Nature of movement The Blind Spot of Philosophy: Dance

The Blind Spot of Philosophy: Dance; © istockphoto.com
The Blind Spot of Philosophy: Dance | Photo (detail): © istockphoto.com

The mutual attention that dance and philosophy have given one another since the beginning of the twentieth century can make up for the modern neglect of this relationship only with difficulty. For a long time dance was largely non-existent in the fields of aesthetics, art theory and philosophy. Yet movement is an eminently philosophical problem. Ultimately, it is essentially the power to move, of self-movement, that distinguishes the living and organic from the inorganic and inanimate. If movement is declared the foundation of an art form, as modernity has done, then the question arises about the nature of movement.

In his monograph Le désœuvrement chorégraphique (2009) (Choreographic Idleness), Frédéric Pouillaude has pointed out a remarkable fact: dance, to the extent that it has been discussed at all in an overarching, philosophical context, generally appears in the guise of an abstraction. It is the totality of a practice that seems to be detached from the concrete realization of a work or a performance and its stylistic, social, aesthetic and historical forms and conditions. In the field of philosophy, dance appears to have been assigned the fate of amorphousness, whose concrete manifestation is of interest to no one.

But hidden in this strange need for generality is a highly concrete concern. For what thought about dance often lacks in stage experience, the practice of dance infuses into the happening of discourse. The dissolution of rigid concepts and epistemological relations has always been inherent in dance, not only since the advent of modernity. Form, in the sense of the external, the mere appearance, always wants to point to something intrinsic. But, usually, it cannot. It persists, as body, as res extensa, in extension, in the contingent and so in instability.

The antagonism between form and movement, this counter-movement to static and conceptually formed thought that is called forth in dance, remains a blind spot of philosophy. For movement invariably moves away from its own assertion, which at the same time is always re-asserted in its own execution: away from the assertion of form. How can something so processual, performative and indeterminate as movement become an object of mind? How can we come to a definite view of movement, from the object of intuition to knowledge of the object?

Accentuation in the Now

The static and the enduring nature of concepts alone cannot at any rate grasp movement, much less living movement. The anthropologist Helmuth Plessner therefore developed a new theory that seeks to account for the becoming and process of life in contrast to ontological universality. In his fundamental work, Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (1928) (The Levels of the Organic and Man), he unfolds a complex analysis of becoming and change as a necessary condition of living form. According to this analysis, the being of a thing is “essentially destined to pass”. As if he were speaking of dance itself, Plessner describes this “pure passage” as “becoming, that unity of not yet and no longer” which “still lacks accentuation in the Now”.

The term “performative” has for some time been used as a description of this “accentuation in the Now”. “Performative” is not only the life process and dance, but also society as such. The potential of knowledge or skill can be realized only in doing. Knowledge therefore can no longer be primarily defined logically or categorially, but rather only dynamically: knowledge in the instant. It is not by chance that the adaptation of situations to forms of knowledge and, vice versa, of forms of knowledge to situation has become a central concern of contemporary dance.

The edge of dance

Dance thus has an edge on philosophy, as Véronique Fabri, in her study Danse et philosophie: une pensée en construction (2007) (Dance and Philosophy: Thought in Construction), shows. It is the spirit of modern philosophy, she argues, to consider the construction that joins disparate elements into unities without claiming its eternal value; it is a matter of “construction that works without a system”. Dance does not strive for the achievement of a work in the material sense, as an enduring artifact that can be handed down, but rather for “what truly changes […] and opens itself to all changes that are at all possible”.

Perhaps it is for this reason that people like to ignore dance and its results. For the works of dance are not really works, its knowledge is only preliminary, and its potentiality exceeds all concepts. And the body too.