Donate Tickets

“Think of Us as Yourself”: Globalization, Neoliberalism, and the Politics of FEN

Rolling green hills with reeds; blue sky; trees; clouds; a short, squat cottage
“The Most Expensive Earth in England”: Wicken Fen, image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Caryl Churchill’s 1983 play, Fen, opens with an address to the audience by a Japanese businessman. He speaks to us as though we are interested investors in the “most expensive earth in England,” the Fens of East Anglia. The businessman tells us that this “efficient, flat land” belongs to a multinational corporation, which belongs to a land trust, whose ownership is shared among five other corporations. By addressing us as fellow transnationals, Churchill’s prologue positions the audience as dislocated participants in the movement of capital. We are not addressed as members of a nation or community, but of as members of a corporation within a chain of corporations. The Japanese businessman—who notably introduces himself as a member of the “Tokyo Company,” not a resident of Tokyo—articulates our shared allegiance with those “brave” and “far thinking men” who drained the Fens in 1630 despite radical opposition from the “fen people” who wanted to keep the fens and its natural resources “to live on.” While a prologue typically serves to establish the audience in both space and time, Churchill’s prologue instead delocalizes and detemporalizes our relationship to the Fens. In so doing, she delivers a sense of “space-time compression,” a noted effect of globalization and what is now referred to as neoliberalism. 1

While not yet aggregated under this term in 1983, neoliberalism is an economic policy whose popularity is attributed in large part to Thatcher and Regan. It entails the withdrawal of the state and the outsourcing of decision making to supposedly “neutral” forces and bodies, whether the free market— governed by the vague and abstract force of “competition”—or regulatory institutions like the IMF or World Bank, which presumably privilege the “market” over the agendas of nation-states. The agents of globalization are un-localized and obscure—the spread of the free market across the globe is often narrativized as the inevitable progress of history, not the consequence of decided actions by government officials, corporate bodies, or regulatory institutions. However, if power and influence is dizzyingly diffused under globalization, it is simultaneously hyper-concentrated in the individual. The individual, in this model, is fundamentally self-interested and competitive. Citizens under neoliberalism are, in words of Wendy Brown, “entrepreneurs in every aspect of life.”2

However, the terms of neoliberal subjectivity were not yet consolidated when Churchill was writing Fen. If liberal subjectivity takes up rational critical discourse as the cornerstone of political social life, neoliberal subjectivity locates citizenship in terms of strategically navigating capitalism to amplify one’s personal economic gain. In other words, while liberal democratic governance assumes that subjects negotiate their differing moral, economic, and political sensibilities through political debate, elections, and participation in the public sphere, neoliberalism subsumes all moral and political ideals under an economic one. Our moral and political behaviors should be calculated exclusively in accordance with the potential for economic gain. Or in the words of Fen’s Miss Cade, who visits Tewson’s farm to convince him to sell his land and become a tenant on his family’s farm: “Think of us as yourself.” Tewson, thus alleviated from his duty to “hold this land in trust for the nation,” and for fear of going “too far in the public responsibility direction” is freed to pursue is own self-interest: “No problem getting a new tractor then.” By telling Tewson to “think of us as yourself,” Miss Cade elides a sense of connection and belonging—think of us both as the same—with an appeal to act only for oneself and forget the “nation” or the “public”—there is no “us,” only a “you.” In other words, Miss Cade invites Tewson to join a neoliberal public that is not one—rather, it is only a disaggregated set of individuals acting alone.

Churchill masterfully navigates the wobbliness between a liberal democratic and neoliberal conception of individual agency during a time when the terms of the later were being negotiated in relation to the former. In the words of performance scholar Elin Diamond, Churchill delivers “what it feels like to live…at a time when multinational capital, not political debate, destabilizes the psychic and social frameworks of human connection.”3 We not only watch Tewson negotiate his allegiance to the nation versus his allegiance to himself; Churchill also parodies of the kind of discursive negotiation of a moral, political, and economic agenda that liberal democracy upholds (and neoliberalism collapses). Frank, a tenant farmer on Tewson’s land, appeals to Tewson to raise his wages. Frank leverages the threat of joining the union or leaving to work in a factory, while Tewson argues that he and Frank are friends, even family, seeing as his dad worked for his dad. However, what might be staged as a form of liberal debate—a negotiation of economic interests, moral obligation, and social belonging—is actually Frank having a conversation with himself. The imagined encounter ends with Frank getting so worked up he punches Tewson in the face, that is, “he hits himself.”

Fen reproduces its moment in history as one of unstable political identity—between being a national versus global citizen, an individualist entrepreneur versus a member of a public, an “us” versus a “you.”


Marissa Fenley is Harper-Schmidt Fellow Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS). She received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 2022, and has been teaching at the University of Chicago since that same year. Marissa’s current book project begins from a rather simple observation: puppets, with varying degrees of success, replicate people. As a predominantly anthropomorphic project, American puppetry in the 20th and 21st centuries borrows from various conceptions of what a person is in order to convincingly reproduce or renegotiate these dynamics through artificial, mechanized means. Marissa is also a puppeteer and her artistic work explores how puppetry assigns degrees of agency to objectified bodies and is especially interested in producing work that investigates power dynamics and their historical sedimentation.


Sources:

[1] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990).

[2] Wendy Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory & Event 7, no. 1 (2003).

[3] Elin Diamond, “Caryl Churchill: Feeling Global” in A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama, 1800-2005, ed. Mary Luckhurst (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006).

Posted on January 17, 2023 in Learning Guides, Productions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You have seat(s) on hold for:
20:00

Cancel

Forgot your password?