michael j. morris


partial alignments and degrees of difference

Several different areas or dimensions of life have recently pushed me to articulate what I consider to be one of the most fundamental tenets of my ethics: I want to live in a world of difference. I do not want to live in a world in which everyone is the same as me, in which we all aspire to agree fully, in which we presume that everyone’s needs and values totally align; I want to live in a world of partial alignments, a world full of not only different perspectives but different ways of life and modes of living that create the conditions for different perspectives. I want to live in a world in which we struggle to find commonalities, and in which we strive to coexist when no single commonality can be reached.

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This week there were a number of important presidential primaries, including Ohio. In the weeks and months leading up to these primaries, I have found myself in heightened states of disagreement with people in my community, on Facebook, and in conversations which sometimes unexpectedly turn political. I have continued to consider and reconsider my position—which I won’t lay out fully here, but which continues to find the existing political system dysfunctional, a position from which I struggle to trust or believe in any political candidate, from which I have admired the idealism and passion of Bernie Sanders, and from which I have consistently found myself more aligned with the practicality of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This writing is actually not about expounding on or defending that position. Rather, as I continue to navigate this campaign, I find myself faced again and again with extreme, superficial representations of candidates who I do not know personally, but who are undoubtedly much more complex—and in some ways similar—than what is presented to me by the media, friends, and loved ones. bell hooks very usefully reminded us yesterday: “As a firm believer in the importance of free speech, I consider it vital to feminist democratic process that all women be free to choose who they want to support—whether I agree with them or not. As a challenge to dominant thinking and practice, it is crucial to not construct images of individuals that are one dimensional and binary. No one is all good or all bad. Importantly, our focus should be on critical issues, standpoints and political perspective, not on personalities.” hooks addresses several points that I consider to be vital: first, that we simply must be able to affirm one another’s choices and perspectives, even when we do not agree, and that we must not continue to construct one-dimensional and binary depictions of political personalities. Again and again, we are presented with totalizing binaries—Clinton or Sanders, democrat or republican, us or them—binaries that depend on reductive, one-dimensional representations, binaries to which we subscribe and which we then proceed to reproduce and circulate. Not only does such thinking do a disservice to the world in which we live—the complexity of which rarely if ever simply complies fully with such reductive, binary logics—it distracts from the actually more difficult but important work of critical analysis and dialogue between perspectives and positions that are different in many ways, but also in some ways partially and contingently align. As Kate Bornstein taught me in Gender Outlaw: “The choice between two of something is not a choice at all, but rather the opportunity to subscribe to the value system which holds the two presented choices as mutually exclusive alternatives.” And as Brené Brown asks provocatively in Rising Strong: “…when faced with either-or dilemmas, the first question we should ask is, Who benefits by forcing people to choose?” Both Bornstein and Brown remind me that binary thinking is a tactic of power, of regulation, and both suggest that there must be other ways of examining situations that are forced into such binaries.

Form Flow Alignments

Still form annotated video illustrating allignments, the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time Credit: Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company

One approach that has been life-changing for me is to look for partial alignments within degrees of difference. This is an approach that emerged from a choreographic research project called Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced, which investigates systems of organization in choreographer William Forysthe’s dance One Flat Thing, reproduced. [You can read all about the project on the website for Synchronous Objects.] In this project, the research team—directed by William Forsythe, Norah Zuniga Shaw, and Maria Palazzi—studied the ways in which this dance “examines and reconfigures classical choreographic principles of counterpoint,” which they define as “a field of action in which the intermittent and irregular coincidence of attributes between organizational elements produces an ordered interplay” (see the Introduction essay “The Dance” in the SynchObj site). In other words, counterpoint emerges from an ongoing activities across which emerge moments of shared qualities or similarities, moments that appear briefly, intermittently, and irregularly. They describe these moments as alignments: “Alignments are short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes.” These shared attributes might refer to multiple actions executed with the same timing, or multiple dancers doing different things but all moving in the same direction, or different dancers that pass through similar shapes with their bodies, even if they are performing different actions, for example. Alignments often emerge in situations in which the “top structure”—or what we notice most prominently—is difference: dancers doing different actions in different ways coming from and going towards different places, etc. Within these heightened states of difference, at the deeper level of organization, partial and fleeting alignments occur, qualities or attributes are shared, briefly, incompletely, and even circumstantially. This dance and the Synchronous Objects researchers prioritize the importance of these moments, these partial alignments, as developing a mode of organization that relies not on unison or uniformity, but actually depends on difference, on the lack of total unison or uniformity.

This occurs in the dance itself, but Zuniga Shaw suggests that it might offer ways of thinking about other parts of our lives as well: “I think this is significant not only as a concrete phenomenon in dance, but also as a larger metaphor that’s applicable to how we look at and analyze ecosystems, to how we maybe notice the play of light on the water, or the interaction of branches in the canopies of the trees above us, and to how we interact with the complex realities of our daily lives. So what if in those situations when there is conflict in your lives, in those situations where we’re encountering maybe just a lot of difference, in our classrooms, in the downtown streets, in our workplaces: what if we approached those situations contrapuntally? And we didn’t try to squeeze these things into marching bands of unity, but instead we get pretty excited about that disagreement and difference, and heighten our attention to the deep structures, the deep sets of relationships, degrees of alignment, quirky little agreements, that are percolating under the surfaces of our lives all the time.” What if when we encounter difference—different values, different perspectives, different actions and activisms—what if even when we encounter conflict, we allow ourselves to become curious? Rather than first attempting to convince one another of our own perspectives, rather than trying to make you more like me, what if we started to ask questions: can you tell me more about what you think? What are the values and priorities that brought you to this perspective? What is it you desire? What is it you need? What are you afraid of? What might we be able to do together?

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Another event in my life that has prompted this line of thinking is Caitlyn Jenner’s reality docu-series, I Am Cait, which is now in its second season. I have a lot of opinions about Jenner’s presentation in the media, the way in which our culture has elevated someone of her racial and economic privilege—white, wealthy—to the status of “icon” so rapidly, the significance of her very public transition given her history as an Olympic athlete and hero for American masculinity, and the particular priorities of her show, none of which I’ll go into here. I think I Am Cait has done some things really effectively; I also think it has handled some people and their stories reprehensibly. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Angelica Ross—founder of TransTech Social Enterprises and actress on the hit new show Her Storyspeak at Denison University; she discussed the ways in which her appearance in the first season of the show had been cut down considerably, eliminating the successes and activism of her life, and reducing her to a familiar sound-byte regarding the struggles that many trans women face. I am sure that this is not the only instance of the stories of trans women—particularly trans women of color—being edited and simplified to fit the particular agenda of the show and Jenner’s image. That being said, the show is also introducing issues that I find important: one of the big themes that is emerging this season is difference. The premise of the season is a road trip on which Jenner is joined by a group of other trans people—mostly trans women—and several people who are not trans. On the bus and on the road, conflicts have already arisen—no doubt providing the kind of drama that make a reality tv show successful. Arguments have developed around politics—Jenner is an adamant conservative republican, everyone else on the trip seem to be democrats—and around different experiences with language. Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein have already had multiple conversations about the controversial term “tranny,” which Boylan and others find offensive and hurtful, and with which Bornstein identifies, as her “name,” her community, her family. The group has had conversations about what it means to be a woman, in which perspectives differ and in some ways partially align. Throughout the television drama of what is unfolding, what I appreciate is that the show is offering a representation of difference, conflict, and partial alignments. While it continues to show a somewhat narrow and extremely limited segment of trans communities, it is showing that not all trans people are the same, nor should they be. I appreciate that the show is not only giving visibility to [a few] trans people, but that within this community, there are a wide range of identities, perspectives, values, and feelings. We are not all the same, and if we were, that would be cause for concern. As Jenny Boylan tweeted yesterday, “‘Unity’ for the Trans movement, I think, means accepting broad range of identities. Not making us all agree on one.” And why not? As a culture, we have long been comfortable with a range of perspectives, values, positions, identities, and personalities with our cisgender celebrities; besides embracing a range of identities in trans communities, I would hope that we could also accept that kind of range for trans celebrities as well, even when we don’t agree with their perspectives and choices.

