116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Performatively Dwelling in Contingency: Endgame, Apocalypse, and New Materialism

Sean Collins, University of Utah

Endgame’s anti-realist depiction of nature’s end engages much contemporary environmental thought. Theoretically informed by Object-Oriented Ontology and Actor-Network Theory, I argue that Beckett unveils the role performativity and theater have for renewing our attention to the contingent and precarious assemblages between the human and nonhuman within the Anthropocene.


In 1957, Samuel Beckett wrote Endgame, a play about, among other ends, the end of nature itself. Object-oriented-ontology (OOO), spearheaded by Timothy Morton and Levi Bryant, has called for the end of nature as a hegemonic and unified concept. Morton explains that “‘Nature’ fails to serve ecology well” (3) because it is ideologically burdened by a notion of purified, untainted space. From a somewhat different angle, Bryant rejects the holism and interconnectivity inherent in traditional conceptions of nature by pointing to the fragility of relationality as such. Bryant, like Morton, is concerned by the ways in which our ideological representations have normative effects in how we view, interact with, and politically engage nature. Bruno Latour, and Actor-Network Theory (ANT), also posits the need for an end of “Nature.” Latour argues that the Anthropocene forces us to reconsider any purified conception of nature and culture. Endgame, which dramatically performs the end of nature, is thus a perfect case study for thinking through new materialist orientations towards “Nature” as such.
    Greg Garrard, in “Beckett’s Ecological Thought,” does precisely this work. Garrard forcefully articulates the position that anti-realist (anti-mimetic) techniques of evoking nature are more productive for thinking ecologically in Endgame. What Garrard’s reading pays less attention to is the fact that Endgame is meant to be performed, and thus is about theatricality and role-playing that presents embodied individuals on a materially instantiated stage performing to a living, breathing audience. My analysis suggests that paying attention to the embodied, material contexts of Beckett’s work helps to enact ecological thought, by bringing the environmental humanities into the lived and embodied lives of those who consume such art. Morton, Latour, and Bryant (among so many others outside the scope of this presentation) are theoretically working out ways to reconsider what nature is, what ecosystems are, and, ultimately, to challenge us towards mobilized collective action for combatting global warming. What Endgame adds to these rich theoretical frameworks is the chance to act out and to dwell within the realities carefully articulated in the environmental humanities, and, in turn, to become sensitive to the contingency of assemblages and life.
    In sum, Beckett presents us with a way to fiercely dwell in the present at the end of times. He shows audiences how melancholy, anxiety, and laughter can reorient the self to the fragile more-than-human-world. Acting thus becomes a metaphor for learning to value the human and nonhuman relations that compose our lives. Endgame presents ecological thought not only through its rejection of ecomimesis but also through its embodied and participatory presentation of some main concerns within the environmental humanities. A major problem with contemporary orientations towards our ecological crises is a lack of sustained, mobilized action to combat these troubling material realities that may not unfold in their totality today, tomorrow or next week. By performatively presenting such realities, Endgame helps to construct the literary and cultural imagination about climate change through the medium of acting.