The Human Situation on Stage: Merce Cunningham, Theodor Adorno, and the Category of Expression Carrie Noland Dance Research Journal, Volume 42, Number 1, Summer 2010, pp. 46-60 (Article) Published by University of Illinois Press DOI: 10. 1353/drj. 0. 0063 For additional information about this article http://muse. jhu. edu/journals/drj/summary/v042/42. 1. noland. html Access Provided by University of Manchester at 07/08/10 10:18PM GMT Photo 1. Merce Cunningham in his Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1952).
Photographer: Gerda Peterich. 46 Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 The Human Situation on Stage: Merce Cunningham, Theodor Adorno, and the Category of Expression Carrie Noland here is expression in Cunningham’s choreography? Are the moving bodies on stage expressive? If so, what are they expressing and how does such expression occur? Several of the finest theorists of dance—among them, Susan Leigh Foster, Mark Franko, and Dee Reynolds—have already approached the question of expressivity in the work of Merce Cunningham.
Acknowledging the formalism and astringency of his choreography, they nonetheless insist that expression does indeed take place. Foster locates expression in the “affective significance” as opposed to the “emotional experience” of movement (1986, 38); Franko finds it in an “energy source . . . more fundamental than emotion, while just as differentiated” (1995, 80); and Reynolds identifies expression in the dancing subject’s sensorimotor “faculties” as they are deployed “fully in the present” (2007, 169). Cunningham himself has defined expression in dance as an intrinsic and inevitable quality of movement, indicating that his search to capture, isolate, and frame this quality is central to his choreographic process. 2 As a critical theorist (rather than a dance historian), I am interested in expression as a more general, or cross-media, category and therefore find the efforts by Cunningham and his critics to define expression differently, to free it from its subservience to the psyche, refreshing, unconventional, and suggestive.
I have become increasingly convinced that Cunningham’s practical and theoretical interventions can illuminate more traditional literary and philosophical discourses on the aesthetics of expression and that they have particular resonance when juxtaposed with the approach to expression developed by Theodor Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory of 1970.
Similar to Cunningham, Adorno complicates the category of “expression” by shifting its location from Carrie Noland is the author of Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology (Princeton University Press, 1999) and Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture (Harvard University Press, 2009). Her taste for interdisciplinary work has resulted in two collaborative ventures: Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement (Palgrave, 2009), co-edited with Language poet Barrett Watten, and Migrations of Gesture (Minnesota University Press, 2008), co-edited with Sally Ann Ness.
She teaches French and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, and is an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Anthropology, a fellow of the Critical Theory Institute, and director of Humanities-Arts, an interdisciplinary undergraduate major combining the practice and analysis of art. Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 47 W subjectivity, understood primarily as a psychic phenomenon, to embodiment, understood as a function of locomotion and sensual existence (in Franko’s words, “something more fundamental than emotion, while just as differentiated” [1995, 80]).
Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, at once rough around the edges and sparkling with insights, is arguably the most important book on aesthetics since Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1835), the two works that serve as Adorno’s point of departure. The German-born musician and philosopher advances along the lines established by Kant and Hegel, but he consistently raises questions about art’s function in society. Adorno belonged to a group of early to mid-twentieth-century philosophers who submitted the classical Enlightenment tradition to Marxist critique.
Along with Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Georg Lukacs, and Bertolt Brecht, Adorno entertained suspicions with regard to the notion of subjective expression; he wondered if the artistic languages identified as “expressive” hadn’t become conventionalized to the point where it was necessary to break them down, subject them to permutation, distortion, or “dissonance” by means of practices he associated with the category of “construction” (Adorno 1970/1997, 40–44 and 156).
Traditionally, “expression,” he argued, presupposed a self-identical subject to be expressed; but if the subject were in fact a reification of something far more volatile, responsive, and delicate, if the subject were, as he put it, something closer to the “shudder” of “consciousness,” then the nature of “expression” in artworks would have to be rethought (331).
It is not my intention in this essay to conduct a full analysis of Adorno’s theory of expression, nor do I intend to “apply” Adorno to Cunningham, thereby implying that one is more theoretically sophisticated than the other. Instead, I want to initiate a dynamic engagement between the two in an attempt to discern and highlight what I believe to be an incipient theory of expression that is embedded in Cunningham’s practice and that secretly informs Adorno’s account of modernist aesthetics as well.
The theory of expression I am referring to is one that is not fully articulated in Adorno’s aesthetics. However, implicit in his debate with the Kantian tradition is an incipient theory of art’s engagement with the sensorium; focusing on art’s attention to and dialogue with the sensory and motor body produces an aesthetics arguably in conflict with the traditional aesthetics of disinterested beauty or the cerebral sublime.
