The Personalities of Concepts: An interview with Stephanie Barber by Alicia Puglionesi

Stephanie Barber is a writer and artist who has created a poetic, conceptual and philosophical body of work in a variety of media, often literary/visual hybrids that dissolve boundaries between narrative, essay and dialectic works. Her work considers the basic philosophical questions of human and non-human existence (its morbidity, profundity and banality) with play and humor. Her short play, Trial in the Woods, premiered in Baltimore in 2018 and was published by Plays Inverse in 2020. Stephanie has called it “a crime procedural and an animal fable,” which would grab anyone’s interest, and it refuses to be either of those things or to let go of the reader as it plunges into the quicksand of collective deliberation. Though the jurors, residents of a harmonious multi-species forest community, were all witness to an act of random violence, their investigation into its causes leads them through blame, humor, doubt, song, and most of all, philosophy. There are animals and long conversations in much of Stephanie’s work; reading the play is like another step through a series of mirrors on whose surfaces ideas are continually rematerialized in bodies familiar and strange. 

Alicia Puglionesi: In the early modern period the word “radical” described a fundamental, animating heat or humor of organisms. A radical therapy was one believed to target the root of an illness, to intervene in the essence of the body. It encompasses both the fundamental nature of a thing and also the extreme measures required to try and change that thing—and maybe the motivating vision of a different way of being. Radical passes by way of medicine into politics and current usage to mean an “extreme” political commitment. A lizard arguing for the “deeply radical randomness of existence” could point in all of those directions. Is this animal story radical in that it is trying to expose the root of something, or to change it?

Stephanie Barber: Yes, it does work to think of this sentence using radical as “root” or “extreme” and maybe trying to comprehend the ‘root’ of something is an extreme act. A sort of Eames, Powers of Ten exercise. I might be a little reticent to choose between exposing or changing here. And maybe this foreshadows the Jill Lepore false dilemma you mention below. First of all, I’m not sure these are my only options in writing this play, or weighing in on these ideas––but, of these two choices I’m not sure I’m trying to expose OR change anything.  Not in this play. I’m just writing about these ideas, these characters, and my lack of a clear moral directive became the subject as much as the animals, the crime and the humor are the subject. I’m not sure I feel comfortable professing the need to change anything. Not publicly and not in this format. Certainly I would like many things about our contemporary American justice system to change. Personally, I feel very strongly about this but in the play I tried, very hard, to NOT tip my hand, not tip the woods’ hand. I post a haiku on facebook everyday but I almost never go to the home page anymore, I feel so suffocated by the screaming opinions and advice that everyone posts. I’m not sure that my reluctance is at all socially beneficial, and I’m certain it is not socially or politically popular right now, but I’ve been trying to NOT say my opinion so much. Trying (really hard…it’s really hard) to not even form an opinion about most things. I’m pretty terrified by the amount of humans on earth–– 7.9 billion humans! And all of their deeply felt cruel and beneficent opinions. Somehow it seems important to me to not form opinions for a little while. But certainly, while writing the play I tried to generously contemplate each perspective and not hammer away implications with my own personal, small directive.

AP: How do you feel about violence as a metaphor or a philosophical tool in the play? It’s not necessarily where I go when I think of the pain/despair/ecstasy of our existential condition—that seems like an internal rather than an intersubjective crisis. Maybe there’s not as much of a difference between those as we’d like to believe. Of course, it’s also funny to think about that as the outcome of going to yoga class.

SB: Yea, this is so interesting to me Alicia, the way the violence is both a metaphor and an actual, physical occurrence in this play, and in ‘real life’.  And often it is both the cause and the effect of an occurrence. I don’t know how to say it exactly, physical violence is the cause and effect of a social intersubjective crisis. I’m interested in the schools of thought that consider violence a public health concern and move towards possible cures through, not a punitive action, but reparative measures and here too the word ‘root’ seems appropriate. And the Powers of Ten. How far back does a searcher go to be able to root out a cause for something? And every time we indict a structure, concept, group or system, as we are working hard to study and understand its movements, it is changing.

AP: One reason I started eating meat a few years ago (had not done so since age 12) was that I wondered if I was in denial about the basic reality of life. Was I subscribing to the exceptionalism that an individual person can opt out of nature and have no impact on the world. The opposite is the quietist recourse to “that’s just human nature” or “humans are just animals in the end.” The animals in the play are very clear about not wanting anything to do with the human. Yet their world is shaped by the human as a political category; they are also grappling with the nature of nature as a direct experience and a social phenomenon. Where does the thread of nature lead you?