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Candis Cayne, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, [I think second from the right is Mimi Marks], and Zackary Drucker

Zackary Drucker, who also appears on the show, wrote earlier this week, “Friends can disagree. And in this historic primary season—fraught with anger, fear, and resentment—friends WILL disagree, LOUDLY … So let’s all take a deep breath. Let’s not feed into the fierce rhetoric that is destructive to the greater cause. Let’s have these conversations with respect. Let’s appreciate what we’ve achieved and retain the righteous willpower to achieve more.” Boylan and Drucker, in their writing and on the show, continue to hold space for conversation, for listening, for finding connections across disagreements. They have openly criticized Jenner for her unwillingness to listen and discuss other perspectives—an unwillingness that seems to be shifting as the season progresses—and they continue to engage one another at the places they align across their pronounced differences. Particularly moving for me was the way that the show handled the conflict between Boylan and Bornstein in the second episode of season two: at a dinner with the whole group, Bornstein describes how she and Boylan share values for the livability of trans people (which she jokingly describes as “trans supremacy”), but that their personal strategies and ideologies conflict. After having a long talk, the two came to the point where they could say: “Some of your stuff is hard to hear, and I know some of what I say is hard to hear, and I’m trying to throttle it back in your presence. But I know you listen to me, and I promise I’ll listen to you.” Boylan describes their friendship as disagreeing on so much but loving each other so much, and in that, I hear counterpoint; I hear partial alignments—here, love—within heightened states of difference, and the presentation of that as a mode of relationship and coexistence is something for which I am very grateful.

[This post has already gotten quite long, but I also want to acknowledge that I see this kind of relationship modeled expertly and beautifully by bell hooks and Laverne Cox in their public dialogue at The New School, which you can view online. On many points, Cox and hooks disagree, and then keep talking. They stay in the conversation. They maintain and investigate the places they align and agree, however small or temporary, within the context of other ways in which they disagree irresolvably.]

I want to be very clear: I am not advocating for difference and an appreciation of partial alignments merely out of some kind of liberal/PC fetishization of “diversity.” I am committed to these perspectives because of the very material reality that none of us live in a world of our own on our own; we live in a world with others, and we are making a world together in which we will all continue to live. That world cannot be formed from a single perspective, from any single set of values that manages to overwhelm, overturn, or eradicate all others. The world that we share must constantly be grown out of not only our differences in perspective, but also our different values, our different priorities, our different needs. It has to emerge not only from the irresolvable differences and partial alignments between people who consider themselves democrats and people who consider themselves republicans, but also between people who have different racial histories, who have different gender identities, who have different modes of ability, who have lived for different periods of time; and also between different species with whom we share this planet, different modes of life at a multitude of scales, living creatures who are so different from me that sometimes it seems the only way that they might survive is if we do not. I believe the question we must ask again and again is: how might we live together without eliminating our differences? Where and how do we align partially while maintaining our vast differences? The alternative is totalitarianism. The alternative is fascism. The alternative is the cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—to borrow a term from bell hooks.

I want to live in a world in which we can hold different—even contradictory—perspectives without abandoning the pursuit of collective world making and coexistence, without resorting to violence. To be clear, I consider an insistence on sameness, an insistence on unity that eliminates difference, to be the ideological starting point for countless forms of violence; any desires for conformity, for sameness, for unity that does not allow for difference should be extremely suspect. As we continue in the year of this presidential election, I hope that we might shift the conversation towards curiosity, towards listening, towards examining partial alignments rather than trying to convince the other to fall in line with one’s own views. To be sure, I have no illusions that the current political system that we practice in the United States is not broken; however, within the broken system, I want to believe that intelligent, critically thinking people can and will come to different conclusions as to what might be the most effective direction for our nation. When the people I love unabashedly support a candidate that is not the person I have chosen to support, I want to believe that we can survive those differences of perspective. I want to believe that we can not only peacefully accept that our loved ones, colleagues, and community can intelligently reach different perspectives/conclusions, but also recognize those differences as opportunities to get really curious about one another, learn about these other people with whom we are sharing and making our world, and hope to understand something about the values, feelings, priorities and thought processes that shape their perspectives and desires. Within trans communities, within larger communities in which trans people live, I want to believe that we can hold space for our differences, and in doing so, also attend to the small, partial, potentially temporary ways in which we align, in which we can experience something shared, with which we can pursue a world that emerges from no single view or ideology, but from the rambling complexities and contradictions between the countless modes of living together on this planet.



NAKED WEEK at Denison University
22 February, 2016, 5:19 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

At 12:30pm, as a small pep band plays “The Final Countdown,” hundreds of people have gathered around the edges of the Academic Quad at Denison University to watch as a small group of student bodies run naked out of the front of the William Howard Doane Library. These naked bodies streak down the steps, tear through a large paper banner that reads “LOVE YOUR BODY,” and sprint across the quad as the crowd cheers and gazes. I didn’t get an exact count, but it seemed like fifteen to twenty-five bare bodies amidst the hundreds wearing clothes; the whole event—the opening ceremonies for Naked Week—were over almost as quickly as they began.

My introduction to Naked Week has thus far been mostly in the form of rumors and myths: a long-standing tradition of students appearing en masse, in public, and naked all week long. This is only my second semester teaching at Denison, and my first experience witnessing this spectacle. Beforehand, I heard several different accounts of the significance of this event. For some, it is a festival of body-positivity, breaking with social conventions in order to affirm the inherent worth and beauty of bodies. For others, it’s been described as another excuse to party or to get attention. I heard one person say that it inspires them that people are so brave; another said that it just makes them uncomfortable. To be sure, the motivations and intentions of Naked Week and today’s opening ceremonies are plural, shifting, at times communal, at times individual, and likely sometimes contradictory. But as an artist and a scholar of performing arts, a reality with which I am intimately aware is that the effects of any performance, any actions, will always exceed any motivations and intentions. The potential effects of any performance will remain in part unpredictable, and will vary more than anyone can control. Rather than speculate about the intentions or motivations of those who ran naked in front of their university community today, I want to take a moment to consider some of the possible effects of that action.

There was such a specific temporality to the event: first, there was waiting. Having been told that the event would start at 12:30pm, a crowd had already started to gather at noon. Having worked for years as a queer burlesque performer, I’ve learned that there is a particular energy to waiting for nudity: anticipation, an edge of urgency that seems to intensify as it decelerates, moving slower and slower. Then when the band began to play, there was the announcement that something is starting, a prelude, a preparation for the act that would follow. Finally, the first naked body emerged, at first seeming to be a little lost, then as others joined, turning and moving swiftly down the stairs. Within moments, they had all appeared through the doorway of the library, and all that remained was a trail of naked body running across the grass. It was over and the crowd quickly broke away, drifting back towards their Monday schedule. It was an interruption in the regular timing of a Monday—an interruption for which many of us gathered, bringing our bodies together in order to interrupt—and it was an interruption paced out in specific timing. If we take the event as a kind of performance, and if we can understand performances as an experiment or proposition in how an action or bodies might occur, one effect of today’s opening ceremonies is a kind of temporal conditioning, in which naked bodies are anticipated, in which we wait and wait and wait to see naked bodies, and then as quickly as they appear, they are gone. They don’t stand still; they do no wait. They rush past, they do not linger, they are gone, and the interruption is over—even if the memory of the event continues to interrupt us throughout the day.

My initial reaction to the group of bodies was how young they all were. As a student action on a university campus, it isn’t surprising that they were all young, but youth became part of what we were invited to celebrate and gaze upon. With a turn towards how this event might present a meaningful presentation of bodies, we might say: we wait and wait for young bodies, and then they are gone, rushing past, barely here before they are gone. I found myself wondering if we would gather for a crowd of older naked bodies moving more slowly across the quad. There’s a relationship between the timing of the event, the age and ability of the bodies, and the ways in which both condition how we might view the nudity that we saw.

There were similarities and differences between these naked student bodies. Many were white or pale, a few had darker complexions. They varied in height and width. They curved in different places, had longer and shorter hair in different places, were small in some places and larger in others. This range of differences, even within its limitations, provided an opportunity to see and recognize how different bodies can be from one another, something we perhaps forget or ignore within a culture that constantly provides us with images of bodies that look similar or the same. We as viewers could then appreciate the differences as so many unique—and beautiful—variations of physical form. We might also judge, compare, measure, preference, and value some of the bodies that we saw more than others. The event allows for all of these effects and possible outcomes, celebration or judgment, an appreciation of variation or another scene in which to reiterate personal and cultural hierarchies of value, in which some bodies are viewed as better than others. In a sense, I hope, the event provided a context in which to critically observe and reflect on how we reacted to these bodies.

