In this article, I will analyze several instances of so called "visual arts performance" where scores, scripts, instructions and re-enactments are predicated on a dancer's labor.
Departing from early scores by Bruce Nauman, where the first instruction for the works were the apparently neutral expression "hire a dancer" and ending with the recent Marina Abramovic show at NY's MoMA, where the majority of the performers were literally "hired dancers," this article explores the aesthetic implications of this economy in a politics of presence in contemporary performance.
Over the past few years we have witnessed a convergence in critical discourse and political philosophy towards a generalized agreement on the relationship between art and the political. The terms of this agreement were clearly expressed not too long ago by Giorgio Agamben during a Conference not unlike this one, also dedicated to the relations between philosophy, politics, and art.1 Concluding his intervention, Agamben stated:
Art is not an aesthetic human activity that can also, in certain circumstances, acquire a political significance. Art is inherently political, because it is an activity that renders inactive and contemplates the senses and habitual gestures of human beings and in so doing opens them up to a new potential use. This is why art resembles politics and philosophy almost to the point of becoming one with them. What poetry does for the power to speak and art does for the senses, politics and philosophy must do for the biological, economic, and social activities – they show what the human body can do and open it up to a new potential use.2
It is clear how Agamben’s articulation of what in art would be “inherently political” converges strongly with some of Jacques Rancière’s propositions on the link between art and politics, particularly under his concept of the aesthetic regime of art. To summarize an increasingly familiar notion, the aesthetic regime is characterized by a particular distribution of the sensible defined around “the idea of a sensible element torn from the sensible, of a dissensual sensible element.”3 Within the aesthetic regime, this element is what binds artistic acts with political acts. Indeed, as Rancière writes, “if there exists a connection between art and politics, it should be cast in terms of dissensus, the very kernel of the aesthetic regime.”4 In the aesthetic regime, art is connected to politics because both work to disconnect sensory experience away “from the normal forms of sensory experience”5, and because both understand the body as a reservoir of dissensual somatic-political capacities. To sensorially dissent is precisely to put those capacities towards new potential use (to invoke now Agamben’s terminology).
Differently from Agamben however, Rancière’s identification and differentiation of several regimes of the arts (which do not necessarily correspond to any strict historical sequence, but may overlap within a certain epoch, and sometimes within one single work6) indicates that not every artistic practice is necessarily (or ontologically) political. The generic way Agamben states the connection, or ontological community, between art, philosophy, and the political, appears in Rancière under the sign of particular singularities, of sudden breaks and cleavages brought about by dissensual artistic and political manifestations (demonstrations). Only under the specific conditions set up by the aesthetic regime are artistic manifestations able to be truly dissensual – i.e., are able to open up a fissure in the habitual weaving of the fabric of the sensible. In the aesthetic regime, art and the political gain symmetry: the political (as opposed to the business of making politics) is simultaneously traversed and constituted by the aesthetic (understood now as a disruptive-inventive-cleaving force). This is why Rancière can write that “there is thus an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics that has nothing to do with Benjamin’s discussion of the ‘aestheticization of politics’ specific to the ‘age of the masses’.”7 In the age of the aesthetic regime of the arts, of which our contemporaneity is a part, art partakes of the political and the political partakes of art only when both produce ontological-perceptual disjunctions and eccentric movements in language and sensation; only when both promote a disbanding of circulatory imperatives tied to linguistic and behavioral clichés for subjectivity.
It is telling how the particularities of the aesthetic regime of art necessitate the activation of a semantic field in all resonant with performance and dance – revealing the kinetic unconscious underlying contemporary political-philosophical thought. Indeed, at a temporal level, and using a phrasing that is quite familiar to dance and performance studies, Rancière identifies politics as being both ephemeral and precarious: “politics is always of the moment and its subjects always precarious. A political difference is always on the shore of its own disappearance.”8 While, at a corporeal level, Rancière tells us how politics’ main task is to invent bodies and to explore new capacities to perceive, to express, and to move: “politics […] reframes the given by inventing new ways of making sense of the sensible, new configurations between the visible and the invisible, and between the audible and the inaudible … in short new bodily capacities.”9 In both senses, politics emerges as choreographic activity. A choreographic understanding of politics (tied to corporeal potentiality and to ephemeral temporality) echoes notions in political philosophy that have always linked politics to performance, and particularly politics to dance. For instance, to Hannah Arendt’s remarks on how “politics is a techné, belongs among the arts, and can be likened to such activities as healing or navigation, where, as in the performance of the dancer or play-actor, the ‘product’ is identical with the performance act itself.”10 While Rancière’s observation that both art and politics share the choreopolitical ability to create new bodily capacities reunites his thoughts with Agamben’s formulations on art and the political cited above.