SB: Well, as this question so circuitously demonstrates, the thread is tangled! Funny that you’ve referenced Quietism which, I guess, is what I’ve been practicing the last few years…oh lowly maligned movement! One tricky awareness is that (perhaps) non-human animals do not do as much separating of themselves from ‘nature’ as humans. It is perhaps a human’s Umwelt, or Dasein, this fractured awareness of self as separate from surroundings or as is often the case, at odds with or in a war against their surroundings. I mean that this divorce may be ‘human nature’ though I can’t quite see, Michael Jackson aside, what the benefit of such a separation could be.

Certainly, the animals in TITW are having a lot of fun making jokes at the human’s expense and taking pains to remind themselves, and each other, of the pitfalls of identifying too greatly with that unfortunate species, but they too are just metaphors. They are metaphors for various human perspectives, various possible ways to contemplate community, violence and social justice. A friend sort of called me to task on all the anthropomorphizing I engaged in but, really, if there is simply an imagined character, a perspective, joke or idea then I think it is some other morphizing I’m engaged in. The only animal really being studied and truly contemplated in this play is the human. I’m actually deeply interested in non-human animals as actual beings and most of my pleasure reading is ethological but this book is, I know, playing fast and loose with them. More metaphors. Maybe all characters are metaphors?

AP: I was reading a report of a séance from 1920 and the medium has an offhand comment about how the dead are doing much better philosophy in the afterlife because they “no longer smother it in language.” No one is more logorrheic than spiritualist mediums; still, reaching towards the disembodied dead and towards the embodied animal makes me think about the desire for a philosophy that is not smothered in language. But then you still have to make them talk. This question is supposed to be about giving voice to fictional characters in a play, and where those voices come from.

SB: This is fantastic!! Seems like the quieter the dead become the less business the spiritualists will have! Or maybe they will just have to hone their own non-verbal philosophical expressions. I’ve been making ceramics for the last few years and it is very new to me, this trying to think and express and joke and shape without language. though, pretty soon after beginning to make them I guess I smothered them in language with long, poetic title options….I just cannot conceive of philosophy separate from language. I think philosophy is about language in a truly lovely way, playing with language and playing with the myriad implications of a word…to remove language from philosophy might be to move towards directives, truisms or feelings. Those things which have fewer options. I have never before been afraid of dying but if there’s no language it doesn’t seem like I will like it that much.

The, very chatty, characters in my play, though embodied as animals are really the feel of particular ideas, the personalities of concepts, the poetry, rhythm and pacing of philosophies, coupled with, as you touch on in the next question, some age-old animal stereotypes. A sort of voice/concept/being synesthesia.

AP: Our animals (the animals of human imaginations) have always figured in fables and religions, have been made to signify in many different contexts. You play with some of that: a snake that spurns the “stultifying rigidities of the concept of truth”; a sexy owl; the fact that otters look cute in pictures and are vicious predators. Were there animal tales that you drew on?

SB: I did not draw on any animal tales, I think these leaps you mention are so at the ready, so much of how we understand non-human animals is through human stories. So few humans have a chance to live closely with other species…in America we’ve got cats and dogs, a few birds, rats, squirrels, sometimes a fox or a horse, maybe a coyote out west or a drunken moose in Idaho….My main research materials were around justice, legalese and prison reform…Foucault, Fanon, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Michelle Alexander…

 AP: I tried listening to a podcast by historian Jill Lepore about truth and deception. The opening monologue positions the type of story on this podcast as “all that stands between reasonable doubt and the chaos of uncertainly.” That line has been driving me crazy because it’s supposed to sound like two logically opposed or at least demarcated things, but I don’t think reasonable doubt and the chaos of uncertainty are different. Do you?

SB: I was going to write here that another reference tool I drew from in writing TITW was a list of logical fallacies (which is true) and I was going to say that Ms. Lepore had saddled you with a false dilemma (as previously alluded to) BUT, could she mean that the difference between these two things––reasonable doubt and chaos of uncertainty are how one approaches or psychologically responds to this not knowing––either the easy reasonableness of not being sure or the anxiety-ridden fear of “chaos”? This is the domain of Zinnia the snake, a being that slips and slithers easily through not knowing.

