Guest Post: Kevin Simms on Hannah Arendt and Creation Narratives, March 2015

While home in State College, PA with family over the winter break, I had the good fortune of running into my old friend and poet Abby Minor and her partner Kevin Sims, a percussionist and composer. I knew of Kevin when we were in high school, he three years ahead of me and one of the musical giants of the school. Since then, he did his undergrad at the Manhattan School of Music and graduate work at the Musikhochschule Freiburg in Germany. Kevin and Abby now live in Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania in Penns Valley where they practice their arts in the context of rural Pennsylvania. Kevin shared the following piece with me in response to my previous post on the Creation and Making Tellus. I found it very compelling in its discussion of performance, public dialog, mythology, and the location of culture. Enough of my introducing, here is Kevin's writing:

When I invited Abby and my composer friend Scott to work on a monodrama, I didn't have any particular theme or center in mind.  In a way, it's not surprising that our precarious and violent relationship to the earth eventually made its way to the front of all our minds, but it wasn't really planned.  Nor was the connection between this past and Genesis.  But it came sort of all at once in the form of taking up the charge of making a creation story.  This positions the deeply troubling role that aspects of both the Bible's and John Smith's early accounts alongside the real promise that is offered by having an alternative creation story.

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I've stumbled onto some scholarly books lately that both dealt extensively with the political theories of Hannah Arendt.  I've found both of them (Linda Zerilli's Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, and Kimberly Clark's Our Sense of the Real: Aesthetic Experience and Arendtian Politics) to be deeply thought provoking.  One particular point that comes up again and again is Arendt's insistence that the public and political world must be continually made and remade.  There is no guarantee on its existence, but its existence is critical for human freedom to be felt and practiced.  Human freedom she defines as participation in bringing something new into the world; a direct connection with the world’s tireless newness.  In addition to having clear resonance with the work of telling creation stories, I also read it as being a strong affirmation of the essentially political potential in performance.

So we have an ongoing desire for an active and real connection to creation-storytelling.  The fundamentalist reading would have us take a position of obedience to an imagined authority in stories told by past generations.  We would do better to follow the model of that ancient Jewish community and practice the storytelling itself instead.  For it was the same community (or at least a community of their offspring) that developed the concept of tikkun olam (repair of the earth).  I believe Arendt would say that the meeting of these two relationships to the earth, dominion and repair, if allowed to appear together among people, would invite strong thinking, and public thinking. This instead of some kind of impoverished notion of obedience under laws, and an after-the-fact justification for all manner of exploitation.

Arendt wrote extensively on totalitarianism.  She understood totalitarianism as not just a particular way of running a state, but as a way of seeing the world that seeks to eradicate human particularity.  Kimberly Clark sees it appear in the work to eradicate our sense of the real.  With particularity and the real obscured--hunted into oblivion--it becomes easy to do massive violence to all sorts of natural communities, human and otherwise.  While the totalitarian form of government may no longer be recognizable in our nations, I feel its worldview to be very much alive.

The goal would clearly not be to supplant an old monolithic, patriarchal narrative with another one, but rather to bring these very questions into the public world of appearances.  In an increasingly totalitarian environment, there are no venues for the particularity of the world to appear.  It's all practicality and efficiency, cliches and sentimentality, all of which live in the world of generalities.  I think performance is one way to do it, to bring these questions into the world of appearances.  And there is no reason why performances of this kind should be relegated to the megalopolis.  That those of us that have practiced and learned the arts of performance should be somehow convinced to keep the fruit of that practice and study in a particular loop of appearances (a loop that is very conditioned by certain channels of wealth and status), is one of the failures of our current “high culture.”  My hope is that more and more these performances can take place in a more common world, a more inclusive world, and there help to increase our ability to think and act together.

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Kevin Sims is a percussionist, composer, teacher and organizer living in Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania. Kevin has performed as a soloist and ensemble player throughout the United States, as well as in Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, Korea, and Russia.

Kevin is a founding and active member of Red Light New Music in New York City, the international percussion group Ensemble XII, and the recently launched Open Music Series at Webster's Bookstore and Cafe in State College. In addition to his activities as a performer, Kevin co-directs a local community choir and co-teaches collaborative art classes for kids in Aaronsburg and neighboring Millheim. Taking his inspiration from the freer musics of the middle 20th century, Kevin's work, from composing and organizing, to performing and teaching, centers around the idea that written music is a playful, pliable, and liberating world of study and practice.