Thus, and despite important differences, it is possible to identify the terms of a discursive agreement on how art and the political establish between (and with) each other a common. On this common, a question presses itself forth: if a critical-philosophical consensus is being established on some co-constitutive relations between art and the political, couldn’t we say that such a consensus risks deflating precisely that which defines and fuels the political in the aesthetic regime of art? And couldn’t we say that this consensus risks deflating and defusing other forces traversing the political kinetic, i.e.: the differential, evental and eccentric affects and effects produced by dissensus? In agreeing to affirm and to re-affirm once and again in art biennials, conferences, symposia, academic journals, or artistic manifestoes that art is political because it creates a rupture on the fabric of the sensible, of the perceptible, of the sayable, and because it dissensually refuses to reify the quotidian as the normal, how to prevent the formation of a paralyzing theoretical homogeneity, one that not only would blind us critically, but pin us down theoretically, politically and artistically?
The problem is how such a liberating thought, such a liberating conceptual proposition, such a liberating view on the inventive and co-constitutive relations between aesthetics and politics may all of a sudden, and despite very good intentions, place us under arrest. Stuck in a place that consensus has built. Even if being stuck happens under the guise of incredible performances of agilities and fantastic kinetic feats – for to be stuck, to be pinned down, to be consensual, does not mean necessarily to be immobile or to appear immobile. Actually there is a whole kinetics of consensuality predicated on all sorts of agitations. The kind of fixity implied in (and produced by) consensus is very different from active dwelling in intense stillness, or from engaging in still-acts. As Rancière clarifies, to be in consensus is simply this: to fit the mold and to stay fit. It is to circulate not only because one is told (by whichever authority, real or fantastical) to circulate; but also to do so always in the proper mode of circulation (for instance in policed circulation where the kinetic command is to “Move along! There is nothing to see here!” as the cop says11). Consensual kineticism means to move so not to stir things up; it means to create apparent critical and political agitation but only as long as, in the end, agitation keeps everything stale and in place. Properly. And fit.
I am invoking this generalized state of critical consensus around the political-aesthetic need for dissensus moved not at all by a desire to be polemical on these issues, and even less by a desire to engage with a semantic play around these two words. I am bringing this issue for our consideration moved by a recent encounter with a (relatively) old text (relatively) familiar to dance scholars. A text moreover, where its author explicitly proposes (in his analysis of a very specific choreographic body of work in all exemplary of the aesthetic regime of art) his own notion of a “politics of perception.” However, in this relatively old, relatively well-known text, we find that the “politics of perception” being proposed (despite its Rancièrian and Agambian tones avant-la-lettre), actually promotes a very disturbing conservatism. I am referring to Roger Copeland’s essay “Merce Cunningham and the Politics of Perception,” originally published in The New Republic, in 1979.12
In that text, Copeland’s explicit drive is to rescue politically Merce Cunningham’s “abstract” choreographic work (and partially also John Cage’s music).13 “Can we really extract a politics of perception from Cunningham’s work?” asks the author. His answer: “I think so.”14 Interestingly, the question of the relation between dance and the political is invoked by Copeland as being a matter of what we could only call a partage du sensible (even if his essay was published years before Rancière coined the expression). Copeland makes one single claim: “in an environment designed to stimulate wholly artificial desires – the needs of a consumer society – we have no way of knowing that what feels natural isn’t really the result of subliminal cultural conditioning. […] our most fundamental perceptual habits have been conditioned by forces we neither recognize nor control.”15 Fueled by such diagnosis, Copeland proposes the practice of a “politics of perception”16 in order to achieve what he calls “perceptual freedom.”17 Still according to Copeland, Cunningham’s mode of freeing oneself from normative perceptual conventions results directly from an “aesthetics of peaceful co-existence”18 between autonomous realms of sound, movement, and set which are found throughout most of Cunningham’s oeuvre. Copeland concludes in the following terms: “Cunningham was the first choreographer to achieve (or even attempt to achieve) the aims of the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky […] who wrote that art is the effort to ‘remove the automatism of perception, to increase the difficulty and length of perception’.”19
Copeland’s main thesis in his 1979 essay is retaken in his more recent book, Merce Cunningham. The modernizing of modern dance (2004). In it, Copeland introduces a new element in a model that otherwise reminds us of Agamben’s notions of perceptual potentiality (as they relate to the invention of new corporeal capacities) and of Rancière’s partage du sensible (as political, aesthetic, perceptual and signifying practices aimed at dissensus). Let me quote the passage that threw me off into a spin, truly displaced my critical disposition, and precipitated this paper. It is from the book’s “Introduction”:
One of my principle goals in writing this book is to reclaim the concept of ‘the political’ from those current denizens of the ‘cultural left’ who cavalierly dismiss the so-called detachment of artists like Cunningham and Cage as socially irresponsible. […] Many of Cunningham’s inventions – the independence of movement, sound and décor in his dances, the decentralizing of stage space, the physical obstacles that sometimes impede or obscure one’s view of the dancers -- serve the ultimate goal of increasing the spectator’s perceptual freedom, of providing us with opportunities to choose when and where to focus our visual and auditory attention. Cunningham and Cage practice (quite consciously) a politics of perception.20
Let us keep in mind that Copeland’s analysis is driven by the desire to “rescue” Cunningham politically from those “left wing denizens” who accused the choreographer of “detachment.” Yet, Copeland continues in absolutely Rancièrian terms: “Cunningham’s works challenge existing relations between seeing and hearing; and by stretching the intervals between stimulus and response, they help us against the many forms of (virtually) Pavlovian conditioning that play an increasingly dominant role in our daily lives.”21 So, we are not only before the identification of a dissensual partage du sensible but also before the identification of a temporal politics of the lag in Cunningham’s mode of challenging existing relations between seeing and hearing – similar to the “break” or “cleavage” proposed by Rancière’s concept of dissensus as the binding element between the aesthetic and the political in the aesthetic regime.
