Tuning the body

Ballettanz 2006English
Ballettanz (April 2006): 74-79.

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What do we see when we're looking at dance? What can art teach us about the mind? If art can help us understand the nature of the mind, then what does that fact tell us about art, or about some art? And what does it tell us about the mind?


You may know that in the last few years there has been an explosion of interest in the study of mind. In particular, there has been a blossoming of studies of consciousness, of the subjective aspects of our mental lives, of experience. Much of this work has been interdisciplinary. How could it not be? Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, not to mention linguists, mathematicians, roboticists - and yes, artists have been gelling in to the act. What is striking is that whereas for years consciousness lacked respectability as a topic - this was the influence of behaviorism and linguistic analysis - consciousness has now become respectable again. Some of the enthusiasm for consciousness studies is driven by philosophy, by new philosophical approaches. And some of it is driven by technology. In the last decades new imaging technologies have emerged that make it possible to begin to theorize about the neural basis of experience in the brain. Before the emergence of these technologies - CAT, PET, MRI - autopsy was basically the only way to bring the brain into view.

The imaging studies raise their own problems though. Just what do these computer  generated pictures tell us about the brain and its processes? That's an important topic but one I won't discuss here. What I would like to mention is that in all the excitement about consciousness studies there has been relatively little attention to phenomenology - to the careful description of the phenomena of consciousness themselves, to the phenomena we want to explain. And sometimes at great cost. How can you study vision -  what we see?  -  if we don't spell out, at least as best we can, what seeing is, what seeing is like?


Can art contribute to science?

I think this may be the place where art comes in. So often scientists or philosophers interested in art are really interested in using science to explain art, at least as far as they grasp the art itself. For example, perceptual psychologists like to try to explain why pictures can represent three-dimensional scenes. Some of this work may be worthwhile. It doesn't interest me though. I'm interested in whether art can contribute to science, whether art can make a contribution to the understanding of phenomenology. And so with whether it can contribute to the theoretical study of consciousness. In particular, whether it can contribute to the understanding of perceptual consciousness.

I inherit this question from Lisa Nelson. Back in the early 1970s, together with Steve Paxton and others, Nelson helped originate the sort of interactive movement/performance activities that are sometimes referred to, a bit indiscriminately, as contact improvisation. Nelson devised what she describes as "an approach to spontaneous ensemble composition;" she refers this approach as Tuning Scores.


The tuning score

A tuning score is a simplified dance situation. It is a structure, or rubric, within which dancers are free to compose (to compose themselves). A tuning score has several elements: the dancers or players, the stage or, as Nelson calls it, the "image space," and rules that organize and constrain the play. As Jeroen Peters, a Belgian critic, writes, characterizing Nelson's project: "You enter the space with the eyes closed to take up a position in which you imagined yourself before entering. Once in the space, you listen for the time to begin on action simultaneously with the other performers." The players use calls such as "repeat," "undo/ "enhance," and "end; " in this way, the image develops.

I have said that a tuning score is a simplified dance situation. No tuning score is so simple, however, that it is anything less than a complete dance situation. A score requires on image space, more than one person, and at least one call (e.g. "end") to govern communication among the different players. To be in the score you must be a dancer, and an observer of dancers. You must be performer and audience member. You must play, and watch. And you must understand. In this way, the tuning score models life.


Primitive games

Philosophers can usefully compare Nelson's Tuning Scores to Wittgenstein's Language Games. Wittgenstein believed that language is a medium for thought; that getting clear about the structure of language can be a way of getting clear about our concepts and intellectual values and commitments. He introduced the idea of language games in order to elucidate the nature of language. To appreciate what he had in mind, consider an important example from the "Philosophical Investigations." Close to the beginning of this book Wittgenstein asks us to imagine a language "meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words 'block,' 'pillar,' 'slab,' 'beam.' A calls them out; - B brings the stone he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. - Conceive this as a complete primitive language."

Wittgenstein tells us to think of the language game of the builders as a complete, primitive language. What he seems to have had in mind is the thought that although language games - which he might have called job games or society games - are simplified, they nevertheless exhibit the elements essential to more complicated forms of linguistic exchange. Importantly, language games have a point, a purpose (in Wittgenstein's example, to facilitate building), they have players (the builders), they take place in a context (the building context, the aims and interests of the players, etc). They are linguistic in that they involve words. But the words are displayed as tools or instruments of the whole practice of the game. (The words play a role in the game like the slabs, blocks, pillars, themselves.) It is in this setting that Wittgenstein could argue, famously, that the meaning of words in a language is just they way they are used in the game. And of course their use depends on the larger context of the players and the game. To specify a language game you need to describe all this - context, point, players, activity. You have to describe a way of living - what Wittgenstein sometimes called a form of life (Lebensform).

Now, Wittgenstein thought that looking at language games can help us understand language, that is to say, it can help us understand what is in effect the medium of our thinking and the source, sometimes, of our intellectual puzzlement. And it isn't hard to understand why language games can help us in this way. Language games exhibit in the small the basic features of language in the large. For example, one thing that reflection on language by way of language games can teach us is that the meaning of words can not be thought of apart from the contexts, needs, goals and problems facing people.

Why do we need language games to get at the basic features of language as a whole? The problem with language is that it is complicated. Wittgenstein sometimes said that language is like a city. " Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.'' - Crucially, to be a competent speaker, or thinker, or resident, you need to know your way around. Wittgenstein recommended that language games can help us to find our way around in language itself.


