Performance Without Human Exceptionalism
University of Sussex
“We are not just with the earth, with the stars, with ground, with blood, with skin. In advance, and without our even being informed, everything is already ordered-classed according to a scale which gives primacy to one element over another. And power to one thing, or to one being over another. All the time. And in an unfounded manner” (Cixous 11).
This module introduces ideas and practices for approaching performance as a process that is always already underway, regardless of whether “we” bring attention to it or not: performance as something that is happening between different and differing agents, entities, scales, species, bodies, materials, and non- (or quasi-) materials. We will borrow Karen Barad’s difficult concept, the “intra-agential,” and see how it might make sense outside of quantum theory. We will consider “older” ecologies for the ways they proposed direct and pointed understandings of the world as a more-than-human assembly: for example, when asked about the infamous falling tree making a sound if nobody is there to hear it, ecologist Gregory Bateson replied that yes, indeed, for there are other critters in that forest, as well as nonhuman entities and modes of existence. Nature writer Annie Dillard found a different solution to the riddle by rewriting the question: “What if I fell in a forest: would a tree hear?” (Dillard 93).
That riddle, like so much of our philosophy and culture, can be understood through the “Leibniz fallacy,” as popularised in the 1930s by a team of neuroscientists, after a Leibniz quote: “There are hundreds of indications leading us to conclude that at every moment there is in us an infinity of perceptions, unaccompanied by awareness or reflection” (Leibniz 53). As we now know, human beings are compelled to only recognise that which already corresponds to existing schemas of thought and perception. Most of what is occurring, inside and around us, is not only filtered out, but is actively considered as non-existent, and, furthermore, when we speculate (as Leibniz did) the existence of unperceived or unacknowledged phenomena, we in fact reproduce the same exceptionalist standpoint, merely with the added pathos of speculative proximity. How to get out of our own cage?
Declensions of Performance
Performance has variously been understood through different lenses: to list the most recognisable, there was the social/anthropological (Turner and Schechner), the psychoanalytical/philosophical (Phelan), the lens of gender and sexual identity (Butler), and the post-disciplinarian “performance paradigm” (Deleuze, McKenzie). The first two decades of the 21st century saw an explosion in studies of the “nonhuman,” featuring novel subfields such as animal studies, multispecies studies, extinction studies, new materialism, object-oriented ontology, and others. Despite these promising theoretical developments, the concept and general practice of performance remained largely unaltered: the possibilities offered by a concept such as “distributed agency” remained mostly untapped, and the project of a radical questioning of human exceptionalism fell flat. Beyond the confines of academic speculation, “posthuman performance” failed to materialise.
In this module we revisit that body of theory, but with the intention of trying to use those ideas to restructure our understanding of what performance can be. We begin with a simple amateur YouTube video in which a teenager in an aquarium performs cartwheels for a dolphin, much to the latter’s amusement. Slowed down and with the audio removed, we will consider the video as an example of multispecies and cross-kingdom encounter: to help us with this, we will look back at the work of Belgian philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, who famously studied the ways ethologists study animals, and who proposed that in order to discover something new we must ask questions that allow for surprises. Encounters with nonhumans are often pre-scripted, and, so, without realising it, the ways we approach nonhuman others are decided in advance, step by step, look by look, touch by touch.
We will consider how the dolphin video can be “read” in parallel with theatre and performance histories: up to the early and mid-20th century, theatrical dynamics were thought to be a one-way traffic, from the (active) stage to the (passive) auditorium, until avant-garde and other experimental approaches opened up the possibility of a two-way encounter, the power relation shifting and malleable. Similarly, the “culture-nature” binary has been conceived along the same lines of active-passive, doer-receiver. How can we apply experimental theatrical understandings to the stultified dynamics that regulate interactions between humans and nonhuman critters, entities, and materials? And what are the limits of such a pursuit? In other words, when does the theatrical lens have to be replaced by different, provisional understandings, metaphors, and practices for figuring the relations between beings?
As well as various readings (see the bibliography below), the module follows a simple structure to modulate and experiment with. It takes the four basic components of performance, easily remembered by the acronym BATS — Body, Action, Time, Space — and for each one proposes multiple iterations outside, or alongside, a human exceptionalist framework.
Body: What counts as a “body”? What replaces the anthropocentric concept of “embodiment”? We will consider composite and boundaried bodies of different matter, volition, sentience, and organicity, including bacterial bodies, synthetic bodies, animal-machinic bodies, astral bodies, and celestial bodies.
Action: What counts as event and occurrence, and what doesn’t, and why? We will examine the multiple animations of inertia, stillness, and inactivity, and seek an understanding of reality as intrinsically processual, after Whitehead and Massumi.
Time: We will work from Einstein’s general theory of relativity to consider the multiple and alternate temporalities that shape a post-quantum universe.
Space: Without the Euclidean matrix, space turns out to be no longer a container, but rather a felt, lived, and unlived reality, constantly in the making.
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and The Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, 2007.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, 2010.
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Polity Press, 2013.
Corrieri, Augusto. We have never been (modern, human, or posthuman). Penguin, 2021.
Cixous, Hélène. Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing. Routledge, 1997.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Stone: An Ecology of The Inhuman. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Despret, Vinciane. What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions? University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. Harper Collins, 2007.
Leibniz, Gottfried Willhelm. New Essays on Human Understanding. Translated and Edited by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennet, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Marder, Michael. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. Columbia University Press, 2015.
Massumi, Brian. What Animals Teach Us About Politics. Duke University Press, 2014.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at The End of The World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Van Dooren, Thom. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at The Edge of Extinction. Columbia University Press, 2014.