Text by Marc Carrera
There is no resistance in itself. Resistance is always a resistance for itself, or related to something. This ‘something’ is usually an order, a structure, a normative scheme, a set of rules, laws, regulations, etc
– Gabriele Klein
* The original ‘Widerstand’, as it was brought during the classes of this seminar, responds to the German for ‚Resistance‘ and has been translated in different ways depending on the context or the sense in which it has been used. In this text, ‘Widerstand’ is taken in the physical and the political sense of ‚opposition‘. In the same way, the quality of offering resistance, the original ‘widerständig’, has been translated as ‚resilient‘, ‘opposing’, ‘resistant’, or even ‘antagonistic’ depending on the domain, being it political or physical.
* * The variety of these translation decisions may reproduce the original polysemy of the word ‚resistance‘ ( from the Latin ‚resistere‘, to stand for, to persist, to offer opposition without loosing the position), whose wide conceptual spectrum, being this philosophical, social, political, physical, or psychological, is probably shared by all of the western languages, with or without Latin roots.
Can a body be antagonistic?
A body is already and always a resistance.
In their physicality, bodies are resistant. In the material domain of physics, a specific given position in time and space entails a fundamental operation of exclusion: what it is here and now cannot be something else than this. Basically, a body excludes the possibility of a different body with the same extension and duration. Such a fundamental statement, retaken along the history from very different fields like science, logic, mathematics and philosophy, responds to the essential principle of non-contradiction formulated by Aristotle in his Metaphysics: „It is impossible that the same thing belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.“ Time and space are parameters of a particular existing body and they cannot be exchanged without this body losing its actual status as this very body.
All material objects are subjected to the physical laws, independently if we have developed a proper scientific explanation or not. In this sense, a body is subjected in its materiality to the physical rules applying at a given situation. Human bodies, as material mass occupying a unique place and time in the material universe, are subjected on the surface of the earth first and most basically, to the law of gravity which has not only physical but also philosophical and political consequences. The ability of resistance of a body has already started even before of it being conscious of its capacity. A body is something in itself, as part of the physical world, and for itself once it gains conscious about itself. What can a body do? As stated above, what we do as bodies primarily is offering resistance, we just exist.
Resistance | resistentia | re-sist-(e)-nt-ia
Existence | existentia | ex-sist-(e)-nt-ia
re- | ‚intensification of the action, iteration, way back‘
ex- | ‚from, step out, come forth, emerge, appear, stand out, project‘
-sist- | Latin verb: sistere, from the Indo-European stā-, ‚to stand‘) Latin verb stare ’standing up‘, and sistere ‚take position, establish, make a stand, set up‘
-nt- | indicates agency, the agent of an action. Like: arrogant, assistant, competent, potent
-ia | indicates quality. In English under the form -ce: prudence, resilience, coherence, consistence
An individual body finds, offers and shows resistance when it comes to its own limits. There are certain limit situations provoked by certain activities or movements where a body can react in different ways, like: dropping out, abandon, give up, refuse, reject, collapse, (the lately too common) burn out, shock, coma, overflow or simply responding against. What is acceptable for a body? In the social sphere, the moment where a body interrupts the flow of historic development could be depicted as the original political moment. All this interruptions performed by bodies are forms of resistance, and can be just an involuntary reaction or a conscious way for political action led by individuals or groups more or less organized. In fact, some classical forms of protest used by those deprived even of any minimal representation abilities rely on the body as the bare political instrument, i.e. hunger strike, sit downs, human chains, shouts and boos, clashes, self-harming actions in the like of Bonzo, etc. The disempowered or oppressed make use of this strategies to gain a position, to stand and from there to be heard. These are indeed extreme forms of conveying a political statement, although are far to be uncommon strategies even in western democracies. Wherever there is a lack of means or a dearth of political representation, these strategies of disobedience, self-harm and self-deprivation are tools for conveying a protest with political affects, effects or consequences.
At this moment of the explanation, we can trace a discursive line which would link the ambivalent experience of the physical limits of the own body, both as fact of impotence or disempowerment but also as a way to empowerment, with artistic performative practices with undeniable political resonances, like those led by the Vienna Actionists, Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, as well as many other performance and visual artists who turned their own bodies into the research field where to explore the political dimension of pain, endurance, resilience and physical integrity.
