michael j. morris


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 offer 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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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).