THE DUAL REALISATION OF DANCERS IN A SHIFT OF READING
By Helmut Ploebst
“My body is the exact opposite of an utopia”,[i] Michel Foucault maintained in 1966 in a radio lecture with the title “The utopian body” – only to supplement a bit later: “In order to be utopia, I only have to be body.”[ii] In this manner he made a distinction between his “corpus quo”, i.e., that which was his body, from an as yet unattained condition of being body: Foucault took his body for the opposite of a body. This beautiful contradiction is a great seducer. Whoever wants to succumb to it in more detail should read this brief text by all means.
However, two entirely different questions are drifting through the following thoughts which deal with the “exquisite” bodies especially of dancers. Firstly: how does the body, as contradiction of itself, integrate into the reading of an essay about the dispositions of dance bodies? And secondly: What does “reading” mean in such an attempt?
Contradictions and oppositions always guarantee tension, as is shown daily in political life. Interesting with regard to its analysis is the size of the angle created when an object is viewed from two different positions. Slavoj Zizek wonderfully elaborates the procedure and result of this shift of perspective under the fitting geometric term “parallax”.[iii] Let us then direct our gaze towards another contradiction:
A fatal kind of reading is the “verbatim” one. The “interpretation to the letter” of a body of text mostly results in a narrowing of its content and interrelations towards a predetermined aim. During this, it turns into its opposite. The action of reading shrinks to become purpose-oriented: all interrelations in the text which do not conform to the established purpose are filtered out in order to increase the performance of the aim – which normally is a new text or an act of speech – whose bodywork possibly contains an aggressive machine.
Another fatal way of reading is the “diverting” one. The “relativising interpretation” of a text body mostly results in a fraying out of its content and interrelations in the powerless space of arbitrariness. During this, it turns into its opposite. The action of reading shrinks to become self-referential: all interconnections outside of this reading are filtered out in order to increase the performance of reading and the “Lecture Machine” (Jon McKenzie)[iv] – whose exclusive bodywork possibly contains nothing but hot air.
Reading one of the two previous paragraphs which together contain a symmetrical opposition, “verbatim” and “diverting”, in some readers will probably raise more assent or objection than the other. The symmetry of these opposites, too, might cause mistrust. And the connection of the two paragraphs – “another” in the sense of “and” – may bring up the desire for a third possibility of reading.
Symmetrical oppositions can also be hidden in single terms like, e.g., “enlightenment”, which according to context and orthography may mean a state of mind as well as a historical period. Here, the first meaning in its esoteric bracing contradicts the second in its rationalist boundaries. One term, then, applies to two fundamentally different processes within different cultures. In the reflection of this opposition on a first level, one position or train of thought may speak for a contextual connection (where the two meanings can be taken for each other in a wider sense), another one for a strict separation according to the contradiction mentioned. A third one could mean: the one instead of the other, a fourth might propose the opposite, and a fifth one could do without both.
Each of these directions obviously provides discourses integrated into certain communication currents in the form of images of speech. Now, on a second level these discourses, images and currents again can be viewed from different positions: What images of speech are formed, and what does the consistency of communication currents divulge about the individual discourses which operate with “enlightenment” and/or “Enlightenment”? On this level, the original symmetry gets warped. From a certain observer’s distance, the asymmetries in the reading of apparently unabmbiguous oppositions become quite clear.
Now, as Niklas Luhmann stated, an observing entity may well define itself but not observe itself. A nice example of this impossibility is given in Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel “A Scanner Darkly”, in which the protagonist has to keep himself under survey. In the course of this survey, he more and more becomes part of the object of observation, and the autonomous position of the observer dissolves.
Every reading figure finds itself in a similar position: It observes, follows a text and meanwhile becomes part of this text. The distinct position of the reader disintegrates, and the text begins to read its reader. Even more, and even more exactly: the reading itself already is the result of the reader’s being read. For a reader reads what is reading through him: the reading machine in him and around him. What is true for the author thus also is valid for the reader. Hidden behind the “death” of the author (Roland Barthes) and the “enlightenment” of the audience which can therefore be postulated, stand the “death” of the reader and the “enlightenment” of the communications systems which operate through both.
So, symmetrical opposition demands directions of thought from its observers whose structures by no means appear symmetrical to another observer – the observer of these structures. At this point the observer himself becomes a victim of asymmetry by distorting that which he is reading/observing, and at the same time is distorted if not consumed by his reading. Seen from this parallactic perspective, an old metaphor turns around: the book then “devours” its reader.
The “death” of the reader stands for his dissolution and “enlightenment” with and in the currents of the ocean of communication while reading and being read. The reader/observer distorted and devoured by the reading text and the asymmetrical object of observation experiences a referential embodiment. Luhmann writes: “Society does not consist of human bodies and brains. It is simply a network of communications”[v] and “the whole body is not at all part of the social system”[vi]. In Luhmann’s theory, the body itself is no system but only participating in various types of system, social ones, biological and psychical ones. Only human actions (presented by the body) create social systems. And only in their observation, persons (and bodies) appear again – as references.