In the social domain, where aesthetic or political aspects are present but not constitutive, how resilient are we as physical bodies to pressure, stress, exploitation, information overdose?
Can a movement be antagonistic?
In the aesthetic domain, a movement offers resistance, and is capable of conveying a certain degree of antagonism, when it achieves to put in question the current aesthetic order and its set of rules and assessments. Some artistic provocations or deviances are not just a question of bad taste or wrong implementation of the available techniques, but a conscious attack to the aesthetic hegemony of a certain school, elite, class, trend, criteria, discourse, system of perception, anthropological conception, etc, and has to be taken as a cultural challenge rather than as a simple mischief or subjective relief. In this sense, arts have always been a fertile common place for unconventional behaviors, representations of the world and of the self. Such attacks to the institutionalized aesthetic ideas and conventions have the ability furthermore to force rethinking the social order or, beyond, the political status quo.
Some dance forms are more liable than others to acquire a political meaning due to its unavoidable representational effect. The more a dance reflects an ideal, a social universe, a rule of behavior, a shared difficult situation, a particular character, a distinguishing mark, the stronger can be its political strength. The history of Tango shows paradigmatically how a dance form emerging from the underworld fringe can concentrate and carry the sense of belonging of a whole nation, reinforcing the community bond by building up a strong identity, taken as the authentic due to its communal origins, and eventually, becoming the main symbol for the politic struggle against the unpopular government which does not represent citizens needs but its own profit interests. The Tango, as explained in Franco Barrionuevo Anzaldi’s Politischer Tango, turns to be a cultural reference with full political meaning and influence in the historic development of a whole country.
On the other hand, there are simple movements we can do with our arms, face expression or whole body which in some contexts, epochs or territories have a strong political connotation. Some salutations of dictatorial regimes are for instance forbidden in some countries. We do use constantly our non-verbal communication skills to transmit great quantity of information about ourselves, our opinions and desires. Gestures, movements and dances, are suitable to contain semantic and symbolic contents beyond their just functional or expressive condition, and therefore, also to convey political statements as signs or in reference to a specific socio-political context.
In the introduction of his book Exhausting Dance. Performance and the politics of movement (2005) André Lepecki even characterizes movement as the ontological opposition to choreography, being choreography the establishment of the law whereas movement is that what is evasive, ephemeral, intangible and not subjected to an order. In this sense, movement is always defying to choreography, a resistance towards the choreographic attempt to fix, normalize and eventually organize movement. Choreography is understood here as a given set of instructions, a ’structure of command‘ which forces a movement to unfold in a specific way:
What does it mean to compulsively submit oneself to the force of a perlocutionary utterance, to follow a choreographic demand as an inescapable program? One answer would be: to subject oneself to a structure of command, to follow the rules of the game, to yield to the citational force of the speech act uttered under the sign of the law – a force that would always precede and determine one’s own stepping into subjectivity. But perhaps there might be other ways of thinking about this desire to submit oneself so thoroughly to a perfect execution of the choreographic command.
– Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance
Can choreography itself be antagonistic?
Nevertheless, Lepecki’s argument of choreography understood as a ’structure of command‘ taking over movement’s immediacy, emergence, and provisionality, operates at the philosophical level of ontology but cannot exhaust the non-ontological natural multiplicity and intermediality of choreography as the relation between dance and notation, movement and organization. As Gabriele Klein states, contemporary choreography cannot be understood in its restrictive topographical sense of distribution of bodies in time and space, which may have applied correctly from its origins as aesthetic discipline until very advanced the 20th century, because it would not fairly reflect the fact that choreography in its contemporary turn has to be understood rather as a practice, as an ‚aesthetic and spatial thinking‘, as a place where contemporary subjectivity is unfolded and where a process of socialization (Vergesellschaftung) is taking place. (Klein 2011, pp 71-73).
