(an essay about contact improvisation and ethics,
in memory of my friend anne kilcoyne)
With reference to an ethics of alterity as elaborated by Emmanuel Levinas, this essay will explore contact improvisation as a site for a playful and tactical negotiation of inter-subjectivity. As social praxis, contact improvisation can embody and inhabit the spaces between a range of conventionally hierarchical binaries, most of which constellate around the pairing 'self/other', perhaps the core opposition of Western onto-theological philosophy (1). The boundaries between these supposedly discreet terms can be destabilised in contact, allowing what are often conceived as oppositional borderlines to become dynamic and porous thresholds in an ethical economy of exchange and flow. And it is from Hélène Cixous's rather breathless articulation of such an economy at work in écriture féminine that I borrow my title:
" ... working (in) the in-between, examining the process of the same and the other without which nothing lives, undoing the work of death, is first of all wanting two and both, one and the other together, not frozen in sequences of struggle and expulsion or other forms of killing, but made infinitely dynamic by a ceaseless exchanging between one and the other different subject, getting acquainted and beginning only from the living border of the other: a many-sided and inexhaustible course with thousands of meetings and transformations of the same in the other and in the in-between" (2) .
Con()tact: 'Cooperation becomes the subject'
"The open horizon of my body. A living, moving border. Changed through contact with your body" (Luce Irigaray) (3).
Contact improvisation has its roots in the pedestrian (task-oriented) practices of American post-modern dance in the 1960s, social dance, release techniques, martial arts (particularly Aikido) and sports (4). Its initiator in the early 1970s, dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton, conceived of it as an 'art-sport'. Contact is a non-hierarchical duet movement practice in which improvising partners share an attitude and an ideal of "active, reflexive, harmonic, spontaneous and mutual forms" (5). The vocabulary of these forms is flexible, inviting the moment-to-moment specifics of relatedness, leverage, speed, (dis)orientation and so on to be re-invented with each partnership on each occasion. As Paxton suggests, if both parties' intent is "minimal", and their sensing of intent "maximal", then "cooperation becomes the subject - an 'it' defined by the balancing of inertias, momentums, psychologies, spirits of the partners" (6).
By working around and through the vectors of an ever-changing point of contact between their bodies, each person gives and receives weight, passes and receives information through touch, accepts or provokes imbalance and regains (an always already temporary) 'extra-daily' balance (7). This nomadic and hybrid point of contact, which I will call con()tact, generates momentum and movement(s), as the partners endeavour to discover and work along "the easiest pathways available to their mutually moving masses" (8).
In contact - in life - no two bodies, no two qualities of energy are alike, or even consistent. As Mark Minchinton suggests:
"Of course, the giving and receiving of weight are not neutral things. Not all people give weight in the same way, even if they share the same physique. There are differences in the intensities of weight and support. People can be said to have intensive or extensive, flowing or blocked, centred or peripheral energy. Their physiques, experience and individual psychologies will go some way to determining the manner in which they use and are used by their bodies" (9).
Indeed no one body is identical with-in itself, it is always ghosted by its 'others'; intensive alternates or coexists with extensive, flowing with blocked, centred with peripheral. As soon as a body in relation has flow it is not in flow. What's more, each body-self will be further displaced and marked by contact with the unfixable alterity of the other, as well as by the dynamics and intensities of the third party in the dance, the point of con()tact: that fugitive and always temporary 'centre' and 'edge' common to both yet outside both, a 'blind spot' through-in-with-around-for-and-by which the two bodies orient their play.
In his article 'On Ambiguity', David George describes the dynamic, relational space between the two terms in any binary that creates out of difference "a third state of pure potentiality":
"All binaries need now investigating not for their deceptively reassuring ability to be collapsed into stable - and static - units, but the very opposite: that all binaries are 'really' hidden - and dynamic - triads. Because any two terms necessarily postulate the notion of 'relationship' as the necessary - third - factor which simultaneously separates and joins any two related forces or factors ... The crucial factor here is not how many ways two different units can relate to each other, but recognition that this 'third element' is not a unit but an axis, not an entity but a state of being, less a relationship than an act of relating" (10).
