Thursday, October 20, 2005

The last four abstracts & my reading

Here are four more abstracts from the 2005 FIRT/IFTR conference which give some shape to various bits of thought already in my head. Of course, my thinking is informed by theological and (classic) philosophical ideas, and that is why finding correspondences to them in other branches of the liberal arts is such a welcome exercise. It not only lends credence to the questions themselves, but plays question-and-answer on a wholly different field of options and constraints, often suggesting novel solutions and hitherto unseen connections. There is another strategy, too, in discovering points of connection, and that is the assertion of theology as a living confession along with the denial of its existence as a heavenly, opiate metaphysics, a Dr. Pangloss to everyman’s Candide. The doing of theology is a function of the doing of humankind in no way different from the doing of dance, of theatre, of poetry, of ballad, of song.

I will present the following four abstracts/selections in a different font and then add a short gloss of my own explaining what about this abstract fascinated me and what connections I made while reading it. Now on to the first abstract.

From Nostalgia to the ‘Unheimlich’
Rodem, Freddie (Tel Aviv University)
This paper will deal with moments of longing and homesickness (which is what nostalgia actually meant originally) as they are/can be expressed in performance and how such a longing becomes transformed into something Unheimlich (“uncanny” in the English translation of Freud’s term) a term which literally means “not homely” at the same time as it means “not secretive.” The uncanny is a form of revealing the secrets of the home. I want to argue that this revelation in connection with the “algos,” the pain of nostalgia, which is lethal (see ‘Carmen’), is the locus where something really uncomfortable, what Freud called Unbehangen (usually translated as “Discontents” in “Civilization and its…” begins to appear through the death drive.

Nostalgia caught my eye right away simply because of its connection with Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialist philosophy. Existentialism is such a powerful philosophical force in twentieth century theology (the early Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Rudolf Bultmann, to name a few) that this abstract's simple act of connecting it with homesickness, with Freud, with a revealing process, and of supplying a few good German words to boot is just great. However, when one considers that longing and homesickness are very much existential responses to eschatological promise, well, then these connections become even more interesting. There is a good deal of work being done in foundational eschatology--the theology of hope, proleptic theologies--but none has, as far as I am aware, explored nostalgia as a portion of this otherwise hopeful mood. J. Moltmann always mentions the tension required of living between the times, but can one be more specific? How is nostalgia a response to eschatological promise (or the other way round)? The possibilities evoked by the above paragraph are many indeed.

Criticism as a Creative Act
Wilcox, Dean (North Carolina School of the Arts)
…I am a firm believer that any act of criticism is a creative act. The same interpretive problems arise in transferring a text from page to stage that arise in transferring a performance from the stage to the page. As critics we make choices, focus attention, employ metaphors, and conduct the viewpoint of our readers in the same spirit as actors, designers, and directors. In writing about performance we employ similar strategies of focus, rhythm, pace, and juxtaposition that dominate the historical and contemporary stage. As we reflect upon the work of others we, in a real sense, create our own form of theatre, virtual as opposed to material, but performative nonetheless.

I am of the growing opinion that theology goes untaught in the schools. It is suggested, and its waste products are examined, but very little of its pneumatic force is allowed to stir or even asked to do so! What this paragraph suggests is that, despite this situation, one cannot help but do theology even in the act of criticism. As far as I know, criticism (what Walter Kaufmann calls referieren[1]) is never pursued for what it contributes to the discovery of one’s own project. [Indeed, religious education is largely an attempt to avoid the development of an owned theological project in students and, worse, may even be an attempt to substitute ideology for theology. That line is very fine, and I would hope that every religion instructor acting in good faith would be constantly watchful against it.] Further, Wilcox’s parallelism between the act of performing and the craft of criticism is fantastic, reinforcing some of my own discoveries in the pursuit of “craft.” [When is the last time a theologian talked to you about the craft of theology? Let me guess: never.]

Movement – A Bodily Process
Ravn, Susanne (University of Southern Denmark)
In phenomenology perception is described as the primary entrance of our being in the world and the ecstatic nature of corporality is central in the description of how and why the body itself is forgotten in experience while reaching out for the world. The more the ecstatic nature of corporality is described the more the lived experience about how to handle and master the physicality of the body seems to vanish. Specifically the resistance of the body in relation to movements seems to recede into a forgotten area. Phenomenology aims at a description beyond the natural attitude, that is, beyond our way of daily living and immediate way of understanding and creating meaning. This means that the contextualized body that we actually meet the world through is somehow left behind. Phenomenology describes the body of the world while this body of lived experience is left behind. It is an essential thesis of the project that the weight of the body is understood as a primary resistance of movements and in that sense is central to the understanding of what it means to deal with the body as also a physical matrix.

In dance there can be equilibristic elements but there is not a present visible connection to any goal that has to be reached or any object that must be manipulated. The dancers development as dancer depends heavily on his or her ability to attend to and differentiate the perception of different movement qualities. In dance the body is the prime point of departure of movement and in that sense, movement experiences of dancers can be understood, linked and discussed in relation to broader areas of the phenomenological descriptions.

The aim of this study is to describe structuring factors of movement based on the lived experiences of dancers. It is central to describe how the mastering of the weight of the body structures movement in relation to different kinds of techniques – and how the weight has to be understood in relation to other factors – such as time and place.