This new theory of the aesthetic as implicated in human embodiment can be drawn out most effectively if we read Adorno in conjunction with watching (and learning more about) Cunningham’s dance. Although my concerns are primarily theoretical in nature, I am intrigued by the opportunity to explore how a choreographic and dance practice can go where aesthetic theory has never gone before. Neither the technical, discipline-specific language that Adorno employs, nor the schematic idiom Cunningham prefers, can, in isolation, be made to divulge a persuasive alternative account of expression.
However, when the two are juxtaposed and intertwined, and when practice itself is analyzed as theoretically pertinent, then a new definition of “expression” begins to emerge. The question that immediately arises when one juxtaposes Cunningham with Adorno is “Why doesn’t Adorno ever mention dance? ” Although, as has been well documented, dancers and choreographers were fellow travelers of the authors and artists Adorno treats, 48 Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 e never discusses a single choreographer during the entire course of Aesthetic Theory. Dance is simply not part of Adorno’s history, his chronological treatment of modern works; nor is dance included in his theory, his speculations on how artworks relate to what they are not (nature, material conditions, the human subject). Dance only makes a few cameo appearances as the putative origin of all art, a mimetic form related to magic and ritual practices (1970/1997, 5, 329). For Adorno, as for Walter Benjamin, dance coincides with the emergence of art in the caves; it is the earliest practice whereby humans mime nature and, by miming, interpret, displace, and stylize nature, even as they attempt to become one with it (Benjamin 1986). In their treatments, dance remains stuck in that cave, never entirely modern, because it is more intimately connected to practices related to the organic body and the sensorium. It may be that what is intrinsic to dance, its address to the body, surreptitiously characterizes all the other art forms that putatively emerged out of it. This is a path of inquiry I am currently pursuing. ) For now, it is sufficient to note that dance cum dance—that is, as a tradition of corporeal practice that evolves over time, that has its own schools, and that inspires its own critical discourses—never figures as a subject of study in Aesthetic Theory. The historical trajectory Adorno establishes for art in general—its increasing autonomy and formalism as a result of industrialization and secular “disenchantment”—is neither applied to nor tested in any rigorous way against a concrete example of modernist (or any other kind of ) dance.
Thus it could be said that, in the strict sense, Adorno ignores dance. At the very least, he finds no place for it in modernism. While other scholars have not been as blind to dance’s contributions as Adorno, they do have difficulty assimilating it into a standard chronology of twentieth-century art. In Ecstasy and the Demon, Susan Manning sums up the critical consensus: Dance stands in an a-synchronous relation to all other twentieth-century forms of expression.
It does not evolve at the rhythm it should, or else the story is more messy than one would like (Manning 1993). For example, we cannot say with any certitude that Graham is to romantic ballet as Beckett is to Baudelaire, or as Schoenberg is to Beethoven, or as Malevich is to David. Whereas art, writing, and music all seem to pass through the same moments at roughly the same time—late Romanticism; early modernism; late modernism or postmodernism—choreography appears to lag behind, or follow a different route.
A typical rendering is provided by Jill Johnstone, who argues that “not until Cunningham appeared [in the 1950s] did modern dance catch up with the evolution of visual art traced by Clement Greenberg” (qtd. in Manning 1993, 24). In other words, during the era of cubism, when a constructivist aesthetic was clearly gaining ground in painting, writing, and musical composition, Isadora Duncan was still performing supposedly natural gestures and emoting supposedly lyric passions on the international stage.
My goal here is not to figure out whether Cunningham is modern or postmodern, or why twentieth-century choreography evolved the way it did. What I want to think about is whether that a-synchronicity, the messier story of dance (and its absence from Kantinspired aesthetics), tells us something about the inadequacy of the Greenberg-Adorno model. How might Cunningham’s work shed some light on Aesthetic Theory—its lacunae but also its possibilities? How might Aesthetic Theory—despite its inadequacies—be made to say something of value about dance?
Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 49 To approach these areas of questioning intelligently, we must first recall that Adorno treats modernism not simply as a matter of increasing self-reflexivity and formalism but also as a struggle—explicitly—with expression. His chronology of secular art could be encapsulated in the following way (and here comes my speed train version of Aesthetic Theory, which I hope summarizes clearly the vital points of the dialectic): The institutional critique responsible for late impressionist and then cubist rt engenders a suspicion with respect to illusionism; the abandonment of illusionism then heralds the embrace of expressionism as a kind of anticonventionalism (think of the German art movement of the 1920s, the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity); the subsequent rejection of psychological narrative and subjective emotion, however, entails a critique of expressionism, which then leads ineluctably to an astringent, objective constructivism (minimalism, permutational procedures, chance operations, and so on). At each moment, expression remains—how could it not? but it is reworked through different forms of critique. For Adorno, the tension between expressionism and constructivism becomes paradigmatic of late modernist art. A close reading of Aesthetic Theory reveals further that for its author, this tension is productive of art itself. The salient points of convergence between Adorno and Cunningham are that they both show a marked preference for construction and they both reject psychological narrative, yet they simultaneously rescue expression as an inevitable component of man-made things.
