Dance and Image of the Body The Body as Discourse

Meg Stuart „Built to last“, Münchner Kammerspiele; © Julian Röder
Meg Stuart „Built to last“, Münchner Kammerspiele | Photo (detail): © Julian Röder

Like every line of thought in philosophy, every cultural practice develops its own distinct concept of the body. There is no such thing as the body. What image of the body is produced when we understand the body as being the result of discourse?

The body as technology

This corporeal space, which has always been closely linked with and anchored in the world, is to be regarded as a culturally dependent body. As French sociologist Marcel Mauss pointed out in his much-cited essay Techniques of the body back in 1935, the way in which people sit, give birth, swim or eat depends radically on how a certain culture passes on these skills. Every culture teaches ‘techniques of the body’. The use of our body, and thus our body itself, is influenced, formed and produced in a culturally specific way. That ultimately extends to the articulation of linguistic sounds and words that make their way through the body from the throat, pharynx and mouth, to the visible formation of the mouth, lips and facial muscles. Each language thus creates a linguistically distinct body. Thus, the body ultimately functions as an all-encompassing symbol of a culture and its varied interaction processes.

Bodies and power

Bodies are made by techniques, and dancing bodies by dance techniques. For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, these techniques are primarily power techniques. In his book Discipline and Punishment, published in 1975, he showed how the body is formed through disciplinary measures. Within the confines of institutions such as schools or barracks, the modern body is formed through a network of rules, which regiment and control physical behaviour. From the correct way to hold a pen and the right way to sit at school to one’s position in a room or open space - all this determines one’s relationship to other bodies. The body is individualised through being divided into specific zones that are processed (hand position, bending of fingers, head posture etc.) and reassembled correctly. The docile body is partly the product of a certain kind of power which produces a body useful to itself and its economic practice. Disciplined bodies can be put to good use in offices and factories. The production of bodies thus takes place discursively, which means that the body is created through repetition and practice from a combination of linguistic (academic and popular) discourses and material practices.

Power techniques help to produce bodies that would not exist without the specific form of power. Basing her ideas on Foucault, the American philosopher Judith Butler put forward a provocative theory in 1990 that our gender identity, too, has nothing to do with biology, but is created. It is produced by our society and family consciously or unconsciously passing on and practising standards, which Butler refers to as a heterosexual matrix. What appears to be natural is a retrospective, interest-led legitimation of socially produced exclusion practices and discrimination against other forms of sexual orientation. Ultimately, the human ability to imitate and learn through mimicry eliminates any form of naturalness. For Mauss, Foucault and Butler, the body is merely the product of a specific culture and its values.

The body as a hybrid being

So what does such an image of the body mean for dance? Foucault’s model of discipline can readily be transferred to the structure and organisation of classical ballet. Classical ballet takes the human body apart and reassembles it in accordance with a specific notion of proportion and spatial conditions. The hierarchical anatomy of the body, governed by the dimensions of the upright body, is reflected in the hierarchical organisation of traditional ballet ensembles, which define themselves in functional terms, from the étoile down to the corps de ballet.

Dancers of the modern period pitted the natural body against both the disciplined body and the organization of groups. They conceived of the dancing body as being something natural, making it a counterweight to economic exploitation and discipline in a culture of industrial alienation. If one takes Foucault’s theory of the production of bodies seriously, however, the body that features in modern dance, based on supposedly natural principles such as breathing or momentum, is itself the product of a particular cultural concept of the body. So while breathing is a biological function common to all people as living beings, its use in contemporary dance is always a functionalization in that it uses a certain kind of breathing in order to create an image of naturalness.

This model, based on the idea that bodies are created by concepts, leads to a body image that is open. Such a body can integrate anything within its limits, regardless of whether they are imaginary bodies, as psychoanalysis demonstrates, or other real bodies, linguistic discourses or standards, animals, objects, cultural practices or artefacts. Such a body makes connections, as, strictly speaking, it has become unlimited. It defines itself as a threshold that may be crossed to undergo transformations that produce ever-new definitions of what the body is. It is both natural and artificial at the same time, and thus it is not really either; this body has always been a hybrid being which, in the case of dance, shows us our sense of possibility – of what we could be and of the body we need to develop to achieve those possibilities.