Performing Refusal/Refusing
To Perform

This call for papers is closed. Please check back for our next call or submit an article.

Guest Editors:

Lilian Mengesha, PhD Candidate, Theater Arts and Performance Studies, Brown University
Lakshmi Padmanabhan, PhD Candidate, Modern Culture and Media, Brown University


“No to spectacle, no to virtuosity” are the first lines of “No Manifesto,” a vision for avant-garde dance that artist Yvonne Rainer authored in 1965. The radical refusal to perform articulated in her manifesto and in the history of minoritarian performance art has taken a multitude of forms, from Adrian Piper’s refusal to exhibit work as part of a show of contemporary black artists in 2013, to the ongoing performance repertoire of William Pope L., an artist who reconceptualizes abjection and refusal as collective social acts. Refusal also underpins contemporary populist critiques of the violence of the state: in fall of 2016, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) organized a national strike by prisoners across the U.S., while water protectors at the Standing Rock camp halted the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Here, forms of bodily inaction (the refusal to work, the refusal to leave) become forms of political action. For this special issue, we invite theorizations of refusing to perform with two inflections: one is an exterior positioning of the body as a blockade, or a standstill against the state, while the other is a turn to the interiority of the self to understand the often imperceptible and illegible forms of self-care and survival that refusing allows. These two forms of living invite a number of case studies about performing refusal––invitations that meditate on the shadow beyond the spotlight of spectacle or listen in the quiet spaces of absence.

This special issue builds on recent work in critical indigenous studies, critical ethnic studies, black studies, and postcolonial studies that have turned to such instances of refusal as modes of living. Distinct from its occasional cognate, “resistance,” we follow conceptions of refusal articulated by Audra Simpson (2014) as “a willful distancing from state-driven forms of recognition and sociability” (16), as well as what Kevin Quashie (2012) calls an inner life of blackness beyond the “subjectivity whose expressiveness is demonstrative and resistant” (23). These contemporary debates are indebted to women of color feminist and postcolonial critiques of the labor of difference. In 1975, at a lecture at Portland State University, Toni Morrison diagnosed racism as such: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Rey Chow expanded on this observation to articulate the functioning of liberal multiculturalism as a structure of violent exclusion that functions through the production and management of minoritarian bodies that must bear the labor of protesting their material conditions. Chow’s protesting ethnic and Morrison’s diagnosis of racism illustrate the overdetermination of minoritarian subjects within white liberal society, where assimilation into a system that is built on exclusion only occurs through a framework of resistance. “To be ethnic is to protest,” Chow (2002) observes, giving rise to a phenomenon that has been described as “racial battle fatigue”: the exhaustion that emerges from undertaking the work of assimilation into the racial logics of institutions, as well as the burden of defending the value of difference (48).

In this same speech, Morrison reminds us that “there will always be one more thing” demanded of minoritarian bodies. What forms of action exist outside the realm of the legible? This call aims to foster critical dialogue about the gestures of silence, of incommunicability and inoperativity, that can be read as political and ethical forms of refusal. Generative to these contemporary arguments are Edouard Glissant’s (2010) project of opacity as the work of freedom, and solidarity as a form of relation that does not demand understanding (189). Related to this question of illegibility are the futures offered by the genealogy of autonomist Marxism which takes seriously the necessity today to conceive of transnational networks of solidarity against global capitalist exploitation. Yet, in insisting on imagining collectivity independent of technologies of racialization and colonialism, autonomist Marxism often ignores markers of bodily difference, such as race, gender and sexuality, that are the basis of collective relations. In focusing on performing refusal, this issue centers these efforts of collectivity with/in bodily performances of difference, relations that are formed through shared strategies of survival.

We invite academics, activists, artists, and people new to Women & Performance to submit. We are particularly interested in papers that bring together arguments from theoretical discourses that are adjacent but not often intersecting, including postcolonial studies, dance studies, critical indigenous studies, black studies, and feminist anti-work politics.

Topics may include but are not limited to:

  • Forms of public interruption of the machinery of governance: squatting, blockades, halting traffic
  • Debt strikes and worker noncompliance
  • “Stand your ground” laws as racialized codes of one’s “right to be”
  • Aesthetics and poetics of illegibility and inscrutability
  • Distanciation in performance techniques by both audience and performers
  • Slow cinemas and durational performances of quiet/silence
  • Durational/enduring performances of resilience and body art
  • Performances of the self and self-care as strategies of refusal
  • Autonomist and post-Fordist feminisms and anti-work politics
  • Anti-colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial approaches as histories of refusal

All submissions to Performing Refusal/Refusing To Perform should be submitted to:

For additional submission guidelines please click here

Chow, Rey. 2002. The Protestant Ethnic & The Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Glissant, Édouard. 2010. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.
Quashie, Kevin. 2012. The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 

Lilian Mengesha researches performance practices that challenge colonial and settler-colonial histories. She is a PhD candidate in Theater Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University and during the 2016-2017 year, she was a visiting scholar in the Literature section at MIT. Her dissertation project, which profiles Latinx, mestiza, and indigenous women artists from North and Central America, examines the role of affect in performances about legacies of dispossession. Her writing has appeared in emisférica, Women & Performance, and TDR.

Lakshmi Padmanabhan is a doctoral candidate and Cogut Humanities fellow in the Modern Culture and Media department at Brown University, where she is also pursuing an A.M. in History. Her work lies at the intersections of postcolonial studies, global feminisms, and contemporary visual and performance studies. Her dissertation traces the aesthetic and ethical genealogies of civil disobedience and third world feminism through contemporary avant-garde film and photography from South Asia. Her writing has appeared in Women & Performance and Slumdog Phenomenon: A Critical Anthology.