In their respective and utterly idiosyncratic ways of thinking they both manage to re-define expression—and they do so in surprisingly compatible ways (although this may not at first seem to be the case). For Cunningham, no movement performed by the human body can ever be lacking in expressive content, either because the human body always communicates some kind of dynamic or because the audience member maps onto the moving body a personal meaning (see Brown 2007, 53). For Adorno, in contrast, expression in art “is the antithesis of expressing something” (1970/1997, 112; emphasis added).
True expression, he argues, is intransitive; there is no object for the verb “to express. ” As with the verb “to move,” there is a transitive form: one can “move furniture” as one can “express a liquid”—say, juice from an orange. But when referring to dance (as opposed to painting), to be an intransitive form of expression means that a body must move and thus express without an external object to be expressed. Put differently, the expressive movement is not trying to illustrate anything (even the music).
And here is where Cunningham and Adorno converge: an artistic act can be conceived as antinarrative, apsychological, and yet fully expressive. The dance can move its audience without relying on pathos embedded in plot, or energy framed as categorical emotion. There is no external referent that the body’s movement refers to; it is not expressing more than it is (or, rather, more than it is doing). On this reading, expression is borne by a materiality—the moving body—it can only transcend by losing itself.
David Vaughan, Cunningham’s archivist, has defined Cunningham’s project in terms that resonate in this context: “It goes without saying,” he writes, that Cunningham has not been interested in telling stories or exploring psychological relationships: the subject matter of his dances is the dance itself. This does 50 Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 not mean that drama is absent, but it is not drama in the sense of narrative— rather, it arises from the intensity of the kinetic and theatrical experience, and the human situation on stage. (1997, 7; emphasis added)
By “intensity of the kinetic and theatrical experience,” Vaughan is probably referring to the audience’s experience; he is alluding to John Martin’s famous theory that we, as spectators, empathize kinesthetically with the dancers (a theory developed by Expressionist dancers of the 1920s, or Ausdruckstanz). (He may also be thinking of Cunningham’s aforementioned claim that members of the audience are free to introduce their own meaning into the performed motions. ) What is more interesting in this passage, however, is the notion of a “human situation on stage. What, precisely, does Vaughan mean by a “human situation on stage”? What would a “human situation” consist of? How could non-narrative dance produce “drama” and remain expressive? Expressive of what? To illustrate what a “human situation on stage” might be, how it solicits an intransitive expression, and thus how it illuminates the hidden corners of Adorno’s theory of expression, I want to turn to a particular moment in Cunningham’s development as a choreographer, the period roughly from 1951 to 1956. During these years, Cunningham was just beginning to experiment with the chance procedures he learned from John Cage.
The two dances that are most pertinent in this regard are Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, a fifty-three-minute work first presented in 1951; Suite by Chance (1952–1953); and Solo Suite in Time and Place of 1953, which later became Suite for Five (performed in 1956). The first one, Sixteen Dances, is historic for several reasons: it demonstrated the influence of Hindu aesthetics, which Cage had been exploring since at least 1946, when he first mentions Ananda Coomaraswamy’s The Transformation of Nature (Nicholls 2007, 36).
The piece depicts the nine “permanent” emotions described in the Natyasastra, the sourcebook of Hindu/Sanskrit classical theater. These emotions were, as Cunningham recast them, Anger, Humor, Sorrow, Heroic Valor, the Odious (or disgust), Wonder, Fear, the Erotic, and Tranquility (or Peace). Moreover, Sixteen Dances (accompanied by a composition Cage wrote bearing the same name) contained what might very well be the first dance sequence based on the use of chance operations. 4 Thus, Sixteen Dances, the very choreography in which chance procedures are introduced for the first time, is explicitly about the emotions and their expression.
There is some confusion concerning precisely how—and to what extent—Cunningham applied chance procedures to Sixteen Dances. However, his comments in “A Collaborative Process between Music and Dance” and his rehearsal notes (in the Cunningham archive at Westbeth) indicate that in at least one segment (the interlude after Fear), he used charts and tossed coins to determine the order of the movement sequences (phrases), the time intervals, and the orientations and spatial arrangements of the dancers.
In “A Collaborative Process” he writes The structure for the piece was to have each of the dances involved with a specific emotion followed by an interlude. Although the order was to alternate light and dark, it didn’t seem to matter whether Sorrow or Fear came first, so I tossed a coin. And also in the interlude after Fear, number 14, I used charts of separate Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 51 movements for material for each of the four dancers, and let chance operations decide the continuity. (qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 58; qtd. in Kostelanetz 1998, 140–41).
