Dancing in the Dark, Spinoza’s Ethics of the Body

Issue #08: Dance and Ethics.

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Where you are when you don’t know where you are is one of the most precious spots offered by improvisation. It is a place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else. I call this place the Gap. The more I improvise, the more I’m convinced that it is through the medium of these gaps— this momentary suspension of reference point—that comes the unexpected and much sought after “original” material. It’s “original” because its origin is the current moment and because it comes from outside our usual frame of reference. –Nancy Stark Smith

Nancy Stark Smith speaks of a gap that opens up in the practice of improvisation. The gap is a means towards the production of new material. It provides an opening onto creativity. The gap represents a suspension of the dancer’s point of reference. It signals a movement away from familiarity, towards unknown territory. The gap is a mechanism or symptom of displacement, of the dancer who knows what to do, who is already trained, poised to show what she already understands. The gap undermines this kind of knowing, making room for the body to take the lead.

So, the gap is only a gap from the dancer’s point of view. It is a gap in the dancer’s understanding, one which allows the body (or bodies) to produce new material without the benefit of conscious decision making or control. The idea that the dancer’s subjectivity is no longer central and that the body holds the key is not new. Nietzsche is renowned for preferring the body to consciousness; the body was his ‘guiding light’. But it’s Spinoza who takes these elements into an explicitly ethical domain, for it is one thing to say the body can lead us into new territory, another to call this good.

For Spinoza, goodness involves change in the body, a change for the better, which is felt in the body’s own activity. A body that becomes better, which exercises a greater agency, changes for the good. This in turn produces joy in the heart of the subject. Adapting Spinoza somewhat, we might say that joy is the mark of the dance well done, of a body that surpasses itself in action. This is something that dancers intuitively understand, for dance is their art and the body their wherewithal.

The joy inherent in the dance well done resonates with Spinoza’s conception of the good. Not only does dance affirm movement per se, dancers are more willing than most to tolerate not-knowing in the name of their art. They are willing to do what it takes to allow the body to excel. They are experienced in allowing the body to come to the fore by way of ‘backgrounding’ their own knowing subjectivity.

There are many ways of expressing this, through resorting to imagery or other somatic strategies or, more explicitly, in performative terms. Anneke Hansen speaks of ‘vacating yourself’ when performing, Kim Wishart- Sergeant of how to make room for the new. Likewise, for Sara Rudner, “When it came right down to it, and you were there to do the dance, the best thing that happened was the body took over and the dance happened”. Rudner brings to the fore these two elements: the dancer’s not-knowing and a body that leads. Following Spinoza, we might say that the subject’s ethical task is to embrace not-knowing so as to make way for the body to become better.

Spinoza focuses on the body’s achievements, on what a body does. His ethics is action-based. This resonates with dance to the extent that a body aims to make something of itself, to become something more in movement. Despite the desire to improve, however, there is no established pathway to the good. This is because ‘we don’t know what a body is capable of,’ even our own. In this respect, the body is the teacher. Dancers allow for that. They look to the body as the medium of their art. While Spinoza’s ethics offers no formula for success, I want to suggest that Spinoza might nonetheless acknowledge the dancer’s endeavours as a mode of ethical improvisation.

Spinoza puts his faith in what a body does. His ethics is centred upon the relation between the uniqueness of a body (its essence) and its activity. The more a body expresses this uniqueness in action the better. This is what Spinoza means by the good. The good, for Spinoza, is the practice-based expression of greater facility on the part of the body. Because of his monism (rejection of Descartes’ mind/body dualism), development on the part of the body produces a shift on the part of the mind – we learn through the body’s greater competence. The good thus inheres in the body’s increasing power. At first glance, the enhancement of power appears an unlikely mark of the ethical, for what exactly is good about becoming more powerful? Much depends upon how we understand power. In Spinoza’s case, power inheres in the body’s activities, in what a body does. The more agency a body expresses, the greater is its power. Ethics is thus about empowerment rather than domination over others. The challenge of this way of thinking lies in its refusal to fix any particular content to the notion of the good (e.g rules). Rather, the good arises as a difference in this body, through its becoming active.

This isn’t just about this body though. Bodies change through their encounters with other bodies. The foot pushes off the floor, the Alexander teacher offers direction to the body of another, a teacher touches, provides feedback, shows another way. There are many bodies, big and small, simple and complex (ie, bodies need not be human). When a body encounters another, two possibilities arise. A body may become more or less powerful as a result of the encounter. The good arises from the singularity of this body, in its encounter with another. It emerges because of the body’s particular qualities, which enable it to become more capable, more powerful and because that particular body has managed to express more of those qualities in action. Of course, the encounter may go the other way, producing a decrease in power as a lessening of capacity. Any increase in power leads to joy, and conversely, any decrease leads to sadness. Power grows through the body’s increasing ability to act. This is not because some external value is satisfied. Rather, it has to do with what a particular body becomes as a manifestation of its own singular essence. This is its joy, the joy of expressing a greater sense of agency in the world.

The idea of a dynamic increase or decrease of power thus poses the good (and bad) in relation to change. The ethical moment in Spinoza’s thought arises as a distinction between kinds of becoming. When a body encounters another, it can be affected in one of two ways: either actively or passively. Actions are a matter of bodily agency, whereas passions are external in origin. Passions act upon us, they produce passive affections. The distinction between active and passive corporeal qualities turns on the different role that a body may play in the encounter. Active and passive affections are relational and event-based. To discern a body’s activity or passivity, we must seek the corporeal encounter. Something happens in the exchange between bodies, whereby each participating body expresses or undergoes a dynamic corporeal change. This is where the qualitative difference between active and passive affections arises, depending upon whether a body acts or is acted upon (suffers action). To actively participate in an encounter— to exhibit greater bodily agency—is to increase one’s power inasmuch as a ‘new’ activity has been performed by this body. Conversely, an encounter that is wholly caused by another body is also an event but one which is not due to my body’s activity. To that extent, it represents a diminishing power of activity on my part.

