Filed under: culture | Tags: fragments: a cartography of moments on a gender terrain, gender, genderqueer, queer, storytelling, tea time: a queer storytelling event
A few weeks ago, on November 19th, I shared a piece of writing at an event called Tea Time: A Queer Storytelling Event co-sponsored by Queer Behavior, the OSU Office of Student Life’s Counseling and Consultation Services, and the OSU Office of Student Life’ Multicultural Center. It was a really lovely event, full of people sharing stories about their own experiences with gender—often as it related to family, sexuality, religion, intimacy, and so on. Since then, several people who were not at the event have asked if I could share the story I read, and a few people who heard it have said that they would like to read it again. I’ve been hesitant to post the writing itself; I wanted to honor the fact that it was an oral storytelling event, an oral performance. So I finally sat down and recorded it. You can hear the story, entitled “Fragments: A Cartography of Moments on a Gender Terrain,” here:
Filed under: culture | Tags: 29 effeminate gestures, backlove, beauties, david gere, gender, generous narcissism, GODDESS Press, grief, intuitive self, joe goode, judith butler, kaddish, mehron abdollmohammadi, micah jones, mourning, narcissus, rage, tea time: a queer storytelling event, trans day of remembrance
I am attempting to collect my thoughts on this week, and my thoughts seem to be resisting collection. I’m thinking about the vigil for the Transgender Day of Remembrance last night at King Avenue United Methodist Church. I’m thinking about my students and our discussion yesterday about gender as a performance that is performative. I’m thinking about a storytelling event in which I participated Wednesday night; I shared a piece of writing about my own gender and listened to the stories of a group of other people, all discussing their experiences with gender. I’m thinking about Beauties, a book of drawings by Micah Jones published by GODDESS Press, with a dazzling foreword Mehron Abdollmohammadi. I am thinking about grief and rage—and by saying that I am “thinking about” all of these things, of course I also mean feeling them.
At Tea Time: A Queer Storytelling Event, the theme is “Gender Inflexibility,” and anyone who wants to tell a story puts their name on a slip of paper in a fishbowl. Harry draws the first name and it’s mine. I tell my story, and I realize that I don’t usually stand in front of a room full of people talking about myself. I teach, I present my research at conferences—once I gave a presentation about being a conjoined twin at a queer studies conference, but that was an exceptional moment of self-disclosure. I perform, I dance, I get naked on stage. But this feels vulnerable: talking about myself, my experiences of gender, in front of many people I don’t even know, and quite a few I do. I hardly look up from the page. I talk about playing dress-up with my grandmother’s clothes growing up, coming out to my parents and my mother calling me “gender confused,” spaces in which I have felt invisible and spaces in which I have felt recognized. I talk about love and relationships and fucking. I talk about Judith Butler.
I say that biological sex is itself an effect of gender.
I say that I worry that no one will be proud to be with me, that dissenting from the gender binary makes me unlovable and undesirable.
I say that sometimes where you feel the most loved becomes the place where you face the most jeopardy.
I say that maybe my body doesn’t mean what you think it means.
I listen to story after story; some make me smile, and during others I feel rage curling in my fingers. Almost every single person talks about religion. Sexuality and relationships and love come up in almost every story. It seems that all of us are describing processes, journeys, migrations of gender and bodies and feelings and perceptions, no fixed points. I feel very honored to share this space and to hear these stories.
Once a semester in the writing course I teach, I have a class meeting specifically focused on gender. Gender is part of our conversations throughout the semester, but on this day we watch Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures and read David Gere’s “29 Effeminate Gestures: Choreographer Joe Goode and the Heroism of Effeminacy.” I ask questions, offer provocations, but mostly let the students’ comments and contributions direct the flow of the conversation. There’s never enough time during this class meeting. Yesterday, the students talk about what it means for Gere to suggest that gender is a choreography: it is stylized, it is repeated and repeatable, it is received from elsewhere, it is about bodies. They talk about hierarchies and the unequal distribution of power. They talk about how threatening it is for men to wear women’s clothing when it’s “cute” or “fashionable” for a girl to wear her boyfriend’s clothes (and I note that we’re somehow talking about “men” and “girls,” and how curious that discrepancy is, not to mention how heterosexuality has worked its way into the conversation by way of the “boyfriend”). We talk about the fear that we might fail at performing our genders correctly, an anxiety that we all have or have had, and that if gender is something that we can fail, then it isn’t automatic, intrinsic, or natural, and that all of us—even my twenty-four self-identified cis-gendered undergraduate students—live with-and-in-and-as a system under duress. We all face the threat of failure. I ask what is at stake; what are we afraid will happen if we fail? The students talk about rejection—social, romantic, sexual; they talk about risks of unemployment; they talk about the threat of feeling called into question, unrecognizable to oneself; they talk about bullying and harassment; they talk about threats of violence, abuse, and murder. I remind them that today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, that while we all live under this threat, that there are people who suffer more exposure to violence. I remind us that this has always been a question of life and death.
I’m sitting in a pew in a church for the vigil, and I am deeply uncomfortable. I don’t go to churches; I have a long, complicated, abusive history with churches, from childhood through college, and when I sit in a pew with a giant cross hanging above a stage and hymnals and bibles level with my knees on the back of the pew in front of me, that history becomes more present and potent. And yet this feels transgressive: this bold church is hosting a vigil for transgender people who have suffered violence, some who have survived and many others who have not, and so my abusive history with churches and the function of this event stand for me in radical juxtaposition.
