September 28, 2012

When the Rain Stops Falling: Sins of the Fathers ...

Courtesy of IU Theatre
When the Rain Stops Falling, a new play written by Andrew Bovell, follows a family’s history over a span of 80 years and four generations. The play jumps around in time, from England to Australia and back. Sometimes characters of the past and future share the same stage. Sometimes it rains on stage. Literally.

Murray McGibbon, an Associate Professor from the Department of Theatre & Drama, recently took on the compelling project. He hoped to “foster a growing understanding of the enormous power of theatre” with a moving play that “pushes the envelope.” “It takes only two hours to explore eighty years in this play,” he said. “That wouldn’t work in another medium.”

McGibbon’s key mission in directing this piece was “to find the heart of a deeply passionate play.” In a play that exhibits excessively bad behavior, the heart is still very much present. Characters are shown to love others in spite of their misdeeds, to forgive, to find cruel ways of being kind.

When the Rain Stops Falling is a remarkable addition to Themester in that it explores how the bad behavior of one generation can shape the decisions of the following generations. McGibbon’s read it in the context of a quote from Exodus:

“Yet [God] does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

In this play, the wrongs committed by the first generation blight the fates of all until the fourth generation, when the rain finally stops, when the good-natured Andrew forgives his father. The family’s punishment for its original dark secret finally ends.

McGibbon noted that even if the audience did not sympathize or approve of a character’s behavior, each character was extremely compelling and exhilarating to create. He loved that the play offered the audience a chance to come to their own conclusions, to fill in the holes.

The audience is challenged by the decisions each character makes. Viewers are forced to reckon with their own moral readings of these decisions and characters. Some may consider helping someone commit suicide reprehensible and unthinkable. Others might see it as an act of kindness to a deeply disturbed and unhappy individual. Some might consider maintaining a distance with one’s child as cruel and incapacitating. Others might see its necessity, especially if a dark secret could corrupt that child’s view of the world and their own identity forever. Incredibly difficult choices are made in this play, and they do much to contest moral behavior.

Scenes from "When the Rain Stops Falling," courtesy of IU Theatre.
 “This is not a preachy play,” said McGibbon. “If anything, it teaches us that we are products of the decisions made by our ancestors.” The most important thing an audience can take away from this is the lasting effect of both good and bad behavior and how far down the line our decisions reach. When the Rain Stops Falling is an extraordinary play, and to McGibbon: “One of the best I’ve ever encountered.”

It runs again this weekend:
Thursday, September 27 @ 7:30 PM
Friday, September 28 @ 7:30 PM
Saturday, September 29 @ 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

September 26, 2012

Swept Away by Language

In this blog post, Ivan Kreilkamp, an Associate Professor for the Department of English, discusses ways in which language can exhibit good and bad behavior and presents conflicting and evolving ideas about how language should behave.

Friedrich Nietzsche and mustache.
In English L371 this semester, “Introduction to Criticism and Theory: Original and Copy,” we’ve been considering why and how language – especially literary language -- has been considered to misbehave, turn bad, or mislead us. In Book X of hisRepublic, Plato (via Socrates) explains why poetry and other artistic representations can become so dangerous to the state. A poet “establishes a bad system of government in people’s minds by gratifying their irrational side;” poetic representations are at best, “a kind of game,” diverting but deceptive, far from the truth, and an indulgence of our worst natures. “We surrender ourselves” to poetry, which sweeps us away and casts a kind of enchanting “spell,” but this is dangerous sorcery against which we must protect ourselves. Good, rational language leads us to reason and the truth, and away from the imagination.

Few can match Plato for full-throated denunciation of the tendency of language to “go bad.” His student Aristotle was more receptive to poetry or other imaginative literature, which, he argued in his Poetics, can ideally lead to emotional “catharsis” in an audience and promote an understanding of the “universals” of experience. A great poet may “tell untruths,” but “in the right way,” such that this language will seem “plausible,” “natural,” and “probable” as it tells of “terrifying and pitiable events” and promotes an understanding of heroic action. For Aristotle, poetry and made-up stories can easily go bad when they seem implausible, based on “contrivance” rather than “necessity.” But poetry also can offer access to “what is universal” and virtuous in human experience.

From these classical origins, we have been considering the various different ways 19th and 20th-century theorists, critics, and philosophers worry about language “going bad.” Such thinkers as Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, invert and question many of the principles Plato and Aristotle laid out. Plato’s dream of rational, sober language that will contribute to a sound and well-ordered community becomes Nietzsche’s nightmare. For Nietzsche, the Platonic “Man of Reason” has in effect sold his soul, or at least his creative spirit, in exchange for the lie of rationality and “truth.” “As creatures of reason, human beings… no longer tolerate being swept away by sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions.” We implicitly agree to “use the customary metaphors” and to render our language abstract, conventional, and “dull-spirited.” Instead, Nietzsche urges us to become intuitive, metaphorical, “richer, more luxuriant, more proud, skillful, and bold” in our uses of language. The “Man of Intuition” “jumbles up metaphors and shifts the boundary stones of abstraction, describing a river, for example, as a moving road.”  In creative metaphor, human beings escape the “mark of servitude” and become creative, swept away by language.

