Saturday, April 19, 2008

At the Intersection of Certain and Appropriate

I just discovered Leopold Kohr, an Austrian economist who was a mentor and inspiration for E. F Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful. In a speech entitled "The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr" delivered at Yale in October 1994 and posted on the E. F. Schumacher Society website, Ivan Illich provides this nugget:
I see Kohr as the one social thinker who picks up the biological morphology of D'Arcy Thompson and J. B. S. Haldane as the starting point of a social morphology. These scientists studied the proportion between form and size in living creatures. Mice appear only within rather narrow parameters of size. One intuitively grasps mousyness—that familiar form of a small, compact body with a tail that scurries across the floor on four swift and delicate legs. Such beings come in sizes from an inch to a foot. Haldane demonstrated that the form of mousy proportions cannot exist outside this lower and upper limit. Since the weight increases with the cube of its size, legs able to move a larger rodent would have to thicken beyond mousy proportions. Kohr discusses society in analogy to the way plants and animals are shaped by their size and sized by their shape. He is uninterested in the timeless and weightless critters fabricated by social scientists. As a friend remarks, these abstractions appear to come out of "social thought about mice on the moon."
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Kohr's contribution is to be found in his social morphology. There, two key words reveal his thought: Verhþltnismþssigkeit and gewiss. The first means proportionality or, more precisely, the appropriateness of a relationship. The second is translated as "certain," as when one says, "in a certain way." For example, Kohr would say that bicycling is ideally appropriate for one living in a certain place, like Oberndorf. An examination of this statement immediately reveals that Òcertain,Ó as used here, is as distant from "certainty" as "appropriate" is from "efficient." "Certain" challenges one to think about the specific meaning that fits, while "appropriate" guides one to knowledge of the Good. Taking both "appropriate" and a "certain place" together allows Kohr to see the human social condition as that ever unique and boundary-making limit within which each community can engage in discussion about what ought to be allowed and what ought to be excluded. To consider what is appropriate or fitting in a certain place leads one directly into reflection on beauty and goodness. The truth of one's resultant judgment will be primarily moral, not economic.
In many ways, my efforts to create a theatre model appropriate for non-metropolitan areas are poised at the intersection of "certain" and "appropriate." I am seeking to devise a model that adjusts its "proportion" to an "appropriate" size for "certain" specific places. One of the challenges of doing so is avoiding a universality that undermines it roots in specificity. What is "right" for Wichita KS may not be right for Sioux Falls SD or Marshall NC. The proportions have to change, and the tactics and techniques have to be able to adjust to the specific context. If one's potential audience in a rural setting is smaller than in a metropolis, how does one adjust one's theatre to the appropriate proportion for the region? How does one adjust one's aesthetic? How does one adjust one's company size or ancillary income ideas?

The regional theatre movement to some extent approached this model in the reverse order. The Ford Foundation had a model of a regional theatre in mind -- a certain scale, a certain business model, a certain audience -- and the founders of regional theatres looked for places where that model could thrive. If Danny Newman posited that a certain small percentage of the population could be expected to subscribe to a regional theatre, then one could mathematically figure out how large the city needed to be in order to accommodate the size theatre one felt was ideal. So Margo Jones sets a goal of a professional theatre in each city of 100,000 or more. In 1951, when she wrote this goal, the US Population was 154,877,889; now it is roughly double that, so perhaps the goal shifts accordingly.

I am trying to follow Kohr: if a theatre is in a town of 60,000, what proportions does it need to assume in order to thrive there? The challenge: how to create a model with an adjustable waistline?

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