Performance Ecology: An Informal Manifesto
by Jeff Grygny, PhD
Performance Ecology seeks to integrate the aesthetic language of performance with the empirical language of ecology. There are reasons to think that this may be an essential move towards creating an ecological culture.
Fundamental Principles of Performance Ecology
Living nature is an ongoing performance.
According to the emerging field of biopoetics, every living thing is irreducibly feeling-based. Every organism has its core desire, values, and agency, which are expressed through direct natural metaphors: the form of its body, its way of moving, the sounds it makes, and its interactions. Living things continually perform the world.
Humans are animals.
Civilizations have striven to set humans above/apart from other animals, but we can’t doubt that we emerged from and belong to complex biotic communities. For the last few centuries, we have been very poor neighbors.
Some traditional cultures have successfully lived with the rest of the natural world.
Romantic notions of noble savagery aside, many pre-industrial societies have developed ways to thrive without ravaging their supporting ecosystems. This knowledge has been codified in mythologies, rituals and traditions.
Traditional knowledge is embodied, qualitative, poetic.
Before the scientific tradition was created, culture has been transmitted in the same natural metaphors as found in nature (though often with a distinctly human bias). It may have been wildly inaccurate in modern terms, but it served the psychological and social functions of creating meaning, value, and a sense of belonging in the cosmos.
The scientific tradition has inherited an unwarranted bias against feeling and qualitative experience.
According to the relatively new science of embodied cognition, the Enlightenment ideal of value-free knowledge is a chimera: our bodily experience, rooted in the senses, emotions, and natural metaphor, is the precondition for any and all intelligence. Science developed directly from a Greco-Christian tradition that despised “the flesh” and the embodied world in favor of transcendental abstractions. This intellectual baggage still has power, and has contributed to an impoverishment of embodied experience.
The mechanistic world-view has directly contributed to the destruction of ecosystems.
Capable of seeing the rest of nature as controlled by impersonal mechanical laws, humans have been able to ignore the meaning and value of non-human life, treating all of nature as mere material with only economic value. This is the hidden bias of so-called “value-free” knowledge; the evidence is the ever-increasing damage to living nature ever since that view has become ascendant.
It is possible to experience subjectivity in nature as the source of beauty, meaning, and value.
Naturalists from Goethe to David Abram have experienced nature as a value in itself; this is inseparable from precise, aesthetic, and empathetic appreciation of natural poetry. Yet this experience is not part of a normal modern education: the reductive, exploitive attitude underlies higher education to this day.
Body practices are key to integrating poetic and scientific knowledge.
Since we are animals, the remedy for nature-blindness is to recover and revalue our intrinsic animal heritage: that aesthetic, sensory, empathetic experience of subjectivity in the natural world that we share with all living things. Many traditions of body knowledge exist explicitly to connect people to some larger reality: the ancient traditions of yoga, mindfulness, tai chi, and chi kung; modern savants have created somatic systems such as Feldencrais and Alexander technique for therapeutic purposes; the performing arts, recognizing that creative interplay happens in the full-bodied present moment, have developed a wide spectrum of body practices. We children of the industrial age need such practices to recover our animal heritage and the vivid experience of the non-human world, integrating them with the achievements of civilization
We must actively create a new ecological culture.
The wisdom of pre-industrial peoples is not ours; we can no longer give our allegiance to ancient myths and symbols. On the other hand, we do have access to a more detailed knowledge of the natural world than any other civilization in history. We need to re-kindle the flame of poetic knowledge and join it with our scientific knowledge to begin creating the metaphors, symbols, and cultural practices of a new ecological culture. With their power to slow down our discursive mind, awaken our senses, promote empathy, and bring us into the present moment, body practices create an open space for these explorations to take place.
A program of multidisciplinary research, experiment, and practice
Performance ecology engages many academic and scientific disciplines. We must research the richness of world ecological practices, experiment with the vocabularies of diverse spiritual traditions and mind/body practices to see what truly generates meaning and value for us, and more deeply understand the connections between our human sensibilities and the non-human world. Finally, we must craft practices that incarnate ecological wisdom into forms that can be passed on to future generations.
Performance Ecology is a journey whose end we can’t foresee.