Writers from many different disciplines have attempted to articulate this 'third party' in the self/other binary. For Michel de Certeau, for example, it constitutes a "frontier region", "the space created by an interaction" (11); for Deleuzian psychoanalyst and artist Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger, it is the "metramorphic borderlink", "the becoming-threshold of borderlines" (12); for Luce Irigaray, it is the "angel-as-intermediary" in an ethics of sexual difference (13).
Hélène Cixous describes it as the "non-place", the possibility of a contestatory écriture féminine: "the breach, the opening, the entrance ... the entire surface of the domain, [which] enervates the limits and the traces, blurs the localisations ... the migrant that can be found everywhere" (14); for the poet Octavio Paz, it is the paradoxical space of writing, the "dizzying repose" of "worlds in rotation" that temporarily converge (15); for post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman, it is "the place of soul" and "soul-making" that de-means and dismantles the Cartesian cogito (16); and in Japanese aesthetics, it is the 'filled emptiness' of Ma (17).
In contact improvisation, the point of con()tact - the dynamic fulcrum of what some contacters call 'mutual weight dependence' - becomes an ambiguous but palpably 'real' third party in the duet: an-other axis that both joins and separates the two partners, a hyphenated space of pivotal torsion, "a sort of rubbing together of spaces at the vanishing points of their frontier" (18). Con()tact cannot be resolved in (homeo)stasis. As it shifts, 'it dances' (the two partners) from and in the in-between:
"This is a paradox of the frontier: created by contacts, the points of differentiation between two bodies are also their common points. Conjunction and disjunction are inseparable in them. Of two bodies in contact, which one possesses the frontier that distinguishes them? Neither. Does that amount to saying: no one? ... The frontier functions as a third element. It is an 'in-between', a 'space between', Zwischenraum ... A middle place ... a sort of void, a narrative sym-bol of exchanges and encounters" (19).
As 'it dances', con()tact marks the flux of partners' proximity and distance by tracing spirals around the surfaces of their bodies; at the same time, partners employ skeletal supports and levers within the their own and the other's bodies. Both bodies therefore need to be segmented and multi-directional in terms of impulse, action and attention. In addition, they can become open to a synaesthetic blurring in the sensorium, facilitated by their adrenalised status (20); for here tactility can become an-other seeing and listening, peripheral vision an-other touch.
Contact is dependent upon and celebrates these surprising, risky and pleasurable detours of difference; the improvised 'saying' of what is 'said' is radically contextual, relational. And the literal and metaphorical point of con()tact, as in-between or go-between, is another space in which the 'I' is both implicated and (re-)conceived; it is the articulation of meeting-in-difference. For each of the partners, con()tact constitutes the possible coexistence of form and spontaneity, rules-of-the-game and dance, cause and effect, centre and margin, proximity and distance. It is the 'play' with-in the obdurate 'fixity' of corporeal identities, its 'give', its supple-ment, its différance (21); the unstable borderlands where an ethics of alterity occurs.
As a result, contact can radically dis-orient one's constituted sense of self, as if 'self' it-self leaks, unravels or frays; it becomes impossible to locate intentionality, source of impulse and so on with any stability. As Trinh Minh-ha writes, here "identity is a product of articulation. It lies at the intersection of dwelling and travelling and is a claim of continuity within discontinuity (and vice-versa)" (22). Ultimately in contact, identity as a concern can give way to a quality of inter-personal listening that is both active and passive, quiet but not quietist, an actively meditative (23) quality one might call patient attention: a festina lente consciousness of a self-in-process that is unmappable (u-topian) through any conventional cartography, and more-than-one (24), endlessly (un)weaving itself through its acceptance of the pressing responsibility of relatedness. In this way, Contact can be a site of becoming, although it necessitates the deposition of a totalising ego, and a disposition that recognises the radical provocation and pleasure of moving elsew-here and other-wise.
prefix, of Latin origin. The form assumed by the Latin proposition com (in classical L., as a separate word, cum) before all consonants excepts the labials ... The sense is 'together, together with, in combination or union', also 'altogether, completely', and hence intensive (25).
