Performance and Labor in the Contemporary World

deadline for submissions: 
January 1, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Duke University Department of Cultural Anthropology

Call for Papers

Graduate Student Conference Spring 2018

Performance and Labor in the Contemporary World 

March 30 – 31, 2018

Duke University Department of Cultural Anthropology

Keynote address: Prof. Louise Meintjes, Department of Cultural Anthropology and Music at Duke University


When football quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, took a knee during the national anthem, his intention was not to disrupt the NFL’s economic flow, as one might during a players’ strike. Instead, Kaepernick used the power of spectacle and his status as a cultural performer to foster a public debate on racism in the USA. Performance – sports, music, dance, yoga, porn, sex-work, martial arts, theater, cinema, television – bring together aesthetics and labor in a specific way. While performance uses embodied and participatory modes of enactment to reinforce or transform societal norms, laborers, too, often invoke performative strategies to develop new modes of recognition. Workers may stage dramatic performances to disrupt economic flows, by striking, or, more subtly, develop strategies to subtly resist alienating and dehumanizing forms of labor (for example: Office Olympics, bar tenders dancing, etc.). On the flip side, labor control mechanisms increasingly rely on notions like performance. For this conference, we welcome papers that address the ways in which performance and labor inform, interact, and address each other’s inseparability.

Aesthetic performances, having been shaped by entrepreneurs as markets of their own, involve ordinary capitalist relations of labor, competition and precarity. While some performance markets are publicly associated with the top talents of the competitive pyramid who often become mediatized celebrities, each sector of the culture industry relies on an invisible mass of skilled and unskilled workers. Concepts like talent, genius or creativity shape contested hierarchies within this workforce and nurture ideologies about the performer’s unalienated oneness with his/her labor power. By focusing on the performer-persona, top talents in mass cultural sectors occasionally gain so much wealth and recognition that this obscures the structural fact these industries, too, harbor a tension between labor power and the laborer’s persona. Finally, cultural performance economies often derive most of their talent from unprivileged strata of society or from globally subordinated countries, creating a source of class, gender, and racial anxiety and celebration.

Additionally, this conference will allow a space for us to think about the flip-side of labor as performance – that is, the performance of labor. Non-spectacular service sectors demand labor to be continuously executed in a performance-like manner, aesthetically, playfully, emotionally, affectively etc., precisely in the zones of our capitalist world where leisure time and consumption, as well as the share of service economy, have most expanded. We hope to engage with new ideas that consider the inseparability of laboring and performing, which some theorists think might be paradigmatic of the increasingly non-industrial workforce employed in post-industrial nodes of global capitalism.

We invite an interdisciplinary range of papers from ethnographic, historical, or theoretical backgrounds that focus on questions of labor and performance, aesthetic production and economy, in an effort to cross-fertilize disciplines and topics.

Possible ideas, but not limited to the following, include:

-       Ethnographic papers contributing to labor dynamics surrounding sports, music, dance, yoga, porn, sex-work, martial arts, theater, cinema, television, and similar fields  

-       Gender, race, sexuality, class and labor in the culture industry

-       Labor and the body (injury, aging, beauty, talent)

-       Artisanal labor

-       Globalization of local practices and diffusion of dominant forms of performance 

-       Professionalization of performance

-       Performance and the aestheticization of labor

-       Affective Labor

-       Critical insights into concepts of talent, creativity, genius, gifted-ness, etc.

-       The labor of writing about/documenting performance

-       Labor surrounding the production of spectacle

-       Alienation, labor, and performance

Interested graduate students are required to send an abstract (max. 300 words) for a 15-minute presentation along with a short CV (max. 2 pages).

The deadline for submission is January 1, 2018. Please email abstracts to


Selected applicants will be notified by January 15, 2018.


Limited grants are available to assist presenters with travel, room, and board. Please mention in your application if you wish to be considered for a travel bursary, and if your participation is contingent upon receiving one. For further information:


Conference Organizers: Can Evren ( & Hannah Borenstein (

Conference Website: