Encountering the Ethical

Issue #08: Dance and Ethics.

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Ethics is intimate, personal, in your face, more so than the political. There is a proximity to ethical relations. Ethics is based on touch. The body materialises these relationships, puts a material face to their potency. We are touched by others, touched literally, metaphorically, directly, indirectly. How to think these encounters? Is there something particular to dancing that teaches us something about the ethical realm? Can the body teach us and, if it can, what is that? What does learning have to do with ethics?

For Spinoza, ethics arises in the encounter between bodies, on the dance floor, in the studio, in the kiss, slap or punch. It is not a matter of some abstract law we must obey, rather a question of what a body becomes in light of the encounter. The good arises for Spinoza when a body acquires and exhibits greater agency, more power or capacity: does a body become better, more capable, more powerful? Does it realise more of its potential, or is it diminished, lesser, weaker? As elaborated later in this issue (cf Dance Thinking), these are the key ethical questions for Spinoza, whose answers lie within and between bodies, in the flux of life.

The body in all its richness and complexity can teach us how to live, how to act. Antonia Pont looks at the fine metrics of the bodily encounter, at the capacity for the body’s sensations to become the teacher. The same holds for encounters between bodies. The Ethics of the Encounter section in this issue illustrates the point. Does touch enable a body to become more capable? Is the one being touched alive and active to that touch? If so, if a body gains in agency as a result of the encounter, then Spinoza would say this is good. Somatic practitioners aim to facilitate greater agency, capacity and understanding through their encounters. The same might hold between dancing bodies, inasmuch as training and teaching aims to facilitate greater capacity. Another way of putting this would be to focus on agency, as the measure of capacity. Elizabeth Keen writes of a touch that listens, as a means by which to facilitate agency (rather than passivity) on the part of the receiver. In Spinozan terms, this is an encounter or intervention which positions the other in active terms, leading to greater empowerment. Alice Cummins also addresses the sense in which listening can open up a terrain of new possibilities, for the self as well as the other. Kate Barnett raises an ethical question with respect to intervention, framed in terms of a fear that touching interrupts, patterns or habits. The worry is that intervention may be destructive and thereby unethical. Is destruction bad? Conversely, can destruction clear the way for new growth? What is destroyed in becoming different? Jodie Vandekerkhove also raises ethical questions around ballet, with respect to its production of docile (passive) bodies. In Spinozan terms, the issue would depend upon an increasing or decreasing power of the trained body. Perhaps this isn’t enough. Power is complex. If we move beyond liberal conceptions of power (as always outside the self), we can see that power is exercised on us, in us and by us, that power circulates and permeates.

The encounter can always go the other way, towards a lessening of capacity. Can we really say that forced detention of asylum seekers is ethical, that some good is achieved through such confinement, intimidation and coercion? Is it good for “us” to keep others out? Who is empowered, which bodies become more capable in this perversion of justice? How does fear work in the exchange between bodies near and far, and who is protected in such instances? To speak in this way is to suggest that social and political forces can determine what bodies count and what counts as a body. Martin Hansen looks at the capitalist demand for the body to represent the individual, such that social and political forces commodify, individuate and hold responsible certain kinds of heterosexualised bodies. This is contrasted with an underlying fluidity of corporeal boundaries. Margaret Trail poses an alternative fluidity, via the figure of ventilation, suggesting a porosity between bodies which fosters their ability to affect and be affected.

To speak of bodies in this way is not reduce the person to a body so much as bring the body into the picture, to locate human activity in the material exchange of forces. There is a powerful tendency to locate the ethical in a non-bodily dimension, in the mind, in abstract rules and norms. But really, mind and body are co-existent, intertwined, inseparable. Dancers know and like this.

Ethics is practice-based. It’s located in what we do and in what happens through what we do. Aristotle writes of practical wisdom (phronesis), of virtues cultivated through practice. The good habit is the one which trains the individual to experience pleasure in the good. Good practice finds the golden mean, the middle ground between morbid extremes.

It’s not always easy to find the right balance. Consider the regime of criticism. Is the ethical critic the one who always supports the artist? Is the good critic honest? Is the critic embodied? Fleur Kilpatrick floats the idea of an ethical pact between artist and critic, Ben Woods, the dynamic interplay between the work and its audience. Susan Foster writes of the kinaesthetic empathy that resonates between performer and audience. How might we think an ethics of kinaesthetic empathy, expressed in words? For Louisa Duckett, words empower when combined with a kinaesthetic practice such as postmodern dance.

Words, bloody words. Two authors in this issue have responded to the Paris shootings of writers, cartoonists and editors. Jana Perkovic writes of performance as an affective sphere, a place where work has an impact. This is in contrast to the disembodied notion of a public sphere, a masculine, rational space free of bodies. Live performance brings bodies together. They touch each other, affect each other. For Alice Heywood also, art touches us. How then to think ethics in conjunction with dance in conjunction with performance in the context of all that is, in relation to conflict, violence, and oppression?

While we may invoke notions of free speech in light of recent events, Liz Dean reminds us that bodies aren’t exactly free. We find ourselves within situations not entirely of our own making. This isn’t merely existential. It’s political, social, habitual, and kinaesthetic. There is, for Dean, an aspect of otherness within our own bodies, the possibility that engaging with that otherness enables change in the body-self. How else do we change our habits, of thought and movement? Luckily, others can help. Leonie Hearn, a Feldenkrais practitioner, speaks of her touch offering possibilities beyond the subject’s habits. Alexander technique faces up to our bad habits. Alexander teacher Gary Levy writes of the gap that arises once habitual patterns are interrupted, as a space of possibility.

The ethical cultivates this space, tends it, refreshes it. Not knowing beforehand what that space is like, is no reason to hold back.