"If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution."

André Lepecki reads 'Bodies of the text,' a collection of essays on dance, the body and feminism by Jaques Derrida, Susan Foster and others.

Ballettanz 1 Aug 1995English

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Contextual note
First published in: Ballet-Tanz, Aug./Sep. 1995, pp. 68-70

What if, then, the dance event to write about were not a live performance but rather an event in writing? What if the names on the billboard were not those of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, or William Forsythe, or Pina Bausch, but Jacques Derrida, Susan Foster, Michael Moon, Mark Franko? What if, instead of the moving bodies, we had a performance in text - literature as dance?

This unusual and certainly poetic setup is precisely the one informing the recently-issued 'Bodies of the Text; Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance', a collection of essays edited by Ellen Goellner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy (the former teaching at the English Department at Princetown University, the latter at the English Dept. at U.C. Berkeley) and published by Rutgers University Press.

Despite the range of contributors and of perspectives (historical, sociological, aesthetic, feminist etc.) the essays that constitute the volume could be divided into two main categories: those which problematise dance as a theoretical framework, as a set of knowledge and a site of knowing, and those which propose how literary theory can draw from dance new and powerful interpretive tools. Hence, this is not a book preoccupied with a self-contained, self-sufficient theory of dance, and of uncritically following the modernist (and still so prevalent) fallacy that dance only "is what it is." Rather, essay after essay, the reader is led to experience the intellectual excitement and theoretical potential of envisioning dance as an important paradigm, an omni-present entity in the debate and production of ideas. One could say that 'Bodies of the Text' is trying to establish the shape for a theory-in-motion, a theory that participates of the ontology of dance itself. In this sense, the biggest contribution from 'Bodies of the Text' to dance, literary, and performance studies is the one of provocatively gesturing towards a performative epistemology.

It is easy to infer from these opening paragraphs that the task the editors gave themselves was far from easy. The book reflects this difficulty, and the reader will find him- or herself having to race this uneasiness, as the book oscilates between some excellent and challenging essays, some more banal ones and a couple that I find quite problematic. Despite this oscillation, that is perhaps inevitable given the pioneering characteristics of the project, the biggest problem in the book turned out to be a quite surprising one, at least for me, and given the context and purpose of the book; it is nevertheless the oldest one, the oldest problem of them all: of how to theorise or address or write on the body? How to handle its living presence?

Indeed, the body is an elusive entity, and the more so when this body, this theoretical body, is forced to inhabit theoretical perceptions. But for the moment I'll limit myself to mimicking this trickster body and its dazzling powers and will push a discussion of it to the end of the text. For it seems to me that to properly start the task of addressing the writing on the body, one must first address the body of the writing; and, this said, I will enter 'Bodies of the Text' through the path of death by the back door, by history, through the final essay Susan Foster 'Textual Evidances.' I will let the body re-emerge later in my discussion, hopefully not as a corpse but as living articulation.

Foster's 'Textual Evidances' proposes an intertextual reading of two theoretical and aesthetic moments in the European history of dance writing: Claude François, Menestrier's 'Des Ballets Anciens et Modernes Selon les Régles du Théâtre,' published in 1682, and Louis de Cahusac's several entries in Diderot's 'Encyclopédie seventy-two years later. These two texts, or rather the important rhetorical differences between these two texts, allow Foster to Iocate an important epistemological shift in the theoretical understanding of the function and nature of stage dance. Foster is very convincing in arguing how the Enlightenment was responsible for new perception of the dancing movement, namely one where "the body's gesture [in the dance] begins to signify that which cannot be spoken." Foster further argues that "this unique role for gesture prepares the way for a complete separation between dance and text that occurs in the early decades of the nineteenth century. (p. 234)

Thus, the currently and broadly-accepted notion shared by dancers and choreographers, but also by scholars and critics alike, that the art of dance is essentially one that has a privileged and mysterious relationship with the unspoken, the un-utterable, which what is beyond or before language, is historically deconstructed by Foster. Dance was not always the art of what cannot be spoken, and the radical implication of Foster's essay is that this recent divorce between dance and meaning (the gestural and the verbal) also shaped the current relationship between the dance writer, the dance critic, with its object of study: "Dance becomes imbued with a dynamic charisma, and the text is assigned the ability to interpret and theorize about the ephemeral yet magnetizing presence of the dance." (p. 234) Which is to say: dance and dancers become essentially the embodiment of the un-theoretical, waiting for the writer's mind to organise and Ioot the treasure of meaning out of them. The rest of Foster's essay is an attempt to precisely subvert this violent hierarchy. She writes: "What if we find in choreography a form of theorizing? What if learning to choreograph, the choreographer learns to theorize, and learning to dance, the dancer assimilates the body of facts and the structuring of discursive frameworks that enable theorization to occur?" (p. 234) To pursue and try to answer these questions Foster will practise a performance of and in the text,subverting the formal (writing) stereotypes of 'proper' theory.