Again, in “Two Questions and Five Dances,” Cunningham specifies: “the individual sequences, and the length of time, and the directions in space of each were discovered by tossing coins. It was the first such experience for me and felt like ‘chaos has come again’ when I worked in it” (qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 59). It is clear that the first dance Cunningham choreographed entirely through the application of chance procedures was Suite by Chance in 1953. Cunningham’s published accounts of Suite by Chance are much more specific with respect to the use of charts and coin tossing than his accounts concerning Sixteen Dances (Cunningham 1968, n. . ; see also Brown 2007, 39; and Charlip qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 62, 70). Carolyn Brown has indicated that in Sixteen Dances it was the order of the movement phrases that was determined by chance, not the individual movements or positions within the movement phrase. 5 The continuity at stake in Sixteen Dances, then, would be the continuity between phrases, not individual movements. And yet, in an unpublished note from the archive, Cunningham indicates that he was already interested—at least conceptually—in separating phrases into individual movements and enumerating their various possibilities.
In other words, the logic generating his later procedures—the breaking up of phrases into individual movements that were then charted and ordered into sequences selected by chance—already existed in an embryonic state. Anticipating a practice he would soon refine, Cunningham provides the following list of potential movement material in his rehearsal notes: “Legs can be low, middle or high in air; legs can be bent or straight; legs can be front, side, or back” (Cunningham 1951). The schematic rendering of movement choices (into what he calls “gamuts of movement”) foreshadows the kinds of taxonomies he would develop later (Vaughan 1997, 72).
Photographic representations suggest that at this point in his career, Cunningham was still choosing movement material thematically. That is, the types of movement selected for any given emotion had a culturally conventional relation to that emotion. Describing Sixteen Dances, Cunningham writes: “the solos were concerned with specific emotional qualities, but they were in image form and not personal—a yelling warrior for the odious, a man in a chair for the humorous, a bird-masked figure for the wondrous” (qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 59).
Unfortunately, there is no video or film record of the dance, but from the extant photographs, it is apparent that Cunningham was working with a modernist vocabulary; there is something reminiscent of Martha Graham or Ted Shawn in the dramatic poses, the off-center leaps, and the contracted upper body that we do not see in his work later. In Cunningham’s rehearsal notes (1951) for the piece—and there is no way of knowing if these reflect the completed piece as it was ultimately performed—he jots down the idea of introducing a conventional balletic vocabulary for the final quartet on “tranquility. “Finale to proceed from balletic positions, and return to them at all cadences!!! ” he exclaims. I believe Cunningham so emphatically chooses balletic positions as starting and termination points, as tranquil “rests,” because they offer movement material that is less associated 52 Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 Photo 2. Merce Cunningham in his Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1952). Photographer: Gerda Peterich. by convention—at least, by Graham convention—with particular emotional states.
As Cunningham writes about the period: “It was almost impossible to see a movement in modern dance during that period not stiffened by literary or personal connection” (qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 69). If “tranquility,” the ninth emotion from the Natyasastra, signifies the transcendence of emotion, then perhaps a ballet vocabulary would be appropriate, especially against the background of the earlier eight, more conventionally expressive, “images” used for the solos and the erotic duet. During the years 1951–1956, Cunningham was obviously making discoveries that would become consistent elements of his practice for years to come.
In works such as Sixteen Dances and Solo Suite in Space and Time (1953), not only does he introduce chance operations but he also develops an approach to the body as an expressive organ. He chooses movement material that might be considered conventionally expressive as well as movement material based on classroom exercises, but he elects (or engenders through chance operations) a sequence of phrases or poses that is not conventional. In Sixteen Dances newly minted chance operations allow him to experiment with the order of the movement material in a way that endangers the continuity of the dance. But what he learns by endangering that more conventional Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 53 form of continuity is that another form of continuity can emerge. As he underscores in his rehearsal notes for the 1956 Suite for Five (an extension of Solo Suite in Space and Time with added trio, duet, and quintet): “Dynamics in movement come from the continuity” (Cunningham 1951; emphasis in the original). What would supply this continuity if not the acquired syntax of traditional dance forms, if not the momentum of propulsive movements?
Over the course of a year of rehearsals for Sixteen Dances (the time it took to mount the duets, trios, and quartets on Dorothea Brea, Joan Skinner, and Anneliese Widman) Cunningham found his answer. The continuity melding one movement to another would be derived from the dancer herself, that is, from the way she found to string together movements previously not linked by choreographic or classroom practices. In “Two Questions and Five Dances,” Cunningham describes his pleasure as he watched Joan Skinner take a notoriously difficult sequence of movements and thread them together seamlessly with her own body.
