The Self-Immolation of David Buckel: Towards a Postdramatic Activism

Victoria Scrimer*

Abstract

On 14 April 2018, lawyer and environmental activist David Buckel burned himself to death in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in what has been called the first self-immolation in the name of climate change. Yet, few people have heard about his final, extraordinary act of protest and even fewer people witnessed it. Some in the press and the attentive public, conditioned by conventional dramatic expectations, have critiqued Buckel’s protest as a failed performance. However, drawing from Hans-Thies Lehmann’s theory of postdramatic theatre, I propose that climate change—causally diffuse, non-linear, slow-moving and often invisible—presents, among other things, a challenge to dominant modes of perception. I argue that, when viewed through a postdramatic lens, Buckel’s self-immolation successfully interrupts our politics of spectacle, gesturing towards a new aesthetic for environmental activism that eschews conventional dramatic narratives and decenters the human. 
Keywords: protest, performance, self-immolation, postdramatic, environmental activism

In the early morning hours of 14 April 2018, David Buckel, a thin, bespectacled man in his sixties called in sick to work, walked the short distance from his home to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park where the lawyer-cum-environmentalist laid out a neat, protective ring of soil on an inconspicuous patch of grass, carefully positioned an apologetic note for first responders nearby, and burned himself to death. Self-immolation is a relatively rare form of activism in the United States, but Buckel’s self-immolation is rarer still. As New York Times reporter Annie Correal pointed out in her initial coverage of the event, Buckel’s is “perhaps the first [self-immolation] anywhere in the name of climate change” (A2).

Buckel was a pillar of the community composting movement in New York City and a renowned LGBTQ rights lawyer, well-known for his work on the case of Brandon Teena, a transgender man whose rape and murder in Nebraska inspired the 1999 biopic, Boys Don’t Cry. Yet, few activists and scholars have heard of Buckel’s final protest. In fact, as several journalists were quick to point out, this extreme act of protest went mostly unnoticed by the public.

Since its emergence as a protest tactic in the 1960s, self-immolation has functioned, in large part, as a carefully orchestrated, highly mediated spectacle designed to draw public attention to an issue. As John Whalen-Bridge points out in his book on Tibetan self-immolations, a full understanding of the act “must encompass not just self-ignition but the willful creation of an image . . . that will travel around the world” (37–38). A self-immolation which fails to garner substantial visibility can, therefore, feel like a tragically failed act—a sentiment expressed by many who weighed in on Buckel’s death in comment sections, op-eds and social media.

I propose, however, that Buckel’s unobtrusive, modest variation on this typically spectacular protest practice raises important questions for activists and their audiences about the complex relationship between dramatic representation and political change. I argue that what we might initially read as an ineffective protest, in fact, marks a foray from an activist performance tradition rooted in the conventions of dramatic theatre to a mode of performance that is more akin to what theatre theoretician Hans-Thies Lehmann has termed “postdramatic.”

At first blush, it may seem flippant to talk of Buckel’s death in terms of theatre. Buckel was not a character on stage, after all, but a loved and respected human being, and phrases like “drama,” and “performance” may connote, for some, a sense of insincerity. It is, therefore, worth briefly considering, as Arthur Shahadi does in his essay about the self-immolation of performance artist Kathy Change: “Can suicide ever be considered using the same theoretical frames as performance? Could such an act be judged in terms of its aesthetic strategies?” (53). If artists and activists take seriously (and I think we should) the notion that a protest’s form is not incidental frippery, that it communicates important social and political values, then theatre and performance offer a generative and well-established lens through which to read these embodied communications.

I suggest there is political meaning to be found in the ways Buckel’s self-immolation fails to conform to certain hallmarks of conventional drama to which we are enculturated, like interhuman conflict, linear causality and representation. In her chapter, “How Does the Riot Speak,” Sophie Nield suggests that people often dismiss certain forms of protest, like riots, as apolitical or “having nothing to say” because they fail to conform to structural hierarchies and norms of accepted imagery (240–41). In a similar vein, I suggest that the attentive public have not fully recognized the “political speech” (239) of Buckel’s protest because it does not easily conform to protest norms rooted in dramatic convention.

