I swear this book will end me. Six months in and some days I read the first sentences of a paragraph and realise it’s the same paragraph I’ve been on the whole week. And it’s a Sunday. I’m having trouble reading books at the moment anyway. Fiction is out, because I’m in fiction-writing mode and the novels I’ve started are either dissatisfying for where I’m at, or feel like they’d influence my own writing. Non-fiction, well, yes, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, we are still shouting, “Fucking yes!” when we do manage to read a new paragraph (usually on the toilet because that seems to be where a balance is currently found), but I have no cash for the pile of non-fiction waiting for me to pick up. Lemme tell you how long-term poverty as a function of even a moderately ok life as a trans woman / trans feminine person / transsexual is a very real life. (I weirdly want to start using that ‘transsexual’ word again to fuck with cis queers and their ‘gender is cultural’ bullshit. Petty is as petty does.)
So, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, or First Class Spivak, because someone said she only flies first class, and even if that’s not true, I admire that image of her, and she is so so very first class. I keep reading and wanting to underline and quote, and as I haven’t blogged this month, here we go, one quote at least. from The Double Bind Starts to Kick In, p.108:
This much is at least clear: to imagine or figure the other as another self, you need to engage the moving edge of culture as it leaves its traces in the idiom. To reduce it to language—to semiotic systems that are organised as language—was a structuralist dream. But at least, whatever the subject-position of the structuralist-investigator there was a rigour in the enterprise. Its tempo was different from the impatience of a universalist feminism re-coding global capital. From existing evidence, it is clear that individual-rights or universalist feminists infiltrate the gendering of the global South to recast it hastily into the individual rights model. They simply take for granted that colonised cultures are inevitably patriarchal. I will not enter into historical speculation. I will take shelter in a figure—the figure or topos, that in postcoloniality the past as the unburied dead calls us. This past has not been appropriately mourned, nor been given the rites of the dead, as the other system brought in by colonialism imposed itself. There was no continuous shedding of a past into unmarked modernity.
More than Deleuze (with or without Guattari), more than Foucault, somewhat more than Derrida, so different to Butler, but like her someone I returned to again and again, for the quiet care and poetry, for the love of movement, one of that first group of philosophers I got introduced to by the same person at a moment in my life where they resonated, and — like only Butler from those names — continue to, 25 years on. I knew it was coming, likely sooner, but still, I lost my breath for an instant, I stopped.
The more I dance, the more I am naked, absent, a calculation and a number. Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I. The more I dance, the less I am me. If I dance something, I am that something or I signify it. When I dance, I am only the blank body of the sign.
To dance is only to step aside and make room, to think is only to step aside and make room, give up one’s place.
To leave at last the page blank.
Laughter is that little noise, uttered in blank ecstasy.
I started reading this a couple of years ago, which might have already been my second attempt. It’s been giving me disappointed looks from my ‘currently reading’ pile ever since. But, having successfully reminded myself how to read dense theory again, while spending months on Edward Said’s Orientalism earlier this year, I thought it was time to suck it up and get back into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. The problem is, she’s so fucking brilliant, I’ll read a sentence and spend half an hour just thinking it through.
On that, then, I decided to just quote some of these bangers. Ending the Preface, on page xvi:
Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.
Starting the Introduction, page 1:
Globalization takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control.
Next on page 2:
The most pernicious presupposition today is that globalization has happily happened in every aspect of our lives. Globalization can never happen to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being, except insofar as it always was implicit in its vanishing outlines. Only an aesthetic education can continue to prepare us for this […]
Quoting Hanna Arendt on page 3:
“The general future of mankind has nothing to offer individual life, whose only certain future is death.”
We want the public sphere gains and the private sphere constraints of the Enlightenment; yet we must also find something relating to “our own history” to counteract the fact that the Enlightenment came, to colonizer and colonized alike, through colonialism, to support a destructive “free trade,” and that top-down policy breaches of Enlightenment principles are more the rule than exception.
I spent most of breakfast on that page 1 Introduction quote, swearing at its magnificence, meme-ing Where is the lie? tru dat, and that’s the T, and realising it’s gonna take me about 2 years to read this at this pace.