Skinner introduced “coordination, going from one thing to another, that I had not encountered before, physically” (qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 59). His comments introduce what emerges as a constant in his choreography. According to Carolyn Brown, Although the overall rhythmic structure and tempi were Merce’s, he wanted me to find my own phrasing within the sections. . . . Unlike what happens in ballet, there is no other impetus, no additional source of inspiration or energy, no aural stimulus . . . There is only movement, learned and rehearsed in silence.
In order for Cunningham dancers to be “musical,” they must discover, in the movement, out of their own inner resources and innate musicality, what I call, for want of a better word, the “song. ” . . . There is a meaning in every Cunningham dance, but the meaning cannot be translated into words; it must be experienced kinesthetically through the language of movement. (2007, 195–96; emphasis in the original) Dynamics are thus not preconceived by the choreographer but instead emerge from the dancer’s creation of unscripted, “discovered” transitions leading from one movement, or one movement sequence (phrase), to the next.
These transitions providing continuity are forged by the dancer’s own coping mechanism, her way of assimilating each movement into a new sequence, a new logic, that only the body can discover in the process of repeated execution. In Sixteen Dances Skinner provided him with a crucial insight (reinforced by Carolyn Brown soon after), namely, that the expressivity of the body is lost neither when the elements of an expressive movement vocabulary, a set of “image forms,” are re-mixed or forcibly dis-articulated, nor when the elements re-mixed are themselves as neutral and unburdened by cultural associations as possible.
So what is the “human situation on stage”—to return to our earlier question—and in what way can it be considered expressive? I believe that what Cunningham was beginning to uncover in his work during this period, and that he fully realizes in Suite for Five of 1956, is that the human body is doubly expressive: it can be expressive transitively, in an easily legible, culturally codified way, and it can be expressive intransitively, simply by exposing its dynamic, arc-engendering force. This intransitive expressivity belongs to an animate form responding at what Adorno calls the “proto” subjective level (1970/1997; 112).
That is, the continuity-creating, coping body is relying on an order of sensorimotor 54 Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 sensitivity that is itself an expressive system, one that underlies and in fact renders possible what we identify as the familiar signifying system of conventional expressive “images” and “personal” emotions. 7 The “human situation on stage” can therefore be summed up as a set of kinesthetic, proprioceptive, weight-bearing, and sometimes tactile problems to be solved. In the rehearsal notes for Suite for Five (1952–1958), these problems are enumerated succinctly.
Cunningham composed this piece by relying on movement materials whose sequences were determined by the imperfections appearing on a sheet of paper. (Here, he was imitating Cage, who invented the process with Music for Piano, which accompanied the Solo Suite. ) Cunningham tells us that the dancers had to worry about (1) “where” they are; (2) “then where to” (where they have to get to); and (3) “if more than one person [is] involved,” how the movements they make will be affected by the other’s presence on the stage. In short, the spatial and interpersonal relationships present the problems and constitute the “human situation on the stage. The dancers are called on not to express a particular emotion, or set of emotions, but instead to develop refined coping mechanisms for creating continuity between disarticulated movements while remaining sensitive to their location in space. They must keep time without musical cues; sense the presence of the other dancers on stage; know blindly, proprioceptively, what these other dancers are doing; and adjust the timing and scope of their movements accordingly, thereby “expressing” the “human situation” at hand.
All this work is “expressive”—it belongs to the “category of expression”—insofar as it is demanded by a human situation on a stage and insofar as human situations on stages (or otherwise) constitute an embodied response to the present moment, an embodied response to the utterly unique conditions of existence at one given point in time. In an interview with Jacqueline Lesschaeve, Cunningham puts it this way: “You have to begin to know where the other dancer is, without looking. It has to do with timing, the relationship with the timing. If you paid attention to the timing, then, even if you weren’t facing them, you knew they were there.
And that created a relationship” (Cunningham 1991, 22). Relationships, engendering inevitably the “human situation,” are defined as body-to-body relationships, or really moving-body-to-moving-body relationships. As Tobi Tobias has suggested, “perhaps movement is at the core, the body’s response preceding the psyche’s” (1975, 43). Contemporary neuroscience is in fact beginning to confirm this point of view: relationships are forged kinetically, and thus the human drama begins at a prepsychological, perhaps even presubjective level of interaction with the world.
The work of Antonio Damasio (1999) and Marc Jeannerod (2006) in particular emphasizes the degree to which largely (although not entirely) nonconscious operations of the sensorimotor system—including visuomotor functions and kinesthetic, proprioceptive, haptic, and vestibular systems—constitute the very conditions of possibility for the emergence of “higher level” processes of conscious thought, symbolization (language), and feeling. These scientists dub the former, more somatic (and evolutionarily prior) layer of activity the “protoself. This protoself is related to homeostasis and the fundamental intelligence that discerns the boundary between the subject’s body and other bodies; it is thus the corporeal substrate of subjectivity understood as an awareness of being a separate self. 8 If we return to Cunningham’s statement, quoted above, we can see that a relationship Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 55 forged simply by occupying the same duration of time produces a “human situation” insofar as two bodies are obliged to remain aware of each other’s presence.
