In last week’s Times Higher Education, Christopher Innes provides a fairly damning review of a new book called “Sarah Kane in Context,” commenting that it “exposes all too revealingly some of the problems of current academic criticism: self-reflexive, self-referential, self-promoting.” I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if this is fair comment, but it stuck in my head because of a couple of recent conversations around plans for this network, in which the people I was speaking to expressed concern that we might end up going the same way. One respondent remarked that they felt last year’s “Living Landscapes” conference had become “shrink-wrapped” in a kind of self-referential performance studies discourse, and that – despite its organisers best intentions – it only rarely seemed to engage seriously with environmental questions. I don’t actually agree with this comment (I found that conference really inspiring, on several levels – not least its genuine inter-disciplinarity), but I do recognise that danger of getting locked into ever-decreasing discursive circles. And certainly the clingfilm metaphor sums up both the annoying tangly-ness and environmental obtuseness of much of what passes for critical reflection these days. Strategies for avoiding these pitfalls in our network discussions will be warmly welcomed! (Maybe some kind of buzzer…)

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9 Responses to Shrink-wrapped

  1. Dee Heddon says:

    Steve, to resist the danger of ever decreasing circles of information exchange (which then is not exchange, merely reiteration), we need to make sure we engage in dialogue with environmental scientists, activists, educators. I think we will do this, but it’s good to underline the necessity.

    • Steve Bottoms says:

      Dee, you’re dead right of course – but at present (largely as a result of the ‘who we know’ logic that fed the original application – which had to be put together quite quickly) we don’t really have many of the sorts of people you mention involved. We have some geographers contributing (notably J.D.), and one environmental activist (Alison), but if this isn’t to seem too ‘token’, we do need to widen the net somehow (without letting it get too big!). I advertised to SCUDD yesterday, but I’m honestly not sure of the best ways to involve people beyond this constituency. All advice welcome.

  2. Baz Kershaw says:

    Well, being a bozzo in the blogworld I haven’t been able to find Dee’s contribution here – so apologies to you Dee if the following mismatches your hopes.

    To Steve I would say in all friendliness that the critical comments on the book about Sarah Kane – which, like him, I haven’t read – surely risk a generalised undermining of the reflexivity and referentiality which are crucial to quality scholarship, so much so that it’s in the nature of the academy to be endemically recursive. Of course poor scholarship can result from unacknowledged self-interest; but also the denial of self-investment as an aspect of academic work can serve to prop up hegemonies and disguise exploitation. To the extent that theatre and performance studies often crucially focus on embodiment, they offer particular challenges to how the ‘self’ might best fare in its engagement with any and all environments, including those of books.

    But how many of us live just in those one or two scholarly practitioner worlds? How few of us fail to get gritty crap, soggy soil, or long-lost permafrost traces on our boots, wellies, or cross-country snowshoes, if not exactly every day then often enough to stick in our minds as something especially significant?

    Despite many attempts to get away from such sullied foot-ware traces in the past, I’ve always eventually failed, so now late in life I’ve come round to embracing the earthy mess in what no doubt might be an entirely ill-advised and probably exceedingly amateur manner. So very recently I spent a couple of weeks in the daily company of a dozen of year old bullocks on their way to soon being ‘finished’ for their final journey to the tables of this land. A prospect that gave me no enjoy, as they struck me as being exceedingly good company, as what they showed me – besides their lovely doleful eyes – was that the field we shared was inestimable in its potential to dismay and delight by equal and unexpectable measure. And this was no special field; in fact it could not sustain their needs for long, so they were gone before I got to know them well enough to really learn what they might mean by being just there, clogging up the wet ground and patterning it over with the splodge of fly-blown archipelagoes.

    Sorry, colleagues, but this can’t be a neat story with a fleet-of-foot ending. It’s just a weak minor reminder that even when we participate in the excitingly high reaches of academe our bodies are still mired in the flow of the viscous stuff that, thank goodness, usually at its own expense keeps us alive. Let’s not be fooled by the guilt trips of global performance addiction as reinforced by any low life dumbing down of the essential trade of the academy at its best. But also let’s try to keep our hearts as closely distanced as possible to the multifarious ways in which all creatures, all organisms, including the human ones, inhabit this enigmatic earth in every moment that both the environmental and performance commons – fetid with dung or not – feed the life of all things.

  3. Gareth Somers says:

    In reference to Steve’s point I tend to agree with Bourdieu, in that most human endeavour is self-promoting, particularly given the addictive performance constraints of Growth capitalism. I’m not sure that most people are at present or should be, too bothered about the self-reflexivity or otherwise of a few academics until it costs them money. So the issue (obscured as ever by self-reflexivity itself) is as a material one. And is embodied in Baz’s reply; the question is the one which Edward Bond has Shakespeare ask in Bingo…and one which his bovine friends might ask as their children disappear in cattle trucks; “was anything done?”
    Tesco would be a useful site for a site specific performance, perhaps a nature tour? It might be possible to meet, Baz’s fly blown field of “wholly real” friends, recently shrink-wrapped to perform alterity in one of this countries great supermarket displays of frozen body parts.
    …. we are presiding over and culpable in, one of the greatest mass extinctions in the history of the planet.
    I recently watched Wallace and Gromit on TV celebrate a clock which feeds on flies (proving perhaps that our addiction to productivity is worth killing for). The term “biomass” was used to describe bits of dead animal that might power machines. This might “help the environment” and “combat climate change”.
    So beware the tropes “environmental” and “climate change” they can enforce a Judeo-Christian/Cartesian focus upon debate. They celebrate the Cartesian divide between significance and knowledge, Culture/ Nature. Environment, rather than ecology intimates a background for humans rather than a co-created whole.
    This leaves us, as Heidegger suggests; in the business of manufacturing answers to our own dualist conceits. It also helps place the rights and needs of the human above those of the non-human. Or rather wipe other species out of the picture as environment becomes just “place” or worse and even more dualistically “site”.
    This permits the creation of ” natural reservations” (or death camps as Stephan Harding calls them). Our dramatic architectures both material and immaterial, are entwined with these histories and feedback into our practices.
    The conclusion?
    I wonder, whether crumbling abbeys, theatres and the egos of academics and performers should not sometimes, be allowed to crumble to make way for natural corridors as stages for more diverse forms of eco-performance.

