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The body as series of boundaries: developing interventions in performativity through dance practices

(© Shannon Stewart, 2016)

Note: I wrote this paper as a step in my thesis process specifically trying to understand what we/I/dance makers/theorists mean when we say "the body." The resulting work - THERELATIVEBEING WHATITIS ANDCONTEXTBEINGEVERYTHING- wants to "mess with" performativity in dance and performance practices through deep dives into internet memes and rigorous acts of embodying identities that my collaborators and I relate to.

I position myself as an active artist invested in research as a powerful tool for creative process and for reimagining how dance contributes to larger conversations.

As a dancer/choreographer, I’m particularly interested in how “the body” is theorized in feminist and gender theory. Because “the body” is a site of both conceptual and material research and generator of “work” in dance (more so than subject, personhood, cogito), I find feminist and gender theory a rich territory for bodily and choreographic ideation[1].

The field of feminist theory provides numerous and diverse perspectives on how the “body” operates in conceptions, constructions, coherence and the possible inversions (misconceptions, deconstructions, and incoherence). More to begin a larger inquiry than to solidify new theory, I will look at how Judith Butler, and therefore Simone de Beauvoir, conceptualize “the body” in chapters one and four of Gender Trouble and elaborate on possible bodily interventions using dance theory. Primarily, I will call upon dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster’s theory of kinesthesia in performance to deepen an understanding of bodily resonances. I ask the question, is there a way to narrow or altogether collapse the space between performativity and performance? What form might that take and how can it contribute materially to decolonizing the knowledge of the body and destabilizing gender asymmetry. This paper serves as a step in a process of building a more complex analysis and potential theory for gender and performance studies.

Body not merely as passive medium or instrument

In “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire,” Butler’s notions of “the body” are predominantly in conversation with early second wave French feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir. Butler proposes Beauvoir’s theory of “the body as a situation” follows the philosophical debate of freewill versus determinism and is therefore subject to constraints of language:

“within those terms, “the body” appears as a passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed or as the instrument through which an appropriative and interpretive will determines a cultural meaning for itself. In either case the body is figured as a mere instrument or medium for which a set of cultural meanings are only externally related” (Butler, 8).”

Butler posits that while Beauvoir points to the female body as the situation for freedom, not limitation, and further critiques abstract masculine disembodiment (men are the only ones allowed to have “a body-transcendent personhood” (9), she ultimately falls into Cartesian dualism reifying the power of mind over body. Butler points out how feminism and philosophy have thoroughly discussed cultural associations of “mind with masculinity and body with femininity,” concluding that “Beauvoir fails to mark along the axis of gender the very mind-body distinction that is supposed to illuminate the persistence of gender asymmetry” (12).

Butler agrees with Beauvoir in her infamous statement that “one is not born but becomes a woman” and focuses on the aspect of becoming. The process of coming into being as a woman is a construction that “cannot be said to originate or end” (33).

“Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being”(33).

The stylization of the body and the body’s repetitive acts constitutes Butler’s gender performativity – the constant unconscious quoting of culturally regulated notions of masculine or feminine, that she argues, are “ontologically uninhabitable locales” (146). Ultimately, Butler builds toward the idea of “the body” “not as a surface. . . but as a series of boundaries, individual and social, politically signified and maintained” (33), however, she returns repeatedly to calls upon the “surface” as the possible site of intervention. “Just as bodily surfaces are enacted as the natural, so these surfaces can become the site of a dissonant and denaturalized performance that reveals the performative status of the natural itself” (146).

Butler closes with a demand to reconsider “the body as mute, prior to culture awaiting signification, a figure that cross-checks with the figure of the feminine, awaiting the inscription-as-incision of the masculine signifier for entrance into language and culture” (147-8).