Nudity also introduces a particular challenge; it presents an organ-ization of signifiers that often passes as an object that is fully known or recognizable: gender/sex. It might be said that there were different genders on display, and that might be so, but I would rather say that each body presented a unique configuration of unique parts, and even in their nudity, the genders of these students remained opaque to me. However, when gazing upon chests and breasts and hips and hairy legs and vulvas and penises and wide shoulders and narrow hips and small hands and long hair, in arrangements that seem familiar, we tend to immediately read such bodies as female or male. We overlook or forget—or perhaps we’ve never considered—that in doing so, we are performing a culturally mandated act of interpretation, aggregating a set of fleshy signifiers to conform within one of two binary possibilities for bodies. This interpretation happens so swiftly, so automatically, that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. This is one of the ways in which the performative force of gender gets applied to and circulated on the surfaces of bodies: how we see and make sense of bodies is often already overwritten with gendered assumptions. [And, drawing on the work of queer theory, transgender studies, and various strands of activism around gender, I would argue: attributing a “biological sex” to a body based on physical cues is also already a gendered assumption, an organization of bodies into a binary that supports a binary system of gender that facilitates a culture of presumptive, compulsory heterosexuality.]

In this sense, the opening ceremonies of Naked Week today gave the viewers multiple opportunities: on the one hand, we were given the opportunity to see the extraordinary variation and differences between bodies, differences that only fit neatly within two genders/sexes when we ignore all of the various ways in which they are different; on the other hand, we were given the opportunity to either unconsciously attribute sexes/genders to bodies based on the various attributes and physical features within view, or to suspend those assumptions, to look again—however briefly—at all that makes those bodies different, and to appreciate the failure of a binary systemic organization of bodies.

The spectacle was of course also an erotic opportunity. The basic structure of the event staged a kind of desire—masses of people gathering because of what we wanted to see, to witness—to gaze upon the flesh of other bodies. It didn’t have to be erotic; there are certainly ways of normalizing nudity, of integrating naked bodies into daily life in ways that do not solicit desire—even if the various parts and bare flesh of bodies themselves are already predisposed to desire and eroticism within our culture. I think prolonged exposure would be one way of normalizing nudity; seeing a naked body go about its daily life could be erotic, but I think the more we see of it over time, from this angle and that, how it supports itself, how it leans, how it sags, how it swings or pulls tight or interacts with mundane tasks, the more familiar and less taboo it might become. But as a burlesque performer and as a choreographer, I know that there are structural mechanisms through which we can and do generate desire. Anticipation, as I mentioned above, stirs longing. Waiting is a kind of distance, and across that distance of waiting, we reach for that which we came to see. Disappearance is another kind of distance, bodies receding across the lawn, barely here before they are already gone again, out of reach. Choreographically, this anticipation and vanishing solicits longing, and with those formal structures in place, bare flesh, the revelation of parts that usually remain hidden, are set up within an erotic frame.

So what then can it mean that the Academic Quad became a stage for longing, for desire, for viewing and being viewed, en masse? What is the significance of student bodies on display for other students, for staff, for faculty, for the outdoors, all organized within a desiring arrangement? Perhaps it transforms the space, makes it another kind of space than how it functions day to day. Or perhaps it intensified and made visible dimensions of the space as it always functions: a place where bodies gather and meet one another, setting the stage for all kinds of encounters; where bodies pass each other, glancing towards each other, perhaps longing after one another; where bodies desire to see and be seen, a longing that saturates so much of collegiate life.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that this event took place within a culture that remains largely misogynistic, a rape culture, a culture of violence against women and people who are assigned and attributed “female” based on their physical features. In an event like this, naked bodies are made visible within a culture that already gazes differently at the bodies of women, in which the bodies of women are often at more risk than other bodies, in which the inherent vulnerability and precarity of being a body is disproportionately exploited for women. And while there were many different bodies on display today, it is worth recognizing that those who were viewed and apprehended to be female or women performed an action than was different from those with whom they ran, different because the dominant culture already interprets the significance of actions performed by people who are viewed as women differently. As I said at the start: the effects of any action remain unpredictable and will always exceed their intentions and motivations. Perhaps presenting naked bodies that are viewed as women can function as an assertive feminist act, a reclaiming of public space with bodies that are in many ways often kept in private. Perhaps this presentation provided the viewers the opportunity to view these bodies with respect and reverence, in spite of the tendencies of our culture. And perhaps the event simultaneously recreated a familiar scene, in which crowds of people wearing clothes—many of them not women, many of them identified as men—gather to view other people—some of them women—who are naked and on display. The subversive or political potential of this act is haunted by the specter of a culture that puts women’s bodies on display for consumption—usually by men—a culture that objectifies and devalues those bodies on display, a culture that comes to equate “femininity” and “women” with less value, with objectification, with display and consumption.

The effects will remain multiple and unpredictable. Nothing I’ve written here should be considered a final word or an exhaustive analysis of potential interpretations. We might also think about the fact that these bodies ran, contextualize this action within the frame of sporting events and athletic heroism. We could consider the arrangement of the crowd gathered all around the edges of the quad, viewing and being viewed by one another far longer than any of us viewed the naked running bodies. We could think about how an event that is structured around a taboo—being naked in public—becomes a tradition, and the complexity that is generated by the concept of a taboo that is traditionally broken. The possibilities are countless. But I hope that my viewing and response can off a critical perspective—a perspective that I hope will be joined by other such perspectives—as we consider the campus and culture that we are living and making and performing with and for one another. There is apparently a whole week of Naked Week activities ahead of us. For those of you at Denison, I hope with each event, you use it as an opportunity to not only celebrate the beauty of bodies, but also to critically reflect on what such events might mean, what they might reveal (other than flesh), and what they might show us about ourselves—those parts most hidden, those parts most bare.

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This image is not from this afternoon’s event. It is borrowed from Carrie Burkett’s article describing a previous year’s event, “Hundreds streak for body image,” The Denisonian, February 25, 2014.

 

*There is also a helpful, funny list of “Dos and Don’ts of Naked Week” in today’s The Bull Sheet:
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divided self
28 November, 2015, 12:14 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I want to think and write about the inconsistencies of self, how any self is already divided from itself in any number of ways, how “a self” is already a swarming multiplicity of partial selves, possible selves, who one is or can be or might be within any number of settings or relations. Perhaps part of what it means to be a self (I might also say “subject,” which implies more of a specific position within language and social relations, but I want to focus more on the “self,” here as one’s sense or experience of who or what it is that one is. Or made personal: the self as my sense or experience of who or what it is that I am. Or made relational: the self as your sense or who or what it is that you are…) is to always experience or understand that self in relation to such divisions, partialities, multiplicities, and inconsistencies. Some of what I am thinking is in response to reading Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, Or the Unbearable. But it is also in response to or an extension of my own  questions about identity, identification, how I come to try to know or recognize myself and extend that sense of recognition to social relations—how I try to extend the experience of recognition (which will always be in part misrecognition; it’s a matter of degree) to my experience of self in relation to others. It is in part bubbling out of a stew of family relations. It is groundwork for choreography that I’m developing. And it’s in response to something my best friend said to me from South Korea this morning.

1.
Over the last two years, I have shifted my preferred pronouns to they, them, their. This was a development in the ongoing process of my gender, finding/making a place for myself in language where I felt like I could be recognized. By “recognized,” I mean something like “feel like I exist” or “feel like it is possible for me to exist.” To the extent that language is a device/system with which we not only name and navigate our world, but also structure our understandings of what our world—including ourselves—can mean, where “naming” and “meaning” also enables and constrains what can occur, what is allowed, what is unthinkable or foreclosed, how we are named or called and the meaning of how we are named or called shapes how we are positioned not only in words but also in the world that words organize. To be called “she” or “he” is to be categorized within a system of gender that operates on personal and political scales (the two are not mutually exclusive, the two are perhaps the same system perceived or framed at different sites and with different degrees). To be called “he” or “she” is to be cast within a role that is not of your making, a role in which your actions, your behavior, your body, your relationships, etc., are given some meanings and not others, some options and opportunities and not others. These roles and meanings are not entirely fixed nor are they consistent or stable across time, but neither are they infinitely flexible or fluid. Even when their parameters are malleable, these linguistic terms still demarcate a limited territory for what a person so called might be or become.