Ivan Kreilkamp
Associate Professor
Department of English

Animal Behavior Film Series Q&A

Dr. Gregory E. Demas, Professor and Associate Chair for Research in the Department of Biology, helped select the films to be screened for the animal behavior film series sponsored by Themester. Here he discusses his selections and the connection between animal behavior and morality.

1. Do people hold animals to a kind of moral standard? In what ways? 

It is interesting that one of the dichotomies in studying human vs. non-human animal behavior is that moral standards are not often considered when studying non-human behavior. Behaviors we would consider unethical or reprehensible when applied to humans (e.g., infanticide, cannibalism) are more likely to be considered in the context of their adaptive value in non-humans. That is, instead of asking if the behavior is right or wrong, the animal behaviorist more often asks whether the behavior is adaptive or non-adaptive and how it has evolved when attempting to explain a behavior. That is to say it is typically studied in a relatively “amoral” context. 

Although many of the principles of animal behavior transcend human and non-human animals, to a large extent there is a double-standard when it comes to applying moral standards across species and even within species.

2. In Grizzly Man, the bear who was suspected of eating Timothy Treadwell, a self-defined bear expert, was shot. How is this different than how a human would have been treated had he been suspected of Treadwell's murder? What does this say about perceived differences between human and animal behavior?

It is an interesting contrast how we as a society act towards humans versus non-humans when they violate our laws and rules or moral principles. 

There is a famous quote from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson that read, in part, “nature red in tooth and claw.” The quote has been interpreted to mean that often violent behavior of non-human animals are based on “instincts” relating to survival and self-defense rather than moral codes per se.  This is in contrast to the assumption that human behavior is guided by moral principles. It’s my opinion that this disconnect is largely artificial and incorrect. We too often fail to consider some form of “moral conscience” in non-human animal behavior (because it is nearly impossible to measure), while also failing consider the adaptive value of human behavior that may have evolved over many millennia. To understand the adaptive value of a behavior does not mean to necessarily condone it, but I think both aspects of behavior must be understood in order to fully understand behavior as a whole.

3. How did you choose the films for this series?

We tried to choose a range of films that possessed both scientific and artistic merit and that covered topics of relevance to students and faculty as we sit here in 2012. Because of the continuing (and much needed) focus on “green” issues across most college campuses, several of the films focus on animal conservation/ethics. 

Basic research in animal behavior continues to contribute in important ways to our knowledge of animals and how they interact with humans in our world. However, films about basic animal behavior tend to have more limited audiences than those focusing on more broad, applied themes. Thus we choose films that were well-made and would have broad appeal while focusing on important issues in animal behavior.

4. "The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco" was produced by IU professors. Could you tell us more about it and why it was included?

The “Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” is a feature-length film that highlights ongoing biological research on one of the most common and abundant groups of songbirds in North America: the Junco. The film explores key themes in animal behavior, ecology, and evolution, and conveys the process of scientific research with high school science standards in mind. 

We wanted to include it for several reasons: 1) To show IU students and faculty that some of the very best research in animal behavior is being conducted right here on our own campus; this film will help draw attention to the over 50 labs conducting animal behavior research of one kind or another right here in our own backyard. 2) The film is written and produced by Steve Burns, who is here at IU, and so we hoped that this would allow students to experience the process of making a nature documentary first-hand. A panel discussion with the filmmakers and scientists involved is planned in conjunction with the film so students will hopefully get to experience a “behind-the` scenes” view of the making of a scientific documentary.

5. Cane Toads is a relatively old film (1988). How is it still relevant when talking about behavior?

In addition to being somewhat of a cult classic film in the area of conservation biology, the lesson of Cane Toads is unfortunately one that we still haven’t learned. There are still examples of humans attempting to apply poorly thought-out “solutions” to control against introduced species or other pests. This movie shows that ecosystems are very finely balanced things and there is no easy solution; the “quick fix” is almost always the wrong fix.

6. Are you looking forward to any film in particular?

While I’m looking forward to all the films, I must admit I am especially looking forward to “The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” because of its local connections, and it is a superbly produced film in its own right. The airing of the Junco movie at Themester will be the film’s world-wide premier. Most animal behaviorists do not have the benefit of a film made on their life’s work, so this is a rare and unique opportunity for IU students.

For more information about the animal behavior film series, refer to

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

September 11, 2012

Welcome to Themester 2012: Good Behavior, Bad Behavior

Themester is a multi-departmental academic initiative that extends over the course of fall semester. Through courses, lectures, films, exhibits, and other events, Themester explores different aspects of a single theme. This year our theme is "Good Behavior, Bad Behavior: Molecules to Morality." We hope to engage students, faculty, and community members in a discussion about how we understand behavior -- what's good, what's bad, and how and why we make these distinctions. We'll explore everything from political to primate behavior. The goal is to approach the subject in ways that can appeal to everyone's interests, to encourage everyone to consider more deeply the issues surrounding behavior.
This year we have more than 60 events and opportunities to get involved. Speakers will include Karl Rove, Robert Gibbs, and Chaz Bono. Plays such asTo Kill a Mockingbird and Richard III will take the stageOur film series will explore topics like human trafficking and how food influences behavior. These are just a few of the many different events and subtopics that will be discussed. We hope that you will join us in delving into this Themester!
Amber Hendricks and Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 interns