Face-to-face with Levinas
"The irreducible and ultimate experience of relationship appears to me to be elsewhere: not in synthesis, but in the face-to-face of humans, in sociality, in its moral significance ... First philosophy is an ethics" (Emmanuel Levinas) (26).
In this discussion of contact as an ethical practice, 'ethics' is taken in the French-Lithuanian-Judaic philosopher Emmanuel Levinas's sense of the word, as the exigency for a negotiation of an inter-subjective responsibility to re-cognise alterity. This responsibility, for Levinas, is inordinate, irreducible and infinite, a being-for-the-other before oneself. As Simon Critchley explains:
"Ethics, for Levinas, is critique; it is the critical mise en question of the liberty, spontaneity and cognitive emprise of the ego that seeks to reduce all otherness to itself. The ethical is therefore the location of a point of alterity, or what Levinas also calls 'exteriority', that cannot be reduced to the Same" (27).
Levinas's critique of humanist essentialism inverts the hierarchy implicit in what he refers to as the 'egological': the ontic imperialism and ethnocentrism of the narcissistic self/other binary, within which the ego-self is demarcated psychologically and corporeally in terms of proper(ty), capital and ontology. Ethics destabilises the assumed self-sufficiency of être pour-soi, Cixous's 'Empire of the Selfsame' (28).
In what Levinas names the "face-to-face" (29), the unique encounter with an-other where ethics occurs, the 'ego-I' (homogeneous, self-contained and either deflective or recuperative of difference) is dislodged from its centrist axis in a dance of contiguity with difference:
"The face is a demand ... a hand in search of recompense, an open hand ... It is going to ask you for something ... The face is not a force. It is an authority; authority is often without force" (30).
In the 'awakening' of the face-to-face, the assimilationist ego-I is provoked off-balance by con()tact with an-other; this "event of oneself" occurs only when the ego defects, and one gives oneself to the other, bears the other's weight (31). In this way the self can be (re)made continuously in contextual and interlocutory proximity ('Saying') rather than in any constative and sedimental History ('Said') (32).
The face-to-face eschews synthesis (the Same, the 'final solution') in favour of the asymmetrical and dialogical (the play of difference). The tact-ical 'saying' of the dance of ethics, "the explosion of the human in being" (33), requires a stretching towards con()tact in the in-between. A folding into the diachronic time that is the (im)possibility of both proximity and distance, into that "most passive passivity" that "coincides with activity" (34). Into the 'meanwhile' between the diastole and systole of a heartbeat that cannot be said, but can only be ef-faced by death:
"The interval between the I and Thou, the Zwischen, is the locus where being is being realised. The interval between the I and Thou cannot be conceived as a kind of stellar space existing independently of the two terms which it separates. For the dimension itself of the interval opens uniquely to the I and to the Thou which enter into each meeting" (35).
Levinas interrogates and disrupts the tyranny of an egological 'either/or'. His call to responsibility asks: What are the relations between my freedom, the freedom of the other(s) and justice? Does not my narcissistic and imperialistic claim to possess (to have) freedom deny the other's (and indeed my) possibility of being in freedom? Must my proteophobic (36) ego perpetuate the 'war' of mechanistic resistance and counter-resistance, all inter-personal con()tact reduced to the insistent click-click-click of Newton's chrome balls? How do I prevent the in-different murderousness of my ego's self-constituting drive either to deflect and exile the difference of what-is-not-I, or to ingest and erase it by recuperation? By persisting in being-for-myself, do I not kill? (37)
"The true problem for us Westerners is not so much to refuse violence as to question ourselves about a struggle against violence which, without blanching in non-resistance to evil, could avoid the institution of violence out of this very struggle. Does not the war perpetuate that which it is called to make disappear, and consecrate war and its virile virtues in good conscience? One has to reconsider the meaning of a certain human weakness, and no longer see in patience only the reverse side of the ontological finitude of the human. But for that one has to be patient oneself without asking patience of the others - and for that one has to admit a difference between oneself and the others" (38).
