Jacques Rancière re-examines the problem of performance situated at the very heart of the concept of action, turned here to an inquiry into the “activation” so often sought in political movements, and ascribed to politically engaging arts. Considering the imagery of early 20th century film, Rancière connects the issue of action to the distinction of a “natural” and a “mechanical” man or agent: the depiction and dissection of bodies and movements in posters and cinematic sequences. The interruption here focuses on the gap between functionality and play, which is reflected and reshaped in several artistic renditions of dance, movement, and corporality. It is in this mode of analysis that the aesthetic becomes neither a stand-in nor an instigator of the political, but rather the political and its aporias are returned to politics precisely through the consideration of the aporetical claim to activity and activation in performance.
Politics, Aesthetics, Performance
I must make a preliminary statement to avoid a possible misunderstanding of my title. I am not going to speak about the art of performance, viewed as a specific art. The art that we have been used to name performance for a few decades is in fact the offspring of a wider idea of the performance of art – the “performance of art” meaning both the completion of its specific operations and its role in the distribution of social activities and collective energy. Therefore the remarks that I will present about performance belong to a wider investigation. They belong to the project of a genealogy of the categories that we use to perceive and conceptualize the relationships between art, aesthetics, and politics. That investigation is based on a hypothesis formulated in my book The Politics of Aesthetics:
The arts only ever lend to projects of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them, that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible.
So the question is not about the effects that an artistic performance can produce on political practice. It is about the very sense of action, community, freedom, or equality carried out by the positions and movements of the bodies and by the mode of their visibility.
The whole problem might lie in the seemingly simple notion of action. Becoming active is a typical demand of political art, and it has continuously been opposed both to the purely verbal and imaginary performance of words and to the passivity of the spectator. This demand has readily been equated with a certain idea of Modern art, thought of as the passage from the paradigm of representation to that of a direct performance. But action is not the mere fact of doing something. It is a certain way of doing which expresses a certain way of being. It is a specific relation between a way of moving and a regime of meaning within which that movement can be identified. In my terms, action is a category in the distribution of the sensible. Therefore the becoming-political of art is not a question of becoming active, it is a question of the very sense of action, its place and function in the distribution of the sensible. This is what I will try to show by examining two ways of framing the issue of movement and action: a philosophical one, dating back to Ancient Philosophy, and a visual one, dating back to 20th century revolutionary art.
In Aristotle’s Poetics, the tragic plot is defined as an arrangement of actions according to necessity or verisimilitude. This arrangement of actions can be compared, Aristotle says, to a beautiful animal in which all parts are in harmony. This model of the poetic plot as a harmonious body determines two oppositions. Firstly, poetry is opposed to history. History just tells the facts as they happened; poetry tells how they could have happened; it constructs a causal plot. Next, it is opposed to the spectacle, i.e. to the performance on stage. The spectacle is psychagogic, says Aristotle. It is an excitement for the souls. But that excitement is far removed from art and poetry. The true pleasure of the play is the one produced by the peripeteia and the recognition which are the soul of the plot.
It is clear that those distinctions are also social distinctions. There are people whose story can be described as an arrangement of actions and people whose life is only a succession of facts. The latter are the same whose coarse souls are excited by the spectacle, while the former can enjoy the pleasure of the plot. The ground for those distinctions is spelled out in the eighth book of Aristotle’s Politics, in which the philosopher examines which arts – meaning which knowledges and techniques – must be learnt by the free citizen. The criterion for the selection is simple: what does this or that art make him do with his body? There are at least four reasons to exclude the teaching of an art from the education of the free citizen: if it provokes an excessive tension of the body, if it demands a high level of technical skill, if it is too strictly committed to usefulness, and if it can be practiced as a salaried job. All those arts are mechanical in two senses: firstly, they are not made for the sake of their own perfection, they are means for something else; secondly, they are suitable for mechanical men, men who are only dealing with means: means of performing a useful task and means of earning their living. Such arts automatically deform the body of those who practice them; they turn them into bodies of artisans, into non-free bodies.