Foster's text addresses writings on dance. But what happens when one has to address dances themselves? Here, I would argue that the issue of writing on dance (but also of writing on dance theory and on literature as dance) must inevitably problematise, or make explicit, acknowledge, the specific problems at the heart of any practice of writing on a vanishing phenomenon.

Dance is always already vanishing, always in the process of dying before our very eyes - this self-erasure of dance at the moment it is being danced, informs the nature of dance writing as a writing of sorrows. There is a sort of mourning embedded in dance criticism and scholarship. I believe that the descriptive obsession that informs so much dance criticism is part of this will to transcend death. The paradox of this practice of writ- ing is that, despite the erasure of the dance, the dance lives, becomes public, transcends its process of dying by the means of an inscription that arrests the flow of movement and the flux of memory through literary recording. Here we find ourselves in the realm of writing, of writing as problem, and it is not surprising then to find that one of the central texts in 'Bodies of the Text' is Jaques Derrida's 'Choreographies' (an 'interview' with Christie McDonald in the rail of 1981, and previously issued in 'Diacritics 12.' (1992))

This quite 'choreographed' exchange of ideas does not specifically address dance but rather sets out tle philosophical premises for a discussion of another strong association that dance (particularly 20th-century modern dance) always evokes: the association between dance and femininity. The discussion starts with a statement by Emma Goldman, a feminist from the nineteenth century who said: "lf I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution."

After quoting Goldman, McDonald asked Derrida what the place of the feminine is in view of Derrida's assertion that "that which will not be pinned down by truth in truth, feminine." Derrida°s reply is that, indeed, there would be no place for the feminine, but rather a constant being in motion, that femininity is flux, and in this sense participates of dance and of life. He writes: "lt is without doubt risky to say that there is no place for woman, but this idea is not antifeminist; far from it: true, it is not feminist either. But it appears to me to be faithful in its way both to a certain assertion of women and to what is most affirmative and 'dancing,' as the maverick feminist [Emma Goldman] says, in the displacement of woman." (p. 144) And he continues further down: "The most innocent of dances would thwart the assignation à résidence, escape those residences under surveillance; the dance changes place and above all changes places." (p. 145) And in this risky flux of the feminine and dance, of the feminine as dance, Derrida suggests that the dance and its special relation to time and to femininity is properly revolutionary: they are that which escapes the Iogic of Iocation and the vicious circularity of economy. Just as Augusto Boal proposed in the sixties that if the theatre is not the revolution itself it is at least a very good rehearsal for the revolution, Derrida sees the dance as the practice for a true feminine revolution.

Mark Franko's essay 'Mimique,' that also deals with the Derridean question of memory and trace in dance, differs with and criticises Derrida's 'Choreographies' on several points. For Franko, who problematises the issue of memory and of trace in the writing of dance, "dance is about the enactment of future place through the memory of 'spacing.'" (p. 211) In this sense, dance does not change places, as Derrida wants, is not ontologically in flux and not necessarily revolutionary, but will always be recognisable. Franko is quite convincing, particularly in his discussion of presence; nevertheless, Derrida's argument inside feminist theory is powerfully convincing in the sense that it provides some interpretive tools to better understand the appearance of all those early dance revolutionaries of this century, those women who forever changed the shape and content of choreography as we know it: Graham, Fuller, Duncan, Wigman ...

And it is through feminist theory that we arrive at the promised question I left hanging at the beginning of this article: what kind of body inhabits toost of the theory present in 'Bodies of the Text?' This is where the problems of the book emerge more strikingy, and par- ticularly in the essays of Elizabeth Dempster ('Women Writing the Body') and to a lesser degree in the other- wise excellent interpretation of Marie Chouinard's work written by Ann Cooper AIbright in 'lncalculable Choreo- graphies.'

The most surprising for me in this book on dance and dancers, on movement and gestures, on a radical epistemology, is to find a certain fear of the body. It seems that whenever it is invoked, this body that haunts the theory emerges as an over-hygenised body. Not surprisingly this hygenic gaze calls for a 'medical' rhetoric in the text. In her essay, Dempster writes: "Social and political values are not simply planted or grafted onto a neutral body-object like so many old or new clothes. On the contrary, ideologies are systematically deposited and constructed on an anatomical plane, that is, in the neuromusculature of the dancer's body, and a precise reading of this body can only proceed if the reader's/ spectator's gaze is not deflected by, but penetrated beneath, the brilliance of the body's surface." (p. 23) Despite the harsh phallicsadistic images used by Dempster when proposing her analytical practice on the dancing body (a practice based on "penetration," "deep incisions" and "dissection"), my main critique goes rather to the problematic uses of a theoretical framework that, although an explicit critique of the Cartesian vision of the body, nevertheless reproduces this vision in its most pernicious ways. We have the anatomical versus social values, the neuromuscular versus the political. In AIbright's text, this division emerges in the passage where she divides '°bodies and nervous systems." (184) It is not so much the epistemological flaw that disturbs me since it is quite a common and widespread one despite decades of post-Freudian critique; it is rather the political implications of these proposals for the project of a feminist theory of the body and for a practice of the dance in general.

