Dougald Hine

Remember the Future?

I have been playing with a set of ideas about improvisation and our relationship to time, woven around the Greek myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus.

Prometheus is the guy who steals fire from the gods - and so, an embodiment of the myth of human progress. His name means "foresight" or "fore-thought." He has a brother, Epimetheus - meaning "hindsight" or "afterthought", looking backwards while walking forwards. It is Epimetheus who accepts Pandora as a gift from the gods, a story recounted in Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days.

For a fuller version of my ideas about this myth and its relevance to improvising the future, listen to the recording of the talk I gave at Laurieston Hall in October 2010. What follows is a set of references for that talk.

Keith Johnstone is a master of theatrical improvisation. What's clear from is writings is that he sees impro as not just a specialist performance skill, but an attitude to the world which can transform our experience. (In particular, he talks about how it may remedy the damage done by our education systems.) Of his two similarly-named books, Impro for Storytellers: Theatresports and the Art of Making Things Happen is full of practical exercises, while Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre is more essay-like. The chapter on Narrative Skills includes the passage I quote about "walking backwards", while the closing lines of the book just happen to be a retelling of the myth of Pandora's Jar.

Another wonderful book about improvisation and theatre is John Heilpern's Conference of the Birds, a hilarious account of Peter Brook and company crossing the Sahara to perform to people who are not trained in how to be a well-behaved audience. (I am grateful to Charlie Davies for pointing me towards both Johnstone and Heilpern.)

On the subject of audiences, one of the many fascinating tangents in Richard Sennett's The Fall of Public Man is about the emergence of the convention of public silence in the street and in the theatre, and the parallel rise of the virtuoso performer. I associate this, also, with the transition from the marketplace - with its noisy, improvisational atmosphere - to the department store, its shop window a spectacle before which you can only gawp. (Sennett also drops the great piece of information that the "How To" book for department store window-dressing was written by L Frank Baum, better known for The Wizard of Oz.)

In the forward-looking culture of modernity, the archetype of Epimetheus manifests as a tragic figure - Walter Benjamin's Angel of History. The connection is not explicit, but the figure described in the ninth thesis of On the Concept of History embodies the modern assumption that hindsight is useless. (The Illuminations collection includes that essay and several other Benjamin texts that I find myself coming back to.)

The other strand in this mythic web is the final chapter of Illich's Deschooling Society, 'The Rebirth of Epimethean Man', which proposes the need for a rebalancing of the Promethean spirit with an attitude which values looking backwards and downwards. Getting to the moon is easy, Illich seems to say - the hard part is coming back.

Finally, this Epimethean spirit in Illich could be read as a counterweight to the Promethean attitude of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, whose first edition opens with the words, "We are as gods and we might as well get good at it."

Further leads

Someone else for whom Epimetheus is a touchstone is the philosopher Bernard Stiegler. I haven't read his Technics and Time: The Fault of Epimetheus yet, but it's on the list. Commemorating Epimetheus by Les Amis looks like another vital contribution to remembering the future.

It's also interesting to notice that Pandora is the name of the planet in James Cameron's film Avatar (2009). The contrasting relationship to Pandora of the humans and the Na'vi echo the difference between Hesiod's story of Pandora as the woman who brings all the evils into the world and the other - rather less mysogynist - possibilities contained within a name that means "the all-giver".)