[-empyre-] indifference and in/direct politics

Sally Jane Norman s.j.norman at newcastle.ac.uk
Fri May 22 08:34:14 EST 2009

Dear all,

rich stuff this. In response to Laura, Weizman’s take on military reappropriation of Deleuzian philosophy is indeed chilling – his audience at the ICA’s launch of the Pervasive and Locative Arts Network years ago was healthily startled by this discourse, in a setting where “subverting” surveillance technologies can worryingly appear as a cool game for the cultural elite.  But I agree with Johannes’s misgivings about Rancière’s reading of Laban and am not at all sure that the resurgence of interest in Labanotation corresponds to anti-establishment art activities, even less to a “subversive virginity”.  What interests me more in the Rancière quote is his identification of bodily movements, speech, and the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible, i.e. characteristics that he sees the arts having in common with projects of domination or emancipation.

Yesterday evening a sunny public at La Villette was a great place to muse on some of these questions. The grounds were teeming with lots of small groups in motion in various ways. Footballers doing funky acrobatics, capoiera, kung fu, tai chi, break dance, juggling, yoga. All this amidst people flaked out on the grass – like me – some with books, kids in prams, grandmothers in traditional attire from all continents looking after their tribes, lovers in never-ending summer embraces. It just kind of happens. Nothing formal about it but people have started drifting to this multicultural part of north east Paris to physically relax and/or work out, and there’s something fascinating about the ways body languages move like memes across the groups. The ways deeply ingrained techniques surge to the fore of much more readily codified forms, or emerging forms imprint themselves on bodies that are like open matrices. There was a kid, maybe three going on four, playing football with his big brother except that instead of simply returning the ball, he absolutely had to do ritual somersaults over it and pirouettes around it first. Like the capoiera dancers across the way, except that they weren’t playing football. It was all the more exhilarating in that everyone enjoyed his totally infectious enjoyment and the gratifyingly playful absurdity of the situation. Then on another part of the lawn a very lithe very black woman on the edge of a break dance group who’d been dozing in the sun got up very slowly and started to walk quite simply – except that her legs/ feet, hips, and torso/arms were moving to three distinctive and equally powerful, legible rhythms. She became a living complex drumbeat, I don’t know whether I was watching or listening to her moves or muscularly playing them out in my gut. It was spellbinding and suddenly all the spectacular displays of bravura of her group faded into the background. Akin to Erin’s park story in some odd way.

The students I've the good fortune to work with are equally tuned to phenomena like this - the quiet miracles that happen in everyday spaces if you open your eyes and ears and pores - and the equally exciting exchanges of ideas that fire their philosophically referenced investigations, giving them - and us - material to be collegially jammed with in our seminars and discussions and chats down at the pub (they're essentially improvising performers of multiple stripes - mainly music based and tuned to tuning in all its forms). There isn't a hiatus between the kind of conceptual discourse Stamatia and Laura employ and generously share, and the kind of sharing of percepts - chunks of sensuous stuff, sound, gesture, image, social movement patterns - that is the crux of their performance work. Some of them (to be honest, one of them) read/s more Deleuze than I'll probably ever read, but we all thrive on this as it gets reworked as part of a wider resource of materials; all of us are constantly injecting fetish ideas and impulses and inspirational resources thinkers into the mix. There isn't really a dividing line between theory and practice in this environment. Just damn good practice and deeply, contagiously exciting exchanges and shared creation of ideas. But I know I'm really lucky.

Which reminds me. must get back to my homework


From: empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au [empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of Cull, Laura [lkc202 at exeter.ac.uk]
Sent: 20 May 2009 16:31
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] indifference and in/direct politics

Hello all,

Many thanks to Sally-Jane, first of all, for her fascinating contributions. I never cease to be amazed (and yet somehow unsurprised at the same time) at the sheer number of examples one might find of the application of methodologies to practices or contexts that go against the values of their creators. You cite the Laban example, but of course, you will doubtless also have heard the stories about the Israeli defence forces co-option of spatial and organizational models from Deleuze and Guattari:

'I asked Naveh why Deleuze and Guattari were so popular with the Israeli military. He replied that "several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaux became instrumental for us […] allowing us to explain contemporary situations in a way that we could not have otherwise. It problematized our own paradigms. Most important was the distinction they have pointed out between the concepts of “smooth” and “striated” space [which accordingly reflect] the organizational concepts of the “war machine” and the “state apparatus”. In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders. […] Palestinian areas could indeed be thought of as “striated” in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, roads blocks and so on"'.
See Eyal Weizman's article: http://info.interactivist.net/node/5324
As Weizman puts it: 'The extent to which Deleuzian theory influences military tactics and manoeuvres, raises questions about the relation between theory and practice. Theory obviously has the power to stimulate new sensibilities, but it may also help to explain, develop or even justify ideas that emerged independently within disparate fields of knowledge and with quite different ethical bases'.

