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A Period of Animate Existence Reading List

Posted September 15th, 2017

Next weekend the beloved Philadelphia institution Pig Iron Theatre Company returns to the Fringe Festival with their first major work in two years, and it’s clear they put that time to good use. A Period of Animate Existence may be their most ambitious work to date, an awe inspiring large-scale piece of symphonic theater that examines the most universal, urgent issue of our time: climate change.

In an era called the “Sixth Extinction,” when up to 50 percent of all living species might die off, rather than grappling with the issue in a lecturing, damning manner, the creative team hopes to achieve something more nuanced and universally relatable. “We’ve tried hard to avoid an activist voice with this piece—we want to avoid haranguing or scolding as we investigate the landscape of emotions around climate change,” director Dan Rothenberg told the FringeArts Blog. “As we contemplate extinctions, I keep talking about emotions that I don’t have a name for. I know what grief is, having experienced the deaths of people close to me. And I know what terror is. I think finding ourselves in the middle of extinction creates feelings like grief and terror, but it’s some other emotion that doesn’t have a name.” In taking this lofty approach to the issue, the artists have most certainly done their homework, and then some.

The company has been gracious enough to share with us a list of texts that helped inform the piece. These works may help deepen audiences’ understanding of the show, but, perhaps more importantly, they will help deepen their understanding of the serious crisis we are currently living with. If confronting this harrowing information sounds daunting or terrifying or a surefire way to send yourself into fear-induced catatonia, believe me, I understand. Yet, in reading from these works, I’ve found being informed in my dread has been far more comforting than being ignorant in it. And thankfully, despite the dire nature of the situation, many of these writers chart concrete courses of action for how we might curb the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Taking in this full picture, perhaps you’ll find yourself not quite feeling grief, not quite feeling terror, but feeling that liminal emotion A Period of Animate Existence strives to articulate.

Vibrant Matter
Jane Bennett

Renowned political theorist Jane Bennet—known for her focus on nature, ethics, and affect— examines the active participation of nonhuman forces in natural events. Exploring just how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency is not strictly human, she suggests that such a change in perspective might provide impetus for more responsible, ecologically sound politics.

 

Key Writings
Henri Bergson

French philosopher Henri Bergson was an influential thinker of the early 20th century, one who recognized his time as a distinctly new and modern age, and in turn helped shape its intellectual discourse. At the core of his philosophy is his concept of Duration, a theory of time and consciousness, but most pertinent to the show is his concept of élan vital, his explanation for evolution (a relatively new concept at the time) and the development of organisms which essentializes life into “mobility itself.” This collection assembles Bergson’s most essential writings, including excerpts from Creative Evolution.

 

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable
Amitav Ghosh

Acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh takes to task our inability to grasp the scale and violence of climate change, particularly in terms of what he sees as an imaginative failure of literary writers. Arguing that the extreme nature of climate events make them resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining, he sees this as connected to the fact that politics and literature have become matters of personal moral reckoning rather than a platform for collective action. They are therefore, at the moment, unequipped to deal with what is truly the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as Ghosh sees the climate crisis as an opportunity for us to imagine other forms of human existence. He sees no better realm to address this task than in the world of fiction.

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