It is not my contention that Buckel consciously theorized his protest in terms of theatre, but rather, as Raymond Williams observed in 1983, that we are living in a dramatized society in which the dramatic paradigm is “built into the rhythms of everyday life,” so much so that it constitutes a “habitual experience,” an unconscious need we seek to fill (12). To attend to the ways this paradigm influences the reception of an act like Buckel’s self-immolation, to speak of it in terms of theatre (dramatic or otherwise), does not diminish but expands its significance in ways that Buckel himself may not have anticipated, but that I venture to hope he would have appreciated. It is my contention that postdramatic theatre theory might shed new light on Buckel’s final act and point activists and audiences in the direction of different ways of perceiving and responding to global threats like climate change.

Before attending specifically to how Buckel’s protest disrupts dramatic expectations and protest conventions, it is first necessary to briefly contextualize his actions within a tradition of environmental activism whose primary mode of communication is dramatic. In his book, Actors and Activists, David Schlossman makes the case that activists or “political people” draw from a “pool of conventions, a well of theatricality,” particularly elements of spectacle, in their performance strategies for everything from marches to banner-drops and die-ins (88). The influence Schlossman identifies is not just that of performativity broadly defined by way of performance studies, but that of a technical, institutional, dramatic theatre. Schlossman explicitly references activists’ use of costumes, props and puppets as evidence of this cross-pollination, but such influence also extends to the use of basic conventions of dramatic theatre like visual representation of linear plots that feature clearly identified antagonists and protagonists. This, according to Lehmann, is the dramatic paradigm that has dominated European stages for centuries—“the representation . . . of speeches and deeds on stage through mimetic dramatic play” or the creation of a “model of the real” (21–22). I speak from years of experience working with environmental activists when I say that activists are no exception and, like dramatists, they are deeply invested in the dramatic paradigm, the careful production of story, image and action aimed at evoking powerful emotions in their audience.

Despite the clear influence of dramatic theatre on activist performance, activism is not often analyzed through the lens of aesthetic drama. More commonly, performance studies scholars treat activist performance as one stage of what anthropologist Victor Turner famously termed “social dramas” (145). By Turner’s account, activist performance—he uses the Boston Tea Party as an example, but a self-immolation serves just as well—constitutes only one step in a wider-reaching social drama, the breach of a norm, which would then precipitate a larger social crisis, redress, and eventual return to stasis (150). This is a somewhat utilitarian approach to activist performance in that it tends to draw our focus to the efficacy of an action in influencing a pattern of other “real world” events.

The discrete function of an activist performance within the narrative arc of a broader social drama can obscure the fact that an activist performance, like a piece of dramatic theatre, also contains its own internal logic and dramatic structure. Self-immolation is the case in point, and its form is relatively easy to situate within the conventions of dramatic theatre: rising action (preparing the site and the self), moment of crisis (lighting the match), falling action (burning) and resolution (extinguishing). The incentive behind such structures is also easy to identify: actions from the Boston Tea Party to a tree-sitting to a blockade employ characters (often in costume, no less) who enact a microcosmic representation of the world they want their audience to see. Whether it is the fleeting image of a better world or the stark illustration of a world in dire need of change, activist performance is about allowing, or forcing, its audience bear witness to one particular vision of the world.

Despite its obvious “real world” implications, Buckel’s self-immolation, by his own account, is just such a microcosmic representation. In the explanatory note he sent to news outlets and authorities, Buckel wrote that his “early death by fossil fuels reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”[1] So, while Buckel’s life and death are, of course, situated firmly in the real, given the framework he sets up in his suicide note, Buckel’s body also stands in for (or plays the role of) an imagined collective in a fictive (if increasingly likely) dystopian future, blurring the boundary between the real and the symbolic. Baz Kershaw identifies this type of performance as a “synechodic spectacle” in which the part (the protest) stands in for the whole (society) (“Fighting”257). Kerhsaw also suggests that these types of protest have a dramaturgy, or dramatic arrangement of images and events, worth attending to because the form of a given protest stands to reveal important information about the socio-political moment in which it takes place—sometimes in ways that work counter to activists’ intentions (257).

For example, Kershaw points out how a 1968 anti-war protest in London’s Grosvenor Square slips from symbolic protest to a “scaled down version of the irrevocably real violence that it aims to prevent” (“Fighting” 259). We see similar slippage in the 2017 Women’s March when a massive crowd of women packed Washington, D.C. streets to congestion. The crowd, constrained by the architecture of the capitol city, chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!”—an ironic reflection of an election in which a woman won the popular vote but never made it to the White House.