To summarize my points so far, we find outlined in Copeland’s 1979 essay (and again in his 2004 book), all the conditions defining the aesthetic regime’s dissensual (political-artistic) dimension: 1) an aesthetic object (Cunningham’s choreography) is seen as proposing a dissensual severance between all elements that make up its plane of composition; 2) that severance and constitutive dissensus is what promotes the spectator’s perceptual freedom; 3) perceptual freedom is described as initiating the “practice of a politics of perception” when watching Cunningham’s choreography; 4) such a politics of perception is then aligned to a critical mode of choreographing temporality predicated on the formation of lags or intervals or gaps in the fabric of the temporal; and 5) all of these points coalesce around the hope that such a mode of creating a choreo-politics of perception would offer the occasion and the tools an audience would need to escape sensorial conditioning (along with its concomitant conditioning of subjectivity).
I could not agree more with Copeland’s description of the Cunningham-Cagean project. What disturbs me is Copeland’s conscription of their project – away from what he called “those denizens of the cultural left.” And what disturbs me even more is how Copeland describes this whole “liberation” of the sensorial found in Cunningham as initiating a desirable, and for Copeland indeed much needed, “politics of disengagement.” Again, and for the last time, Copeland: ”In some contexts, a politics of disengagement can perform a more radical function than a politics that is more conventionally ‘engaged’.”22
An in-depth critique of Copeland’s ideology is not really the point of this paper. I am invoking Copeland’s essay and book as stumbling blocks on current discourses on the politics of perception and the politics of aesthetics. Stumbling blocks which have the merit to demonstrate how notions of the political in art, once tied exclusively to effects derived from dissensual sensorial redistribution, may lead us to certain odd, undesirable, and politically problematic positions. For instance, the one resulting from tying the notion of a politics of perception directly with an ethics and kinetics of “dis-engagement.” Copeland’s analysis does have the merit of at least uncovering the repressed material stratified in the political unconscious of current theoretical considerations on the relations between art and politics. His approach reminds us that a politics of perception, a politics of the sensible, a politics of dissensus could all still take place under the sign of a generalized, and for me politically aberrant, dis-engaged participating passivity. Confronted with the affirmation that an aesthetic operation of sensorial re-alignment directly promotes a (political) rearticulation of the world and of subjectivities, and yet defending that this rearticulation could be reached through a disengaged, contemplating sensuousness, what is at stake in Copeland’s formulation of the political work of the aesthetic is the link between perceptual re-distribution and political engagement. This is the missing link in Rancière’s or Agamben’s writings, yet one that remains crucial for a political philosophy concerned with aesthetics (or with contemporary art) and its relations to political action and political transformation.