From Feminist to Gender Theory

Disciplinarily, Judith Butler is a philosopher cited for making the turn from feminist to gender theorizing. Her deconstruction of gender as a set of repeated, stylized actions that are dislodged from sexed bodies themselves allows female and male bodies to interchangeably take on feminine or masculine qualities. This was a marked shift from theories totalizing and universalizing the experience of “the woman” or “women” and “the feminine” that is often associated with second wave, particularly white, feminist writers. I read Butler’s theory as a response to the uncritical ways that white feminist writers’ theories fell short when held up to post structural theories of power and in alignment with strands of intersectional theory. Butler builds her framework by weaving Foucault’s theories of power with early French feminist theorists Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig and Luce Irigaray. As stated earlier, when it comes to discussions of “the body,” Butler is in closest conversation with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

Surface vs Boundaries

Built through a careful deconstruction of earlier feminist syntax, Butler’s theory of performativity is a prevailing and authoritative tool for developing theory of gender asymmetry. As a tributary of her thinking, I’m most interested in what this theory says about “the body” as “a series of boundaries, individual and social, politically signified and maintained“(33). While a provocative assertion, what follows lacks proposals for interventions that go further than surface stylings such as drag and obvious visual disruptions in gender legibility.

Is there a way to collapse what is performative (assumed unconscious) and performed (a conscious intervention) and is this a site for transformation in the way we perceive knowledge and each other? What can dance theory and practices offer for us in terms of how we approach interventions of performativity through bodily research that modify our relationships to hegemonic language and ideas of knowledge? Is this sort of embodied research a place for feminist scholarship? What if any, possibility is there to embody these theoretical ideals in a state of fluidity, distant from language, but still conscious, present, and non-verbally legible?

In dance practice and creation, one cannot escape the materiality of the body through theoretical conceptualization. Because of this, a great amount of work is done to understand individual and communal relationship to “the body,” to bodies and to environment. Conditioning is not only unconscious but conscious, “ritual repetitions,” as Butler mentions, practiced across political and aesthetic values. As an artist, I’m particularly interested in how to engage with and disrupt performativity beyond being in drag or displaying iconic masculine and feminine images with the shape of my body and the bodies of the people that dance with me.

Most of my life, I have practiced various physical techniques with particular goals of shaping and controlling my physicality. This has its limits when given the context of aging in dance, women’s bodies having an implied disposability, and the void of meaning in codified movement that was created to make beautiful seemingly 2-D, heteronormative images. Resistance to hegemonic systems in the field takes many forms from the obvious gender-queering of ballet (Les Ballets Trockaderos de Monte Carlo) to postmodern rebellion against virtuosity and spectacle (Yvonne Rainer’s “NO MANIFESTO”), to deep somatic explorations positing “the body” has innate knowledge that our conscious mind blocks us from understanding (Deborah Hay, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Body Mind Centering and countless practices of improvisation and tuning perceptual awareness).

In Choreographing Empathy, Susan Leigh Foster pulls together phenomenology, neuroscience, aesthetics and psychology to theorize how kinesthetic empathy functions in dance performance. Foster traces the origins and evolutions of the words choreography, kinesthesia, and empathy. She discusses the potential for and problems with projecting onto or being projected upon that are implicit in all of the terms whether that be projecting an artistic vision, mapping and designing our bodies kinesthetic experiences, or trying to get inside another’s emotions. She parallels the terms’ development to histories of colonization, connects them to ongoing justifications of power and violence and illustrates how they have contributed to gender construction. She asserts that understanding their interconnectedness will demonstrate the usefulness of a “critical assessment of the underlying assumptions used to rationalize aesthetic and emotional understanding of dancing . . .” She specifically asks (with optimism, I believe),

“Are there any frameworks within which to affirm the located and partial understanding yielded up in the empathetic moment of witnessing another body? Are there ways in which a shared physical semiosis might enable bodies, in all their historical and cultural specificity, to commune with one another? Are there techniques of knowledge production that invite us to imagine the other without presuming knowledge of the other?” (14)

In her theory of kinesthesia in performance, Foster describes our evolving understanding of how bodies resonate with one another. Phenemonology contributes “the experience of bodiliness as the grounding for all conscious experience.” She summarizes Merleau-Ponty saying, “the entire body worked actively to synthesize multiple forms of sensation in order to produce multiple forms of information about the world. . . .As a result, intention and action were inseparable in others as in oneself” (Foster, 165).