Around the time I started dancing, living in Auckland, shortly before moving to Australia, I fell in with a rough crowd of philosophers and academics. Or rather, I skirted the edges of their world in Auckland and then in Melbourne as they en masse crossed the ditch; and then they were students, working their way through Masters and Phds. As with almost everyone, I lost contact, lives diverging, names hazily remembered.
Perhaps I’m inventing a fictional history, perhaps also the bright memories I have are of the enthusiasm of first discoveries rather than any significant shift in paradigms, nonetheless there was a raw thrill for new philosophy and theory. There were names that have stuck with me: Deleuze, Butler. I tried on Serres, Derrida, Kristeva, Iragaray; newer names still, like offspring of those first names, Rosi Braidotti, Keith Ansell-Pearson, Slavoj Žižek; felt like a fifth columnist going to lectures on Habermas and Lyotard. Perhaps it was because Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus had only recently been translated into English — by recently I mean this mob were the first generation of university students to be exposed to it, and it was certainly far outside the mainstream of university curricula; and Butler’s Gender Trouble was similarly new and far out.
Anyway, I found myself in Sydney one summer, in Gleebooks, and there on the shelves were both 1000 Plateaus and Gender Trouble. I bought both without a second thought. I read them over and over. (There was another book there, I forget the name, but it was about trans identities, I remember the rush of finding that, reading possibilities for living. I mention that so as not to compartmentalise these interwoven moments, one side joy, the other, shame.)
As with seeing Frankfurt Ballet and knowing my life belonged in dance (I still trust that decision however precarious my life has been because of it), Bridget telling me to read Deleuze and Butler is one of those monumental instances in my life. I’d call it an epiphany, but like the word ‘genius’ she’d probably hate it. Sitting in Black Cat Café in Fitzroy one day she also said, “You’re lucky. You get to live what we only theorise about.” So now I’m doubly lucky ’cos I live and theorise this shit.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to other words and names from then: Subaltern, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. Perhaps it was only these couple of people from this small group who were really into all this, and a proper history of ’90s New Zealand and Australian academic life would barely rate them a footnote. For me though, I got booted onto a course I’m still riding the momentum of. Curiously, I never read Spivak then, or never the way I did Butler and Deleuze. Spivak seemed and seems to be everywhere, when I see her name it’s like an old friend, or a friend of a friend I’ve heard so much about.
I wonder how common this is, to be able to trace vast paths and directions through a life back to single moments. Seeing Frankfurt Ballet, Bridget telling me to read Butler and Deleuze; more recently maybe, Erik telling me to read Caroline Walker Bynum. I’m sure there are others, though those moments on the cusp of teens and twenties have determined much of my life.
So I’ve returned to that name: Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. I’ve been reading around migration, human rights, Islam, colonialism, these subjects in Europe, Seyla Benhabib, Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Ruth Mandel, Katherine Pratt Ewing, and more recently with the current precarious state of democracy and human rights in Europe having a need to focus on this. I’m not sure why Spivak’s name occurred to me, maybe I read about her somewhere, or just decided she was the right choice for now.
I went through all her published works before deciding on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. There’s other works that are probably more essential Spivak, ones that I remember from student days, but this was published in 2012 and I thought reading her newer stuff would be a pertinent choice.
What’s it like then? It’s a well proper slab of a book. Almost 600 pages (about 100 of which are notes) with wide spaces for marginalia, and a small typeface that’s making my eyes apprehensive. I started reading it a week ago, then went off to read some fiction, so I might have to start it again. I’ve read the preface, where she describes each essay in the collection as “looking for a distracted theory of the double bind.” She finishes with, “Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.”
I think it’s common when reading philosophy or critical theory to read people without having actually read them. Quotes, lengthy discussions, analyses, criticisms, notes, all these over time can result in a feeling for an author, a familiarity, at the very least enough to know if I actually want to read them or not. I can’t think of another writer who’s been as large in my consciousness as Spivak without me actually reading them. I’m also desperate for direction at the moment. Spivak, writing on post-colonialism, globalisation, and most importantly aesthetics (I’m reminded of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory here), somehow it feels right to be reading Spivak now. As an artist making political work (like there’s any art possible without being political?) maybe to quote the back cover: “aesthetic education is the last available instrument for implementing global justice.”
