In which I write about dance. Aka, Dilettantism #145.Posted: July 8, 2014
I recently rejoined Facebook after a hiatus of three years, and there’s much about the site that reminds me of why I quit. Facebook’s continual treatment of the private and emotional lives of its users as, at best, a resource to be exhausted and, at worst, as an illegitimate and dangerous remnant of a world before technology liberated people like Mark Zuckerberg from a kind of life where sociability, like social standing, was not yet so thoroughly quantified and commercialized as to obviate the need for such archaic medial forms as smiles, handshakes, hugs, and laughter. The recent controversy caused by an experiment in which Facebook manipulated people’s feeds in the hopes of producing “positive” or “negative” emotions was just the most recent example of a long history of abusive policies implemented by the site. I don’t want to belabor the point here, not least of all because Zadie Smith has already written so beautifully about many of the issues that cause me to be so frequently frustrated by the site. The experience of the site for most people seems to be both affectually and intellectually bad, but everyone stays because it does have some real benefits– easy contact with a wide range of people, an accessible broadcast platform for normal people. In a better world, Benjamin Kunkel’s call to socialize social media would, at the very least, have provided the basis for a substantive discussion, in Washington as well as New York, about the wisdom of the current monopolistic or oligarchic control of so many different media. As much as I admire Kunkel’s optimism though– as necessary as I think it, as much as I wish I could share in it– I find that I simply can’t, and so I suspect we’re stuck living in a world very much like the one we inhabit now, at least in terms of the continued exploitation of the many by the few, through the media and in general. What that means is that the current structure of corporate media will not only determine the conditions under which we say what we wish to say, it will determine that which we wish to say itself. Not only does the advertising to which we will be increasingly subjected generate desire for the products that are being advertised, it determines the very ways in which we are capable of expressing our desire more broadly.
And yet Facebook does provide me, occasionally, with real flashes of how social media might operate as a public sphere, if not as a public utility; how there might be moments where the very alienation Facebook produces and is produced by becomes so profound that it can no longer remain invisible and is suddenly released into the world, a single blue flower growing through the cracks in a concrete jungle. A recent video posted by Lauren Mace, a dancer at the Staatstheather Kassel, was one such moment. The video was posted with the following instructions: “Game play? 1. Randomly choose any music trak you like 2. listen to that while watching this 3. send me what worked”. The exercise already reveals a sophisticated understanding of the contemporary media landscape– the world used to consist exclusively of immanent noises. The sounds we heard were common and, short of stuffing your ears with wax (#DialecticofEnlightenment), they couldn’t be easily avoided. In late modernity, or whatever the hell you want to call this time we’re living in, we can have just about any sound we want just about anywhere we want it, shared widely or not at all. Social norms generally dictate that the latter is preferable. Half the passengers on the subway have headphones, every car driving by on the street has the windows closed and the radio on. It’s a world of invisible sound, and private soundtracks. I don’t know much about the history or practice of dance, so it’s entirely possible that this is some more regular form of receiving critique on one’s movement among professionals, but even if it is– maybe especially if it is– Mace’s video strikes me as a uniquely potent interruption to the normal posts that I encounter on the site, which tend to either reaffirm bourgeois patterns of consumptive behavior ( look at me with my happy family! eating delicious food! flying places! in stylish clothes!) or to offer the feeblest of protests in support of social justice (be outraged! sign this petition! pay attention! give us money!).
I don’t want to describe the video in great detail, because you should really watch it. I tried it first with Phaoroahe Monch’s “Damage,” then with Shostakovich’s “String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor,” with The Meter’s “Cissy Strut,” and finally with Ornette Coleman’s “Peace.”
In each case, the music–though it never quite matches the dance– reveals different emotive and formal aspects of Mace’s work. With “Damage” the dance both reveals Mace’s adeptness in the rhetorics of club dance and insists on the possibility of a more formal, classically trained response to the music. What lacks here is the violence and trauma of the song– Monch’s anger at the personal trauma experienced first of all as a member of the black urban subclass, and secondly as a soldier in the Iraq war can’t be shared by Mace, but her distracted quality seems to indicate that she’s fully engaged with the possibility of the musical expression of these forms of pain. The other tracks produced a similarly disjointed viewing experience, each of them insisting on the multiplicity of Mace’s own influences and her inability to combine them all in the response to a single piece, or even kind, of music.
There’s a long medial history to the kind of work Mace is producing here as well; dance films feature heavily in the history of the early cinema. Mace’s video seems to reference the most popular of these, the series of films featuring Chicago dancer Loie Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance,” performed by various artists and produced by nearly every significant early director. I’m including a compilation of scenes from many of these early dance films that I found on YouTube. In general, though, these films would have been more or less similar in length to Mace’s video and, like Mace’s video, rely on flowing clothing and on the interruption of color into a mostly black and white chromatic screen– accomplished by Mace through the choice of the somewhat garishly painted building where she sets the video, and by early directors by laboriously hand coloring filmic negatives.
Far more interesting than the similarity in dress or in color schemes, though, is that these films would likely have been presented very similarly to Mace’s video. It’s a misapprehension to think that there was ever really such a thing as the silent cinema. Though these films predate the invention of synchronized sound by several decades, early films were nearly always presented with some kind of audio accompaniment; some films were distributed with phonographs containing a soundtrack that could, if the projector was very careful, be more or less synchronized with the action occurring on the screen. More frequently, an organist, house band, or narrator would have been at hand to enhance and interpret the events taking place on the screen. Like Mace, then, these women were dancing to someone else’s tune, offering their movement for whatever accompaniment might happen to come along.
In the process, they become alienated from their own bodies– defined by corporeal movement, these women allow the viewer to impute a motivation to that movement that likely does not exist. It would be easy to read this form of alienation along gender political lines. Indeed, this kind of reading has long been a fixture among scholars of the early cinema. As legitimate as those claims may be, both for Mace’s video and for the early cinema, I’m more interested in a broader kind of alienation that is produced through the engagement with certain kinds of medial regimes, particularly Facebook. What the contemporary Internet generally and Facebook particularly serve to accomplish is to destroy previous regimes of media specificity, as well as the social conventions that once adhered to them. Films need no longer be projected at a public institution. Television no longer need be consumed from the living room. Music no longer comes from a concert, or even a CD player. Instead, all of these can be provided for us by a kind of virtual market, in which each individual’s Facebook account is a stand, rented with the labor of consuming and producing content. And that market can be accessed anywhere, and from any bodily position. Just as the advent of the cinema meant that one no longer needed to travel to Chicago to see Loie Fuller perform, the advent of Facebook means that one no longer need put on pants in order to hear new music. Even, then, as the privacy of our communications, purchases, travels, and relationships is obviated, the privacy of our corporeal attitudes becomes nearly absolute.
Mace’s movements, so frequently marionette like (#OntheMarionetteTheater), suggest the difficulty of a bodily response to a medial regime in which the body is present only in carefully staged presentations– in photographs or videos designed for public consumption on the site. On Facebook, one no longer dances to the music, which is no longer communal. Instead, to dance on Facebook one must find a way of dancing that allows for the independent control of the music, and therefore of the movement, through a style of dance that denies the primacy of the social and corporeal components of dance that have traditionally been seen as among its most essential functions.
By alienating herself from the music she is dancing to, Mace demonstrates the sacrifice of her own autonomy in favor of a medial regime that grants all of us so much control, but so very little freedom. I’ll keep hoping for Kunkel’s revolution, but until it comes, I suspect that Mace’s alienation is the best we can hope for.