This awareness is not necessarily colored with affect; that is, the “human situation on stage” is not necessarily charged with emotion. To that extent, we can say that Cunningham’s choreographic procedure attends to intimacies occurring on the level of the presubjective layer of interaction between human beings; “presubjective” would not mean pre-individual or pre-individuated but rather singular embodiment in an intersubjective milieu before that embodiment enters a narrative, a conventional, socially defined relation to the other.
The relation to the other, as Cunningham points out, is structured by time; in a duet, for instance, the choreographic imperative is that bodies should be doing particular things at particular moments in a predetermined sequence. Yet at the same time, the cohabitation of that temporal and spatial dimension that is the stage creates a situation—a “human situation”—in which two or more bodies must become aware of one another’s movements; they thereby enter into a relation on the “presubjective,” or prepsychological, level.
In Aesthetic Theory Adorno defines precisely this presubjective layer of existence as the origin of expressive behavior: that is, the prepsychologized body, related in his mind to the human “sensorium,” is itself the source of expressive content. Beyond—or underlying—the explicit, conventionalized content of artworks is another content: the sensorium’s “objective” consciousness, as he puts it, of the surrounding world that it probes. In their expression, artworks do not imitate the impulses of individuals, nor in any way those of their authors”; instead, he continues, artworks are imitation (mimesis) “exclusively as the imitation of an objective expression” (1970/1997, 111–12; emphasis added). This objective expression is best captured by the musical term “espressivo,” he continues, since it denotes a dynamic that is entirely intransitive, “remote from psychology,” although generated by a human subject.
Significantly for our purposes, he adds that the “objective expression” of subjectivity is continuous with the layer of existence “of which the sensorium was perhaps once conscious in the world and which now subsists only in artworks” (112). This “sensorium”—a “consciousness” not yet self-reflexive yet nonetheless a consciousness—is composed of a set of receptors relating intimately to the external world.
The layer of existence captured by the sensorium may be considered the objective aspect of subjectivity, the world-sensitive, outer-directed, knowledge-seeking, coping body that is the foundation on which a psychic subjectivity, a personality, builds. Ultimately, for Adorno, it is the experience of this objective layer of being (the “consciousness” of the sensorium) that artworks seek to “express. ” “Artworks,” Adorno writes, “bear expression not where they communicate the subject, but rather where they reverberate with the protohistory of subjectivity” (112).
Another fruitful way to think of the relation between the “protohistory of subjectivity” and expression can be found in the work of Charles Darwin. As unlikely as it may seem, there is a continuum leading from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872/1965) through Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception ( where he relies heavily on Darwin for his understanding of the expressive body), to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and its notion of a primordial sensorimotor apprehension captured mimetically in art.
Adorno’s sensorial “consciousness” or “presubjective” layer of being in the world looks surprisingly like Darwin’s understanding of “corporeal intensities”—muscular 56 Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 contractions, accelerated circulation, and their various manifestations on the faces and bodies of animals and humans. These “corporeal intensities” are forms of expression—or “proto” expression, if you like—that serve as the precondition for the development of more culturally legible, codified expressive gestures (such as the wince or the smile).
In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin’s theory of expressivity links the development of what we call emoting to primary neurological and physiological responses generated by a sensorimotor intelligence. What we identify as rage, he writes, is actually caused by a response generated in animals by the autonomic circulatory system; behavior that comes to be designated as anger (for the observer) begins with an accelerated flow of blood, while behavior identified as joy or vivid pleasure is underwritten, so to speak, by the quickening of the circulation.
What we identify as “suffering” is expressed through the contraction of a wide variety of muscle groups. Over the course of time, muscular contraction in general comes to be associated with angst, although the specific groups of muscles contracted might vary from culture to culture. For instance, one culture might associate suffering with the contraction of the facial muscles, for example, in a grimace. A different culture—or really, a subculture, such as modern dance—might associate suffering with the contraction of muscles in the abdominal cavity, sternum, and pelvis.
In both cases, the adaptive behavior, muscular contraction, can be observed as distinct from the social significations it comes to acquire. Animals and humans both exhibit behaviors that are closely associated with emotions, but theoretically it should be possible—and this is Darwin’s goal—to dissociate the protosubjective expressiveness of the body (muscle contractions, autonomic responses) from the conventionalized, codified gestures into which this expressivity has been conjugated.
