In a world where heritage, culture, creativity, and the capacity to imagine are themselves commodified and sold under the banner of neoliberal freedom, (how) can art be harnessed for anti-capitalist agendas? At a time when scholars along all points of the political spectrum seem to agree that expressing their creativity is good for oppressed groups, whether because creativity makes them entrepreneurial or because creativity is an inherent challenge to capitalism, Dia Da Costa offers a refreshingly nuanced perspective on the dangers that creative economy discourses pose for radical activism. In Politicizing Creative Economy: Activism and a Hunger Called Theater (U Illinois Press, 2016)--her multisited ethnography focusing on two activist theater troupes in the Indian cities of Delhi and Ahmedabad--Da Costa shows how these ‘theaters of the oppressed’ exist alongside, fall prey to, re-appropriate, and jostle with capitalist discourses and definitions of ‘creative economy’ which seek to contain and tame the cultural production of oppressed groups.
The first troupe Da Costa discusses is the Jan Natya Manch, a Communist-affiliated theater group consisting mainly of middle-class activists who valorize Delhi’s (factory) working-class albeit in a rapidly deindustrializing city, and offer a disenchanted, secular critique of Hindu nationalism albeit in a deeply religious milieu. The second troupe featured is Ahmedabad’s Budhan Theater, run by the lowly and criminalized Chhara caste who hope that through theater they can craft respectable livelihoods and achieve inclusion as citizens while at the same time critiquing the violences of the Indian capitalist state.
By analyzing the possibilities and shortcomings inherent in both troupes’ practices and political approaches, Da Costa shows how carefully and critically studying the diversity of left politics is an important part of building solidarities which can ultimately resist fascist neoliberalism. Da Costa also shows how attending to the politics of affect and emotion can help create successful social mobilization; rather than simply lamenting how oppressed people don’t rise up, attention to affective politics helps us shape forms of activism which actually speak to people’s lives, hopes, and hungers. This book will be of interest to activists, radical educators, and scholars in fields ranging from feminist affect theory to development studies.
Aparna Gopalan is a Ph.D. student in Social Anthropology at Harvard University. Her research focuses on how managing surplus populations and tapping into fortunes at the “bottom-of-the-pyramid” are twin-logics that undergird poverty alleviation projects in rural Rajasthan.
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