Monday, November 05, 2018

The norms of contact improvisation dance

Every social environment puts some limits on human conduct and expects consent to certain type of conduct. The limits can concern matters ranging from sexual conduct and bodily functions, which are so internalized that they get hardly ever spoken about, to expectations of being quiet as part of a concert audience. Expected (implied) consent may be to being in presence of people consuming alcohol or to hearing vulgar language in a bar. It might be said that in imposing the limits and implying consent a given social environment is coercive.

At any rate, a social environment defines a norm - a normal behavior and conduct. We know the standard concert hall ceremony when the orchestra comes in first, takes the seats, and then stands up when the conductor comes in while the audience claps until the conductor turns to the orchestra and raises the baton - then the audience falls silent and music can begin. This is normal conduct for a concert and the details are not important. People in their individual roles are to behave normally in order for the expected function of the gathering to be accomplished - in this example it is that of making music.

Physical contact is the norm in CI

I would submit that in contact improvisation (CI) we normalize physical contact. This is in contrast to most other social interactions where physical contact is very much avoided. Forms of dance other than CI allow physical contact but there it exists in service to some other goal: constructing the form of the dance or delivering an expressive experience. The examples of tango and butoh come to mind from my own experience. In CI physical contact is the main goal.

When I say that CI normalizes physical contact it means that within CI we can answer the question what normal physical contact is. Thus:

  • contact anywhere the pressure of the body is felt - including weight due to gravity
  • contact is not insistent - it can be stopped or changed at any moment
  • contact is not inquisitive, not an examination aimed at knowledge of the other body as an object
  • contact is protective - of one's own body and of the body of the other

Many would agree that this is a very broad and liberal definition of normal conduct.

The question of consent.

The form of the group dance involves expression of wishes and limits (boundaries) about actions and situations that a participant can get into or not. These are best handled non-verbally. Wishes are less than demands whereas limits are more than dislikes. It is the responsibility of the individual participant to step out of activities they dont want to be in. It is an art of its own to express one's wish in a group in such a manner that it becomes fulfilled. The art develops with practice. Between the wish and limit there is a place of discomfort - while frustrating for the beginner, with experience it becomes an ideal place of departure into a new activity.

Departure from normal CI behavior

Participants who wish to conduct themselves outside of the normal physical contact - for example to perform acrobatics - should certainly negotiate their mutual consent. Their nonconforming conduct would ideally not disturb the normal conduct of others. Those who have not negotiated participation in nonconforming conduct should stay away. It is perhaps needless to say that if too many participants opt for nonconforming behavior then we will see a breakdown of the form.

Friday, October 05, 2018

L'affaire Kavanaugh and the Left

The fight for confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as Justice on the Supreme Court has aroused  passions which will stay with us and hurt us all for decades.

As he is a nominee of the Trumpist Right, with many perceived right-wing judicial propensities, it is natural that the Left would oppose this nomination. There would be others, myself included, who would oppose him on juridical grounds. Any such opposition, however, should be carried out in a civilized manner in a civilized nation and bring up matters mainly of jurisprudence and ultimately of politics. Politics will always enter the stage as it is the motivating force for the members of the examining body. Only in case of most egregious and unusual matters the personal life of the man should be under the microscope.

Yet the Left chose to bring up an uncorroborated charge of sexual assault supported by testimony of the accuser only. The accused man denies the charge vehemently.

It shows that the Left resorts to a smear campaign that destroys a man's reputation and career in order to achieve political goals. This is Stalinist, this is "by any means necessary,", this is disgusting. By the way, the Left is not just the Democratic party but a large part of society that cheers that effort. These people are the American authoritarian revolutionaries.

Of course, they claim the need for "resistance" to the Trumpist Right. I agree with the need - but by what means?!! There are people on anti-Trump Right who were discussing, and practically campaigning for, voting "blue" in the mid-term election so they prevail in Congress and curb the power of the clown president. I was thinking about voting for the Dems - but now I am too disgusted. Has the Left helped to bolster that initiative?

Quite the opposite. And the Left will also doom the feminist movement. The charge brought against Brett Kavanaugh shows that a woman's unsupported charge can bring down a man's life and career. This charge along with the effects of the #meToo and "believe women" movement shows that women have acquired power that they use to bypass due process and bring down individual men. This has happened already on the Left - a lot! Do the feminists understand what a horrific pit of misogyny is being dug?

