The eternal return of the same? Or: Humans in Theatre

Theatre can’t do without humans. This is perhaps the most painful point of this social, sometimes artistic formation and institution. Human labour – physical, organisational and intellectual – permeates this apparatus in order to ultimately work on “matters of concern” (Latour 2004) both on a macro-political (e.g. as state theatre) and micro-political (e.g. as community theatre) as well as on a scientific level (e.g. as Performance or Theatre Studies).

 “Matters of concern” are our reality. These are things that affect us, touch us, move us, trouble us. The Anthropocene and all the various contemporary events related to it, e.g. climate change, deforestation, extinction of species or ocean acidification, may undeniably be such a “matter of concern”. Probably the biggest of our time. With this in mind, I think it’s worth asking who are the ones coming together to enact this matter of concern, to think through it, perform it and create a reality that affects all of us?

Since quite some time the apparatus around Theatre has become just another actor within the debate on the Anthropocene, as illustrated, for example, by last year’s event Climate meets Theatre or the newly founded Berlin-based project The Theatre of the Anthropocene. The latter is conceived as a newly collaborative project between science and humanities around “the fundamental conflict ‘Man and Nature in the Anthropocene'” as can be read on the website. This project held its rite of passage in the journal Theater der Zeit in February 2020 to present its main impulses, aims and intellectual partners in 13 theses – e.g. Hegel, Hölderlin, Brecht and (the token woman) Haraway. While reading the 13 theses I was strongly affected – not by all the matters that were mentioned, rather by everything that’s been let out in these white pages. Something that concerns me.

House of Living Colors – Endangered Species, Foto: Xixi Diana YamYam

During the Tanztage 2020, a short time before the theses of The Theatre of the Anthropocene were published, the Berlin-based Drag Collective House of Living Colors performed a – if not the – problematic history of the Anthropocene in the Sophiensaele. In the performance Endangered Species (2020), a chorus of seven different performers – all from the queer, trans, black and indigenous people of colour community – questions the place of all the endangered species that regularly fall out of the liberal, hetero- and homonormative narratives of the Anthropocene. With their flesh, their stories, their communities, the performers dance, sing and fantasize against the brutal extinction of the Anthropocene and its main initiator: Man – this universalist, monohumanist figure that came into being with the beginning of colonialism as the Jamaican scholar Sylvia Wynter (2000, 2003) describes in various essays. Her writings make clear that there is no figure of Man without thinking through colonialism and racialism – two concerns that should affect the discussion of this thing called Anthropocene more deeply. But let’s go back to the performance.

The powerful scenes that the collective presents and narrates bring forth an intimacy of colonial-historical temporality in the present. In one of the narrative scenes, for example, the colonial history of Brazil is interwoven with the Korean colonial history and the end of the separation of West and East Berlin in the context of reunification. Chattel slavery and the terror of its colonial chronological mechanical slave time, which continues to this day, is expressed in a scene that is framed by a touching blues song. Another scene begins with a chorus in memory of the materials on which our colonial-capitalist system is based: “Palm oil, sugar, coffee, spice, tobacco, diamonds, coltan, rice.”

In Endangered Species the performers create a close connection with each other and bring an intimacy of their complex stories to the present. According to Lisa Lowe, intimacy is in fact the less visible but always present form of alliance, affinity and society between various colonized peoples (Lowe 2015: 19). This understanding of intimacy, which runs through the performance, is oriented against the form of intimacy that emerged in the 19th century within theories of possessive individualism, as Lowe points out (18). During the performance, images of a white arm greedily grasping for different forms of life are repeatedly shown on the three screens covering the sides of the staging space. The possessive white arm, pars pro toto of the possessive individual, reaches for an intimacy that is not granted in this performance. In this space of intimacy, the performers make audible and visible a relationality of colonial history and endangered species that offers no room for a “white innocence” (Wekker 2016). The unfinished temporality of the “modern/colonial matrix” (Iton cited in Weheliye 2014: 13) emerges throughout the different scenes and is clearly expressed in the words of one performer: “They call (it) neo- or postcolonialism but nothing ever felt new.” Colonial history is not a finished history of a linearly conceived temporality, but rather a constantly made, affectively charged temporality whose matrix evaluates, endangers and ultimately erases the lives of certain life forms. “Endangered Species” are all those who cannot and who do not want to occupy the dominant status of Man in the modern/colonial matrix. Where can we find the experiences and the knowledge from “Endangered Species” in the discourses on the Anthropocene? Certainly not in the proclamations of The Theatre of the Anthropocene which devote too much unaware attention to the universal figure of Man and a Theatre in the singular.

