17 April, 2024


Our Role In Nature: Place, People & Performance

By Saumya Liyanage

Prof. Saumya Liyanage

Note: This paper was first presented as a keynote speech at the 7th International Conference on Cities, Places and People organized by the Faculty of Architecture, University of Moratuwa in Nov 14-16, 2019. With the current coronavirus outbreak and the natural catastrophe that humans are facing, I thought that this paper should be edited and shared with my readership. This paper discusses our place, performance and our innate engagement with the natural environment and also questions the ways that we inhabit the world.


In this talk, I will be addressing one of the most fundamental questions related to ourselves and our environment: What is the primal existence of our body and how do we relate to and perceive our environment? As people living in this world of technological and industrial development, the culture is considered superior than the nature. Further, we tend to think that we are alienated from our environment and are not an integral part of it. This can be seen as an anti-modernist perspective towards human progress. However, because of the rapid industrial development happening around us and technology invading our daily lives and living styles, we believe our freedom as human beings and our natural relationship with our environment has been threatened. Further because we believe that we are ‘thinking beings’ and subjectivities in this world, we have not been able to understand that there are other non-humans, especially other animals and species that are also sharing this world with us. Further we are in a conundrum as we still don’t know that these species are also subjectivities other than humans and how these animal minds are operating. With these existential complexities, we think that human beings are higher-order thinking creatures, and we are here to control our environment.

For many centuries, we have been dealing with our environments, building roads, constructing skyscrapers, intervening in diverse ways to change our environment in order for us to live a better life. Even today we gather here because we are alarmed that we have been vigorously working and changing our environments in order for us to have a livable and workable place. We gather here today to develop a dialogue and debate about how we sustainably build our structures around us while maintaining the natural balance of our environment. We tend to think towards this line because over the past few years, nature has taught us lessons, and we all have a feeling that nature has started working against human beings. Global warming has been a much-debated discourse and glaciers in the North Pole and elsewhere are beginning to melt more than ever before. Tsunamis, floods and natural catastrophes are becoming daily phenomena in our lives. Famine and drought have tormented millions of people in the world while bush fires in Australia and California are becoming a common phenomenon each year.


Phenomenological environmentalists show us how humans interact with and exist in this world. According to them, there are two ways that human beings exist. One way of our engagement with the world could be termed as ‘involvement’. The term ‘involvement’ encapsulates our dealing with the outer environment. We involve ourselves in various activities in the world and it is one of the ways that we are being-in-the-world. Secondly, we ‘inhere’ in the world which means that we are built with worldly phenomena, or we are made out of the same stuff of our environment (James 2005, p. 21). Heidegger argues that humans are unreflectively and practically involved with the world. The world in return opens its opportunities for us to deal with. This coupling and encroachment between our bodies and the environment is taking place mostly without our conscious interference. The most exciting factor of this argument is that we are already and pre-reflectively engaged with the world and it is not our rational mind that is primal to our understanding of the world. Heidegger coins the term ‘ready-to-hand’ (zuhanden) to denote that the world discloses its opportunities through which humans engage with it. For instance, when I see a pen, the pen discloses its functionality and usability by inviting me to use it in a way that I can write on a paper. This opens up various meanings for me to use the pen and this usability further widens a nexus of meaningful relations with other objects around me. For instance, when I use my pen to write, it is involved with other things such as papers, my desk, chair and the ink bottle which connect with the act of writing.