This distinction between the activity of the free man and that of the mechanical man is a hierarchy in inactivity too. What is the activity which is suitable for the life of leisure, asks Aristotle? Leisure is not rest. It is the state in which there is no need to do something for the sake of another thing. This is the privilege of the free man. The kind of cultivation that belongs to leisure cannot be play. Play entails the idea of relaxation, a slowdown of tension in opposition to the tension required by work. Play then is the form of enjoyment suitable for the mechanical man who needs a release to restore his bodily capacity. Action and inaction are thus forms of the distribution of the sensible that entail an implacable separation between two forms of life. That which sustains the order of representation is not only a canon of poetic rules. It is a whole hierarchical distribution of relationships between ways of being and ways of doing.
Let us now move from Greek philosophy to the Soviet Revolution. Here are two posters designed in 1928 by the Soviet artists Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg (the Stenberg brothers) for Dziga Vertov’s film, Man with a movie camera – an emblematic film of course, since the three words – man, movement, and apparatus – that compose its title sound like a whole aesthetic and political program, identifying the performance of the new man with an art that makes the production of movement and the production of a new form of visibility one and the same performance. This is what is epitomized in the couple of the dancer and the camera. This couple is substituted for the one that could be expected, the one that usually appears on posters advertising films: the couple of a man and a woman whose stories of love and hate, joy and pain are proposed to spectators as an incitement to share in their emotions. Instead, the posters show us the elements that constitute the film and the way in which they are linked together. This means that the film is not the representation of an action. It is an action. It is not destined to provoke terror and pity. It is destined to shape a new sense of action and community. And the posters don’t advertise the film. They contribute to the construction of the new sensorium to which the film belongs. They do so in two complementary ways, an analytic one and a synthetic one. The first poster shows us the elements constituting the film as an assemblage of pairs: the camera and the tripod; the mechanical eye and a human eye; the legs of the tripod and the legs of a dancing woman; the curve of the legs and the curve made by the silhouette of the cameraman bent over his machine; the silhouette and its shadow; the visual fragments and the assemblage of words. The second one shows us, as it were, the machine at work: the body is moving, at least a body consisting in one head and four limbs, a body constructed by the movement that it performs in a space structured by low angle shots of skyscrapers on a black background. In this space the parts of the body and the letters giving the title of the film and the names of the filmmaker, cameraman, and editing assistant are combined so as to suggest at once the lens of a camera and the propeller of a plane cleaving through the air, and making the film itself a vehicle launched into a new world and a new life.
The posters construct a sensorium whose main characteristic is homogeneity. Words, visible forms, and bodily movements are woven into the same fabric. Words are no more opposed to action. They are forms and those forms describe, in their space, a dynamic spiral in tune with the movements of the dancer. The same goes for seeing. Seeing can no more be equated with the passivity of the spectator or the coarseness of the artisan eager for spectacles. Seeing is an action that the attitude of the cameraman makes us perceive as similar to that of the soldier bent over his machine-gun. The machine for seeing is a machine which produces movement. The fusion of seeing, speaking, and doing appears to hinge on a specific linkage: the linkage between the body and the machine. On the first poster, the female face has a mechanical eye, and the camera a human eye. On the second one, the body of the dancer is fragmented like the cogs of a machine, but this very fragmentation contributes to the Dionysian energy of the dance. The graphic forms, the movements of the living body, and the pieces of the machine are carried together in a space where everything is moving, everything is action, and all actions are homogeneous.
The poster appears thus as the visual manifesto of an art that has become entirely active. That art parts with the logic of action conceived as the logic of the plot telling a story and of the expressive performance of actors making the spectators share the feelings and emotions of the characters. It is no more representation but direct performance. By the same token, it is the manifesto for a new society where there is no more any hierarchy between men of ends and men of means, men of leisure and men of work and rest, any opposition between the gestures of the mechanic and the movements of the free man – who has become a free woman: only one and the same collective movement which is a joint performance of men and machines. Everything is action, everything is dance.
This is what the designers show us in the language of forms. Now the point is about this language itself. There are two oddities about the image of the dancer. Firstly, though she expresses an ecstatic vitality, she nevertheless lacks what seems to be the condition for dancing. Her body is not a true body, I mean a body made by the articulation of a head, a trunk, and four limbs. On the first poster, we have a half-body; on the second, the body has no trunk. Next, the space is not a space for real dancing. The chequered ground on which the woman is supposed to dance is turned into a skyscraper, so that her dance becomes a flight or a fall seen from a reverse angle. The equivalence of the ground and the sky, the up and the down denies the depth of the three-dimensional stage on which dancing bodies are used to draw their figures. So the acting body is not a body and the space is no space for action.
