“If we can think, feel, and move, we can dance”: Anna Halprin’s radical pedagogy

At Hunter College last week, I saw an installation which accompanied a dance performance taking place this fall on campus entitled Radical Bodies, which features the work of choreographer Anna Talprin. Halprin, whose experimental workshops took place on a beautiful outdoor stage, did work that “rejected the high style and codified technique of reigning modern-dance choreographers like Martha Graham in favor of improvisatory tasks and everyday activities.” (NYTimes, March 24, 2017)

Many of these images are featured at Hunter College in the North Building, along with a description of the commitments to community building, embodiment and moral philosophy, and the search for authenticity through “self-generated creativity” (from Halprin’s Manual of Dance, 1921). Beautifully, and rightly, the Hunter description describes Halprin’s work as a radical pedagogy that speaks to the pain and struggle of the individual in the present era: isolation, homogenization, commodification, and standardization collude to obscure and trample on the stirrings of soul and unexplained, nascent, vicious little visions and vitalities we all have buried deep within us.

Halprin’s work resonates with John Dewey and other educational philosophers who explored the relationship between art and experience, and emphasized the importance of an education premised upon experience, of interacting with one’s world to create new meanings and emerge into a more fully developed self.

A beautiful proposal, indeed, one that is rare nowadays but not, thankfully, gone from our pasts, or our futures.

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Abstract art and the proceduralization of physicality

While the title of this post is ambiguous at best and horribly abstruse at worst (by the way, linguist’s nerdy moment: the word “abstruse,” which means “difficult to understand, obscure,” is in itself abstruse), I think it’s the best way to describe a piece of installation art by Jeff Kasper in an exhibit I saw at the Graduate Center of CUNY, where I study. The two images, shown here are scans of pages free to the public that accompanied videos playing on screens in the wall:

new doc 111_1

new doc 112_1

Both pages display what appear to be instructions, steps by which to engage with another person in a physically proximate walk with a partner (vol. 1), or to meet up with friends and go out as a repeated habit (vol. 2). The strange vagueness with which physicality is referred to (for example, vol. 2 states, “Touch each other. Support each other physically.”) is complemented by the uncertain, almost alien way in which the interpersonal content is referred to (in vol. 1, there is simply mention of one’s “walking partner,” leaving the intended audience to wonder whether these instructions are meant for use with close friends, lovers current or to-be, family members, someone else). What is particularly interesting – and unnerving, to me – is the step-by-step breakdown of such mundane experiences, which are as universal to people around the world as one can imagine and as expressive of how we unconsciously experience human physicality in public spaces.

But what if this piece is meant to signal just that, a shift in the universality of human physical interaction? We are already seeing it, in the ways in which screens – on which I am typing this, and on which someone might be reading it – draw our eyes away from each other, making even intimate spaces like elevators, subway cars, and seats at the dinner table experiences of great interpersonal distance. Perhaps the point is that human beings may lose a sense of what it means to interact with each other as physical beings that share common language, so to speak, about embodied sociality.

And then the twist came: What if I myself am not the intended audience, or rather, what if there is an audience for these instructions for whom I am a second audience? It seems that any typical human being would have had such experiences naturally, over the course of his/her life as a part of being socially physical. But what if these instructions are written…for those who have not had such experiences?

For better or worse, my sci-fi background (mostly TNG) provides me with broad, fantastical references to alternate possibilities and ways of perceiving our reality, much the way art can and should. It dawned on me that instead, the artist might instead be “speaking” to a non-human entity who might be learning to be human, perhaps through an instruction guide. The proceduralization, ugly and awkward as a guide for how to do laundry for a new college student, adds a particularly interesting dimension when considering the question of physicality. We rarely question our physical being, instead following them through our worlds as the mediators of engagement for socializing, labor, consumption, pleasure, transportation, rest, exercise, and so on as simply the natural aspect of our corporeal selves. But what if, like Scarlett Johansson’s well-played character in Under the Skin (which I would strongly recommend, by the way), the being reading this procedure was doing so for the first time? What might physical intimacy, careless and simple as it might sound to us, appear to look like as a subject of study?

Amazing how art, sudden, brazen, incisive art, can bring into one’s mind a powerful vision of the self that had not yet occurred. What else, might we wonder, could art teach us in a reality that seems completely out of our hands nowadays, a runaway train of lies and white supremacy and violence and androcentrism and horrible vanity in which we are desperate to have a stake? What assumptions might crumble at such a reckless and restless time?