The discovery and research into mirror neurons, specifically by Vittorio Gallese, reframes this idea in scientific terms. Foster recapitulates, “Gallese speculates on the evolutionary implications of mirror neuron activity, arguing that the ability to sense the physical actions of those around us forms the basis on which socialization and the experience of the social takes place. Although none of this neuromuscular activity registers in consciousness, according to Gallese, it does not exist in opposition to language and culture.” From Gallese she also elucidates bias and partiality in perception. “Mirroring is always a process in which others; behavior is metabolized by and filtered through the observers idiosyncratic past experiences, capacities and mental attitudes” (168).

Because the field of dance is explicitly dealing with perceiving bodies in motion (usually female identified ones), in dance performance this has so many implications, from the inevitability of audience members projecting their associations with dance onto whatever dance they see, as well as their experiences and expectations informed by hegemonic gender, race and class structures.

I propose with some hope that Foster has compiled notions to support further inquiry into “the body” as “a series of boundaries” being constantly negotiated. The series of boundaries form the field through which we become and that if this is so, it is a field through which intervention, play and parody is possible. As a dancemaker not only do I want to practice “splittings, self parody, self-criticism and hyperbolic exhibition of the natural that in their very exaggeration, reveal it fundamentally phantasmatic status,” as Butler provokes (146-7), but to situate that in an understanding of boundaries of my body that I transgress simultaneously in and through being perceived.

therelativebeing whatitis and contextbegingeverything

In a new project, “THERELATIVEBEING WHATITIS ANDCONTEXTBEINGEVERYTHING,” I’m purposefully and literally displaying aspects of dance training and kinds of physical embodiment that I associate with primarily white, upper class femininity while talking about it, dancing, standing still, and projecting video onto multiple surfaces in order inundate, overwrite, and challenge the discipline of dance with language and moving image and vice versa. I leave gaps in movement and trail off in my sentences in order to challenge the viability of language to stand in for action and authorship to control audience experience. I sample from my own work and body and loop things to create incomplete copies that can be perceived as such. Because I am the things I am parodying and can’t always tell the difference, and I wonder if this is the collision of performance and performativity. The ambiguity feels important for allowing there to be a place for new knowledge production and being comfortable with fluidity. I want to be able to facilitate this as a dialogue with my collaborators that calls into question bodily boundaries as I act as the “author.” I want to research more deeply how my perception informs my performance when it is actually happening and make palpable and transparent the field of boundaries performers are negotiating with audience. Is this action scalable enough to have impact outside the field of dance? I’m hoping a deeper investigation will illuminate the potential.

Butler provided a critical opening to move away from perceiving the body as a preexisting form onto which external meanings are written but also relies heavily on surface stylings to intervene in gender performativity. I'm curious about what else besides drag is disruptive? At this point in my inquiry, the theoretical framework is unfolding through creative practice, one that collapses disciplines and leaves large gaps in the language to intentionally create space for perception and bodily knowledge to flow in and over consciousness. Deeper theoretical writing would move towards unearthing concepts of “the body” in many more canonical feminist texts and through phenomenology and dance studies in order to map their interplay and evolution over time. Further research could also call upon Diana Taylor’s work with histories of knowledge in archives (texts) versus repertoires (bodies) and call to feminist scholarship to take a turn towards the non-verbal as a challenge to male domination and white, western and northern supremacy. If the body perceives action much faster than words, what power do we forego by relying on language and overly iconic and ironic displays of gender as the only source for hegemonic disruption?

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Foster, Susan. Choreographing Empathy: Kinisthesia in Dance Performance. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

[1] Performance studies scholars like Andre Lepecki and Diana Taylor, as well as dance scholar/artists Susan Leigh Foster, Tere O’Connor and many others discuss the actual and the potential of choreographic thought to collapse mind/body dualism to contribute ideas and knowledge.

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