Every so often, there’s a book that states something so crucial so clearly that I am flooded with a desire to make everyone read it. Natalie Crohn Schmitt’s book Actors and Onlookers: Theater and Twentieth-Century Scientific Views of Nature is such a book. I read it a while ago as a companion to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and picked it up again this month to mix some of Crohn Schmitt’s clear synthesis into PPL’s creation of an opera about the concept of “nature” as a “fetish,” in the cultural anthropology sense (more on that in a moment) for 2012 called NATURE FETISH. I just finished a draft of the libretto for this project.
Crohn Schmitt’s (in her title and throughout the book) idea of “nature” captures current conceptions of nature in the arts and humanities, as constructed by postcolonial, queer, postmodern, and other frameworks and modes of analysis extremely concisely. For Crohn Schmitt as for Gananath Obeysekere, Judith Butler, Jean Baudrillard, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (and many others from additionally various fields and schools of thought), the concept of “nature” is a description of human projection of empiric “reality” as well as a construct itself (for biological systems, etc). In theater, nature is the supposedly empiric reality that theater is to represent (mirror, etc) for various (Greek/moral/analytic/Hamlet) reasons. Crohn Schmitt is one of several performance theorists (focusing on theater) who points out that the Aristotelian worldview of nature, in fact the view that there IS such a thing as a single, empiric “nature,” is no longer the relevant view held by science, philosophy, history, or any other field in the humanities, or even by individuals living and thinking along in everyday life, thus it can be a very poor paradigm for theater work, especially for “performance theater,” which is event based rather than mimetic, or script-based theater (another essay and part of that whole performance art vs. theater debate).
Rejections of empiric reality have long been the tasks of humanist, postcolonial, and phenomenologist (and other) thinkers, perhaps as part of the “skepticism towards metanarratives” that Fredric Jameson writes is a fundamental part of the “dominant cultural logic of late capitalism.” Regardless, the movement away from a search for empiric truth and reality is the epistemic shift that has most influenced the modes of production carried out by theater artists in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Towards this thesis, Crohn Schmitt proceeds to compare and contrast the theory and work of John Cage with Aristotle’s Poetics which may bore some musicology lovers and composers (you know who you are) but influenced me a lot as a theater artist when I read it, especially her well-argued opposition to the designation of Cage as an “anti-artist” as he follows in Aristotelian footsteps in his attempts to express, mirror, represent, and describe nature, with the simple (yet insurmountable) difference that his conceptions of nature are postmodern, rather than empiric; Cage’s work mirrors a chaotic, subjective nature, sometimes entirely constructed by the audience, the moment, and/or the context of the work.
Subjectivity, more specifically subjective formalism, has long been the point of entry for artists into expression of a post-Aristotelian worldview as contemporary physics state generally that the relationship between subject and object form the core of the problem of knowledge, and of Being itself. Thus, the mode in which the “postmodern” theater finds a home is an ontological one; ideas that literally shift relationship between a being (a subjective audience member say) and a “thing” (a conception about nature, say) have, in the last 100 years, shaken human modes of ordinary thought. This often aligns all too easily with economically and politically influenced trends towards radical individualism and the construction of many subjective realities that are often (ironically?) built out of products, objects, and consumption-based lifestyle choices rather than perceived patterns in relation with the self. This latter alignment concerns me more than it does Crohn Schmitt, I’m not sure she’s as ardently influenced by Marxist theory as I am, she tends to leave the political implications of artistic modes out of the picture. Yet, her analysis is so straightforward that it can be extended and applied in these areas. She writes that what we (still) consider new theater, the type still seen as avant-garde, or experimental (even though this attempt/experiment/action/event has been made since the mid 1950’s with Pinter‘s text-based work and following and into the performance theater of the 1960’s with Schechner, the Wooster Group, Maxwell et canonical avant-garde all), seeks to rupture (via event, see Alain Badiou) empiric modes of ordinary thought, promoting evaluation of the relationship between subject and object. For Cage, this meant re-assigning the role of any structuralizing/constructing elements (distribution of the sensible) to chance, the audience, etc, thereby undermining the authority of existing modes of perception. It is a difficult mode, in the past few years I think most concisely answered by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma in their works such as No Dice,and Poetics: A Ballet Brut, both strongly influenced by Cage. For my generation of theater artists (under 30), this deconstructive intention (pioneered by Richard Foreman, Schechner, LeCompte, and many others) is often diluted into one of general disassociation, disruption, and nonsensicality/informality that poses as (simulates) a de-hierarchized/democratized form. Despite, or perhaps because of the power of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s work (and other companies and artists working similarly, mostly outside the U.S.) I feel a need to become critical of these ideas, so that I may remove myself emotionally from my devotion to them and begin to determine how to take another step (please ignore this reliance on a progress-based figure of speech), or evolve along with and inside human modes of ordinary thought.