It can be objected that it is a poster and that the stylization of the forms is paramount in the art of the poster in which the visual message prevails over the accuracy of the representation. This is quite true, but the question bounces back: why did the art of the poster play such an important role in the transformations of art practice and in the politics of art between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s. The answer – quite opposite to the fairy tale about the autonomisation of art and its commitment to its own medium – is that, in the art of the poster, the transformation of the canons of art was directly linked to a certain use, which was not so much to sell this or that object as it was to construct the sensorium of coexistence between those objects and the viewers, to construct a scene of the visible and the doable. This is what accounts for the strong commitment of Soviet artists that came from non objective painting to the art of the poster.
These posters are a good example, and from this point of view we can understand the two oddities. The dancing woman is in fact a combination of two bodies. The first one is an ecstatic body, symbolizing an adhesion to a holistic impulse of modern life. It is not incidental then that this “woman” with her short hair, her ring and her high-heeled shoes looks more like an American free woman than a Soviet activist. The second one is a mechanical body, a fragmented body. It obeys a rule of fragmentation and combination of the fragments which is the rule commanding the practice of film montage just as in Taylorised work and Leninist strategy. On the one hand, the dancing machine is the immediate identity of work and leisure. On the other hand, it is a splinted body. The ecstatic body and the mechanical body remain separate. That separation entails the dissociation of the model of the organic body. In order to liberate life, the “beautiful animal” has to be split into two bodies.
The same goes for space. The space of the performance breaks away from the normal representation of the third dimension on a bi-dimensional plane. The main feature of that space is obliqueness. It is also a typical feature among Soviet avant-garde artists; and the diagonal had been theorized by El Lissitzky as the spatial configuration suited to the new communist age in the same way as the sphere was to the classical order and the vertical to the gothic; it constructs an egalitarian space which has abolished the very hierarchy of high and low, and an infinite space which can no more be embraced within the categories of our order: the infinite universe of the new life.
The posters construct this new body and a new space which, at the same time, are an impossible body and an impossible space. They have to do so because the “direct performance” of the bodies must be symbolized. It cannot at the same time achieve the unification of art and life, and tell us that it achieves it. The physical performance needs to be supplemented by a semiological performance that shows what it does without being able to tell that it is what it does. The semiological performance is the construction of a specific fabric, an aesthetic fabric, in which the meaning of the physical performance of the mechanical dancing body is explained – at the cost of presenting an impossible body and an impossible movement. This construction entails the combination of several types of bodies and several paradigms of performance. It entails a complex set of relations between bodily movements, visual forms and modes of speech. It is only within this complex set that the anti-representative aesthetic revolution can be understood and that its political implications can be grasped.
To understand that complexity and its political implications, a genealogical inquiry is necessary. This inquiry leads us back to the middle of the 18th century, to a moment when the logic of the representative regime was at once at its climax and on the verge of its collapse. On the one hand, the logic of action had been perfectly completed, since the idea of the arrangement of actions exactly matched a hierarchical logic of characters and situations, prescribing what kind of events could happen to this or that character, and what kind of feelings and language they should use, in accordance with their dignity. Moreover, this double logic of coherence in action and suitability of expression had been extended from poetry to visual arts that were judged according to their capacity to represent actions. In parallel, dance had been codified at the court of Louis XIV. Dance was not considered a fine art. It was a form of entertainment. But entertainment had its hierarchy too, and this is why it had been codified as a set of noble attitudes, virtuoso movements, and refined figures, expressing the excellence of aristocratic life, the excellence of the life of those men of action who were also men of leisure. Nevertheless, in the space of a dozen years, the representative edifice was shattered in several ways. The interesting point is that the first attack was an overturning of its own principles. The most significant example of that overturning is offered by the book of the French choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre, Letters on Dance and Ballets, a very influential book, first published in 1760. Noverre exactly overturned the Aristotelian opposition. The aristocratic ballet is a merely mechanical thing, he said, since it is a merely physical performance. It tells no story, it conveys no emotions, it only speaks to the eyes. In order to become art, dance has to speak to the soul. It has to become pantomime, to create a language of mimicry and gestures, telling stories and expressing the situations and feelings of characters that look like those one can meet in real life and in all conditions. This is also why any subject is good and the dancers and choreographer must study all sorts of movements, notably the movements of the workmen in the workshops, the peasants in the fields, or the crowds in the streets or the markets.
