James M. Harding is the author of The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s): Exorcising Experimental Theatre and Performance (Michigan, 2013), Cutting Performances: Collage Events, Feminist Artists and the American Avant-Garde (Michigan, 2010), and Adorno and "A Writing of the Ruins": Essays on Modern Aesthetics and Anglo-American Literature and Culture (SUNY, 1997). He is an internationally known scholar whose work focuses on the history of experimental theatre, on post-9/11 theatre and performance, on the intersection of surveillance and performance, and on performance studies more generally. His articles have appeared in TDR, Performance International, Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, Modern Drama, and PMLA. His anthology (co-edited with Cindy Rosenthal) entitled Center-Staging the Sixties: Mainstream and Popular Performance in a Turbulent Decade will be published in early 2017 by the University of Michigan Press, and his new monograph, entitled Performance, Transparency and the Cultures of Surveillance, is currently under review at Michigan as well.
Historically, “the pale” marked political boundaries, and “beyond the pale” was a dangerous frontier where life itself was threatened by a journey into it. Echoing that historical sensibility, the conceptual frame for my project is a focus on moments in extremis, i.e. at the point of death, where the threat of mortal harm is discounted against the pursuit of ostensibly higher objectives and goals. Specifically, the project examines paradigmatic acts of political activism (from the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s) that are marked by a combination of a profound commitment to non-violence, a disregard in extremis of one’s own bodily integrity and safety, and a keen sense of the power of the performative dimensions of public activism. If these acts move “beyond the pale,” they do so, I argue, because the combination of their commitments not only courts the spiritual discourses of sacrifice and martyrdom, but also does so in ways that border on both political and spiritual heresy, i.e. in ways that might legitimately be described as apocryphal or gnostic, or that, more simply put, are “beyond the pale” of orthodox political and spiritual practices. At one level, then, the project explores an international collection of seemingly courageous yet deeply troubling moments of activism that defy conventional notions of acceptable risk and permissible means and that thereby approach what we might describe as a problematic transcendent significance.