Significantly for this discussion of contact improvisation, Levinas tells us that "The whole human body is more or less face" (39). The face, like con()tact, is "what one cannot kill, or at least it is that whose meaning consists in saying: 'thou shalt not kill'" (40). The face, like con()tact, is uncontainable and unsythesisable alterity; it "leads one beyond" (41), outside the fortified parameters of a self constituted as integral, full(y present), a totality. It brings this self face-to-face with the vulnerability of other-ness, both outside and with-in. In this way, the face, like con()tact, comprises a "wind of crisis ... [a] spirit - which blows and rends, despite the knots of History which retie themselves" (42).
'I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible'
"The expression 'in one's skin' refers to a recurrence in the dead time or the meanwhile which separates inspiration and respiration ... It is a restlessness and patience that support prior to action and passion. Here what is due goes beyond having, but makes giving possible. This recurrence is incarnation. In it the body which makes giving possible makes one other without alienating" (Emmanuel Levinas) (43).
In the face-to-face encounter, the other's alterity demands that I accept responsibility (response-ability), that I respond. To his/her call, "Where are you?", my-self replies, "Here I am". Me voici (44), 'here is me'. Here my-self is in the accusative (me); and subjectivity itself, in its claim to essential and autonomous 'totality', is under accusation. 'I' is un sujet-en-procès ('subject-in-process/-on-trial').
Levinas protests against totalisation by locating responsibility for the other (ethical inter-subjectivity) as the fundamental structure of subjectivity. Responsibility here means "having-the-other-in-one's skin" (45), and "I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible" (46). In order to sense the heteronomous singularity of self-as-process, and to let go of nostalgia for the totality of ego-as-essential-being, Levinas proposes:
"One must understand the subjectivity of the subject beyond essence, as on the basis of an escape from the concept, a forgetting of being and non-being. Not of an 'unregulated' forgetting ... but a forgetting that would be an ignorance in the sense that nobility ignores what is not noble" (47).
In other words, individuation is an ethical (self-) forgetting, an actively chosen detour from egology that invites a continuous re-membering and re-making in relation. So in Levinasian ethics, I (re)orient my-self through con()tact with an-other; 'cooperation becomes the subject' (Paxton). In this context, Arthur Rimbaud's "I is an other" (Je es un autre) can slide from a figure of alienation to a site of potentiality and multiplicity, towards Kristeva's "polymorphic body, laughing and desiring" (48); and the threat and negation of Jean-Paul Sartre's aggressively objectifying 'Look' (le Regard) can give way to mutual and interactive regard.
However, as Simon Critchley points out, Levinas recognises that the ethical relation of the face-to-face cannot ever be self-sufficient, hermetically sealed within an apolitical private space removed from the public sphere. Levinas insists that ethics is always already social and political, for "the third party (le tiers) looks at me in the eyes of the other"; and it is this 'third party' who "ensures that the ethical relation always takes place within a political context, within the public realm ... [T]herefore my ethical obligations to the other open onto wider questions of justice for others and for humanity as a whole" (49). The inter-personal is political.
Like con()tact, the face-to-face does not endure; it must be recommenced perpetually:
"The Zwischen is reconstituted in each fresh meeting and is therefore always novel in the same sense as are the moments of Bergsonian duration" (50).
'Freedom' here is finite, difficult, it stammers as it makes itself up-and-over; although paradoxically the call to justice in responsibility for the other, and the rupturing of the ego-I's assumed self-identity it entails, are contiguous with in-finite possible futures: "At no time can I say: I have done all my duty" (51).
I.a. The sense of touch; touch. b. fig. A keen faculty of perception or discrimination likened to the sense of touch.
2. Ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence, or win good will; skill or judgement in negotiating difficult or delicate situations; the faculty of saying or doing the right thing at the right time.