In her critical examination of the Anthropocene, scholar Kathryn Yusoff comments: “Equally, this planetary analytic has failed to do the work to properly identify its own histories of colonial earth-writing, to name the masters of broken earths, and to redress the legacy of racialized subjects that geology leaves in its wake.” (Yusoff 2018: 2) Kathryn Yusoff’s contestation of the Anthropocene is fundamental and necessary. Her aim is to tell a counter-history to the mainstream Anthropocene and its racial blindness, but also to every other possible “alter-cene” (Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Plantationocene), in order to be open to other and more responsible, decolonizing as well as geosocial futures (61). For this it is necessary to historically fill the inadequacies of the geological epoch of Man, that is, the universal categories of Man and, above all, geology. For with the advent of the colonial matrix a hierarchically organized system of human/inhuman, a differentiation between living and non-living, was introduced, which results from the history of settler colonialism and its extracting, possessive and appropriating practices (2). Within this system, Man is the living, active, possessing human being whose superiority is above all, who divides matter and life and produces a grammar based on his dominant status. Gold, as well as black and brown bodies, are brought into proximity with inhuman matter and geological categorizations through the practices of exploitation and extraction (3). Kathryn Yusoff’s book aims to mark the trillions of forgotten geological events (XII) and also the devaluation of all unnamed experiences (XIV) from the beginning of colonialism to the present. By encompassing precisely this temporality, by gathering the individual voices and experiences of the QTBIPoC in an intimate chorus, the performance Endangered Species marks all that which has so far been ignored in The Theatre of the Anthropocene, namely multiple genres of being human and an openness towards decolonizing futures.

Works Cited:

Endangerd Species (2020): Performance GodXXX Noirphiles (Adrian Marie Blount), Lola Rose (George Scott), Sophie Yukiko-Hasters, Lux Venerea, Ixa Red Pill (Kyle Mckay), Mandhla Ndubiwa, Isu Mignon- Mignonne Dramaturgy, Concept, Choreography, Costumes Adrian Blount Dramaturgical Assistance Keith King Assistant Choreography George Scott, Sophie Yukiko Hasters Projection, Animation Xixi Diana Yam Yam Sound Design Ixa Red Pill (Kyle Mckay) Assistance Sound Design Mandhla Ndubiwa

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Latour, Bruno (2004): Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. In: Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), S. 225-248.

Lowe, Lisa (2015): The Intimacies of four Continents. Durham: Duke University Press.

Scott, David (2000): The Re- enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter. In: Small Axe (8), S. 119–207.

Raddatz, Frank (2020): Statt eines Manifestes! 13 Thesen für das THEATER DES ANTHOPOZÄN. In: Theater der Zeit (2), S. 12–16.

Raddatz, Frank (2020): The Theatre of the Anthropocene. Online: https://theater-des-anthropozä Last access on June 29th, 2020.

Weheliye, Alexander G. (2014): Habeas Viscus. Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wekker, Gloria (2016): White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wynter, Sylvia (2003): Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument. In: CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (3), S. 257–337. DOI: 10.1353/ncr.2004.0015.

Yusoff, Kathryn (2018): A billion black Anthropocenes or none (Forerunners: ideas first from the University of Minnesota Press).