There is a medieval quality in the Kavanaugh proceedings. A tenor of a trial by ordeal. On the emotional level, which reaches quite visceral depths, the accuser must strike the registers of truthfulness and the accused comply with the expected signs of innocence in order to be exonerated. Trial by ordeal happening in the chambers of US Senate. Many will not forget that it was at the behest of the Left and of feminism.

PS. ACLU is spending a lot of money on a campaign against the Kavanaugh nomination. Showing that it is just a leftist organization. After 13 years of support I am leaving ACLU as a member.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Words and Violence

A question asked on social media sought to find out what we think is really at stake in insisting on the proposition that words are not violence. The idea that words are possibly violent is typically quickly dismissed by insisting, after most English-language dictionaries, that violence involves physical force and words are not physical force. However, we need to acknowledge that there are expressions such as "violent argument" and there are harsh insults that lead to violent aggression. Therefore the idea of violence has wider range than its dictionary definition.

While I completely support freedom of speech, including offensive (and violent) speech, I want to call on the classical liberal, being one of them myself, to justify freedom of speech while acknowledging that words and violence are entangled together.

The term "words" is used here as roughly covering the meaning of the Logos which includes: reason, logic, ideas, norms, rules and laws. It is the standard operating area of rational human beings.

The separation between words and violence, speech and act, is a legal construction supported through the history of human thought in order to carve out domains of free activity from controlling tyrants. To question that legal fiction, even in the name of truth, dangerously weakens this long standing effort. Unfortunately, protecting it prevents us from truly considering our relationship to violence.

The proposition about the separation of words and violence is a sort of wishful thinking that ignores the depths of our mental life, which is filled with symbolic and imaginary, yet logically incoherent, structures. They constitute our unconscious, which, according to Lacan, is structured like a language.
Before we are thinking beings we are speaking beings. And we often speak out of the unconscious, incoherent and illogical knowledge. Speech, conscious and not, arises because we are evicted from the immediacy of real life and condemned to inhabit civilization. Therefore, speech, with its symbols and norms, strives more for power than for truth, more for civilization than for satisfaction of instincts. Civilization shapes forces into powers, forces of nature that have no semantics, but our words and language are all about semantics. Words forge forces into powers. Yet since words are frequently not an expression of rationality, powers become irrational.

What is the place of immediacy of life, our seemingly lost home? Lacan would call the lost place the Real. It manifests itself to our inner life as Desire. For Freud it was the object once lost and to be found again - the place of "id", the origin repressed and deformed into the "ego" by civilized life. Rilke speaks about it in his Eighth Duino Elegy (translation my own):

With its whole eyes looks the creation
Into the open. But we have our eyes
Turned around to bar, like set traps,
Its escape and free exit.
What is out there we know only
From the animal's eyes
This is our fate: to be in relation to It,
Never It, but always in relation. 
We are spectators, always, everywhere,
Looking at but never outward...
It overwhelms. And we organize. It breaks down.
We fix again. And then decline and die.

Instead of the immediacy of being we are in relation to being and owing to this insufficiency we seek power. We seek power as a technology to master physical forces and as societal norms to master the physical, visceral reality of our bodies. These norms tell us, sometimes whispering imperceptibly, under what conditions we can sit on the floor or take off our shirt or pants. When these norms, and they are basically words that have ascended to the status of power, are transgressed, offense results. Words regulate our bodies.

What is really at stake in saying the words "fuck you" or, for that matter, what is at stake in saying "love you"?(*) Why is it impolite to speak to a newlywed bride words of one's sexual passion and love in front of her new husband and wedding guests? Impolite because it points to a violent content of a certain layer of life that we access only through the proper form. For all the honey flowing from the lips of lovers and potential lovers they are road posts of desire pointing toward the violent content of our life. The melodrama genre is full of that sort of thing and it is brutal.

The melodrama of "fuck you/love you" shows how our words, speech as well as legal and societal norms, are logical and address other words - but some of them are turned toward that from which we have been evicted, from what we have lost and seemingly have to do without. Some of them are aimed directly at the intimacies which we would rather keep as secrets secured by rationalized formalities. They aim at violence.

Look at the boisterous business and sports banter! Team sports, such as American football, are tremendously aggressive and involve actual violence. It is common and accepted to use expressions that refer to aggression on the body - such as "kick ass" - as well as describing the opposing team or competition as "pussies" which invokes both bodily weakness and sexual acts. Words may not be violence but they speak of it and long for it.

