Towards a Deep Ecological Dramaturgy
Author: Ludvig Uhlbors
Edited by: Clara J. Reich and Sindre C. Hoff
Teaser: The author is the founder of an interdisciplinary Arne Næss group, which was established in 2015 during a stay at the philosopher’s cabin, Tvergastein. The purpose of the stay was to gain a physical understanding of deep ecology and how to use it for art. So far, their experience has generated three theatre productions, two exhibitions, two documentary films, several art installations, two expeditions, and two site-specific manifestations of deep ecological lifestyles.
Within theatre, questions are being raised concerning the reproduction of colonial and patriarchal ideas. Connections between the craft and old hierarchies are being scrutinized. Simultaneously, the ongoing climate crisis urges all of us to reconsider our relationship to nature. If this signals a period of change for theatre, it is also partially due to a shift in discourse. It no longer suffices to understand our human condition as a battlefield of power structures or as a world of sociological and linguistic symbols. Nature has returned to our awareness as the physical and concrete factor it always has been, defining us and the terms of our existence, and it demands that we reconsider our relationship with it. In my work, I have turned towards the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss for inspiration and to his philosophies of deep ecology and gestalt ontology.
Arne Næss (1995) referred to the mountain ridge Hallingskarvet as his father and described its crevices as living entities. This way of relating to a mountain as a subject activates a possible parallel to the ideas of professor Karen Barad (2007). Barad uses the observation that neutrons alter their behavior under study to invite a conclusion that reality is the sum of the gaze of the viewer and the object being viewed. Such thoughts, presented within the field of New Materialism, support Arne’s animistic attitude and opens up to a metaphysical understanding of theatricality as they allow us to imagine that any material has a consciousness, of sorts.
Other theorists seem to be on a similar track, seeking ways to embrace animistic or shamanistic worldviews within their own projects. One of them is professor Gene Ray (2016), who in an essay, problematizes his own field of critical theory. Ray argues that critical theory harbors a hidden desire for progress and that this motivates a mentality of exploitation that is responsible for the climate crisis. It is his suggestion that we should allow ourselves to be inspired by indigenous populations.
According to the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson, Europe is a continent with a suppressed indigeneity. I take that to mean that in one sense, we have all been colonized at one point or another. If we, for example, return to the roots of Scandinavian culture — the sagas — we find many instances where people relate to mountains as living entities (one of them is the description of Tormod from Moss in Eyrbygga saga as retold by Snorre Sturlason). In Sweden, where I grew up, every river, every lake, and virtually every other detail in the landscape carry names that put them in relationship to Gods or other spiritual beings. These examples point towards an animistic or pantheistic relationship to the landscape, which maybe is not lost, not in its entirety, but is certainly made less accessible to us by a process that can only be described as a project of cultural colonization.
To try to deal with a sense of suppressed indigeneity is perhaps nothing else but an attempt to try to decolonize oneself. I understand Gene Ray’s suggestion as an invitation to those of us who work within the field of theatre to give up our desire for progress and development. Could it be that our willingness to try to produce the “new” and our ambition to “improve society” are leading us to an attitude towards nature that is pushing towards extinction? If so, how are we to give up any such desire for novelty without risking becoming boring and irrelevant?
In exchanging our fascination for “the new” with an investigation of “the unknown” (and I do not use this term in a romantic sense, pointing to something unknown outside of us, but as a way to describe how unforeseen combinations may continue to stimulate our curiosity), we might find that holistic patterns of thought, whatever their roots, allow us to combine familiar modules in unexpected ways. Such combinations can continue to cause surprise and offer us unknown points from which to think, without forcing us to argue that we are producing anything “new” in a real sense.
According to the neuroscientist R. Beau Lotto (2010), our brains are constructed in such a way that we are only able to see those things that have been useful for us to see in the past. He understands creativity as a game in which we can find the courage to face the unknown. Such courage allows us to combine signs in an unexpected manner, and this creates unexpected points of view on reality. Lotto goes on to describe the brain as a sort of floating architecture, constantly redefining normality. Normal is what we have learned to recognize, and creativity is a constant re-articulation of normality. In my thinking, Lotto’s findings motivate a dramaturgy that does not rely on novelty.
Arne Næss showed the connection between such a possible dramaturgy and nature when he introduced his term “gestalt ontology.” He made the claim that we live our lives in a world of symbols and that we cannot help but perceive unities. To illustrate what he meant, he would draw three dots on a paper and then conclude that no one can look at such dots without seeing a pattern or a relation. Using this conclusion, he would argue that mankind is made to think through the logic of an ecosystem. We cannot remove one species from such a system without causing an effect on the whole, and it is natural for us to see this.