When I first encountered people who identify as genderqueer and use pronouns other than he or she, I felt like I glimpsed a space—in both language and in the world that is organized by language—or territory of possibilities for being/becoming that more closely coincided with how I perceived myself. This is not to say that such terms are identical to me or perfectly demarcate the contours of my lived experience of gender or personhood; no word or signifier is identical with that to which it refers. This difference—between lived experiences and the words with which we come to describe them, understand them, and attempt to know them—is an inescapable condition of language, and is integral to the kinds of ruptures, divisions, breaks, and displacements that I am thinking about in regards to the self. I think it may be true that in every application of language, there persists this simultaneous recognition and misrecognition, this gap between what something or someone is and the words with which they become known. This dual recognition and misrecognition is perhaps even more acute when it is our selves that are addressed or named in language, because as the self that is addressed, we have access to the felt sensations of being recognized and misrecognized in varying degrees; indeed, we come to know ourselves in part through such affective registries, the senses of ourselves that are animated by and within specific words. I’m not interested in narrating my own experience of gender in the perhaps familiar passages of trans narratives, the re-telling of “I’ve always known” or “I’ve known since I was a child” or the claims about who I “really am.” I think at least part of what holds my attention here is the degree to which the self in language always entails degrees of not-knowing, the ways in which any statements about any “real” or “authentic” self will be given in terms from which such a self is always divided. I believe it may be true that this relation to language, the ways in which it makes us both known and unknown, is a condition that we all endure to different degrees and with different sensitivities. What I can say about my own experience, which may be true for other people’s experiences as well, is that the degree to which I felt misrecognized by gendered terms such as “man” or “he” or even “gay” eventually acutely outweighed the degree to which I felt recognized by such terms; the [shifting] spaces that they demarcate in language and the world no longer felt like my home, and it’s possible that they never really did. Shifting the words with which I identify myself, to “genderqueer,” to “they,” to “queer” has been a process of aligning myself with [imperfect] terms with which I feel more recognized, words that demarcate spaces in which I feel like it is more possible for someone like me to exist. To identify as genderqueer is for me a claim that who I am does not have to fit within the binary categories of female or male, however flexible those categories might be(come). To identify as queer is for me to describe the capacity of my desires as deviating from persistent sexual norms, particularly those that would define desire within the limited frameworks of binary gender. And to identify with the pronouns they, them, and their is also to position myself outside of the gender binary, while also laying claim to the self as a singular multiplicity—which is intimately related to the realizations I am attempting to articulate here, the self as already more than one, a plurality within singularity.

And yet even these words are shifting signifiers, words with which I do not fully coincide, words that are not my invention, from which I am still already divided, and thus, in a sense, figured as divided from myself—the very self I attempt to name with such terms. Despite the degrees to which I feel recognized by such terms, they also mark ruptures between any self that I am and the circulation of those terms beyond myself, breakages between language and lived experience that cannot be mended. It is possible to claim that the self is as much this discontinuous series of ruptures between shifting, inconsistent parts from which it is tenuously composed as it is identifiable with any one seemingly stable, seemingly consistent part. In as much as I might identify myself with or as a particular word or person or personality or role, I must (or could) also identify myself with such ruptures, such divisions, such breaks, as well as my relation to such ruptures, divisions and breaks. I am such ruptures in that any self that I perceive myself to be is negotiated in and through and in relation to them, even if that relation is denial or disavowal. I could describe myself as those unnamed, unnameable gaps between my self and the words with which I identify myself—or the words with which I am identified by others—those fluctuating inconsistencies that I encounter within myself, those bursts of misrecognition where I see that I am not that word by which I am called or named, rather than attempting to utilize language in such a way that I feel myself more recognized by it. However, it remains difficult to persistently identify with such ruptures, such gaps, such breakages. To do so involves losing track of oneself, accepting the inadequacy of language even as that language organizes our lives and world, and identifying with an ineffability that is the outside of language, the Symbolic, what psychoanalysts might call the Real. Even as I acknowledge this inadequacy of language, an inadequacy that becomes the grounds through which a self persists, I remain attached to pursuing a recognizable self, a self that is more sufficiently (however imperfectly) approximated in language. Perhaps this is an effect of what Lacan called the mirror phase—staring into my own reflection, seeing an image of a body (that is also not identical to myself, that is also divided from the self that I am) and idealizing the impression of that person as a singular, whole, recognizable entity. Or perhaps it is an effect of language, the assumption of the Symbolic, in which words assume categorical entities, a thing or being to which a word can refer. Perhaps this is the tension between psychoanalysis and Deleuze, between the subject and the schizophrenic, between a world that compels the maintenance of a castrated subject as if it were whole and a world that fosters the surrender to a self as a series of positive processes and flows that never fully resolve into any consistency or whole. How can one live as a rupture? How do we bear our own divisions, breakages, and partiality?

I don’t have answers to this or a way to resolve these problems; in fact, I might be suspicious of any attempt to resolve what I perceive to be irresolvable. What I think I am attempting to describe here for myself is the ways in which language divides the self from itself. And because language—the words we use and the words that are used for us—shapes how we become the self that we are, we could say that such divisions are fundamental to the self. The self is not only divided but such ruptures and how we navigate them are the problematic origins of any self that we are.

2.
This is not only a matter of language, although our relations to language provide an exemplary opportunity to contemplate our own divisions, partialities, and inconsistencies. We perhaps also experience this in our relations to others, the encounters through which we come to realize that however much my perception of myself and how others perceive me coincide at the position of my body, those perceptions remain invariably different. That difference—between how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others—introduces another division, another rupture. It would be easy but short-sighted to suggest that how I perceive myself is somehow the “real me,” and how others perceive me is either accurate or inaccurate depending on its correspondence to how I perceive myself. I may maintain a privileged perspective of myself from the “inside” as it were, with access to a range of affective experiences that underscore my choices, my behavior, and my encounters with others, and such insights can be crucial for how I understand myself or choose who it is that I want to become. But who I am to others is no less real, if for no other reason than this: how I am perceived by others affects how they react towards me, shaping the ways that I can move through the world to varying degrees. How other people treat me based on their perceptions of me shapes my lived experience, which then becomes continuous with how I perceive myself. Whether or not I am conscious of the perceptions of others, I am always an experience for them as well as an experience for myself, and any encounter with an other can re-introduce that multiplicity, that division. In my encounter with you, I not only experience you as other than myself, as only ever partially knowable and opaque, but I experience myself in such ways through you. In as much as you are other than me, I see the me that you see as other than how I see myself; I come to know your partial experience and knowledge of me, and in doing so experience and know myself as limited and partial. You introduce me to myself in ways that are never fully familiar to me, and the me that you know is not the same as how I know myself. And so my encounter with you presents the distance between you and I, and that distance, that difference, is introduced into my self as part of how I am constituted in and through our encounter.

I see you seeing me and perhaps it isn’t anything you say but the way that you look at me that makes me feel that the person you are seeing is not me, or not entirely me, or not the same as the self that I can see. I feel you touch me or lie beside me, and feeling you feeling me makes me unfamiliar to myself; you are on the bed beside me, and yet the person that you are lying beside is never identical to how I feel myself lying there. I feel your touch as if from the inside, and yet you feel me from the outside, from my surfaces, and so I am divided, different from myself, dispersed from different directions and perspectives. You speak to me and you respond to the words I have said, and what you have understood from what I said is not at all what I intended, and so you respond to me but also to a stranger, to someone who is not the me that I know, and yet is the me that you address. Every encounter with another presents me to myself as other than myself; I come to know myself as a social being or becoming, and in that sociality, that relationality, I am multiplied and divided, never singular or fully one.

3.
Earlier today my best friend described visiting another country as feeling as if she had lived her whole life there, when in fact she has lived most of her life in the U.S. How is it that we can come to feel as if we have lived entirely different lives? What is the situational alchemy through which it can seem that we are an entirely different person than we had known ourselves to be only days before? I don’t presume that this was what my friend meant in her description, but I have known that feeling, this feeling I am describing: I find myself somewhere, in some setting or context, and there it seems as if I could be or could have been someone else. Sometimes it can feel like coming home, as if: yes, this is where I have been all along, right here, and it was not until now that I realized it. I think I felt that way the first time I took a Butoh class, or when having sex with someone who touched me as if they already knew my body, or when walking around San Francisco for the first time on my own. It’s the kind of feeling that gives rise to mythologies of destiny, of soulmates, of past lives, the feeling that of all the places I’ve been and things that I’ve done, this is somehow more real, more timeless, more expansive than anything before. Perhaps what I’m describing is a kind of belonging or feeling recognized, a context or exchange in which parts of oneself that have never had a place come to have a place. Perhaps in those situations we feel more whole, more complete or more actualized. But of course any pleasure or satisfaction that we feel in such moments haunts and is haunted by the reality that we have known ourselves just as often—if not more so—as incomplete, and that incomplete self is no less me than the self I experience in those moments of relative fulfillment. We are both, these selves we experience as whole or complete, and these partial selves, and we have to live with that ambivalence.