In that way the opposition was overturned: “mechanical” now meant “having its end in itself.” Noverre’s reform of the ballet could then meet a project of reform of dramatic action that had been formulated a few years before by Denis Diderot in his Conversations on the Natural Son. Diderot criticized the two main aspects of the theatrical convention: the contrived cleverness of the plots with their coups de théâtre to which he opposed the reality of situations in ordinary life; the conventions of noble language to which he counter-posed the variety of tones, smothered cries, interruptions, silences, and the multifarious gestures and attitudes which express the truth of the feelings, the intensity of emotions, and the multiplicity of their quasi-imperceptible variations in real life. The convention of theatrical action and the conventional tones and attitudes of the actor had to be replaced by a language of the body, a language of corporeal signs.
The keyword of that critique was the word expression. The mechanics of the plot and those of the noble gestures and contrived attitudes had to be replaced by a unique art of the performing body: the art of expression. We know how loudly the idea of the expressive body has resonated in performing arts and in the idea of life becoming art. One of the inventors of modern dance, Rudolf Laban, held Noverre to be a “visionary” because, in his action ballet, “the whole range of human passions had found its expression.” But Laban could pay homage to Noverre only at the cost of radically transforming the idea of expression. The language of the body opposed by Diderot and Noverre to the representative action still is a mimetic language, a language of motivated signs. It supposes a correspondence between the feelings of the souls and the traits, gestures, and attitudes able to express it. Such a language of the body claimed to be heir to the ancient Roman pantomime, but its visual model was much more a pictorial one, which Diderot found epitomized in the paintings of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, with the intensity of diverse emotions expressed by each character on the canvas. This also means that the stage of expression was wavering between two opposite spaces: the domestic stage where the members of the family express their emotions, regardless of the spectator, and the big theatre of the people, intended to revive the Greek tradition of the theatre as the assembly of the people opened to the deployment of the great emotions.
So expression could only take on its whole potential by being freed from the semiological model of the language of signs. This required that the movements of the body be separated from the significations with which they had been associated. Paradoxical as it may seem, that dissociation required a pause in movement and a default in expression. It required a form of disruption of the representative model more discrete but probably more influential in the long run.
Four years after Noverre’s Letters on Dance and Ballets, Johann Joachim Winckelmann published his History of Art in Antiquity. His polemics went in exactly the opposite direction, since that expressivity which had meant the progress of liveliness in art to the reformers of dance and theatre was a sign of decadence to him. This is the reason why he has sometimes been considered as the reactionary champion of neo-classicist sculpture. Such a criticism pays little attention to the paradox of that so-called classicism: in Winckelmann’s view, the most perfect achievement of Antique sculpture is embodied in the crippled statue of a Hercules who has neither a head nor limbs. Such perfection contradicts the representative model of plastic beauty. Accordingly, it contradicts the representative privilege of action conceived as the exact adjustment of parts in a whole, the act of a willing head commanding the action of the limbs. Winckelmann’s Hercules is an inactive Hercules, welcomed among the Olympic Gods after the end of his works. He is only pondering his past deeds, but, as he has no head for pondering, his thought is only expressed by the curve of his back and the muscles of the torso whose forms are “engulfed by one another” in a continuous movement similar to the indifferent rise and fall of the waves. This in-different “rise and fall” of the wavelike muscles entails a new idea of movement: an idea of movement which neutralizes the very opposition of movement and rest. That identity of movement and stillness received a name: it is a free movement, a movement which is not fettered by the obligation to perform actions or express emotions. This implies a new idea of the body, of its life and of its movement, that 20th century dancers and performers will set out to revive by looking at Greek vases or sculptures. What makes the body alive is no longer the organic link of action in which limbs obey a head; nor is it the language of the expressive body translating thoughts and emotions into gestures and attitudes. The free movement is a movement that has no end in the two senses of the word: first, it never begins, nor does it ever end. Next, it has no goal. If we stress the first meaning, we will define the free movement as rhythm – a notion which in fact played a major part in the modern conception of the performing body. It was notably formulated by Isadora Duncan as the endless generation of movement from movement. As she puts it: “Every movement, even in repose, contains the quality of fecundity, possesses the power to give birth to another movement.” Accordingly, rhythm is the breath that continuously moves all through the body and is present in the same way in any part. This is why any fragment can express the impulse of the whole: a form of expression that does no longer obey the semiological model.