It is important to analyze the ways in which activist performance, like Buckel’s self-immolation and its reception, are influenced by the dramatic paradigm because, as Turner and others have pointed out, the messages, forms, images and ideologies of dramatic theatre implicitly inform or “equip” our lived feelings and behavior (On the Edge 300–301). In particular, activists and audiences labor under conventional expectations regarding scale, spectacle, plot and character to draw attention or visibility to their cause. For instance, a 2018 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review aimed at activists and advocacy workers instructs readers to “tell better stories” and suggests that effective stories will contain “characters; a beginning, middle, and end; plot, conflict, and resolution” and feature “familiar plot structures” to capture an audience’s attention, guide their expectations, and allow audiences to orient themselves as the good guys within the narrative (Christiano and Neimand 32–33). The article cites several studies which suggest audiences will avoid or ignore stories that challenge these conventions. In other words, if an activist performance is left unresolved, if its action is not logical, if its scale is underwhelming, if its protagonists and antagonists have not been clearly identified, if its dramaturgy is at odds with its message, it is subject to a type of cultural invisibility.

Initially, the literal invisibility, or absence of images and eyewitness accounts, of Buckel’s self-immolation seem to work against his stated aim to draw attention to climate change. From Instagram to body cams, American society is one in which spectacle is the primary mode of social and political discourse. As Douglas Kellner argues in his preface to Spectacle 2.0, “the election of Donald J. Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is the culmination of the politics of the spectacle that was first described by Debord,” a politics that relies on “seizing people’s attention and emotions” with disruptive, provocative and extraordinary events, the scope of which has expanded rapidly with new media (2–3). Trump’s incendiary tweets, offensive photo ops and even his signature coiffure are clear demonstrations of how the creation of spectacle can be used to “dominate news cycles” and, subsequently, to define the political agenda (Kellner 1).

Activists, attempting to wrest control of the political narrative, are continually drawn into this seemingly unwinnable competition of spectacular one-upmanship, often at their peril. Consider, for instance, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who reportedly told his governor’s office: “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself,” before walking into a busy intersection and setting himself ablaze in an act of protest widely credited with catalyzing the Arab Spring (Hasan). Unlike Bouazizi whose self-immolation, subsequent hospitalization and funeral were captured on film and widely circulated, Buckel’s self-immolation is subject to the ephemerality of live performance.

Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi (1984–2011), the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 and became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring against autocratic regimes. Photo: Web/Wikipedia. Accessed 7 May 2021

Self-immolation’s political meaning, however, is not solely derived from spectacular imagery. As Nicholas Michelsen points out in Politics and Suicide, the political impact of self-immolation is also narratively constructed after-the-fact by a public who mythologizes the event (61). In the two years since Buckel’s death, there have only been approximately 80 unique, English-language media mentions of his protest, many of them just a passing reference and more than half of those mentions are concentrated in the several days following his death.

Looking at Google trends, Wikipedia analytics, and Twitter trends,[2] a comparison reveals that far less extreme acts of protest like Colin Kapaernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem or the 2017 Women’s March dwarf Buckel’s protest in both initial interest and longevity of interest over time. Furthermore, there is also no discernible correlation between Buckel’s death and public action on issues of climate change, fossil fuel usage or conservation. Tellingly, qualitative evidence also suggests that those who would be most likely to be aware of and moved to action by Buckel’s death hadn’t heard of his protest. For example, when the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion marched through Prospect Park in July 2019 (just one year after Buckel’s death), their organizer, Jesse Ortiz, described Buckel’s act as a “harrowing but meaningful gesture” but admitted that “he’d only heard about the incident recently” (qtd. in Stremple). This suggests that something about Buckel’s dramaturgy failed to resonate even with a politically active public predisposed to his cause.

The grand narrative in which Buckel’s death did find purchase, however, was in its notable lack of public response. For instance, the striking title of a New York Times op-ed written by novelist and native Brooklynite Nathan Englander, just days after Buckel’s death, bluntly declared “A Man Set Himself on Fire. We Barely Noticed.” Englander posits that Buckel’s failure to garner banner headlines is a problem of “style and form,” suggesting that American aesthetic sensibilities lean towards the excessive violence of mass-shootings rather than the pseudo-religious austerity of self-immolation.

I agree with Englander that the ambivalence attending Buckel’s protest is related to a misalignment of style and form, but not necessarily one of national aesthetics. In the West, self-immolation is often associated with Vietnamese or Tibetan monks, but self-immolation, as a protest tactic, is not inherently or uniquely representative of Asian religious or political aesthetics.[3] Immolation, which technically denotes only “sacrifice,” did not become synonymous with “fiery death” until the 1960s with the self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Đức (Biggs, “Dying Without Killing” 174).

