Writing bio-texts: Language as prosthesis

Issue #12.2: New Topographies of the Body

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Last year, i was making a piece titled Poems and Other Emergencies[1]. i invited a friend to visit me in the studio. i was explaining to them what i meant when i said ‘embodied language’ — a term that frequented the process of that work. i was trying to articulate a relation between the body and language, posing questions like: what can happen with language when it is given a body; when the physicality of speaking and writing is present within the spoken and written? How does its use transform when the physicality of language is recognised as something more than a functional meditator? They asked me, i recount from memory; but what do you mean with ‘language’ and ‘body’? where does one end and the other begin?  It seems you start from the assumption that they are separate. i felt my research crumble. Yet, the debris of my assumptions laid out another kind of landscape. Yes, i had to admit i could not really think of the body without language and found it difficult to recount an experience of the body that was not embedded within language in some way. The body’s fleshy composition cannot be neatly delineated from cultural-historical-imagination. Such that the materiality of the body goes well beyond its anatomy of bones, muscles, tissue, blood, water, protein and molecular formation. i was trying to articulate a relation between two things that were in fact not two things. So i thought; what if i started from the premise that the body is always already language and that language has always required a body, a subject (non-humans included). Then, rather than a relation between two entities, we have entangled capacities. From there i asked; could choreography facilitate strategies for (re)writing that living textual body?

“there is nothing outside the text” “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”.[2]

Apparently, a more accurate translation of Derrida’s famous maxim would be “there is no outside-text”.[3] I will not venture into the nuances of their differences, however, we will pass by that moment of (mis)translation as an example of the irreducibility of words and the decades that followed with one thought split in two. i am certainly stretching myself to address Derrida’s work here, so i’ll remain on its edge. Derrida had the idea that words will only ever produce more words, that text is not a referent to an ‘outside’ world or reality but always already refers to other text. For example, if you look in a dictionary for the meaning of a word, all you will find is a collection of other words. In a children’s dictionary, where words are attached with images, the image and word do not entirely correspond; the image is an example of the kind of thing the word could accurately be attached to. Each of these words is dependant on all the others. Through this work of deconstruction we can find ourselves in a posture which releases the immediacy of words. Them being neither essential nor true. Deconstruction here does not mean to take apart but to make apparent the intricate relational formation of language, it is a method of understanding particular inseparabilities. It seems that in this deconstructive move language withdraws from us, however i would like to imagine the possibility that the dependency and contingent, web-like formation depicted in Derrida’s concept of language, makes it possible to pull words into differing relations. It could be precisely at the location of relation that we can step inside and start to change their configuration. Doing so by changing the ways in which we invoke their meanings. Non-hetero conforming sexualities and gender identities have literally been the pioneers of this: reappropriating, reconfiguring, and inventing words in order for their lives —their bodies, feelings, gestures and relations— to have the language that they require. This is the work of bio-writing, of changing the inherent dependancies of words.

 

In his book Countersexual Manifesto, Paul B. Preciado writes “The body is a living, constructed text, an organic archive of human history”[4] (…) “We don’t have a body that we come later to reflect upon. We make ourselves a body, we earn our own body—we pay a high (political and affective) price for it.”[5] The body does not exist a priori: we practice it, giving it shape and form and gestures and words. It is something we simultaneously inhabit and perform. It is through these actions that our bodies are inscribed upon. This is not to suggest there is an inherent individual freedom laying dormant within each of us, which, if we would simply use our bodies differently, we would be able to harness. Such a position would assume that the site of politics is bounded within each of us. Rather, this inscription is produced through culture, institutions of power and geo-political situation. We carry with us the (language-d) histories we’ve both performed and resisted. It is through the subversion of apparatuses of enculturation and critical relational thinking that such freedom can be engendered. The bio-text, to use Preciado’s terminology, structures our desires, sensitivities, gestures and relations. “It writes with blood, sperm, milk, water, sound, ink, oil, coil, uranium, capital, light, electricity, and radiation.”[6] If we understand the body as a text, we already have access to the site of inscription, and potentially, the capacity to read it.

 

<my reading is my writing>

 

i cannot seem to locate the source of this phrase, nor remember precisely when or where i heard it. It lurks within my notebooks and every so often shows up as a thought. The closest i have come to a source is “my walking is my dancing” which can be attributed to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.[7] i can only assume my memory has rewritten it, thinking it more useful in this formation.  let’s open it as a way to say that inscription is not only the procedure of making marks on a surface, but also, of receiving marks. Through the attempt of reading a bio-text, we stare back into the institutions of power and methods of discipline we have been constructed within. Reading and study offer momentary suspension of productivity. In study, we are concerned by the movement of ideas, the production of questions and the de-composition of answers. Reading asks us to gather around a written structure, be it book or body or something third and recognise what is there: identifying patterns and inconsistencies. And at the same time, letting all that affective stuff, between information and pattern, move amongst us. Reading and study produce the ground for rewriting. It could be this moment of delay, the suspension of production that study offers, that opens a space for the radical othering that is the rewriting of the bio-text.