Copeland’s ideas on what would be a disengaged perceptual politics has the merit of forcing a question: should we abide by his “politics of disengagement”23 for the sake of “perceptual freedom,”24 particularly when this freedom is offered to us by the spectacle of dancing bodies? To answer this question, we must first define what exactly we mean by engagement. We know that Rancière’s own term to describe his understanding of the work of aesthetics – partage – is etymologically linked to “partake”; and thus to participation, or methexis.25 Rancière has noted how the link between partaking (of the sensible) and (political) participation is essential to the aesthetic regime’s political ontology – because partaking, in that particular context, presupposes the affirmation of the supplementary nature of the demos. But a problem still remains – if a “politics of disengagement” (initiated by an artistic dissensual proposition, like Cunningham’s desire for the isolation of sensorial domains in his works) demonstrate that there could be something like a passive partaking, or a passive (sensorial) participation, these kinds of passivity would seem to name the choreopolitical project underpinning contemporary control societies. It is important to clarify that the passivity I am referring to, constitutively linked to an aesthetics and a politics of disengagement, has little to do with active forms of intense dwelling, or of “still-acts” in dance (of which myself and others such as Petra Sabisch, José Gil, Erin Manning, Adrian Heathfield have written about in relation to the works of choreographers such as La Ribot, Vera Mantero, Jérôme Bel, Eiko&Koma, Xavier Leroy, etc.). As I mentioned earlier, one can be politically passive while gesticulating and moving around like a maniac; just as one can be fully engaged while in the most absolute quietness. I take passivity here to signify exactly a constitutive disengagement at the core of our contemporary subjectivity, which has led to some dire descriptions of our current political predicament – from Luc Boltanski’s musings on the impossibility for the left to currently consider, even remotely, any possibility of revolutionary action,26 to Agamben’s even more depressing description of a generalized contemporary social passivity (or of a generalized passive sociality) taking place under the most frenetic agitations and dislocations, and where “the most docile and cowardly social body that has ever existed in human history” (Agamben is referring here to current Western societies) “readily does everything that he [sic] is asked to do, inasmuch as he leaves his everyday gestures and his health, his amusements and his occupations, his diet and his desires, to be commanded and controlled.”27
A passively participating contemporary subject does move about, does desire, amuses him or herself and others, plays politics and makes art, even sometimes politically demonstrates – but only as long as all these motions and desires remain fit within a regime of visibility and signification that above all announces itself as the only possible mode of being. “To participate? Of course!” this subject says, only to add: “But only in that which has already been fitted (in) as fit for participation!” In other words, I will participate in movements that follow the logic of a dominant choreographic imperative (move along, move along, but only on the pre-assigned paths, according to pre-assigned steps) and that leave no room for excess or surprise, stumbles or inventiveness, rebellion or disobedience – the unexpected and its callings. Spectator or dancer, politician or choreographer, artist or critic, curator or scholar – we all participate, we all partake – but the question that Copeland’s observation annoyingly places before us, the choreopolitical challenge it introduces in affirming the relation between art and politics is this: how much in participating and by participating do we actually engage with a kind of moving that takes us no other place than where we are (always) already (properly) expected to arrive at? The problem is how passive participation and disengaged sensorial redistribution are fostered by a generalized spectacle of mobility that, in its agitation, in its performance of circulation, keeps us all stale, fixed – policed and policing, to use Rancière’s concept.28
With freedom to sensorially redistribute, yet disengaged, the question is how to transform passive agitation (i.e., a movement that by moving keeps everything in place), how to transform aesthetic yet disengaged participation into engaged action. Which means that the choreopolitical question for a passive-yet-participating society becomes the following: how to rescue and activate politically and aesthetically that other central element constitutive of the political (at least as much as dissensus), energeia? That concept coined by Aristotle where notions of actuality, work, ephemerality and dynamics all converge to manifest and produce (choreo-)political energy?29 As work that works, as energy that energizes, and as movement that in moving triggers action, the semantic field defined by energeia is one without which there would be no politics; and indeed, no dancing. Energeia qualifies movement (kinesis) not only as something that moves, but as a motion that acts. It is thanks to it that a movement becomes activation and actualization – of corporeal and critical capacities towards the composition and formation of engaged modes of existence. It is in this sense that my concerns today repeat the challenge that Erin Manning posed to us in her remarks during her opening lecture of this Conference with Brian Massumi: as when Manning invoked the urgent necessity for imagining and enacting what she called a renewed “practice of engagement.” I find the need for a renewed practice of engagement a particularly pressing challenge before any politics of perception predicated on collective political disengagement and performed by the spectacle of (consensual) agitations and (consensual) demonstrations.
It seems to me that the dangerous formation of a new political conservatism of the senses is being implemented less by a “policing” of the senses (where what is perceived is only that which is supposed to be perceived, where what is sayable is only that which is supposed to be said, and where saying and perceiving fit tightly into a narrow band of semiotic correspondence), and more through a kind of passive partaking, or disengaged methexis, disguised as a supposedly liberating politics of perception. We could call it: right-wing psychedelia. Such a project is not exclusive to Copeland’s notions of “perceptual freedom,” and thus requires some inquiry into what it means to state that participation, partaking, methexis, a politics of the perceptible, an emancipated spectator, an emancipated artist (why not!) are not quite enough for what is politically and aesthetically needed in order to establish an engaged, active, misfit dissensuality. What does it mean to affirm the need for choreopolitical, artistic-political formations of something else? Let’s call for now this something else a differential factor of subjectivation, a differential factor of activation, one that would necessarily supplement partaking as a mode and a practice of engagement. Here, once again, the term energeia would be of use. Not as a transcendental signifier for a universal politics of hope, but as the name of any affective-energetic field necessary for the concrete initiation and actualization of any movement that acts because engaged with a specific political situation and its demands.