  4. Baz Kershaw says:

    Thanks for your posting, Gareth, and this is just a short belated response to your stimulating comments.

    Bingo/What was done? Well, not a lot in any kind of revolutionary way. The bullocks were materially less crowded for a while than they would otherwise have been; a fact that would make not a jot of difference to the reign of Tescopolis and Co., and which from an appropriately skewed perspective might otherwise be seen as reinforcing it; which result of course I would totally abhor. Some of the field’s wildlife fauna left while they were there. But a slightly greater variety returned after they were taken back to their usual grazing grounds, and which stayed until the season changed and it was time for them to go … to a further sustaining destination, I presume.

    As for reflexivity becoming an obscurer, that depends on angles of perspective as well, I guess. If we’re talking eco-systemic feedback, maybe you might consider some kinds of reflexivity a good thing. But even then you are certainly wise in wanting to shed them of the human ego/self as much as possible. Which your excellent idea of an ecologically-specific nature tour among the dreadful ailses of Tescopolis and Co. could be very well designed to do. Thus perhaps becoming a very useful slice of feedback that, with your permission of course, might be added to the beneficial stock of environmentally-aware-climate-change-averse performance scenarios that this modest network is hoping to generate.

    All best wishes to you

    Suggested addition to the network booklist: Andrew Simms, Tescopoly: How one shop came out on top and why it matters, London: Constable, 2007

  5. Gareth Somers says:

    Thanks Baz, I agree, I believe Centralised hierarchical systems draw energy to their apex they are vampiric and denude the environment; drawing all natural, kinaesthetic, and creative energy to their own ends, because they limit potential for permeability and partly co reflexivity. (though this latter may be co-opted if its referential contexts are dematerialised, as has occurred over the last 800 years at least)
    Ecological authenticity can be problematised by its reflexivity; as existential authenticity itself also can become unready to hand in the face of the the human “they”. Ecological discourse which is un-grounded in the nonhuman world can lead us back towards a “human” centre. (not the case with your description of the cows of course )


  6. gareth somers says:

    So; Some questions..
    Sustainable development?
    Sustainable retreat?
    Are there eco-postive and eco-negative modalities of metaphor/ materiality?
    And do we have anything approaching a common methodology?
    to this last question I think, the answer is a resounding no;
    The materiality/metaphorical argument in eco/environmental performance studies has yet to be resolved.
    Each of us are engaing from within differing epistemological discursive environments. A deconstructive model is not a get out for me because as a positive feedback loop of negative teleology it always ends in Zero.
    .. Any takers?

  7. Franc Chamberlain says:

    Just want to go back a moment to Steve’s comment:

    (without letting it get too big!)

    Given that Baz & Gavin discuss Tescopolis — and the shrink-wrapped meat that appears in such a necropolis seems not only to be cut off from the land/hand that feeds it — I’m wondering about the intricate network of intimacies that are implicit in Baz’s posting are antithetical to the size and impersonality of Tescopolis.

    And I wonder whether the shrink wrapping of discourse has something to do with the avoidance of these intricate networks of intimacy. Of the the shrink-wrapped cuts of discourse keeping us away from the raw textures that they cover, keeping us theoretically pure and unpolluted.

    And I wonder if size must work against intimacy. And I don’t think that it does. We can be implicated in vast intricate networks of intimacy (and we are) but if we have a desire to restrict the size of the group aren’t we ‘shrink wrapping’ again?

    I guess all muscles are shrink-wrapped to a degree, but we’re discussing a kind of secondary necro-shrink wrapping that inhibits rather than facilitates connectivity.

    Can we let this be an open field? A place where different life forms meet in metaphor and materiality? Where there is no common methodology but where there is a commons…(or will that inevitably lead to tragedy)?

    Is there an ecological ethic which is informing discussion here? Not just in terms of our ‘environmental ethics’ which always seems to put the environment ‘outside’ of us, but rather in terms of an ethic of discourse and participation.

    (without letting it get too big!)

    A throwaway, disposable, line that I’m recycling. Does it mean that this ecosystem here can only include a certain number of people? Or a certain kind of argument? Or only X people who write a lot…?

    Because for me the way we treat this site and each other within it has some bearing on how we treat other sites where we perform and the kinds of traces that we leave. Are we able to listen to what is there within our environment, or do we need to impose ourselves upon it so that it is ‘our’ or ‘my’ voice that is heard? (And as I try to find a way to join this discussion I wonder if I’ve heard what’s being said or am just banging my biscuit tin with a wooden spoon)

  8. Steve Bottoms says:

    Franc – Your last paragraph here is especially pertinent. We have a strange situation whereby you and Gareth, who weren’t invited as part of the face-to-face network discussions (owing to my own oversight, for which many apologies) have provided more stimulation on the blog than most of us who are. And yet, as you imply, this line of comments is in danger of becoming shrink-wrapped in its own sequence of responses, cut off from the rest of the blog site- never mind anything else. If you and Gareth would like ‘author’ status for the blog, so that you can contribute full postings, please just let me have your contact info. I’m hoping the whole blog will spring to life a little more this year… I’m on research leave this semester so might have a little more time to contribute myself!!

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