Between Myth and Memory: Contemporary Politics and the Performance of History

An interdisciplinary one-day symposium
Thursday 25th April 2019

Book Now

Keynote: Dr. Sophie Nield (Royal Holloway, University of London)

The practices that make up the performances of contemporary politics stand in complex tension with the past. Efforts to locate the roots of present-day democracy in the Athenian city-state might negate historicity in favour of myth (Ridout 2008). On the other hand, shared myths of democratic community might serve concrete purposes, upholding norms of behaviour and modes of thought not encoded in the law. The rise of radical right-wing populism, for instance, has raised alarm over the erosion of traditions of political behaviour (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). This has put the political left in an intriguing quandary: caught between the desire to challenge myths of Western democracy and the championing of a small-c conservatism that staves off the ongoing wreckage of a flawed but still valued political culture.

Conversely, an ahistorical perspective might assume not only that present political practice is unproblematically linked to the ancient polis, but also that the present marks a radical break with the past. One might think here of Fredrick Jameson’s (1996) position that, in postmodernity, ‘time consists in an eternal present’ and deferred catastrophe. Or one might think of social science scholars, who tend to assume that mediatisation has made the performative features of politics worthy of study in the contemporary moment, as local communities of active citizens have been turned into global audiences that are performed to (Manin 1997; Moffitt 2016). Performance, then, is seen as a new problem, as particularly, perhaps even exclusively, relevant to the now.

As part of the University of Surrey’s new Centre for Performance and Urban Living (dir. Patrick Duggan), this symposium aims to challenge views that posit the performances of contemporary politics as apparently ahistorical practices. To what extend does our ability to imagine alternative futures depend on our memory of partial, resistant, but also temporally and spatially specific upheavals of the structures of social and political life (Nield 2006, 2015)? What might be gained if we consider the process and potential value of how shared myths become embedded in political communities? And how can we interrogate the ways in which the theatre of politics perpetuates, modifies, and obfuscates its own connections to and our memories of the historically or mythologically conceived past?

See full programme and abstracts and bios

Registration fee is £20 for those with institutional affiliation and £5 for unaffiliated/postgraduate researchers.

Register Now. The symposium will include lunch, coffee, and a wine reception.


Jameson, F. 1996. The Seeds of Time. NY: Columbia UP.

Levitsky, S., and D. Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die: What History Reveals about Our Future. NY: Crown.

Manin, B. 1997. Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Moffitt, B. 2016. The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Nield, S. 2015. ‘Tahrir Square EC4M: The Occupy Movement and the Dramaturgy of Public Order.’ The Grammar of Politics and Performance, ed. S. M. Rai and J. Reinelt. London: Routledge, 121-133.

——. 2006. ‘There Is Another World: Space, Theatre and Global Anti-Capitalism.’ Contemporary Theatre Review 16.1: 51-61.

Ridout, N. 2008. ‘Performance and Democracy.’ The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies, ed. T. C. Davis. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 11-22

Between Myth and Memory: Contemporary Politics and the Performance of History