Nature and performance


Lead

In the study of man in relation to his environment, nature is not only seen as universal, physical and objective, but also as something emotional, personal and subjective. Scholars regard the environment as ‘an extension of the mind’[1] where man creates his own meaningful world through performed action.[2] Focusing on the perception of the natural environment, rather than the natural environment as such, scholars seek to understand how the relation between humans and nature is embedded in everyday life. Performance theory has played an important role in developing this new approach to the study of human-nature relations. Central to this approach is the idea that the relationship between men and nature is no pre-established and fixed, but is ‘open to improvisation, creativity and emergence.’[3]

Merging performance with nature

Since the 1960s scholars from different disciplines, for example environmental psychology (Gibson), phenomenology (Seamon, Thrift, Dewsbury), social anthropology (Ingold) and sociology (Szerzynski), have increasingly understood the relation between humans and nature not in terms of static structures and laws but as active and dynamic. They argued that the environment is not a passive and unchanging entity, but should be seen as an interconnected whole consisting of ‘a number of different, interacting and evolving individuals, species and processes – including human beings.’[4]

In the past decade, performance theory played an important role in a new view of human-environment relations. Several scholars (Crouch, Marvin) have argued that human interaction with the natural world is a performed action. They contend that practices (in everyday life as well as in ritualized activities) enable people to construct their own meaningful world through which they achieve a deeply sensuous relationship with the natural environment. Performance involves not only scripted ideas and values, but also inventiveness and improvisation. Performance becomes an event or an activity through which presence and meaning is created.

Staging the environment

In performance theory the natural environment functions mainly as a stage. The social anthropologist Tim Ingold has called such staged environments, in which humans and nature are seamlessly united, 'taskscapes'. A taskscape can be defined as a socially constructed space of human activity which is defined by physical or symbolic borders. It is the place where people live, work, contemplate, recreate, or, in other words, perform. (Ingold, 1993).

The environmental psychologist Gibson argues that the performance of human beings in the natural environment is influenced by its 'affordance'. He defines affordance as the sum of all actions that are physically possible in a particular natural environment. For example, an animal may use a stone for shelter, whereas a human may use it as a missile. A living being adapts the world to itself ‘by ascribing functions to the objects it encounters and thereby integrating them into a coherent system of its own.’[5]

A major difference between the performance of humans and animals is that humans have the ability to 'design' the natural world. According to Gibson, humans are capable of developing a 'designer orientation', which allows them to see nature from a third-person perspective (Gibson 1979). They have the unique ability to oversee and comprehend nature as a whole, and by using sophisticated technologies humans can subsequently reshape the affordances of nature, creating their own meaningful natural world.

Performance and nature in history

Studying performance theory in relation to humans and nature means understanding the sensuous experience of the environment. The emphasis here is on the role of performance in creating an individual world of experience, and constructing an intense relationship with the natural environment. Examples of creative and dynamic world-making are foxhunting (Itzkowitz, 1977) and gardening (Turner, 1985). Although both practices are governed by preconceived ideas and values, historians have shown that hunters and gardeners have always tried to explore the boundaries of their practice through improvisation, with the intention to create a different experience of their activities.

In the second place, aspects of performance theory in natural history refer to the practice of identity formation and social action. Scholars argue that specific social practices which are embedded in their natural environment create individual and group identities. Lowenthal argues for example in his article ‘European and English Landscapes as National Symbols’ that the natural features of rural England have been reproduced in English identity since the nineteenth century.

A recent milestone in the literature is Nature Performed (2003). In this collection scholars from different disciplines, such as religious studies, anthropology, history and philosophy, have tried to conceptualize nature and nature-human relations in terms of process and activity rather than in terms of stability. By using different case studies researchers have tried to explore the role of performance in the experience of the environment as the 'lived space' of everyday life and how performative action ‘enacts, alters and creates perceptions of nature-human relations'.[6] Although research into nature and performance may still be in its infancy, this study proves that the analysis of human-environment relations in terms of a performance can be very fruitful.

References

Crouch, D., ‘Performances and constitutions of natures: a consideration of the performance of lay geographies’, in: Szerszynski, B., W. Heim and C. Waterton (eds), Nature performed. Environment, culture and performance (Oxford 2003).

Franklin, A., Nature and Social Theory (London 2002).

Gibson, J.J., The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Houghton Mifflin, 1979).

Ingold, T., ‘Culture and the Perception of the Environment’, in: E. Croll and D. Parkin (eds) Bush Base: Forst Farm – Culture, Environment and Development (London 1992) pp. 39-56.

Ingold, T., ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’, World Archeology 25 (1993) pp. 152-174.

Itzkowitz, D., Peculiar privilege. A social history of English foxhunting 1753-1885 (Hassocks 1977);

Lowenthal, D., ‘European and English Landscapes as National Symbols’, in: D. Hooson (ed.) Geography and National Identity (Oxford 1994) 15-38.

Macnaghtan, Ph., and J. Urry, ‘Bodies of Nature: Introduction’, in: Ibidem (eds), Bodies of Nature (London 2001) pp. 1-11.

Macnaghten, Ph., and J. Urry, Contested Natures (London 1998).
Marvin, G., ‘Animal and Human Bodies in the Landscapes of English Foxhunting’, in: The Discipline of Leisure: Embodying Cultures of 'recreation' (New York 2008) p. 91-108.
Rackham, O., The History of the Countryside (London 1986).

Szerszynski, B., W. Heim and C. Waterton, ‘Introduction’, in: ibidem (eds) Nature performed. Environment, culture and performance (Oxford 2003).
Thrift, N. en J.D. Dewsbury, 'Dead Geographies - And How to Make Them Alive', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18 (2000) p. 411-432.
Turner, R., Capability Brown and the eighteenth-century English landscape (New York 1985)


[1] N. Thrift en J.D. Dewsbury, 'Dead Geographies - And How to Make Them Alive', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18 (2000) 415.
[2] Szerszynski, B., W. Heim and C. Waterton, ‘Introduction’, in: ibidem (eds) Nature performed. Environment, culture and performance (Oxford 2003).
[3] Ph. Macnaghtan and J. Urry, ‘Bodies of Nature: Introduction’, in: Ibidem (eds), Bodies of Nature (London 2001) 4.
[4] Szerszynski, Introduction, 3.
[5] T. Ingold, ‘Culture and the Perception of the Environment’, in: E. Croll and D. Parkin (eds) Bush Base: Forst Farm – Culture, Environment and Development (London 1992) 42.
[6] Szerszynski, Introduction, 2.