And what of those moments when you do not recognize yourself? Rushing out the door for a meeting, glancing in the mirror to check your hair, locking eyes with your reflection, and that person seems to be a stranger. Waking up in someone else’s bed, pulling on your clothes, and asking yourself, “What am I doing? Who am I?” Reading something you wrote years earlier, recognizing the penmanship, but the thoughts articulated in the words so unfamiliar that they could have been written by someone else. Hearing yourself say something out loud, and feeling disassociated with your own voice or the words that you’re saying. In so many moments, we seem unfamiliar, strange, or distinct from who we know ourselves to be. How do we live with those moments? Some get compressed into the unconscious, swept away in order to maintain some consistent sense of ourselves. Others maybe become breaking points, breakdowns, breakups, falling apart, or giving up. I think it’s difficult to dwell in those moments in which we do not recognize ourselves; maybe at other times it can be delightful, surprising ourselves, revealing that we are more than we thought we were. In either case, as in language or encounters with others, even to ourselves, we can suddenly or gradually become different, multiple, divided, ruptured.

I am not writing towards a conclusion or a thesis. I don’t quite know where these musings will lead, except perhaps towards a greater appreciation for ourselves as multiplicities, the various dimensions through which we encounter our own difference, the mechanisms through which we manage our divisions and breakages in order to carry on, and some of the complexities of trying to achieve recognition and actualization when we are also unrecognizable and in some ways impossible both to others and ourselves.

 



remarks on grief, rage, and remembering
20 November, 2015, 10:47 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

Tonight I was humbled to speak at the vigil for the Trans Day of Remembrance in Columbus, Ohio. The Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is held in November each year to memorialize those who were killed due to violence based on bias or prejudice against transgender people. The Transgender Day of Remembrance is intended to raise public awareness of hate crimes against transgender people, and to publicly mourn and honor the lives of transgender people who might otherwise be forgotten. Through the vigil, we express love and respect in the face of national indifference and hatred.

The text that I wrote and shared is below. These words do not feel adequate. Perhaps no words feel adequate when faced with extreme violence and loss, and yet in the face of such violence, silence is death, and so we must speak the words that we have, however inadequate:

Tonight I want to speak briefly about rage and grief. But before I do, I need to acknowledge the privilege from which I speak: I am white, and that affords me mobility and security that are actively denied to others. While I identify and present as non-binary, I grew up assigned male, which gave me basic social advantages that are regularly foreclosed for people who are not men. I am able-bodied in that the world regularly meets the needs of my body in ways that it does not meet the needs of others. I have been privileged with extensive education, which now gives me the opportunity—and the responsibility—to educate others, while there are many, many others who have not been given such education from whom we have much to learn. Speaking here is a privilege, especially when we are doing so precisely because there are others who can no longer speak. I do not—we must not—take this opportunity lightly; so thank you for allowing me this space.

When I am faced week after week with another headline reporting the murder of another trans person—very often another trans woman of color—I am swept up in grief and rage. Although I did not know the people whose names I now read, something of my world, of our world, the world that we share, is now broken because the world that we share has broken them.

These acts of extreme violence and loss are unbearable first because of the unjust deaths of individuals—individuals who we must grieve, who we will name, who we must not forget—and unbearable perhaps also because these extreme violations make our shared vulnerabilities evident, make palpable the countless ways that we are all exposed to others in ways we cannot control. We cannot control how we are seen or perceived by others, how we are named or called or addressed by those we do and do not know, the places in language and the law where there is or is not space for us, or the ways in which we take on available roles in order to survive. When we encounter another, our bodies are exposed and vulnerable to them, and we cannot control how they might approach us. Violence reminds us that life is fragile and precarious, in need of protection and support; violence against trans people reminds us that such support and protection are often withheld from trans people, especially those who are pushed to the margins or off the page by the existing structures of power. Violence against trans people reminds us that we still live in a world in which narrow definitions of gender constrain how we might live and also determine who might die. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such violence, because we are harshly reminded that there are limits to self-determination: we each determine who we are and who we will become in the ways that we can, but we do so in a society of others that determine the limits and consequences for our self-determination. In the face of such reminders, first I must grieve for those who have been killed, and then I must rage because we are all embedded within systems of gender that continue to act on and through us in ways we do not choose. Even at our most self-actualized, we must navigate our own becomings within systems of restrictions on how we can appear, where we can go, what words we can use, and what support we can receive, as well as the risk and danger of defying such systems. I grieve and I rage. And then, in the midst of grief and rage, I must also celebrate those I know and those I do not know who are actualizing their genders in ways that do not conform to the genders they were assigned, those who are living at the limits of these systems, and through whom more ways of living are becoming possible. I celebrate each and every one of you, and my celebration does not negate my rage and it does not negate my grief. And from grief and rage and celebration, I must also remember that I am part of this world in which we are all vulnerable and exposed. Just as I am exposed and vulnerable to others, I in turn shape how others might live in ways both big and small. If violence reminds us that life is fragile and precarious, in need of protection and support, it also compels me to extend that support and protection whenever and however I can, to actively create space for difference and for others who are different from me, and to imagine livability for those lives we may not yet recognize, those perhaps I cannot even imagine.

So, as we remember together tonight, as we honor those who have been killed, I ask that we hold together our grief, our rage, our celebration, and our commitment to imagining a world made livable for more and more lives.

[Thank you to TransOhio, Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) and King Avenue United Methodist Church for hosting this event.]



becoming becoming becoming

This fall I am creating a new dance work in the Department of Dance at Denison University. This is both my first semester as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Denison and the first dance I have choreographed with these students. At the moment, the working title of the project is becoming becoming becoming, drawing from a range of references, but specifically borrowing language from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—their concepts of becoming-woman, becoming-animal, and becoming-imperceptible. These are concepts that I have previously explored in a burlesque solo entitled becoming emma, becoming imperceptible. In that piece, I worked with a minimal set of vocabularies through which my body passes: first, eroticized feminine gestures from a burlesque idiom—the grind, the shimmy—then more remote idealized femininity embodied in a balletic idiom—bourrées in fifth position, undulating arms that directly cite Fokine’s Dying Swan and Petipa/Ivanov’s Swan Lake—and finally, in my most exposed state of undress, rolling and crawling that evokes something nonhuman, something insect or creature. The balletic swan is an interesting transitional figure between the eroticized feminine and the animal: she is femininity becoming more unattainable, more rarified, but also more animal, less fully human. I think the choreography offers a proposition regarding the parameters of femininity, the erotic, and the human—where they intersect, where they dissolve, and how they move through a single body.

For this new work, I am considering similar ideas with some of the same references across a larger cast. At the moment, I will be working with twelve dancers. With this group, I will continue to interrogate a range of mechanisms through which culturally specific idealized femininities are produced, reproduced, circulated, and potentially deconstructed or deterritorialized. While working with some of the vocabulary I began to explore with becoming emma, becoming imperceptible, I am interested in investigating the movement/choreographic idiom of the fashion runway—the style of walking, the usually straight-and-narrow spatial pathways, the understated presentationalism of people just walking in order to be looked at, and how they figures subject/object positionalities—alongside continuing to work within a limited ballet vocabulary and movement derived from the nonhuman animal. I am also interested in how these vocabularies and references can be spatialized in relation to one another, as both states and spatial territories through which bodies pass. I’m interested in exploring how these spatialities are positioned in relation to viewers and in relation to particular geometries. One way this might be addressed is arranging the audience on four sides, where their seats demarcate the edges of a plane and the intersecting sight lines extrude a grid. Bodies then might move along this grid, conforming to straight lines and right angles, or they might move across the grid, in ways that do not conform to its logic. These are concepts that I began to explore in some ways in TOWARD BELONGING, a group work that I premiered in April 2015. As with that piece, I will also be investigating repetition as both a choreographic device and a fundamental property of the ontology of gender. Following Judith Butler’s work on gender performativity, we can think of gender as an ongoing activity rather than a state of being, a set of stylized behaviors and acts that are repeated incessantly, producing the effect of their own persistence and stability. Thus, the references of which this piece may be composed include philosophy, multiple movement idioms/traditions through which the feminine and the human/nonhuman are produced (fashion, ballet, etc.), my own previous choreographic work, and abstract concepts like the grid, repetition, and spatialized territories—which are, of course, already politicized in our lived experiences of them.