However, there are instances that we are confronted with fractures and discontinuations in our involvement with the world. If I take the same example of writing with a pen, I may experience a breakdown of my writing process due to lack of ink in my pen or blotting of the paper. Here I experience a disjuncture between my smooth flow of writing. As we always experience, our practical engagements with our environments are not fluid and smoothly flowing. There are disruptions and discontinuations that occur. Heidegger identifies this disjuncture between our bodies and their smooth function in our environment as ‘present-at-hand’ (vorhanden). This is what we experience in many disastrous environmental catastrophes that we encounter in our daily lives. From a small disrupt of an incompatibility of our bodies and environment to a larger scale of natural disasters we experience this ‘present-at-hand’ on a daily basis. From the mega floods of Chennai, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunamis in Japan and to Amazon rainforest fires, human beings have experienced tragic devastation in the last few decades. With all these philosophical concepts and ideas, what I have tried to share with you is that our understanding about human existence, its being-in-the-world and our relationship with our environment is becoming more complex and challenging than ever before. As a theatre scholar, what I am going to argue here is how we could revisit and rethink our involvement with the world and lessons that we can share with others as to how our consumeristic thinking pattern could be changed and altered.

Bodily Consciousness

The classical problem pertaining to our understanding of the human body is that it is partly understood as an object (Körper) which is the fleshy part of the body consisted of skin, flesh and organs. The other part is the ‘conscious part’ which is the psyche of the human body. This dichotomous error has been in Western thought over many centuries. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty challenged the ideas of human existence as a split, and he suggested a new way of looking at how the human body works as a consciousness. His idea of the body-subject thus encapsulates and encompasses the centuries-old dichotomous understanding of the human as body and mind and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological writing shows the power and capacity of human body and how it works as a consciousness: ‘I am not having a body, but I am the body,’ he argued. Here another concept is vital for us to understand our relationship with the world. This concept is called the ‘intentional arc’. The intentional arc explains how we connect with the world not through our ‘conscious minds’ but through our own bodies or bodily intentionality. The body and the world as Merleau-Ponty argues are interwoven and encroached as the same flesh. When the body exists in a particular spatial and temporal terrain, it is already anchored in that particular space and time without rationally engaging with it. But our erroneous understating is that we believe that we engage and act in this world through our conscious minds. The human’s engagement with the outer world is clearly articulated and demonstrated in theatre and dance scholarship. The next section explains such engagement and shows the reader how the human performance engages with the environment and how the body attuned to the natural world in pre-reflective ways.

Bodily Engagement

The performer always engages with her environment and this engagement or encroachment is occurred through pre-rational ways of being-with-other. In this sense, the performer pre-reflectively engages with particular spatial and temporal terrains and this engagement is mutually intertwined and engrained. Dance scholar Victoria has developed a performance in an abandoned basement in a suburb with a group of dancers and argues that there are pre-reflective ways of human bodily engagement and interaction that enable the dancer to perceive, understand and create the dance enactment (Hunter 2005). When the performer enters into a particular space, she engages with the site in two ways: one is that she perceives the architectural qualities of the site and secondly she perceives the spatial qualities of the site. Any theatre space is filled with something called ‘atmospheric space’. This atmospheric space is created through the ways that performers use the space. German philosopher Gernot Böhme argues that ‘atmospheric spatiality’ is something that is intangible and cannot be seen but people can feel it when they get into a particular space (Fischer-Lichte 2014, p. 24).

In line with this, there are four different ways that a performer engages with her performance site: 1. Experiencing the site, 2. Expressing the site, 3. Embodying the site, and finally receiving the site (Hunter 2005, p. 372). Performance spaces are pre-existing architectural sites. We distinguish these architectural spaces from the performative spatial structure once a particular performance is integrated with those spatial terrains. If we take the first mode of actors’ existence in a particular performance, ‘experiencing the site’ is culminated through bodily engagement with the site. This can be articulated as ‘body-in-space’ (Hunter, 2005, 372). The actor or a dancer can ‘be’ in the space, exploring and experiencing the space through series of bodily movements. These movements can be ranged from just sitting to more elaborated and exaggerated body movements like jumping, and rolling. In response to human bodily movements, performance sites also disclose historical, architectural and also auditory and visual information for the performer. The performer therefore perceives myriad information through her body and creates a series of performative responses. The genius loci (spirit of space/lived space) is generated through these bodily engagements.