To move on to Stamatia's response, I think you are right to say that 'Pitying or trying to identify with suffering imply a lot of personal projections that sometimes prevent us from just seeing what is at work in a certain body'. Clearly there's nothing ethical about appropriating the pain of an other and claiming to be able to speak on its behalf. However, I guess part of my interest is in how to make encounters with difference more sustainable (or less painful) and/or to emphasise less extreme and more apparently banal examples of how we might jump onto new planes of perception.
One of my favourite examples in this regard, is the Bergson/Deleuze example of waiting for the sugar to melt - in which the process of dissolving is understood as the sugar's way of being in time (or duration), which differs from the duration of the one who waits. As Deleuze argues in Bergsonism: 'Bergson’s famous formulation, “I must wait until the sugar dissolves” has a still broader meaning than is given to it by its context. It signifies that my own duration, such as I live it in the impatience of waiting, for example, serves to reveal other durations that beat to other rhythms, that differ in kind from mine'. The affect of impatience is what alerts us not only to our own duration, but to its difference in kind from the many other durations pulsing within the real. There is an inherently performative dimension to all this, insofar as Bergson and Deleuze focus on the act of witnessing as that which triggers the exposure of both my own and other durations.

For me, this has direct ethical implications and perhaps indirect political implications. (Indeed, the question of the difference/relation between the categories of the 'ethical' and the 'political' is very much an interest of mine at the moment - though not one I've resolved). As a big fan of Allan Kaprow, I'm not really worried about if art 'might easily cease to be art' as Stamatia put it - in fact, I continue to wonder if some of the most exciting work is not often on this threshold between art and some other kind of activity - whether that other activity is activism, craft, science etc. Indeed, this could be another interpretation of critical motion practice - via Kaprow - as a form of activity 'the identity of which remains unknown'. And there could be lots of ways of doing this - whether its about making a piece of work that gets refused by a dance festival for being 'not-dance' (and I guess Jerome Bel has done quite a bit in this area, post-Judson), or perhaps by attending to vernacular dance (see Nicole Hewitt's film 'In Time' (2008) based on Latin American dancing schools and clubs of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia), by not moving (as Lepecki has discussed, and so forth).

But I guess Stamatia's concern is not a disciplinary one - about what is or is not 'dance' - but an aesthetic one - about what constitutes an aesthetic or artistic experience. Deleuze is contradictory here, I think. On the one hand, in A Thousand Plateaus were are told not to different between the art of nature and the art of man; between the stagemaker bird who turns over leaves to create a territory and Olivier Messiaen, for instance, who composes using birdsong. Art and thinking are defined by creation here, which is by no means taken to be the privileged skill of the human. (Back we go to the dances (not "dances") of the swarms and the shoals and the herds we find in nature). And yet, on the other hand, we have a work like What is Philosophy? in which the art could not be more art-y! Van Gogh, Klee, Cezanne, Mondrian...

But anyway - back to dance and politics. I guess politics can be seen to begin in terms of the relationship you set up with your audience, rather than with the notion of work that is "about" a political issue). Indeed, I've recently read Ranciere's The Emancipated Spectator text (see Artforum - March 2007), and he argues convincingly against 'the principle of inequality' behind works that seek to transform spectators into actors (in what is currently seen as the key political gesture of participation). He's more interested in performance that approaches the audience as equals with regard to their  power to translate in their own way what they look at.  How performance, and specifically might do this is, as usual, up for grabs.

This is a ridiculously long email, so I'll stop for now - but perhaps with more to come this evening.

