Chilean Sacred Dancers and Western Secular Magicians: Two Paratheatrical Ecologies of Mind

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Preamble: Pleading not in earnest or 'till our knees ‘to the ground do grow’

Towards the end of Shakespeare's Richard II, the Duke and the Duchess of York learn that their son has been involved in a thwarted conspiracy against the new king, Henry IV, who has just deposed Richard II. With the conspirators being rounded up for execution the Duke and the Duchess deploy two differing strategies when pleading on behalf of their son. The Duchess kneels at the King's feet to pray fervently for his pardon, whilst the Duke begs as vigorously for punishment.

As a result of this two-pronged advocacy, Henry IV, against all expectations, pardons the couple's son whilst having all the other conspirators put to death.

The Duke and Duchess's opposed approaches neatly illuminate two different uses of paratheatrical means to attain therapeutic ends which are quite widespread in our cultural millieu nowadays. The first approach is centred on deploying strategies of histrionic simulation hopefully in such an expert manner that they succeed in appearing true, with the success of the paratheatrical illusion being the pivot around which therapeutic success turns. This use of illusionist histrionics is current in the field of systemic familiy therapy, the well known psychotherapeutic school pioneered by Gregory Bateson's work on the ecology of mind. The particular instance of it that can be exemplified by the Duke's strategy is what is technically called ‘defiance-based paradoxical intervention’. It consists in dextrously simulating to want the client or patient to respond in a specified (but unhelpful) way, in the hope of instigating precisely the opposite response – as the Duchess's words that I have underlined suggest.

The second approach is also based on putting on a show, hopefully as expertly as in the former case, but without attempting to conceal its theatricality. Histrionics are openly displayed rather than concealed, but only to be disavowed, that is emphatically denied in a manner not unlike that of the Duchess's own pleading above. This expert but disavowed therapeutic resorting to paratheatrical means can be currently witnessed in the northern Chilean versions of Latin American Andean pilgrimage devotion, whenever expressions of aesthetic admiration for the dances are rebuked by participating pilgrims as beside the point.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2005

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  • Performing Nature
    The essays in this volume explore the borderland between ecology and the arts. Informed by psychoanalysis and cultural materialism, contributors to the first part, 'Spectacle: Landscape and Subjectivity', look at ways in which particular social and scientific experiments, theatre and film productions and photography either reinforce or contest our ideas about nature and human-human or human-animal relations and identities. The second part, 'World: Hermeneutic Language and Social Ecology', investigates political protest, social practice art, acoustic ecology, dance theatre, family therapy and ritual in terms of social philosophy. Contributors to the third part, 'Environment: Immersiveness and Interactivity', explore architecture and sculpture, site-specific and mediatised dance and paratheatre through radical theories of urban and virtual space and time, or else phenomenological philosophy. The final part, 'Void: Death, Life and the Sublime', indicates the possibilities in dance, architecture and animal behaviour of a shift to an existential ontology in which nature has 'the capacity to perform itself'.
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