michael j. morris

movement practice
7 February, 2015, 11:32 pm
Filed under: Dance, yoga | Tags: , , , ,

Alongside all of the writing that I do, both on this blog and beyond, I am trying to invest a little more energy towards my physical practices and towards including my physical practices as part of my public identity. This week I taught a contemporary dance class, rehearsed two new pieces that I am making, and made time for some afternoon yoga. Here are a few glimpses into those practices:

This is a phrase that I taught in a Contemporary Movement Practice III class in the Department of Dance at OSU this week:

Last week, I crudely notated that phrase, which can be a handy tool in studio practice:

Labanotation (very rough sketch) of the movement phrase above

Labanotation (very rough sketch) of the movement phrase above

This is a short vinyasa that I did this afternoon:

The vinyasa flows through:
adho mukha svanasana
eka pada adho mukha svanasana
eka pada bakasana

afternoon eka pada bakasana

afternoon eka pada bakasana

Watch From Here: Part 1 | Elsewhere and Trace Forms

Tonight was the opening of Watch From Here, the 2015 OSU Department of Dance MFA Concert Season presented in two parts over two weeks. Part 1 features the work of choreographers Ani Javian and Megan Davis, along with their collaborators, at the Urban Arts Space in downtown Columbus.

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian's Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian’s Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian's Elsewhere

Hanging sculptures by Leah Frankel for Ani Javian’s Elsewhere

Ani Javian, Elsewhere Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere
Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Ani Javian, Elsewhere
Photo from The Columbus Foundation

Javian’s Elsewhere was the first piece of the evening:
When the audience is allowed to enter the performance space—a long corridor with cement floor and high ceilings on the south side of the Urban Arts Space—four dancers are already present, their bodies crumpled softly on the ground, all at different angles, their limbs askew. Above them, sculptural elements by Leah Frankel are suspended at many different elevations: the sculptures, what look like wooden dowels painted different tones of beige hanging from filament, all hang parallel to one another, running along the length of the gallery space from east to west. The audience sits or stands on all four sides of the space, and small, almost tentative rocking and swaying actions shift through the dancers’ bodies.

A fifth dancer, Shannon Drake, runs suddenly into the space, making her way through the bodies on the floor to the far end of the gallery. Whereas the four dancers on the floor move almost beneath the threshold of perceptibility, Drake’s movements are strong and full-bodied, their force pushing impatiently through the duration of each passing second. She runs back and forth along the longitudinal length of the space, across and around the bodies on the floor.

As if stirred by Drake’s rapidity, the four on the floor—Abby Carlozzo, Kelly Hurlburt, Sarah Levitt, and s.lumbert—quickly move towards each other and line up, horizontal and side by side. Their tiny shifts and swaying now press into each other, and I am drawn into soft places when flesh presses into flesh. Their costumes—sleeveless tops and pants all pieced together from multiple shades of beige and tan—along with their skin—all of the dancers are white—give the group of bodies a kind of homogeneity. The skin, the costumes, and the multiple beiges of the sculptures hanging overhead comprise a narrow consistency across multiple elements of the dance; the dance develops as bodies push and roll and speed up and come together and apart all within this narrow space.

Over the duration of the dance, the dancers roll over and alongside each other; they lift one dancer into the air and maneuver her around the space; they crawl and dance in pairs and other small groupings; they drift in and out of unison with each other; they inhabit any number of levels of space, moving high up into the air, down flat on the floor, and many elevations in between. Across the group, the choreography introduces a range of dynamics and speeds: legs and arms slicing and flinging through the air, rolling quickly across hands and knees and hips, and also standing still and slowing down, the dancers carefully circling limbs in their joints, as if never fully deciding where they could move next. My initial reaction to the dance is that it shows something about the multiple dimensions of variability within a presumably narrow range of possibilities, the speed and intensity and spatial configurations that are possible within the limits of various approximations of beige.

But it is more specific than that. It is not only the colors of the costumes and dancers and sculptures that suggest narrow possibilities: the parallel alignment of the sculptures, their cumulative adherence to the longitude of the room, and how they mark out a collection of singular, rigid elevations in space, all introduce systems of measurement, lines and levels that organize how I perceive the dimensions of the space and the bodies moving within it. The sculptures establish a three-dimensional grid, striations across the space that refer to global(izing) perspectives for the linear demarcation of position within a given frame—longitude, latitude, elevation away from the center of the planet. The architecture of the space, its four walls, its floor and ceiling, already iterate these dimensions; Frankel’s sculptures extrude these dimensions into the air and give a constant frame of reference for determining how these dancing bodies do and do not line up within that frame. Sometimes the dancers literally line up, flat to the walls or ceiling, all in a straight queue. But more often, they move across and between these straight lines and planes; they accelerate and decelerate over and through curving pathways and diagonals that cut the space in temporary, renegade formations. And most importantly, they do so together.

Not only does the choreography the dancers perform never fully or permanently conform to the geometry of the room or sculptures—or the rigid linearity that those structures impose—neither do their connections. This dance is full of bodies coming to one another, pressing against each other, sometimes moving apart, but then keeping up with each other as they move. The soft places where bodies come into contact, the shifting dynamic relationship between two bodies that may not be in contact but nonetheless attempt to move with each other in some direction, map out a different geometry, a fleshy, sweaty, pulsing spatiality that knows nothing of rigid structures or hard lines. Where and how bodies meet and stay with each other exceeds the terms of the grid above them. Even in the final moments of the dance, all five bodies have once again crumpled to the floor at various elevations, more or less in line with each other along the length of the room. But their lines are multiple, soft, and loose, curving smoothly around their shoulders and hips and spines, facing in directions that are not fully one way or another. The right here-and-now of bodies with each other refuses to be constrained within totalizing frameworks of rigid spatialities; bodies, it seems, are already elsewhere, even when they are right here.

