Category Archives: modern dance

The Mind Body Problem That Wasn’t

Posted today in Psychology Today!
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I am going to make a brief comment about a big problem.

The big problem is the “mind-body” problem.

My brief comment is that this “problem” provides ideological cover for violence perpetuated against “the body” – violence that comes to seem inevitable.

How did I get here?

The Big Problem
This mind-body “problem” assumed its modern shape in the seventeenth century in the work of philosophers and theologians who posited a distinction and even opposition between “the mind” and “the body” as difference between consciousness and a material object. Once separated, and ever since, scientists and scholars across fields have wrestled to articulate the nature of this relationship, and address the intellectual, social, personal problems caused by “fact” of this separation.

Such issues include: How does consciousness emerge from matter? What happens when we die? When does life begin or end? How do we heal our bodies? Our minds? How do we make good decisions for ourselves in the realm of health and well being, or love and relationships? How are mind and body related? How should they be related? And how do “we” make it happen?

The Brief Comment
My brief comment is inspired by an article I read about Ibram Kendi’s National Award winning book on racism, Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi argues that racism emerged in the U.S. as an ideology that justified the practice of enslaving black Africans. The economic benefits of slavery came first; the ideological rationale followed. Kendi’s conclusion: no amount of love and education is going to change the ongoing legacy of racism. What is needed are specific policies that eradicate ongoing practices of racial discrimination.

Kendi reminded me of what I know from my study of Marx: an ideology can serve as a cover – not an account of what is true, but a sugarcoating that masks the reality of what is happening and makes the pain of it palatable. Marx, for example, described religious beliefs as an “opium” that deceives laborers into thinking that God is responsible for their sense of alienation, and thus renders them unable to pinpoint the source of their suffering in capitalist relations of production.

It struck me: the mind-body problem itself is an ideology in this sense. It works to convince us that particular kinds of personal and social pain are inevitable; and then diverts our attention away from the sources of our suffering, such we are unable to address them. In this case, at least one source in question is… reading and writing.

My brief comment, then, is this: The mind-body problem provides ideological cover for the violence that practices of reading and writing require – especially in relation to “the body.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I love reading. I love words. But I also know that reading and writing alone are not all that humans need in order to make sure that what they do with their words aligns with their ongoing health and well being.

Explanation
The modern manifestation of the mind-body problem owes much to changes in literacy, education, and book use brought about by the invention of the printing press. Ordinary people – not just monks and rulers – began to practice sitting for lengths of time previously unimagined in order to learn to read and write. They learned to think and feel and act as if they were minds living in bodies.

In the past I have written about how the increasing time spent reading and writing created opportunities for (some) people to learn to perceive themselves as agile, mental agents living within still and sitting bodies. The mind-body dichotomy, I have argued, is a concept made possible by the sensory education of reading and writing. In this reading, the negative effects of mind-body separation are simply unintended consequences.

Now I want to take the argument a step further. The idea of mind and body as two separate and separable entities serves to justify discrimination against “the body.” In this view, the mind is the seat of the human soul/self/spirit; the body exists to serve the mind. Thus, whatever must be done to “the body” in order fully to lift and liberate the mind is worthwhile, even desirable – including learning to ignore and override one’s own sensory and kinetic awareness. We come to believe that we have to control our bodies so that they conform to our expectations; we lose touch with what our bodies know. We believe that pain involved is inevitable, and that the results are worth it. The shift from books to screens amplifies the problem, in so far as our range of motion shrinks, even as the possibility for mental stimulation via moving image and sound as well as word increases.

This shift in argument makes a difference. Why?

For one, it makes it clear, as Kendi says of racism, that love and education are not enough to heal the wound between mind and body. It is not enough to “love” our bodies. It is not enough to engage in mind-driven practices that aim to unify “mind” with “body.”  Nor is it enough to study how the evolution of modern culture requires and perpetuates an ongoing repression of bodily agency.

Our ignored and neglected bodies are a mess. They are craving, addicted, overstimulated and undernourished, over-worked and under-exercised. Our minds are anxious, addicted, and depressed. Our actions and activities have made them that way. And our solutions, so much of the time, perpetuate the problem by focusing either on mind or body to the exclusion of the other, and in particular, by ignoring the self-creating agency of a bodily self.

The practices  we need, then, are ones that gradually restore a sense of agency to our bodily selves. “We” need to recover the wisdom that resides in our capacity to move.

We don’t need to stop reading and writing all together, only sometimes – enough to engage in actions that educate our sensory awareness in complementary directions.

Seeing the mind-body problem as an oppression-enabling ideology also illuminates why dancing, as a practice and as a source of ideas is so important to us in this historical moment. To dance is a radical act. It is radical, as I describe in my book Why We Dance, because it exposes the mind-body problem as ideology. The mind-body paradigm cannot explain the persistence and prevalence of dancing. This dancing cannot be explained as a matter of a mind’s choosing to act, or a body’s submitting to communal example. The world presence of dancing can only be explained as a sign of what the mind-body problem exists to ignore: that the source of human life lies in its own relational bodily movement. 

From such practices, then, ideas will emerge that do not discriminate between mind and body when discussing knowledge, truth, wisdom, justice, goodness, health, and beauty – or gender and race.

There is no mind-body problem. There are only bodily selves, creating themselves, creating their minds, with every bodily movement that they make.

Love Your Body? The Dance of Martha Graham

Describing her “way of doing things,” American modern dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991) wrote: “It is a freedom of the body and a love of the body.” “Love” may not be the first word that comes to mind to describe the work of an artist whose early dances were so angular and austere that a critic professed she’d give birth to a cube. Yet Graham’s love of the body was fierce and full-throttle – radical for what it loves and how it loves, and for what it reveals love—and a body—to be.