From a dancer’s point of view the idea that the body is no system must seem completely absurd. After all, they focus on investigating the concrete, material body throughout their whole development – as a system of interacting organs and operations. However, the absurdity here lies in the fact that the subjectively experienced body obstructs the view of systems like they appear from the perspective of communicat theory. The perceived body moves in front of the referential one. This opposition has concrete causes, for dancers learn to read their bodies before they can write them and release them for reading. This learning to read one’s body is effected via a specialised communication system: the reading in of preformulated reading and writing methods through highly differentiated body and movement techniques into the dancers.
But again, in the course of its development every body already learns, genetically pre-programmed and therefore “automatically”, to read itself – always in connection with a social system. The individual body in the sense of the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana is part of an autopoietic (i.e. “self-creating”) system. Luhmann has taken over the term autopoiesis from Maturana, and thus transferred it from the context of biological systems to social ones. A body reading itself can be distinguished from other bodies reading themselves, albeit depending on the structures surrounding it. This dependence is also read into the individual body – as an element of the autopoietic system.
With dancers, now, a second reading intervenes in this process which is specifically directed at one aim: the performance of the body within an aesthetic subsystem of social communication. Their bodies learn to read themselves different, i.e., with regard to their presentation in a specific cultural ritual. That is where they are to be read, and in this situation as observees feed their bodies into the social system.
However, today this reading is “literal” in the sense of the symmetrical opposition mentioned in the beginning only, e.g., in the specialised old-school ballet. Contemporary dancers mostly read their bodies beyond the aim of performance – via reading of techniques not ancillary to dance (like Feldenkrais, Pilates or Yoga) but once again challenge primary reading. Moreover, dancers increasingly enhance these readings with the reception of works of art and literature which goes beyond the reflection of anatomy and sociology of the body. But this “diverting” reading does not at all lead to the self-referentiality of reading just because of reading, but to an expansion of the “dance field”, as is currently apparent.
So it is a body which primarily reads itself automatically, and which observes itself during this reading by means of an intention-generated secondary and enhancing reading system with regard to its task of generating meta-texts which then can be called “dances”. This again reminds one of Philip K. Dick’s secret agent in “A Scanner Darkly”, who observes himself as a junkie. Ironically though, the secret agent fails, and as remaining junkie flees into a withdrawal clinic.
There is no “author” for the matter primarily read, for this is already inscribed into the body from its procreation through the biological system, and revised by a social system. The (by dancers) secondarily read matter is, as said before, read in via a social subsystem which is its only “author”. Here, the body reading itself as a matter of course is part of its text and is read as such – in the case of the dancer, on two levels. The body primarily distorts and is secondarily devoured by the dance. This marks the “death” of the dancer and his dissolution in the aesthetical, social system. In “Der utopische Körper” Michel Foucault observed this dissolution thus: “The body is the zero point of the world, the place where paths and spaces cross. The body itself is nowhere.”[vii]
The observers and readers of the dancer, too, are in the same aesthetical, social system – in the process of being devoured during their reading, their observations, which according to Luhmann eventually realise the bodies of dancers. Through this, these bodies experience a second realisation; the first one already having taken place in the double self-reading described above. Foucault expresses this a bit more poetical: “Under the hands of the Other which glide along the body, all the invisible parts of the body come into existence.”[viii]
However, while being read the “text” mediated through the dance also reads its auditorium. During this process of devouring it is of no consequence whether the reception results in a “successful” or “unsuccessful” reading in the sense of the authors. For in the process of reading itself a “text” is created which cannot be ascribed solely to the authors or their different audiences. This “text” contains the working and procesing patterns of the communication streams into which the respective partial system is introduced. It is these patterns which make that which is contained in the system perceptible in the sense of an “art of society”.
A clarifying example: Vaslav Nijinsky’s body, e.g., cannot be read “immediately” any more. But he is still present as a reference body in those communication streams which rather pompously are also called “collective memory” – their patterns continue to inscribe themselves because in certain contexts he is still referred to today. Independent of the “author” Nijinsky, who doesn’t exist any more as a biological entity. Nijinsky’s body has already dissolved early in a text that is writing him until today. The irony of this process: it is exactly the “death” of the dancer which even after his biological demise makes him “immortal”. And do not overlook that the text Nijinsky continues to read all those who continue to write it.
[i] Michel Foucault, “Die Heterotopien. Der utopische Körper”, Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 25.
[ii] Ibidem, p. 30.
[iii] Cf. Slavoj Zizek, “Parallaxe”, Frankfurt am Main 2006
[iv] Cf. Jon McKenzie, “perform or else. From Discipline to Performance”, London/New York 2001.
[v] Niklas Luhmann, “Kommunikationsweisen und Gesellschaft”, in: Werner Rammert / Gotthard Bechmann (Eds.), “Technik und Gesellschaft. Jahrbuch 5”, Frankfurt am Main/New York, 1989, p. 12.
[vi] Niklas Luhmann, “Einführung in die Systemtheorie”, Heidelberg 2002, p. 255.
[vii] Michel Foucault, “Die Heterotopien. Der utopische Körper”, Frankfurt/Main 2005, p. 34.
[viii] Ibidem, p. 35.