 

In Countersexual Manifesto, Preciado writes score-like instructions for re-erotising parts of the body not hetero-normatively prescribed with an erotic function.[8] Any idea of the natural production of sex is overturned in radical elegance by the end of the first chapter. The figure of the dildo as a sexual prosthesis prevails. From there we are guided through Countersexual practices; masturbating a forearm or reaching a climax through stroking a shaved head. Sexuality becomes itinerate. Orgasm is displaced from the genitals and is performed in practiced repetition. New gestures and affective situations are produced for our own bodies to habituate. “The true aim of countersexual practices is neither physical pleasure (which can always be transformed into profit) nor identity production but rather exuberant expenditure, affect experimentation, and freedom.”[9] It struck me as i was reading, that these Countersexual scores are micro-choreographies. In order to think further on how it can be possible to intervene in the writing of bio-texts, it could be useful to think of choreography and particularly the technology of the score. The score as a set of linguistic instructions for navigating gestures and relations. In my experience the score sets up a conditionality of experience; it provides a frame for moving, sensitising and responding. i mean this in the most practical sense possible.

 

<say what you are doing and do what you are saying>

 

It is a simple, almost banal score. One that i developed during Poems and Other Emergencies. There are details about the ways in which the saying and doing can correspond; the subject (i, you, we, they, she, he) and possessives (my, your, ours, theirs, hers, his) are optional and a verb (the –ing suffix) mandatory. Through this score each action is written simultaneously by my physical anatomy and the social anatomy of speech. Lifting an arm, turning the head, walking, sitting, opening my chest, dropping her jaw, pointing. Through this score, i enter into a condition which radically disrupts my own flow of thought and my habitual movement syntax. Each gesture bifurcates. They echo out into the bodies of the audience who ask themselves the question ‘is that walking backwards?’. The strange banality of the question has the potential to disrupt (however locally or minutely) the underlying bio-texts each of us have brought with us into the theatre. The presence of the question compels us to acknowledge the performance as a mode of study[10]. The momentary delay of recognition allows us to see something else; a semiotic game, a riddle. The simultaneous attribution of description and action offers a double negative. Neither can be reduced to the other, these, supposedly collapsable expressions, begin to collaborate. This explicit doubling of body and speech, acknowledges the body as both a cultural artefact and a dynamic emerging entity. The score, more than merely an instruction to follow or an imperative for action, is a material agent attached to the body. The score straps the performer into a structure of expression.

 

There are many examples within performance practice of choreography addressing the body as text. Anne Juren is one radical example.[11] She has developed Phantasmatic Anatomie, a practice extending upon the Feldenkrais method. Through choreographies, in which the audience’s body is the site of performance, Anne Juren explodes scientific-anatomical language taking the participant inside and out of their own body. Using poetic, imaginative, fantastical and speculative language, Juren writes experience directly onto skin through her speech. Her words dislocate my own anatomy creating hybrid forms for my psycho-somatic self to feast on. For me, Anne Juren exercises language to remind us of the plasticity of our own anatomy; of the ways in which our current collective fiction can be subverted. We can experience our bodies, their anatomy—the ways in which they are cut up into arm and leg and hand—differently. It is also a call to a collective undoing of cultural-historical ‘truths’ of the body, rejecting the idea of a unitary-subject that is able to be fragmented, categorised and eventually pathologised. Juren offers a site for experimenting with whichever version of the itinerant ‘i’ we’ve brought with us into the theatre—the terms and limits of its body.

 

I would like to think of language itself as a kind of prosthesis, an extra-materiality of the body. And the score, a prosthetic device. As Preciado demonstrates in Countersexual Manifesto, the prosthetic device, in his case the dildo, offers an opportunity to engage the body as an expanded and relational structure.[12] Much like the dense network of relation lurking behind each word, the body and its sensual capacities are constructed through relation. The prosthetic device questions the idea that the limits of the flesh coincide with the limits of the body. The prosthetic device offers de-territorialisation, externality and iterability as strategies for bio-textual experimentation. Language, in score like formations, certainly acts upon the body in a manner not dissimilar to the prosthesis. If we take prosthesis to mean a device which extends the capacity of the body, then the prosthetic need not be in relation with, nor a response to, lack. Yet, as i look for definitions of prosthesis hoping to find a dictionary which will support my own intentions, i, as yet, have not found a definition that doesn’t include the word lack, missing or replacement. We can think of the arm, the leg and the hand, which saw the first experiments in medical prosthetics.[13] The prosthetic acts as a restoration of functionality. But, it takes only a few minutes of scrolling through the search results, to see conversations on prosthetic development moving well beyond imitation and producing their own functionality.