Adorno and Cunningham both target—the first to theorize, the second to achieve—this primary order of protosubjective expressiveness contained in, but potentially dissociable from, the conventionalized gestures to which it gives rise. The “human situation on stage” that is so “dramatic” or “expressive” (in Cunningham’s vocabulary) is one in which human bodies have been released from the prefabricated shapes and congealed (“stiffened”) meanings imposed by a given choreographic vocabulary or gestural regime (qtd. n Vaughan 1997, 69). Cunningham trusts that by preventing the conventional sequencing of movements within a phrase (through the application of chance procedures) he will coax dancers to exhibit dynamics that are at once more “objective”—in the sense that they are generated by coping mechanisms rather than emotional states—and utterly idiosyncratic—radically subjective, we might say, in the sense that they are generated by the singular body of the dancer confronting an utterly unique “human situation on stage. In “The Impermanent Art” (1952), Cunningham comes very close to naming Darwin’s “corporeal intensities” when he evokes an order of muscular dynamics released from association with conventional emotions, such as passion and anger. Here he writes that Dance is not emoting, passion for her, anger against him. I think dance is more primal than that. In its essence, in the nakedness of its energy it is the source from which passion or anger may issue in a particular form, the source of energy out of which may be channeled the energy that goes into the various emotional
Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 57 behaviors. It is that blatant exhibiting of this energy, i. e. , of energy geared to an intensity high enough to melt steel in some dancers, that gives the great excitement. (qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 86) The “blatant exhibiting” of an intensified corporeal energy bears a relation to what Darwin calls the exhibition of “corporeal intensities” by animals that can only be said to be “angry” or “ashamed” if we anthropomorphize their movements.
Cunningham seems acutely attuned to what Darwin also notes: our tendency to interpret (anthropomorphize) animal behaviors, a tendency he implicitly identifies with the public’s desire to read psychological meaning into the intensified corporealities of the dancers on stage. One could even say that Cunningham attempts to de-anthropomorphize our understanding of human behavior on stage; that is, he wants us to de-reify, to extract from the conventionalized, psychologizing modes of dance spectatorship, the movement behavior “blatantly” exhibited in his choreography.
He asks us to experience even the graceful, plangent duet of Suite by Chance without sentimental overlay, as though it were simply an instance of protosubjective expressivity displayed by two moving bodies implicated in a “human situation on stage. ” Perhaps not incidentally, Cunningham’s most suggestive evocation of this “protosubjective” layer of expressivity appears in a passage on animals and music—and it is with this passage that I would like to conclude. Cunningham is talking about his reasons for separating music from his horeography, explaining why he avoids giving his dancers musical cues with which to time the duration of their movements or generate their expressive dynamics. At pains to offer a positive rendering of what he is seeking, he notes instead that the polar opposite of what he aspires to in his collaborations with Cage may be “seen and heard in the music accompanying the movements of wild animals in the Disney films. [This music] robs them of their instinctual rhythms,” he claims, “and leaves them as caricatures.
True, [the movement] is a man-made arrangement, but what isn’t? ” (qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 10). Let us imagine for a moment the Disney animator as cave painter, miming—like the “primitive” dancer of Benjamin’s “On the Mimetic Faculty”—the power of the animal totem. In an act of sympathetic response, troubling the boundary between mime and mimed, the animator studies the animal, acquiring its rhythmic gait, the expressive dynamic of its way of howling or extending a paw.
Without knowing exactly what the animal means, how that howl or extension signifies in an animal world, the animator copies, uses whatever conventions and images—whatever man-made arrangements—she has to approach the original in its presubjective, prepsychologized movement state. That, for Cunningham, is what can be freed through the disruption of continuity, through the imposition of the strict, unforgiving disciplines of permutation and chance.
The protosubjective order of the wild gesture is what we might see if it were unencumbered by narrative, if it could be captured without the omnipresent, strip-mall swelling music of the Disney world in which we all too often bathed. Ultimately, the “human situation on stage” is, despite years of rehearsals and revivals, a set of “wild gestures” expressing what it is like to be a sensorium moving on stage. The challenge that remains is to determine both how Cunningham’s choreographic practice divulges the work of the proto-self and how that work informs (and is balanced by 8 Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 the exigencies of ) the construction of artworks, that is, the construction of dances for audiences in specific historical settings with demands of their own. Another challenge arises with respect to Adorno and my allied project of reading dance back into Aesthetic Theory. If, as he claims, artworks—not dances, but paintings, sonatas, and poems—“reverberate with the protohistory of subjectivity,” then where is this “reverberation” to be located?
Where (or when) in the process of art making does protosubjectivity intervene as an agent, as a constituting force? And if, as Adorno implies, we are no longer sensuously alive (“the sensorium was perhaps once conscious in the world,” he writes), then how do we recognize the presence of the sensorium’s influence on the composition of artworks? What remains of the sensorium in art, of the sensorium in dance? These questions inform the next phase of my research, the contours of which I have only begun to outline.
