Encountering Casualities

Issue #08: Dance and Ethics.

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The distinction between morality and ethics is a fizzy topic. Morality often seems to involve a kind of code-withcontent, that’s to say, there are categories and actions fall into them or they don’t – no matter when, where or with whom. Ethics, in comparison, would speak to principles of action, those from which we might derive responses that we, and others, can live with in certain moments and contexts. Ethics considers the how of navigating a life rather than what’s to be coolly assessed.

Years ago, I was in a first-year Chinese Medicine lecture at Victoria University on dietary therapy and food as medicine. Nearing the end, questions had devolved into a kind of table tennis of ‘what if…’ and ‘what about [insert food type here]?’ Finally someone yelled, with a hint of bravado, ‘what about diet coke? What are its medicinal qualities?’ The lecturer paused, then packing up his papers, archly replied: “Just drink a lot of it and see what happens.”

The distinction between morality and ethics is a fizzy topic. Morality often seems to involve a kind of codewith- content, that’s to say, there are categories and actions which fall into them or they don’t – no matter when, where or with whom. Think of the big to-do lists of world religions. Respecting parents – tick. Coveting wives – cross. Morality, if we follow this take, seems to begin with content that one then slots into columns. Ethics, in comparison, would speak to principles of action, those from which we might derive responses that we, and others, can live with in certain moments and contexts. Ethics considers the how of navigating a life rather than what’s to be coolly assessed. But already we have a clue. Take an action, any action. If you run it through the filter of morality, it’s much faster. Check the table. Nup, can’t do it. Ethics means more hard work and definitely making mistakes, perhaps quite costly ones, and probably some accidental innovation. Ethics means more pondering, more doubt, and therefore less external back up (from church or state). Morality-as-code is prêt-à-porter.

Ethics are designer. You design them yourself, in consultation with tradition, people you admire, disasters you unleash, regret, hope, and so on. To cultivate an ethics means to work towards a way of asking questions, either for oneself individually or for a collective.

Ethics means staying within questioning for longer. Such ponderings may produce very tangible positions on certain matters, while others throw the inquirer back on themselves and into a refreshed space of uncertainty and responsibility. Ethics is lonelier but arguably has the potential to build living, contesting, tender community. Morality can let one identify quickly with others who insist on the same code as oneself but can shut people out with its rigidity and therefore be more barricaded.

The TCM lecturer made something else clear in his response: that in considering a certain food substance (and hence eating as a way of treating a body), we can simply take note of the food’s cumulative effects. If the substance has a ‘nature’, then this nature becomes more explicit the more of it we expose ourselves to. The practice of noticing was the point of instruction. Where the student wanted a rule, the teacher recommended a process, throwing responsibility for any decision back onto the inquirer. Now, this is clearly more arduous – more precarious, too – than consulting a table of foodstuffs. There are plenty of these around, and unless one understands what ‘descending’ or ‘cooling’ or ‘dispersing’ might mean, it’s all a bit esoteric. The lecturer implied that in order to get a sense of the lived feeling of what a food (read: kind of relationship) really does, rather than just deploy a rule to eat more or less of a particular thing, one could embark on an experiment. The practitioner who tastes and feels the effect of a food’s flavour (read: kind of relationship) exceeds any prescribed framework and enters the realm of nuanced decision in relation to cumulative effects. In other words, they encounter causality, and the causality of encounters.

Causality (or causation) is not necessarily something to be taken for granted. In the 18th Century, David Hume famously abstained from concluding that when A and B always happen together (constant conjunction) that it’s possible to affirm that A causes B. We tend, psychologically, to slide towards assuming their causal linking, but caution around this can be at best productive or, at least, precise. Hume reminds us that we may not be able to know for sure.1 Curiously enough, the Sanskrit term karma, often smeared in its use, also simply means the law of cause and effect. Acknowledging Hume’s wariness, I have no difficulty with this term, which would seem merely to recognise that our actions continue to ripple out from us, having consequences that we cannot predict in advance, but which may align with some notions of what we deem desirable and undesirable in a life. If the notion of karma plays a role in aspects of the moral (and class) codes of Hinduism, we have some clue that one way to think into morality (as code) and ethics (as research) can involve a honed interest in cause and effect – an interest that can be enthusiastic, as well as cautious in the spirit of Hume, and cognisant of the idea’s vulnerability to distortion.