In this speech, I discussed Martin Heidegger’s two key concepts, ‘ready-to-hand’ and ‘present-at-hand’, through which the human body interacts with the environment. Furthermore, I explored the idea of the ‘body-subject’ developed by Maurice Merlau-Ponty and the bodily power of the ‘intentional arc’ through which we pre-rationally engage with the world. As with these phenomenological engagements, it is clear that our pre-reflective engagement with our space, place and other human and non-human beings are anchored prior to our rational interventions. Hence, it is important as artistes, performers, architects and even as laymen to rethink and revisit how to understand our existence in this world and how these worldly interactions could be mutually beneficial and also sustainable. By reading Merleau-Ponty’s famous quote, I will wind up my speech this way: ‘The body is to be compared, not to a physical object, but rather to a work of art’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962, p. 174).

*Saumya Liyanage (PhD) is Professor in Theatre and the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Sri Lanka


Dreyfus, H.L. (1991). Being-in-the-world : a commentary on Heidegger’s Being and time, division I. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Mit Press.

Fischer-Lichte, E. (2014). The Routledge introduction to theatre and performance studies. London: Routledge.

Gallagher, S. (1986). Lived Body and Environment. Research in phenomenology, 16(1), pp.139-170.

Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E. (2008). Being and time. New York: Harperperennial/Modern Thought.

Hunter, V. (2005). Embodying the site: The here and now in site-specific dance performance. New Theatre Quarterly, 21(4), pp.367-381.

Hunter, V. (2019). Vernacular mapping: Site dance and embodied urban cartographies. Choreographic Practices, 10(1), pp.127-144.

James, S. (2009). The Presence of Nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Merleau-Ponty, M. and Smith, C. (n.d.). Phenomenology of perception.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    My opinion is you are trying to mix Buddhism or Hinduism into this article but you did not achieve much. Besides how body and mind connect with technology and modern what ever.
    I think, the first day monkeys began to use a stick to pick ants, for food, from the ant hill or from the termite hill, technology started.
    In the modern history, I think Almighty Buddha gave the best description about how environment and humans relates. Buddha has mentioned that Environmental concerns (something called environmental Psychology begins…) begins with one’s mind which affects his body. His/her wrong thoughts and action will affect the surrounding environment which will include humans around them, plants, water, soil and the whole ecosystem which include animals too.
    Some of the things that Sri Lankan specialists do and talk are the same thing that existed 40 or 50 years ago. We had everything organic. We wanted to be modern and we destroyed all those. Now, we quote from western books when only now, may be a decade or two ago, they have learned and how dangerous and nasty is going against what is natural. Now, I have read Newyorkers like veggies grown in the state or in their own plot. They grow gardens along the walls of high rises. They recycle heat produced in the building to heat it cool it. Building construction goes with the surrounding.
    Here CERTIFIED organic means grown without fertiliser and pesticides. We did that 50 years ago, I suppose.
    Here also they are experimenting with alternative materials for building construction. On the other hand, Sri Lanka can NOT construct anything without Cement or concrete (alternative materials available stronger than concrete). See Ruwanweliseya and Jethawanaramaya exists even after several millennia. But those are built only with Bricks, brick like binding material and Aluhunu (calcium carbonate)

  • 0

    Write all you want but as long as fellow humans indulge in questionable judgement of the food we eat, poor and careless abattoir practices, widely varying personal hygiene habits – washing hands, sneezing and coughing without taking precautions, spitting, -and poor toilet facilities, we will invariable end up with an epidemic, or worse, a pandemic. And, if you think the current crisis will teach anything, I suggest you do not bet your last rupee on mankind having learned any lesson.

  • 0

    Our Role In Nature: Place, People & Performance, Language of the universe speaks in signs, this divine voice is often outside of our scope of our attention. it has been disclose historical science start to discover to score credit we must renew the eternal values with a vision of religious truth that is compatible with the achievements of modern science.

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