From: empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au [empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of stamatia portanova [stamatiaportanova at yahoo.it]
Sent: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 4:36 PM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] indifference and in/direct politics

hi laura

in fact, thinking about it again, I also agree that the notion of 'indifference' stelarc introduced into the discussion does not really work well in relation to 'inertia'. but the reason I think that is not because of the lack of movement of the inert body. to the contrary, physically speaking, an inert body is a body that 'exercises an equal force but with opposite direction', therefore opposing whatever force is applied to it. Inertia, therefore, is not inert enough, not indifferent enough, to correspond to the 'body without organs'. Indifference, to the contrary, 'is', as you say, the lack of interest, the abandonment of subjective will that is necessary for movement to happen, if we do not want that movement to be wilfully initiated by an ever-conscious subject (even just in terms of notions of post-modern falling techniques, that norah was mentioning, subjectively performing dance sounds very 'unsuccessful'). If the body is indifferent and 'empty', then energy, matter, movement or however we might want to call it, can pass 'on' it. Our in-difference is required, for difference to appear. This is what the movement and life of the stone or of the monument of Cleopatra's needle presuppose in order to 'touch' us, in Whitehead's terms. From this point of view, I really like the idea of a urban landscape having a memory of itself, and instilling it into us.
I would also like to go back to the spastic body, or to the 'schizophrenic' body of Deleuze and Guattari, and say that for sure no fetishism is at work in these descriptions, but to the contrary when they talk about certain 'phenomena' as schizophrenic, it is exactly to avoid that sort of 'excess of pity for suffering' that can also very easily be adopted when talking about, for example, the experiences of Artaud. Pitying or trying to identify with suffering imply a lot of personal projections that sometimes prevent us from just seeing what is at work in a certain body. If Deleuze and Guattari had done that, perhaps one of the most interesting bodies of work, like artaud's work, would have remained 'unvalued', and that is the most unjust treatment he could receive 'after death'. Schizophrenia is usually sued by them as synonymous with creativity, or with a different kind of creativity. I am also not sure, as you are not, about dance (and art in general) having to be directly critical of economic, social or political situations. It might easily cease to be art, and become documentary, journalistic, politically activist, all sorts of things, but not aesthetic. I don't want to reiterate necessary separations or propose any kinds of laws here, I am just thinking 'aloud, like you, about some problems that often arise in art, not because of lack of political interest, but because of an excess of it. I made a little presentation once about thepolitical value of aesthetics. There is an 'alarmist' attitude, for example, of governments using systems of 'terrorist danger signalling' through the chromatic scale (red: situation of high alarm, yellow: manageable danger, green: no danger etc, as the BUsh administration often used in the past), and I was thinking what would happen, if we could more easily respond to these systems by perceiving colours in their aeshtetic effect, rather than being immediately drawn to receive a 'meaningful message' from them. for sure, in this way, less panic and alarmism would have ensued in many cases..


--- Mar 19/5/09, Cull, Laura <lkc202 at exeter.ac.uk> ha scritto:

Da: Cull, Laura <lkc202 at exeter.ac.uk>
Oggetto: Re: [-empyre-] indifference and in/direct politics
A: "soft_skinned_space" <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
Data: Martedì 19 maggio 2009, 10:25

Dear Johannes, dear Stamatia, dear all,

… to follow on from Stamatia’s last post, I guess I don’t really believe in the notion of the ‘inert’. That is, from the perspective of the process philosophy I tend to share, there is movement everywhere – albeit that sometimes that movement occurs above or below a human threshold of perception. I like very much, is it Whitehead who writes about the movement of the monument – Cleopatra’s Needle – of the life of the stone. And perhaps this is where a connection might begin with the Shadow Casters project – with the memory of the urban landscape itself, not necessarily as a landscape that needs human memory to remember itself.

On the other hand, we could say that Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of making yourself a body without organs comes close to the idea of producing an indifferent body, as a surface over which intensities – pain, cold, joy - can pass. However, even then, at least according to Deleuze and Guattari, what we reach once we have ‘sufficiently dismantled our self’ is ‘nonstratified, unformed, intense matter’ or ‘energy’. The BwO is this primary ‘glacial reality’ on which organisms and subjects form - nothing but these flows of energy, of difference in itself.

Indifference, for me then, is less about the inert or inertia than about the absence of interest – a breaking away from an interested perspective or an ordering of the world from our own duration.