The service is difficult for all kinds of reasons. It is both difficult and necessary to sit and listen to the reading of names, how old these people were, how they were murdered, and where they died. It is a violent litany for an ugly world. I feel sorrow and rage that this continues to be the world that we are living, in which people are murdered because they fail to conform to or approximate gender categories, in which gender polices life and death, propelling some people to kill and others to be killable. I am grateful to be sitting with Eileen and Noah and S. And I’m critical: why are vivid descriptions of violent murders more important for me to know than anything else beyond a name, age, and country? While we remember and commemorate, why do these violent acts receive more of our words and attention than anything these people did or gave to our world? Most of the names are trans women. Four were in Ohio; a staggering majority were in Brazil. What the fuck is happening in Brazil? Why aren’t we talking about this?
I take a deep breath and return to grief and rage and gratitude: I am grateful for this vigil, for the communal act of public memory, for creating a space to sit and recognize and feel together, and I decide that this event is doing something important even if there are other important things to be done.
As the crowd files past the table set up at the front of the sanctuary to light candles in remembrance, I am struck by what a beautiful crowd this is. There is so much difference here, different ages, different skin colors, more gender expressions than I can count, and I start to tear up because I think: the world could look like this. It doesn’t, but here we are and here, in this moment and place, it does. Whatever else this vigil is doing, it is also an opportunity to practice this kind of community, this kind of society, embracing this swell of difference. Trans people and genderqueer people and gender-non-conforming people and people who look very much like women and other who look very much like men and older people and younger people and people of many different colors: most meaningful to me is being able to sit here, a part of this, and see this glimpse of this world.
GODDESS Press recently published a small book of drawings by Micah Jones entitled Beauties, with a foreword by Mehron Abdollmohammadi.
Every time I type “foreword,” I almost type “forward,” and Mehron’s text is both forward and backward, twisting to the side, bending over, and standing tall.
Writing with Narcissus and tarot and Jones’ drawing, Mehron’s text is both poetic and critical. It makes a splash, an exuberant cascade of sparkling droplets, each one a tiny curving mirror, each line glittering like a search light, somehow suspended in midair: where they will land and what they will show us when they do has not yet been determined.
I keep thinking about terms that Mehron introduces:
“Generous narcissism as I’ve terms it is a practice of mutual and excessive attention that worries the very notion of excess: an emotional carry, a carrying community. Extra, but never enough. Generous narcissism is what happens when Narcissus, reaching out to touch his image, soft and impossible, feels something, someone, touching back. Generous narcissism is what happens when one insists on finding substance in what we’re told is only shadow … Generous narcissism is a resistance to scrutiny, a reorientation of obsessive attention, from the Other that would threaten the full expression of one’s intuitive self, to the self toward the Self.”
“Intuitive self: she may not even be here now, but she is me and that is all you need to know. This is very important.”
“Backlove: the love I have for what you see of me, for what of me there is in you. ‘Me, in you, in me.’”
“Mourning has to do with yielding to an unwanted transformation, when neither the full shape nor the full import of that alteration can be known in advance. This transformative effect of losing always risks becoming a deformative effect. Whatever it is, it cannot be willed; it is a kind of undoing. One is hit by waves in the middle of the day, in the midst of a task, and everything stops. One falters, even falls. What is that wave that suddenly withdraws your gravity and your forward motion, that something that takes hold of you and makes you stops and takes you down? Where does it come from? Does it have a name? What claims us at such moments when we are most emphatically not masters of ourselves and our motion, when we lose certain people or we are dispossessed from a place or a community? It may be that something about who we are suddenly flashes up, something that delineates the ties we have to others that shows us that we are bound to one another and that the bonds that compose us also do strand us, leave us uncomposed.
“If I lose you under the conditions in which who I am is bound up with you, then I not only mourn the loss but I become inscrutable to myself, and this life unbearable. Who am I without you? I was not just over here and you over there, but the ‘I’ was in the crossing, there with ‘you’ but also here. So, I was already decentered, one might say, and that was precious, and yet, when we lose, we lose our ground. We are suddenly at risk of taking our own lives or the lives of others. Perhaps what I have lost on those occasions is precisely that sense that I can live without you, even if it turns out that I can live without that specific ‘you’ that you happened to be. Even if I was surprised to find that I survived when survival was unthinkable. If I can and do live without you, it is only because I have not as it were lost the place of the ‘you,’ the one to whom I address myself, the generalized addressee with whom I am already bound up in language, in the scene of address that is the linguistic condition of our survivability. This apostrophic ‘you’ might be this you or that other one with another name, but maybe also some you I do not yet know at all, maybe even vast set of you’s largely nameless, who nevertheless support both my gravity and my motion. And without you—that indefinite, promiscuous and expansive pronoun—we are wrecked and we fall.
“If the life that is mine is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the we who we are is not just a composite of you and me and all the others, but a set of relations of interdependency and passion. And these we cannot deny or destroy without refuting something fundamental about the social conditions of our living. What follows is an ethical injunction to preserve those bonds—even the wretched ones—which means precisely guarding against those forms of destructiveness that take away our lives and those of other living beings and the ecological conditions of life. In other words, before ever losing, we are lost in the other, lost without the other, but we never knew it as well as we do when we do actually lose … we are already in the hands of the other, a thrilling and terrifying way to begin. We are from the start both done and undone by the other, and if we refuse this, we refuse passion, life, and loss. The lived form of that refusal is destruction. The lived form of its affirmation is nonviolence. Perhaps nonviolence is the difficult practice of letting rage collapse into grief, since then we stand the chance of knowing that we are bound up with others such that who I am or who you are is this living relation that we sometimes lose. With great speed we do sometimes drive away from the unbearable, or drive precisely into its clutches, or do both at once, not knowing how we move or with what consequence. It seems unbearable to be patient with unbearable loss, and yet that slowness, that impediment, can be the condition for showing what we value, and even perhaps what steps to take to preserve what is left of what we love.”