It is perhaps a matter of historical subjectivity; or rather, of how historicity interfaces political subjectivities in regards to dance and politics (the dialectics of history and agency Randy Martin problematized in Critical Moves30). In such dialectics between historical forces and moving bodies what emerges is a third, called subjectivity. Mark Franko has shown in his book The Work of Dance how dance and politics in New York in the 1930s fused intimately to create a co-extensive affective field of compossibilization of political purpose and action. Thanks to a mutual sharing of a true affective-political field, a subjectivity energized by a sentiment of revolutionary imminence (or even by a dynamics of revolutionary immanence) could be produced not only by dancing but also by witnessing dancing. This particular choreopolitical affective field was criss-crossed by such a degree of mutual engagement that it could be said that the aesthetic regime of dance in New York City in the 1930s was one profoundly invested in practicing kinetically what it meant politically to create gestures, steps, positions, dynamics, assemblages that would indeed actualize and energize a revolutionary movement.31 If this kind of collective compossibilization of affects, politics, dances, perceptual and affective dissensual energies leading to active engagement was once not only conceivable, but indeed actualized, indeed practiced, the question for us today is this: how to re-activate an affective-political field so that it could initiate potent activations of political subjectivities and movements? The related question is this: are we condemned to be, as Agamben so depressingly diagnosed, these perpetually passive-yet-participatory subjects, following commands as if they were our deepest wishes, fitting our dissensual impetus into well-measured coordinates of consensual good (or expected) behavior, all for the sake of perpetuating the same old modes of conceiving participation and of performing transgressions? In this light, the perceptual politics for a dissensual distribution of the sensible would require, I would suggest, a more active verb than “to participate.” I propose that to define that mode of engagement that would guarantee an active participation of the partaking of the sensible, even the Rancièrian concept of “demonstration” (manifestation) is not enough. Rather, it would take a verb that, as Deleuze would say, would not be content in being the description of an action, but rather affirm itself as the true expression of an event.32 This verb that engages engagement in a politics only dancing can both conceive and enact is, I would suggest, to initiate.
I risk this explicitly Arendtian term only because, as is known, Hannah Arendt linked it to the notions of action, of taking initiative, of actualization, of the nascent event, and of energeia. And therefore, linked it to the act of leading, to the ethics of following, and to the affect-event of courage (this last term understood as a human potential, not as a personality trait of some few). The notion of courageously taking initiative is derived from Arendt’s investment on the etymological potentialities contained in the Greek word archein – as denoting not only action but also the “setting of something in motion.”33 This is why taking initiative, to initiate an act, is always a profoundly political and kinetic phenomenon. To initiate is the verb-event that occasions dance as politics.
But would this invocation of Arendt’s notion of action as an ethics and a politics of initiative, already announce yet another set of problems? Namely, the danger deriving from the inevitable semantic resonances “to initiate” has with heroic feats, performed by a “heroic leader,” more or less solitary, more or less condemned to have nothing but followers of his or her “courageous” initiatives? Rancière critiques Arendt precisely on this issue of “taking initiative” and its heroics. He sees both as tied, in Arendt, to a misconstrued, even naïf, image of the leader as solitary hero. Rancière countered Arendt by reminding us that arkhê also means to walk at the head (of a group) and concluded: “if there is one who walks at the head, then the others must necessarily walk behind.”34 Rancière further characterized the actions of those who “walk behind” in ways that somewhat describe (I want to emphasize here, and strongly, somewhat) the subjugation of any subject who decides to participate in a choreographic system of command: “to stay silent and submit”;35 to go where the choreographer tells the dancer to go, efficiently and without questioning (much). In this submissive silence of the followers, of those “who walk behind,” we understand how choreography and political leading may become theoretically understood and may be actually practiced as unidirectional systems of commands dictated by those who are leading at the head (the choreographer, the sovereign). We can also understand the crucial link between autocratic regimes and their predilection for performances of choreographic discipline, from North Korean mass dances to fascist parades.
But the question of choreographic autocracy and choreographic obedience is still present in less rigid formations of power. Karl Marx saw in any profession aligned with performance a permanent danger of servility, a permanent danger for the performer to become a mere follower of someone else’s lead or command.36 However, dancing demonstrates before our eyes that there is much more to the work of the follower than to submissively shut up and walk behind in passive, or servile, or obedient participation. For instance, Erin Manning has shown, in her essays on tango37 but perhaps even more astutely in her extraordinary essay “The Elasticity of the Almost”38, the possibility of conceiving and of practicing a following that is not reduced to passive obedience to a leader’s command. Rather, in her fine choreopolitical empiricism, Manning shows that to follow is to initiate – in other words, to follow is to take the initiative of engaging with the leader and demonstrating through engaging that the leader is always the one who, by leading and because of leading, must follow.
