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Dr Marcus Morgan
University of Bristol
Research Fellowship

Performing power

In the first in-depth study of its kind, Marcus Morgan draws together disparate research to construct an original, synthetic and integrated model of how performance influences power

King George and Queen Mary, in full regalia, at the Delhi Dunbar in 1911.
‘Their Imperial Majesties Before the People’ 
King George and Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar, 1911. The Historical Record of the Imperial Visit to India 1911 (John Murray, 1914).

When Colston’s statue was thrown into the water like so many victims of the Middle Passage, what was it about this spectacular public performance that exceeded years of ineffectual petitions to have the slaver’s icon removed? What was it that animated Trump’s supporters to answer, in pantomime fashion, his rhetorical question of ‘who’s going to pay for the wall?’ during his successful 2016 campaign? Why, indeed, do those seeking power bother to appear in front of crowds, when they could simply itemise their positions on paper? What is it, in other words, that is conveyed in an embodied performance that is absent in a written script? My Research Fellowship aims to develop a novel and synthetic sociological model of how performance influences power. 

I will ask why we need a political sociology that takes performance – understood as ‘symbolic action’ – seriously, suggesting that in power struggles, appearance often matters most, and that appearance is in large part achieved through performance. 

Tracing the history of performance from ancient ritual to modern theatre, I will question whether performance is best applied to political acts as a metaphor, or as a direct means through which power is produced and reproduced. I will also explore various sociological conceptions of power – its ‘faces’, ‘sources’ and ‘dimensions’ – asking whether it is a repressive or productive force, a manifest act or a latent capacity. I will stress the crucial role of emotion in motivating political action, and investigate how, as Aristotle noted, performance can function to evoke and ‘purge’ an audience’s emotions (katharsis). 

I have researched the relationship between performance and power through historical and contemporary cases including campus feuds, the Black Consciousness Movement under apartheid, the recent global upsurge of political ‘populism’, the 2017 UK General Election, and recent government responses to the COVID-19 crisis. I intend to expand my range of cases for this project to include the Nuremberg Rallies, televised presidential debates and carefully choreographed terror attacks.

The overall aim will be to show how the success of many political developments has relied upon the ability of individual and collective actors to evoke stylised, rousing, and often iconic public performances, just as the failure of many others has been attributed to their lack of engaging drama. The model developed will, I hope, provide a tool for future empirical studies of the relationship between the aesthetics of performance and the instrumental realm of power.

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