Ethics means staying within questioning for longer

Dance and other movement forms, therapies of many kinds, and certain artistic modalities, I’d like to suggest, reflect – often unintentionally – this approach. Whereas certain discussions of both ethics and morality can become entangled and fraught – slippery within imprecise vocabularies – working with the body allows truly serious queries to unfold explicitly and playfully, in the intentional laboratory of the studio or the clinic. If ethics involves refining our ways of asking questions about how to live a life, then dance-as-practice can be an exemplary opportunity to live this out, involving – as it does – an encounter between the practitioner, their desire, their preconceptions, their limited insight, and the constraints operating in a space. Eliding easy binaries of morality or ethics, the movement practitioner arguably embarks on a journey that uncovers morality’s very ontology and is at once an ethical inquiry (if we also allow the latter to include the exploration of the distinction between the so-called ethical and unethical). Movement practice is a case in particular thanks to its potential to play out and reveal in action how ethics and morality are not opposites but rather inflections of a related field – simply more and less condensed. Their difference is one of register. Morality is our shorthand. Were the desire to nick something from the milkbar to rise up in me, I can quickly flick to the tab on stealing in my own morality ledger (personally derived from a life of experiments in ethics, and a memorable encounter, aged four, with a terrifying pharmacist and a bottle of 4711…) to see that I don’t want to do it. It’s just quicker. Morality, as I’m defining it (and perhaps for some readers here, in a far too indulgent way…) is just the sedimentation of umpteen processes that I can’t reenact each time I meet a situation. Morality can be the sedimented processes of long histories of communities, nations and religions. Sometimes, dare I say it, we don’t give these systems enough credit (which can be due to having been casually and persistently brutalised in their name). Moral codes, when compared in their iterations, are remarkably similar and plausible. The problem, however, with sedimented systems is that they are always-already-immediately out of date. Like your smart phone, they never stop needing an OS update. Additionally, our shared dilemma is that each generation needs to uncover its own version of the code, even though much of its content will repeat. And, we still struggle to find the balance between what must be incontrovertible (killing? torture? exploitation of the vulnerable?) and what we can allow some stretch on (white lies that serve courtesy?). In short, we have to allow people their suffering and their misdemeanors (to take these away is also a kind of stealing). How much, however, of the consequences of this same suffering and experimentation can we responsibly allow, given their impact on others? As Adam Phillips notes in his recent book, One Way and Another, for some people, happiness truly involves cutting the feet off live rats. Is this a happiness that one should have the right to pursue? So, I seem to be saying that ethics is a necessary experiment and involves inevitable costs, and that without eventually stable codes, our quotidian lives would be unfeasible, a tangled knot of endless rumination. Being an adult might mean to have experimented thoroughly enough to relieve the sense that one is simply complying (to have transformed certain resistances), and having devised a workable code, to know then all the flaws and aporia of this undertaking. To be an adult is to tolerate, to somedegree, the tension between having to decide, and knowing that life and causation are impossibly complex. For this reason, moral codes are often most useful to the very young, and those for whom daily research is simply too much effort, or still too conceptually demanding. In Raja Yoga, for example, the yamas (the ‘restraints’ – such as non-greed, non-stealing, non-harm etc.), as distilled fairly reliable ‘rules’, are the very first thing a new practitioner is advised to grapple with. Yoga does not begin with poses, but rather with a mini-laboratory of restraints. (Restraint, of course, is magical at revealing and clarifying relationships to anything.) Once the yamas are introduced, one can experiment with them in the context of poses (‘things we are trying to do that are a bit difficult’). I often wonder what it means that we have – as a ‘secular’ culture that is a little suspicious of ‘morality’ – so few of these restraints that we collectively and explicitly subscribe to. Start with a code (as a small human) and then – if you’ve got enough energy, nous and privilege – use it as a springboard to construct a nuanced ethics.