3. The act of touching or handling (52).
Touch as 'inter-face'
"Where does it come from? From both. It flows between.
Not held or held back by a source.
The source already rises from the two caressing"
(Luce Irigaray) (53).
It is clear that the enveloping epidermal surface of the body is particularly receptive to information from both inside and outside; skin constitutes a radically ambiguous limens between endogeny and exogeny with-in the world. And touch as contact sense is in a privileged position to entertain in coexistence both activity and passivity, mind and body, self and other. As Elizabeth Grosz suggests in Volatile Bodies, in informational terms touch is impressionistic, successive and momentary (i.e. diachronic), its perception of qualities - shape, texture, heat, energy etc. - comparative and differential; it is "a modality of difference" (54).
Inter-personal touch is coincidence in non-coincidence, an irreducible inter-lacing; it is reflexive and potentially reversible, it folds back in on itself in asymmetrical exchange. For touching by definition entails being touched. Both self and other participate and are implicated at the point of con()tact; both toucher and touched experience the dialogics of being both toucher and touched. It is for this reason that Merleau-Ponty locates touch as the locus classicus of what he calls the "double sensation":
"This is the twisting of the Möbius strip, the torsion or pivot around which the subject is generated. The double sensation creates a kind of interface of the inside and the outside, the pivotal point at which inside will become separated from outside and active will be converted into passive" (55).
Touch and balance are the two key senses in the practice of contact improvisation. Partners touch each other, the floor and "themselves, internally" (56), and employ the informationally dense tactility of con()tact to orient themselves in relation to (im)balance and gravity:
"The point of contact is focused on ... because a lot of the training is to do with allowing your partner to sense your leverage potential through touch. What you can do, what you can support, how you might move - potential that exists in position; and at the same time vice versa, you are sensing your partner's level of potential, he [sic] is sensing your's, so you are moving ... mutually sensing by touch what is available to you through that medium" (57).
In addition, the practice of contact encourages a very particular form of visual perception that one might describe as 'tactile': non-possessive and open, in which peripherality, a receptive 'softening' of vision, has primacy over focus:
"For many people vision is a kind of tool which reaches out and grabs things ... It's a probing instrument. For other people, it's a receptive instrument ... Peripheral vision training is partly to allow the world to enter, because it is softer, not so much a tool as focus is. Peripheral vision is more apt to allow you to hear and feel" (58).
So the practice of contact actively blurs and interrogates the conflation 'eye/I' of a totalising scopic epistemology and economy (59).
Levinas also privileges the tactile over the visual, locating the primordial proximity of the touch or 'caress' as one exemplary manifestation of ethical inter-subjectivity. For the caress actualises a con()tact with an-other that can neither overwhelm nor fuse with alterity, but can reveal the diffusion and vulnerability of the self-in-relation. For touch, the first sense to develop in the human foetus, is "an expression of love that cannot tell it" (60):
"The caress is a mode of the subject's being, where the subject who is in contact with another goes beyond this contact ... The seeking of the caress constitutes its essence by the fact that the caress does not know what it seeks. This 'not knowing', this fundamental disorder, is the essential. It is like a game with something slipping away, a game absolutely without project or plan, not with what can become our's or us, but with something other, always other, always inaccessible, and always still to come (à venir)" (61).
Never completed, never exhausted, always to come. As Zygmunt Bauman has suggested, the future (l'avenir) - like alterity, like con()tact - cannot be grasped; one's illusory 'hold' on it can never tighten into a grip (62). Both 'given' and 'hidden', its virtual outline can only be touched or brushed in a way that can neither possess nor 'know', but can still make (a) difference.
Notes and references
(1) Although I risk reinstating them by speaking them, these binaries include: subject/object, identity/difference, fusion/fission, closed/open, active/passive, leader/led, demand/response, cause/effect, full/empty, momentum/inertia, stable/unstable, balance/imbalance, gravity/lightness, art/sport, mind/body, sight/touch, proximity/distance, inside/outside, centre/margin, here/there.