What about the interest of the public in violent fantasy - as is amply demonstrated by the action-adventure genre as well as the mystery murder and crime drama? It is not only popular culture films, but critically-acclaimed literature such as JRR Tolkien's epics such as "The Lord of the Rings", that produce words and images conjuring up versions of reality supporting levels and modes of violence that seem hardly possible to enact - yet they captivate the imagination of masses of people.

The power of words, the law that they constantly proclaim, shapes our access to reality. We will only get so much of it as the words permit us to have. The force of reality is channeled by the semantics of the language. Freud calls these channels - drives. Such regulation of access to our violent reality conceals the fact that we actually desire it. Men and women desire sex, and women additionally desire motherhood and violent childbirth. Men dream of violent struggle and dangerous exploits. As thinking and speaking beings we empower and normalize our path toward reality, toward desire that can consume our life and bring death. By doing that we become desiring beings. Our speech addressing the desire is where words engage with violence.

Words are both means of our eviction from the violent reality of life as well as means of our return to it. The free speech defenders have to be prepared to fight on much more squishy and unstable ground, prowled by the monsters of the unconscious assaulting the pure ghosts of logic.

(*) note how much people avoid investing the grammatical "I" in the expression "fuck you" or "love you" - because the "I" would make it a more breath-taking leap into the violent reality.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Gender difference - a social construct?

The question is often asked if gender is a 100% social construct.

My answer is yes. Gender is a social construction created, however, in response to our biology of sexual reproduction. The function of gender is to prescribe the social conduct required for sexual interactions. While biology determines the sexual apparatus of the body and embeds in us procreative instincts, gender is a set of forms and behaviors that we adopt being strongly induced to, inducted into indeed, by our early environment and mostly by parents who more or less apply the norms prescribed by society for a biological boy or girl.

Gender becomes strongly embedded in the body as it relates to the sexual aspirations and wishes. That means gender is about how we will realize our sexuality, about how we will couple, not just relate, with others. Just because it is a social construct does not mean that it is easy or painless to change it or go against it. Therefore it is not purely performative as a social role.

Gender is the way we present our sexual aspirations to ourselves. Such presentation in principle should admit a huge variability. This option is eagerly embraced by the proponents of a "gender spectrum" or continuity denying the validity of masculine and feminine gender expressions. For them the cultural standard should be really a choice of the proper ratio of the masculine and feminine.

So why would we have two genders? Just because there are two biological sexes?

Partly yes, but since we are speaking beings that interpret everything and try to apply and extract meaning to and from each and every fact and act of our lives, the gender expression is due to the semantics of sex rather than to its reality. In other words, because we speak we express sex through gender - that is, we make it complicated. Alenka Zupančič takes it further: because we have sex, she says, we need to develop language to handle it.

In the 1990s, Joan Copjec, a feminist, wrote an article deriving gender difference from the antinomies of Kant. According to her paper, man is the dynamic failure, meaning that he does not rise to the occasion, while woman is an existential (or mathematical) failure, meaning that she does not exist. The latter statement is, of course, scandalous, and of Lacanian provenience.

Let me recount Copjec's argument in the form of anecdote.
There we have It - the elusive and obscure signifier of desire. Hidden in the unconscious and totally inaccessible. Lacan calls it the Phallus.
The man has It yet knows he is not It but because he has It he is sure he will become It.
The woman is sure she is It yet she does not have It but is sure that somehow she will obtain It.

This is really a Lacanian version of Freudian "penis envy" - now distributed between the genders, albeit asymmetrically, owing to the split between the modalities of having and being.

In explicit and yet very elucidating sexual terms we can say this:
The man has it (the penis) but does not have the erection. So he is not It.
The woman is It (she is the erection) - but she does not have it.

Now the failure, the lack, is distributed - not equally but so that each gender can complete the other. Just like it was explained by Aristophanes in old Plato's account.

Speaking more closely to Copjec's terminology, man's dynamic failure is the failure to master the delivery of power - as he presumes to have what it takes but is challenged to make it work, cannot make it It. Woman is It but does not believe it - she has to have somebody prove it to her. Man can do it as he directs the power he creates toward her. The proof is seen as love. Love proves that she is It.