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis, Trace Forms

Megan Davis’ Trace Forms, developed in collaboration with the performers—Lilianna Kane, Maddie Leonard-Rose, Claire Moore, and Stacy Shelts—involves both a dance and an exhibition of various forms of documentation of dancing. The walls are lined with sketches, drawings, video documentation, and writing about dancing that came out of the choreographic process through which the dance was developed; the dance takes place surrounded by these various traces of dancing in several media.

The dance begins, and from where I am sitting on the floor, I can see two dancers leaning against a wall, rolling against it, and sweeping their hands over its surface. A foot emerges from behind one of the large columns in the middle of the gallery, and gradually two more dancers come into view. These first few moments are very tactile: the contact between the dancers and the wall seems more important than the specific gestures or movements that they are doing. The movement seems to come from the contact, to support to tactile encounter, to experiment with it.

Eventually the dancers move out into the space, and form a line at the east end of the gallery. In front of them, two monitors display video of these dancers in rehearsal. I don’t know if they are watching themselves in the videos, but I am watching them, their actual bodies in space, the images of their bodies on the screens beyond them. Their line turns, and they begin to move as a pack, maintaining degrees of proximity to each other. The movement is simple: walking, assuming a position, gesturing from that position, the arms or legs extending in lines or arcs around where they began.

Two dancers move out into the space with a long roll of paper, and as they unroll it, I can see colored lines looping and curling and streaking down its length. Given the context of the exhibition materials, I understand these lines to mark out some piece of the choreographic process, some trace of movement—drawing, if nothing else—that has been recorded along this scroll. The dancers circle around the space, carrying the paper into different spatial orientations, twisting it, folding it, manipulating it. In a way that is quite literal, they repurpose this history, rearticulating this record of something that occurred before in a new way for new purposes in the present. As I watch, I am thinking about the records that we keep, these lines on paper, the gestures of dancing images on video monitors, the lines and shapes the dancing bodies make in space that disappear as quickly as they appear. Within moments, the paper is rolled back up, and I realize that whatever may be retained from the past may not remain accessible. Davis and the performers are dancing at the edges of archives—how we retain what has happened, how we use or access what we have retained—moving with and between these records, these lines and paper and digital images and words.

Later in the piece, the four dancers create a loose circle, and one by one they each dance as the others watch. As a viewer, I am not only watching a dancing body; I am also watching three others watching her dancing. I cannot avoid the fact the this body is viewed/viewable from multiple perspectives, and no one perspective can provide a full view. This multiplicity of perspectives—or my attention to it—is compounded as the dancers move forward, and the rest of the audience comes into my sightlines. As we are watching them watching each other, we are also watching each of them and each other watching them: more perspectives of more perspectives.

The dancers break into pairs and move in contact with each other, reminiscent of the opening dancing in contact with the wall. Here they dance with their eyes closed, their bodies feeling and following each other. Moments before, we witnessed them witnessing each other; now their witnessing has become entirely haptic, tactile, touching and feeling touching, body to body in a much more personal, intimate way. Gradually, they drift apart from each other, each dancing on their own, and I feel a wave of sadness: I continue to watch them, we continue to witness them in their eyes-closed dances, but they no longer see or feel each other. We witness them and we witness them no longer witnessing each other. Like the scroll that was rolled up and taken away, like the limited access to records, witnessing, it seems, has its limits and will not go on indefinitely. There comes a time when each body is left to itself, its experience of itself and no other.

One by one, the dancers open their eyes, make their way out into the audience, turn, and join us watching the others who continue to dance. At last, the space is empty, and we are all looking around at each other looking around until the music ends and the clapping begins. These final moments are crucial as the dance directs us from seeing the dancers perform back towards seeing each other.

From the dance to the exhibited materials and back again, Davis examines traces, records, the accounts that remain from the multi-faceted experiences that each of us undergo, on our own and with others. Whatever is happening right now is only part of any story; it is a point along a process—or any number of processes—that extend in any number of directions into the past and towards a future. In Trace Forms, Davis shows that no action or event fully discloses its own history of formation. No moment of any person can reveal that person in any entirety. Across multiple media, marking out pieces and outlines of what has come before, pushing into what is unfolding right now, and holding up some possibilities of what might remain, the dance and the exhibit together offer not a singular, authoritative record of happenings, but an account—or several—of experiences from a collective of perspectives. There is no total account of what has happened, what is happening, where it came from, or where it might lead. Rather, accounts are multiple and partial, incomplete, and rely on countless points of view;  they never add up to a complete record, but accumulate traces that we share, tracing what and how we share what can be shared, and opening up any number of possibilities for where we might go from here.

Watch From Here: Part 1 continues at the Urban Arts Space on Friday, February 6 at 6pm, and Saturday, February 7, at 1pm.



LINES OF FLIGHT: a screening of new queer porn



Bringing together the work of award-winning queer porn directors and performers, LINES OF FLIGHT will offer a glimpse of porn being made at the leading edges of culture. Each film presents a unique view of sexuality, sex, and gender, inviting viewers to consider sex—and its presentation—in new ways, to encounter desires that might be unfamiliar, to see things they have maybe never seen, and to expand their view of what is hot.