In the tradition of Michael Foucault and in some respects of Marcel Mauss, both Dempster and Albright want to reinforce the idea that the body is a primordial cultural object, circumscribed by and held within a system of meanings and laws. In this sense, the category of the natural, is a very problematic one to apply to the body. But what is pretty much common sense in social theory becomes a problem in Dempster's arguments when later she sets up a conflict with her own theoretical standpoint when she uses the word 'natural' regarding the body, and must decide when to apply quotation marks to this word. While talking of modern dance (a dance she sees as a feminine and feminist counter-reaction to the patriarchal structure of ballet), this 'natural' body becomes a natural one without quotation marks. On page 26, Dempster does not hesitate to oppose natural without quotation marks with 'natural' with quotation marks when discussing the ballet vision of the body. The former belongs to modern dance (feminine) and the latter to ballet (phalocentric). she writes: "Modern dance posits a natural body in which feeling and form are organically conected [ ... ] Ballet training shapes, controls, improves upon, and perfects the body's given physical structure; in this process both the natural body and the individualised body are erased." (p. 29) But then, for the sake of coherence, Dempster goes on to acknowledge that currently, because of the institutionalisation of modern dance techniques, the dancer's natural body is becoming again 'natural,' that is, circumscribed by a system of systematic techniques.

AII this discussion on punctuation and orthography is only apparently trivial for it is a symptom of a theoretical discomfort with a crucial element in any theoretical thinking on performance and on feminism. This discomfort is again found in Albright's essay on Marie Chouinard when she writes: "This desire to consider the physical body does not stem from naive belief in a 'natural' or even a 'biological' body - quite the contrary." (158) This horror of the 'natural' or 'biological' bodies, these naive beliefs, creates epistemic anxieties and ambiguities in writers who are otherwise addressing and celebrating the body and who claim to have a privileged connection or understanding of the body. (Both writers express how literary theorists in general are ill-prepared to really 'understand' the body, or write about it). The theoretical anxiety derives from the fact that for the sake of coherence and of feminism one must still invoke and deal with this 'naivete' which is the physiological body, and particularly with the 'live female body' which is much present in Marie Chouinard's work, for instance. Albright acknowledges the need, but in her attempt, the body emerges only as a set of physiological "oppressive" (!) accidents: "This fear [of dealing with living bodies] is based on an oppressive image of the body as unconscious matter which tends to burp, fart, or menstruate at inconvenient and embarrassing moments. But simplistic biologism obviously doesn't begin to account for the many ways in which out bodies structure our consciousness." (p. 168)

Albright argues that despite all this "oppressive" (??!!) burping and farting, "women can consciously" (p. 168) create in performance. And this is precisely the point of fear and theoretical anxiety: that something unconscious should be able to exist and control out actions. It is all a question of being in control. Which brings the riddle of dance back to the old issue of power (who controls whom and when) and to the question of technique and expressivity, spontaneity and virtuosity, and finally to the question of who and where is the choreographer in this discussion and what is her role at the head of the community of her dancers?

This ideological fear of the physiological, biological, and unconscious body that could take control undermines the project of a serious theory of the 'living' body, moreover of a theory for a feminine performing body in the political context of dance production, for it paralyses a discussion of agency and of powers of the dance and of dance as empowering. This is what is mainly lacking in the whole project of 'Bodies of the Text' (and of a certain feminist theory): a place for a metapsychoIogy of action, beyond the Cartesian divide of the ideal and the kinaesthetic. At this point, one feels the urge to quote the precursor of psychoanalysis and deconstruction Friederich Nietzsche when he writes in 'The Gay Science:' "The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the veil of the objective, of the ideal, of the purely spiritual, reaches frightening proportions -and I often ask myself whether, and in a general manner, philosophy hasn't been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body .... "

The misunderstanding that must be clarified is that it is not the body and its physiological activities that are 'oppressive' but rather ideas on those activities and their imposed behaviours. The inclusion of a theoretical paradigm beyond Foucault's vision of the body as only concept, and beyond the Cartesian paradigm that reason is all powerful becomes a much-needed inclusion in any theory of dance.

This new theoretical and natural body would be a bridge that would bring together, or explode creatively, the two powerful theoretical paradigms already present in 'Bodies of the Text:' that dance is a trace and its writing a theatre of memory and meaning; and that the sexuality and the expressivity of the body in action are fertile breeding grounds for revolutions.