Manning: “I begin by taking her in my arms. […] We walk. I am leading. But that does not mean I am deciding. Leading is more like initiating an opening, entering the gap, then following her response. How I follow [as leader], with what intensity we create the space, will influence how our bodies move together.”39 Watching Manning and her partner dancing in this space of leading-as-following, of an a-personal leadingfollowing, we observe how steps hesitate, go off tempo, actualize non-metric rhythms through a partnering that is neither hierarchical nor “heroic.”40 Manning calls this mode of leading by following, and of following by taking initiative, the relational creation of an “interval.” Couldn’t we say that the creation of this moving interval, of this moving together without synchrony and without identification, without autocracy nor submission, is also the formation of that partaking gap that for Rancière founds the political? The political understood now as the mobilization of that rupturing interval that defines dissensus? Only now, we can supplement Rancière’s concept. We can add to the notion of dissensus the (constitutive) necessity of a courageous choreopolitics of engagement, one where all elements in place risk taking initiative, risk to initiate, that is to say: risk activating movement towards the actualization of an yet unmapped nascent event. It is this particular mode of engaging that confuses the semantic logic of dissensus because in the political singularity of dance, following-as-leading-as-following requires a kind of a-personal agreement, a kind of necessarily uneven partaking, which can only exist because of the always teetering moving gap that emerges once all elements present in the assemblage refuse the function of authoritative authorship: in this kind of choreopolitical plane of composition (so clearly visible in Erin Manning’s mode of leading-following when tangoing) a kind of shifting adherence, an immanent yet precarious, always renegotiated a-personal suturing, must take place again and again, with every new step, gesture or move, so that an always incalculable, always unpredictable, and yet necessary dancing may come into being thanks to the engagement of the multiple and heterogeneous elements of the assemblage.
To dance in the moving interval of dissensual partnering is to suture lines of initiatives in a dynamics of necessarily anonymous leading and following. Here, leading does not emerge as force of unidirectional authority, or of command, tied to an identifiable person-author-leader; just as following does not emerge as merely reactive and servile behavior. Rather, in their true choreo-political nature both become intertwined forces jointly affirming that a-personal singularity or event that we could name leadingfollowing or simply: a dancing that initiates. Dancing, one engages by constantly taking the initiative to fuse and to confuse lines of authority and of submission. Engaged, dancing becomes the act of fabricating permanent diffusions of leading positions and following positions – thanks to a constant weaving of disparate and endless lines of initiatives and counter-initiatives. Such active co-engagement is aimed at only one result, which is never fully achieved, as long as it is actively pursued: the dance itself. This is what Arendt called actualization – a process always involving three very important elements, two of which are deeply tied to dance’s political and aesthetic ontology: “the unpredictability of its outcome” and “the irreversibility of its process.”41 The third and last one, “the anonymity of its authors,”42 offers the most complicated aspect of action as it relates to the formation of a reconstituted politics and to the possibility of an engaged art. For this necessary (ethical) anonymity implies a politics without politicians (or without personalities) and a dance without choreographers (or without authors).
A-personal actualizations of leadingfollowing would require moving away from Arendt’s emphasis on what she called the “who” – a figure doubly attached to a “self” and to a “biography” affirming the person as primary agent and source of all political initiative.43 They also require moving away from theatrical dance’s onto-historical ties to the epideitic mode of rhetoric44, deeply linked to western theatrical dance’s constitutive narcissism.45 We can see those two elements (the epideitic, the narcissistic) traversing and defining the whole history of western dance, with consequences at the political level and at the level of subjectivation: “The dancer’s own person is the ultimate and single object of praise and dispraise in the dance,” writes Franko in regards to Renaissance dance. Which explains the dubious predicament of dance before its political promises since “the dancing body must in turn display the admirable self or praise and index this display as praise worthy, elicit praise.”46 The link between dance and the epideitic is nothing more than the unbearable personification of dance, defining and orientating western theatrical dance from its beginnings to a fetishization of the dancer’s body and personality (his or her “charisma” or “aura”) over the a-personal compositional plane of choreography and over a-personal elements in the actualization of dancing. With the notion of leadingfollowing, what is being proposed is the demise of this aesthetic-political continuum predicated on the praising of the dancer’s person; what is being proposed is a political-choreographic process through which those who dance dare create something that always exceeds predetermined acts and intentions. Leadingfollowing and yet never as a person understood as a formation for praise and the enhanced display of praiseworthy “feats” -- but always as immanent force, invisibly composing a particularly unexpected dancing, a particularly singular actualization of what really matters, rather than the matter of regal exceptionality.
I am thankful to Xavier Le Roy to have reminded me that another example in dance of an engaged actualization without a product, of participatory leadingfollowing making precarious planes of composition filled with series of engaged negotiations and courageous initiatives between several a-personal subjects is Contact Improvisation. In this mode of dancing, where momentary collective assemblages of several partners mingle to produce a result that is always more than the sum of personal intentions, individual bodies, limbs and their trajectories, leadingfollowing would name the mode of moving of a highly engaged social collective – as much as it would accurately describe the collective’s mode of taking endless series of courageous initiatives. Indeed, these series of initiatives, predicated on a hyper-engagement of all senses, and hyper-acceleration of sensorial perceptions and redistributions to the infinite speed of thought, produce Contact Improvisation’s kinetic actualizations. As Steve Paxton, one of the co-inventors of the technique, once remarked: “we discovered that for every action several equal opposite reactions are possible. Therein lies the opportunity for improvisation.”47 In Contact, the opportunity for improvisation lies not in the genius of an authorial self, nor in the genius of an aesthetically participative yet collectively disengaged dancer. It lies in the formation of an a-personal force field of actions and counter actions, emerging and dissolving as ever-multiplying actions and counter actions. These actions of simultaneously initiating and receiving momentum, of always being taken by momentum and generating momentum at the infinite border of potentiality of a movement that even when still initiates reveals the political potential in engaging dancing.