It is true that historical accounts of self-immolation in China date back thousands of years, but these are immolations in the literal sense of the wordacts of religious sacrifice based on a dramaturgy of lavish and joyful gift-giving, set forth in chapter 23 of the ancient Mahāyāna Buddhist text, the Lotus Sūtra (Hurvitz 270). According to Benn, the Lotus Sūtra provided a “literary blueprint” for auto-cremation based on its account of the self-immolation of the Bodhisattva Medicine King who attempts to attain Buddhahood by meditating for twelve thousand years, preparing his body with jeweled robes and anointing himself with fragrant oils before burning his body in sacrifice to the “joyous approval of all who witness it” (“Lotus Sūtra” 108–09). 

The dramaturgy of modern-day self-immolation, on the other hand, is more akin to Foucault’s spectacle of the scaffold—a painful scene of public accusation in which the suffering body serves as the site of a political power struggle. As Foucault details in Discipline and Punish, highly visible performances of torture and public execution were the penal standard in Europe for centuries. Branding, stretching on the rack, hanging and burning were all part of a public “theatre of horror” in which judicial investigation and punishment were inextricably interwoven (63). This display of state power, though, was subject to unpredictable “violent inversions” (Foucault 64). If the cruelty of the executioner too far outstripped the violence of the crime, the crowd could be moved to pity or anger on behalf of the condemned and revolt against the state’s performance of authority, making a folk-hero of the condemned.

As part of an effort to neutralize the suffering body as a potential site of resistance, Western religious and political institutions at the end of the eighteenth century moved away from the practice of public torture, choosing instead to obscure and control the body behind closed doors—a “transformation of state repression,” which Biggs suggests was a precondition for the emergence of self-immolation as a protest tactic (“Dying Alone” 23). Despite the absent executioner, activists have continued to re-stage the spectacle of the scaffold in a bid to draw out hidden power structures and reinstate the body as a volatile site for determining truth and galvanizing political resistance. A modern example of this phenomenon is the death of IRA activist Bobby Sands, whose fatal hunger-strike effectively cast Margaret Thatcher as a cold and unfeeling executioner on an international stage (“Britain’s Gift to Bobby Sands” A26). Similarly, Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation served as an indictment of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dihn Diem and his oppressive, American-backed regime (Biggs “Dying Without Killing” 173).

This more secular interpretation of self-immolation as a political assignation of blame can and has resonated among American citizens and politicians. Thích Quảng Đức’s protest generated wide-spread sympathy for the plight of Vietnamese Buddhists and American anti-war protestors like Alice Herz, Norman Morrison and Roger LaPorte, quickly embraced self-immolation as a protest tactic. These acts, extensively covered by the American press, had, in turn, lasting and discernible impacts on American politics. For example, Norman Morrison’s death in 1965 so horrified Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, that historian Paul Hendrickson credits it as a tipping point for McNamara after which he demonstrated a noticeable “turn against all he had made and masterminded” in Vietnam (210). Given the way self-immolation has historically resonated in America, the issue of style and form at play in Buckel’s self-immolation is not likely a misalignment of national aesthetics.

Rather, I suggest, the issue of style and form at play in Buckel’s protest is the burgeoning disconnect between a public habituated to drama and a global issue whose geographically diffuse, causally fragmented and temporally sustained form regularly exceeds the dramatic framework we are accustomed to. In Postdramatic Theatre, Lehmann warns of a Western fixation with the “cognitive programme” of drama, suggesting that we fail to realize to what extent “all that we recognize and feel in life is thoroughly shaped and structured by . . . ways of seeing, feeling, thinking . . . articulated only in and by art” (37).

A 1994 study of risk perception seems to bear out Lehmann’s concern, suggesting that we fail to recognize climate change risk because it does not fit into what is, I would argue, a conventional dramatic framework. The study suggests that “climatic change” belongs to a class of “hidden hazards” or problems which could pass “unnoticed or unattended” to until their effects reach such a scale that can no longer be ignored (Kasperson 9). Unlike more visible threats such as smog or raw sewage pollution, which tend to claim our attention because they can be “pinpointed at places and localities, where cause and effect could be closely linked,” climate change is a “global elusive” hazard characterized by “lengthy lag times between activities . . . geographical separation in source regions and the regions where the effects are manifested, complex interactions of human and physical systems and the slowly developing accumulation of materials in environmental sinks” (11). In terms of dramatic theatre, we can think about the perceptual problems identified in this study (diffuse or fragmented time, place and action) as presenting a technically dramatic challenge vis-à-vis the classical unities Aristotle outlines in the Poetics.