Here I would like to start to aggregate some specific textual, choreographic, and visual references for the work. I have collected a few different passages of text and videos that will inform my process.

If I can secure permission, I am also hoping to include recorded spoken text by Juliana Huxtable, originally written for the Hood By Air Fall/Winter 2014 runway show (video above), which addresses a range of body ideals in relation to gender:

Lastly, these passages from and discussing the work of Deleuze and Guattari are informing this process, and it may be that recorded readings of these passages also become part of the final work:

“In [Deleuze and Guattari’s] view, the binary couple Man/Woman is one of the interlocking sets of coordinates on the categorical grid defining the person. They correspond to Nobody. They are empty categories. ‘Woman’ is simply the oppositional term without which ‘Man’ would have no meaning. It is simply that in contrast to which what is designated ‘Man’ is deemed superior. It is a patriarchal construct … No real body ever entirely coincides with either category. A body only approaches its assigned category as a limit: it becomes more or less ‘feminine’ or more or less ‘masculine’ depending on the degree to which it conforms to the connections and trajectories laid out for it by society according to which coordinate in gender grid it is judges to coincide with. ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ as such have not reality other than that of logical abstractions … ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ and their many subcategories designate stereotyped sets of object choices and life paths (stable equilibriums) promoted by society. They are clichés that bodies are coerced into incarnating as best they can. No body is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ One can only come to one’s assigned cliché, like metal to a magnet that recedes father into the distance the closer one draws, in an endless deflection from invention. The only end is death. Gender is a fatal detour from desire-in-deviation (every body’s secret potential and birthright) … A body does not have a gender: it is gendered. Gender is done unto it by the socius … Gender is a form of imprisonment, a socially functional limitation of a body’s connective and transformational capacity. Although thoroughly social, gender is not of course arbitrary in the sense that bodies are assigned categories at random. Gendering is the process by which a body is socially determined to be determined by biology: social channelization cast as destiny by being pinned to anatomical difference” (Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, 86-87).

“The feminine gender stereotype involves greater indeterminacy (‘fickle’) and movement (‘flighty’) and has been burdened by the patriarchal tradition with a disproportionate load of paradox (virgin/whore, mother/lover). Since supermolecularity involves a capacity to superpose states that are ‘normally’ mutually exclusive, Deleuze and Guattari hold that the feminine cliché offers a better departure point than masculinity for a rebecoming-molecular of the personified individual. They therefore recommend what they call ‘becoming-woman’ for bodies of either biological sex. Becoming-woman involves carrying the indeterminacy, movement, and paradox of the female stereotype past the point at which it is recuparable by the socius as it presently functions, over the limit beyond which lack of definition becomes the positive power to select a trajectory (the leap from the realm of possibility into the virtual—breaking away)” (Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 87).

“Yes, all becomings are molecular: the animal, flower, or stone one becomes are molecular collectivities, haecceities, not molar subjects, objects or form that we know from the outside and recognize from experience, through science, or by habit. If this is true, then we must say the same of things human: there is a becoming-woman, a becoming-child, that do not resemble the woman or the child as clearly distinct molar entities (although it is possible—only possible—for the woman or child to occupy privileged positions in relation to these becomings). What we term a molar entity is, for example, the woman as defined by her form, endowed with organs and functions and assigned as a subject. Becoming-woman is not imitating this entity or even transforming oneself into it. We are not, however, overlooking the importance of imitation, or moments of imitation, among certain homosexual males, much less the prodigious attempt at a real transformation on the part of certain transvestites. All we are saying is that these indissociable aspects of becoming-woman must first be understood as a function of something else: not imitating or assuming the female form, but emitting particles that enter the relation of movement and rest, or the zone of proximity, of a microfemininity, in other words, that produce in us a molecular woman, create the molecular woman. We do not mean to say that a creation of this kind is the prerogative of the man, but on the contrary that the woman as a molar entity has to become-woman in order that the man also becomes- or can become-woman” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 275-276).

“The question is not, or not only, that of the organism, history, and subject of enunciation that oppose masculine to feminine in the great dualism machines. The question is fundamentally that of the body—the body they steal from us in order to fabricate opposable organisms. This body is stolen first from the girl: Stop behaving like that, you’re not a little girl anymore, you’re not a tomboy, etc. The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or prehistory, upon her. The boy’s turn comes next, but it is by using the girl as an example, by pointing to the girl as the object of his desire, that an opposed organism, a dominant history is fabricated for him too. The girl is the first victim, but she must also serve as an example and a trap. That is why, conversely, the reconstruction of the body as a Body without Organs, the anorganism of the body, is inseparable from a becoming-woman, or the production of a molecular woman” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 276).

“…it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all other becomings” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 277).

“If becoming-woman is the first quantum, or molecular segment, with the becomings-animal that link up with it coming next, what are they all rushing toward? Without a doubt, toward becoming-imperceptible. The imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formula” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 279).

“A line of becoming is not defined by points that it connects, or by points that compose it; on the contrary, it passes between points, it comes up through the middle, it runs perpendicular to the points first perceived, transversally to the localizable relation to distant or contiguous points. A point is always a point of origin. But a line of becoming has neither beginning nor end, departure nor arrival, origin nor destination; to speak of the absence of an origin, to make the absence of an origin the origin, is a bad play on words. A line of becoming has only a middle. … A becoming is always in the middle; one can only get it by the middle. A becoming is neither one nor two, nor the relation of the two; it is the in-between, the border or line of flight or descent running perpendicular to both” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 293).

“This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segement by segment, have a small plot of land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bringing forth continuous intensities for a Body without Organs” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 161).



MANCHA PRAVESH: Imani Asha Gaston and Odissi

Image by Clarence Alexander

When I enter the MLK Auditorium in Hale Hall on The Ohio State University campus, several instruments surrounded by microphones are already set out on brightly colored fabric on stage right. Just off the front of the stage, a small pedestal is draped with pink, gold, and orange fabric. On top sits a small statue with fresh flowers at its feet. I look around at the audience gathering for this Mancha Pravesh, the debut solo Odissi dance recital performed by Imani Asha Gaston: it is a much more diverse audience than I usually see at arts events in Columbus, Ohio. There are children and college students, parents and elders; the audience is a mix of African-American, Indian, and white people. This is not merely incidental. It is evidence of some of this event’s importance. As the lights dim, the musicians enter and take their places at their instruments and microphones. The MC introduces the first dance, “Vakratunda,” an invocation that pays homage to the Hindu god Ganesha. The music begins, the droning of the veena—a stringed instrument like a very large guitar that lies across the musician’s lap—punctuated by the rapid percussion of the mardala—a small drum. Imani Asha Gaston comes onto the stage, dressed in folds of red and beige silk, shining silver jewelry, and jangling ankle bells that ring in time with the music.

I have reservations writing about an Odissi performance: Odissi, a form of classical Indian dance that dates back to the second century B.C., is not a style of dance that I have studied or practiced. I already know that anything I write about it will be as an outsider to the form. The same would be just as true for a hip-hop or tap dance performance, or a performance in the style of countless other dance traditions that have not been included in my own dance training, which has focused primarily on ballet, American and European modern and postmodern dance, Japanese Butoh, and an array of improvisational techniques. Very nearly all that I know about Odissi, I learned this afternoon at the Mancha Pravesh, from the detailed program and the introductions given by the MC. Beyond that information, when watching this performance of five dances, I could not tell you which of the gestures or steps are codified within the Odissi tradition and which are inventions or innovations particular to this solo choreography. I could not tell you these ways Odissi differs from the other seven forms of classical Indian dance. I could not identify which movements carry broader cultural significance, in the way that fluttering, undulating arms have become metonymic to Swan Lake and The Dying Swan, perhaps even to ballet and its feminine ideal. I could not tell you how long histories of social structures, gender and racial politics, philosophical and religious perspectives, and globalization have potentially impacted the traditions that shape the performer’s dancing body. In short, to write about this work feels, at least in part, like exposing a particular breadth of what I do not know.