If the 20th century was the century of the space, as Michel Foucault put it in his ‚Heterotopias‚ (Foucault, 1984), under postfordist conditions of labour and production, choreography is not anymore a mere organization of movement, the key concept of the politics of Modernity (Lepecki, 2006), but precisely an aesthetic practice, where the modes of perception and production of the social space are put into question in the very process of choreography itself.
Contemporary choreography cannot just be read as a system of rules and standards with ordering effects, but rather as a space of possibility of collective action and participatory processes, with a performative outcome.
– Gabriele Klein, Zeitgenössische Choreografie, pp 71-73
A clarifying summary of the conceptual evolution of choreography can be found under the rubric Was ist Choreografie? in this same website. Under the light of this explanation we formulate again the starting question: how can be choreography antagonistic? The concept of ‚resistance‘, the same as the concept of ‚opposition‘ and all the political terms which imply dissent, entails a split as a necessary and sufficient condition. A split and therefore a multiplicity. In the practice, this means that there is no possible opposition without a previous dividing cut. To resist implies to relate to an outside, a counterpart, an opposite, an ‚other‘. To which ‚other‘ does relate a resistant choreography? The political potential of choreography as an artistic form does not necessarily have to do with its contents, themes or symbols, but with its referential position within the history of dance aesthetics and of arts in general. It is the relation of a choreographic work with a specific normative aesthetic order which deploys its antagonistic value. It is the historical positioning of that relation what confers an opposing character to a choreographic work, being this position a reference to the socio-political reality or to the aesthetic domain. In this sense, a choreographic work refers to its immediate surrounding and to the given social, politic, economic, and philosophic framework.
If resisting means to resist against something, there is no possibility to be political without referring to a ‚concrete something‘, being this: the modes selves of choreographic production (techniques, discourses, tools, labour conditions, collective or individual procedure, etc), the social context, the political situation, the aesthetic positioning, the historical reference, …
Choreographic forms and developments are intrinsically related, as an affirmation or as its negation, to a particular order and its conceptualization of movement, space, body and time.
As an aesthetic pattern of social orders, choreography reflects always structural categories of the social as gender, class, ethnicity as well as the current cultural and theatrical theoretical concepts such as identity, theater, performance, performativity.
– Gabriele Klein, ibid p. 20
Following we can find three related body conceptions corresponding to three different socio-political-historical paradigms. Because of its chronological succession and the extensively documented historical influence of one into another, they are displayed into a Hegelian dialectic relation:
Thesis | Ballet – dance form of the European Enlightenment
Antithesis | Butoh – dance form of Japanese Post-Atomic trauma
Synthesis | Contemporary Dance – dance form of the European Postmodernism
Aesthetic forms replicate a particular political, economic, social and philosophical order. Either affirming it or denying it, all artistic production inevitably realizes the current order. As a reality or as a possibility, every artistic production contributes and builds the current aesthetic order. There is no outside of the aesthetic for an artistic work. Choreography reflects in the aesthetic field the current social order and its tensions, and in the other way round, a determined social order produces its own choreographic outcomes either as an affirmation, the normative reproduction and spreading of order’s conditions and needs, or as its negation, as an antagonistic force or as disobedience.
What is the role of art in society?
Vaslav Nijinsky, Pina Bausch or Merce Cunningham where highly qualified dancers who pushed the conventions of choreography forward. It would have not been possible if they wouldn’t have had an extensive knowledge and mastery on the technique which allowed them to set up new standards from within the field. In this sense choreography is opposing to previous aesthetic orders by forcing a new interpretation of choreographic possibilities and even the concept of choreography itself. But aesthetic renewal of artistic forms does not happen just for intrinsic reasons of the discipline. A relevant point to take into account is that this emergent aesthetic forms opposed to traditional ones arise often parallel to relevant social and political changes and upheavals.
New choreographic practices are sensitive and reflect the social and economic conditions in which dance is being developed. A very decisive factor influencing the development of artistic practices and discourses is the spaces where artistic activity is taking place. The examples of Kampnagel, Pact Zollverein, Sophiensæle, Uferstudios and many other industrial spaces across the western world refurbished into fabrics of arts, show us both, the need of dance for opening new more democratic spaces out of the institution, traditionally inaccessible to young or non-conventional choreographers, as well as the progressive de-industrialization and globalization process of late 20th century. Parallel to the search for accessible spaces, the development of new aesthetic languages requires as well new audiences. The antagonistic potential of choreography shows up again in this search for new aesthetic languages, requesting a renewed conception of techniques, training formats, composition principles, dramaturgic rules, showing formats, performer-audience relationships, etc
But… can be art really antagonistic?