I’m gripping Louis XIV’s pole like I’m trying to strangle it. I’m not sure it’s Louis XIV’s. I’m not sure I even know what’s going on. It’s a length of wood. Hurhur. That we grip. Double hur. Not too tightly though. We let our fingers and hand glide back and forth along its length—Ok, So we’re just done with “phrasing,” right?
We use the barre to: keep our balance for, while we work our legs for, as we warm up through various exercises to prepare us for … something something. I don’t think we know why we’re using it, except out of habit. We use it because we’ve always used it, because ballet uses it, because it’s the ballet barre part of a ballet class, because it’s ballet. So we grip it and strangle it and caress it and our eyes glaze over whenever we get near the question of why we use it because that original answer is lost.
I think it’s in lieu, of a hand, of another’s hand, of another person. It’s in lieu of our partner, with whom we dance. But we no longer dance with a hand and arm and partner who moves and dances with us; we hold onto a fixed wooden pole. I’m only presuming this because I thought the question of when the barre was codified was a straightforward one, but what I found was a complete absence. Nothing in Louis XIV’s time. An early mention seems most of a century later with Gennaro Magri in the late-1700s, or Carlo Blasis or Giovanni-Léopold Adice in the early-1800s, where a chair was used for support, subsequently to be replaced by our barre.
Whatever, the barre serves another purpose now, for another kind of ballet.
Michel Serres in Genesis talks about ballet, the barre, the body thinking—one of the only philosophers to seriously and genuinely engage with dance. I may disagree with him and others now somewhat in that I do not think that ballet is unnatural, a torture. It is a poor habit to regard that which oneself is not capable of, which one does not understand, as monstrous. On the other hand, he writes that the dancer is the possible: “Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I.” I would go further, and say there is no subject which thinks, outside of the body. Thinking is the domain of the body and dancing is as much thinking as thoughts which form themselves in words around a thing we think of as I.
What thoughts come when a body exercises while gripping a barre?
I had one teacher who encouraged us to hang onto the barre, use it because it’s there. This in lascivious opposition to the statements of the majority that the hand must lie delicately on the upper surface, thumb next to index finger, and not wrapped around, to slip forwards and backwards with each change of weight. I’m sure I’ve done both, and I’m not sure there’s fundamentally much of a difference. The illusion of choice, to use or not use the barre, is just that. We use it, have used it, before we even recognise we need it. At this speed, our body preempts our thinking, and the fine detail of caring for balance within a body is overthrown by the hand always getting there first. Using the barre depends on an artificiality that has nothing to do with a body standing on one or two feet.
Early last week I’d been watching Ballet Company Reality TV. Horribly awful and impossible to look away. I’d followed that with one of the most frustrating classes in a long time, and as usual when frustration and desperation meet, crazy, wild, revolutionary things happen: I took my hand off the barre. Faaark. Radical shit right there.
Seriously. I felt like a menace to society.
I’ve done it before too, recidivist that I am. When I first started dancing I experimented with it as a fast-track, quick-fix. It’s neither. And occasionally teachers mention in passing the benefits of not using the barre. Though not in a serious way, not in a, “Let’s fuck shit up right now! Take your hands off, youse!” More of a proposition no one was actually expected to commit to. Or if they do, then the barre itself, the class is changed, it’s a special “Barre without the barre” barre, and not simply doing the barre without holding onto it. If you get what I mean.
So I let go of the barre, what happened? Craaaazy shit! One of my life-long bad habits is holding superhero levels of tension in my shoulders. And I’ve had years of “Shoulders down, Frances!” blahdiblah only to work out it’s not the shoulders which are up, but my head which is down, retracted all turtle-like. Yanking on the barre only exacerbates this. The amount of tension you can put into your shoulders is only limited by how securely the barre is bolted down. You have two of the most opposite ends of your body, a hand and a foot holding on and wedge in for dear life while you wave the rest of your body around in the mad panic called ballet, and hell yes will your shoulder and neck do the job of battening the hatches.
