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A Lecture on Post-Structuralist Philosophy to Understand Contemporary Choreographers like Jérôme Bel (and Why You Are Important)

Gurur Ertem

You think, therefore I am
Ivana Müller, Under My Skin


Bel has been an influential choreographer for the last decade, and probably the most imitated one, as someone who in some ways, set up a “fashion”. Although I do not invite anyone to enjoy categorically his counterparts in the so called “conceptual dances” which circulate in Europe nowadays which explore similar choreographic concerns (or claim to do so), I bow down to Bel who is quite successful in making his statements concerning common-sensical ways of “doing dance” clear in a simple, craft-ful, cunning and enjoyable way – even when it implies doing absolutely nothing.

After completing his studies at CNDC Anger – France (Centre National de Danse Contemporaine), Jérôme Bel sought to challenge in his creations the traditional modes of representation (of the body, of the self, of movement, etc.), and the established hierarchies between the elements of performance, and its viewing. The two year period he spent reading books as he claims openly in some of his pseudo-autobiographical performances after his dance education certainly left visible traces in his creations. Author-ship, author-ity, power and choreography – or choreographic power, representations of the body and overall representational strategies in the field of dance have been the common thematic threads of his explorations. He is not interested in narrativity, expression, meaning, and form (in the sense of shapes and figures in space). He is more interested in the interrelationship of elements which comprise a “dance”. Rather than treating his creations as closed structures with easily identifiable signifiers to which fixed meanings can be attributed, the enfant terrible of contemporary dance, Bel, exposes his choreographic universe as an “open text” with multiple readings embedding zillions of interpretive possibilities. Of course, the readings can not be infinitely expanded since formal and presentational elements (such as using classical stage) – even when they are not ‘representational’ per se and his choice of exploiting classical stage – delimit and inform our ways of reading and participation in the work.

Needless to say, not one choreographer works in order to represent or to illustrate an “idea” or a concept in what is problematically called “conceptual dance.” Yet, it is still possible to say that Bel (along with other choreographers of his generation) does in dance what post-structuralists have done in the field of literary analysis and philosophy.

Carrying further the legacy of Barhtes and Foucault which he admits openly in some of his works, Bel employs post-structuralist notions of the “text” (as performance-event) and “author”. In order to make these ideas clearer to the uninitiated reader, I find it useful to remember several influential texts (of the above mentioned thinkers) that may be useful for making sense of works like Bel’s.….

In From Work to Text (1971), Roland Barthes argues that just as Einsteinian science demands that the relativity of the frames of reference be included in the object studied, the combined action of Marxism, Freudianism and structuralism demands in literature the relativization of the relations of reader, writer and observer which requires in addition, imagining a new object of study and/or explorations as opposed to those called forth by the idea of “work”. This new object he claims, is “text” and Barthes proposes several approaches to understand/explain/experience the text: For him, text is not to be thought of as a quantifiable object, neither does it make sense to distinguish materially works from texts. Their difference is that the “work” is a substance occupying the space of books, whereas the “text” is a methodological field, an exploration where different energies circulate. While the “work” can be seen, “text” is a process of demonstration; it is a proposition. The work can be held in hand, while the text can be held in only language (in the active, living, and evolving sense of the word). Its truth exists only in the moment of discourse. The “text” is experienced only as an activity of production. “Text” cannot stop at its constitutive movement/moment, neither can it stop in literature. (This is what is important for us dealing with “performing arts”!!! Or, is it??): It cannot be contained in the simple division of genres. What constitutes the “text” is its subversive force in respect of old classifications. “Text” is always paradoxical.

The “text” can be experienced in reaction to the “sign”. While the “work” closes on a “signification”, “text” infinitely defers the “signified”. Infinity of the “signifier” does not mean that it is ineffable, but, it means that it calls forth “playing” to render it with “signification”. Logic that regulates the text is not comprehensive, it is metonymic. It calls for an activity of associations and liberation of the symbolic energy. Text is without closure and it is plural. It is not the coexistence of meanings, but, it is a passage. It does not answer to an interpretation but to an explosion, to dissemination. “Texts” are already inter-textual, and a “text” can be read without the guarantee of its founding Father. Author’s life is no longer the origin of his fictions, but, is a fiction contributing to his work. There is no authorial authority on text!! (So, shall we forget about Bel? Why not?)

The “work” is an object of consumption, whereas the “text” is actively produced in the act of reading that requires that the distance between reading and writing to be abolished, which is a distance that has been created historically.

’Text” is bound to pleasure; it participates in a social utopia. It achieves the transparency of the language of relations. It is a space where languages circulate. The discourse of the text is nothing other than text. The theory of the text can coincide only with the practice of writing.

In Death of the Author (1968) – Barthes substitutes language (any language, in my reading, be it verbal, visual, aural) itself for the person who is supposed to be its owner. It is language that acts and performs, not the author. The author is no more than the instance of writing. The modern scriptor is born with the “text”, she does not come before it as in the notion of the “author”. Every “text” is written here and now. Enunciation has no other content than the act by which it is uttered. It has no other origin than the language itself.

In the multiplicity of “writing”, everything is to be disentangled, not deciphered. The space of “writing” is to be ranged over, not to be pierced. Writing ceaselessly posits meaning to evaporate it. Text is made of multiple writings drawn from many cultures and they enter into mutual relations of dialogue. The place where this multiplicity is focused is the reader, not the author!!!!

Similary proclaiming the “death of the author,” Foucault introduces the notion of “author function” in What is an Author (1969) and questions the assumption that the author is the originator of meaning (of a text). The association of the author to the text is historical, he repeats, and underscores the fact that this function emerged in 17th and 18th centuries, related to the moment of “individualization”. Earlier there was no distinction between scientific and literary texts. Author function is related to the problem of ownership and appropriation. Discourses came to be owned and produced in a particular period when authors became “punishable.”

Foucault’s analyses of the author function is part of his (and of other structuralists and post-structuralists) devaluation of the “subject” as the center of significations and of (the maker of) history. For him, the status of the author is ideological and that we should reverse the traditional ideal of the author. “Author” does not precede the “works”, and he is not the indefinite source of “significations”. He is a “functional principle” that limits and excludes the free circulation (of reading, of meaning, and of meaning making). It is the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.…

Having said all of this, we can see much of writing on dance and common-sensical approaches to the arts still do have in mind the notion of the subject as the sole arbiter of meaning. That’s why we have biographies attached to the “description” of a work, to make sense of it (see any visual arts catalogue such as that of our current biennial!).

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