Saturday, December 22, 2007

Kierkegaard and dance

Not exactly a tango metaphor, but I thought it might help to collect some philosophical quotations referring to dance:

"[The knight of faith] constantly makes the movement of infinity, but he does it with such precision and proficiency that he constantly gets finitude out of it and at no second does one suspect anything else. It is supposed to be the most difficult task for a dancer to leap into a particular posture in such a way that there is no second when he grasps at the position but assumes it in the leap itself. Perhaps no dancer can do it - but that knight does. The majority of people live absorbed in worldly sorrow and joy; they are wallflowers who do not join in the dance. The knights of infinity are dancers and have elevation. ... But every time they drop down they cannot assume the posture at once; they hesitate an instant, and this hesitation shows that they are really strangers in the world. ... One does not need to see them in the air but only at the instant they touch and have made contact with the ground to recognize them. But to be able to land in such a way that it looks as if one were simultaneously standing and walking, to transform the leap of life into a gait, absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian - that only the knight of faith can do - and that is the only miracle." (Fear & Trembling, trans. C. Stephen Evans, Sylvia Walsh, 2006, 34)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Cognitive Science of Dance

Firstly, let me say how excited I am that I finally have something to post on this blog. I've been looking forward to this for weeks!

I've just discovered that John Sutton wrote a paper on possible intersections between cognitive science (particularly dynamical systems theory) and the phenomenology of dance in 2005. It's available from John's site.

John's interested in the overlap or possible exchanges between properly cognitive modes (like planning, making commitments, deliberating etc) and bodily know-how. He writes that
Philosophical or political ideas, wishes, hints and half-remembered dreams, idiosyncratic individual memories, cognitively-loaded emotional states and moods, perceptually-driven assessments of complex cultural situations, and other cognitive processes which are (to varying degrees) more articulable and accessible than is movement itself, can all influence the creation, performance, and enjoyment of dance.

Naturally, this interference cuts both ways, and I don't think I'm stretching his view too far to suggest that it may be through the body that cognition acquires it's interpersonal dimension. After all, where he says:
cognition is interpersonally as well as technologically distributed: we work together with each other in many ways to form temporarily integrated larger systems with cognitive characteristics and abilities which are often quite different from the mere sum of individual capacities,
wouldn't we just say that the tango is a two-headed beast?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Learning to walk

Tango dancers will know that possibly the most important element in tango, and something that comes even before the "basic eight," is the tango walk. Men in particular spend years perfecting their tango walk.

There's a whole sub-genre of writing about tango in which people wax philosophical on this topic. An example from Loo Yeo (the full text is tagged in my delicious favourites):

As an ideal dancer you would need to be aware of your line, and be able to place your feet on it unerringly. Since your movements will be unsighted, you will need to develop your sense of proprioception, such that your limbs go exactly where you intend for them to. I call this "perfect register" where intent and movement are perfectly aligned.

So that's (one of the many things that can be said about) the tango walk. But what is the tangophilosophy walk?

Sam has got me thinking about this with his comment on my previous post. He wrote:
Compare peripeteia: turning around (from the Greek) & Peripatetic: Aristotelian (from his habit of walking around thinking).
Peripeteia also means a sudden change of events or reversal of circumstances, especially in a literary work, and peripatetic can mean an itinerant, one who travels around.

This reminds me of a few things:

A talk I once heard by Drucilla Modjeska (Australian author whose writing has a nice sense of the philosophical although she would never call herself a philosopher) in which she discussed the effect of walking upon thinking. I recall she mentioned Nietzsche as a philosopher who found it essential to walk in order to think, and in particular to produce philosophical thoughts.

An organisation called peri that was set up by Cameron Tonkin (now Cameron Tonkinwise), who was responsible for persuading me not to drop philosophy after first year at uni. As I recall, peri was an experimental performance/happening network and the name was chosen to evoke the ideas above, but also a sense of being "on the edge" - as in perimeter, peripheral.

Well, I think I can safely say that tangophilosophy is also philosophy done in the spirit of "peri-". It involves thinking while moving (following an impulse that comes from somewhere other than thought) and is a form of philosophy that is peripheral to that which gets done in institutions and academies.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Forward ochos

Play Video

After you've mastered the basic eight, which is the standard way of starting to learn to tango, you usually move on to learn how to do forward ochos. Ocho is Spanish for eight. The idea is that the move traces the shape of the figure eight on the floor. The eight in "basic eight" refers to eight beats of music. First you get the temporal dimension, then the spatial.

Above you can see a woman doing a series of forward ochos, dancing in open "embrace" with a wall. Obviously it's more desirable to dance in either open or close embrace with a living partner, who will lead you to make this move.

If you cannot do a forward ocho in close embrace it is because your
posture is not correct. You are blocking the woman from moving forward with your body.
- Deby Novitz

What does this have to do with tango philosophy? If tango philosophy is philosophy that follows before it aims to lead, then it will need a partner (or series of partners - tango is a social dance) that doesn't behave like a wall, that doesn't block philosophical thought from moving forward. And philosophy itself might have to loosen up a bit, allow the straight line of pure logic to trace some curves that can curl gracefully in on each other.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The basic eight

Nietzsche said he would believe only in a god who knew how to dance.

Tango philosophy is for people who think philosophers should know how to dance. Or at least be willing to learn...

What might this mean?

To think in a way that can follow as well as lead.
To improvise within the structures of a living tradition.
To listen and respond to the music of the time and place in which the dance is unfolding.

Philosophy often aims to lead: to tell us what is true, or right, or good. But how effective is it in communicating with its various partners - with the forces of imagination, action, passion? Can a philosopher, like a good tango leader, bring about beautiful and exhilarating, or tenderly moving effects in a manner that seems effortless, but involves great skill and sensitivity to the conditions of the moment?

In Argentina, a man who is serious about learning to dance the tango will begin by learning how to follow - how to dance the woman's part. It might seem as though this is beginning with the easier role. But following is not as simple as it seems, especially for those who are used to leading, or acting independently - as many women discover when they begin to dance tango.

What would it mean for philosophy to give up its independence and learn to follow?
Who would be the leader(s) in a dance in which philosophy would take the part of the woman?

These are open questions, and this blog is an open space of wooden floorboards on which to try out some answers. Tango is a social dance - and tango philosophy a nascent art-form of the social web.