I’m not sure I can now answer Stamatia’s question about the role of technological augmentation in all this vis-à-vis her example of the hysterical body. I guess the risk here – as with many of the bodies that figure in Deleuze – is that we end up fetishizing a body produced by a different experience of time (the spasm), in a way that neglects to the actual suffering of that body. At least this is my anxiety about Deleuze’s relation to Artaud.

That said, I’m all for dance that breaks with the notion of the self as origin – moving from one rhythm and speed to another in a manner that one might call ‘schizophrenic’. I very much enjoy, for example, the specific kind of skill to move at unexpected speeds developed by performers like Rosie Dennis (http://www.suture.com.au/).

To return to the question of ‘criticality’, I agree entirely with Stamatia’s argument that “it is fundamental for dance to be critical, first of all of itself”. But I wonder, then, how we understand the relationship between dance’s critique of itself and its critique of the broader social/political/economic context. Which returns me to the politics of movement in the city. I heard on a documentary recently about the urban planning of Paris conducted by Baron Haussman under Napoleon III – in which Haussman developed the boulevard system in order to prevent Paris from falling into another civil war. The idea was that the boulevards would be so wide, that the building of barricades would be impossible. At the same time, Haussman designed the city such that there was a direct connection between the military barracks and the workers districts – and any emergent civil unrest could be quickly suppressed.

I guess my question is, how directly critical do you/we want to be? For myself, I know I continue to tussle with a belief in and commitment to the politics of perception – and as such, the indirect political value of works which operate on their audiences sense of time, space, body, mind and so forth (as we have already discussed) – alongside a sense of impotence, and a correlative attraction to the directness of activism. Clearly we need both kinds of practice in the world, and perhaps there is no reason to “decide” – certainly not once and for all. But I wonder how others manage this question of value…? Is that working with very new technology is somehow self-justifying to the extend that such practices involve a generous form of public experiment – showing what the body can do in connection with these various new softwares, sensors and so forth. Or if the dance is critical of itself, then it is also critical of these new technologies – and/or of techno-choreography vs. the ever-present critique of ‘gimmickry’ so beloved of evangelists of the ‘live’?

Excuse my thinking aloud.


From: empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au</mc/compose?to=empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au> [empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au</mc/compose?to=empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>] On Behalf Of stamatia portanova [stamatiaportanova at yahoo.it</mc/compose?to=stamatiaportanova at yahoo.it>]
Sent: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 2:21 AM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: [-empyre-] R:   swarms, task envelopes,        trajectories and displacements...

I also  find the concept of 'indifference' very stimulating and challenging, from many points of view... In particular, I find it interesting from a very literal physiological points of view: thinking of the body as the 'inert' surface animated by a flow of electrical energy. As human bodies in perception and motion, our fluid and broken experiences are always galvanized by electricity. The meta-stable equilibrium of this kinetic system consists of a normal release of electrons, and their ordered transmission through a network of nerve connections separated by tiny gaps (the synapses). 'Ordinary' movement depends on a smooth energetic transmission of electricity across the nerves: in Freud’s thermodynamic description, “the dominating tendency of mental life, and perhaps of nervous life in general, is the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli …”. Different kinetic pathologies derive from the alteration and disruption of this electrical transmission, provoking an over-stimulation of the nervous system and an autonomous hyper-activation of different bodily areas. An example of this excessive kinetic condition is represented by the sudden jerks and spasms of the hysterical body: being literally flooded by a flow of uncontrollable electrical energy, the nervous body becomes a 'schizophrenic' kinetic system whose spasms result from the abnormal working of its neural cells. In this sense, hysterical conditions seem to already reveal, without any recurrence to digital or analog technologies of any kind, an inadequate, involuntary and augmented condition of the indifferent body, a physical powerlessness that opens it to a more abstract potential. My question is if, and how, the technological connections exemplified by practices of technological augmentation show something more, and different, from the hysterical body, of if they are redundant to it. Perhaps the key to understand these practices is to consider not only the basic ontological condition of the indifferent body, but also the way in which it is inscribed by precise aesthetic and technical parameters of artistic intervention (the organization, or coding, Laura was also talking about)?