The screening will include four scenes curated by Michael J. Morris:
-“Going Here,” starring Jiz Lee and Lyric Seal, from Wet Dreams, directed by Courtney Trouble
-“Workout Voyeur,” starring James Darling and Damien Moreau, directed by James Darling for FTM Fucker, shot and edited by Isabel Dresler
-Jack Hammer and Jessie Sparkles, directed by Shine Louise Houston for Heavenly Spire
-Chelsea Poe and Courtney Trouble, from the feature length FUCKING MYSTIC, directed by Courtney Trouble and produced by Chelsea Poe

An open conversation will follow the screening, providing an opportunity for public dialogue about porn, sex, sexuality, gender, desire, pleasure, fantasy, power, bodies, or whatever else comes up.

February 28, 6-8pm at Feverhead (1199 Goodale Blvd, Columbus, OH, 43212)
FREE and open to the public
Donations invited to help rent the space
18+ event

Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1395677790737026/


-Jack Hammer and Jessie Sparkles for Heavenly Spire: http://www.pinklabel.tv/on-demand/?scene=jack-hammer-and-jessie-sparkles
“Heavenly Spire focuses on masculine beauty and sexuality, and how it manifests on different bodies, in a unique cinematic style. Directed by Shine Louise Houston.”

-FUCKING MYSTIC: http://courtneytrouble.com/the-fucking-mystic-trailer-debut/
Fucking Mystic is a narrative pornographic film about a small town girl who moves to the Bay Area and finds she has a profoundly erotic effect on her new surroundings. Directed by Courtney Trouble, this film is a true collaboration, with Ajapop as the Director of Photography and Chelsea Poe as Executive Producer and headlining star.”

-“Going Here” with Jiz Lee and Lyric Seal: http://courtneytrouble.com/lyric-seal-jiz-lee-going-here/
“What if we could turn places of trauma into places of pleasure? In Going Here, Lyric and Jiz explore the edges of danger, public sex, experimentation, and lust. This exclusive excerpt from Courtney Trouble’s upcoming film Wet Dreams is about letting our fantasies take over all else.”
Jiz Lee on “Going Here”: http://jizlee.com/wet-dreams-courtney-trouble-films-going-here-jiz-lee-and-lyric-seal/

-“Workout Voyeur” with James Darling and Damien Moreau for FTM Fucker, shot and edited by Isabel Dresler: http://ftmfucker.com/2014/06/11/damien-moreau-and-james-darling/
“Damien Moreau watches his neighbor James go on a run outside. As James runs past his window, Damien finds himself lost deep in a fantasy … FTM FUCKER is owned, operated and directed by award winning FTM porn star James Darling. FTM FUCKER seeks to create an environment where trans men’s sexualities and bodies are celebrated in a respectful & affirming way.”

-Courtney Trouble: http://courtneytrouble.com/awards-and-notables/
-Shine Louise Houston: http://shinelouisehouston.com
-James Darling: https://twitter.com/jamesdarlingxxx
-Jiz Lee: http://jizlee.com/bio/
-Lyric Seal: http://lyricsealsucks.tumblr.com
-Chelsea Poe: https://twitter.com/chelseapoe666
-Jack Hammer: https://twitter.com/jackhammerxl
-Jessie Sparkles: https://twitter.com/jessiesparklesx
-Damien Moreau: http://ohdamienmoreau.tumblr.com

-Michael J. Morris: http://michaeljmorris.weebly.com


thinking about training dancing


I’ve recently made some time to get back into a studio and dance. I am choreographing a new dance with four dancers—Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Sharon Udo. I am also returning to dance training: when I first came to grad school, I taught yoga, ballet, and modern dance. However, while I continue to teach a weekly yoga class, it has been several years since I have taught ballet or modern/contemporary dance; in 2013, I had the opportunity to teach Butoh as a visiting artist at Virginia Commonwealth University, but even that feels like ages ago. Since then, my teaching has primarily been in the areas of writing about dance and dance history. This year, I was awarded a Presidential Fellowship, which has given me a leave from teaching in the university in order to focus more on my research. Alongside my scholarly research and finishing my dissertation, I have prioritized returning to the studio, reinvesting in choreography—which has and always will be my first love—and re-discovering what it means for me to teach technique.

Before getting into the studio, I wrote a bit about what I considered to be my priorities for teaching technique:

-Training bodies: I am very interested in the ways that a technique class can be distinct from a repertory experience. I am interested in how a technique class is primarily invested in developing and expanding the capacities of a dancer’s body—hopefully in ways that are translatable across different dances and contexts—rather than providing more repertory for the dancer to have danced. These two functions overlap of course: learning a dance often requires developing new skills, and there is always so kind of choreography to any exercise. However, I am interested in how developing/cultivating particular capacities of bodies can be prioritized rather than technique class functioning as a space for proliferating my own choreography.

-Sustained movement dynamics: my investment in sustainment is multi-layered. First, in a global sense, the 21st century—in both daily life and on the concert dance stage—increasingly demands acceleration and rapidity as the pace of attention, thinking, moving, and responding. I am interested in my technique class challenging the totality of this norm towards speed, cultivating corporeal potentialities that might otherwise remain underdeveloped. I am interested in how deceleration and sustainment require modes of durable engagement that are both physical and mental. Second, coming from my experiences training in Butoh, I believe that sustainment provides opportunities for expansive awareness and care—of the body as a whole, all of its parts, and each moment—that can be neglected at a more rapid pace of moving and living. In this sense, I believe there is an ethics to practicing moving slowly: what else might we notice? For what else might we become responsible? How might an increased capacity for sustainment translate into greater sustainability for bodies and dancers, and how might that sense of kinesthetic sustainability become a resource towards what is and is not sustainable in our world today? Further, drawing from my research on ecological relations with the nonhuman and the inhuman forces and factors that move in and through human bodies, how might slowness and sustainment provide opportunities for accessing some degree of sensitivity to “deep time,” the duration of the world that exceeds human life before our advent and after our inevitable departure? While my technique class moves across multiple movement dynamics, it is with an emphasis on developing a capacity for sustainment, and the ability to find and return to this state in the midst of other dynamic intensities.