-Judith Butler, “Speaking of Rage and Grief”
“You know, in Judaism, there is this prayer, the Kaddish, which is said over the dead, and it’s actually an interesting prayer. It’s partly Aramaic, partly Hebrew…and I always thought that the Kaddish is the moment at which you remember the person who is gone, or you focus on who that person was to you, and you recover what that bond was. But actually, what the Kaddish does is celebrate—praise—celebrate and affirm the world. And I thought, ‘Well, why is that the mourner’s prayer?’ And it is the mourner’s prayer because there is an understanding that radical loss can take us with it. Right? So that the most important thing you can do for the person who is in grief is to affirm the world with them. And it’s a collective prayer. And the point is to sew the person back into community, to relationality, and affirmation. Now, it’s part of grieving, that affirmation, and that collectivity.”
-Judith Butler, “On This Occasion,” response to an audience question
Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: 11 tiny performances, ananya chatterjea, beyond the pleasure principle, claire colebrook, congress on research in dance, death drive/obscene/on-scene, donna haraway, ecology, ecosexuality, esther baker-tarpaga, genderfuck, heidi wiren bartlett, iowa city, njoy, sex after life, sigmund freud, society of dance history scholars, susan foster, the engirt theatre, thomas defrantz, trumpet blossom cafe, when species meet
On November 13, 2014, I premiered a solo entitled death drive/obscene/on-scene as part of a show called 11 Tiny Performances, curated by Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Heidi Wiren Bartlett, and produced by The Englert Theatre and the Trumpet Blossom Cafe in Iowa City, Iowa. The show coincided with the joint annual conference of the Congress on Research in Dance and the Society for Dance History Scholars. The following is my own recounting of the work, as a component of its documentation:
My solo is number seven in a line-up of eleven five-minute performances that will take place on a four-foot-by-four-foot stage. I am standing off to the side, wearing my grandmother’s silky black slip, bare legs and feet, with dark black liquid eyeliner, and false lashes. When it comes time for my piece, one of the stage managers spreads a black bed sheet over the tiny stage, and I walk towards it.
I lay a small bottle of silicone lube and a steel dildo—an Njoy Pure Wand—on one corner of the sheet, and climb up onto the stage. The audio begins, and I listen to the sound of my own voice:
“Death drive/obscene/on-scene. We have never been human: I think we learn to be worldly from grappling with, rather than generalizing from, the ordinary.”
I cross to the opposite corner of the stage, tucking my elbows back behind my waist, keeping my knees close together, trying to approximate a more feminine silhouette that I’m not sure I can achieve. To my right is a table of prominent dance studies scholars: I recognize Tommy DeFrantz, Ananya Chatterjea, and Susan Foster, among others. I reach my fingers underneath the slip, and pull my black underwear down to the stage. Someone says something, but I can’t make it out.
“I am a creature of the mud, not the sky.”
I turn back around and kneel down, my knees wide, my feet close to my hips. I open the bottle of lube, squeeze just a little onto my fingertips, and reach underneath the hem of the slip to lube up my ass.
“I am a biologist who has always found edification in the amazing abilities of slime to hold things in touch and to lubricate passages for living beings and their parts.”
I lube up the smaller end of the c-shaped dildo. Sliding the left strap of the slip down, I fold my left arm inside the slip, reach through it, then guide the dildo in between my legs, underneath the bottom hem of the dress, and out of sight. I close my eyes; I’m not looking at the audience. I’m thinking about Annie Sprinkle and her performance “The Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute.” I’m listening to myself read the words of Donna Haraway, and I feel the cold, hard tip of the dildo pressing against my anus. I tense up, then slowly exhale, trying to relax.
“I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such … I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many.”
The smooth, cold curve of the steel slides inside of me, past one sphincter then the next, and I curl forward from the waist, shifting my weight up and forward. Slowly I lower back down, and feel it slide farther inside. My eyes are shut, and I know that I am in a room full of people and they are all looking at me and listening to my voice and I try to focus, to feel myself from the inside out, to feel the flush of my cheeks and the curve of my spine and my breath and the wetness of the lube and the hardness of the dildo and the softness of my flesh wrapping around it and the whole invisible system of tiny lives that swarm and collect inside of me. We are a whole human/nonhuman collective, fully in sight while somehow remaining out of sight, out of mind.
“… an instinct would be a tendency innate in living organic matter impelling it towards the reinstatement of an earlier condition, one which it had to abandon under the influence of external disturbing forces…”
I am rocking my weight forwards and backwards, up and down, the greased-up steel sliding in and out of me. My right hand holds the dildo between my thighs; my left hand is rubbing my cock, sliding over it pressed against my belly, beneath the silky slip. The audience can’t see exactly what I’m doing; all this sliding and rubbing and penetration is hidden beneath the slip, but they know what I’m doing. I hope they know what I’m doing. Right here, my body becomes the site for what can and cannot be seen, for what is simultaneously right here on stage and still out of view. There are multiple scales here: seeing my body, but not seeing what is underneath the slip; seeing my knees and shoulders and neck and face, seeing the motion of my arms, but not seeing the dildo sliding in and out of my ass; seeing the surface of my skin, the dark, shiny slip, but not the vast ecosystem of nonhuman lives that compose my body from the inside out. I am masturbating here on stage in front of a crowd for the very first time, but it was never only me here; my body is already a multitude.
