Tuesday 8 February 2011

Tormented by the Body

What is the potential for close, critical reading of the language used by the participants?

In an earlier post I quoted this line by Peter, one of the participants in the dance watching group. Here he is discussing 'Awakenings' in his second piece of free flow writing about 'things he saw':

Tormented by the body, frozen in stilted motion, a world in which normal
movement has become an unfamiliar thing.

This is something that I suspect we can quite readily agree is an evocative phrase, it is full of affecting imagery, it encourages us to feel what it describes – emotionally and/or physically – rather than that simply see it. Importantly it encourages us to engage in this emotional /physical affect whether or not we have seen the performance that is being described. In terms of our engagement with this phrase, the performance itself is no longer relevant as we instead draw on the connotative substance and heft of the words and our own cultural and personal experiences.

In the tradition of ekphrastic writing however, the phrase seeks to translate some of the experiential properties of one thing to another – from the dance into language. That is a translation of sympathy rather that equivalency – not identical, but the same in its difference.
This affective engagement operates through a process of empathy. When looking at this phrase I first thought, well he is simply describing what he saw, dancers performing in a tormented, stilted manner, alienated from their own bodies and from our familiar sense of normal movement. Yes, I thought, I saw that too. Yet there is nothing particularly simple in that description or in that perception, it is particular to us watching in an embodied manner, with and through awareness of human bodilyness.

Equally for anybody reading the line the response is rooted, I'd suggest, in reading it with and through awareness of human bodilyness.

What, however, can we say about the extent or exact nature of this empathetic relationship to the performance? I think we can very comfortably say that neither the writer when he was watching the dance, nor the dancers when they were performing, nor you when you are reading the sentence feel tormented. However, there is a feeling of tormentedness that was first projected by the qualities of the movement to the writer and then (in a translated form) by the qualities of the language to the reader, which we can connect with and be affected by without actually succumbing to it.

From first to second writing

In preperation for the workshops the participants were asked to write free flow one two occasions. First immediately after the performance; and second the following day. I naturally found it valuable to look at this unedited free flow material for any noticeable habits or features. One thing that emerged was difference between the first and second sets of writing, which might result from a combination of the time period elapsing and (perhaps more significantly) that this was the second time in which the participants had engaged in writing and in consciously reflecting on the performance. For example, there was a tendency for the descriptions of things seen in the first piece of writing to be fairly literal, often in a list format, while in the second piece of writing this developed into more constructed phrases and had a looser and more imagistic relationship with what had been seen. So in the first piece of writing Mike (from the writers group) writes a list of things seen:

Clocks, bodies, people controlled by music and time. Wasps, insects, wild
animals, stars and silver helium-filled balloons. Giant shadows, darker than the
back wall. [etc]

In the second piece of writing he writes of things seen in this manner:

Lovers connected by the skin of their faces, moving together because they were
stuck together. […] Clowns turning into animals, both reptile and mammal. […]
Boneless clowns, elastic men. [etc]

For other participants again it is in the second set of writing that these more evocative, imagistic, metaphorical phrases develop. As for example with:

Tormented by the body, frozen in stilted motion, a world in which normal
movement has become an unfamiliar thing (Peter – dance spectators group)
Bodies rippling like waves from top to bottom (Susan – writers group)

Just as the second pieces of writing have a freer or more developed voice in terms of their imagery so do their in terms of their interpretative and analytical engagement. For example, it is largely in the second pieces of writing that participants start making comparisons to other art forms or experiences (such as Waiting for Godot, David Bowie, Kurt Vonnegut, Brian Aldiss, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Buster Keaton) and largely in the second pieces of writing that they start speculating on the nature of dance or dance watching in a general sense.

Generally, therefore, the second pieces of writing have not a looser connection to the performance but somehow a freer connection. The writing, the reflection, the language, the phrases and reflective engagement have all developed, are all richer and more insightful.

Language is always inadequate

In some ways the impossibility of the task given to the participants, of accounting for their experience of dance in writing, almost becomes the point. Meaning and insight were produced through the struggle and within the gaps and the failures as well as the successes. I find the following articulation of this impossibility in relation to linguistic expression of feeling or experience is particularly useful:

Language is always inadequate. We dance with the impossible each time we put
words on the page. It is far better to dance with impossibility than to accept
the first ordinary word that comes to mind, the easy cliché. (Neilsen cited in
Prendergast 2009: xxvi)

There is of course nothing particular to the experience of inadequacy, ineffability or simple frustration to the challenge of writing or speaking about dance. As Neilsen indicates, this is the challenge of accounting for any kind of lived experience of the world. Secondly, that while accepting this impossibility, rather than avoiding the challenge it is valuable to try to go beyond the first draft and to engage with the craft and practice of writing.