I started this essay with a critique of recent discourses on aesthetics (Copeland’s, Rancière’s, Agamben’s) that privilege perceptual re-distribution as the link between politics and aesthetics. I identified in these discourses the danger of a passive participation, despite (or because of) their emphasis on “sensorial reframing of the given”. I then moved to a consideration of some dances that propose not only “perceptual freedom” but actualizations of reconfigured political formations through motions that, by moving, act and initiate (what I called leadingfollowing). I noted how, explicitly in Copeland’s “politics of perception”, and more subtly in Rancière’s, the strict identification of the political with aesthetics through a “distribution of the sensible” extracts from the political one of its key, constitutive, and most active elements: energeia. I distinguished action from mere spectacles of agitation. And I also noted, with the work of Mark Franko on leftist dance in the 1930s, how (political) energy is neither a fiction, nor a universal transcendental signifier, but it erupts historically as a significant and tangible political-affective phenomenon, indeed transforming the very notion of spectatorship, and therefore notions of aesthetics and of politics. Emphasizing how energeia is linked (thanks to Arendt’s particular use of this term) to the verb-event to initiate, I proposed that “to initiate” is not synonym to “to impose” but rather a catalyzing singularity; and I showed how the philosophy and dance of Erin Manning as well Contact Improvisation (but the examples do not end with these two cases) demonstrate that “to initiate” is always to confuse and to blur “leading” and “following” into a single (political) formation: leadingfollowing. With this concept, which is both descriptive and choreographic, we can see how dance enacts a crucial (choreo)political critique of leadership, one that detaches leading from commanding, and following from submission, thanks to the explicit formation of an a-personal field of endless negotiations and transformations. In sliding from my initial focus on spectatorship (and its concomitant politics of perception) to a focus on the performer, or the dancer (and on the choreopolitics of their engaged initiatives) the point is not of privileging one over the other, but to propose that the differential factor between political paralysis (disengaged “perceptual freedom”) and political change (actualization of the unforeseeable) is not to be found in sensorial distribution or partage, but in the act of initiating a movement that in its imperfection actualizes the nascent unthinkable beyond authoritative authors, leaders, artists, and disengaged (yet perceptually free!) spectators or aesthetes.
Agamben reminded us not too long ago: “Movement is the impossibility, indefiniteness and imperfection of every politics. It always leaves a residue. […] It is the threshold of indeterminacy between an excess and a deficiency that marks the limit of every politics in its constitutive imperfection.”48 Constitutive imperfection of politics. Constitutive imperfection of movement. Both demanding the imperative to courageously engage, so that we do not fall into passive participatory partitionings of the sensible. To dare taking initiative, even in the most adverse environments. To dare to lead just to discover the courage to follow. To dance so to set something in motion, but only if this activation of movement is aimed at not seeing motion falling in proper steps, fit, attached to personhood’s traps. Leadingfollowing. Followingleading. Relinquishing the personal, so that “the unexpected can be expected […] to perform what is infinitely improbable.”49
1 Consider Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum, Sven-Olov Wallenstein, eds., Thinking Worlds – The Moscow Conference on Philosophy, Politics, and Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008).
2 Giorgio Agamben, “Art, Inactivity, Politics,” ibid., p. 204.
3 The complete citation reads as follows: “The idea of a sensible element torn from the sensible, of a dissensual sensible element, is a specific characteristic of the thinking implied by the modern regime of art, which I have proposed to call the ‘aesthetic regime of art.’ What in fact characterizes this regime is the idea of a specific form of sensory experience, disconnected from the normal forms of sensory experience.” – Jacques Rancière, Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics, transl. S. Corcoran (London, New York: Continuum), p. 173.
4 Ibid., p. 140 (emphasis added).
5 Ibid., p. 173.
6 “At a given point in time, several regimes coexist and intermingle in the works themselves.” –Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics, p. 50.