think-jail 2005So why argue that working with the body inevitably involves an encounter with ethics? If ethics is less a code than a process of questioning and noticing consequences, the body – as a participant – is very straight-talking. When working with students, I always try to emphasise that the body never, ever (never, ever!!) lies. It has no ruse. It inevitably reflects back, and often promptly, the consequences of how we interact with it. Interaction here might involve how we place its bones, what we feed it, with whom we ‘move’, and how we speak to it (the tone of the whispers of the super-ego…) We may have little interest in heeding the body’s replies, but most movement practitioners are people who have been encouraged to listen in this way. If there were one skill pursued by movement practitioners, I’d wager this would be it. Phillips also notes (in his example, as a caution to therapists) that listening for a particular answer is not really listening… This is equally valid for movement practitioners. Sometimes when there is a little catch, a little sliver of pinch or pain, we pretend to listen, but we don’t really want to hear, and so we only ‘listen’ for the answer we want, the one that would say: Keep going, maybe if I go a little harder and faster, if I’m tougher, this ‘wrong’ answer that my body is giving me will evaporate.

For movement practitioners, injury is the unambiguous communicator. It is the impartial, frank authority. It’s not that some authority (your parent, your boss, the godhead) decrees ‘don’t bend the knee in that way’; it’s rather that the knee, when not listened to, is changed and enters a causal trajectory that can only be later integrated rather than reversed, since there is, as Deleuze notes, in the synthesis he calls the ‘living present’, a ‘direction to the arrow of time’.2 It’s a version of the student’s diet coke question. What happens if you use the knee like a ball and socket joint? Well, the answer – in terms of ethics, in terms of process – is just do it over and over, and see what happens. The moral equivalent is the movement teacher declaring that the knee is a hinge joint, and the student simply obeying out of compliance or respect for the more experienced teacher. The process of moving/dancing involves the likelihood that the knee will anyway be sometimes used in diverse ways, and will lead to an embodied understanding of how the knee moves, even in the absence of any bookish anatomical know-how. (The obstacle that injury can be to practice, however, is a trickier topic. It’s not that injury says ‘stop’, rather it says ‘stop doing like that, but keep going – differently and more intelligently.’)

When we practice with the body, ethics becomes real and immediate. In my experience, questions of sustainability, structural stability (over time) and a changing notion of ‘beauty’ unfold. We still learn via ‘mistakes’, but they are ours and become part of a practice that is increasingly revealing. I force the knee in a lotus pose, for example, because I’m hasty, or because I haven’t checked the hips and they are for some reason different today. Pain ensues, sometimes damage, and often cost – since injuries are expensive! If patience is a virtue in some moral codes, when working directly with the body, I learn why. I’m not conforming to a code; I’m devising and deriving an understanding from my studio practice that I would call ethical. The knee is sore (for three days, three months) and I begin to appreciate slowness from within. I increasingly value patience and understand its relevance to traditional codes, without feeling that I obey it as a rule. My behaviour towards my body comes to align with ‘moral’ codes, but I’ve arrived there via a very different trajectory than compliance. Rather than fear from the outside, I have inner caution and wonderment – for what is possible and of what mightn’t be. The restraint, as with most creative work, also serves to open up potential,rather than shut it down.

In this sense, movement-as-ethical-laboratory reflects the idea of ethics as a calculus of consequences, playing out the dynamics and shifting relations over time. The simple notion of morality, then, would seem to offer us a portable, practical snap shot. Ethics is when we pan out, and see through time what unfolds – or seems to often or reliably unfold, acknowledging Hume – when we do certain things. There is no ultimate ratification for these findings, which can easily be contaminated with other factors – superstition, our gender training, family propaganda, internalised memories of punishment, environmental variables. In this way, although the body doesn’t lie, sometimes we can’t decode what it’s saying. That is why the listening never stops, why some things crystallise as sound training, and why it’s always possible that the body will intimate something totally unexpected. That’s why – as we learn to feed our body differently, but not less deliciously – we turn up in the studio, time and time again.


1 For an accessible account of Hume’s thought on causation go to: http://www.iep.utm.edu/hume-cau/ (retrieved 17/2/2015)
2 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, P. Patton (trans.), New York & London: Continuum, p. 91 (2004)


Adam Phillips, One Way and Another, Hamish Hamilton, (2013), particularly the chapter ‘My Happiness Right or Wrong’.