidian activity, such as refusing to eat (Velasquez-Potts). Writing through the critical frame of bodily suspension, Adeyemi and Velazquez-Potts offer suspension as a tactic of bodily pause, obstructing the flow of movement and life. Both essays describe examples of performing refusal where inaction implicates violence and even death, yet reconceptualizes such inaction into a form of minoritarian intervention into the reproduction of structural violence.

In “Beyond 90°: The Angularities of Black/Queer/Women/Lean,” Kemi Adeyemi considers how aberrations from verticality structures dominant modes of perception, inclusion, and participation. Focusing on the melodious, atonal, and embodied symphony that is Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions, Adeyemi complicates and unsettles verticality as the bodily performance of humanity, through a consideration of the black radical politics made possible in acute and obtuse angularity. Black and brown queer bodies ride with gravity as they lean to either side, surrendering to the force, letting the body slouch, dip and dive in a celebration of the joints. Apathy, for Adeyemi, negates any kind of “owing” or debt placed on the black body in everyday life by deliberately misunderstanding or ignoring social demands of recognition, and finding in the cultivation of apathy a method of navigating the everyday violence enacted on and against black bodies.

Velasquez-Potts offers a study of suspended bodily animation in the space of brutal confinement in “Staging Incapacitation: The Corporeal Politics of Hunger Striking.” Focusing on the continued hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay and the Irish death fast of 1981, Velasquez-Potts defines incapacitation as both a terrain of isolation and an embodied state of malnourishment, self-harm, and disciplinary harm. Telling the history of force-feeding and corporeal management wherein the carceral state forces prisoners to stay alive as a form of ongoing torture, the essay explores the ethical implications of the weaponization of life itself under the biopolitical regime. Here, the axiom, “making live and letting die,” takes its most violent form. In challenging this form of life management, Velasquez-Potts addresses how the refusal to eat by the incarcerated renders their bodies in a state of suspension between life and death, becoming a form of embodied protest in which doing nothing becomes the most threatening form of political engagement with the state.

Finally, the Ampersand section of this special issue offers a duet on sharing refusal. Tina Campt’s essay “Black Visuality and the Practice of Refusal” and Patricia Nguyen’s “Project 0395A.DC.: Performing Disorientation” intimately meditate on forms collective refusals within visual culture, academic life and artistic practice. Building a vocabulary through her delicate engagements with Arthur Jafa’s Apex (2014) and Luke Willis Thompson’s Autoportrait (2017), Campt asserts how black visuality emerges as a form of refusal through two key concepts: still moving images, suspended between either film or photography (and not within either) and their ability to release a phonic substance, the sound that dwells within that image. For Nguyen, refusal emerges through an aesthetic frame of disorientation, exemplified in the titular art installation by Ly Hoàng Ly. Moving away from a discourse of refugee subjectivity that focuses solely on fractured victimhood, Nguyen shows how disorientating audiences in performance works to interrupt a voyeuristic consumption of boat refugee narratives.

Taken together, the essays in this special issue aim to foster critical dialogue, or better yet, interior meditation, about the gestures of silence, of incommunicability and inoperativity, that can be read as ethical forms of refusal. Refusal asks us to reconsider the emotional, psychological, and embodied stakes of engagement—engaging in liberal state politics, engaging in representation, engaging in debate—because at the other end of that engagement for people of color, queer and trans bodies, is the punishment of excessiveness: we are too political, too sensitive, rude, loud, too argumentative. More succinctly, perhaps, we are often too much alive. Herein, we invite readers to dwell in the interior life of imperceptible addresses like sucking in one’s teeth, leaning a body to the side, refusing to eat, contemplating an image of one’s absence, or playing with a lie.


1. Our conception of fatigue certainly resonates with dance and performance theorist André Lepecki’s formulation that movement, particularly within dance studies, forges compulsive subjectivity. Thus, Lepecki asks us to re-imagine the political implications of stillness and non-movement (2006). In this issue, however, we showcase the draining ways that racialization and colonial capitalism live on and move through minoritarian subjects, and how accumulative fatigue arrests political resistance altogether.

2. While our genealogy of refusal here is focused on forms of racialized refusal in the face of racial capitalist violence, we do recognize the resonances with figures such as Henry David Thoreau’s conception of civil disobedience and the recent recuperation of Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener in the work of Gilles Deleuze (1997) and Giorgio Agamben (1999). Nevertheless, we do not deal with the political implications of those scholars given the particularity of the problem of racialization and political recognition we are dealing with here.

3. See Adeyemi's essay in this issue for a further engagement with Wynter's critique.

4. While we are not pursuing a strictly delimited field of “political action” such as that of the Habermasian “public sphere,” our sense of refusal as a practice takes as its ground Hannah Arendt’s (1998) definition of the political sphere where action is always a means toward particular ends. In contrast to this political sphere, defined by a means-ends dynamic that hinges on an identitarian politics, we could locate refusal with forms of ethical inaction, what Giorgio Agamben describes as a means without end (2000).

5. See, for example, the special issue on "Living Labor" in this journal (2017).


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Chambers-Letson, Joshua. 2016. “Performance’s Mode of Reproduction I: Searching for Danh Võ’s Mother.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 26 (2–3): 122–145.

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Notes on contributors

Lilian Mengesha is the Fletcher Foundation Assistant Professor of Dramatic Literature at Tufts University in the department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. Her research lives at the intersection of performance and affect theory and critical indigenous studies. Her writing has appeared in Canadian Theatre Review, TDR/The Drama Review and Latin American Theatre Review. She holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from Brown University.

Lakshmi Padmanabhan is currently a Research Fellow with the Dartmouth Society of Fellows and faculty in the department of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College. Her research interests are in the fields of experimental film and photography, queer feminisms, and postcolonial studies. Her writing has appeared in Post45, and New Review of Film and Television Studies, and is forthcoming in the anthology Locations/Dislocations: Transnational and Translocal Feminist Art, 1960–1979. She has contributed catalog essays and curated experimental film with BRIC Arts and SAWCC in New York, NY, Magic Lantern Cinema in Providence, RI and the Center for Contemporary South Asia, at Brown University. She received her PhD in Modern Culture and Media from Brown University.

Women & Performance