“This final goal of all organic striving must be an ancient starting point, which the living being left long ago: ‘The goal of all life is death’, and, casting back, ‘The inanimate was there before the animate’.”
I hear myself moan as the steel presses against my prostate, waves of sensation rising to meet the intensification between my palm and my cock. For moments I lose myself in the sensation, the pleasure, then I pulse back out to self-awareness. I feel my shoulders lifted high, I realize how far forward I am bent at the waist, and slow down. I take a deep breath, relax my shoulders, and try to feel myself feeling myself again. I hear my own voice, and I realize that I can’t quite fully take in the density of the text; I hear it and receive it in fragments, in pieces and parts that sink into my body in ebbs and flows. I wonder if people will think this is about critical theory being masturbatory or solipsistic, a statement about theory and academic scholarship being detached from a broad public. That’s fine, but I hope they also realize that even if theory is masturbatory, I am valorizing masturbation, and that I’m bringing the density of critical theory into intimate cohabitation with my own body. I consider this for a mere moment before my body reasserts itself, takes full attention, and I again lose track of the text.
“I would here subjoin a few words to clarify our nomenclature, one which has undergone a certain development in the course of our discussion … With the discovery of narcissistic libido, and the extension of the libido-concept to the individual cells, the sexual instinct became for us transformed into the Eros that endeavors to impel the separate parts of living matter to one another and to hold them together … Our speculation then supposes that this Eros is at work from the beginnings of life, manifesting itself as the ‘life-instincts’ in contradistinction to the ‘death-instinct’ which developed through the animation of the inorganic.”
I hear Susan Foster chuckle when my voice says the words “death-instinct,” and I realize just how close she is, mere feet away from me, this remarkable scholar. I teach her work in my writing class; when I get back to Ohio, I’m showing my students her lecture “Choreographies of Writing.” She’s one of the great leaders in the field, sitting at a table with other great leaders in the field, and I am masturbating, fucking myself with a steel dildo, feet away from them. Susan laughs, and I wonder if this is professional suicide, whether putting my body on stage and on the line in this way will cost me as a scholar, as a researcher, as a professor. I wonder if scholars are allowed to be embodied, erotic, sexual, in public. I wonder if theory about sexuality, about ecosexuality, about pleasure and death are allowed to reside in the body, if the body theorizing sexuality in public is allowed. Then I feel my cock pulsing under my hand and my hips circling the dildo and I try to stop worrying about my career, try to remember that I believe this work I am doing is important.
“The pleasure-principle is then a tendency which subserves a certain function—namely, that of rendering the psychic apparatus as a whole free from any excitation, or to keep the amount of excitation constant or as low as possible… the function so defined would partake of the most universal tendency of all living matter—to return to the peace of the inorganic world. We all know by experience that the greatest pleasure it is possible for us to attain, that of the sexual act, is bound up with the temporary quenching of a greatly heightened state of excitation.”
This five minutes feels so much longer than it did in rehearsal. When I rehearsed this piece on the floor of my living room, in front of a mirror, I felt like the piece had barely started by the time it was over. I felt close, like I could cum in another minute or so. Here on stage in front of all these people with my eyes closed, the minutes pass much more slowly, and I am nowhere near climax. I feel myself wet and hard beneath my hand, beneath the slip, but the pleasure is subtle and elusive. The context is full of pressure and exposure and vulnerability, and it’s a little over halfway through the piece before I realize just how vulnerable I feel, that I’m bent over at the waist in some kind of protective posture, that I might cry in front of all of the people, that I might actually cry, that I’m not really breathing, that I’m holding my breath…
I slow down. Sit upright. Let my shoulders release. I take a deep breath. I bring my attention back to the subtle sensations orbiting the dildo inside me.
“From the foregoing it would be possible to attribute an essentially sexual quality to extinction, and an extinguishing tendency to sexuality … Consider, in this respect, the sexuality of consumption: beyond organic needs … there exists a persistent and insistent process of ingestion that is blind to the (supposedly) proper and organizing limits of the living body. This is especially so if we consider the original proper living organism to be not the located finite human individual, but life as a whole, the organism of Gaia. The very processes that originated from the striving of organic maintenance—eating, reproducing, producing—have pushed the organism to (self-)annihilation.”
Pleasure always has both personal and planetary implications. Sexuality is already ecological, and the pleasure of the human species is quite possibly propelling us towards our own extinction.
And yet: I’m starting to feel more aroused. My skin feels flushed, and my hips are following a rhythm that seems to come from somewhere else, a rhythm that my hips follow rather than control. I stop worrying about my posture or my shoulders or whether or not anyone understands what’s happening because it is finally almost starting to feel good enough to stop worrying about my posture or my shoulders or whether or not anyone understands what’s happening or whether they are thinking that I am a man or whether they get that this—all of this—is genderfuck too. The slip hanging off one should, sliding the dildo in and out, rubbing my hand over my cock: for a few moments I lose track of where I am in the five minutes.
“Works cited [everyone laughs, they think it’s funny]: Donna Haraway, When Species Meet; Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Claire Colebrook, Sex After Life.”