And then you get into the centre, the bit of the class without the barre and first thing expected of your body is to do dead slow shit on one leg. Shoulder and neck are all, “We live for this shit!” But they don’t. Cos there’s nothing for them to hold on to. You’ve spent 45 minutes diligently training yourself out of your body, out of coordination, out of balance and all the rest, and now you’re gonna turn it all on? Nope. A whole body’s worth of uselessness, and simply “not doing” that isn’t going to magically transport you into the necessary physical state. And what kind of caricature is all roid-raged in their neck and shoulders? The scary, uptight type. It’s a two-way street. Just as much as stress builds up in this location, so does tension there set off all kinds of emotional and mental bollocks. It’s exhausting stuff.
Last night I watched the Royal Ballet taking company class, and the barre was mentioned, as a device that enables the dancers to concentrate on the accuracy of their feet and legwork. They’re all fucking amazing so probably all isn’t really applicable to dancing at that level, but it occurred to me that the barre exercises in themselves—and not the aid of the barre—prepare that physical accuracy, the balance, control, coordination, strength, mental and emotional states, so when you get to the centre you’ve already done the basic work and you’ve already been dancing for 45 minutes with yourself, so things like that first adagio make sense as a coherent, logical progression, and not a bizarre leap from one physiological state to another.
This is just my experience of not using the barre: I have to rely on myself, through the pliés, tendus, all those little steps, my body has to discover how it balances and stands, where to hold and where to release, how my weight shifts forward and back, side to side, where my ribs are, how my spine assembles and rights itself. Without the noise of tension in shoulders and neck that comes from the deceptive security of holding onto something, there’s far more to hear within. My body sways far more, probably excessively right now as it adapts to this new regime, seems to work harder, or have more demanded of it, yet remains calmer and recovers from exertion quicker. Ballet forms itself more easily from this state, things like turnout result from this, or are more understandable within the physical logic of the system, rather than being something we—or I—do. Movement that often thwarts me in the centre comes together, patchily for sure at the moment, but inevitably also. Speed is sometimes not possible; at other times almost too easy. Things, by which I mean chronic injuries I’m still getting over, nag less, I think because the barre aids in going too far in movement, and not far enough in maintaining balance, causing overloading or counterbalance compensation stress and tension. It becomes a constant, personal experience of balance and movement. Tough also, definitely the toughest thing I’m doing right now, harder than climbing and cyclocross. Sort of a meditation, maybe because without the barre ballet is easier for me to see as a mental discipline.
An addendum: All this is part of a question of why do I keep dancing, for which I think the only real answer is: because I love it. It’s a question for which that answer is insufficient, particularly while getting older. It’s tied up in that word, ‘keep.’ Keep dancing. Keep doing ballet, when most professional ballet dancers have retired by my age and most professional dancers don’t really commit to the regularity and discipline of class either. Keep putting myself into a physiological state far from the everyday. Why? For what? Again an insufficient answer: for the thing itself. For whatever other reason, I continue doing ballet because it’s not finished with me yet.
I went on a bit of a philosophical forest experience while staying in Waldsieversdorf. First, while feeling all introspective, I went on a very not sensible bike ride, the result of not paying attention to the topographic contour lines on the map meant what I thought would be a gentle, horizontal-ish amble through Wald and around See was a hellish excursion of muddy verticality, up and down slippery flights of stairs and inclines too steep to cycle, unloading bike from shoulder and mounting only to have to dismount five meters later for the next impasse, all the while darkness creeping in.
I arrived back at the bach in semi-darkness to finish watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is all kinds of buddhist philosophy and struggle which caused me to wonder why I think I’m so clever to take the hard path or think I don’t even need to pay much attention and then find myself in situations where I’m genuinely not having fun. Instead, for example, just going for a gentle ride around the lake.