Susanne Ravn brings a good critique against phenomenology here, one aimed right at its platonic gonads. On the other hand, she also offers a suggestion of a way forward out of Cartesian dualism by means of the weight and resistance of the body as a phenomenological experience. Note the rich philosophical tradition with which Ravn connects by invoking time and space. Proper Christian theology requires the body, indeed it asserts the body. The connections, too, with various theologies of body – primarily feminist theologies – is quite helpful, as well as its suggestion for further ways to broaden my own investigations of nakedness and humiliation.

Body, Memory and Dance in ‘Körper’
Malka, Liora (Tel Aviv University)
‘Körper’ (the body or bodies), a dance-performance piece, was created by the German choreographer, Sasha Waltz and her international company in 1999. In one of the episodes a dancer tells ‘her story’, expressing how she wakes up in the morning and has to reestablish her sense of having a body whilst trying to reintegrate its parts. While portraying this process of re-membering her body she points to each body-part she speaks of, but confuses them with each other. Her confused experience of awakening, framed by the need to re-collect her body, is corrected by another dancer, who stands at the back, points to all the right places, and matches names to body-parts. The conflict between personal experience and cultural communication is clearly manifested in this episode. The provoked conflict between naming and sensing the body and its parts conceptualizes the body as a crossroads between personal experience and theory, practice and ideology, constitutes the focus of this paper.

What is striking here, is the depicted situation in which an individual does not remember her/his body – which means that the body has no memory of itself. Memory is the agent through which we sense our body, as well as recognize, know, and communicate its functions and experiences. Moreover, memory has a performative power since it is rooted in the act of recollection, and as such it is fundamentally imprinted in and through bodily practices: for the past (personal or cultural) is also manifested in the body and its actions. Thus, when the dance presents the need to recollect the body it not only precisely indicates the performative quality of memory but also turns bodily memory into a performative strategy.

Liora Malka enriches the body of insights already suggested by Ravn above. Phenomenology’s Cartesian problematic was mentioned above, and here Malka points to the existence of body or muscle memory as potentially a point of certainty right alongside the cogito of Augustine and Descartes. The dancer who knows the proper names of things, and who then properly directs actions (wisdom) corresponds tantalizingly to Augustine’s inner teacher (de Magistro), and the subsequent tradition of illumination. Memory, too, is a powerful force in Augustine, and thus for theology as a whole (anthropology, ethics, etc.) Finally, I cannot stress enough that discovering these connections in works that are about dance is radically important in and of itself. Like Jacob’s ladder, angels can go up and down on such connections, offering a wealth of discovery and possibility for every discipline involved and pointing the way forward toward a renewed world in all its performative richness.

See, I have always understood the development of the liberal arts by Cain and his descendants to be part of that which must be redeemed. The people of God always come to things second-hand. They are always developing themselves after the fact, whether in the technology with which they make war or even in the genres and literary forms they use for writing scripture. The point, of course, is that this “bondage” to the world awaits a divine deliverance and liberation. The Author of the arts will restore primacy of place to his people when he comes. Then all will realize who are the true artisans. The arts, taken up second-hand by his people, are restructured now according to the hope of their redemption. The fine arts will not truly be practiced until the eschaton. This is what is meant by the long biblical tradition which ends in Revelation 21.23-26:


And the city (πόλις) had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light (λύχνος) thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk (περιπατήσουσιν) in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it.[2]

The possibilities suggested by this are staggering! Not only for an extension of eschatology into the arts, but by an extension of the arts into eschatology. The liberal arts are, after all, disciplines, ways of ascesis for the sake of the deepest purposes of humankind: to glorify God and to love one’s neighbor. Aesthetics as righteous law-keeping (ἡσυχίᾳ). Well, I’ve gone on long enough. One sees, however, that the connections suggested by the above abstract are multivalent, and I cannot forget the nod to personal and cultural tradition in the second paragraph and its connection to the pedagogical function of liturgy.

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[1] Defining referieren Kauffman writes: “One of the favorite pastimes of German professors and students: the word is hard to translate but means making a report on an author by way of offering a condensed paraphrase, a summary, an outline of his argument.” (pp. 24-25). Kaufmann’s definition is meant to highlight the desire of German existentialist Karl Jaspers to become unreferierbar about the doing of philosophy, where “any content is a mere means to transcend all contents. No statement has been understood until it is seen to be an invitation to be dissatisfied with all statements.” (Ibid.) Also note: “The initial impulse of Jaspers’ Existenzphilosophie was not a doctrine but a dissatisfaction with mere doctrines and the conviction that genuine philosophizing must well up from a man’s individual existence and address itself to other individuals to help them to achieve true existence.” (23) Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, New York: Meridian Books, 1956. One can easily draw the parallels between Jaspers’ criticism of the philosophy of the schools and my own criticism above per the theology of the same. I also note with some interest the parallel impulse between Jaspers, myself, and the protests of Bacon, Leibniz, and Descartes against their own neo-scholastic schoolmasters. Oh, and all one has to do is look up Jacques Mauritain to discover a revolt against the same scholastic sensibility. Perhaps we discover the Hegelian protest that defines all students; the analysis that comes before synthesis?

[2] If you think that the light (λύχνος) referred to here is daylight, you have no business reading the book of Revelation. Also, how far I am from Hans Urs von Balthasar here I do not know--he is a bit impenetrable to me yet--but I’ll bet I am at least playing in the gates.



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