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Julia Fries: Imagination and action – how to spend ones time in the Anthropocene

As a gardener, drama practitioner, environmental activist and clown coming into the academy, I am happy to find in the environmental humanities, a discourse and a scientific discussion to relate to, where all these identities have a place.

The aim of my PhD-project, which is within the field of drama pegagogy, is to explore how educational drama can be a tool to support thinking outside current economic paradigm, in order to be creative in imagining sustainable economic structures. For me the concept of ’environmental imaginaries’ is very close to how I myself would like to describe what I want to do in my study, so finding this concept came as a gift. However, my study leans more towards ‘economic imaginaries’, a concept from Gibson-Graham (2006) who speak of how the imaginaries we are able to make also limits the ways in which we can enact economy. My choice of the economic focus is motivated by my perception of economy as being an area where our imagination, in society and as individuals, is especially poor, and at the same time an area where change is crucial. The fact that the environmental crises we are facing are very much crises driven by the global, free-market capitalism, is emphasized by Moore (2017), who instead of the Anthropocene, talks of the Capitalocene.


Liu & Lin (2018) points to the close connection between our ability to vision for the future and our power to shape the future in a wanted direction. Payne (2009) describes how the arts, including story-telling and drama, play an essential role in building imaginaries for sustainability. In my PhD, I will develop this further and explore in what ways drama work and specific drama techniques can contribute to new imaginaries for sustainability, and in the extension, new ways to act in the world. (I will move mainly within a drama practice referred to as process drama, which means co-creating a narrative that includes conventions such as role-reversing with humans and non-humans in different times and spaces.)


Neimanis et al. (2015) mention how environmental humanities can “address issues of greenwashing, green aesthetics and apolitical “green lifestyles” that are proliferating in a post-political milieu” (p. 89). This supports me as a researcher to not stay ‘a-political’. I find the environmental humanities to be a space where one as a researcher can, and should, stand up for something. I perceive an underlying assumption in the environmental humanities that we do want our species to survive on this planet, and that in order for that to be, we need to make fundamental changes in how we relate, act and organize our societies. The research I want to do is normative, it assumes that things do need to change in how we organize economy. Without such a normative assumption, there would be no incentive to work with imagining something different and exploring how we can widen our thinking through drama-work. The appeal from Haraway to “make the Anthropocene as short/thin as possible and to cultivate with each other in every way imaginable epochs to come that can replenish refuge” (Haraway 2015, p 160) is far from the neutral stance that we have traditionally come to associate with science.


As pedagogy and didactics are my home-fields, my thinking goes to how a teaching springing from the understandings of environmental humanities would look like. I long for the questions about how we take these understandings to people in ways that they actually make a difference in the world. My research interest is in how drama-work can, not just support people to make the insights pointed to by environmental humanities (as well as the natural sciences of course), but also become active and creative in imagining other realities and by what logics we want our societies to be working, in order to bring about that future. I want to explore drama-work as a laboratory to develop concrete visions for the future. Annouchka Bayley’s book Posthuman Pedagogies in Practice: Arts based Approaches for Developing Participatory Futures (2018) is communicating with me here. It also supports me in understanding posthumanist thinkers such as Haraway and Barad in more practical ways, how their theoretical work can be relevant to me in the classroom, and how their theories relates to my already ongoing practice. The book explores how pedagogy in higher education can be organized to be “more relevant for the kinds of complexities of the 21st century in all its blurred boundaries” (p. 6) and to invoke, in Barad’s (2007) words, response-ability in students. Bayley argues for an education that is “critically aware, complex, affective and embodied” (2018, p. 12) and uses posthumanist thinking to understand how that education can be realized. Such an education moves beyond a classical concept of human and places itself within a natural ecology.

My reading of Bayley brought my attention to practice as research (Nelson 2013). Practice as research merges scientific and arts-based ways of knowing and is based upon the notions from post-humanism and new materialism, of the entanglements between practice and theory, as well as the understanding of embodied and performative aspects of knowledge. This complex view of knowledge-making suits well for me as a drama-practitioner, as drama pedagogies are very much an embodied and affective practice. The discursive, as well as the material, affect the creation of knowledge (Barad, 2003). For a drama practitioner this is lived experience. The work-form of drama is very much an entanglement between action, the doings, and reflective parts, the process of putting words on what is experienced and learned in the group. In drama, it is emphasized that the action and the reflection are equally important and both are intrinsic parts of the drama work (Sternudd, 2000).


My PhD-project will explore “disrupting, re-ordering and re-imagining structures” (Bayley, 2018, p. 7), especially economic structures, in drama workshops with engineering students and economy students. Bayley describes how one with a posthuman understanding of the world can be overwhelmed by the vastness of an entangled universe and an entangled self, however, she stresses the importance of finding one’s agency and creating change from within this entanglement. My hope is that the drama work can be a way of experiencing hope and agency in the midst of these complicated times. My previous experience is that once people are together in a room and get engaged in creative work to explore the world they want to live in and be co-creators of, the feelings of despair and hopelessness are altered by the joy of sharing visions and images.


In one seminar, discussion came to be about whether understandings can make people change. The idea was raised in the room of a materialist view that it is not the understandings that make people change, people change when they need to and in that change, our understandings shift as well. Ghosh (2016) gives a strong picture on this when his deepened understandings on the risks with the placement of the house of his family, led him to suggest them to move, whereas his mother found him out of his mind. My understanding is that facts usually do not make people change, but the deeper understanding that Ghosh had reached is something that can make us do radical changes in our lives. This is the type of understanding one strives for within transformative (Mezirow 2000) and transgressive learning (Lotz-Sisitka et al, 2015). Perhaps for most, the understanding that leads to change does not come from teaching situations, but when circumstances forces one to change. In earlier drama-work on sustainability, as well as in other arts-based approaches to sustainability, there has been an emphasis on relating to the non-human world in new ways, the attention has been on the natural world and the individual’s relation to it (see for example van Boeckel 2013). There is an underlying assumption in that approach, that the insights drawn by the individuals and the deep learning that is happening, will change people’s relating in the world and in the long run bring us to a shift towards sustainable actions and society-building. I sympathize with this idea, but in my understanding, time is too short to stay at a ´changing values and attitudes will eventually change the society´-approach. I want to be more action orientated and do the next step with people and groups. I want to lead groups in the process of asking ourselves: “If we are deeply rooted in a sense of connectedness, to the extent that we feel a deep care for each other and the world – what structures and logics must we build into our economy and other functions of society to nourish this?”


There was also a question raised in the course about where to put our energy, now that time is so scarce, can we spend our time on building new ontologies, rather than to act for immediate change in the world. However, our society’s current way of relating to each other (human as well as non-human), how we structure our societies and use of resources, derives from a world-view. Haraway puts it beautifully when she claims that “It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” (Haraway, 2016, p. 12). The world-view that our society derives from may well be obsolete today, but as the structures built on that world-view still steer our actions, the change is slow. We now know that we do need to change, many of us want to, but the non-human structures, built on an old world view, prevent us from doing so. Perhaps the time has come when we are ready and willing to actively re-arrange the structures that guide our actions as humans, as the materiality of climate changes, depletion of resources and animal extinction (just to mention a few) has caught up with our knowledge and understanding, pushing us out of the era of ‘business as usual’.


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