Indeed, by way of a solution, Kasperson suggests that the chance of a hidden hazard like climate change becoming visible and, subsequently, high-priority would depend, among other factors,[4] on whether “the potential changes [of climate change] can be expressed in terms that indicate vividly the long-term risks associated with particular human activities” (12). The author’s call for vivid, linear demonstration essentially amounts to a conventional Aristotelian intervention—the concentration of time and causality called for here hearkens back to Aristotle’s recommendations regarding εὐσύνοπτον or surveyability in the Poetics,which suggests that plots should offer the observer a sense of “unity and wholeness” that is easily surveyable or “readily taken in” in one view (14).

The 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow provides a ready example of surveyability applied to climate change. The plot of the film follows a NOAA scientist who attempts to warn the U.S. leaders of an abrupt and major climate shift precipitated by a breaking ice shelf in Antarctica. Global weather disasters quickly erupt in major cities around the world and a tidal wave engulfs Manhattan, forcing U.S. residents to flee to safety in Mexico. The movie takes a long-term global phenomenon and condenses its action into a single dramatic scenario set in a familiar location. Centered around the survival of its human protagonists, the film imposes a clear beginning, exciting middle and satisfying end to what is, by all scientific accounts, an ongoing climate phenomenon whose effects will likely outlast the Anthropocene.

To Lehmann’s point regarding perceptual biases towards conventional drama, The Day After Tomorrow was a major box office success that measurably increased public awareness of climate change, generating “more than 10 times the news coverage of the 2001 [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC report” (Leiserowitz 34). A risk perception study centered on The Day After Tomorrow revealed that audience perception of climate change was deeply influenced by the film’s depiction of environmental catastrophe. The study, which surveyed audience members before and after viewing the movie, found not only that “the representation of environmental risks in popular culture can influence public attitudes and behaviors” (including viewers’ purchasing and voting decisions), but that the movie shaped viewers’ conceptual model of the global climate system in ways that closely resembled the exaggerated, precipitous model presented in the movie (26–34). While the inaccuracy of the film’s anthropocentric, hyper-rapid depiction troubled some scientists,[5] many others were happy to grant poetic license to filmmakers for the sake of pushing climate change into the media spotlight.[6]

Within a social and political landscape where visibility often constitutes success or importance, environmental activists have treated the elusive nature of climate change as a problem that needs solving. As environmental campaigner George Marshall points out in his book Don’t Even Think About It, humans “have inherited fundamental and universal cognitive wiring that shapes the way we see the world. . . . Without doubt, climate change has qualities that play poorly to these innate tendencies. It is complex, unfamiliar, slow moving, invisible, and intergenerational” (226). For many activists, dramatization seems a logical and effective solution for making the invisible visible.

The optimistic enthusiasm with which the environmental community embraced The Day After Tomorrow reveals the extent to which environmental advocates and activists put faith in dramatic representation to capture attention and influence the public. Anticipating the film’s popularity (and largely ignoring its scientific inaccuracies), groups like Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and MoveOn saw value in the film’s dramatic representation of climate change as a way to amplify their campaign messages, and the groups planned actions, websites and campaign events to coincide with the film’s release. For example, in May 2004, shortly after the film’s release, Greenpeace, confronted ExxonMobil with “The Day After Tomorrow” by projecting 100-foot images of floods, storms and other impacts of climate change at the company’s annual shareholder meeting (“The Day Before”).

Greenpeace action at European Council Summit in Brussels. Photo: Eric De Mildt/Greenpeace, 2019

We repeatedly see the dramatic paradigm at work in activist performances that creatively render the cause and effect of climate change surveyable on a global stage through dramatic representation. For example, in September 2019, Extinction Rebellion “sailed” a bright pink boat emblazoned with the phrase “Tell the Truth,” down London’s major roadways and through Parliament Square, presumably illustrating the impact of future sea-level rise on the city. A month later, in Ireland, Extinction Rebellion activists staged a mock funeral, carrying a black “coffin for humanity” through the capital, vividly demonstrating the future effects of climate change (Pollak). In December 2019, Greenpeace pulled off a spectacular protest at the EU summit, during which activists arrived at the venue in a vintage red fire engine and 28 climbers “scaled the summit venue and wrapped the building with images of giant lapping red and yellow flames, setting off billowing clouds of black and white smoke, red distress flares, and sounding a loud fire alarm” (“Activists Take Climate Emergency to EU”).