The expressive body could break the mimetic frame only through the model of the immobile movement that disconnected bodily attitudes from the model of the language of signs. Now what the free movement of the muscles/waves provides is not only a paradigm of movement, it is also a paradigm of freedom. The wavelike movement of the muscles expresses the acme of Greek art, which is also the acme of Greek freedom, Winckelmann affirmed. He was totally wrong, as far as the date of the statue is concerned. But that is of secondary importance. That connection between free movement and political freedom was an implicit answer to the biggest challenge that art lovers had to face at that time. Not long ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had launched his devastating polemic about the effects of art. Theatre teaches nothing, he said. The taste for the theatre and the cultivation of the arts always goes along with the decrease of popular freedom. This is why he opposed to the false lessons of morality of the theatre the collective energy given to the Spartan citizens by their songs and dances, or the sense of community conveyed by the Swiss popular festivals. Winckelmann’s interpretation of Greek art was an implicit answer to Rousseau: the free movement of the statue is the expression of Greek freedom just as the distortions of Baroque sculpture are the expression of despotism.
Thirty years later Friedrich Schiller made the idea of the freedom expressed by the statue both more explicit and more problematic, as he turned the identity of movement and immobility into an identity of action and inaction. What he called the play-drive is not so much a specific type of movement as it is a specific form of experience: a form of experience in which the subject is no longer determined to enact a specific capacity in order to respond to a specific impulse, need or interest, as it happens in the ordinary forms of experience. Aesthetic freedom or play is the experience of a capacity of indetermination, which is properly an experience of humanity as such: the experience of a capacity which can be shared by anybody as it dismisses the hierarchical oppositions that structured both action and inaction. That which shines on the face of the Greek deity, Schiller says, is idleness, the absence of any care and will. Now those attributes of the deity are in reality the attributes of the free people who commissioned the work of the sculptor. They are the characteristics of aesthetic experience in which the usual hierarchies of sensible experience are suspended. Aesthetic freedom is freedom from the power of will, and notably from the will to use art in order to produce effects on individuals and collectives. In that sense, play can be seen as the notion founding both a new idea of art and a new idea of the individual and collective art of living.
So there are at least three paradigms for thinking the passage from representation to direct performance and the way in which art may become life: expression, rhythm, and play. All of them challenge the old representative order. All of them oppose to the conventions of representation and to the mechanical forms of domination a paradigm of life and movement which is a paradigm of freedom and equality. This is why they plaid a large role in the endeavours to turn the practice of art into a direct performance of community. But each of them also has something disturbing about it, something disturbing for the idea of political action and of the political community. Expression wavers between two models: on the one hand, the language of nature that finds its achievement in the domestic space from which the spectator is excluded; on the other hand, the theatre of the people giving way to the multiplication of emotion by blurring the separation between the actors and the spectators. 20th century dramatists and choreographers will set out to reconcile those two notions, a reconciliation which supposes that expression be dissociated from its semiological model. This is certainly what is provided by the paradigm of free movement or rhythm. And the paradigm of the rhythmic community will play an important role in the times of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, Duncan, or Laban. But it will do so at the cost of calling into question the logic of action seen as the pursuit of certain ends through definite means. Laban emphasizes this discrepancy when he sums up the discovery made by Duncan:
Movement considered hitherto – at least in our civilization – as the servant of Man employed to achieve an extraneous practical purpose was brought to life as an independent power creating states of mind frequently stronger than man’s will. This was quite a disconcerting discovery at a time when extraneous achievements through will-power seemed to be the paramount objective of human striving.1
It is still worse with play. Play as defined by Schiller is the very identity of action and inaction, the state in which there is “no force to contend with force.” And Schiller strongly makes the point that art creates a new individual and collective capacity on the condition that it gives up the pretence of giving to the souls any definite trend. Play is, he says, the basis of a new art of life for individuals and communities. But play also is the state in which any trace of volition has disappeared, any idea of purposeful organisation of life has vanished.
