Thinking moving bodies

Jonathan Bollen

Paper presented at Antistatic Forums, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, March 1997.

There are two things that I’d like to say first up.

Firstly, the forum is a new genre of performance for me and I’m very much feeling my way here. What I have gathered is that speakers at forums are generally permitted a certain degree of latitude as to how they take up a proposed topic. So to put a bit of a slant on what I’m about to say: I’ll be talking about how bodies are thought and how moving is thought and of relations between thinking moving and thinking bodies. These are somewhat different things from talking about the thinking body or dance as a form of thinking or even thought as a form of dancing – to throw in something else that occurred to me as I was tossing and turning and trying to thrash out this paper in bed the other night.

Secondly, as a reasonably unfamiliar face in this context I’d like to say a bit about who I am and what I do – just so you’ve got some idea where I’m coming from. My interest in moving bodies arose partly in reaction to an emphasis on speaking bodies in the time I spent studying at the Centre for Performance Studies, University of Sydney. And to that end I used to run around saying things like ‘speaking is a movement practice; try speaking without moving’. That was some time ago and I want to stress that the emphases at CPS are now quite different.

Since then I have been studying in the performance program at the University of Western Sydney Nepean and my interest in moving bodies can be more positively inflected. I have spent the last three years working on a project called ‘Disco dykes and dancing queens’. It’s a project about what goes on on the dance floors at Sydney lesbian and gay dance parties: What do people do on the dance floor? How do they move? What does it feel like? And what kind of meaning-effects does the dance floor experience sustain? These are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking. In short, I’ve been approaching these events and the dance floors at their centre as sites of performance; spaces where party-goers share kinaesthetic experiences, visualised across a shifting corporeal terrain but embodied in a socially interactive and repetitive-imitative movement practice. Operating through a kaleidoscopic oscillation of performer-spectator relations, this shared kinaesthesia lends itself as experiential ground where a variety of sexualities and an ongoingly crucial politics of identity and community are lived out.

One of the nice things about undertaking this project over the last three years is that it has coincided with a fascinating and fortunate turn to metaphors of performance and performativity in theories of identity. In what has now become a quite complex theory, Judith Butler first proposed that bodily acts are the shifting ground upon which identity constructs are temporarily founded; that the ongoing illusion of identity is sustained through a ‘stylised repetition of acts’ (Butler 1988). Here, the idea of performativity is used to articulate a kind of ‘doing’ of one’s identity. Although it is important to understand that there is nothing particularly voluntary about this ‘doing’. In Butler’s theory, you don’t actually do your identity, rather the doing does you: the doing is a process forcibly secured through which your body becomes what you are, through which – to use Butler’s pun – your body comes to matter. This is where my ideas about thinking bodies and thinking movement can begin to kick in.

In her most recent work, Bodies That Matter, Butler (1993) turns to the metaphorics of matter in order to rework the theory of performativity as the reiterative citation of regulatory gender norms that materialise sexed and otherwise specific bodies. But this idea that matter is what matters when it comes to identity really only works when we’re thinking about gender. In my reading, it’s had a tendency to shift the emphasis from bodily acts to bodily shape or morphology, to what is materialised through performative acts, or to use more familiar terms, to product rather than process. It also leads to some rather strained ideas about the imaginary morphologies of homosexual identities (what Butler calls the ‘feminised fag’ and the ‘phallicised dyke’). Now instead of thinking homosexualities as the materialisation of queer morphologies, I have been more interested in thinking homosexualities as specific styles of moving, queer styles of moving as a gendered body amongst other gendered bodies.

To this end, I have worked hard to maintain a focus on movement itself, almost in spite of the body that moves, on styles of moving rather than bodily styling, and on the kinaesthetics and choreographies of desire rather than desire’s morphologies and topographies. And this has meant grappling with some of the difficulties of thinking moving bodies, of thinking bodies in and as their movement and not – as is quite common in academic work on ‘the body’ – thinking bodies as sculptured, contoured lumps of static matter.

In this kind of a context, it is, I suspect, somewhat peculiar to suggest that we can think about movement without thinking about the body that moves, or that we can think about bodies without thinking about how they move. But for the moment I’d like you to entertain these ideas. I want to take two quite different ‘theories of the body’ to illustrate that this strange gap between thinking moving without bodies and thinking bodies without moving might not be entirely unthinkable.

The first is a fairly extreme example of Labanism. In it the material reality of the body is somehow lost in an emphasis on the body’s capacity for action.

All human actions take place within six dimensions of space and at least one of time. … These structures provide an abstract orientation and displacement scheme based on three fixed and three moving axes, which allows for the contextual “form space” (of a dance), “liturgical space” (of a ritual), “communicative space” (of a sign language) and so forth.

These structures point to a notion of a ‘signifying body’: that is, a human body belonging to a creature who generates significations and symbolic actions. It refers to a creature who possesses the nature, power, and capacities to speak, to construct and to use meaningful systems of actions for the purposes of expression and communication with others. In our theoretical framework, the signifying body is called “the semasiological body”.

Semasiologically, the signifying body is seen to exist in a kind of field consisting of a timeless state of no energy, as a super-position of possibility in a mathematical framework of all theoretically possible moves that it could make, with equal probabilities of realisation, until an actual ‘move’ or ‘act’ takes place (Williams 1993).

This body-as-movement-capacity is derived from Labanotation’s universally-articulated body: a set of universal joints (and I mean that in the engineering sense) suspended in cartesian space and progressive time. It’s a body that can do anything – even physically impossible things – as any of you who have worked with Labanotation or played with LifeForms can attest. And because it exists in a ‘timeless-state’, it is a body without history, a body with no memory, and a body whose only in-built specificity is its capacity for expression and communication. Here the body is a signifying body, intentionally mobilised by its agentic will to move. It’s a very enabling model, a body full of potential and possibilities. But in its crudely generic universality, it is a strangely fleshless and immaterial body: a body without bulk and morphological detail – I mean I’ve often wondered but I’ve always been to embarrassed to ask whether there are Labanotation signs for genitals.

Nevertheless, I think there is a sense in which something like this body-as-movement-potential, is given life in some of the dance practices that have been talked about here, and some of the performances we saw last weekend. I’m thinking here of what always strikes me as a fantastic lack of distinction, that proposed sexlessness of bodies in contact improvisation; and in this and other improvisational practices and performances, that feeling of bodies poised on the silent timelessness of the present moment, of bodies pregnant with movement capacity, and then that will to move and to keep moving, that present and conscious agency that transcends the bulk and inertia of the material body. It’s not that these performers don’t have bodies, but that somehow their movement seems much more central to what’s going on.

[I also have this note here about baggy clothes – and I know this betrays my naivety but I couldn’t help being struck by the contrast between a kind of free-flow movement-enhancement quality of the baggy clothes on many of the performers last weekend, and the tightly-constricted body-shape enhancement quality of the leather, rubber, pvc and lycra worn by dancers at the Mardi Gras party earlier this month.]

Now to my second example. Here, it is the body’s capacity for action that is lost in a very precise ‘pinning-down’ of the body’s materiality.

By body I understand a concrete, material, animate organisation of flesh, organs, nerves, muscles, and skeletal structure which are given a unity, cohesiveness, and organisation only through their psychical and social inscription as the surface and raw materials of an integrated and cohesive totality. The body is, so to speak, organically / biologically / naturally “incomplete”: it is indeterminate, amorphous, a series of uncoordinated potentialities which require social triggering, ordering, and long-term “administration”, regulated in each culture and epoch by what Foucault has called “the micro-technologies of power”. The body becomes a human body, a body which coincides with the “shape” and space of a psyche, a body whose epidermic surface bounds a psychical unity, a body which thereby defines the limits of experience and subjectivity, in psychoanalytic terms, through the intervention of the (m)other, and, ultimately, the Other or Symbolic order (language and rule-governed social order). Among the key structuring principles of this produced body is its inscription and encoding by (familially ordered) sexual desires (the desire of the other), which produce (and ultimately repress) the infant’s bodily zones, orifices, and organs as libidinal sources; its inscription by a set of socially coded meanings and significances (both for the subject and for others), making the body a meaningful, “readable”, depth-entity; and its production and development through various regimes of discipline and training, including the coordination and integration of its bodily functions so that not only can it undertake the general social tasks required of it, but so that it becomes an integral part of or position within a social network, linked to other bodies and objects (Grosz 1992).

This is, of course, the model of bodily inscription. But notice how there is almost no sense of the body’s capacity to move. Instead, bodily potential is regarded as incomplete, requiring the agency of social power located outside the body to kick the body into action. The body is subjected to culture. It is inscribed. It is regulated. It is organised. It is disciplined. Indeed it becomes a body not through its own agentic will to move but in being subjected to these processes.

This is a body which does not exist in an atemporal field of possibilities. On the contrary, it exists within a politicised network of socio-cultural relations which yield a notion of structural constraint. It is a body which has a history, which comes to be a body through that history. And I think that this history of inscription can account for that sense of constraint, resistance and memory which explains why I am not anybody, but this particular body, why I can’t do anything I want to but am able to do certain things.

I recognise that the inscribed-body here is a long way from those metaphors of inscription that were proliferating yesterday – and I don’t want to underestimate the usefulness of that metaphor – but I can’t help feeling (in my academic respect for the heritage of theoretical practice) that any accession to the theory of bodily inscription is to some degree at the expense of a notion of agency. This is the body as object, the body as textual matter, the body that is buffeted and bruised by the forces of social power.

Again if I were to make reference to the performances last weekend, to try and capture an image of this disciplined body-as-cultural-matter I would turn to Allan Widdowson in Gary Rowe’s ‘A distance between them’. Pinned by a spot-light, alternately strung up and crushed, his body bore the brunt of a cruel nostalgia and an enslavement to routine. Or again, in the Body-Weather practices of De Quincey/Lynch that I observed during Compression 100, I’ve described an abdication of agency, a bodily state that receives and responds to environmental impulse. In both of these quite different practices it is somehow the body and the tracing of forces into, onto and across the body that holds my attention. For me, their movement is consequential even accidental upon these forces.

I expect you are now quite tired of trying to think these almost impossibilities of a body without movement and moving without a body. But I would like to suggest that these two theories or something like them are the extremes within which we do actually think moving bodies.

Phillipa Rothfield moves skilfully between these extremes in an article entitled ‘A conversation between bodies’. There she opens up a dialogue between the structured / disciplined / inscribed body of postructuralism and the agentic / creative / self-authoring body of phenomenology.

I want to firstly rework, or perhaps, reinterpret the inscriptive model, and secondly, I would like to move towards a sense of moving with and beyond a passive model of determination. To this end, I will look at movement practices: what people do with their bodies, how they live them, embody them, move them. This is something like the phenomenal body responding to the inscriptive mantle. Not rejecting it but playing with and within it. Play has to do with the ways in which people embody and live their lives via movement. I hope it can suggest more of a sense of interaction with inscription than mere reception. It also suggests that inscription is not a fully determined process, that there can be a degree of give (like discursive rupture) within social determination. The play and movement of embodiment as lived through bodily practices is the space filled by a sort of agency within the corporeal register. I do not suggest it as an antidote to discursive inscription and the post-structuralist model but as a somatic space contained within its determinations (Rothfield 1994).

Rothfield’s elegant solution to this problematic is to embed the will to move as a space of play within the inscriptive mantle. There are other ways of working this gap and in my work I have been taking a contrary move that embeds the structure within the agency as its enabling condition. Working with a version of Bourdieu’s habitus and a notion of the memory of practice, I’ve been thinking about a body’s memory of moving as the historical accumulation of habituated actions (Bourdieu 1990; Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992). This accumulation secures the plastic limits to a body’s actional capacities but at the same time is constantly and agentically remembered and reworked in the processes of moving.

Now, this is where this paper should end. But when I got here I began wondering whether a solution, a neat meshing together of agency and structure, of the body writing and the body written upon is all that is required. Maybe, sometimes these ridiculous ideas of thinking bodies without moving and thinking moving without bodies are not only feasible but somehow important. I’ve been trying to work out why I’ve been preoccupied with these ideas over the last week and the only thing I can come up with is this.

In the context of my research, disarticulating the bond between bodies and movement, between bodily matter and bodily action, between what a body is and what a body does has been one way of opening up an analytical space between gender and sexuality. And my dance floor experiences and discussions with party-goers at Mardi Gras and Sleaze Ball tell me this is a necessary space. Thinking bodies without movement, and movement without bodies, denaturing any logical link between morphology and choreography, between – to put it bluntly – what you’ve got and what you do with it – seems to me very much what is enabled in the space of the dance floor at lesbian and gay dance parties and what the kinaesthetics of that particular dance practice is all about.


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1990). The Logic of Practice, translated by Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre & Loic Wacquant. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Butler, Judith. (1988). ‘Performative acts and gender constitution: an essay in phenomenology and feminist theory’. Theatre Journal, 20/3: 519-531.

Butler, Judith. (1993). Bodies That Matter: on the discursive limits of sex. London & New York: Routledge.

Grosz, Elizabeth. (1992). ‘Bodies-Cities’ In Sexuality and Space, edited by Beatriz Colomina (241-254). New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Rothfield, Philipa. (1994). ‘A conversation between bodies’. Melbourne Journal of Politics, 22:30-44.

Williams, Drid. (1993). ‘Review article [Harré Rom. 1991. Physical Being: a theory for corporeal psychology. Oxford: Blackwell]’. Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement. 7/4: 249-266