The official trailer of The Day After Tomorrow. Accessed 7 May 2021

Given activists’ reliance on dramatic representation, Lehmann’s call in Postdramatic Theatre to free ourselves from the powerful pull of the dramatic paradigm (37) and his articulation of alternative performance aesthetics has potentially wide-reaching implications for activist performance. This is especially true considering that the perceptual challenges presented by climate change are not unique and there is a case to be made that the social and political issues activists face today are increasingly diffuse, abstract and elusive.[7]

Dramatic activist performances appeal to our innate sense of drama and satisfy a desire to experimentally see into the “opaque and unknowable” future (Williams 14), but as Kershaw points out in Theatre Ecologies, “drama fragments under the impact of growing uncertainty about the value of the human” precipitated by global ecological threats like climate change (65). Particularly with regard to the centrality of individual human action, there is the emergent sense, at least among theatre theorists and practitioners, that “something about [the traditional dramatic model] is no longer in tune with our experience” and perhaps drama is not equipped to help us navigate this new terrain (Lehmann 182). For instance, dramaturg Bernd Stegemann observes that “in the process of modernity it is evident that fewer humans are entering into conflict with one another. Instead they are sliding into complex battles with their own institutions” and “situational drama struggles to find a situation to express this” (12). In response, new forms of theatre, loosely associated under the rubric of “postmodern” or “postdramatic” have been challenging the authority of the dramatic paradigm. For example, theatre scholar Elinor Fuchs has written extensively about the “dissolution of autonomous character” in postmodern theatre (31) and suggests the long, slow death of character, once so central to the Western dramatic tradition, reflects the “scientific and political processes that may indeed annihilate all life on earth,” perhaps bringing eons of environmentally disastrous anthropocentrism to an end (175).

A recent example of this performance trend is the remarkable work of acclaimed multi-disciplinary artist Ragnar Kjartansson, whose durational, often repetitive performances set aside dramatic action in favor of other elements that Lehmann identifies in the “panorama” of postdramatic performance—states, ceremony, voice and landscape. Kjartansson’s piece Death is Elsewhere (2019) consists of seven screens, each a living landscape of Iceland’s moody midnight sun. Two couples wander the landscape like minstrels, singing a repetitive and melancholy song near what remains of the Laki volcanic fissure whose eruption in 1784 caused widespread famine and death.

Death is Elsewhere, a seven-channel video installation with sound, 77 minutes. Photo courtesy of the artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik, 2019

As art critic Gregory Volk points out, this piece is “especially relevant right now, given climate change and environmental mayhem” because it displaces humans as the central figure of the climate change story. Volk rightly suggests that Death is Elsewhere conveys the sense that humans are just a blip in the lifespan of this planet. In this regard, the postdramatic provides an important approach to understanding and working through environmental disaster because it is, in many ways, a theatre of aftermath. Stegemann defines postdramatic as meaning “something like after the plot” (12). As Karen Jürs-Munby explains in her introduction to Lehmann’s text, this is not an epochal or chronological “after” in which the dramatic past is annulled but a “rupture and a beyond” (2). In other words, the postdramatic is self-referentially concerned with what happens after the action of traditional dramatic plot. It poses the question: what if the Day After Tomorrow is, in fact, today? In this vein, Kjartansson’s work lingers in the wake of environmental disaster rather than fixating on action. It mournfully celebrates the fact that we may already be living in a world after collapse. To experience and grapple with this change in perception, whether we agree with it or not, is, in part, the political potential of the postdramatic.

There are obvious echoes of this postdramatic performance trend in Buckel’s self-immolation, which is not only an act of individual self-abnegation but a gesture towards humanity’s biblical return to the dust of the earth. Though Buckel’s self-immolation addresses climate change through the scaled-down modeling characteristic of dramatic theatre, it also subverts dramatic norms in ways that can, in Kershaw’s words, “disrupt socio-political expectations, and produce new kinds of public discourse” (“Fighting”257). Rather than trying to solve the perceptual problem climate change presents by forcing it into the dramatic mold, Buckel’s is a postdramatic response to a postdramatic problem which goes some way towards explaining why audiences have struggled to place Buckel’s protest in a totalizing mythos. Instead, his protest challenges us to adopt new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling.

