International Relations and Political Science
25 May 2021

How Trade Fairs Do Neoliberal Politics

In a chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Politics and Performance, Anna Leander, Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute, explores how trade fairs do politics and what the implications of this are. Trade fairs are a form of institutionalised liminality, but, contrary to Victor Turner’s understanding of institutionalised liminality as a space allowing for progressive polities, trade fairs institutionalise liminality to stabilise an order based on competition, innovation and change and that builds inegalitarian instability into our societies. This trade fair form has travelled well beyond the market to become core to contemporary neoliberal governance, argues Professor Leander in this interview.

What motivated you to work on trade fairs as spaces of political performance? 

As part of my recent research on commercial security, and on digital security markets specifically, I have been doing fieldwork in trade fairs. As I began visiting events in International Geneva, the many analogies struck me. I therefore decided to write something about this. It was an occasion to think through what it means, politically, when diplomatic events take trade-fair-like-forms. In the chapter I draw material mainly from the Future of Enterprise Technology fairs in London and Amsterdam and the AI for Good Summit organised by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) in Geneva.

What contributions does your chapter make to the literature on political performance? 

The chapter makes three core main contributions: it connects discussions around political performances to trade fairs, arguing that the trade fair form has travelled well beyond the market to become core to contemporary neoliberal governance (global and otherwise). Second, the chapter connects the trade fair form of political ordering to ritual performances, arguing that they operate as “tournaments of values” in which the values ordering politics are negotiated and stabilised.  Specifically, in the case of digital technologies, trade fairs negotiate and stabilise an order based on competition, innovation and change; an order that is never firm or fixed but located in the in-between or liminal. Finally, it connects this “institutionalization of liminality” through trade fairs to the entrenchment of a regressive politics. These three connections contribute by directing attention to sites, processes and outcomes that are marginal or overlooked in most works on political performance.

Based on your findings, what are some of the future avenues for liminality research on governance and neoliberalism?

Liminality (or the in-between) has been picked up in the analysis of politics largely because it is seen as an “antistructural breathing space” allowing for political improvisation and so political change. Its institutionalisation is associated with the foundation of progressive polities or communitas. These are anthropologist Victor Turner’s expressions and arguments, also used in the chapter. The chapter underscores the importance of questioning these assumptions about liminality in the contemporary context. It demonstrates the importance of probing the idea of the liminal in-between as a space where values, structures and hierarchies are less fixed and politics less prone to get stuck, stultifying, and unjust. This idea is pervasive in the contemporary context where we govern through markets, fetishise innovation, creativity and change, and so nurture “structural breathing spaces” and strive to “institutionalise” the liminal in-between. Focussing research in political science on exploring the politics of these assumptions seems exceedingly important to me. I see no need to restrict such research to “liminality” or to call it “liminality research”. Rather, following any of the many possible avenues open for exploring the political performances in and of the in-between seems important. Of course, such research is already ongoing and centrally contributing to explorations of governance through markets.

The edited book has been launched with an online panel discussion in which you were one of the panellists. Could you please briefly share with us your impression about the event?

The book launch well captured the important contribution this handbook makes in bringing together the study of performance and of politics from a wide range of perspectives, including centrally theatre studies and political science. I had not received the handbook before the event and so found myself discovering and learning from my co-contributors. There were many parallels and contrasts between their interventions and mine. Some presentations were political performances in their own right. Sruti Bala, for example, showed the centrality of interruption and interpellation (and the connection between them) in political performances. She drew on examples from a performance by an artist threatening to self-immolate on stage and astutely played with the many layers connecting interruption, interpellation and politics in this performance. She introduced her argument equipped not only with clips from the performance but also with various supporting props. To my amusement, her videoclip showed the artist taking off his designer shoe as if to protect it when threatening to self-immolate and so recalling the force and pervasiveness of markets in contemporary politics. Sruti’s ideas have interesting implications for my way of approaching political performance, for example in the context of trade fair. In the chapter, I discuss the affective and embodied enrolment of the visitors in trade fairs. Although I use examples of interruption, I do not delve on its politics. Listing to Sruti made me realise ways in which I could have. More generally, as the other presentations, Sruti’s was thought-provoking and indeed something to learn from. Overall, I left the launch inspired and encouraged to engage in the work ahead.

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Full citation of the chapter:
Leander, Anna. “The Politics of Neoliberal Rituals: Performing the Institutionalization of Liminality at Trade Fairs.” In The Oxford Handbook of Politics and Performance, edited by Shirin Rai, Milija Gluhovic, Silvija Jestrovic, and Michael Saward. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office. 
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by r.classen/