(2) Hélène Cixous, 'The Laugh of the Medusa', cited in Trinh. T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, p. 142.
(3) Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions (trans. Joanne Collie and Judith Still), New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 51.
(4) For a detailed account of the sources of contact improvisation, see Cynthia J. Novack, Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. For a comparison of Aikido and contact, see Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation', Theatre Papers: The Fourth Series, 1981-2 no. 5, Dartington: Dartington College of Arts, 1982, pp. 4-5, 9.
(5) Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation', The Drama Review 19:1, p. 40.
(6) Ibid, 41.
(7) For a discussion of 'extra-daily balance', see 'Balance', in Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese (eds), The Secret Art of the Performer: a Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 34-53.
(8) Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation', The Drama Review, op. cit., p. 41.
(9) Mark Minchinton, 'Notes towards Improvisation as a Body without Organs', in Writings on Dance 10 ('Knowledges/Practices'), 1994, p. 48.
(10) David George, 'On Ambiguity: Towards a Post-modern Performance Theory', Theatre Research International
(11) Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (trans. Steven Rendall), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 126.
(12) Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger, 'The Becoming Threshold of Matrixial Borderlines', in George Robertson, Melinda Mash et al. (eds), Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, op. cit., p. 44. Metramorphosis "deals with transformations in emergence, creation and fading-away, of I(s) and non-I(s), and with transformations of the borderlines and transgressions of the links between them ... Metramorphosis has no focus, it is a discernibility which cannot fix its 'gaze', and if it has a momentary centre, then it always slides away towards the peripheries. In such an awareness of margins, perceived boundaries dissolve in favour of new boundaries; borderlines are surpassed and transformed to become thresholds ... Metramorphosis accounts for transformations of in-between moments"; ibid, pp. 44-5. Italics in original.
(13) Luce Irigaray, 'Sexual Difference' (trans. Seán Hand), in Toril Moi (ed.), French Feminist Thought: a Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987, pp. 126-7. See also Elizabeth Grosz, 'The angel as intermediary', in Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989, p. 161-2; and Margaret Whitford, 'The between and the angel', in Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 163-4.
(14) Hélène Cixous, in Un k. incompréhensible: Pierre Goldman, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1976, p. 33; quoted in Verena Andermatt Conley, Hélène Cixous, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, p. 49-50.
(15) Octavio Paz, The Monkey Grammarian (trans. Helen Lane), New York: Arcade, 1990, pp. 153-9.
(16) See James Hillman in Thomas Moore (ed.), A Blue Fire: the essential James Hillman, London and New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 121.
(17) "Ma, a cultural paradigm, is the empty space in a tea bowl, what is left unsaid in a haiku poem, the sound/silence ration in music, the foreground/background distance in an inkwash painting, the moments of repose in a Noh drama"; Vicki Sanders, 'Dancing and the Dark Soul of Japan: an Aesthetic Analysis of Butoh', in Asian Theatre Journal 5:2, Fall 1988, p. 161.
(18) Michel de Certeau, 'Spatial Practices', in The Practice of Everyday Life, op. cit., p. 113.
(19) Ibid, p. 127.
(20) For a discussion of the implications of the endocrine system in contact, and in particular the dilation of time, see Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation', The Drama Review, op. cit., p. 41; and 'Contact Improvisation', Theatre Papers, op. cit., p. 12 passim.
(21) "Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacingPositions (trans. Alan Bass), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 27. Italics in original.
(22) Trinh T. Minh-ha, 'Other than Myself/My Other Self', in George Robertson, Melinda Mash et al. (eds), Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 14. My italics.
(23) Cf. Buddhist meditation master Sogyal Rinpoche, quoting Jamyang Khyentse: "'Look, it's like this: when the past thought has ceased, and the future thought has not yet risen, isn't there a gap? [...] Well, prolong it: that is meditation'". The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, London: Random House, 1992, p. 75.