One important way that Buckel’s self-immolation disrupts dramatic expectations is that, unlike most other political suicides, it puts forth no antagonistic “other” for audiences to blame. Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation acted as an accusatory finger pointed directly at President Ngo Dinh Diem and his repressive regime. Quảng Đức staged his protest at a busy intersection near Diem’s Presidential Palace and left behind a note exhorting Diem by name “to be kind and tolerant towards his people . . .” (qtd. in Biggs “Dying Without Killing” 172). The monk’s act, temperate and selfless, casts Diem’s oppressive regime in the role of the overzealous executioner, specifically implicating Diem in his death. And, indeed, the world responded as if Diem had lit the match himself, galvanizing waves of dissent that would topple his dictatorship in a matter of months. Despite its gruesome nature, the image of the stoic monk engulfed in flames continues to circulate as a popular source of inspiration for actors and activists alike[8] in no small part because audiences are free to feel terror, pity and awe at Thích Quảng Đức’s performance from a safe aesthetic remove. Because we are not implicated, we are not responsible to this image—it offers pure catharsis.

Buckel’s self-immolation, on the other hand, challenges what Lehmann identifies as the “deceptively comforting duality of here and there” propagated by the proscenium arch of mediated performance (183).

Though the media characterized Buckel’s death as a protest against fossil fuels, the site he chose for this act, Prospect Park, is not a symbolic seat of corporate or political power chosen to implicate a CEO or politician; it is a shared community space, a vestige of the nineteenth-century urban parks movement which tried to offset the natural cost of industrialism.

Furthermore, Buckel makes no explicit mention of Shell or Exxon or the U.S. government or the hundreds of other conglomerate entities who have deftly evaded responsibility for the effects of climate change. Rather, in significant passages, which were incidentally excised by the press, Buckel focuses on personal privilege and responsibility, writing:

Privilege usually comes in some way from others’ pain, whether intended or, more often, not. The pain may be from exploitation, as is often true in the making of clothes and food crops, and our choice to buy such clothing or food supports the harm to exploited humans, animals, or the Earth. That harm can live on through so many other choices we make, not just with what we wear and what we eat.

Critically, Buckel uses the term “we” throughout his suicide note. His death reflects what we are doing to ourselves. What Buckel’s self-immolation draws our attention to is the seemingly inescapable culpability we all bear living in a global society in which systems of oppression are obscured, multiarticular and always fluctuating. To our horror and perhaps our shame Buckel casts us, the audience, as the victim and the villain; it is we who light the match. This is not the same utopic “we” prefigured in marches and occupations, predicated on the dramatic representation of a better world. Judith Butler talks of such assemblies as “enact[ing] a provisional and plural form of existence,” a sense that we are all in it together, as an ethical alternative to neoliberal notions of individual responsibility (15–16). Buckel’s solitary protest, on the other hand, enacts a much less palatable “we,” an assembly that is not wholly surveyable across time or geography, whose many networked connections are hard to trace and even harder to feel and whose very existence is a threat to itself. Buckel’s self-immolation offers a new dramaturgy that invites us to rehearse this double-role, as uncomfortable as it may be, pushing us to realize a sense of what Kershaw calls “common humanity” in the deconstruction or disappearance of the human subject (Theatre Ecologies 213–14).

It is also worth noting the ways Buckel’s protest challenges our dramatic expectations in terms of spectacle. Buckel carefully and thoughtfully planned all the details of his self-immolation, emailing reporters and authorities, transporting the necessary supplies, laying out a ring of soil to prevent the spread of fire and even leaving a note to first responders apologizing “for the mess”; yet, in this age of YouTube, Tiktok and Facebook Live he chose not to record or broadcast any images of his protest. Rather than situating himself in a busy intersection during peak hours, where he might attract the maximum number of onlookers, he chose an inconspicuous place well off the park’s main trails and staged his protest while most of the city was still sleeping or getting ready for work. Tellingly, one of the only descriptive eye-witness reports of Buckel’s protest comes from an article in Runner’s World and recounts only the aftermath of the event:

a body lying face up with arms reaching into the air, as if trying to grab at something, but not quite reaching it. His legs were stretched out and appeared to be covered in something brown, what I initially thought was mud. Around him was a circle of dark dirt that almost made him look like he was emerging from the earth.