Someone claps when I say “Donna Harway,” and I’m glad. After the “works cited,” music gradually swells, and Antony Hegarty sings, “Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or a girl?” and the sounds of heavy, daunting strings cut back and forth through the air. It sounds overly dramatic but also sharply focusing, like someone dropping a glass in the middle of a crowd. I’m not close to cumming, but my movement has a kind of climax, amplified somehow by the sudden absence of text. With the background theory gone, my body feels like it takes up more space, more attention, more prominence, and this expansion itself feels like a kind of climax.
Then the room is silent.
My eyes flutter open, and my breathing is heavy. I slide the dildo out and sigh. I crawl off the stage, as if no one can see me, looking at no one. I bundle up the dildo, the lube, and my underwear in the bed sheet, and walk away. The audience claps and cheers, and I feel a little weak in the knees.
This piece was my first attempt to create performance art that specifically stages ecosexuality. The piece was an assemblage—its own erotic ecology—of my body, language, the writings of other scholars, music, lube, steel, and an audience. On the smallest scale, I hoped to inflect masturbation—the most solitary of sexualities—with ecological implications, in the midst of a crowd. Simultaneously, coming from my work in burlesque, I experimented with the line between what is shown and what is not shown, what can be seen and what is withheld from view. Lastly, I wanted to stage an intimate encounter between the rich theoretical texts that have informed my scholarship and my own body, returning theory to the body, and staging the embodied grounds for all this theory. I am thinking of this solo as one among several other previous and potential “erotic theory” performances. In 2012, I created a duet entitled “Horizontal Materiality: Judith Butler’s Lesbian Phallus, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg, and Beatriz Preciado’s Dildonics.” It consisted of two performers exchanging oral sex on a strap-on dildo that began on one performer then was transferred to the second performer. That duet was also accompanied by a soundscore of dense critical theory, staging a collision of sometimes-impenetrable theory and the penetrable bodies that such writing theorizes. I am interested in continuing to perform this solo, and also in developing further work that stages the text of critical theory alongside erotic performances, allowing the sexuality of bodies to participate in theory and theory to find grounding in live bodies on display.
 Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 3-4.
 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 44-45
 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 47.
 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 78-79, footnote.
 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 81.
 Claire Colebrook, Sex After Life, 134.
Filed under: Uncategorized
This blog has been getting a lot more traffic than usual lately, which is thrilling. It is a space in which I share writing about dance/performance that I see and in which I draft out less formal writing about ideas that I’m considering within or alongside my primary scholarly/choreographic research. I also recently built an interactive CV website where you can find out more about my work: http://michaeljmorris.weebly.com
Sometimes just describing my walk home in the evening is already potential butoh-fu.
This might become a score for a dance someday soon:
a frail, toothless woman on a stoop tells you, “you’re looking sexy tonight: go get ‘em!”
the afternoon rain pushing back up off the pavement in the August evening heat.
a transgender witch crooning in your ears about hooking on Polk Street in San Francisco.
dark, damp soil smelling sharp and fermented.
the soft, round weight of pearls resting around your neck.
tiny, golden leaves littered on buckling gray sidewalk make-believing it’s already autumn.
Venus squares Mars overhead, far beyond the sky.
Filed under: culture | Tags: antony hegarty, appearance, carmen carrera, drew deveaux, eileen galvin, eva hayward, fashion, gender, gratitude, jack halberstam, james darling, jiz lee, justin vivian bond, kate bornstein, laverne cox, recognition, sex, susan stryker
I sat down this afternoon at the local cafe and started to write about gratitude, specifically gratitude for the array of public figures that bring diversity to the public sphere, specifically folks who identify their genders in ways that do not conform neatly—or at all—to clear, discrete binaries of masculine/feminine or male/female. I am grateful for so many folks: musical performers like Justin Vivian Bond and Antony Hegarty, porn performers like Jiz Lee, Drew Deveaux, James Darling and a whole community of queer/trans/genderqueer porn performers who I admire, burlesque performers like Eileen Galvin, scholars like Eva Hayward and Susan Stryker and the whole trans studies initiative at Arizona State, people like Jack Halberstam, public figures like Kate Bornstein, Carmen Carerra, and Laverne Cox. People in academia and different modes of public performance who are actively reshaping how we see and think about gender and sex.
And then my thoughts on gratitude drifted, and I found myself scribbling out thoughts on appearance, recognition, vulnerability, and courage. It is not a formal essay, but the start of some thoughts. Not the start, actually, because this thinking follows closely so much that I’ve learned from Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, Bobby Noble, Shine Louise Houston, and Brené Brown, among others. I won’t be offering formal citations in these scribbled thought, but they are certainly indebted, built with and from the work that each of these people have done:
The space of appearance is fundamentally a social space: to appear is to appear for someone or someones, to be made available for others, with others, and to be apprehended within that availability. Society and social norms then come to condition that space of appearance, structuring how it is that bodies and people can appear, can be made to appear, can be made not to appear, can be made to disappear. To appear in ways that do not conform to such such—or refuse to conform to such norms—is to insist on a different social space, a different society that depends/relies upon different structures of visibility and recognition. Dissident appearances or appearances that dissent from the dominant norms exert force on such norms to adjust, adapt, and make space for appearing otherwise; for such norms to make space, the society that enacts—or is enacted by—such norms must become otherwise as well.
