Paradigm Shifts

As per what seems to be a pervasive theater conservatory sentiment, I was loosely taught (and this is a pseudo-formal attempt to communicate this sentiment) that theater’s ultimate contribution to society was the catalysis of “paradigm shifts,” brought about through onstage illustrations/representations/re-behavior of human actions, which would then provide society with demonstrations of the implications of human behaviors and attitudes, a kind of “post-active” illustration, which could either warn or condone certain behaviors/actions and provide examples for some kind of emotional/ontological analysis both on an individual audience member level and on some kind of vague socio-political (or at least critical) level.

But what is a ‘paradigm’ really, for theater artists? In fact, what is a ‘paradigm’ in general? In the 1900’s a paradigm was simply a grammatical element, describing a parable meant to illustrate a concept, or a particularly apt model. After Saussure, to contemporary linguists and epistemologists everywhere, a “paradigm” became any coherent, systemic thought pattern or theory, usually (but not always) within a particular field of inquiry. Merriam Webster circa 2010 maintains the more discipline-limited definition: “A philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated.”

This latter definition is closer to the way that Thomas Kuhn used the term “paradigm shift,” after coining the phrase in 1962. Kuhn used the term paradigm to refer to the set of practices that define a scientific discipline at any particular period, with a paradigm shift inherently involving revolution of the PRACTICE of scientists in that discipline. For Kuhn, the term describes scientific discoveries or assertions that revolutionize ruling scientific theory ever after. The first observance/isolation of a DNA molecule for example would be an example of a paradigm-shifting event. For Kuhn, paradigms are processes, or sets methods used by scientists working in a specific field, and to shift them is to change theoretical, conceptual, and experimental (active) processes.

Similarly, in the academic humanities world, adjusting the “paradigm” (which is alarmingly used as a synonym for “framework”) around a concept, i.e. altering the vocabulary referring to the concept thereby enhancing certain aspects of it over others, tying in other concepts and forms of logic and analysis from other fields, cultures, and individual experiences, and shifting the concept’s usage become the core of the action “shifting paradigms.” In the humanities and subsequently in the arts, the term was adopted to deal with revolutionary ideas, especially those of Deconstructive theory which insisted on new considerations. Marxist analysis, post-colonial analysis, Feminist analysis, etc etc also insist on ways of seeing, as stances or “frameworks” competing for the power and authority to Shift the Paradigm.

It seems to me that in theater we are faced with a definitive choice regarding the idea of “paradigm shift.”

1.) We can insist that “paradigm” is a concept that can be applied to society as a whole, as methodology for completely generalized being, in other words we can define “paradigm” as a process or method for living used by the largest field of all, living itself. If we use this definition, we can argue that theater is essentially “paradigm shifting” as a medium, as the theater is a “seeing place” and “theory” means way of seeing, therefore each theater piece is a way of seeing that could forever alter the way humans behave or conceive something. Finally, following this train of thought, we could, in the creation of our ‘ways of seeing’ attempt to practice honed ontological experiments that would make it more likely for us to discover DNA-equivalents regarding Being itself.

2.) On the other hand we could insist that “paradigm” can only be applied to the theater makers’ practices, in the way that Kuhn applied the concept to the methods of scientists in a certain discipline. Within this definition, we would need to assume that theater is already an inherent part of being, the same way science is, and that our methods must simply evolve (or progress, though I personally can’t support any conception of “progress” as such) to dig further into our realms of research (which may be more varied than performative ontology) and develop new experiments using new tools (the theater’s version of the Large Hadron Collider?) in order to discover we know not what (yet).

I am very interested to hear if anyone has examples of theater processes and/or theater works which “shifted a paradigm”…perhaps the beginning of devised theater? Do inventions from ‘other’ disciplines count, such as film? Does the interdisciplinary nature of theater make the second definition of this concept less applicable? Do you intend to “shift paradigms” and if so, what does this mean to you?


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