(24) Cf. The "nighttime consciousness" that James Joyce celebrates in Finnegan's Wake, a consciousness that inhabits the space "between twosome twiminds", and enables "two thinks at a time". Quoted in Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination: Ideas of Creativity in Western Culture, London: Hutchinson, 1988, p. 368. Cf. also Octavio Paz: "Our most intimate reality lies outside ourselves and is not our's, and it is not one but many, plural and transitory, we are this plurality that is continually dissolving, the self is perhaps real, but the self is not I or youhe, the self is neither mine nor your's, it is a state, a blink of the eye, it is a perception of a sensation that is vanishing, but who or what perceives, who senses? ... the self that perceives something that is vanishing also vanishes in this perception; it is only the perception of that self's own extinction, we come and go ...": The Monkey Grammarian, op. cit., p. 55. Italics in original.
(25) The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
(26) Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (trans. Richard A. Cohen), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1985, p. 77.
(27) Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992, pp. 4-5.
(28) See, for example, Cixous's 'Sorties', in Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman (trans. Betsy Wing), Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986, p. 78 passim.
(29) See for example, 'Ethics and the Face' in Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (trans. Alfonso Lingis), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1969. For a useful summary of the 'face' and its place in Levinasian ethics, see Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., pp. 85-92.
(30) Emmanuel Levinas in Tamara Wright, Peter Hughes and Alison Ainley, 'The Paradox of Morality: an interview with Emmanuel Levinas', in Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (eds), The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, London and New York: Routledge, 1988, p. 169.
(31) "The defection of the ego, or already the defeat of the identity of the ego ... can finally be said to be the event of the oneself"; Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 122. Levinas returns again and again to metaphors of weight-bearing, to describe ethical responsibility; e.g.: "The self is a sub-jectum; it is under the weight of the universe, responsible for everything ... supporting the weight of the non-ego ... Impassively undergoing the weight of the other, thereby called to uniqueness, subjectivity no longer belongs to the order where the alternative of activity and passivity retains its meaning"; ibid, pp. 105-6.
(32) Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 42. Simon Critchley defines the 'Saying' as "my exposure - corporeal, sensible - to the other, my inability to refuse the other's approach. It is the performative stating, proposing, or expressive position of myself facing the other ... It is a performative doing that cannot be reduced to a constative description [the Said] ... The Saying is the sheer radicality of ... the event of being in relation with an other": The Ethics of Deconstruction, op. cit., p. 7. Italics in original.
(33) Ibid, p. 121.
(34) Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, op. cit., pp. 104-5.
(35) Emmanuel Levinas, in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 65.
(36) I am borrowing this neologism from Zygmunt Bauman, who coins it to refer to "the confused, ambivalent sentiments aroused by the presence of strangers ... the apprehension aroused by the presence of multiform, allotropic phenomena which stubbornly defy clarity-addicted knowledge, elide assignment and sap the familiar classificatory grids ... Proteophobia refers therefore to the dislike of situations in which one feels lost, confused, disempowered. Obviously, such situations are the productive waste of cognitive spacing: we do not know how to go on in certain situations because the rules of conduct which define for us the meaning of 'knowing how to go on' do not cover them": Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, p. 164. Italics in original. The apprehension familiar to many people in the practice of Contact relates at least in part to Contact's 'delinquent' provocation to 'knowing how to go on'.
(37) In an essay called 'Ethics as First Philosophy', Levinas foregrounds the political implications of his ethical interrogation of one's 'right to be-for-oneself': "My being-in-the-world, or my 'place in the sun', my being at home, have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man (sic.) whom I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out into a third world; are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing?"; Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 82. Cf. Simon Critchley: "For Levinas, I would claim, ethics is the disruption of totalising politics ... The philosophy of Levinas, like that of Adorno, is commanded by the new categorical imperative imposed by Hitler: namely 'that Auschwitz not repeat itself' ... Levinasian ethics is a reduction of war"; The Ethics of Deconstruction, op. cit., p. 221.
(38) Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (trans. Alphonso Lingis), The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981, p. 177. Quoted by Richard A. Cohen in his introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 14.