-Coordination: whether movement in sustained or quick frequencies, I prioritize coordination—of movement with the breath, of one part of the body with another, and of multiple bodies within an ensemble. Coordination is ultimately a practice balancing multiple concerns, taking responsibility for multiple parts within a larger aggregate or milieu. I consider this skill to be necessary for precise dancing and applicable to how we might approach the world beyond the dance studio.

-Balance: I define balance as the ability to respond effectively to/within a multiplicity of changing dynamic forces. Practically, we refine balance by practicing precarity—dancing and moving through physical configurations in which stability is more challenging.
While prioritizing balance and the responsivity it requires, I also recognize that there is immense potential in being off-balance, in being disoriented. Disorientation and imbalance are generative experiences; they require invention and perhaps reinvention. There is also something potentially queer about imbalance and disorientation. To the degree that orientation can be shaped by normative forces that make it easier to be oriented in specific ways, and to the degree that being balanced might result from a world that conditions particular responses to the range of force in which we live, to be disoriented or imbalanced perhaps requires us to develop abilities to respond that the dominant norms of our world have not taught/trained us.

-Horizontality: I am invested in training bodies to increase their movement potential off of the vertical axis. Verticality is not only the dominant orientation of our bodies to the world in our daily lives: as such, it is implicated in any number of other norms that traverse our bodies while they occupy that dimension of space. Verticality also has a strong legacy within the history of Western concert dance, as well as my own training in ballet and modern dance. By emphasizing floorwork in and out of the horizontal plane, we increase the capacity of our bodies to occupy less familiar circumstances, ask parts of our bodies to take on supportive/weight-bearing roles that they may not in daily life—reterritorializing our bodies and their parts to take on new potential functions and meanings—and develop the strength and flexibility necessary to support those horizontal functions. In a developmental movement perspective, horizontality might be seen as a space of potential, the space we occupy before our bodies learned to move and function as they do. By working in that space, it is possible that we access the generative potential for how else our bodies might become.

-Modes of consciousness: Moving in any particular style or dynamic range directly affects how we perceive and how we respond to perceptions. Moving and perceiving are intimately tied to the nervous system, the overall state of the body, and thus to modes of consciousness. In turn, I believe that inasmuch as moving constitutes modes of consciousness, such modes also condition how we move and how we are prepared to move. Sustainment, coordination, balance, imbalance, horizontality, and so on, all generate specific ways of experiencing the body, time, and space, and the terrain of those shifting experiences create various modes of performance.

Alongside these training priorities, I have also developed precise language around my teaching philosophies and pedagogy. As they relate to teaching technique, this includes:

“At the core of my pedagogical approach is the fervent belief that to live in this world is to live fully entangled with others who are invariably different from ourselves, and that to live well in this world of difference requires that we strive to see our world from the perspective of such differences. Sharing this world—and it must indeed be shared—requires striving to see from innumerable points of view, and from such views, working together to create a world that is more livable for more forms of life. I believe that in the university—through our research, in our classrooms, within our distinct disciplines, and between and beyond our disciplinary boundaries—we have the responsibility to inspire and guide our students towards such ethical engagements with a world that emerges from our differences. In whatever courses I teach, I emphasize the importance of engaging and examining perspectives other than our own through the study of critical theories and artistic productions in various media, and through privileging discussion as a practice of listening, distributing authority, and co-creating knowledge. My hope, to quote Judith Butler, is that through these processes of engaging with others we might all ‘become dislocated from our own cultural and historical perspectives only to return to them enriched by an understanding of other lives.’[1] Through such departures and returns, we make the familiar strange, practice seeing from other points of view from which we might recognize even ourselves as more and other than that for which we could previously account. In doing so, we expand the possibilities for who and how we might become, for how we can understand or imagine this world we share, and thus for how we might take action in order to care for our world and the multitude of others with whom we share it.

My experiences teaching physical practice courses—such as yoga, modern dance, ballet, and Butoh—have given me opportunities to develop strategies for facilitating encounters with difference as central to learning. First, in whatever technique I am teaching, I emphasize that each and every body is unique. We all come to study these techniques with different strengths and weaknesses, different backgrounds in training and injury, different proportions, shapes, and sizes. In my teaching, I honor these fundamental differences, emphasizing the kinesthetic and aesthetic principles of each technique and helping students discover how such principles work for their individual bodies rather than imposing singular ideals to which all students must conform.

At another scale, when teaching studio courses, I am introducing students to physical practices that originated in other parts of the world, other historical periods, other ways of thinking, and other systems of value. These techniques have disseminated from body to body—teacher to student, teacher to student—up until the present when students are learning these practices from me. Through these genealogies, these techniques have accumulated rich and complicated histories of aesthetic tendencies, social and cultural conventions, political circumstances, and personal kinesthetic knowledge. In learning any of these techniques, students are encountering this collective of others with whom these practices originated and through which they have been developed, preserved, and passed along. Importantly, this learning takes place in and through their own bodies, which is one of the profound opportunities that studying dance provides: students engage with a collective history of other times, places, and bodies in their own bodies, coming to know this world of others in themselves, and in turn coming to know and develop themselves—their own bodies—through this world of others.