Casting this discussion in terms of power - and I consider power a transmission of energy or force in a semantically organized manner - seems to me a more socially acceptable simplification. That is why I sometimes say that gender difference is founded on the relationship to power. Man is the creator and generator of power while the woman is its recipient and beneficiary - and thus its judge.

Copjec:  "Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason" - in "Supposing the Subject" - Verso 1994
Zupančič: "What is sex?" - MIT 2017. page 43

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Christianity is Humanism

What is religion? Religion is a way for individuals to deal with the void in their soul - their existential anxiety. We are not going to do away with its individual dimension but we must somehow deal with institutional power built on human religious impulse. Here I think that Christianity has a certain advantage.

Let us start with a simplified bullet point list of major world religions:

  • Judaism - we are God's chosen people and we communicate and negotiate our existence with God
  • Judeo-Christianity - we are promoted from chosen people to children of God
  • Islam - we are God's slaves or at best tenants and have to submit to the Supreme being
  • Buddhism - God is the void and we are happy to join the void
  • Hinduism - God is the system of the world

The story goes like this - in comic-book grand narrative style:
Abraham sees a burning bush and realizes that the void in his soul is the only void. The void is unique. The sole and universal God speaks to him. From this event Judaism has developed as a practice of the chosen people to enter into dialogue with the Absolute.

Jesus comes along as an activist for existence and claims that he is the Christ, totally human and totally divine - and designated to die and be resurrected to prove all that. So starts the development of Christianity and it starts with Christ as the first existentialist activist. He claims that by accepting death we become children and heirs of God and God has become one of us. He is not a teacher, not a sage - but an activist like we have them nowadays. The actions of Jesus as Christ, the death and resurrection are presaging the "postmodernism" of Nietzsche and company.

Judeo-Christianity splits off the Orthodox East and the ancient original rites and develops into Catholicism and Protestantism in the West. They all become institutions. Judeo-Christians think themselves to be children of God and so having to behave like them.

Islam enters the stage - prior to Protestantism of course - and, while acknowledging the Abrahamic priority, reveals a teaching harsher than the Abrahamic one. Namely, we are not God's heirs and children - we are his slaves, or tenants at best, - and ought to live in submission. God is no longer the void but the whole of being and we are merely supplicants rather than participants.

Islam and Judeo-Christianity resemble each other in the judgment of human obligation as subordinates to God but differ very much in the concept of the status of human beings with respect to God.

The Asian developments of Hinduism and Buddhism, having taken place before Christ, resemble the split between Catholicism and Protestantism in Christendom. Hinduism is a religion of a God that is the system of the world. As far as I understand, human beings are not really important to this type of God. Perhaps for this reason, Buddhism basically asserts that human existence would be best served by its own denial and devolution into the divine void.

In my view Christ (born: Jesus) is still the guiding figure in the development of our modern religious sensibility.

The religion of Christ, if it existed, and which is not to be confused with the current forms of Christianity, would be profoundly humanistic. Christ does not care if God's existence can be proven - we, humans, have trouble proving our own existence to ourselves. That proof is otherwise known as Love - the elusive state of the soul that everybody is seeking. The main ethic of Christ's religion is not faith but a deep respect and awe for the courage of human existence. Or, to paraphrase Tillich, it is the faith that arises after God has died.

Here is a story by a Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, told in his autobiographical novel - "Trans-Atlantic." He gets stranded in Buenos Aires in 1939 and cannot go back to Poland because the Germans started WWII. He stays in BsAs (he really lived there for 20 years or so) and observes his kin folk, arrived on the ship with him, immersed in the life of the locals. One of those people is an older Polish military officer who has a young adult son. The officer upholds high Polish moral standards for himself and his son and really wishes they could fight somehow against the enemy. Unbelievably, with his acquiescence, his son succumbs to the seduction of a rich, vaguely homosexual, Argentinian. The novel ends in a surreal party or orgy where the protagonists proclaim that the idea of sonship should take precedence over that of fatherhood. Or in splendid and clever French translation - "filistrie" over "patrie". The moral is that we will no longer serve the fatherland but forge ahead creating a "sonland." Or Christ taking over from the Father.

The religion of Christ really does not exist. What we have is a seed of the idea embedded in Judeo-Christianity as a sort of contraband. Not sure what to do with it presently, I suspect that in the right moment it will supply strength and a source of meaning to Western civilization.