Those models of performance thus seem to be not well suited to become the models of a revolutionary strategy of transformation for the world. But things can be put the other way round. Communism and revolution themselves were marked by the tension between the representative and the aesthetic model. As viewed by the young Karl Marx, the “human revolution” is an anti-representative revolution which puts an end to the law of alienation that separated the human subject from its essential forces. By the same token it puts an end to the logic that separates the means from the end and leisure from work. In that sense it is an aesthetic revolution, it is the weaving of a new sensible fabric of the common. Now that undivided community has to be made possible by a historical process. But this process itself can be conceived in two ways: on the one hand, there is the strategic – or the representative – model: revolutionary action is the arrangement of actions leading to the disruption of the existing order; on the other hand, there is the aesthetic plot: the development of the productive forces breaks through the limits of the capitalist system within which they have been generated. Of course, Marxist science purported to join the two logics: the science of the development of production was set up as the basis for the strategy of the conquest of power and the organisation of the new society. Strategic action is based on the development of life. But this supposes that life has an orientation. The great optimistic narratives of the end of the 19th century contend that science demonstrates this orientation. But they are bitten from the inside by a new suspicion, the suspicion that life wants nothing and leads nowhere. This is the secret that literature, for its part, claims in the open. From Stendhal and Balzac to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoï and Ibsen, it does not stop representing the failure of the strategic view of the world, the failure to give an orientation to the movement of life. Behind the idea of the scientific adaptation of strategic action to the movement of life, there was the divorce between two ideas of communism and the unavowed feeling that this movement may lead nowhere and that the will to change life does not rely on any objective process. This is why scientific rigor had to reverse itself, to affirm itself as the mere necessity of the violent break that imposes a direction to the endless movement of productive life.
It is this inner discrepancy of the revolutionary model which created the gaps and intervals within which artists, and notably artists dealing with the arts of movement, could propose their own paradigms of action and community: figures of the active communist subject, more active and more dynamic than the empirical agents of social transformation; ways of shaping a communist sensorium, ahead of the slow move of strategic action aimed at creating the material conditions of a new society.
This is the point where a multiplicity of combinations of the triad expression, rhythm, and play could come in. This is, for instance, what the posters by the Stenberg brothers construct: a sense of action in which there is no opposition between the ends and the means of communism; the free movement of the dancer here and now is already the manifestation of the new communist sensorium in which the bodies and the machines share the same rhythm. The posters show the union as natural and unproblematic. But we know that this is not so. How can the “free movement” of the dancer coincide with what was the enemy against which the paradigms of expression, rhythm, and play had been shaped, i.e. their mechanism?
There are different ways of conceiving the principle of the coincidence. The first one can be summarized in one word: functionality. In that view, art becomes a form of life to the extent that its forms have the same kind of rationality as the forms of economic and social life and that its products and performances enact the same principle as the one which determines the efficiency of the machines and that of the working bodies. Man and machine, the making of art and the constitution of a new community are united by the same principle: the definition of a series of elementary operations that maximize the efficiency of the machine and that of human gestures. This is the ideal that is summed up by Wsewolod E. Meyerhold in a text from 1922, The Actor of the Future and Biomechanics, that sets the problem in the terms of social engineering. Art in a socialist country can no longer be thought of as a form of entertainment within a society where labour and rest are separated. It is a social activity that has to help workmen in their work and not to entertain them. The work of the actor must be considered as a “production necessary for the good organisation of the labour of all citizens.” Now to perform this task for the benefit of the workers the actor has to adopt movements that maximize the efficiency of his own work. He has to acquire the qualities of the good worker trained at the Taylorist school: the elimination of useless, non-productive gestures; the rhythm and the exact awareness of his centre of gravity. He must train his body so that it can obey the instructions within the shortest delays and reach the level of excitability that determines the efficiency of his performance.