It is not only the origins and histories of these techniques through which difference becomes appreciable: as these techniques become familiar to students, they begin to experience themselves as unfamiliar. Literally, physically, at the levels of muscle development, flexibility, coordination, and cognition, students actualize their own potential, embodying different versions of themselves. As they grow in their abilities, I encourage them to recognize that there is never only one body or self that they always are or will be. I often say in my yoga classes: we are all always already so much more than that for which we can consciously account. Rather than a fixed, static perspective of oneself—or, in turn, of others—these practices offer physical experiences of the mutability and conditionality of who we are. Students can come to appreciate that difference is not only an experience of others but also an experience of who we once were, who we are now, and who we might become. I believe that as students learn to embrace and cultivate such differences within themselves through these physical practices, they are learning to value and appreciate the diversity of others as well and to affirm and contribute to practices in which difference might flourish.”

[1] McGill University, “Judith Butler, DLitt – McGill 2013 Honorary Doctorate Address,” May 31, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFlGS56iOAg.

These were my thoughts going into the studio. Alongside these priorities, other foci have emerged from my work developing phrases. These thoughts/realizations are less verbally articulate, more kinesthetic, but worth attempting to include here:

-Bartenieff Fundamentals and the techniques of José Limón and Doris Humphrey are deeply embedded in my body, and these seem to be the primary methodologies available to me for investigating/pursuing coordination, balance, off-balance, and moving between vertical and horizontal.

-While I never choreograph dances to music/counts anymore, there is something deeply gratifying about figuring out how specific movements translate across different meters and rhythms. Timing, or at least various physical approaches to time, seems to be important to me.

-I have a strong instinct towards simplicity and repetition, as opposed to complex phrases that go on endlessly. This is both an aesthetic value—indicative of my strong inclination towards minimalism—but also a tendency towards an efficient pedagogy: I am interested in carefully training bodies/muscles/thinking to be able to execute particular movements and particular kinds of movement that are then translatable across different choreographies. I do not want technique class to be a repertory experience. [I am indebted to Susan Hadley for this realization.]

-The spine seems to be central to all the movement I create.

-I seem to be extremely interested in the relationship between stability and mobility, specifically: what are the fixed points or parts around which movement orbits? What must remain still or held or placed in order to enable the movement of other parts of the body? How might shifting what parts are fixed and what parts are mobile not only cultivate a greater awareness of the body but also a flexibility/fluidity in how the body’s mutability/conditionality might be perceived?

-The ways in which the limbs move between “parallel” and “rotation” fascinates me. As much as I want to train dancers to have access to mobility and stability in both, I am most interested in how bodies move between these degrees of rotation, and developing control/sensitivity within those transitions.

-As I move around in the studio and imagine teaching this material to a group of students, I am reminded that we are always teaching and learning more than just course/class content. In any class, we are also teaching/training power dynamics, social relations, ideologies about bodies and how we think and talk about them, attentiveness to difference, and so on. Here is where critical pedagogy—from the perspective of bell hooks—always shapes how I am considering what I am teaching. Inasmuch as the body organizes one’s experience of the world, training how we organize the body has the potential to re-invent possibilities for experiencing the world. And inasmuch as teaching and learning are social experiences, as in the dance studio, whatever else we are training, we are always teaching ways of approaching others, modeling modes of sociality in how we teach.

These are still mostly starting points. I’ve developed a full class of phrase work that trains these various priorities (I think), but I will be continuing to investigate both the material I’ve developed and what other ways of moving can accomplish my pedagogical interests.

processes of self
17 January, 2015, 9:22 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

Several weeks ago, I attended a vigil in memory of Leelah Alcorn, a young trans woman who committed suicide in Ohio at the end of December 2014. The vigil was intended to do lots of things—as vigils usually are—but the intention that resonated most with me was to “show society that one life matters,” precisely when that life and others like her are so often made to not matter and rendered ungrievable in our society. I am grateful to those who organized the vigil and the many, many people who showed up to stand together in the cold, in the dark, to light candles and demonstrate that the suicide of a teenage trans woman in our state deserves our attention.

However, I left the vigil frustrated and conflicted about a lot of the language that was being used to discuss Alcorn, trans lives, and even personhood, as well as many of the narrative assumptions that were embedded in the language. Particularly frustrating to me was the reliance on what I will describe as “cliche,” “slogan,” or “meme” vocabularies for articulating collective outrage and grief—phrases like “not one more” or “she was only seventeen” or “trans lives matter” or even “you matter.” I am convinced that relying on familiar, widely-circulated, recognizable tropes like these has more to do with soliciting emotional response—invoking the collective recurrence and thus immense force of words that we’ve seen other places, in connection to other tragedies and other strong feelings—than actually facing the present situation or carefully articulating productive thinking about what has happened or what we might now do. Defaulting to cliches or slogans or memes or tropes, while charged with emotional force, may in fact be abdicating responsibility to think and speak critically about the circumstances we face, the world in which we are living, that we are making together.

Even more unnerving than the prevalence of these familiar tropes around social activism were the implicit and explicit narratives of “self” that were embedded in many of the comments made by speakers at the vigil. Speakers talked about how Leelah was never allowed to be “who she really was,” never able to share “her true self,” and the need to create a society in which people can be “who they really are.” These stories about “true selves” and “real selves” are familiar language in modern society (for all kinds of reasons that I won’t articulate here), particularly around trans and queer people. This is the “coming out” narrative, the story that we tell in which there is a story that we must tell: the story of who we really are. And in telling who we really are, we might finally be who we “really are.”