Is this the Matrix?: Reality in the era of bots

/////////////////////NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosts a show called On Point, which covers a multitude of topics ranging from schooling to online dating to genetics to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Available as a podcast, On Point featured a story on August 9th about bots, which I listened to in curiosity and dismay, and not as much surprise as I wish I’d had. Bots are essentially automated software programs that run tasks on the Internet, and according to one of the experts on the show, they’ve been around as long as the World Wide Web has been. The show’s focus, however, was much more specific, targeting the use of bots by certain individuals, organizations, and political entities to disseminate propaganda and fake news, or “disinformation,” in order to meddle in electoral politics. The show’s guests discussed the ways in which bots originating in Russia were used during the 2016 election to influence the U.S. population’s view of the candidates, the issues being discussed, and the general political state of affairs of our country, to which an elected president theoretically would provide a resonating response. Apparently, these bots can generate commentary and content which is, at best, biased, and at worst, patently false.


By Ian McKellar from San Francisco, CA, USA – Elektro and Sparkotaken from: http://www.maser.org/k8rt/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18986910

This is clearly a new era we’re in, because though the use of propaganda is as old as human society itself – incidentally, propaganda means simply a form of communication intended to sway or persuade its audience in favor of or against a given individual or group – the bots are used in a curious way. Employed on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, bots create “news” content whose volume and relevance to one’s own opinions can persuade a reader to follow that opinion. They function cleverly, or rather are designed in a clever way, in that they are meant to emulate a real person by patterning off of language used by current participants, and further appear to confirm the views of the reader through the temptation of accepting information that appeals to our established beliefs, thus persuading us via confirmation bias. Given the magnitude of influence of these bots, whose presence appears to range in the thousands across popular social media sites, it may not be too much to suggest that our view of the world, at least the view which we draw from our screens and hear echoed in the mouths of our colleagues and loved ones, is not simply a wake-up-and-see-what’s-true-today process.

Or is it? I’m no technophobe, but I do come from a generation that was raised without the Internet, without screens (excepting only 1/2 hour of TV a day, for which I’m still grateful), and without that addition to my consciousness that I might at any time be missing out on something on a screen awaiting my attention. I remember rotary phones and the use of folded-up maps stuffed in the glove box. This is not intended to be simple nostalgia, however. I’m actually asking what we might do about something all of us as deeply smitten phone lovers are well aware of.


By Aditya19472001 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I suppose what I’m asking is, how did we develop critical literacy and media literacy in the past? How did we think about the information presented to us, sort through it, and determine what was of value not because it made us feel warm and safe but in fact because it presented us with what was happening in the world? The American poet T.S. Eliot apparently even distrusted newspapers, believing that those who read them were easily manipulated away from a true engagement with the world. I’m not suggesting not taking in any information from news sources, which we tend to read now online, but a return to the issue will ask where we get our “news” from. And this is really the key when we think about social media. Baudrillard’s hyperreality was one in which, as in The Matrix, individuals are completely enveloped by the worldview they consume as true (that is, my belief about my reality, is what is created and given to me outside of my own influence). Under this social logic, we are simple consumers of our reality, not participants. This is not unlike the consumer posture we are encouraged to/ take as we experience the ads and clickbait that accompany us as we look at photos of our cousin’s new baby. We may not realize that our reality, our political agency, is being slowly pushed back behind a curtain, and is being replaced by blurps and blips that confirm our perspectives and comfort us that we are right, that we are looking at what’s “real.” The battle, it seems, is a philosophical and a psychological one as well as a political and technological one.

To close with the questions Eliot asks in his famous modernist masterpiece, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”…
Do I dare…Disturb the universe?

Do we dare to do this? Do we dare to put the phone away, close the Twitter feed, log off of Facebook, even for a moment, a moment when we might miss something…a something which might be worse than taking in nothing at all?

Violence, animals, and the stopping-of-thinking

I am a new-ish vegan, a feature of my existence that I consider to be less of an identity and more of a commitment. I don’t eat meat, dairy, eggs, honey, or anything else that comes from animals (to my knowledge – this is a looooong process of learning about animal exploitation, the differences between animal activism and animal welfare, the racialized dimensions of veganism and frictions in the pursuit of intersectionality and/or unity, and so on), and I am reading and learning a lot about the political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and cultural anthropology dimensions of such a conversation. Needless to say, it is a lot.

One place many scholars, animal activist and otherwise, continue to push and explore is the question of violence. (For an interesting ongoing exploration of this topic, check out Histories of Violence‘s short video clips of eminent scholars and public thinkers on the subject.) Concerns about this question vis-à-vis human beings have emerged from mass violence in times of war and genocide, individual violence in the case of sexual assault and domestic abuse (though one can easily make connections between individual cases of violence and broader structural violences that inform and support these cases), systemic/symbolic violence (as in the case of silencing in research, which I am currently deeply interested in, or in the case of inequitable testing and educational practices in public schooling which disadvantage certain groups of historically oppressed young people), and so on.