To this end, I’ve just finished the first draft of a libretto for an opera performance dedicated to these ideas, in summation, modes of ordinary thought about nature, natural modes of performance, and projections of nature. The concept of “fetish” is closest I think to containing/expressing all of these threads. A fetish is an object, idea, or being onto which human desires, beliefs, and values are projected, or “objects/beings/ideas” etc that are entirely comprised from these. Subject-object relationships (between projector and the projected) thus forms the first task of consciousness, the problem of knowledge. Concretely, in the theater, this problem forces us to ask, if reality is all a projection, where do individuals actually get the conceptions, desires, beliefs, values, etc that construct it, nature or nurture? Aligning the former with (again) empiricist and empiricism-influenced worldviews, I find myself much more interested in the “nurture” side, the double act of consuming/embodying cultural conceptions and then “projecting” them and being projected on by them in daily life. This subjective act/experience will form the performative base for the NATURE FETISH project and be a vehicle for the performance of conceptual frameworks, culturally constructed for human relationships with “nature.” In the piece, each framework for projection is expressed and described through music, text, movement, objects, symbolic and figurative imagery, reactive technology, and video projections. Narratively, each framework will be adopted and enacted by the two main characters as they attempt to reconcile their human consciousnesses with a natural world perceived first as “real/natural” and then as fetishized.
Performance theory wise, I am afraid of being too arrogant, presumptous, idealistic, etc, to insist on the following points; they are in experimental stages. I will say that contemporary culture can probably still use a good dose of deconstructive panic; audiences may need to be disoriented and have their realities dissasembled, so that they may de-hierarichize, and democratize authority structures, attack the constricting and empiric-thought-based paradigms for race, gender, sexuality, and more (“gotta tear down to build up”). Yet, I am interested in trying other ways of helping audiences (and subsequently humanity…) experience realizations about their role in the construction of reality, their responsibility for reality, and inherent effect on it/in it. These realizations are becoming more important to me I think than the realization that existing institutional and conceptual constructions can be and often are harmful to those attempting to use the frameworks they impose on their daily lives. The harm in constructions is largely found in their monopoly on frameworks, their insistence that individuals use their ways of seeing things by cutting off support from those who can’t or won’t use/fit in to ideals, and blocking individual access to cultural (emotional, psychological, authority) resources, as well as to fundamental resources such as information, food, water, etc. I would like to facilitate the provision of cultural resources, and the encouragement to provide cultural resources for the self and for others, by offering alternative frameworks for use, primarily in psychological and emotional spheres. The practical question that arises then is where do these “alternative” frameworks come from? And here I think is the component shift that happened/is happening after the 1990 publication of Crohn Schmitt’s book: “Alternative” frameworks are created automatically in and come from cultures that have begun to develop a process of cyclical construction/deconstruction of frameworks, moving out of a deconstructive mindset and into one that is de-hierarchized, conscious, and creative, engaged and living (as per the Living Theatre’s initial intentions), mutually reflective, i.e. mise en abymic rather than mise en scenic (another essay). At this point, I feel a need for a seeing-place that presents frameworks side by side for comparison, for subjective analysis on the part of individual audience members. Thus, I will draw on the forms and expectations of the “traditional avant-garde,” humbly grateful for my predecessors’ cracking of Aristotelian constraints through their use of non-linear narratives, post-Stanislavkian acting techniques, multi-media, video, and other expressive and descriptive elements that are extremely helpful for this type of inquiry, while nosing my way feelingly into what is most simply a kind of mindful, co-creative reconstruction, positioned in opposition to every type of monism.
So here is the part that makes the project almost a pun, and is a nod to one Aristotelian-derived methodological consideration I like, which it unity of conception. “Nature” is a projection, a fetish, of the type that is wholly subjective (as a force, place, name for the cosmos, etc). Thus, I will be gathering as many subjective projections of “nature” as I can, as well as the larger constructed frameworks for projection that often exist in service of a political, economic, or cultural capitalist mode. On the private, subjective end on a spectrum of influence from small to great, are literal relationships with nature, memories, intentions, actions, and so on. These will be collected and performed, with the craft of the project being a kind of planned “emergence” (complex systems theory is Brian‘s point of access on this) of the public, political patterns of relationships between subject (human) and object (nature). My impulse is still an attempt at representation of the “real,” the “natural,” but at least I can include where such projections are coming from, in myself and in the contributors to, participants in, and receivers of the public performance of the piece.
A Note on Aristotle plus the Milesian School: When I was working on On the Cranial Nerves of Barbarians I became really obsessed with the absurdities and pitfalls of ontological pluralism, wherein ontology reconciles the reality of Being and Becoming by conceiving of seeds (or “homeomeries” according to Aristotle) that in substance and movement comprise the real, natural, material elements of the world, much like early conceptions of atoms, and the Multiple Realization theories of Functionalist philosophers of mind and the generally monist ideas of Physicalists. I have a feeling this is all going to come back to mind for NATURE FETISH…