The indifferent body is beyond its phenomenological subjectivity, beyond memory and anticipation, opening moments for a reflexions that, for once, does not depart by the needs of the ever-present 'I'. I very much like the idea of a dance that 'ends', giving time to re-think (always non-subjectively). I think it is fundamental for dance to be critical, first of all of itself. For this reason, I agree with Laura about the non contradiction and the possibility of having indifference and desire working together. What perhaps I don't clearly understand is the relation between this very much 'deleuzian' idea, and a political practice of movement strongly connected to the cultural memory of a 'cultural subjectivity' (such as in Shadowing the City). Indifference is not only a sort of 'neutrality' towards the categorizations of life. It is also a 'superficiality' with respect to the profundities of memory and expectation. Another word for it is oblivion.


--- Dom 17/5/09, Stelarc <stelarc at va.com.au</mc/compose?to=stelarc at va.com.au>> ha scritto:

Da: Stelarc <stelarc at va.com.au</mc/compose?to=stelarc at va.com.au>>
Oggetto: [-empyre-] swarms, task envelopes, trajectories and displacements...
A: "soft_skinned_space" <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au</mc/compose?to=empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>>
Data: Domenica 17 maggio 2009, 02:52

Hi Tim and Ashley-

Thanks for suggesting alternate ideas, constructing additional
meanings and relevance to what was written and prompting a further

Much of what we do affirms and perpetuates outmoded assumptions and
perceptions about the body. I just wanted to problematize it and try
to re-think, if not re-figure what it means to be a body- in both form
and function. (The "I" in these references  simply means "this" body.
It is a huge metaphysical leap to assert anything inner, anything

We should neither affirm the biological status quo of the body nor
should we be mimicking machines. What is more interesting is to see
the body now as an extended operational system of mixed realities in
both proximal and remote spaces.

To augment and extend the body is not so much about enhancement but
rather being able to perform with alternate capabilities and
unexpected outcomes.

Indifference allows not mere entanglement of bodies and machines but
their assemblage. These assemblages of body, machines and virtual
systems are constantly changing with the trajectories,  intensities,
rhythms and duration of operation. Indifference is necessary for an
erasure of agency at the critical moment that allows a coupling. This
coupling can result in Chimeric Flesh.

We are fascinated by the diverse locomotion of living things, of the
flocking behavior of birds and the swarming behavior of insects. Of
their complexity and seeming emergent behavior.  Aliveness is now
enriched by the seductive, smooth and speedy motion of machines. Not
only do living things move, but things now move too. Some relevant
ideas that come to mind include   technology as the external organs of
the body (McLuhan), the displacement of human capabilities into
machines (Baudrillard) and the unexpected occurrences and accidents
that occur with new technologies (Virilio). Accidents though seen in a
more positive way,  as unscripted moments of possibilities and

With Circulating Flesh, not only do bodies move but now bits of bodies
are displaced from one body to another. Blood circulating in my body
may tomorrow circulate in your body. Ova that have been stored are
fertilized with sperm that has been unfrozen. The face of a cadaver
becomes a third face on a recipient. Organs are extracted from one
body and implanted into other bodies.  Organs in circulation. Organs
in excess.  Organs awaiting bodies. Organs without bodies.

When I talk about Fractal Flesh I mean bodies and bits of bodies
spatially separated but electronically connected, generating recurring
patterns of interactivity at varying scales.

The proliferation of haptic devices on the internet will mean being
able to generate potent physical presences of remote bodies and
machines. To interact with force-feedback. Tele-presence becomes tele-
existence when there are adequate feedback loops between a body and a
robot. That is what's meant by Phantom Flesh.

Unexpected  kinds of bodily trajectories have been generated. Bodies
coupled with machines, bodies contained in machines, machines inserted
into bodies. The body once only seamlessly moved in space with a
continuity of time. Now bodies are  violently launched, accelerated
and propelled across time-zones. This is increasingly experienced as
displacement. We are not going anywhere now but rather we are
sometimes here, some times there. We are all differently enabled
bodies on varying prosthetic trajectories extending our task envelopes
beyond the proximal (beyond the boundaries of the skin and beyond the
local space we inhabit) and becoming remote sensors and end-effectors
for other bodies and surrogate machines in other places.

A prosthesis is not necessarily a sign of lack, but rather a symptom
of excess. The HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) EMG controlled exoskeleton
for example both prosthetically supports and actuates a disabled body
or strengthens the musculature of normally functioning body.

Perhaps we need more singularities. More moments of implosion. More
anxieties generated by indecision. Unable to choose, the body stops,
the body can't move. The dance ends. Time to re-think.


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