I think there’s a danger to these narratives. The words we use and the stories we tell always carry (or create) investments—ideological investments, political investments, personal and social investments, etc. Donna Haraway says, “It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with … It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” When we tell stories about those who have lived and died, when we narrate our communities and our selves, with tales of selves that are “real” or “true,” I think we install and invest in an impossible ideal: the realization of a self who will finally be complete, recognized as true. The implication here, I think, is that the self is a (relatively) stable entity, a self that you are—perhaps even that you always have been—that is then gradually uncovered, revealed, made visible. The story is that each of us are on a journey of discovering who we “really are” and then sharing that “true self” with others.

I do not believe in this narrative of self.
I am suspicious of any story of the self that implies singularity, stability, self-identicality (not changing over time), or a more robust “reality.” My experience of the self—informed by both my lived experiences and a lot of philosophy that I will not explicate here, but which includes the writing of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and a great deal of psychoanalytic writing—is that the self is always an ongoing process, a creative duration that is always in-the-making, that is never entirely in our control or even within our conscious awareness. There is no single starting point or end point for the self, and no singular self that can be called more “real.” I am afraid that when we express our grief and, worse, our political investments for a better world in this language of a “real” or “true self,” we perpetuate the possibility of suffering, in which teenage girls or anyone else feel as if their “real self” will never be seen or understood, in which what it means to be a person is ascribed a possible conclusion in which the self that is most real is finally disclosed and actualized—a conclusion I am sure that none of us ever fully reach. If it matters what stories we use to tell stories with, as Haraway says, then it makes a difference what kinds of stories we use to narrate our own histories and possibilities of self. I believe the world would be different, for young trans people, for queer people, really for all people, if, rather than continuing to tell stories about a “real” or “true self,” we told stories about our selves (plural) as creative processes, and called for a world not in which people are free to “be who they really are,” but free to create who they are becoming.

And yet, in the wake of these convictions regarding shifting the language with which we articulate our grief and political desires, I am left wondering: what it is we mean by “real” and “true” in relation to the self? If I believe that there is no such entity, at least not in any singularity or persistence, to what then do these terms refer? It seems simple enough to say that by “real self” and “true self,” we are referring to the feeling of a self that is real, or the feeling of a self that is true.
What then is the situation of the self that registers itself as more “real” or “true”? Here I can speak only from personal experience, and from what I’ve deduced from other people’s discussions of their own experiences. I think the feeling of “being true to yourself” or “who you really are” or even “being authentic” is attesting to a sense of cohesion and consistency, a sense of self that is not turned against itself or undercutting itself. A sense of self with higher degrees of unison or resolution between its parts.

When I think back to my adolescent years as a queer kid living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, aware that I had [queer] sexual desires that I could not name or act out, fully devoted to the Christianity I had been taught, and in turn full of sadness, self-loathing, and even rage that what I felt and what I believed seemed positioned in irrevocable conflict: I did not feel like I could be who I “really was.” I felt my self turned against my self, a rupture that was replicated in my surroundings, the difference between who others knew me to be and the inner turmoil which I then experienced as “myself.” I wanted to be “true to who I was,” to share my “authentic self,” I longed to “come out,” to tell someone who I “really was,” because these were the narratives I had available for understanding my closeted queer experience.
But now I think I see that who I was then was no less real; that turmoil and self-loathing and rage and inner conflict was a “true” experience of myself, who I “really was.” There was no other actual self other than that self that I actually was; whatever the virtual potentials for who I might become, that me that I was was the real me.
And yet there came an experience of a self that felt somehow more true, more real, as I began to come to terms with my sexuality, and to share my own perceptions of myself with others. This is an experience that has continued throughout my adult life, in relation to sexuality, gender, beliefs, perspectives, and so on. That feeling that we call “real” or “true” is perhaps more about a sense of cohesion and consistency, where one’s various parts—both personal and social—align with or even support each other, rather than conflict or undermine each other. The more I resolve my various parts, and the more I resolve my perception of myself with my presentation of myself to others, the more self-actualized I feel. What I think I am trying to articulate is that this has not been a process of discovering and uncovering who I “always have been” or a “real me.” I very much was that young Christian kid, that closeted teenager without language or an escape route for my desires or gender dissension, that young gay dancer in Jackson, Mississippi, that queer grad student in Columbus, Ohio, that genderqueer PhD candidate, and so on. All of those selves were fully real, realized, and true; to narrate them otherwise would be to attempt to disavow the past, a past which not only will always be a part of me, but which comprises the foundation of who I have become. To narrate those selves as less “real” would then be actually to maintain a division, an inner conflict—between the “real self I am now” and “the old self who was not really me.”
The more interesting story—the narrative that I would like to perpetuate—is that who I am, my self, has been an ongoing creative process, continuing to craft who I am becoming in relation to who I have been and how I feel about who I am. There is no end point when I will have arrived, finally fully myself. I am already fully myself, and the self is already in motion; it has never not been true, it has always been real.

But that doesn’t seem to fully address the issue of feeling. One’s feeling about oneself. What shapes what does or does not feel resolved or resolvable? What creates frictions between my different parts, and what are the conditions that facilitate those parts coming into alignment, harmony, or degrees of unison and support? I am here thinking particularly of Leelah Alcorn and many other trans lives that are narrated with the language of who a person really is, being in “the wrong body,” or the conflict between one’s body and who they “really are.” I am certain that there are innumerable variations as to how and why a person comes to experience this degree of alienation between various parts of themselves, and I can’t speculate as to that range of possibilities here. What I do feel prepared to write is that I believe that feelings have histories that are personal, material, cultural, chemical, even evolutionary. There is a self who experiences itself through such feelings, and who then continues to create—in ways one does and does not control—the self in relation to those feelings, in relation to that history of how such feelings came to be. Such feelings and such selves are real and true all along the way, and I am extremely cautious of positing a self—presumably immaterial—who somehow precedes the experience of oneself. I am cautious of stories of a “real self” that precedes the experience of the self, to whom one then tries to be “true.” Rather, I am interested in giving people the agency to create a self with whom they can live, as whom they can thrive, addressing the frictions and misalignments and inner conflicts—whatever their histories, wherever they came from—in the formation of who they are becoming. This is true of trans people who adjust their gender presentations and sometimes their bodies to correspond with how they perceive themselves, but this is true of all of us in various degrees and in various ways: we are all in the process of creating bodies and lives that we want to live. I don’t make this generalization to diminish the unique circumstances of trans identity; rather, I do so in order to de-exoticize how it means to be trans, and to contextualize our many, multi-faceted, ongoing processes of creating our selves in relation to being/becoming trans, in order to narrate all of our lives differently.