Gombro's "Trans-Atlantic" shows that the religion of Christ can open its seed in our time, even when vaguely clamoring for various sorts of liberation, through such a thing as an LGBTQ moment.

Modern atheism is not helping because it covers up the existential void with a scientific void. Neither is the exhortation to return to Enlightenment values because they exclude anything beyond the rational and objective. Existentialism, psychoanalysis (Jung invoked Christ's model directly) and other modern and postmodern directions are aiming better. Somehow paradoxically, they stand with Christ taking the position of profound respect for the courage of existence which will allow us, in due time, surpass Judeo-Christianity as well as Enlightenment.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Aggression, trauma, empathy and sex

Disclaimer: This text is full of questions I am currently exploring. Even if the answers sound assertive they are tentative. None of the material is of ethical nature.
We are violent and aggressive beings. Aggression is an action aimed to suddenly cause a major change, a trauma, in the body - one's own or another. We harbor aggression for the body of the other and, sometimes, for our own. We have the ability to deliver trauma through aggression. How do we receive trauma? We respond to trauma typically in a massive affect similar to the affect accompanying aggression. I would call this affect empathy - empathy to another's traumatic pain or to one's own.

Trauma connects violent aggression and empathy.

What is trauma? Trauma is a violent change in the conditions of the body. Sudden pain, twisted arm or ankle, limb ripped off in car accident, gun shot wound. But also closely missed contact with danger - a missed high-speed collision on the road. Perhaps also speeding on a motorcycle to twice the freeway speed? Perhaps intrusion perceived as a happy event - such as pregnancy?

Trauma is generally an intrusion of other bodies into our body.

There are types of intrusions and interventions of other bodies into ours that we have been persuaded to accept. It would be appropriately prepared food and drink and also dental or medical instruments. The introductory hand-shake is a bodily intrusion we have been taught to accept under suitable social conditions. In a reversed scenario of intrusion we have been trained to properly expel waste and keep it at a distance from the body.

Another type of traumatic intrusion are sexual acts. The chief example is, of course, the classic male-female intercourse - but there is definitely a range of activities when bodies engage each other in an intrusive way. Among those we would have passing touch (other than the handshake), eye gaze or passing glance, a dance embrace.

I cite such a wide range of activities as traumatic to be able to point out how much trauma we are able to deflect and treat as merely potentially traumatizing - such as a car ride or visit to the dentist. Sexual intercourse among long-term partners is no longer traumatizing. We normalize and habituate ourselves to trauma.

Human beings have a tremendous ability to absorb trauma and aggression. Moreover, we also desire it!

The violent fantasy of popular action/adventure genre is a proof that we imagine ourselves as violent beings. Of course, as Lacan would say, we only imagine it so that it can become real. We need the fantasy so that something can happen in the real. Men are the warriors slaughtering monsters - the heroes properly and rightfully executing their power and attracting and subjugating females. If women prefer to romanticize domestic tranquility they do this in order to be mothers - undergoing the trauma of childbirth and wielding power over the child's life and death, a child whose emerging life is trauma itself, as Lyotard has observed. And women variously accept and rebel against the dominance of the conquering warrior hero.

Imaginary violence is also pervasively present in everyday language - especially in usage related to achievement. In business talk the competition will have "their ass kicked," or you will "bust your ass" to get something done. Imaginary bodily intrusion and affect is clearly implied.

Not to be omitted should be the popular interest in sports - especially team sports - which enact a safer variant of war.

The safest way to act out violence and aggression is sex.

Sex is a bodily intrusion and entanglement that we simply survive unharmed. Sex can be practiced by a single individual - where arousal and/or masturbation can generate a strong affect. The intrusion is more pronounced when more than one body is participating. Large part of the two-body problem is related to the semantics of the interaction of two individuals - which is a topic in psychoanalysis.
Sex is the act where our innate violence and aggression is readily accepted and absorbed. Sex is trauma embodied in a basically unharmed body - opening the way for empathy. Sex is trauma we are built for. The satisfaction sex provides cannot be understood only in terms of pleasure, Freud already having discovered the limits of pleasure, but in terms of contact with the trauma underlying our existence which will often involve pain. Individuals will run extreme risks to obtain sexual satisfaction. Political power that wishes to regulate and restrict sex, because it sees it as one of the loci of aggression and violence, ought to be very careful about unleashing more violence.