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Troubling Knowledge (an essay by dramaturg Michael J. Kramer)

The Atmosphere of Exit Disclaimer: Science and Fiction Ahead

If you think you can solve a serious environmental question like global warming without actually confronting the question of by whom and how the foundational value structure of our society is being determined, then you are kidding yourself.” — David Harvey, Companion to Marx’s Capital

Exit Disclaimer is, ostensibly, about climate change. And yet it is not about the topic at all. Yes, the piece addresses global warming, which is perhaps the pressing political, moral, economic, and ecological issue of our time. And it does so with a powerful combination of gestural energy, spoken word, theatrical staging, sardonic wit, and deep seriousness. However, its true topic is neither exactly the science of climate change, nor precisely the workings of the natural environment. Rather, Exit Disclaimer explores the human context—not the climatological atmosphere but the social atmosphere if you will—in which scientific findings enter and, as the title of the dance suggests, exit, often with only a modicum of change in public policy or personal behavior.

What are we, as citizens of the United States and the world, to do given that our current human environment seems unable to respond to the problems occurring in our natural one? Grappling with this question, Exit Disclaimer takes its name from the wording placed on hyperlinks that lead from the official websites of government institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency to unvetted online materials. The piece asks us to click on these “disclaimed” links, as it were, and spend some time in the uncertain, almost delirious, and certainly contentious spaces to which they take us. Exit does not demand that we abandon authoritative sources of information about global warming or, worse yet, give up entirely on the issue in exasperation. What it does do is request that we keep going beyond the accepted scientific word and officially sanctioned interpretation of data—into the murkier realms of private experience, vested corporate economic interests, duplicitous public relations campaigns, and messy public debate—without descending into frustrated relativity or despondent apathy. It reminds us that we need science about climate change, we depend on it, and yet merely repeating the scientific facts alone has not yet produced a solution or even a consensus about what to do.

In this way, Exit Disclaimer is a dance not so much about climate change as it is about knowledge: how we create it, how we receive it, what we do with it, when and why we dispute it, and who exactly this “we” is in relation to it. Or better put, the piece is about the relationship between climate change and knowledge. After all, the performance starts with a school desk. It goes from there to a contemplation of the processes by which we come to know what we think we know—or do not know, or are unsure of—when it comes to the natural environment. How do the official and the unconfirmed relate to each other? How do we distinguish between the provable and the questionable? When does healthy skepticism give way to paranoid and conspiratorial denial? Where does the money lead when it comes to the knowledge undergirding policy decisions and advocacy (or opposition)? Is there a way to sever the profit motive from the survival instinct when facing a slow-motion (increasingly not so slow in fact) catastrophe such as global warming? Why does dissatisfaction so often accompany abundance and can we discover, somehow, limits that will make our lives on the planet sustainable? How should we link the global to the local, the ecological to the individual, the natural to the human-made, when it comes to rules and regulations, laws and protocols, and attitudes and sensibilities about climate change?

Exit Disclaimer is most of all about troubling knowledge—and it is so in two senses of that phrase. First, the piece asks us what it means when individual citizens learn the difficult news from scientists that the Earth is in peril. How should we respond to this troubling knowledge? What are we, as individual citizens and as a collective society, to do? That is the first question of knowledge that Exit Disclaimer addresses. But there is a second level too. The dance also challenges us to pay closer attention to the troubling of knowledge. Artistic director Carrie Hanson and The Seldoms want us to notice how knowledge gets constructed and circulated—and, just as crucially, how, when it comes to the current efforts to deny climate change, knowledge gets contested and undermined. The dance probes what it means to attain knowledge about the natural environment in a social environment of well-funded attacks on the consensus achieved by the mainstream scientific community. What do we do when faced with contradictory assertions, interpretations, and even facts themselves? Exit Disclaimer also demands that we engage more fully with the necessary but ultimately inadequate individual consumer choice to “go green.” Can corporate consumerism ever really separate the need for profit from the requirements of environmental exploitation? When is “going green” really just a commodified lifestyle choice within the system, and a fairly elitist one at that, rather than a transformation of how we actually live? And what really are the alternatives, anyway? Is sustainability of any kind possible? What would it look like? What would it be like? What would it feel like?

Dancing around these questions, posing them without engaging in haranguing agitprop, Exit Disclaimer leaves certified truths behind to address the destabilized landscape of contemporary politics and culture, particularly as it exists in the United States. In the clotted smog of American public discourse and social experience today, in which competing knowledges swirl about without ever seeming to alter our course away from a looming ecological disaster, in which we cannot even agree on what to think, never mind what to do, can non-linguistic modes of expression such as dance movement help us ourselves move toward something better? Can bringing the dancing body into play with the collective social body, indeed with the very body of Gaia, Mother Earth, herself, make a difference?

We live in a time when we no longer ignore ecological issues; this isn’t the “silent spring” that Rachel Carson wrote about in 1962 when she documented the environmental degradation caused by pesticides in the US. No, our world, at least the American one, is a very noisy place when it comes to protecting the natural environment. It is full of conflicting voices shouting all at once. Some are reasonable and some are irrational and some are downright crazy; some use the scientific method and others contest it; some turn to theology and religion while others to the secular principles of the Enlightenment; some express apathy while others undertake political organizing as best they can. The Seldoms ask us to live with these many voices, to move with them, to exit from our set positions and enter into this dense and confusing atmosphere. The virtuosic interplay among the dancers, the feisty zest of their performances together, and the strange deliriums of Exit Disclaimer’s theatrical props, soundscapes, and settings— ancient school desks and idling cars, snow globes and spatulas, pancakes and spinning wheels, carbon credits and deranged political speeches—bring us into the difficulties, even the despair, we face today when it comes to stopping climate change.

But so too, Exit Disclaimer offers a strange kind of hope: perhaps by leaving our sureties behind, by broadening what it means to feel as well as think our way through how our society constructs—and contests—knowledge about the natural world, we can then enter, uncertainly but with fierce determination, into transformations of the way we live. Lifted into this state of awareness by Exit Disclaimer, maybe we humans can finally stake a proper claim to a deserving life—and deserving life—on planet Earth.

Michael J. Kramer
History and American Studies, Northwestern University
Dramaturg, The Seldoms