Later, I was writing an application, and sorting through my scrapbook when I came across a pdf of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. It turned out to be a short 60 pages and as I began reading, it dragged me in. I’ve been finding Chinese philosophy more appealing lately, and more practical, than European, particularly Daoism and Zhuangzi, which of course have strong parallels with Zen (or at least in my mind they do). I find also there is little mysticism or spirituality in the texts—or no more than any European philosopher has of Christianity. It was the practicalness of doing in this book that I had to read, coming off such a horrible cyclocross experience, something in general I have struggled with often as a dancer, climber, doing yoga, cycling, in my thinking of how to get through a task. Yeah, it sounds like I’m going all hippy here.
Early next year I’ll be working with Isabelle Schad, and we were speaking about this. I’d been thinking—as a result of reading Zen that I might take up Kyudo, but it occurred to me that Aikido, which Isabelle practices would be a better fit, given how the form influences her movement. Actually this book should be required reading for me on a monthly basis, if nothing else than to remind me not to do stupid things on my bike.
It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
I am sitting here, in Berlin, looking across the Uferhallen and south, the Panke canal, through trees not yet budding in an unseasonably early spring, entirely because of William Forsythe. Of course, not entirely, the details and meanderings can be said to be my own, yet the impetus, the first shove, or — to use it knowing also its religious connotations — the revelation, was sitting in a theatre watching The Frankfurt Ballett, having no idea what it was I was seeing, but knowing that was exactly what I wanted to do.
An origin story always gets remade to emphasise the desired narrative over what actually happened, so to tell it like this is knowingly to omit to the point of lying. Nonetheless, it was seeing The Frankfurt Ballett, leaving the theatre thrilled and shaking, seeing and hearing and feeling what was roiled inside of me without recourse to language to make itself conscious; it was this moment that gave clarity and understanding to me. Perhaps even it was the moment itself, that time then, and to see it a few years later or earlier would not have caused this immediate, complete change of direction. Well, yes, perhaps. Perhaps is not so interesting nor knowable. So: I’m sitting here, writing this, because of William Forsythe.
I enjoy writings on Forsythe, The Forsythe Company, Frankfurt Ballet because the work lends itself so easily to serious critical and philosophical thoughts. When Forsythe talks about deconstruction, he really is using the word in a Derridean sense, and not some vacuous, lazy synonym for dismantling. There are conversations you can have with the former that are not possible with the latter not merely because there is neither deconstruction nor dismantling taking place; it is these conversations that interest me, which I think are pertinent, even imperative to dance.
So I come to editor Steven Spier’s William Forsythe and the Practice of Choreography: It Comes from any Point, which I forget where I first saw, published in 2011. It’s a collection of essays, some short, some long, some easy to read and addressing a general dance audience, others assuming at least a familiarity with post-’68 philosophy, music theory, architecture … most of it (approaching half-way in the reading) I find very interesting and stimulating, while a couple of parts I feel a weight of disappointment. More or less typical for an essay collection.
One in particular irritated me, no coincidence I suppose it was the one heavy on Foucault: Gerald Siegmund’s Of Monsters and Puppets. The fixation on the word, ‘monster’, dancers’ bodies as monsters or monstrous, uttered over and over until it became like a nervous tick or fetish, the direct line to Foucault (who turns up more than once in this book), irrespective of the validity of this line of writing (either as a critical interpretation or coming directly from Forsythe’s references to Foucault) is all a bit too easy, predictable. It anticipates as well a queer colonialism wherein Queer claims dancers’ bodies as its own because all that is monstrous is Queer. It’s not. Queer doesn’t get to claim all bodies that fall outside of the normative as queer, nor are these bodies necessarily monstrous.
An opposition to this is Michel Serres writing on bodies that move, bodies that dance. The dancer’s body as the possible, the unknown; the body that thinks and is subject through moving; a body that is not reducible to a duality, separate from mind (or thinking, or consciousness) because of this; a body that resists a ‘holistic’ integration or synthesis of the two by being already somewhere else.
Certainly also it’s not a strict opposition. There is at play here in the monstrous and queer what Baudrillard calls, “an increasingly racist definition of the ‘normal human.’” yet that is not all there is, nor is it necessarily a coherent path of discourse to describe what is categorised as not normal in the language that does this categorisation. If nothing else, it means we agree a priori the designation is correct and we’re just arguing over the details. There’s also something dishonest in naming bodies monstrous and yet not admitting there’s something sexy and cool in such an appellation, perhaps even better than the non-monstrous.
