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Notes on Dance
I don’t really know anything about dance, but ignorance never stopped me before, so here goes.
By “dance” I mean what we usually mean, both the high-art spectacle and the participatory pastime, both ballet and quadrilles. But I also mean any cultural practice that involves some kind of choreography, which would in a broad sense include what in theater is called “blocking”, and really any ceremonial or ritual motion of the body or its prostheses that achieves what Gregory Bateson calls “metacommunication”: representation deeper than, or antecedent to, language. Funeral processions, Guignol puppet-shows, kayfabe wrestling, Crip Walking, a conga line at a wedding: oh man, it’s all just so good!
This essay is also going to be yet another iteration of the one I keep writing over and over again, the one that asks: Where did the avant-garde go?
What is the connection to dance? There are many ways to characterize the avant-garde, but one plausible account is that it was an artistic tradition centrally preoccupied with churning up representations from the parts of ourselves that likewise lie deeper than language: dreams, the unconscious, the free play of the imagination.
Of course, the avant-garde did not always exist, and there is no reason why we should have supposed it to be eternal. I would date its birth to the debut performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in Paris in 1896, and its death to 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration in the United States. I’ve spent considerable time, in the wake of my September Harper’s article, on the radio and podcast circuit talking about all the tell-tale signs of the great shift that occurred in the first three years of the Reagan decade, which we might track by citing Bowie’s fairly compelling neo-Weimar swan-song “Ashes to Ashes” of 1980 at the one end of the shift, and his corny and advertisement-like “Let’s Dance” of 1983 at the other. You can choose other examples if you like. I would have much to say here about the rise of yacht rock and the triumph of high production values over transgression and the expression of raw emotion, a process that left us several most peculiar transitional fossils — notably Steely Dan, a musical endeavor that surely shows us the shortest path of motion from William S. Burroughs to Christopher Cross, from the weird to the nauseatingly smooth. This is the motion from heroin to Prozac: the final, successful redomestication of modernity’s feralized souls. (I myself am on prescription anxiolytics, by the way.)
But anyhow on the whole I think it’s clear enough that the 1970s were the moment of the last great efflorescence of a spirit of artistic endeavor that was born at the end of the nineteenth century, in the wake of rapid urbanization and industrialization, and that was stoked again in the mid-twentieth century by the atomic bomb and by the self-immolation of the European continent. That spirit, if we follow Antonin Artaud’s familiar line, is one that seeks to deploy art to jolt those who experience it out of their complacency with the ordinary everyday “givens” of modern life by awakening elements of our unconscious life that modernity has always, to say the least, had trouble accommodating. Since the 1980s, by contrast, and in a more accelerated way since around 2015, art has come to be created and consumed almost exclusively as a mechanism of norm-enforcement. This is what I have come to think of as the neoliberal variant of socialist realism.
One notable effect of this new variant has been the instauration of an astounding and near-universal philistinism, which makes it nearly impossible to broach this topic if one is not well-braced to be met by incredulous stares. Sticking with this theme as one of my hobby-horses practically ensures that my Substack subscriptions will continue to stagnate (prove me wrong!), unlike, say, if I were to choose to write about NIMBY-ism or the Swiftie effect. For the most part, unlike in Moscow in the 1930s, there is a general absence of awareness of what has been lost. The avant-garde has been effectively memory-holed, and if you try to point this out your contemporaries will point to various avant-garde-themed commercial products, which bear roughly the same relationship to the avant-garde as a 1959 Nancy comic riffing on abstract expressionism bears to the butt of its riff (I myself love Ernie Bushmiller, by the way), and will insist that these phantom apparitions are proof that the tradition in question is still alive and well.