Yet when we turn to the question of violence against animals, the conversation becomes very complicated. This form of violence has been imbricated in our social existence at all levels of human experience: food, religion, entertainment and sport, clothing, protection, research, even our definition of home and domestic life. Non-human animals – which is the term many animal activists use, as they argue there is no inherent distinction between human and non-human beings under the general heading of “animals” – have, according to most human cultural traditions, existed to serve, sustain, accompany, and protect us. While it may seem like an emotional plea to approach this conversation by using terms like “violence,” it’s actually important to consider the fact that the exploration of violence as a topic of study in political science, anthropology, sociology, critical race studies, feminist and gender studies, postcolonial studies, queer studies, and philosophy is far from over. And very few of the scholars considering these topics, including Hannah Arendt, Franz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and many others are taking a purely emotional tack (though emotion plays a powerful role in one’s ability to reason). Violence is a universal topic, in fact, in all of our lives, and different scholars and disciplines approach this from different histories and toward different objectives. I would not, for example, argue that the symbolic violence of silencing Black and Brown students in public schools via monolingual/U.S.-centric pedagogy is the same as sexual violence. Yet one of the possible functions of violence – to reinforce the power of the ruling class, group, or individual in a given social context – is very much shared by both examples.

And thus I come to my point. Rather than deliver an annotated bibliography of scholars who have written about violence and the relationship between human and non-human animals, I simply want to reflect on the meaning of a sign like this one on a street near where I live in Queens. Yes, we could all quite easily say that we agree, we should reject, question, and oppose violence. But what about the violences that have become so normalized that we don’t see them as such? I have a good friend who is deeply committed to anti-racist pedagogy and education in public schools. And he makes a real difference with his students. Yet he chomps on chicken without a second thought. (Actually, to be fair, we did talk about animal agriculture while he was eating, and he did state that he could become vegetarian, though he just couldn’t go all the way and become vegan.)

I’m not writing to rant about hypocrites. I am also one, as are all of us to some degree as a condition of participating in today’s society and political economic system. However, the stopping-of-thinking is the place where I want to suggest the seeds of violence remain underground, untilled, unmoved, and free to bloom into new forms as late-stage capitalism moves forward and we demand more and more animals for consumption, commodification, exploitation, and entertainment as an ineluctable requirement of “the way things just are.”

Yes, violence is a part of the way things are. But in the past we’ve made choices and changed our relationship to violence – whose potential always lies within us and around us – in different ways. We have pursued legislation and legal cases that have, some might argued, reduced abuses and oppressions in ways demanded by the sociopolitical times. What might lie ahead in terms of environmental violence (and environmental racism, which is an indirect result of this violence) or violence in a systematized form in the case of corporatized animal agriculture? Might we start to rethink the keeping and breeding of animals as pets, or their (ab)use in medical trials and scientific research? Could we consider that this keeps humans in a position of power that we’ve always assumed is “normal” but in reality generates potentially troubling consequences?

I don’t say any of this is easy or even possible yet. The point I’m making is, we’re not talking about this with the framework of violence in hand. The concern I put forward is that not doing so so perpetuates the problem, the many violences without name or demand for redress, and maintains the veneer that status quo is unavoidable. As in all questions about this bizarre and hard time, I hope that is not the case.

“We don’t ride on railroads they ride on us”: raucous listening against apathy

The title for this blog post is a slight misquote of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century social and political commentator best known for Walden who wrote about topics including the abolition of slavery and the value of civil disobedience, which he explores in an essay by the same name. Thoreau was concerned about, among many things, the exploitation of laborers and radical changes to our definition of humanity in projects of capitalist expansion under the teleological thrust of technological advance during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, including the mass construction of railroads:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them…And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

(A discussion of Thoreau’s concerns about humanity, technology, and capitalism comes from this article in Wired.) I saw a version of the first line of this quote in a cartoon by Art Young, socialist and political satirist from the 1910s and 1920s, in an exhibit at the Argosy Bookstore, New York’s oldest independent bookstore open since 1925. See some examples below:

 
 

The last of the four cartoons is a version of the Thoreau quote. I found it interesting – and a bit depressing – to know that we continue to struggle with the balance between the pursuit of progress and the preservation of humanity. But what is important, really, is to remember that our humanity should not be defined after we’ve struggled toward the next innovation, the next profit. What should be happening is a radical consideration of humanity as a collective social project, radical in scope, that progresses toward a more egalitarian possibility.