Notes 1. Jose Gil provides several fine articulations of Cunningham’s project in “The Dancer’s Body” (2002). I agree with Gil that, in an attempt to “make grammar the meaning,” or “make body awareness command consciousness” (121), Cunningham “disconnects movements from one another, as if each movement belonged to a different body” (122); however, I do not believe that the actual dancer ends up with a “multiplicity of virtual bodies” (123), a “body-without-organs” (124).
As I document later in this essay, Cunningham’s most successful dancers (in his eyes and my own) have been those who are able to absorb the movement sequences into their own body; the grammar’s inflection, the sequence’s assimilation through the body’s singular dynamics, is what ultimately lends the dance “meaning” in the way Cunningham intends. 2. See “The Impermanent Art,” first published in Arts 7, no. 3 (1955) and reproduced in Kostelanetz (1989) and Vaughan (1997). 3.
See especially the appendices to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. The work was not finished during Adorno’s lifetime (Adorno died in 1969. ) 4. Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three was first performed in Milbrook, New York. It contained the following sequence: solo, trio, solo, duet, solo, quartet, solo, quartet, solo, duet, solo, trio, solo, quartet, duet, quartet. See Vaughan (1997, 289). 5. Carolyn Brown, personal communication with the author, June 24, 2009. 6. Cunningham presents what he is getting at as ollows: “You do not separate the human being from the actions he does, or the actions which surround him, but you can see what it is like to break these actions up in different ways, to allow the passion, and it is passion, to appear for each person in his own way” (qtd. in Vaughan 1997, 10). 7. Mark Johnson (1987) and Daniel Stern (1985/2000) also believe that our ability to be expressive in the more familiar way—to display human emotions such as anger or pity—is predicated on a presubjective capacity to organize experience into “image schemata” ( Johnson) or “vitality affects” (Stern).
The neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio has more recently argued that a protoself, or neural substrate of sensory feedback, is the condition of possibility for emotions per se (1999). What is “expressed” by this protoself is movement, a nonthematized awareness of orientation, a sense of balance. Cunningham’s choreography appears to be calling on its dancers to “express” precisely these functions; they are what provide the continuity, the dynamic, that is so moving to watch. On the sensorimotor protoself and our access to it, see my Agency and Embodiment (2009). 8. See Damasio (1999) and Jeannerod (2006).
Damasio insists that the protoself is entirely nonconscious, but Jeannerod provides persuasive evidence that kinesthetic awareness is often available to the conscious self. See also Joseph LeDoux (2002) for a similar account. Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 59 Works Cited Adorno, Theodor W. 1970/1997. Aesthetic Theory, edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Translated and introduced by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Benjamin, Walter. 1986. “On the Mimetic Faculty. ” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writing, edited by Peter Demetz, 333–36. New York: Schocken.
Brown, Carolyn. 2007. Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. New York: Knopf. Cunningham, Merce. 1951. Rehearsal Notes. Merce Cunningham Archives, Westbeth, New York City, New York. ———. 1952–1958. Rehearsal Notes. Merce Cunningham Archives, Westbeth, New York City, New York. ———. 1968. Changes: Notes on Choreography. Edited by Frances Starr. New York: Something Else Press. ———. 1991. The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve. New York: Marilyn Boyars. Damasio, Antonio R. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.
New York: Harcourt Brace. Darwin, Charles. 1872/1965. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Foster, Susan Leigh. 1986. Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance. Berkeley: University of California Press. Franko, Mark. 1995. Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Gil, Jose. 2002. “The Dancer’s Body. ” In A Shock to Thought: Expression after Deleuze and Guattari, edited by Brian Massumi, 117–27. London: Routledge. Jeannerod, Marc. 2006. Motor Cognition: What Actions Tell the Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kostelanetz, Richard. 1989. Esthetics Contemporary. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus. ———, ed. 1998. Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time 1944–1992. New York: Da Capo. LeDoux, Joseph. 2002. The Synaptic Self. New York: Viking. Manning, Susan A. 1993. Ecstasy and the Demon: Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman. Berkeley: University of California Press. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. New York: Routledge. Nicholls, David. 2007.
John Cage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Noland, Carrie. 2009. Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reynolds, Dee. 2007. Rhythmic Subjects: Uses of Energy in the Dances of Mary Wigman, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham. Hampshire, England: Dance Books. Stern, Daniel. 1985/2000. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic. Tobias, Tobi. 1975. “Notes for a Piece on Cunningham. ” Dance Magazine 42 (September). Vaughan, David. 1997. Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years. Edited by Melissa Harris. New York: Aperture. 60 Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010
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