AP: The previous question could also be about mystery and the ritual of solving mysteries with a law enforcement investigation and jury trial. This is a hobbyhorse of mine: the immensely popular police-procedural genre has really hammered in that epistemology. Your play starts with a crime that everyone witnesses. How is the apparatus of evidence and deliberation equipped for such a mystery, or not?

SB: And yet, another bit of research material was Law & Order and Endeavour, for the very satisfying and ingestible formulas they follow. Yes, though I think I would really love the challenge of writing a procedural in which one needs to prove or disprove something with clues and witnesses and all the good old gumshoe figuring, I have not. What is really on trial in this play is the justice system, the courtroom structure, punitive justice and the assumption that a crime is committed by an individual (which you touch on in the next question) whose actions are distinctly separated from their environment and community.

AP: The character of Elijah Wolf evokes abolitionist thinkers with whom readers might be familiar. Moreover, abolition is abroad in the woods as common sense rather than a rarified academic critique. The play stages a confrontation over the need for individualized guilt and punishment. Do you want to talk about the context in which the play was commissioned and why this was what you wanted to address?

SB: Yes, Elijah Wolf is very Hollywood and echoes real and imagined abolitionist thinkers. I love this phrase “abroad in the woods as common sense rather than a rarified academic critique.” Thank you. I’m very interested, in all of my work (and particularly in this play which demanded that I find a lot of different voices and accents and cadences and word choices for all these characters) in trying to grapple, rigorously, with some very large philosophical (academic? Intellectual?) concepts while trying to sidestep the class-bound implications of a certain way of using language. Many different types of speakers in the woods handle these very large concepts with agility.

I was commissioned to write this play by a theater company (The Baltimore Annex) that broke up after I had started writing it. One of the founding members, Sarah Jacklin, decided to go ahead and direct and produce the play anyway, and she did a really amazing job and I was thankful to have been pushed and paid to write it though, yes, it came from a really devastating series of violent events in the neighborhood where I lived at the time. I really can’t write about it too directly, even here and now. It happened to come out this way, as a philosophical treatise, as a comedy, as an animal fable, as a something which only asks more questions and does not really provide any answers….Questioned by police and cautioned by perpetrators, losing loved ones and feeling afraid…there was just a string of murders and other attacks that I did not, still do not, know what to do with. I am not against ‘snitching’ I mean, that is an ethos in my neighborhood that I find very silly and simple but nor do I have a faith in the American justice system (let alone the Baltimore justice system). I felt distinctly frozen and ethically unsure of what could be the right path. And so, spoiler alert….your next question and my decision to have a ‘hung jury’ comes directly out of my emotional/ethical quandary. I feel like Ms. Harwood Owl expresses this well for me:

Yes, I am NOT aware of a reason. Or NO I am not

aware of a reason. I don’t know how to say it properly.

I am not aware and I was not aware. I do not know

why any of that happened but I really do not know why

anything happens. It is a thought I find comforting. I

do not know and I cannot know.

AP: Skip it if you don’t want to give away the ending, but the trial ends with a hung jury. It felt a lot like living in Baltimore. Everyone has something to say about why violence happens and whose fault it is. Experts having their say is a big industry. The causal story becomes irresolvably complex. And the outcome is that nothing changes. (Though the goal is still to convict and punish as many people as possible, I think even public officials have the observational if unspeakable knowledge that this is ineffective.) Going back to the question of radicalism: do we need to understand root causes? Can we live well, or live differently, without a satisfactory answer?

SB: Just as I was reading your questions a friend of mine from NYC sent me a link to Nina Simone’s Baltimore which, you know, I can barely listen to anymore. The fact that its sentiment is still so potent really hurts. I wanted to answer this question, and perhaps I should have answered earlier but now, having written just a little bit about the violence in my neighborhood I am back to the lack of will and clear sight. I think clear sight or a desire to contemplate how we can live well, how we can live differently (with or without a release from the chaos of uncertainty) requires at least a modicum of optimism and I realize that I am distinctly lacking in optimism.

Alicia Puglionesi is a writer and historian. She earned a PhD in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Johns Hopkins and MICA. Her forthcoming book, In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire, examines four sites of resource extraction that also yielded scientific and spiritual narratives core to US settler-colonialism. She lives in Baltimore.

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