We know, at least, where some of the last surviving remnants of the avant-garde are. I was recently having lunch with a friend visiting in Paris who had done an artist residency not long before at the Watermill Center, a Long Island retreat run by Robert Wilson, the legendary experimental-theater director and playwright, now eighty-two years old. My friend had the occasion to talk at some length with Wilson himself. He told me of how the old man, now somewhat stooped but still towering, engaged him in conversation about a Balinese ritual for the communal processing of the deaths of infants. It involves a procession with women puppets, with sponges in their eye-sockets that can be mechanically pressed down during the procession in order to squeeze out tears. My friend told me that at some point in Wilson’s description the old master himself went into full theatrical mode, and momentarily became, there on Long Island, a member of a Balinese procession, and let out a piercing ritual shriek just the way the Balinese women do. My friend did a somewhat muted imitation, suited to our genteel surroundings. I was in a restaurant in the Marais, listening to my friend tell me about Robert Wilson telling him about women in Bali who ritually process the grief of a baby’s death, and I swear to you, at that moment all the grief in the world was channeled directly into me. All the grief, and all the wonder at the mystery and power of art.
This mystery, and this power, are not what I experienced when, age twelve or so, I signed up for some musical-theater classes at Sacramento’s Broadway Academy, and learned to perform such moves as jazz-hands. For two years or so, before moving on to far cooler things, I was surrounded by the symbols of that strange world imagined into existence by Bob Fosse and others of his wavelength, of fishnet stockings, top hats, bow-ties on bare necks, piano-keyboard and glittering music-note motifs on backdrops — a world so artificial and arbitrary that even Chicago (!) can be represented as a bastion of never-ending sensual delight. What the hell was all that? In my memory now it seems like part of a particularly perverse dream. Broadway musicals circa 1985 would indeed have been radically avant-garde, were they not meant to be consumed, en masse and on the level, by a public that does not want its unconscious depths to be churned, but is perfectly happy with a little “razzle-dazzle”.
That early exposure caused me for a very long time to believe that I “don’t like dance”. What a dumb belief!
There is a video I watch every now and then on YouTube (the part that most moves me starts at around 1:12 and goes to around 1:55) when I need to remind myself what artistic representation, as in re-presentation, is all about. It features a procession of Cameroonian Baka dancers who are ritually “dancing out” the experience of hunting. There is nothing particularly distinctive about this bit of culture — we could easily find similar dances on every inhabited continent, including considerable portions of rural Europe. But this is the one the algorithm sent me (when I was thirsty for more clips of Baka polyphonic singing), and its line-dance is the one that keeps replaying in my imagination as I go about my day.
What is this dimension of human existence, that compels us to do over, symbolically, all those things that we have no choice but to do? Not just to hunt, but also to dance the hunt? Or, to use A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s vivid example from the Andaman Islands, not just to make war, but subsequently to make peace through a ceremony that ritualistically duplicates, without casualties, the motions of battle? What continuities with the natural world underlie these representational echoes? I’m reminded of an observation from Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory (1951, 1966). Throughout his life, Nabokov stubbornly refused to accepted Darwinian evolution. He insisted that the resemblances that emerge in nature, as for example between sticks and stick insects, can only be explained by what he called “mimetic exuberance”.
I won’t join him on the entomological point — I suppose I am too much a Darwinian. Though I would note in passing that I think Nabokov could have made his own peace with evolutionary theory in a way that would have permitted him to retain this beautiful phrase, if only he had read Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) and appreciated that we are simply constrained to apprehend nature through the lens of purposiveness, even if this does not license us to attribute concrete purposes to its workings. But anyhow this is the phrase that comes to mind when I witness ceremonial replays of human collective endeavor, such as the Cameroonian hunting dance. Human life is just so intense that it can’t help but stir up echoes of itself. We call those echoes “art”, but this term marks out an anthropologically distinct, and likely unusual, ontological commitment to a nature-culture divide that all human societies by no means share. A more basic and universal account of what is going on might be suggested in the notion of exuberance.