Of course, it is possible that such insistence will be intolerable, will not be tolerated, and will be punished or eliminated in order to maintain the existing norms that regulate who can be visible, who can appear, who can be recognized, and how. This maintenance can take any number of forms: subtle social pressures and insidious coercions, self-policing that takes the place of the policing of behavior that we have experienced or that we have witnessed, a look or posture from an other that registers one’s unintelligibility—a stare that communicates that you are seen and apprehended as incoherent, or even unapprehendable because of one’s incoherence; it can take the form of harassment or threats of violence; it is possible that one’s appearance will render one invisible, a kind of invisibility that accumulates in a space from which people avert their eyes, away from which people turn.
To not appear in ways that align with the norms that condition and regulate the social space of appearance—norms organized according to sex, gender, race, ability, and any number of other dimensions, indeed, norms of appearance that in part shape what is understood as sex, as gender, as race, as an able or disabled body—is always a risk. It is to risk invisibility, incoherence, discrimination, harassment, and violence; it is to risk the compromised sense of self that can result from any encounter with another in which the self that one appears to be is reflected back to that self as invisible, incoherent, or the cause for discrimination, harassment, and violence. And to not appear in ways that align with such conditioning norms must not be figured as always a choice, as if those who do not appear or appear incoherently, or whose appearance results in harassment or violence, could be said to have chosen such an existence, or to have chosen otherwise, as if such person could have chosen to conform to the social expectations for appearance. This is not, or even often, the case.
And yet, whether dissident appearance is or is not chosen, it is courageous. It is courageous because it is a risk, and the stakes of the risk are certain unavoidable vulnerability that make up what it is to be embodied with-and-in a world of others. To be is to be among others, and to be among others it to be physically exposed to them, to their words, to their gaze, to their touch, whether their words or looks or touches are caring or abusive. We are all [and here “we” and “all” are not only human] exposed to one another in any number of ways, and that exposure constitutes both the risk and the requirement of social existence. It is because of our shared vulnerabilities that we are already given over to one another; we require one another’s care, one another’s protection, one another’s assistance, one another’s nonviolence. Butler writes that we are already obligated to nonviolent coexistence because of this pervasive exposure and shared vulnerability. And all that we require from one another depends first on our having been recognized by an other.
When recognition requires appearance, and when appearance is regulated by exclusionary norms such that it becomes possible to not appear or to appear in such a way that renders one unrecognizable, or to appear as such an aberration of the norms of appearance that one is made into a target of violence, appearance then carries the risk of misrecognition or not being recognized or recognizable, making appearance a question of survival and livability.
These are common vulnerabilities, the risks that accompany appearance and recognition for everyone. But these vulnerabilities are taken for granted, overlooked, or even repressed when appearance closely approximates the normative expectations that enable and constrain recognizability. When society appears in ways that are homogenous and consistent, when those who appear maintain the effect of norms as natural, the stakes or cost of appearance are less apparent. When how one appears is how one must appear in order to be recognizable, the risk/cost of appearing otherwise cannot be obvious.
Thus, to appear in ways that resist or do not align with such norms is not courageous only because to do so exposes one to vulnerabilities; rather it is courageous because it exposes those vulnerabilities that might otherwise remain unappreciable, precisely when doing so also risks some degree of duress or suffering.
And: such appearances are also courageous because in the face of this all, they insist on the possibility—and livability—of such appearances. They insist on a society or social existence in which it is possible to appear and to be recognized in ways that exceed the available norms—of sex, gender, race, or ability. If such appearances or recognitions are to become possible, intelligible, even in their incoherence, it will be only because of the pressures exerted on the norms of appearance by those who appear otherwise, who courageously insist on public visibility.
Today I am grateful for the world that is given to me by those who insist on appearing otherwise.
Afterthought: Although dissident appearance is not always a choice, it can be a choice, a courageous choice, to appear otherwise. To produce more incoherence within available norms. To dress or present oneself in ways that do not confirm the expectations of one’s given sex or gender, to explore more diverse performances of self, more unexpected styles of movement and behaviors, to try out fashions or looks that introduce more diversity into the social space of appearance. To wear things that other than how they were intended to be worn. To wear clothes made by designers who are pursuing design into unexpected places, designs that reshape how we look at bodies, that reveal bodies differently. To make choices about one’s appearance—hair, make-up, no make-up, shaving, not shaving, tattoos, piercings, other surgical interventions, how you carry yourself, how you take up space—in ways that are intentional, thoughtful, and resistant to what you feel like you should do. I am not saying that these strategies alone are what makes or unmakes bodies, sexes, genders, races, etc., but I am suggesting that the more difference that we introduce to the social space of appearance, the more difference that social space will be expected to absorb and make space for. These are small activisms that are available to all of us, in our presentation of self, our production of self, and our production of the shared spaces in which we live.
Filed under: Dance | Tags: bebe miller, bodies in alliance and the politics of the streets, claire porter, coco loupe, columbus ohio, Dance, garden theater, judith butler, k.j. holmes, kent de spain, nicole garlando, noah demland, peter kyle, rashana smith, shannon drake, taking place
Tonight I had the opportunity to see the opening night performance of Taking PLace at the Garden Theater in Columbus, Ohio. Taking PLace is “a choreographic residency and experiment in creative process that brings inter/national choreographers to Columbus for the creation of new work with local dancers and a world-premiere concert event at the Garden Theatre.” Tonight’s concert marks the culmination of this residency and festival, conceived and directed by Nicole Garlando. Featuring the work of choreographers K.J. Holmes (NYC), Peter Kyle (NYC), CoCo Loupe (Baton Rouge), Bebe Miller (Columbus), and Claire Porter (NYC), and local choreographers Shannon Drake, Nicole Garlando, and Kent de Spain, the almost two-hour concert offered and invited any number of views on dance and dance making.