In the 1920s and 30s, when Graham was developing her “way of doing things,” she rejected the word “technique.” Her approach to dance had nothing to do, she insisted, with imposing arbitrary forms onto a body and demanding its obedience to them. Instead, the “freedom” and “love” to which she aspired involved a different approach: a dancer must learn to pay attention to her bodily self; train her bodily self to move in line with its own elemental rhythms, and in time, trust her bodily self as a source of guidance and inspiration. This “way of doing things” is love.

Paying attention. Graham wanted to discover movement that was strong and significant—“fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” She did not want her movement to “leak out” (Lloyd 1949). So day after day in the studio, Graham urged the young women of her fledgling dance company to pay attention to the fundamental, life-enabling bodily movements they were making in their ordinary lives: walking and running, laughing and crying, breathing, falling and rising again.

For Graham, paying attention to one’s movement is, like listening, “a complete focus upon a given instant.” Like listening it involves tuning in to waves—not of sound but of feeling—sensory swells arising and passing in every moment, across every surface and segment of bodily being. Dancers strive to cultivate a sensory awareness so intense it “animates” their “whole being” (1941), and can mobilize that whole being—mind, heart, and body—in space. No part is left out or forgotten. This attention is love.

Training. For Graham, paying attention yielded a pair of movement patterns—contraction and release—that would become the core of her every exercise, every gesture, and every choreography. She discovered these patterns by noticing how the alternating vectors of breathing—inhaling and exhaling—rearrange a body into complementary shapes.

Graham distilled these movements into kinetic images: an exhale became the “contraction” and an inhale became the “release.” As “images” of breathing, a dancer can feel, study, and recreate the contraction and release independent of actual breathing. As “kinetic,” the contraction and release exist only in movement, as movement. When repeated, they function as an energy pump, developing within a dancer a source of movement motivation – a muscular force field in the lower abdomen – that she can use to direct and deliver her sensorily animated, whole bodily self into a wide range of desired movements with power and precision. By basing her approach to dance on an elemental rhythm without which humans cannot live for more than four minutes, Graham sought to discover movements that would “do no violence, anatomically or emotionally” (1941).

In the early years of her career, as her dancers recount, Graham did not care what a movement looked like. She cared where in a body it began, how it passed through, and where it went. What mattered was whether a movement strengthened a bodily self along paths of potent action opened up by honoring and practicing its own elemental rhythms. This practice is love.

Trusting. For Graham, in dance as in life, the movements that we make us: from “the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual…comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit” (1991). Human actions not only give rise to an understanding of who we are and what we can do, they do so by organizing our nervous system, influencing what we perceive and how we respond. The movements we make don’t just make us, they become us (LaMothe 2015).

And when a person’s movements train and tune his sensory awareness to the rhythms of breathing – as in Graham’s way of doing things – his experience of his own body changes. “It” is no longer a thing or material object. It is him. He becomes someone who trusts his bodily self to discern how to make a movement in ways that do no violence. He becomes a dancer whose every movement can express the care and attention that he has practiced in order to be able to make that move. This trust is love.

Performing. Love of the body is why Graham danced; it is what she nurtured in her dancers, and it was also what she wanted audiences to receive when watching her dance performances. Graham choreographed nearly 200 dances over a period of 70 years. From the most abstract to those peopled with named characters, Graham intention was the same: “to communicate participation to the nerves, the skin, the structure of the spectator” (Armitage 1978).

Graham was not concerned with whether audience members understood what she was doing; she wanted them to feel it. She wanted her dances to wake people up viscerally – to give them an experience of themselves as moved, as moving, and so stir to life in them a sensory awareness of their own movement-making, of their own capacity for freedom and love of the body.

Even when Graham danced a murderer as in Clytemnestra or in Cave of the Heart (as Medea), or when she danced a victim, unjustly accused, as in Seraphic Dialogue (about Joan of Arc) or Rite of Spring, Graham wanted her audience members to identify viscerally with the force of creativity thrumming through every movement that she or her dancers were making – to feel that pulse even in the most extreme moments of human experience – and so emerge affirmed in their own search for movements that do no violence, anatomically or emotionally. This affirmation is love.

To dance, for Graham, is to love the body, where what “love” and “the body” mean are defined by her dancing. Love is not a feeling of abstract or unconditional affection directed towards some thing; it is a way of being a bodily self, open to and oriented by what a trained, trusted sensory awareness helps you perceive. It is a radical love that plumbs to the roots of human experience, willing to welcome all bodily experiences – comedies, tragedies, and everything in between – as occasions to dance. As Graham was fond of saying, “you stand or fall on the vulnerability of yourself to life” (1952). This dance is love.

This post is a continuation and elaboration of reflections begun in an earlier post on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martha Graham: “Radical Love: A Message for Our Time.” For more, see “Winter’s Life-Affirming Extremes—and Martha Graham.”

References

Armitage, Merle, ed. 1978 (1937). Martha Graham: The Early Years. NY: de Capo Press.

Graham, Martha. 1991. Blood Memory. NY: Doubleday.

———-. 1952. “The Medium of Dance.” Lecture. Audiotape, Dance Collection, New York Public Library.

———-. 1941. “A Modern Dancer’s Primer for Action,” in Rogers (1941), pp. 178-187.

LaMothe, Kimerer. 2015. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. NY: Columbia University Press.

———-. 2006. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lloyd, Margaret. 1949. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York.

Rogers, Frederick R., ed. Dance: A Basic Educational Technique. NY: MacMillan, 1941.

Wisdom from the World of Dance

My latest post. With a new twist.

What if we considered the practice of contemporary dance as a wisdom tradition — a set of practices engaged in the ongoing search for better ways of living?

Read on…

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201711/wisdom-the-world-dance