As I consider this, I realize that this situation is probably not so dissimilar from the majority of audience members at any dance performance. While a vast number of people—particularly those socialized as girls when they were children—have grown up taking dance classes, most people in the United States do not have any education or much experience in watching dance and thinking critically about it. Most have not studied the dance forms that they view, let alone the historical, cultural, and political conditions from which those dance forms emerged. In many ways, the extent to which I am not familiar with Odissi resembles the extent to which most American audiences are not familiar with many forms of dance. As a result, for me to write about this performance takes me—an “insider” to much of the concert dance that I encounter, as a dancer, a choreographer, and a scholar—outside of my expertise, pushing me to rely almost entirely on what I perceive about the performance that unfolds in front of me. In this sense, the performance itself will have to be my education in the form. Perhaps this itself can be instructional.
[I do realize that even how I write about what unfolds in front of me with disclose elements of my biases, my dance training, and my education. This will no doubt be simultaneously productive and potentially problematic in ways I do not yet understand.]

As Gaston enters, her hands are pressed together as if in prayer. Her steps are steady then quick, shifting her weight rapidly and often leaving her balanced on one foot. Her feet strike the ground forcefully with her heels or the balls of her feet in the rhythm of the music. Atop these strong, direct steps grounding her movements from their base, her torso is poised vertically—held but not rigid. Although the placement of her body demonstrates constant control, she remains mobile; throughout the dances, her head and shoulders incline and twist, her ribs and her hips circle and roll. Around the careful placement of her torso, Gaston’s arms trace intricate patterns in the air, swinging and gliding and circling gestures that orbit her center like spinning constellations. These gestures fly across a dynamic range of speeds, but even at their fastest, they are not flung out of control. They remain precise, somewhere between shooting stars and needlepoint, always arriving emphatically in clear, distinct postures. There are no details that are not choreographed: Gaston’s eyes cut from side to side, up and down and straight ahead in complex patterns, and even her fingertips dance as her hands shift from mudra to mudra in rapid succession. Intricacy and complexity compound as the dancer’s feet and legs and hips and shoulders and arms and fingers and head and eyes all accentuate the rhythm of the music, sometimes articulating multiple distinct cadences that move across and support each other, and sometimes settling—softly or swiftly—into a single posture, pose, or pulse, bringing disparate parts together into a common unity.

Alongside and yet part of the dancer’s movement, the music crests and falls, accelerating with the beat of the drum, the bright clang of hand cymbals, and text that is spoken in rapid syllables, then dissolving again into ringing drone of the veena and the longer tones of the singing vocalist. None of the text that is spoken or sung is in English, which holds some part of what is happening in mystery, reminding me that my access to what I am experiencing is always partially limited by my own history and situatedness.

There are five dances performed in this program, all choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Each one differs in intent, as described by the program: following the invocation to Ganesha, the second piece unfolds through a series of sculptural poses strung together with steps in varying rhythms in honor of Shiva, the cosmic Lord of Dance. The third piece evolves through accelerating tempos of gestures, postures, steps, and movements of the eyes, demonstrating the dancer’s skill. The fourth piece is part of a narrative, in which the dancer embodies multiple characters in the story of Radha and Krishna. The final piece, entitled “Moksha” which means “spiritual liberation,” represents “a spiritual culmination for the dancer who soars into the realm of pure aesthetic delight.”* Each piece shares a different facet of Odissi as well as the dancer, which is appropriate for the event. This Mancha Pravesh is a debut dance recital, a transformative moment in the life of the dancer as she becomes a professional solo Odissi performer. In a sense, this recital is a ritual, not only marking but also enacting the transition of the dancer from one phase as a student to another phase, as a professional performer. Moving from the opening invocation, through various demonstrations of skill, and culminating in a dance of liberation, each piece embodies a step in the dancer’s journey.

While each piece is clearly within the same style of movement—focusing on idiomatic uses of the eyes, the hands, the subtle control in the torso, the forcefulness of the steps, all closely following the music—each also has subtle characteristic elements that make it unique. The first piece feels very much like an address, performed mostly facing the audience, the palms of Gaston’s hands opening and closing in gestures that feel both sacred and welcoming. There is more turning in the second piece, more acceleration in the third, more looking side to side in the fourth, and a spaciousness and stillness in the final piece that is unlike all of the others. I think the final piece is my favorite. While still threading between intense phrases of rapid, driving steps and gestures, the dancer also moves through passages of pause and sustainment. Her body gradually rises and sinks, and the slower transformations between gestures and mudras almost drift around the soft and steady current of her weight. In the final moments of the piece, Gaston balances in what I would call in my yoga classes Virabhadrasana III—Warrior Pose III—balanced on one leg with her other leg and torso parallel to the floor, first facing stage right, then left, then the audience. She lifts up into what I would call Tadasana—Mountain Pose—her feet flat on the floor and her arms lifted above her head. Slowly, her hands drift downward, shifting through different mudras, and carrying her into a low squatting position. This is where the performance ends.

But this is not the end of my thinking. Between the third and fourth pieces, several people spoke, offering a few words about the performance, including Kaustavi Sarkar—Gaston’s Odissi teacher who is a doctoral student in the Department of Dance at OSU and an accomplished Odissi dancer, choreographer, and educator—and Gaston’s mother, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, the Vice President for Student Life at OSU. Both speakers were moving, but Dr. J—as Adams-Gaston is affectionately known on campus—spoke to something I was feeling since I first arrived. In addition to honoring her daughter’s accomplishments and Sarkar’s important work with Odissi at OSU, she offered that this performance also told the story of the university, what it allows students to do, and what she described as “what we mean by higher education”: bringing out the best in each student by allowing them to see themselves as bigger than their backgrounds or the perceptions and perspectives with which they arrived. She said that the university can be a place where we become global citizens, citizens of the world, and that the dancing we saw today embodies that potential.

I appreciated Dr. J’s discussion of what the university can provide. As an educator working in one university who is starting a new job at a different university in August, at a time when higher education is becoming increasingly privatized as a business of buying and selling and debt, I feel a lot of gratitude for Dr. J giving voice to what higher education can provide not only to its students but to the world in which they live, the world that they are making. I don’t want to diminish the specificity of what happened today, Imani Gaston and Kaustavi Sarkar’s labor and exceptional work. Rather, beyond my descriptions of the dancing and the music, I want to acknowledge that part of what made this work remarkable was seeing an African-American woman becoming an expert in an Indian dance tradition, working with an Indian woman who herself is studying, practicing, and teaching within an American university. One important aspect of this joint project relates to how we share culture: at a time in which I see the words “cultural appropriation” again and again across Facebook, twitter, and blogs that I read, I would like to point to Gaston’s work with Sarkar as one model for responsibly participating in a different culture. Months and months of hard work, hours and hours of dancing, the careful, strenuous training through which a dance tradition from India comes to live within the flesh and fibers of an African-American woman’s body, all participate in a form of rigorously responsible cultural exchange, becoming so embedded in a practice that the practice then becomes undeniably embedded in you. Our world could benefit from more of this kind of exchange.

Finally and also remarkably, in response to the inter-cultural situation of Sarkar and Gaston dancing, teaching, and learning together, an audience of friends, family, community, and academics, a multi-generational audience who was Indian—and potentially Indian-American—African-American, and white, showed up, shared space, and shared an experience of witnessing something that ranged from a deeply treasured cultural tradition for some to an art event in an unfamiliar medium for others. I can’t help but think that in the specific cultural moment in which we find ourselves, in which race and class continue to stratify our society in ways that continue to result in unacceptable violence, today I saw something—was a small part of something—that performed a different socio-cultural paradigm. Many of us had different reasons for attending Gaston’s Mancha Pravesh today, but perhaps—like the different parts of the dancer’s body moving in different rhythms yet somehow finding harmonic resolution as one—by finding focal points that we can share from different perspectives and organizing ourselves around them, something personal can becomes communal and in turn becomes something global. I would like to think that in as much as this performance enacted a transition in Gaston’s career as a dancer, it also marked a potential for transformation at other, larger scales, not only in concept, but in practice: a way we might move towards a more just world in which we want to live.

*Quoted from the program notes.

Additional Program Information:

Musicians:
Vocal: Niranjani Deshpande
Veena: Sumamala Devalpally
Mardala: Vendata Chawla
Manjira: Sukanya Chand
Ukuta / Bol: Kaustavi Sarkar



dispossession, desire, and love
12 July, 2015, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Ontology | Tags: , ,

Today I am thinking about the relationship between what can be considered founding, constitutive relations of dispossession—the ways in which we are all always already given over to a world of others that form both who we are and the very conditions of our being—and the more willful or desiring ways in which one gives oneself to another or others, as in love. [For anyone familiar with my thinking and writing, it will no doubt be obvious that these thoughts are heavily influenced by the work of Judith Butler.]