Apathy would be one response to such cartoons – god we’re here again, we can’t escape our fate of self-destruction – and this is very much the feature of today’s politics and public discourse. I struggled with this as I left the Argosy Bookstore and headed to meet a friend for dinner in Queens. Emerging onto the street, I turned and saw a park full of people:

 

Groups of people, from different backgrounds, different countries of origin, different languages and religions and and views of the world, all sitting together as a community. It occurred to me that we are all part of a community, several, in fact, and we walk toward each other every day, sharing and singing and spitting and swirling into bigger and smaller spaces. This collective life cannot be taken from us. We can only give it away, along with the force of its voice and its will to change the reality in which we live.

Idealistic? Or realistic? Anything is more real than the stories told by the sociopath running our country and his cabinet of cronies. We can remember – we have always known – what is real and true for us, by us. Yes, capitalism seeks to convince us that we are consumers first and last, that we owe nothing to the person next to us and should fight for his seat. But this is not what our social histories will remind us, should we listen, raucously, together.

The radical unknowing of hope

I am reading Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a postmodern text from the 1980s about the simulation of the real which has replaced our conceptions of reality. It largely works as a critique of the media as a means by which we “recognize” the reality of our world as consumers, a reality which is in fact a simulation of a reality now lost to us. We no longer live in a political economy but rather a production-centered social arrangement which, like Disneyland, refers to a reality that is beyond our grasp,  one which is hidden from us (which is a falsehood because nothing exists outside of the simulation of reality, or hyperreality, in which we exist and understand ourselves). If it feels a little nihilistic, perhaps even a bit like the movie The Matrix, it should. (The book inspired and appears in the film.)

I am writing a paper to talk about the possibility of hope, the hope for possibility, in an era when reality appears ever-larger as a face on a screen, divvying up alternative facts between greedy news conglomerates and sinking all of us in the United States into various states and prostrations of apathy. My graduate students express this, and I also feel that same drag on my positivity, on my creativity, in the fact of what appears to be a superstructure that seeks to cancel out my participation except through Facebook posts and, haha, blogging.

Still, I have faith that this writing can be practice for something bigger. I came to a beautiful, poetic thought today while riding the long train ride to Manhattan from Queens, a thought about hope and a way its unknowing of our present time could mean something powerful, something real, and not a simulation of real as expressed by Baudrillard. This is my thought:

Hope is the articulation of what is possible at the somatic and political level. It is neither loud or quiet, and it necessarily is accompanied by cultural and historical voices. Like agency, it is conditioned by the times in which it comes into being. Unlike agency, however, it by nature is diachronic, occupying a distinct ontological position in relation to reality. There is an unknowing to hope: it must to a point be ignorant of the current limits to reality in order to project forward into possible future contingencies. Yet simultaneously, hope knows what we are capable of before we come to attempt it. This can be a single individual, of course, but hope also can be multiplied across relational lines as such capabilities, untapped, join with those of kindred spirits and equally in-pain or joyful folk.

I hope to write more against this reality, and I hope more writing will find me and others who wish to hope, and hope together.


HOPEFUL” BY ALEX HILL PHOTO

Art, theory as “becoming”: the flows of possibility through our (never-)static realities

My advisor, Anna Stetsenko, published a book this year entitled The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education. It illuminates her vision of the world as a place of possibility, conceptualized and made contingent again and again by our contributions to its ever-becoming – mattering – present, which always invokes the future while claiming the fruits of the past. Anna argues a great many things which I will touch on in upcoming posts, but this line encapsulates her philosophy, drawn from her experiences during the Cold War in the Soviet Union and during/after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

The lesson I was able (and lucky) to learn is that the future is actually always in the making now, in the present, and that big changes and shifts might be around the corner even as the present status quo still appears to be immutable and stable. (p. 18)

I love this idea, as it speaks to our ability to act as agents in our worlds, to embrace a view of collective social existence as one that only pretends to be static and given, which flows and changes constantly and awaits, even requires in its rhythms, the participation of all of us in its making.

Such a simple, yet monumental idea appeared in an artistic form in several pieces by Nancy Pantirer (check out her website here), who displayed several installations of her work at the Tribeca Open Artists Studio Tour this spring. She placed 8-10 paintings in a large loft space and set up a lighting display which over the course of a minute or so changed from light to dark, revealing the brilliant shift of different shapes from a recessed place to primary importance. Some of the images appeared humanlike, cloaked figures standing together, and others seemed like celestial bodies, flowing through otherworldly landscapes and spaces. I filmed (with the permission of the artist) several of these interactions of light and paint, feeling the amazing rush of knowing and coming to see images that were always there in the paint.

Link to my graduate student blog post to see the video here.

What a way to see our monolithic understandings of self, our assumptions about the day-to-day. Is it a miracle to come to understand what has always been the case: that the future is actually being made, in our hands, existing already and waiting for us to see it?