 

As a woman, i inherit a history of lack from which my bio-text was written accordingly. Presuming lack holds a body up to a regulatory system, a series of functional norms. Lack marks the history of the prosthetic returning post-war bodies to factories and farms. I however will think with the divergences of prosthetic developments, with the ways in which such devices produce functions beyond restorative intentions— evidently, i am not alone in that. Elizabeth Grosz writes in Prosthetic Objects: “Creatures use tools, ornaments, and appliances to augment their bodily capacities. Are their bodies lacking something, which they need to replace with artificial or substitute organs? (…) Or conversely, should prostheses be understood, in terms of aesthetic reorganisation and proliferation, as the consequence of an inventiveness that functions beyond and perhaps in defiance of pragmatic need?”[14]; and later, Preciado writes about the strap-on-dildo as a prosthesis which “in the end, could be simultaneously considered a synthetic sex organ, a hand grafted on at the trunk, and a plastic extension of the clitoris.”[15] The function of any prosthesis, be it plastic or linguistic, will always exceed its anticipated situation. They are technologies of divergence. The score could be such a device, one that practices the body through iterability, repetition and de-territorialisation. The score, using language as an extra-materiality of the body, can experiment with gestures and expressions we don’t yet know how to use. It is a collective prosthesis, an attachment to something else, where subjectivity is not embedded within each of us, but is a coded structure coursing through our bodies.

 

The chain of words in the score <say what you are doing and do what you are saying>, forms a material and semantic structure.

 


To give a visual expression of this material semantic structure, we can think of the sentence diagram; a pictorial representation of the grammatical structure of a sentence. It produces shape out of syntax; out of the ways in which the words are attached to one another. The image below is a diagram of the sentence “I have a recollection of large unbending women with great noses and rapacious eyes who wore their clothes as though they were armour” using the Reed-Kellogg system, which was first brought into use in 1877 through their book Higher Lessons in English.


 

More than merely a mediatory device or interface for experience, the score operates as an object which can be attached and detached, applied under various circumstances and to various bodies. In transitioning between the figure of the dildo and the material device of the score the question of attachment arises (and differentiates): how do scores attach to the body? There are many ways to attach the prosthetic limb according to material, permanence and functionality. Using the figure of the dildo multiple forms of attachment can be elaborated. The harness— straps which wrap the body into the device. The hand— the body which wraps itself around the device. The suction— a vacuum of pressure sucking the flesh towards the device. The score, too, has various attachments, each of which are specific to the form of the score and the body requiring attachment. There are many more methods of attachment than would be possible to elaborate here. Despite its generality, it could be useful to think of the act of performance as attachment itself. The linguistic organisation, come object, come device, requires persistent attachment. Attachment is a verb. The itinerant and repetitive nature of the prosthesis means each attachment creates specific possibilities for use, sensual experience and relation. Through attachment the device (read score), is incorporated into the expanded anatomy of the body.

 

Language as prosthesis presumes the body as always already text. We are written and still writing. When we use language as a prosthesis, we create space for the itinerate and multiple versions of ourselves. Through the physical-cultural-imaginative space of the bio-text, we can experiment with our own names and uses. We can build our bodies into shapes we don’t yet know how to use. A score could be that productive power.

“The only interesting sex is alien sex, meaning the becoming-other of your sex through the investment of a desire still unknown to you as an embodied subject.”[16]


Exclusively commissioned for the Dancehouse Diary

 

[1]. Poems and Other Emergencies premiered in Batard Festival, Brussels Belgium in January 2020. Choreography and Performance by Chloe Chignell, Conversation Partner: Adriano Wilfert Jensen, Supported By: BUDA Kortrijk, VGC, Workspacebrussels, La Balsamine, Lucy Guerin Inc, Dancehouse Melbourne and Batard Festival Brussels.

[2] Jacques Derrida, “The Dangerous Supplement,” in Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (1998).

[3] Timothy Morton, “There Is Nothing Outside of the What?,” 2017.

[4] Paul B Preciado, Countersexual Manifesto, Columbia University Press, New York (2018), pg25.

[5] ibid pg11.

[6] Ibid pg25

[7] My walking is my dancing is the title of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s collective slow walking project.

[8] Paul B Preciado, Countersexual Manifesto, Columbia University Press, New York (2018), pg41-45.

[9] Ibid pg 10

[10]More thoughts on performance as a mode of study can be found through The School for Temporary Liveness a series of daily situations for collective study presented by the University of the Arts MFA in Dance curated by Lauren Bakst and Niall Jones. It was through my encounter with them and the school that these ideas around performance as a mode of study were substantially enriched.

[11] Anne Juren is a French choreographer living in Vienna and finishing her PhD at DOCH Stockholm. I first encountered Anne Juren’s work Anatomie in 2016 at ImpulzTanz, Vienna, Austria.

[12] Ibid pg73

[13]Prosthesis.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, July 8, 2020.

[14] Elizabeth Grosz, “Prosthetic Objects” in The State of Architecture at the Beginning of the 21st Century. The Monacelli Press (2003), pp. 96–97.

[15] Paul B Preciado, Countersexual Manifesto, Columbia University Press, New York (2018), pg99

[16] Ibid pg11.