7 Ibid., p. 13.
8 Rancière, Dissensus, p. 39.
9 Ibid., p. 139.
10 Hannah Arendt, The human condition (Chicago: University of Chicag‑Press, 1998), p. 207. Arendt’s argument is, of course, that such vision of the full actuality of politics, one where its means coincide with its ends, and where no product is produced except sheer actuality, endures a degradation in Western political thought, epitomized (according to her) by Adam Smith. Paolo Virno reminds us also of Marx’s own discomfort with those professions where all is left to the worker is to belabor ephemeral acts that produce nothing other than themselves. The recovery of the “sheer actuality” of performance and its precariousness and ephemerality as the potency of a reconstituted political modality (traversed by the aesthetic), proposed by Rancière, Agamben, Virno and others, would reconstitute also a political ontology deeply tied into performance’s and dance’s political-ontological potencies.
11 See Rancière, Dissensus, p. 37. As he states there: “The police is that which says that here, on this street, there is nothing to see, and so nothing to do but to move along.”
12 Roger Copeland, “Merce Cunningham and the Politics of Perception”, What is Dance? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). The original source is Roger Copeland, “The Politics of Perception”, The New Republic, November 17, 1979, pp. 25–30. The article had a call for it on the magazine’s cover, with the header Unnatural dance.
13 Copeland repeats the exact same argument throughout most of his more recent book Merce Cunningham: the modernization of dance (London, New York: Routledge, 2004). Copeland’s book was published before the English translations of Rancière’s Aesthetics and Politics, or his more recent collection of essays Dissensus.
14 Ibid., p. 312.
15 Ibid., p. 311.
16 Ibid., p. 313.
17 Ibid., ibid.
18 Ibid., ibid.
19 Ibid., p. 214.
20 Ibid., p. 16.
21 Ibid., p. 17.
22 Ibid., p. 14.
23 Ibid., p. 16.
24 Ibid., p. 14.
25 “I call ‘distribution of the sensible’ a generally implicit law that defines the forms of partaking by first defining the modes of perception in which they are inscribed. […] This partition should be understood in the double sense of the word: on the one hand, as that which separates and excludes; on the other, as that which allows participation.” – Rancière, Dissensus, p. 36.
26 See Luc Boltanski, ”The Present Left and the Longing for Revolution”, Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw eds., Under Pressure. Pictures, Subjects, and the New Spirit of Capitalism (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008).
27 Giorgio Agamben, What is an apparatus? (California: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 23.
28 As Gabriel Rockhill explains, for Rancière, “the essence of the police, therefore, is not repression but rather a certain distribution of the sensible that precludes the emergence of politics.” – Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics, p. 89.
29 Arendt, Human Condition, p. 206.
30 See Randy Martin, Critical moves: Dance studies in theory and politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).
31 See Mark Franko, Dancing modernism/performing politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
32 For verbs as events, see Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (New York: Columbia University Press): “For it is not true that the verb represents an action. It expresses an event.” – Ibid., p. 184.
33 Arendt, Human Condition, p. 177.
34 Rancière, Dissensus, p. 30.
35 Ibid., ibid.
36 Paolo Virno, A grammar of the multitude: for an analysis of contemporary forms of life (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004), pp. 53–56.
37 See Erin Manning, Politics of touch: sense, movement, sovereignty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
38 Erin Manning, ”The Elasticity of Almost”, eds. André Lepecki and J. Joy, Planes of Composition: dance, theory and the global (London, New York: Seagull Press, 2009).
39 Ibid., p. 108.
40 See, for instance: http://www.erinmovement.com/erin_manning_dance.html.
41 Arendt, Human Condition, p. 220.
43 “Action without a name, a ‘who’ attached to it, is meaningless.” – Ibid., p. 180 f. See also ibid., pp. 186–192.
44 See Franko, Dancing Body.
45 For a discussion of this specific narcissism see José Gil, ”Paradoxical Body”, eds. A. Lepecki and J. Joy, Planes of Composition: dance, politics and the global (London, New York: Seagull Press, 2009), p. 88 f.
46 Franko, Dancing Body, p. 22.
47 Steve Paxton in the film Fall After Newton (Video, Color and Black&White, 22 min and 45 secs, 1987).
48 Giorgio Agamben, “Movement, 2005”, Multitudes online, http://multitudes.samizdat.net/Movement.html (August 4, 2011). Link posted March 8, 2005.
49 Arendt, Human Condition, p. 178.
is Associate Professor in Performance Studies at New York University and independent curator for venues such as Haus der Kunst, Hayward Gallery, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, among others.
This volume is dedicated to the question of how dance, both in its historical and in its contemporary manifestations, is intricately linked to conceptualisations of the political. Whereas in this context the term "policy" means the reproduction of hegemonic power relations within already existing institutional structures, politics refers to those practices which question the space of policy as such by inscribing that into its surface which has had no place before. The art of choreography consists in distributing bodies and their relations in space. It is a distribution of parts that within the field of the visible and the sayable allocates positions to specific bodies. Yet in the confrontation between bodies and their relations, a deframing and dislocating of positions may take place. The essays included in this book are aimed at the multiple connections between politics, community, dance, and globalisation from the perspective of e.g. Dance and Theatre Studies, History, Philosophy, and Sociology.