Obviously, it is dubious whether the woman on the poster fulfils such conditions of efficiency. But the point is that it is dubious whether Meyerhold’s shows themselves fulfil them. What is offered to the spectators of his most famous mise-en-scène, devoted to Fernand Crommelynck’s play The Magnanimous Cuckold, is not so much the functionality of Taylorist work as it is the demonstration of a “machine-for-acting” with stairs, slides, ladders, revolving doors, chutes, and other apparatuses allowing the “actors” to transform themselves into gymnasts and turn the play into a series of acrobatic and burlesque exercises. Between the modernist artistic dream of a physical performance replacing the old system of expression and the social Taylorist dream of an exact calculation of efficient gestures, the coincidence is only apparent. The model of the new theatrical performance is not the Taylorist worker adapted to his machine. It is the acrobat who cares for no efficiency extraneous to his performance. Or it is the new mime, the mechanical mime whose gestures don’t imitate the efficiency of the machines but their endless repetitive and meaningless movement. When we look at the propeller composed on the poster by the members of the dancer and the words, we can’t help but think of the figure that epitomizes artistic modernity for Soviet avant-garde artists fond of virtuoso performance and social efficiency: Charlie Chaplin, the actor who affirms that the cinematographic stage is the stage on which “the laws of movement reign supreme.” The conversion of the social figure of the tramp into a precise nervous machine is the model proclaimed by almost all Soviet artists. In a special issue of the magazine Kino-Phot, devoted to Chaplin, there is a significant series of drawings made by Varvara Stepanova. The drawings illustrate sentences from an article by Stepanova’s husband, Alexander Rodtchenko, opposing the concrete actions of Charlot to the gestures of actors performing characters. But more important is the very dynamic of the series. The first drawings and the very cover of the issue represent the awkward limping gait of the tramp falling on all fours (image 4). But as the series moves on, the clumsy gestures of the clown are turned into the perfect movements of a plane’s propeller and of the technician operating it (images 5 and 6). The point is that the perfect transformation of the clumsy tramp into an efficient machine shows us its flip side as well: the perfection of the body-machine of the clown is the conflation of two mechanisms: an efficient one and an automatic, endless, inefficient one. What Charlot symbolizes is not the efficiency of the new world of efficient machines and Taylorised gestures; it is the equivalence of the functional mechanical movements with the nonsensical automatisms. His gestures are not actions, but the demonstration of an identity of action and inaction, an identity whose proper name, since the time of Schiller, has been play.
Play comes in to disjoin the dreamed identity between the free movement of the communist body and the rationality of Taylorised work. At the same time as the Stenberg brothers illustrate the dream of an exact mechanical performance, replacing the old theatrical ritual by hybridizing on a plane surface the parts of a woman’s body and the parts of an optic machine, Oskar Schlemmer designs the figures of his triadic ballet. He designs them in the Bauhaus, an institution which had been devoted to creating a new form of artistic practice, producing no more works of art but the living machine adapted to the dwellers of a new world, characterized by the rationalization of the setting and of all the furniture and accessories of everyday life. The figures of the ballet, however, seem very far from that project of rationalisation. The heavy geometric costumes that Schlemmer invents for the dancers are the exact opposite of any idea of liberating the free flow of movement. On the other hand, this is not a mechanical ballet. Between the spring of life and the cogwheels of the machine, Schlemmer thinks that a mediation has to be found: the mediation of artifice. Artifice is the technical artefact created by human hands and machines. But it is also the manifestation of the human taste for play, appearance, and masquerade. The ballets of the Bauhaus symbolize the harmony between the functional forms invented by science and technology, and the non-functional human taste for play and appearance. That harmony must be play, because there is no common rhythm unifying the performances of the dancers, the functioning of the machines, and the breath of universal life. The synthesis has to be symbolized on that theatrical stage that once had epitomized old bourgeois art for the new engineer-artists. Furthermore, it has to be symbolized by dancing bodies whose technological perfection amounts to the impossibility of free movement.
It transpires as though the ecstatic body of the dancer on the poster had been designed with the explicit purpose of denying this gap between functionality and play. Instead, it affirms a free movement of the body in tune with the movement of a machine. But it is the film itself that becomes thus the test for the verification of that harmony. The film embodies a vision of the performance of art that rejects any stage of representation. There are only facts, only actions: those same actions that are performed everyday in the streets, the shops, the factories, the offices, the stadiums, or the workers’ clubs. Filming thus is not a way of representing those actions. It is an action that creates a link between all those actions and organizes them into a “film-thing” which is itself part of the construction of the new life. Its main operation consists in rendering all of them equal. This means three things: first, making them equally important; next, fragmenting them into very short pieces; and finally, editing them according to an accelerated rhythm. The machine of the operator and that of the editor make all those fragmented activities the expression of a new collective life characterized by the acceleration of movements and their instantaneous connection. In such a way the assembly line in the factory and the wipe given by a shoe-shiner in the street, the work of the miner and the doing of nails in a beauty parlour are represented as equivalent manifestations of energy. This overall connection has one condition. The condition is that each of those actions be disconnected from its own temporality, disconnected from the ends that it pursues. The detractors of Vertov had already made this point about his earlier films: his machines might compose an impressive symphony of movement, but nobody knew how they functioned and what they produced. This is the point. Vertov does not “represent” communism as the result of a planned organization and hierarchy of tasks. He creates communism as the common rhythm of all activities. Now this common rhythm supposes that the performance of the body shares the same characteristic: unwillingness. Cinema redeems all movements from their dependency upon specific wills. Thus it proposes a form of communism that escapes the dilemmas of communist strategies by overturning the secret of the aimlessness of life. Communism is the endless movement through which life expresses nothing but its equal intensity. The space of the poster and the time of the film are the space and time of aesthetic play.
