What’s the relationship between appreciation and domination? My main research project deals with presence in performance, and aims to explain how an experience of rich meaning can depend upon the maintaining of void.
Examining Zeami’s principles of nō theatre, I’m interested in how an acceptance of ambiguity and lack of full description becomes a way to retain the significance of a role. In Zeami’s writings this is shown both relating to the artist’s own process and to the performance’s effect on the spectator. Zeami writes in Fūshikaden (1400-1418): ”The Flower of the actor is possible precisely because the audience does not know where that Flower is located” (Rimer and Yamazaki 1984, 59). The experience of hana (Flower) is an appreciation of a thing that stands in contrast to a defining, definitive or objectifying assessment.
Although I believe the theories of Zeami can provide key insights into it, this experience is not exclusive to 15th century Japan, but can be related to contemporary life, and especially to notions of presence. There are considerable theoretical difficulties and controversies surrounding the concept of presence, something I hope to remedy to some extent. However, if we put such discussions aside, it is apparent that many people in different walks of life recognize the nature of such experience as might be called experiences of presence, ones that are somehow fuller yet often harder to describe. Relating my research to the harmful framing of “nature” interrogated by environmental humanities, I would like to examine how appreciation of presence points to a recognition of values in both humans and non-humans beyond immediate instrumental ones. I think it significant that such a recognition may be in conflict with an insistence on intelligibility. An understanding of experiences of void might not only facilitate aesthetic pleasure, it might also help to reveal supposedly rational assumptions of nature domination as ideological. In the following, I’ll expand on what such nature domination implies.
Legitimization of violence
Nature domination or Naturbeherrschung, a term I’m borrowing from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, is a way to describe the connection between human and non-human suffering from instrumental rationality and externalization of nature. The way Adorno and Horkheimers Dialectics of Enlightenment (1947) and other works extend beyond social justice into animal and environmental concerns is perhaps only now becoming obvious. In light of an increased awareness of environmental threats in recent years – from global warming to pollution, overpopulation and mass extinction of species, the externalization of nature, or nature-culture divide, has increasingly been put into question. This is indeed one of the main agendas of the emerging field of environmental humanities. Environmental humanities depart from the view of the human as a subject involved in specifically cultural activities, and thus as independent of nature. Not only does cultural activity depend on material support from the environment, it also (increasingly) impacts the environment and, in the process, its own means of subsistence. Importantly, the divide between humans and non-humans also impoverish the meaning of both.
But humanity, precisely because of this divide, is a useful concept to show the workings of nature domination. In the idea of humanity, as in experiences of presence, there is an awareness of integrity, worth and rich meaning – although the exclusion of the non-humanin the end threatens this awareness. This perhaps becomes most clear when examining the negation of humanity, in dehumanization. Dehumanization has many meanings, but crucially it’s known as a process in which humans are viewed as mere animals or mere things – providing an explanation for mass murder, torture and neglect of basic human needs, a process typically fueled by racism or sexism. Such acts as genocide and war crimes are framed as the ultimate horrors and atrocities in the modern democratic imagination. In the same breath as these acts are named horrors, they’re usually also characterized as unthinkable. But using dehumanization to explain them reveals just how easy they are to imagine. Why? Because apparently then, the non-human – the mere animal or the mere thing – is a perfectly legitimate victim of violence. By understanding how humanity is denied for a person or people it’s somehow also comprehensible how they can be subjected to systematic violence.
What the dehumanization process shows is actually how a dominant mode of externalizing nature turns against (other) humans. In other words, it’s nature domination. My argument here is indebted to Camilla Flodin’s reading of Adorno’s aesthetics, which directs new attention to the non-human, an aspect that has been viewed as too romantic or metaphysic. Flodin argues that in Adorno’s philosophy, domination of nature threatens the very conditions of art, thinking, and life itself (Flodin 2009, 11-13). From this standpoint, questioning the legitimacy of violence directed towards the non-human – while it does challenge human privilege – should not be thought of as an attack on human dignity. It is rather the result of a critical examination of systemic principles of violence. Or as Donna Haraway put it in her Cyborg Manifesto, “Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture” (Haraway 1991, 152).
Besides ethical concerns, the way nature is thought of as something external also severely clouds our judgment of environmental realities. In a recent book entitled The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh investigates the ways in which culture not only fails to represent non-human forces and the conditions they impose on us, but actively contributes to their concealment. He writes that in view of ongoing climactic changes, a future generation cannot but “conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight” (Ghosh 2016, 11). Not only harm to animals and ecologies, but also severe and imminent concerns for human life are unaddressed due to an inability to attribute significance to the non-human. Ghosh traces this to Cartesian subjectivity and modernity, and building upon Franco Moretti, gives an account of how forces of nature, along with anything extraordinary, were expelled from the novel as bourgeoise life became more rational and predictable (Ghosh 2016, 16-19).
