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Ecology of practices

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What do we mean by “ecology of practices”? The term ecology affirms that living beings have some relations to their environment, in configurations of interdependence. Life and above all the survival of living beings depend on other beings, whether live or inert, in particular situations. Ecology has become an important preoccupation because of the threats to the survival of the whole planet today, precisely in relation to human actions. The ecological questions more and more pertain to important cultural domains and to the relationships between human beings; in going beyond a purely scientific preoccupation, they intrude on the political sphere.

In the arts, ecological concerns centered recently on awareness of natural phenomena, the disappearance of certain species, or on heightened attention to our urban environment in the perspective of a moralization of excessive uses and of a desire to create reasoned practices respecting the spaces of others and the environment in general. In the cultural domain, ecology is considered as the influence that the environment exerts on behaviors and mentalities of individuals immerged in it.

For the PaaLabRes collective, the utilization of the term of “ecology” has another meaning in its relation to practices. The term “practice” refers to concrete situations involving actions inscribed in some duration. Practice most often implies relationships between human beings in a collective, and also interactions of these same beings with objects, all this happening within a well-defined material, cultural and institutional environment. It is this particular agency of all the interactive unstable elements in duration that constitutes a “practice”. In artistic domains, the practices are defined at the same time by:

  1. Some hierarchic relationships between qualified persons. The idea of hierarchy implies that there are more or less qualified people and that the qualifications might vary according to defined roles, certain roles having the reputation of being more prestigious than others. Hierarchies can be more or less affirmed and more or less controlled by democratic rules.
  2. Relationships between persons and objects resulting in particular actions. The objects influence the actions of people as much as people exert their craft on the objects. Some technical gestures are developed according to how tools of production behave.
  3. Usages that are more or less fixed by rules. The rules come from established traditions, or can be invented for determined contexts. They are more or less explicit, and when they are implicit, there is often the impression that they do not exist. In order to create the absence of rules, one has to invent mechanisms, which in order to be efficient have to be organized like sheet music.
  4. Relationships with the external world, notably with the public through particular media. But also the relationships with other neighboring practices, in order to be different from them, to be influenced by them, or in order to disqualify them.

Practices can then be thought of as beings, as living entities in themselves, which interact in various ways with other practices. The interaction between practices is precisely what is interesting for the PaaLabRes collective as a fundamental concept to be developed.

The concept of “ecology of practices” has been developed by the philosopher of sciences Isabelle Stengers, in the Tome 1 of Cosmopolitics.1 In an interview published in the magazine Recherche2, Stengers, talking about ecology in terms of relations between individuals and between populations, describes them as offering three possible options, which vary according to circumstances: a) the individuals can be preys; b) they can be predators; c) they can be considered as resources. One of the favorite examples for Stengers, inspired by the practices introduced by Tobie Nathan, gravitates around traditional pre-modern or non-modern psychotherapy practices. Most of the time these practices have some difficulty to coexist with scientific approaches that disqualify all the others in the name of rationality, and that tolerate them only reluctantly as part of a museum-based survival of cultures. However, the keys to success of therapies can often be found in the belief systems and cultural environment of the concerned individuals:

In ecological terms, the way in which a human practice chooses to present itself to the outside world, and notably when it proposes to enter in relationship with the general public, is part of its identity. At present, the identity of physics is at the same time made up of all the beings that it has created, the neutrino among others, and of its incapacity to present itself to the general public. For me, to try to create new links of interest around physics and other practices means making a proposition, not of radical change but of a mutation of identity. (…) The physicist would no longer be this being who, suddenly, intervenes in the name of rationality disqualifying all the others. (…) In my speculation, this physicist could become an ally if we would decide, for example, to take seriously the traditional psychotherapeutic practices that bring into play djinns and ancestors. He would know that in saying that, one does not pretend that the djinn is of the same nature as the neutrino: he would know that one is going to be interested in the risk of these practices, in what they are able to achieve. In this world in which the practices are present through their risks and their requirements, the physicist can coexist with the traditional therapist.3.