Under our prevailing neoliberal-realist order, my appreciation for Baka hunter-dancers, like André Breton’s fondness for African masks, will no doubt be dismissed or denounced as “primitivism”. But if this term simply designates an effort, under capitalism, to recover forms of representational exuberance in human history and prehistory that were not subject to market forces, then so much the better for primitivism! Call them what you will, the art-forms Breton designated as “primitive” are just as cool as it gets. Attending to them is essential for understanding the range of human experience, especially those dimensions of experience that lie deeper than language; especially those dimensions of experience that might enable us to mount a last human stand against marketization and “attention-fracking”, which is the latest and most powerful weapon by which algorithms process taste and sensibility into data.
What I mean by “exuberance” is something close to what Bateson calls “metacommunication”, which if he is correct is something we see at least across the class of mammals. If Eduardo Kohn is correct, we even see something like metacommunication, which he accounts for in terms of the Peircean theory of the non-symbolic exchange of icons and indices, distributed everywhere across the canopy of the rainforest. Bateson’s own preferred analytic category is not dance, but “play”, which, at least sometimes, at least among mammals, like the peace ceremonies of the Andaman Islanders, has the curious property of reduplicating combat, but without casualties. In order for adolescent male mammals to engage in play-fighting, they must have some sort of capacity for mental representation, though not linguistic representation, by which each communicates to the other that this thing they are currently doing is like that other thing they sometimes also do, but not identical to it. Such representation is also plainly what is happening in avian mating dances, or in human waltzes.
One rigid Darwinian explanation of what is happening, of the sort that made Nabokov so defiant, is that the non-human mammals and birds are “training” for the real thing (fighting, sex), while only humans are both training and acting out what they are training for on the plane of representation. But a more capacious account of what is going on, one that can include the fighting-like and sex-like behavior of mammals and birds as well as what is among human beings called “art”, might be suggested by the notion of exuberance. Living beings are just so exuberant, the things they have to do to survive (fighting, sex) are just so intense, and shape what they are so profoundly, that they just can’t help but reduplicate them praeter necessitatem. That is perhaps the signature difference that marks the living world —or perhaps more broadly speaking the cybernetic world, of both living and artificial feedback systems— off from the physical world: we living beings just refuse to settle with the most parsimonious pathways. Yet even in the physical world, with Leibniz I suspect we may just not be looking carefully enough.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a few decades before Ubu Roi, Richard Wagner aspired to realize a “total work of art” with his revolutionized (and “de-Judaized”) conception of opera, and in doing so imagined that he was returning to some sort of primordial unity of artistic expression. This was a strange aspiration, given that the real fragmentation of art was the one that separated performers and audience, and this is a separation that had only recently been effected, and one that Wagner himself did not, with his grand productions at Bayreuth, make any effort to reconcile.
An instructive case is presented by the history of ballet. For much of its early life, from the Renaissance into the eighteenth century, ballet was a courtly art, perhaps best seen as a ritual that symbolically epitomized and reinforced royal power. Somewhere behind Louis XIV’s moniker of “Sun King” was surely the idea that France’s absolute monarchs, like Japan’s emperors, were descended from the Sun. But the more proximate explanation is that the king was himself cast in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Ballet royal de la Nuit (1653) in the role of that celestial body. It is not that King Louis had any particular talent for dancing, but only that as a matter of course every member of the court, up to and including the sovereign, had a part to play in the royal ballet. The ritual movements of the bodies of the king and his courtiers rippled out, and gave shape and meaning to the idea of the state. Every king is a mock king, of course, from Louis XIV down to the lowest pimp, but there’s nothing like a little dance to make that mockery appear as a thing of real glory.
If a head of state today were to be featured in a dance spectacle as the Sun, that head of state would surely be someone like Turkmenistan’s recently deceased Türkmenbaşy —who renamed a day of the week after his mom, and replaced departments of philosophy with departments of Türkmenbaşy studies—, or some such other goon in a context where the administration of a modern state is at best a mere outer shell within which big-man anthropology just keeps doing its thing.