(39) Ibid, p. 97. My italics.
(40) Ibid, p. 87. Italics in original.
(42) Ibid, p. 118.
(43) Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 98. Italics in original.
(44) Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 100.
(45) Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 6.
(46) Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 100.
(47) Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, op. cit., p. 177. Quoted by Richard A. Cohen in his introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 15. Emphasis in original.
(48) Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women (trans. Anita Barrows), London: Marion Boyars, 1977, p. 19. Quoted in Alison Ainley, 'Amorous Discourses: 'The Phenomenology of Eros' and Love Stories', in Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (eds), The Provocation of Levinas, op. cit., p. 72.
(49) Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction, op. cit., pp. 225-6
(50) Emmanuel Levinas in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 65.
(51) Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, op. cit., p. 105.
(52) The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
(53) Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions, op. cit. p. 15.
(54) Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1994, pp. 98-9. Emmanuel Levinas described his friend Maurice Blanchot's literary writing as providing "above all a new sensation ... a new tingling in the skin as it brushes against things"; Levinas in Seán Hand, The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 153. Cf. Hélène Cixous's repeated recourse to metaphors of tactility in her accounts of Clarice Lispector's writings - a 'tact-ful' naming that keeps the other 'alive': "How to bring forth claricely: going, approaching, brushing, dwelling, touching; allowing-entrance, -presence, -giving, -taking" (Hélène Cixous, 'Coming to Writing', and Other Essays, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992, p. 64). Cixous champions Lispector's ability to be "in touch with the instant", and asks: "But how do we obtain this lightness, this active passivity ... this submission to the process?" (ibid., p. 113).
(55) Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies, op. cit., p. 36. Emphasis in original.
(56) Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation', The Drama Review, op. cit., p. 40.
(57) Steve Paxton, 'Contact Improvisation', Theatre Papers, op. cit., pp. 7-8.
(58) Ibid, p. 17, 7.
(59) For a detailed analysis of ocularcentric discourse and some of its critical dissidents, including Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, see Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: the Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
(60) Noreen O'Connor, 'The Personal is Political: Discursive Practice of the Face-to-Face', in Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (eds), The Provocation of Levinas, op. cit., p. 67. For an interesting critical reading of Levinas's notion of the 'caress', see Luce Irigaray, 'Questions to Emmanuel Levinas: on the Divinity of Love', in Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley (eds), Re-reading Levinas, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. Irigaray locates Levinas's caress as subsuming sexual difference within ethical difference.
(61) Emmanuel Levinas, 'Time and the Other', in Seán Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, op. cit., p. 51. According to Edith Wyschograd, Levinasian touch is not 'really' a sense at all: "it is in fact a metaphor for the impingement of the world as a whole upon subjectivity ... To touch is to comport oneself not in opposition to the given but in proximity with it": Edith Wyschogrod, 'Doing before Hearing: on the Primacy of Touch', in François Laruelle (ed.), Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas, Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1980, p. 199. Although I accept Wyschogrod's reading, in con()tact the implications of 'real' touch are no less 'real' for their saturated metaphoricity; there cannot be any clear-cut separation, for its movement functions psychologically, phenomenally and metaphorically.
(62) Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics, op. cit., p. 92. Cf. Chantal Mouffe on democracy as unfinishable becoming: 'The experience of modern democracy is based on the realisation that ... there is no point of equilibrium where final harmony could be attained. It is only in this precarious 'in-between' that we can experience pluralism, that is to say, that this democracy will always be 'to come', to use Derrida's expression, which emphasises not only the unrealised possibilities but also the radical impossibility of final completion'. From 'For a Politics of Nomadic Identity', in George Robertson et al (eds), Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 112. 14:1, 1990, pp. 79-80. 5:2, Fall 1988, p. 161.
This text was first published in Australia as 'Working (in) the in-between: contact improvisation as an ethical practice', in Writings on Dance 15 ('The French Issue'), Winter 1996, pp. 22-37.
Photo: Steve Paxton, 2004