Before the show, I was contemplating what it means to “take place,” both in the sense of “to occur,” but also in the sense of occupying a space, taking a place. I was thinking about Judith Butler’s essay “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street” (http://www.eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en), where she thinks along with the writing of Hannah Arendt about what it means for bodies to gather together, about the efficacy of politics in public spaces. She writes: “For politics to take place, the body must appear. I appear to others, and they appear to me, which means that some space between us allows each to appear. We are not simply visual phenomena for each other – our voices must be registered, and so we must be heard; rather, who we are, bodily, is already a way of being ‘for’ the other, appearing in ways that we cannot see, being a body for another in a way that I cannot be for myself, and so dispossessed, perspectivally, by our very sociality. I must appear to others in ways for which I cannot give an account, and in this way my body establishes a perspective that I cannot inhabit … No one body establishes the space of appearance, but this action, this performative exercise happens only ‘between’ bodies, in a space that constitutes the gap between my own body and another’s. In this way, my body does not act alone, when it acts politically. Indeed, the action emerged from the ‘between'” (italics added). The situation of the concert dance stage is one space in which we practice and exercise appearance, showing up for one another, seeing and hearing one another, providing a view of one another that no one can provide themselves. When bodies appear for others in public spaces, they establish perspectives from elsewhere that they cannot inhabit, for which they cannot give an account. As I write about this performance, I do so with the awareness of giving such an account of bodies that they could not give themselves—in the same way that as I sat watching, I was seen and apprehended and recognized is ways that I do not know, that I cannot control, for which I cannot give an account. Certainly, as Butler notes, there is a politics to all of this, but that is not the focus of what I write here; I write here to take part in what it means to take place, to offer one, partial account of what has taken place in Taking PLace.
1. :r//end/l//ent/e/r/ing//less by K.J. Holmes in collaboration with the dancers
As the piece begins, I see two grids: the prominent white backdrop superimposed with heavy black lines, and a grid extruding into space from the facings of the six dancers. Facing stage left and stage right, up stage and downstage, each one seems positioned along longitudes and latitudes running across the surface of the stage. The lines come into and out of their bodies: reaching and stepping and leaning and rolling along this spatial grid, conforming in any number of ways to these invisible but nonetheless forceful lines—a conforming that is also an enacting, a producing. The grid that I perceive between these bodies does not precede their actions; I see it because of what they do. And yet it does seem to organize their movements from the start, from before they begin, both coming into being and already having been there. Then the grid begins to unravel: in small ways, dancers start to align with one another, matching the lines of arms and legs and spines and gestures, walking and running alongside one another along parallel pathways; even when there is distance between their bodies, they establish connections with one another through shared lines, facings, directions, and momentum, swinging their arms together, reaching along the same trajectories, and eventually spiraling into a larger, running circle. If what held them together at the beginning was the suggestion of a shared grid, what holds them together at the end is the ongoing question of how they might find, follow, and feel each other, through touch and alignments, through what they share.
2. when we are not sinking or swimming by CoCo Loupe in collaboration with the performers
This is a duet, with Eric Falck and Scott Aaron Kaltenbaugh. They face each other, then relocate, then face each other again. Falck dances, all swoopy and sequential gestures, arms and legs like sinewy tassels sweeping around torso and hips; Kaltenbaugh watches, then Kaltenbaugh dances—moving through bits and pieces and textures that resemble Falck’s dancing—while Falck watches. This establishes the overall structure of this piece: one dances while the other watches, then they trade roles; the second one mimics the first, but only ever partially, then the exchange starts over, taking turns. Dance, watch, stop, see one another, dance, watch, see. I wonder to myself: what does it mean to see, to be seen, to show that you have seen, to see that you’ve been seen. Later they lean into one another, off balance, both supporting and being supported as they move through space; it reminds me of Trisha Brown’s Leaning Duets, but leaning towards rather than away. Music begins, and they groove together, away from each other, back towards the other, then suddenly cling to one another. I think Loupe’s piece is a hypothesis about how we move with one another, for one another, near or towards one another, and how we show that other that we have seen them and what we have seen.
3. Yet even in that silence by Peter Kyle in collaboration with the dancers
Six dancers, some who begin on stage, others who enter from the back of the audience. In the center of the stage, Nicole Garlando carries two towering shoots of what looks like bamboo. The stage is basically still except for the fragile motion of the trembling bamboo leaves, so small and so constant that it shifts the scale of both activity and time throughout the piece. There is a lot of standing, slow walking, pausing, reclining, leaning: waiting. The pacing of the piece, accompanied by a minimal percussion score composed and performed live by Noah Demland, has an intermittency: activity, pause, waiting, another activity, another pause, more waiting, and throughout it all, the trembling of the bamboo leaves, the delicate reverberations of Demland’s terra cotta pots and chimes. Across and throughout the almost-stillness and almost-silence, there are these tiny motions and tiny sounds—which, of course, are also motions—and alongside these delicate reverberations, human activities take on considerable proportions. There is no possibility of stillness here, no possibility of silence, and the incorporation of such minute motion makes even a step seem momentous.