I’m thinking a lot about how we might insist on including and accepting all of the past versions of ourselves as part of who we are, resisting the inclination to say, “That wasn’t really me,” or, “I wasn’t being true to myself,” and in doing so, editing, omitting, eliding, or disavowing who we have been. I think I will save this for another piece of writing, and for now merely reference both Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” and Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” as influential to my thinking. Stone and Stryker are both trans women and forerunners in the field of Transgender Studies, and both write very critically about the necessity of avowing one’s own history, about the problems with “passing,” and about insisting on more complex and nuanced accounts of the self than can be articulated within existing normative terms.

My last thoughts are about the problems with feelings and their histories. Lately I have been suspicious of “good feelings,” specifically the cultural apparatuses and histories through which we are conditioned to feel good. [I should say: this turn towards being critical of good feelings is not intended to reflect on or address transgender experiences per se. I support people feeling good about who they are and who they are becoming, especially trans people. This is a more general speculation.] This is partially in response to the vigil for Leelah Alcorn and partially in reflection of the good feelings that we recognize as a self that is resolved, without internal conflict, consistent and cohesive—in reflection on why which versions of oneself feel the ways they do.

At the vigil for Alcorn, I was really frustrated by the number of times people speaking to those gathered described what we were doing as something that “feels good.” “It feels good to do something,” “it feels so good to see so many of you here,” “don’t you feel better being out here together?” and so on. I did not feel better, and I was not attending a vigil to make myself feel better. In fact, I want to question both the desire to feel better and the good feelings we get from those kinds of actions. [I’m thinking here of both Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism here.] Might there be something insidious about pursuing public grieving as a mechanism for pleasuring oneself? In what are we investing ourselves and our feelings in order for a vigil for a trans woman who committed suicide to be a way to “make ourselves feel better”? How did this become about making ourselves feel better? To be clear, I’m not saying that we should throw ourselves into a pit of despair or lose ourselves in our grief, and I do think that finding ways to celebrate in grief is how we continue to go on living; however, I am asking that we be more critical of what “feels good” and why and how we are engineering those good feelings.

More broadly, I am interested in being more critical of how or why certain things “feel good,” or feel bad, and how we allow such feelings to shape our actions and our selves.
For instance, I might feel good when I look in the mirror and see myself as “skinnier than usual.” However, this is a “good feeling” that comes from a complex cultural apparatus that has conditioned me to believe that skinnier people are more beautiful, more valuable, and more lovable. For me to then act on this “good feeling,” to pursue it or shape myself in relation to it, will ultimately not only result in my own detriment, but will participate in the reproduction of this cultural apparatus that values bodies differentially based on size.
Similarly, there was a time—given the pervasive systemic racism in our country and the ways in which I had been conditioned by it—that I would have been uncomfortable in a context that was not predominantly populated by white people. If we recognize discomfort as a “bad feeling,” and if the version of self-actualization that I narrated above involves the resolution of different parts of oneself in ways that reduce friction and inner conflict, then the lesson of these “bad feelings” could have been, “I don’t like being a racial minority, I like being in the company of mostly white people; it’s just who I am.” However, in this case, the “bad feelings”—so obviously a result of racist socio-cultural conditioning—were actually an opportunity to stay with discomfort, to pursue settings in which I experienced more of these “bad feelings,” in order to un-learn the implicit racism by which they were being produced.

In the ongoing creative process of the self, we must remain critical of how and why we feel “good” or “bad.” Our feelings are not always transparent or forthcoming about their origins; we do not always know why we feel what we feel. Within that ambiguity, it is important to remember: “good feelings” are not automatically pathways to a more actualized, consistent, cohesive self, and “bad feelings” are not always a threat to becoming “who we really are.” As I reconsider these familiar terms of “real” or “true” as particular constellations of feelings in relation to the various parts of oneself-in-the-making, I need to also advocate for critical interrogation of why things feel the way they do: if something has felt true, why? What is the history, the culture, or the background of that feeling? If something feels good, are these social mechanisms that reward me for feeling that way, and are those mechanisms that I want to be a part of? If something feels bad, is it because I am accustomed to particular norms, and I am experiencing something outside of that normative comfort zone? Most importantly, is it possible that feeling the way I do plays into the reproduction of a culture that devalues, oppresses, or erases others, and how might I interrogate those feelings and the apparatuses in which they are complicit?
We may not be able to control or change what we feel, but I am convinced that risking critical consideration of ones own feelings is one way to give oneself the opportunity to learn to feel differently, particularly when those feelings are at their roots invested in systems that enforce the suffering of oneself or others.

This is by no means an exhaustive examination of “the self,” but it is the start of several ideas that have been simmering for a few weeks.


Leelah Alcorn, grief, and rage
31 December, 2014, 12:32 am
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , , , ,


If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.

Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.

When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.

I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.

So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.

At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. I was excited, I finally had my friends back. They were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first. Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a shit about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before. The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.

After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.

That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.

(Leelah) Josh Alcorn”

Leelah Alcorn, 1997-2014

This was the note left by Leelah Alcorn who died on Sunday, December 28, 2014. She was killed on a highway in Warren County, Ohio, after walking in front of a tractor trailer.
I did not know Leelah, and I realize that there are always complexities to public displays of grief, especially when expressing grief for the loss of someone that one did not know. But I feel compelled to write, to acknowledge this loss, to grieve this death, as an intentional act to move towards a world in which the deaths and lives of trans people matter, specifically when, far too often in our world as it is, they do not. Lives that are not or cannot be grieved when they are lost cannot be valued while they live.
I want to be careful to not transfigure Leelah into a symbol, an icon for trans lives or for all trans* or gender-nonconforming people. To do so would be to perform a different kind of erasure. That is why I wanted to begin with Leelah’s words, Leelah’s voice. I want to grieve the loss of this person.

And: I am angry. I feel rage. I feel exhausted by the thoughtlessness of the world, and I am furious that Leelah and people like Leelah continue to struggle to live and sometimes die in a world that refuses to see or hear them, recognize them, love and care for them. She writes, “The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender.” She writes that she learned to hate herself from her parents and from Christian “therapists.” She writes that her parents made her feel like an attack, an embarrassment, a disappointment. She writes that people didn’t give a shit about her. She writes that she will never “transition successfully,” that she will never be happy, never be loved, that she would only ever be lonely.
I am enraged that this is the world in which Leelah lived. I am horrified by her parents, and by people claiming to work in the field of mental health who treated her the way they did.
But my anger and frustration opens onto a world of social practices more broadly, the norms and behaviors that enable and produce this kind of living and dying.
What does it mean for any of us to grieve this loss while also perpetuating narrow definitions of gender, sex, and desire?
What does it mean to write posts on Facebook and twitter and tumblr and wordpress about this being tragic, this having to stop, insisting that #TransLivesMatter?
How are trans lives to matter when how we continue to define women and men—at structural, institutional, and personal scales—excludes the lives and bodies of many trans people?
How are trans lives to matter when how we continue to define and practice our sexualities operates along rigid and narrow gender binaries—heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual?
How are trans lives to matter when how we define ourselves and our desires often forecloses the possibility of loving trans people from the start—if there are only women who love women, men who love men, or women and men who love each other, where “women” and “men” are narrowly defined?
What does it mean to “matter” if there seems to be no possibility of being loved, or being cared for, or being desired?
How are trans lives to matter when the inflexibility of our (English) language persistently asserts only two possibilities with which to recognize and name subjects?
What does it mean to “matter” if you are unspeakable or remain unspoken, if you feel unlovable and remain unloved, if you feel unrecognizable and remain unrecognized, if you feel undesirable and remain undesired?
And what does it mean to be an “ally” who does not critically interrogate their own assumptions about gender—the genders of others and one’s own gender?
What does it mean to be an “ally” who does not critically examine one’s own language?
What does it mean to be an “ally” who does not question and deconstruct the normative apparatus of one’s own desires?
What does it mean to say that trans people should be loved and cared for and celebrated and desired and recognized while abdicating oneself from loving or caring or celebrating or desiring or recognizing?

In August, I wrote a post about appearance and how we construct social spaces in which others can appear. I continue to believe that the only way for lives to matter is through the practices and behaviors through which a society of others extend recognition. What does it mean to be recognized? To feel visible, to feel viable, to feel that there are others who will meet the needs that one cannot meet for oneself, to feel desired, to feel loved.
And for lives that do not feel recognized in these ways, who do not feel like there is a place for them in this world, who do not feel that they matter, the only way that they can come to matter will be to change the practices and behaviors through which we extend recognition, not only in loss, in death and grieving, but in life, in living, in loving.

Leelah wrote, “Fix Society. Please.”

To those ends, a few suggestions, for myself and for others:
Question the certainty of your own gender, where it comes from, and why you believe it to be yourself.
Engage the possibility that all genders are processes and approximations that never fully account for all that a person is or might become.
Let the world—others and yourself—change; if we all accept that we are all transitioning in any number of ways, we might be more accepting and caring towards people who are trans*.
Be willing to experiment with language, to alter your own habits in order to create a space in language for others for whom there have not been words.
Let your desire be experimental; do not assume you know who you might love or what you might desire.
Do not assume that how you practice your own gender, language, or desire is innocent; be willing to challenge what has felt true if doing so would allow for more livability for others.
Grieve losses that might not otherwise be grieved.
Be caring, thoughtful, and loving, even if you do not understand (advice from Justin Vivian Bond.)
Do not assume you understand, and still be caring, thoughtful, and loving.

fragments: a cartography of moments on a gender terrain

A few weeks ago, on November 19th, I shared a piece of writing at an event called Tea Time: A Queer Storytelling Event co-sponsored by Queer Behavior, the OSU Office of Student Life’s Counseling and Consultation Services, and the OSU Office of Student Life’ Multicultural Center. It was a really lovely event, full of people sharing stories about their own experiences with gender—often as it related to family, sexuality, religion, intimacy, and so on. Since then, several people who were not at the event have asked if I could share the story I read, and a few people who heard it have said that they would like to read it again. I’ve been hesitant to post the writing itself; I wanted to honor the fact that it was an oral storytelling event, an oral performance. So I finally sat down and recorded it. You can hear the story, entitled “Fragments: A Cartography of Moments on a Gender Terrain,” here: 


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