In the arts, in particular in musical art, because it is so much linked to identity problems, the disqualification of the practices of others is the rule rather than the exception. The genres or styles are more often preys or predators, rarely resources. The disqualification can be manifest in four different ways and often simultaneously: firstly it can be made on the basis of competences or of technical artistic expertize, either for example that someone would not be able to read musical scores, or that someone could not improvise during a social gathering; secondly the disqualification can be measured according to a presupposed authenticity, either for example by blaming a practice for not respecting a tradition, or on the contrary by accusing a tradition of being the source of a lethal stagnation; thirdly, disqualification is induced in relation to a public success, either in accusing the artistic form of being commercial to the point of not belonging any more to a legitimate art, or in blaming it for being too far removed from public understanding to the point of being completely marginalized; and fourthly disqualification can manifest itself in relation to official learning institutions, either when a given practice would be excluded from them, or on the contrary when this same practice strongly asserts its existence by staying outside any institutions, considered in this case as the source of too confortable existences.

The issue of attempting to get rid of the infernal logics behind the disqualification of the practices of others, in order to replace it by a pacified ecology of practices, is far from simple. The solutions lie not in putting an end to conflicts or in forcing cultures into an idealized “melting pot”, but in seeking rather to organize the confrontation of practices on the principle of mutual recognition and equal rights. The main difficulty of this political program lies in that it is not sufficient to let cultures coexist in a given space, even if it seems pacific at first: the multiples enclaves in a shared institution (or a common territory) remaining in mutual ignorance of their respective raison d’être and simply limiting their relationships to their juxtaposition, or even to their superimposition, do not create the conditions of a viable democratic contract likely to pacify fundamentalist antagonisms. The effective confrontation of practices in mechanisms that have to be invented, which oblige them to interact while respecting their own existence, without compromise, becomes a necessity in order to face (at least partially) the difficulties in which our societies tend to sink. Only the existence of public institutions dedicated to this effect could arguably avoid the permanent danger of more or less violent civil wars.

The ecology of practices takes the form of the continuous emergence of new practices stemming from the already existing ones and continuous disappearance of other practices. This phenomenon seems to have been strongly reinforced since the advent of electronic media’s instantaneous communication. The onset of these numerous practices implies in each case, as noted by Isabelle Stengers, the “production of values, (…) the proposal of new modes of evaluation, of new meanings ».4In the perspectives of the ecology of practices, the issue is not to think anymore that these values, evaluations and meanings should replace the old ones in the name of a truth that one would have finally discovered, but that they “are about the production of new relations that are added to a situation already produced by a multiplicity of relations ».5 The extraordinary multiplicity of practices that emerge and disappear, through the very varied content of the meanings they express, results in a calling into question of normalization processes that led to universally recognized truths imposed on all. To ideas, the source of imposed “undeniable facts”, is opposed the resistance of practices that confront the instability of realities, and their values relative to contexts.

Consequently, the idea of ecology of practices is not only about the contents of the works or of artistic approaches in relation to sound ecology: that is on the one hand the issues relative to sound pollution in our societies, and on the other hand the enhancement of diversified sound environments. The ecology of practices involves a complex ensemble that gravitates around notions of interaction between human beings, and between human and non-human beings, in particular with inert objects and technologies. In this context artistic practices are confronted, like any other practices, with difficult dilemmas having to do for example with issues such as data hacking, respect of author’s rights, advertising power of the media, cultural industries economy and the funding of alternative practices, free or paid access to information, facilitated access to learning (notably about specialized techniques) and to critical thought, access to employment, in short anything that contributes to influence the environment, its unstable and uncertain future, and the beings living in it.

Jean-Charles François – 2015
Translation Kerrie Szuch and Nancy François

1. Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I, Bononno, R (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2010).

2. Isabelle Stengers : « Inventer une écologie des pratiques »

3. Ibid., p. 59.

4. Cosmopolitics I, op. cit., p. 32.



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