4. to never establish heavy-balance by/performed by Shannon Drake
This is a solo. The lights come up, and I think: glamour. Her face is made up, and she is wearing a sparkly black-gold mini-dress. Accompanied by music by The Knife, she reaches and pulls and flings and steps, constantly off balance or sequencing away from her own center, until she is suddenly on her balance, weight firmly planted on both feet. When she stands steadily or walks along diagonals towards the audience—walking like a model, but more hyperbolic—she is impossibly, uncannily strong. Rolling across the floor, rolling through her hips and shoulders and ribs, her elbows and knees, she is grinding through her own insides. And even when her fingers beckon, as if to say, “Come here,” it is strikingly evident that she is more than capable of getting the job done all on her own.
5. Beside Myself Deciding by Claire Porter in collaboration with the dancers
The piece begins with five dancers seated at the front edge of the stage, all wearing black and white dresses. They start talking, to the audience, to each other, to themselves.
“So what do you want? What do you want?”
“I want to drive somewhere…”
“…should we stop for coffee?”
“…the MFA or the PhD?”
This is what Susan Foster calls a talking dance: talking while dancing, dancing while talking, a dance with a lot of talking. The talking and the dancing occur alongside one another, intersect, sometimes seeming to inform or illustrate one another, sometimes merely simultaneous. They talk and move through things as if they are figuring them out: each gesture has an indirect, not-quite-hesitant-but-not-quite-certain quality to it, an undecidability, we might call it. They come together in gossipy little clumps, they touch one another—everyone touching someone, no one touching everyone—they lead one another, maneuver each other’s faces and bodies like puppets.
“Who will decide where to go?” is a question that stalls, confounding them, again undecidable.
The text turns towards engagement parties, dinners for two, breakups, marriages, divorces, arguments. Unions and separations and conflict are on the table here. Often the dancers are pointing, often in the same direction, and often they then move in a different direction. Pushing, pulling, directing, and redirecting themselves and each other, the piece ends with them moving downstage as a group, each one manipulating the face and focus of another; if they’ve decided where to go, it’s only between the incessant push and pull.
6. ()()()()()()()()() by Nicole Garlando in collaboration with the dancers (multiple casts)
The dancers are dispersed, all wearing white or beige or gray, moving through small gestures, sometimes quick and sometimes gradual. They form impermanent duets, small alignments with one another, mimicking each other, them moving on. The soundscore is a collage of people talking, but it isn’t until later in the piece that I begin to make sense of what they are saying. It offers a kind of explanation: it isn’t about coming together as a unified group; it’s more about their differences and making connections. In ways, this piece echoes the first by K.J. Holmes (although I believe it was choreographed before the other), with dancers along different facings and trajectories finding connections and relationships—spatial, temporal, touching, etc. But the connections here feel fleeting, a matter of moments. One moment something becomes shared between one or more dancers, and the next it’s gone. They are on to something else.
7. Intervention for Two by Kent De Spain, with Leslie Dworkin
Two people seated in chairs facing in opposite directions on opposite sides of the stage. He wears a suit, and she wears a sexy red dress. They are accompanied by scattered sound bytes—music and dialogue—from “classic Hollywood films.” Gestures and interactions are timed—with the slightest sense of delay—with the text as if they are together both the jokes and the punchlines.
8. Watching the Watching by Bebe Miller assisted by Rashana Smith
A single dancer is on stage facing a laptop computer on a stool. She makes faces and small head/body movements while watching the screen. She gets close to the screen, and a larger group of dancers enter. They are accompanied by recorded text by Ain Gordon. He speaks about six people gathered together; something happens, and they each tell their own story of what happened. There is no one story; the stories proliferate, and with each telling, there are more and more versions of what happened that circulate.
“It happened, it was thought about, it was told and retold, until it gets lost.”
All of the dancers are watching the screen, moving along together: circling shoulders, small head movements, circling through the torso, their foci anchoring them in the direction of the screen. Suddenly, most of the dancers exit, and six remain. They are dancing together, all watching the computer that one dancer is carrying, and when she turns, I see that they are following a video on the computer screen. They are watching the screen and following along; I am watching them dancing, and their dancing is their following, the telling of their own watching. The other dancers re-enter with a second computer, and they are all dancing while watching the screens, following along with what I cannot see. As the piece progresses, the dancers divide up: there are those watching the screen and moving along with what they see, then there are other who are only watching them, following those dancers who are watching the screen, then others following the dancers following the dancers following the video on the screen. The stage is full of stages of translation of the same movement as it migrates across bodies, across intervals of time and space. They are all doing some version of the same movement, but as the stages of translation increase, so also do their differences. There are slight delays, subtle canons now, and more variations on how the movement lives out differently in and across different bodies. There is not just one version; there are many. I am watching them watching them watching what I cannot see…
And now here I am, at my own screen, watching myself writing what I saw, what they could not see.
And here is how something takes place, how it can be said to have taken place: the stories that we tell, the accounts that we give, and how they do and do not add up to a total view of what it was that took place. Like Loupe’s when we are not sinking or swimming, Miller’s piece stages the experience of watching, seeing, being seen, and showing what was seen. Not everything carries over; there is no single, total, authoritative view. Every event, every occurrence, every performance, every dance—every person even—always occurs between any number of partial positions, any number of limited views. No one of us can give the full account of a dance, of another, of ourselves, of what has taken place.
These brief recollections of these eight dances are a view from somewhere, from only one position/place. There are more recollections, views, somewheres, positions, and places; there must be. And such multiple views together—what we see together, alongside one another, what we can see of one another that no one of us can see for ourselves—is how we go about taking place.
You have two more opportunities to see this show: Saturday, July 12th at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets are $15 at the door. For more information, visit: