SVRN Blog 3 – What’s Your Role? Considering Issues of Human Value in Social Theatre, by Dr Jo Shah

In this third blog post for the SVRN, Dr Jo Shah, from the Social Performance Network, discusses identity classifications and interactions with state power. Jo is presenting at the ‘From the State to the Streets’ conference, being held between April 10th to 12th. For info on how to register for the conference, and how to submit a blog yourself, see the links at the end of the post.


Is all life valuable? The obvious answer would be ‘yes’. The binary mass media narratives around us would suggest otherwise. In the context of an increasingly globalised social world one would expect binary media constructions to have given way to the type of nuance associated with multiple perspectives and worldviews (?) However, the actuality of our social world, if measured by its coverage in mass media, indicates an increasingly singular globalised vision of politics, citizenship, and justice. It also appears that resistances to such narratives are met with a demonising and caricaturing mode of news coverage.

A form of ‘social theatre’ where individuals are reduced to characterisations in a linear, classic Hollywood-esque narrative that appears to never end, let alone in a ‘happy ending’ where all the lose ends are tied up and the hero (usually a heteronormative white man) saves the day. To understand how this may play out in our everyday lives, one only has to see the coverage we consciously and subconsciously consume on a daily basis in relation to politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, Vladamir Putin, and Donald Trump, where a political world is painted which features ‘goodies’, ‘baddies’, and the ‘unhinged’.

When extended to the social world, this is a narrative which can be defined simply as:

Right versus Left …

White versus Black …

Britain (the state) versus ?

(Scotland? Ireland? Europe? Iraq? Black Youth? Windrush Migrants? The Poor? The Homeless? Muslims? Working Class?)

Man versus Womxn …

Muslim versus ‘infidel’ and so on…

Furthermore, narratives such as these can lead to another binary shift, reducing our social selves to roles of ‘activist’, ‘oppressor’, or the ‘oppressed’. But how do we break these ties to realise our personal rights and freedoms? How do we escape the oppression of a state, which does not recognise our worth if we do not belong to the acceptable ‘prototype’ classification in which we appear to be awarded a ‘place’ in society according to hierarchical systems as suggested by Gramsci, Bourdieu, Foucault and Chomsky; broadly speaking, one where state wide power dynamics determine individual agency and social worth.

Exploring this point through the narrative lens of the relationship between the police and Black communities in British contexts, it is possible to extend this question to the social worth of Black life and begin understanding why movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the US have been so necessary.

In 2018, an article featured in The Conversation called for a UK Black Lives Matters movement in response to the on-going police brutalising of Black communities in Britain. Underpinning this call with the types of conversations occurring in the mass media at the time, this article is hardly surprising. For instance, in May 2018, the BBC reported that the ‘Metropolitan police were four times more likely to use force against black people compared with the white population’. While in October of the same year, the Guardian reported that the Met police’s use of force had increased by 79% in just a year.

If this is the situation in 2018, then one is left to question the authenticity of the social progress and the lack of nuance in these narratives. Is it merely a case that we have become enactors of cultural hegemony and to consciously challenge such consciousness is to challenge our very social existence? Can we change the narratives and become the directors of our own stories? And if so, do we have the strength and resilience to do this (especially if we belong to the groups on the outside of homogenised social norms)?

This piece has posed more questions than provided answers because there is no singular solution to the problem. The social world has become increasingly surreal as we live in a society where human life is increasingly commoditised based on its so-called social value. A famous pop singer commenting on the sizing of a Royal wedding dress will incite more headlines than a person belonging to one of the 440 homeless dying on the street.

So perhaps it is time that we adopt an activism that extends the philosophy of being ‘woke’ to broader social spectrums? It is with this in mind that I established the Social Performance Network at the end of last year. The idea is to facilitate and open up conversations that enable broader awareness of our social world and how we are positioned within our communities of practice and interactions. To begin questioning, interrogating, and reframing towards a state of being ‘woke’. In April I will be contributing an oral paper entitled ‘Arab Riots, London Spring’ at the State Violence Research Network Conference. The paper will explore the representations of state violence in British television news, using examples from the so-called ‘London riots’ and ‘Arab spring’. Join us if you can!


Registration for the SVRN’s inaugural conference, ‘From the State to the Streets: Representations of and Responses to State Violence in the Nuclear Age’, is now open. To register, please click here. To see the provisional programme, please click here.

If you are interested in submitting to the SVRN blog, please click here for more information.

The opinions and viewpoints contained in this blog post are not necessarily shared by the State Violence Research Network, and publication should not be considered an endorsement.

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