Contemporary dramaturgies still rely heavily on the teachings of Bertold Brecht, a director working within the tradition of critical theory. Brecht evaluated the effect of a performance according to the level of political reflection it stimulated and tried to encourage his audience to influence political development. His most broadly known tool for achieving this was Verfremdung, or “alienation.” Gene Ray seems to imply that the values of Brecht are contributing to climate change. This suggests, in turn, that people who work in theatre might want to reconsider their reliance on the heritage of Brecht, a heritage still viewed by most practitioners as an indispensable foundation for political theatre.
As deep ecology takes the effect of nature as its ambition, it needs to rely neither on sociology nor dialectics. It can work in depth through non-rational means. It has no use for alienation, which presupposes fragmentation and encourages individuality, but seeks to offer us a chance to identify with principles larger than ourselves — principles working beyond processes emanating from society, as well as being immanent within them. Arne Næss describes the experience of such identification as “deep joy” and suggests that it might be able to show us a way out of harmful living.
When we reconsider our relationship to nature, we are bound to encounter issues of colonialism and patriarchal structures. Our gaze towards nature might very well be the primary source of these problems. The idea that we have the right to exploit nature for our own benefit has laid the foundation for colonial empires, the engine of these being profit deriving from exploitation. Likewise, the historical oppression and persecution of women seem to have been motivated in part by a desire to alter perspectives on nature. This connection becomes very visible when we study the history of witch hunts. The archeologist Marija Gimbutas writes that in ancient matriarchal societies, which were based upon cults of female earth divinities, women had a different position than today. These matriarchal societies had a specific relationship to nature and carried their own medical knowledge. The introduction of abstract patriarchal divinities connected with heaven proposed a relationship to nature that was opposite to theirs, namely a view on nature as a soulless source of material, systematized by an Abrahamic God, put on earth for us to exploit. As matriarchal knowledge was carried and transmitted through the female body, the oppression of that knowledge was bound to be materialized as an oppression of women’s bodies, the aim of which being the destruction of pantheistic ideas in Europe and the monopolization of, among other things, herbal medicine. Gimbutas's analysis sketches a connection between historical female experiences of life and animistic experiences of nature in which both were in the way of the enlightenment project and the development towards industrialization.
Deep ecology invites us to return to a premodern experience of nature and to recognize nature within. This experience is largely received through non-rational means and comes to us as tranquillity or reverence, or even sometimes as fear. Regardless, all cultures will testify that nature has an effect on us. This effect also occurs when nature resides in stillness. It does not depend on progress or a dramatic development of events.
Maybe this kind of effect, found in nature, can shape a basic element in what a deep ecological dramaturgy might aim for. If it is combined with an investigation of the “unknown” rather than the “new,” it might also help us to rearticulate destructive normalities, such as post-colonial issues and the oppression of women.
Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Haukland, Per Ingvar and Arne Næss. 2008. Dyp glede: Med Arne Næss inn i dypøkologien. Oslo: Flux forlag.
Næss, Arne. 1995. Det gode lange livs far: Hallingskarvet sett fra Tvergastein. Oslo: N-W Damm & Søn AS.
Ray, Gene. 2016. “Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot: Indigenous Knowledge and Critical Theory in the Endgame.” South as a State of Mind 8 (Documenta 14 3). www.documenta14.de/en/south/895_writing_the_ecocide_genocide_knot_indigenous_knowledge_and_critical_theory_in_the_endgame.
Robertson, Lisa. 2019. “Working Title.” Seminar. Conversations & Seminars, Black Box Theatre. Oslo, Norway, October 5, 2019.
Lotto, R Beau. 2010. “Seeing myself see.” YouTube video 53:55. Uploaded March 8, 2010. www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIObYaZBn_U&t=478s.
Gimbutas, Marija. 1999. The Living goddesses. Berkely (CA): University of California Press.
Ludvig Uhlbors is a Swedish-born director and playwright presently living in Norway. His praxis also extends into performance and dance. He is a publisher at Förlaget and the author of Gjord obrukbar. He has a BA in Dramaturgy from the Dramatic Institute in Stockholm, Sweden and a MA in Theatre, and directs at the Academy of Theatre, Oslo National Academy of the Arts, Norway. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.