The former perhaps—or certainly—prefigures the latter; the former conditions the possibility of the latter. Having been given over to a world already, in ways that constitute who one can or will be, to give of oneself to another will always in part be a citation or reference back to that fundamental dispossession. When there is a one to whom I give myself, surrender myself, or to whom I want to give or surrender myself—in which case I give/surrender myself to desire—how is that event different from or the same as the ways in which I am given over to, say, language, to ecological relations, to kinship systems, to gender norms and racial politics, to legal apparatuses and medical institutions and so on? In all of these ways, I enter a world that already exists, that precedes me, a world I did not make or choose, and I am reliant on this world of others and systems and structures and institutions in ways that not only ensure—and constrain—my living, but also come to define my sense of self. Who I am to myself and to others is shaped by the language I inherit, the family to whom I am born, the gender I am assigned and attributed, the race to which I am taken to belong, the rights I am afforded by systems of power, the healthcare to which I have access, and so on. And that sense of self, as it becomes available to me, is made available through those very words, categories, and ideas that originate beyond myself, in a world of others. Likewise, the sense of myself that I receive from others—how I am seen or recognized or misrecognized, and how that is reflected back to me—becomes enfolded into my sense of who I am, because I am always already in and of this world; who I am to the others of which this world is formed will directly and indirectly shape who I am to and for myself.
In short, I am never fully self-sufficient in my own being. The reliances and dependencies that knot me into this world of others are necessary for my existence, for my survival, and as such, “I” am never merely “my” self. I emerge from these necessary social, ecological, familial, political, juridical, cultural relations. This is what I mean when I ask about founding, constitutive relations of dispossession. These various worldly relations form the foundation of who I can be, they constitute who I am, and as such, “I” am dispossessed of “my” self.

So, dispossession or being given over to others is fundamental to what it means to be the subject or person that I am, and this fundamental dispossession is not of my choosing. I am born, never asked, to quote Laurie Anderson.

And then it happens that I encounter another, someone who it seems that I love or might love. And in this nebulous experience we call love, I want to give myself over to this other. I want to give of myself to them, and be taken by them. This is something that I desire and that I will.
But maybe there is a rupture there: in any number of ways, desire is not something that I will. Desire itself is an experience to which I am given over. In the longing of desire, the reaching for that which is thus far out of reach, I am also dispossessed—or perhaps displaced—from myself. When I desire, I am caught up in the swelling of feeling, that sense of need that may or may not be need, in which it seems that you are what I need; you are both necessary and out of reach, and if only I could reach you, have you, hold you, then I would be complete.

[In writing this, years of studying psychoanalysis—directly, and indirectly by way of feminist philosophy and queer theory—loom up, and I think: of course, to desire, perhaps even to love, is first and foremost a reproduction of the primary attachment to a caretaker, the longing of an infant for the one who will feed me, hold me, care for me. Desire is the excess of need, where those infantile patterns—of reaching out to be held, crying to be fed, twisting and turning to be reassured that I am not alone—resurface, no longer necessarily necessary in the same ways, but fixating on an other who will occupy the promise of fulfillment. Perhaps I am writing and thinking about issues that have been well-worn at this point; perhaps I am thinking and writing nothing new.]
But it is not merely the origins of desire that I am trying to think about…or the origins of love, why it is that we love and desire.
It is this question of dispossession, of being given over, first in ways we do not choose, and later in ways that we perhaps also do not choose—when we desire another—but that we nonetheless desire. When we desire to desire, and perhaps even more when we desire to love, we desire our own dispossession.
Perhaps like the primary caretaker attachments of infancy, dispossession can become associated with (or even identical to?) survival?
If being given over to others is necessary to my constitution, to both my survival and my sense of self, doesn’t it follow that I might become attached to the desire to become dispossessed? That I might desire being given over to another or others, or desire being given over to the desire to be given over to another or others, because that sense of being given over is knotted into what it means to survive and to be the me that I know as my self? Do we not come to love our dispossession when (it seems) our survival is at stake?

I think I am too easily transposing desire for another into being given over to another. Certainly, in desire we are given over to desire, which is a form of dispossession or displacement, but isn’t desire for another also, in some way(s), a desire for possession, for having, for belonging? [I’ll suspend for the moment the many layers of “possession,” and its potential relationship to property and capitalism, although those may be necessary layers to explore.] When I desire you, I desire to have your hand in mine, your lips to kiss, to hear your voice, to smell your scent, to taste you, to feel your flesh against mine. So, inasmuch as I am dispossessed by desire, it is also a longing for possession, for having. Why? For reassurance? Is it a power play? I am given over to a world of others in ways that I did not choose or will at the start, and now I desire to have you, as a way of recuperating a sense of my own power? [This is what the phallus is about, after all: having the phallus, being the phallus.]

But it is not enough usually simply to have you.
To desire you is also to desire your desire, to desire being desired by you. And if I am desired by you and I have you, you have me as well. To whatever extent I come to possess you, you possess me as well, and it is thus a(nother) (dis)possession that I desire. [And again, when I use “possess” here, I am meaning it almost entirely as “having,” in order to parallel my use of “dispossession,” not to suggest anything about property or ownership.] While I may not will myself to be given over to my desire, if I come to be possessed by you while also possessing you, it is because I have chosen to surrender. I have willed some part of this dispossession, and perhaps this is also a constitutive event in the formation of myself as a subject/person: if first I am formed by constitutive relations that I did not choose but of and with which I am formed, and this is necessary for my survival and sense of self, I perhaps then later come to will my own dispossession, my giving myself over to your desire, to my desire for your desire, in order to consolidate dispossession within or beneath my own will. Is this a re-writing or recuperation of sorts? I said at the start that the dispossession of desire will always be a citation or reference of those founding dispossessing relations that constitute one’s being. If this is the case, then to cite or reference those dispossessions now as an effect or result of my will is to enact a kind of restaging with/in a different set of conditions: when I was born and never asked, I was given over to relations in any number of ways that I did not choose; now, in choosing to be given over and dispossessed, even at the moment of dispossession, I consolidate some sense of myself as an agential subject, “in control” of even those experiences in which I have had the least control. In giving myself, I produce for myself a sense that I am in such a position to give, a position from which to choose to act, a position that I did not have at those moments that were fundamental to my formation.

Perhaps this is true of love as well. For now, my working definitions of love are something like: to contribute to the flourishing of another, to act as more than one self, to pursue a view of the world from the perspective of more than one. Love is an activity, not a feeling, although it can be fueled by strong feelings—usually desire. It is, by these definitions, fundamentally altruistic, not necessarily to the detriment of oneself, but to the side of oneself, for and towards others or an other. The surrender of “one self” for a self that is more than one. It is a giving of oneself to and for another or others, for their wellbeing. Is that giving also a kind of dispossession, in that what of oneself is given is no longer entirely or exclusively possessed by the self that is giving? Yes, I think so. Following the above, it seems reasonable that even in love, even when I am choosing to act with and for others, for their flourishing, I am perhaps also providing myself with a sense of my own agency. I consolidate myself as a willful subject (this is not a direct reference to Sara Ahmed, just an accidentally similar phrasing), in a sense “in control,” precisely at those times that I choose to be in less control, to surrender some sense of myself to or for another.

These thoughts are more speculative than conclusive. I don’t think I’ve developed a fully cohesive theory of desire, love, and dispossession here. But I think perhaps where it leads me is to ask: what is it that we are giving to ourselves—through the sense of giving, our sense of being able to give—even at our most loving, our most desiring, our most dispossessed?

***

Addendum (a few hours later):

While walking in the park, a few more ideas/implications occurred to me. If our authority over ourselves—our capacity to authorize our own giving of ourselves over to another—is something that we assure or reassure ourselves through the act of giving ourselves, then it seems that this authority is in question or uncertain. This is not surprising given that from the start we are not fully in control of ourselves in that we are acted upon by others in ways that we do not will or choose; it is not surprising then that our sense of our own authority over ourselves would be questionable or uncertain, but it seemed necessary to state. Given this uncertainty, if it is true that one provides oneself with a sense of agency or authority through the act of giving oneself in love or giving oneself over to desire or the desires of another, there is a kind of undoing. If I assure myself of my authority to give of myself through the act of giving, then it is precisely at the moment of providing myself with that reassurance that I am no longer entirely containable within my own authority or will. If the supplement of an other to whom one gives oneself is necessary to the self that gives, then that self is undone by that other just as that self has been done up.




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