Pilon
Park-goers play near the site of Buckel’s protest. From Our Loss by Joel Sternfeld. Photo: Steidl Publishers, 2019

The unappreciated power of Buckel’s self-immolation as an activist performance is not in its ability to draw unprecedented attention to climate change but in the challenge it poses to the competitive politics of spectacle that rewards size, volume, violence, risk, excitement, and provocation. Buckel’s conspicuous invisibility, which the media finds so troubling, forces audiences to engage with the aftermath of Buckel’s performance—that which is distinctly postdramatic, that which erodes the boundaries between the human and the non-human earth.

We can see evidence of this perceptual shift in the work of American photographer Joel Sternfeld, whose recently published book of photographs, Our Loss, documents the site in Prospect Park where Buckel self-immolated (Sternfeld). Beginning the day after Buckel’s death, Sternfeld began visiting the site regularly and capturing its seasonal changes. Through Sternfeld’s photos, we see the orange cones and police barricades, at first haphazardly adorned with flowers and memorabilia, give way to a bare circle of dirt littered with flower petals and a trampled tulip stem. Throughout May, the month following Buckel’s death, the lonely patch of dirt is pictured in the foreground while families and friends blithely picnic and play yards away. In one photo a bicycle race speeds by in the distance. In another, activists march by, seemingly unaware. Eventually, the small patch all but disappears beneath new grass, unnoticed by the surrounding human bustle, until the end of November when tree saplings appear. Following a frosty winter, Sternfeld’s documentation concludes with a fragile but vibrant cherry tree sapling in bloom and no human in sight.

One year after his death, a lone cherry tree at the site of David Buckel’s self-immolation in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. From Our Loss by Joel Sternfeld. Photo: Steidl Publishers, 2019

Sternfeld’s photos are, in some ways, unremarkable. They are certainly not spectacular. In these images, we can see how Buckel’s death, as a piece of postdramatic activism, invites and makes room for a response not just from its human audience but from the entirety of the natural world. The response is not a call for more drama, more action, a proliferation of activist bodies in extremis, more words and likes and clicks. His death disrupts the dramatic paradigm of protest and calls for the slow, quiet decomposition of our favorite protagonist: man.


Endnotes

[1] To my knowledge, no news sources published the full text of Buckel’s letter, though this particular line was heavily quoted. I obtained the full text of Buckel’s final message, dated April 14, 2018, at 5:55 a.m. EDT, from journalist, J. Oliver Conroy, who covered Buckel’s protest for The Guardian. This is the source for all subsequent references and quotes to Buckel’s final words in this article.

[2] Based on frequency of search term, page views and mentions respectively.

[3] See James A. Benn’s article “Where Text Meets Flesh,” in which Benn suggests that in Buddhism burning the body is historically an “apocryphal practice” (297). See also Biggs’ observation in his chapter “Dying without Killing,” that the historical case for the practice of self-immolation among Buddhists was “always doctrinally suspect because it clashed with a central precept of Buddhism—the injunction against killing” (179).

[4] The authors also cite the development of “an international constituency of public concern” and the remediation of “serious equity problems between developed and developing countries” as important factors in addressing climate change (12).

[5] For a representative critique,see David Nowell.

[6] For a more generous review of the film, see Stefan Rahmstorf.

[7] For example, see Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control” in which the author predicts the difficulty of resisting new, “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control” (4). Protestors, for instance, no longer contend directly with a discrete factory, but the corporation which “is a spirit, a gas” (4).

[8] For example, see actor Michael B. Jordan’s comments in a 2018 interview in Vulture. Discussing his run as the book-burning fireman, Guy Montag, in the HBO remake of Farenheit 451, Jordan remembers being moved by the scene in which a woman self-immolates alongside her books, stating: “It reminded me of the burning monk . . . It made me want to believe in something that wholeheartedly. Could I ever be so mentally tough to do something like that?” (Roming).


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*Victoria Scrimer is a doctoral candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland where she will soon be defending her dissertation, “Beyond Resistance: Performing Protest in a Postdramatic Age.” Victoria is a practicing dramaturg and, prior to pursuing graduate studies, she worked with several non-profit organizations including First Peoples Worldwide, the YMCA and Greenpeace. She is the two-time winner of the Comparative Drama Conference’s Anthony Ellis prize for outstanding paper by a graduate student and her work has appeared in Text & Presentation and Etudes.

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