Choreography operates in the aesthetic domain of arts which is different than the socio-political level of reality. Both levels are not commensurable since choreography and dance have its own logics, spaces, norms and specific ways on how hegemonic struggle is conducted (Mouffe 2014). Given that separation, to what extent can choreography have an impact in the socio-political level? The ability of arts to cause an effect in the political sphere has been often put in doubt, or directly denied, precisely by those on the side of the current hegemonic order, as for stating that fundamental separation between aesthetics and politics the reason for a radical depoliticization of arts and the negation of its transformative potential (Glasser 1991). If choreography has the ability for opposition: against what exactly can choreography offer its resistance? And, secondly, how does it convey a political statement?
Althusser […] argued that art showed not unmediated reality, but ideology. Art is thus in a specific relationship with ideology: it is part of the ideological sphere, but strictly speaking, it is not ideology itself. Precisely due to its privileged, relatively autonomous status, art can establish a relationship with reality, without thereby directly relating to that reality. […] Thus the only reality that art shows is that of ideology.
– Aldo Milohnic
All human actions and productions stand for a particular conception of the world and thus can be read as an ideological statement. Choreography, the same as any other cultural outcome operating in the sphere of ideology without being the ideology itself, reflects and realizes the current socio-political order, either as an affirmation or as its negation. This implies that, even if operating in the aesthetic level, there is an inherent reference to reality, not in the terms of a reproduction or representation of that reality, but in the form of an ideological positioning. This would explain how some choreographic and dance forms without an explicit political character could have a crucial political influence in historic development and, particularly, how can cultural expressions of a community, group, city, or association, become a symbol for political resistance.
Hula as Resistance
The present predicament of the Hula is a result of historical situation. The Hula and its predicament cannot be understood outside the context of social forces which cast it on the fringes of Hawaiian society. On the one hand is the voracious colonizer promising benefits for and pressing his demands on the indigenous people. The colonizer –in this case North-America- controls the politics, economy and culture of the Hawaiian people and presents one aspect of my culture -the Hula- as cosmetic dressing for gaping, rapacious tourists. […]
– Momi Kamahele
Inevitably, what to political symbols concern, there is a process of assimilation and a progressive loss of political effect of the signs used in the agonistic struggle for cultural hegemony, which eventually can even turn into its contrary. This means that all those once powerful symbols with strong affects and influence in the ideological sphere need to be regenerated and renewed accordingly to the situation to which they relate. In the capitalist order, it happens in a process of trivialization through commercialization, which will make most of that symbols be recuperated by market logics due to their strong potential of mobilization. That’s the logic operating behind the usual case of once very new radical artistic form loosing their antagonistic strength after a certain time, becoming eventually a standard, a convention, a trend, or in a twisting marketing operation, a mere commercial product for nostalgia. By the time the artistic form is exhausted other forms will be tempted by market dynamics in a non-stoppable process of valorization. Although there are some very recognizable patterns to explain how does cognitive-cultural capitalism (Lazzarato 2004) and its process of recuperation, its very own characteristic is that it operates as a reproductive logic instead of following a master plan or a guidelines.
As an activity that generates aesthetic and intellectual value in the time of cognitive-cultural economy and immaterial work, as a catalyst of social relations in almost all the stages of its production, as an area where bio-political management of the bodies unfolds in its entirety, and as a prominent arena for knowledge exchange and discursive production, the choreography is today one of the most politically sensitive areas to be found in western postfordist neoliberal societies. Contemporary choreography is one of the busiest and most complex socio-political points of intersection where all aspects of its activity are suddenly recipient of critical political loads and ideological charges. Hence the question of the political capacity of dance and its potential for resistance, a critical approach to the role it plays or it can play in society, is an especially pertinent question which spills over the question of its mere artistic and aesthetic qualities.
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