Trump kind of looks like the Sun, now that I think about it, flaming, big, round, and orange, and his signature little dance moves at campaign rallies might in fact testify to the survival of something like the ballet du Roi-Soleil down to the present day. Yet the fact that Trump’s moves are improvised and instinctive, whereas Louis XIV’s moves were formalized and ritualistic, says much about the present moment, and the sloppy and inadequate ways modern liberal democracy has managed, or neglected to manage, the chaos that runs like a current through all of human life. Ritual, which in our modern conceit we imagined we no longer needed, both exuberantly expresses that chaos (of fucking, of killing), and, at the same time, channels and contains it.
For the moment, it seems, only the political right knows how to tap into its exuberance, while the left is busy seeking out new things to prohibit. Emma Goldman’s line about not wanting to be part of the revolution if she can’t dance is often dismissed as a rare slip into sentimentality on her part, and is certainly over-cited on bumper-stickers and social-media profile-banners. But it seems to me her real concern is about who is going to take political responsibility for exuberance. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, and I don’t want to “celebrate violence” in any straightforward way. But I do think it’s a very bad idea to cede all attention to the roilings of the human unconscious, and all control over how it gets expressed at the social level, to those whose political will is actually, literally, focused upon harming the weak.
Emma Goldman was right: there can be no successful revolution that doesn’t find a place for “dancing”, which we can understand broadly here as the ritualized bodily expression of those exuberant dimensions of human existence that cannot ever be entirely accommodated within the sort of modern utopia a revolution is supposed to be trying to bring about. But to this we can add a corollary: you know things are really bad politically when the only dancing statesmen who come to mind are the grubbiest and most absolutely psychotic of warlords, who can typically make no distinction between their wildest phantasms and the most suitable course of real-world action.
Bring back the royal ballets, I say, if only to temper all our mock kings’ passions!
Sometimes I catch a vision of myself, as I am drifting off to sleep, living a life I did not end up living, but easily could have if the pachinko balls of my fate had hit a different sequence of pegs on their way down. In that life I am inarticulate; I still don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s”, let alone French. I am at some sort of line-dancing night at, let us say, the Country Comfort Lounge on the outskirts of Sacramento.
Perhaps I have a moustache, and a pair of Justin-brand boots. The details are fuzzy, but what is clear is that I am fully alive, beyond any sense of that term that my actual life’s big gamble on language has been able to deliver.
My friend and ESTAR(SER) collaborator D. Graham Burnett and I did an event together at the American Library in Paris on October 19, on attention-fracking and related matters, moderated by Russell Williams and hosted by Emilie Biggs. The video of it is on YouTube now. We got a very combative question from the audience (around 49:30) on why we were not instead talking about Hamas, etc., which made for a pretty lively discussion. Several people subsequently asked me whether she was planted there by us. No, she was not.
I was on Spencer Greenberg’s Clearer Thinking podcast. He seems to be some kind of tech-optimist, and my impression was that it was a bit of a dialogue des sourds — but all the better, as I suppose, again, it was a lively discussion.
My friend Seb Emina, founder of the London Review of Breakfasts, has launched a new art-radio project, Five Radio Stations, using algorithms to generate a non-stop stream of reports of extremely small-scale events from around the world. I find it’s quite hypnotic, and comforting.
For reasons I do not fully understand, while my total readership keeps growing, my paid readership is more like the demographics of Japan: births (i.e., new subscriptions) are not keeping up with deaths (expired subscriptions) at replacement levels. I think circa 2020-21 there was a wave of people who were excited about this new opportunity to be separated from their money, but soon enough, as is the natural course of things, most figured out that there is no rational reason to pay for what is anyhow being given away for free.
I will continue to keep most of my work freely accessible. But I sure would be grateful for your subscription, if you enjoy reading me and are in a position to subscribe. I also have books to write, and a sweetheart to spend Sundays with, all endimanchés and happy, perhaps in front of a painting in one of our city’s many fine museums of art. Perhaps, one of these days, when we’re feeling really carefree, we’ll go out dancing. It’s been a long, long time.