Perhaps all of this is to say, yes, even if Forsythe names Foucault as an influence, it doesn’t follow that all analysis of his work has to be the standard turning of the lights labeled Foucault, Lacan, Marx, and others on it and performing a kind of paint by numbers theorising. Who else is there? Serres, obviously. Judith Butler was and is writing concurrently with Forsythe’s work. Mainly I find it a little uninteresting to remain so narrow and predictable in the choice of philosophers and tropes with which to regard the world.
Besides all that, which was only one or two of the essays I’ve so far read – and even these are well-written whatever I might think of their arguments – this is one of the best collections of essays I’ve read on Forsythe, and it’s a joy to read about dance like this.
Michel Serres is probably my favourite philosopher. Of the crop of post-68ers, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, all the names that are almost compulsory to be able to at least nod knowingly about if one wants to seem relevant in the contemporary dance milieu (to speak nothing of elsewhere) he goes strangely unmentioned. Possibly it’s changed in the last few years, but it was for me only by hanging out with some philosophers in Auckland and Melbourne who were dead keen on Serres that I know of him at all, as I am pretty certain I’ve not come across him otherwise, or not in a way that I can pin down as notable.
It’s because he wrote on dance, specifically ballet, that think so highly of him. Or perhaps it’s because when I first encountered him he wrote so beautifully, so poetically, so unlike every other philosopher, sometimes incomprehensibly (though never in the way that say, Derrida or Lacan did). I photocopied all the books of his I could find in the University library: The Parasite, Rome: The Book of Foundations, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, of course Genesis … his brilliant essay Gnomon: The Beginnings of Geometry in Greece in A History of Scientific Thought: Elements of a HIstory of Science (along with every other essay in there, especially Catherine Goldstein’s Stories of the Circle), photocopied because otherwise impossibly expensive. Even by the affordable prices of Germany, I can seldom afford what translations exist of his work: Variations on the Body caused me to wince and look the other way when I handed over the cash, and it’s tiny, a mere 162 pages. Beautifully bound and presented though, which honestly makes up for a lot for me when it comes to buying academic-ish texts; it’s really a book to hold and enjoy the tactile pleasure of the embossed cover and heavy paper.
This translation then, by Randolph Burks (member of the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild: The Lens Grinders) I have in two versions: latterly this printed one, an actual book; formerly a pdf which I think I snagged on the most excellent blog devoted to Serres. Same translation, different work. The French version is lavishly illustrated, something of a habit for Serres (Angels: A Modern Myth, for example). The English translation in book form is entirely bereft of illustrations, a compromise to getting it printed at all, which likely indicates the relative popularity of Serres compared to other French philosophers. The illustrations and photographs are not careless decoration, so the printed translation actually is substantially a lesser work, despite the work of Burks, who I think – based on the other translations I’ve read – makes me feel like I’m reading Serres without a go-between.
Serres does have his problems: there’s a distinct heterosexual male perspective in both his choice of words and choice of metaphors, similes, examples, which if nothing else shows his age (83, born in 1930), and Variations on the Body, with long sections devoted to romanticising mountaineering as an understanding of the philosophy of the body seems prone to this more than others. Ah, but it’s beautiful, it’s really not frequent for philosophy to make me smile with joy, but Serres, he does it all too often. He sometimes writes in a way which reminds me quite a bit of Chuang Tzu’s The Inner Chapters. So I’m enjoying this book immensely and think I will take seriously my desire to go on a Serres bender.
I was just about to write on a few things I’m reading – Michel Serres, Black Metal Theory mostly – and suddenly felt an urge to clean up, merge, rename, delete some of the 1300 tags on supernaut, when I noticed something dead weird: some of the tags were simultaneously categories. Much messing around and the inability to edit or change taxonomies caused me to have a look at the database, where I found, horribly, they indeed existed as both. I guess this is either a hangover from the Movable Type port some years ago, or a plugin that didn’t do its job properly around the same time. So I manually deleting 50 or so of these and their relationships. And then did some more merging and renaming. And now I must eat.