Language games

I think it is helpful to compare Nelson's tuning score method, to Wittgenstein language games method. And when we do so, we can begin to appreciate how Nelson' dance method can serve also as a practice for coming the better to know our way around.

Consider that to be part of a tuning score ensemble with Nelson is, as one member in the collective, to learn one's way around jointly imagined spaces, spaces that are projected imaginatively in the real space of the studio and that are occupied, in reality, by the bodies of other dancers. To learn your way around in the tuning score is to communicate skillfully and effectively with the others; to be sensitive to them; to find your way around a shared world with them, with them, thanks to them, and in spite of them.

A striking feature of Nelson's own understanding of the tuning score is that she thinks of it as a research tool - for the study of movement and performance and, crucially - for me, given my interest - for the study of perceiving. Let us ask: How can an improvisational dance activity be a research tool?

The kinship with Wittgenstein's language games may be helpful here. Language games cast light on the nature of language by letting us appreciate, in the small, the workings of the sorts of embedded, contextualized practices that, in the large, make up our use of language and our intellectual spaces. Tuning scores are like language games, I am suggesting. So let us ask: What is it that tuning scores cast light on in the way that language games cast light on thinking?


What do we see when we're looking at dance?

A first answer that comes to mind is thot tuning scores cast light on dance itself. They inform us of dance possibilities. This may be so. But it is not the answer I am looking for. It doesn't satisfy. For one thing, it is not surprising to learn that the tuning score method will teach us about dance. The question is whether dance, explored using tuning scores, can teach us about something else (e.g. about the mind). Think of the Wittgenstein case again. We might say that it is not surprising that language games can teach us about language. What is surprising, and what interests us, is the fact that language games, by helping us understand the structure of language, can actually help us gain clarity about the intellectual worlds we inhabit. - What then?

To answer this let us return to the question with which we began, Nelson's question: what do we see when we're looking at dance?  Keeping the tuning score project in mind, we can venture an answer: when we look at dance, we look at a situation into which we can, into which we are invited, into which we need, to enter.

That's a beginning. But can we say more? When we look at dance, we see opportunities for movement; we see obstacles; limitations. We see the world, but we see it as a world-for-movement, that is, the world as a domain for action. To put this another way: when we see when we look at dance is the environment. I use this term in Gibson's sense. Gibson is the most important twentieth-century theorist of perception, outside of philosophy at least; he is also an important source for Nelson. Nelson reads Gibson. The environment, in Gibson's framework, is not the physical world. Two different species of animal, located beside one and the same tree, may occupy one place in the physical world, but they inhabit different environments. The environment, for Gibson, is the animal's surroundings. The German word captures the intuition. It is the Umgebung; that is, the world given around the animal. It is the world as it makes itself available to the animal as a domain for the animal's activity. Animals and environments are inseparable terms; animals end environments are co-determining.


The environment

What we experience, what we see, when we are looking at dance, in the setting of the tuning score at least, is the environment. Our environment. Not the physical world. Not mere things. We see, that is to see, we encounter, the meaningful world of our possible action.

Gibson wrote that "Every animal is, in some degree at least, a perceiver and a behaver." Nelson might have written that every dancer is to some degree at least a behaver and a perceiver. What does a dancer see when she looks into the image space, or when she tries to find a path in it? She experiences the environment, the world as it correlates with our embodied perceptual orientation to it.

If language  games are tools for laying out and making perspicuous intellectual spaces, or linguistic cityscapes, then tuning scores lay out and make perspicuous our mode of perceptual being-in­ the-world, our perceptual attunement to the cities in which we find ourselves, to our environment, and to the ways  -  this is a new point  -  in which our  environment is not merely affected by what we do, not merely transformed by it, but is actually brought forth by us. The point is not merely conceptual - that is, the point is not that without the person or animal there is no environment at all, only a meaningless physical world.

The point is more textured than that, and more realistic. The point is that the environment in which we find ourselves, the space itself, is one whose meaning is always specified relative to us and the situation in which we find ourselves, to our relation to each other, to the environment.

When we as dancers enter the image space, when we perform actions, when we issue calls and respond to calls, when we listen, and watch, we make the environment. We enact our environments thanks to our skilful engagement with them. We enact our perceptual world by attuning ourselves to it. Nelson's tuning score - recapitulates this fundamental fact about our lives - that our worlds are made by us through our dynamic coupling with our surroundings.


Image space

This is an important lesson, one that matters not only far dance, but for philosophy and also for the empirical study of perception.

We see things, objects, facts, but we also see opportunities to do this or that. The world shows up for us as a domain for movement and action; as an "image space" or playing field.

An account of perceiving, whether in science, or philosophy, must reckon with these facts. Nelson's work thus complements and contributes to new developments in the science of consciousness and the theory of perception that emphasize that perceiving is active, in so far as we our active, and in so far as our ability to achieve perceptual contact with the world depends on our practical mastery of the ways what we do can open up the world for us.

What do we see when we are looking at dance? It turns out that the answer to this question also give us the answer to the more general, more fundamental question, what do we see?

For what we see, in general, is just what the tuning scores enable us to see when we look at dance: we encounter a world or environment that is meaningful for us, always and already, in part because it is a world whose pathways and possibilities are traces of our actions and projections of our capacities.

We see a world made meaningful by our capacities for movement and exploration.