Either a body acts for itself or it is acted upon. it may not necessarily be clear whether a body acts for itself or is acted upon. is a soldier who obeys a command engaging in active or passive affections? if a massage releases tension enabling greater movement is this activity or passivity? it all depends upon the changing agency of the body.

Ramsay Burt refers to an event that occurred within a Steve Paxton piece entitled Magnesium (1972). One performer (Curt Siddall) dropped another (Nancy Stark Smith). According to Burt, instead of trying to take responsibility for a ‘mistake,’ Siddall allowed the body of the other to deal with the encounter, to find a safe way to roll onto and over the ground. This happened quickly. Burt argues that the performer’s getting out of the way enabled the bodies involved to respond in the moment and to take the lead. In other words, Siddall did not try to consciously ‘fix’ the situation. Rather, he allowed Stark Smith to negotiate her own body’s dynamic response. Burt speaks of the body’s “relatively autonomous motor actions” as something beyond conscious control. He draws on the distinction between the dancer’s subjectivity (as conscious control) and the body’s skilful expression, arguing that the latter came into play through this encounter. We might say that, for Burt, the body which rolls out of the fall becomes more capable in virtue of the encounter. If the first moment involves a passive affection—being dropped—the second moment consists of a creative corporeal act—an arm extends the curve of the back as its rolls across the floor.

Counter-balancing is another instance of dynamic corporeal activity. In the counter-balance, two or more bodies combine to create movement which neither body alone could achieve. The challenge of this work is to deal with the subtle shifts of weight that inevitably arise. Let us conjecture the momentary shift as a passive affection, as the work of an external body. The challenge for each participating body then is to actively manage this shift and not destroy the counter-balance. In the course of the counter-balance, bodies have to find new means of activity (micro-adjustments) to manage shifting relationships. A particularly challenging version of the counter-balance occurs when the centre of gravity (formed between two bodies) shifts. A body that creatively and actively manages the shift could be said to increase its agency. If the action fails (as it often does), then the counter-balance is lost. The body here does not increase its capacity but merely reacts to a change of circumstance. We might think of the body created within the counter-balance as a single entity composed of two constituent bodies. Thought as a unified body, the question of empowerment devolves upon whether or not this body-complex exerts an increasing agency within the course of the movement.

This way of thinking produces a shift from dependence upon external causes to a mode of corporeal agency. The body that can do things is contrasted with the body that depends upon the activity of the other. This implies a certain conception of the good individual. Deleuze puts it thus: “The individual will be called good (or free, or rational, or strong) who strives, insofar as he is capable, to organise his encounters, to join with whatever agrees with his nature, to combine his relation with relations that are compatible with his, and thereby to increase his power. For goodness is a matter of dynamism, power and the composition of powers” (Practical Philosophy).

This dynamic conception of the good situates ethics in the very gap of change, in the body’s becoming otherwise in combination with other bodies. The good thus pertains to the particular body. It is situated in the moment and felt through the dynamic of corporeal becoming. Although there is an emphasis on what a body does as a matter of its own agency, it is important to acknowledge that bodies can enhance one another in myriad ways. Deleuze describes the joy that a body may feel as it passively combines with another to create something more. This is encapsulated within teaching at its best—the good teacher is the one who can facilitate the enhancement of power in the body of the student. Such a body becomes more powerful because it expresses (engages in) a new form of activity. Perhaps we could look at dance training in ethical terms, such that goodness arises in the body that becomes more capable by way of its own activities.

Training promises an ethical horizon of corporeal empowerment. Thought of as corporeal capacity- building, training could be conceived as an ethical affair, an organised encounter between bodies which aims to prepare a body to dance well. If the encounter enhances a body’s power to act, we would say, along with Spinoza, that this manifests as the good.

Spinoza offers a dynamic conception of corporeal becoming in terms of the increasing or decreasing power of action, felt in the passing moment. The world changes and we change within it. A body that becomes more powerful by way of its own activity is a joy to behold. This is the lure of performance. We see a body risking itself in the moment.

Ethical development requires a kind of beginner’s mind. Intuitively grasped by many dancers and practised by many good teachers, it implies that we don’t know beforehand what will work in the particular instance. Spinoza’s ethics is challenging. It dethrones the sovereign subject, eschews universal principles of good and bad, focusing instead on each body as the source and site of goodness. To take up Spinoza’s challenge then is not merely to set aside our pre-conceptions of the good, it is to acknowledge that the good is a variable and momentary quality. To affirm this form of the good is to take joy in the corporeal moment. If we don’t know what a body can do, we can nonetheless embrace the experiment and follow its lead.

Read More:

Ramsay Burt, 2011. Reflections on Steve Paxton’s Magnesium, given at the Scores No.3, Uneasy Going conference, Tanzquartier, Vienna, 2011.

Gilles Deleuze, 1988 [Orig.1970]. Practical Philosophy. Trans. Robert Hurley. San Francisco: City Light Books.

Sara Rudner, 1990. In Post-modern Dance: Judson Theater and the Grand Union, dir. Richard Sheridan. New York: ARC on Videodance.

Nancy Stark Smith, 1987. “Dedication to the moment”. Contact Quarterly 12:3, online journal.
Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics. Trans. Edwin Curley. London: Penguin Books, 1994.