The Shock and Awe of the Real: Abstract & Acknowledgements

My dissertation, The Shock and Awe of the Real: Political Performance and the War on Terror, has now been published here on ProQuest (library subsription required). Here is the abstract and acknowledgements. Please get in touch if you'd like to read it but can't access it.

The Shock and Awe of the Real: Political Performance and the War on Terror

Matt Jones

Doctor of Philosophy

Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies
University of Toronto


This dissertation offers a transnational study of theatre and performance that responded to the recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and beyond. Looking at work by artists primarily from Arab and Middle Eastern diasporas working in the US, UK, Canada, and Europe, the study examines how modes of performance in live art, documentary theatre, and participatory performance respond to and comment on the power imbalances, racial formations, and political injustices of these conflicts. Many of these performances are characterized by a deliberate blurring of the distinctions between performance and reality. This has meant that playwrights crafted scripts from the real words of soldiers instead of writing plays; performance artists harmed their real bodies, replicating the violence of war; actors performed in public space; and media artists used new technology to connect audiences to real warzones. This embrace of the real contrasts with postmodern suspicion of hyper-reality—which characterized much political performance in the 1990s—and marks a shift in understandings of the relationship between performance and the real. These strategies allowed artists to contend with the way that war today is also a multimedia attack on the way that reality is constructed and perceived. The dissertation traces the historical antecedents of these aesthetics in postmodern criticism of prior generations of political performance and shows how these artists struggled to discover new aesthetic strategies to criticize war, racism, and violence.

This project stretched across an unreasonable amount of time and completing it would not have been possible without the support of a great number of people.

First, I am deeply grateful to my dissertation committee. My supervisor, Barry Freeman, was level-headed, generous, and attuned to the importance of enjoying the process. From the very beginning, Barry showed great interest in the ideas I was developing and encouraged me to think of myself as a scholar and a professional, and that helped me get through the process. Thank you to Sara Salih for the many questions and to Antje Budde for her radical unpredictability. The project swerved in unexpected directions thanks to both of you. Thank you to Jen Harvie, my external reviewer, and Nikki Cesare-Schotzko, my internal reader and someone whose elliptical attitude to writing helped to temper my sometimes overly linear and encyclopedic ways of thinking.

Thank you to the faculty at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. Stephen Johnson was generous and supportive throughout the process and helped me find a platform for my next project. I’m grateful to Tamara Trojanowska for helping me set my sights on the goal by continually asking when we would have a glass of wine to celebrate completing the dissertation. Thank you to everyone whose courses I took, especially Barry, Tamara, Stephen, Nikki, Bruce Barton, Veronika Ambros, Martin Revermann, James Cahill, and the late John Astington. Thank you to Xing Fan and Jacob Gallagher-Ross for valuable professionalization advice. I learned a great deal working as a Teaching Assistant and dramaturg for Baņuta Rubess and Djanet Sears. I’m grateful to Rebecca Biason, Samiha Chowdhury, Colleen Osborn, Julie Philips, and the late Luella Massey for their support. I’m thankful to my students in Scarborough, on the St. George campus, and at the University of Windsor, especially the inspiring Grace Phan and Chelsea Dab-Hilke.

I was fortunate to be part of an excellent cohort of creative and hilarious people: thank you Jenn Cole, Catie Thompson, Jimena Ortuzar, Allison Leadley, Alex McLean, David Janson, Kelsy Vivash, and Michael Reinhart for going through this with me. Much of this writing emerged from writing groups I was involved in. Thank you to Ashley Williamson and Joel Rogers for organizing them. I also enjoyed writing alongside Catie, Allison, Marjan Moosavi, Isabel Stowell-Kaplan, Will Fysh, Johanna Lawrie, Julianne Doner, Dolon Chakravartty, Marie-Annick Prevost, and Jacquey Taucar. Thanks also to my various reading circles, especially Greg Cook, Jesse Gutman, Mae J. Nam, Meryl Borato, Sean Mills, and Octavie Bellavance. I learned a lot about academic writing by teaching it at the Graduate Centre for Academic Communication. Thank you to Jane Freeman, Rachael Cayley, Peter Grav, Lauren Pais, and Tina Nair for your collegiality. Thanks to everyone at the Graduate Conflict Resolution Centre, especially Heather McGhee-Peggs, Rebecca Hazell, Jesse Adigwe, Priyanka Manohar, Margeaux Feldman, Terence Lai, Sam Filipenko, Kimberley Todd, and Tony Luong for helping me develop skills in both empathy and racquet sports. Thanks to Seika Boye for recruiting me to act as an undergraduate mentor. Thank you to everyone who was involved in the epic project that was my Death Clowns in Guantanamo Bay show, especially Natalia Esling, Myrto Koumarianos, Christine Mazumdar, Leslie Robertson, Laura Lucci, Annie Crowley, Gina Brintnell, Paul Stoesser, Alain Richer, Allison, Johanna, Ashley, Catie, Isabel, Jenn, and the clown minstrels. Thanks to everyone who worked on ASMRtist, especially Sarah Marchand and Chelsea. Thank you to Mohammad Yaghoubi, Aida Keykhaii for introducing me to A Moment of Silence. Thanks, Jenn, for making me Wolfboy and Nikki for imagining me as Buckminster Fuller playing a an out-of-control Baron. 

Thanks to everyone who made comments on this material at conferences, much of which set my thinking on new courses, especially Patricia Ybarra, Rustom Bharucha, Jenn Stephenson, Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta, and Laura Levin. Thank you to Natalie Alvarez for drafting me into the unexpected role of police trainer and giving me new angles from which to think about war and performance. I’m grateful to those who acted as mentor to me at conferences, especially Ric Knowles, Gwyneth Shanks, and Amy Cook. Thank you Frederik Byrn Køhlert for the feasts, the Chromecast parties, and for shadow editing many things I wrote.

To all my friends and family who supported me through this long process, I am deeply grateful for your love and hilarity.

To my mugole, Jacquie Kiggundu, writing was never a solitary endeavour when you were around. Thank you for sticking through it with me.

This project was a much more modest and conservative one when it began, but my thinking was continually opened up and, frankly, revolutionized by my encounters with all of the people above. What is more, I am forever indebted to the artists and activists whose work I have written about. To all those who struggle against war, terror, and racism, you are teaching us to imagine a better world.

This research was supported by scholarships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program, and the University of Toronto.


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