Survival of the sickest: On decadence, disease and the performing body

Alston, Adam. 2021. Survival of the sickest: On decadence, disease and the performing body. Volupté: Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies, 4(2), pp. 130-156. ISSN 2515-0073 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This article looks at how performances and performers embody multiple connotations of decadence and sickness. It addresses the discursive production of these connotations, how they work upon and flow between bodies (gendered, queer and ill), and how performers are seen, or choose, to embody metaphors of sickness and decadence in performance. It focuses on the collaborative work of Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose in the 1990s, and Rose’s collaborations with the British live artist Martin O’Brien in the 2010s, paying particular attention to their staging of queer and sadomasochistic desire as a basis for exploring Flanagan and O’Brien’s experiences of living with (and in Flanagan’s case dying from) cystic fibrosis. While informed by studies of illness metaphors by the philosopher Susan Sontag, and the literature scholar Barbara Spackman, I argue that an examination of political and cultural discourse over the course of the North-American culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s – especially in response to a controversy surrounding the work of performance artist Ron Athey – offers a more instructive context for understanding the conceptual proximity of decadence and sickness, and for studying the ‘sickness’ of performers and performances that right-wing critics claimed were contributing factors to societal and moral ‘decadence’. Moreover, Rose’s collaborations with Flanagan and O’Brien, itself the basis of a queerly decadent genealogy, continues to form a basis for reclaiming alienating and demeaning illness metaphors, going much further than Spackman’s analysis permits in recalibrating how a sick body relates to desires that escape majoritarian preferences. The article concludes with an invitation to recognise how metaphors of sickness elide with reductive notions of health and propriety, and to consider what it might mean to live by metaphors on terms that elude their punitive frames.

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Research for this article has been generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


decadence; live art; culture war; Ron Athey; Sheree Rose; Martin O'Brien; Bob Flanagan; cystic fibrosis; queer

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Theatre and Performance (TAP)


1 December 2021Accepted
22 December 2021Published

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13 Dec 2021 16:48

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23 Dec 2021 10:45

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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