Max Weber’s notion of disenchantment denotes such a process where nature comes to be viewed as devoid of intrinsic meaning, completely accessible to human understanding, and unable to strike us with awe or terror. Disenchantment is connected to rationality and progress, but with Horkheimer and Adorno it may rather be described as an acceleration of nature dominance (see Flodin 2009, 25-26). The view of nature as mere things is efficient in its domination, but not clear sighted. As Ghosh points out, the world is not disenchanted in the sense that it’s accessible to rational understanding,
In other words, the climate crisis has given the lie to Max Weber’s contention that modernity brings about the disenchantment of the world (…) The ‘everyday political philosophy of the nineteenth century’ is, as Keynes understood very well, an enchantment just as powerful as any dithyrambic mythology. (Ghosh 2016, 138)
Putting it in other words, the supposed lack of intrinsic meaning and power in nature is the enchantment.
Powerlessness and power
We might now say there are two ways this “enchantment” of nature-dominating reason strikes back at humans. The most apparent is its powerlessness. The technologically and scientifically advanced societies are unable to control environmental processes, or even seriously mitigate negative environmental impact. Humankind is now regarded by many as a geological agent, as the term Anthropocene implies – but we should make no mistake, this so-called agency is characterized by neither will nor control.
The other way is through its power. The rationality that promises complete control of objects doesn’t maintain the boundary between the human and non-human. I think this is apparent in dehumanization processes, where humans are (without great difficulty) made into mere things. But this is only an obvious case, expanding the scope we see that we’re subjecting ourselves and others constantly to measurable standards of efficiency, profit, competence, etcetera. The idea of dehumanization – and the outrage this idea is connected to – nonetheless shows that we do take serious issue with the reduction of people to things.
Just as nature domination applies to humans, I would say that the appreciation of intrinsic value of humans is connected to recognition of the integrity of non-humans as well. Obviously, neither presence nor hana can be restricted to only involving experience of humans.
A critique of the workings of nature domination must be conducted on both human and non-human levels. The link mentioned between dehumanization and racism and sexism, is not insignificant. Environmental humanities research has done significant work in examining the relations between humans and environment in conjunction with relations between peoples of the world, within and between regions and borders. Although the term Anthropocene helpfully illustrates a global collective responsibility for and vulnerability to the environment, neither the responsibility nor the vulnerability is anywhere near equally distributed. Concepts such as climate and environmental justice, as well as ecoracism, point to these facts (for an overview, see Emmett and Nye 2017, 16-18). As Astrida Neimanis, Cecilia Åsberg and Johan Hedrén have pointed out, environmental humanities should be attentive both to how environmental issues are shut out of general politics, but also to how human difference is shut out of environmental issues (Neimanis et. al. 2015, 79).
Simultaneous appreciation and domination
In the very shadow of violence and derangement, there is rich appreciation for the world and the people in it. Performance theory and aesthetics are good ways to understand this appreciation, and my own thesis will do so by looking closely into the significance of a meaning left unknown or undescribed. In Zeami’s theories, this significance is shown in many ways, the most obvious being perhaps the insistence of secrecy: ”It is said that ‘when there are secrets, the Flower exists; but without secrets, the Flower does not exist.’” (Rimer och Yamazaki 1984, 59)
A very pressing question that arises however, is how a recognition of meaning, for example experiences of presence, can exist within a greater logic denying such meaning? Ghosh also addresses this discrepancy, he asks “Did anyone ever really believe, pace Descartes, that animals are automatons?”, and then goes on to write that,
(…) the real mystery in relation to the agency of nonhumans lies not in the renewed recognition of it, but rather how this awareness came to be suppressed in the first place, at least within the modes of thought and expression that have become dominant over the last couple of centuries. (Ghosh 2016, 64-65)
When examining the potential for other modes of experience or being that may counteract a short-sighted instrumental attitude, we need to keep this question in mind. In turn, the way domination can be unchallenged by appreciation is directly linked to how the reduction of others to “mere” nature is understood paradoxically as legitimate and illegitimate.
Emmett, R. S. and Nye, D. E. The Environmental Humanities. A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: The MIT Press, 2017.
Flodin, Camilla. Att uttrycka det undanträngda: Theodor W. Adorno om konst, natur och sanning. Göteborg: Glänta Produktion, 2009.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Neimanis, A., Åsberg, C., Hedrén, J. ”Four Problems, Four Directions For Environmental Humanities: Toward Critical Posthumanities For the Anthropocene”. Ethics & Environment, 2015 (20) Spring issue 1. Intro.
Rimer, J. Thomas, and Yamazaki Masakazu. On the Art of the Nō Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.