This is what is illustrated by the last part of the film in which we meet again the dancer and the tripod as we see the film being projected in a theatre. Those sequences show us two opposite performances of the machine: there is the performance of the telephone exchange which appears time and again as a refrain in the film. That performance is the metaphor of the filmic action as an interconnection of actions. But the condition of that interconnection is that all the actions are split up into fragments, appearing and disappearing at the same speed as the plugging and unplugging in the telephone exchange. This is why, in the episode of the screening in the theatre, the tripod and the camera present us with a very different image of the machine: they are turned into automatons, bowing to the audience before demonstrating their tricks. On the one hand, the cameraman is only the employee of the telephone exchange that connects every activity with all other activities. On the other hand, he is the magician that turns all of them into tricks. Hence the two accusations levelled against Vertov: the accusation of formalism on the one hand, and that of pantheism or “Whitmanism” on the other hand. But both amount to the same. What is common to the free body and to the machine is that they do not pursue any end. What is common to the Whitmanian or Duncanian rhythm and to “formalist” play is that both make will and unwillingness equivalent. The direct performance of art becoming action and life is a play. As is well known, the builders of “true” or “effective” communism rejected that “playful” or “pantheistic” communism and asked artists to give up the pretension of constructing the sensible forms of the new community. What they had to do was to serve the strategy of the party by representing the life and problems of the real people and by recreating workers.
The art of movement appeared to suit exactly the dream of the becoming-political of art, which means the immediate identity between the aesthetic constitution of the community and its political constitution. The layout of the poster and the montage of the film set out to achieve that dream by making all movements homogeneous in a common sensory fabric. But that homogeneity only exists in the space of play. There is no aesthetic constitution of the community. What aesthetics means is much more than the collapse of any principle of homogeneity. It is the equivalence of movement and rest, action and inaction. It is the equivalence of the machine that serves the projects of will and the mechanical, involuntary movement. It is the suspension of the normal relationship between ends and means, causes and effects. That suspension creates a specific fabric which cannot coincide with the economic and social fabric of the community and which appears split into two forms. On the one hand, there are the forms of modern dance and performance aimed at expressing the still unknown powers inhabiting the bodies and souls of individuals and communities; on the other hand, there is the art of the moving image which is the new art emblematising the progress of technology. The poster and the film want to make them coincide. Instead, they bear witness to the impossibility of that coincidence. The cinematism of the camera devours that of the bodies. Cinema “writes” the movement, it writes the poem of the cinematic community; it wants to equate this poem with the living performance of the community. But the writing of the movement on the screen does what writing does in general. Like literature, it divides; it transforms bodies into quasi-bodies or into shadows. The art of the machine remains an art of shadows just as literature remains an art of words.
This is why we should receive with some suspicion the accusation levelled against the art of the moving image. The art of the shadows has sometimes been accused of complicity with the totalitarian powers of the 20th century. This reproach is in line with the old Platonic idea that people are subjected because, as spectators, they are manipulated by the machine of illusion that makes them see shadows. It is also in line with the idea that the big totalitarian parades were the implementation of the aesthetic utopia. But the art of the shadows is much more the art that splits the glorious body of the people from the inside. That division is at work in the theatre where Vertov shows us the spectators laughing at the spectacle of the frantic acceleration of their daily activities. They play with the idea that those activities are the implementation of the communist idea. They play with the great promise and with the non-fulfilment of the promise, or its fulfilment as a play in the theatre at the end of the day. The artist wants to achieve the aesthetic promise of the new community, but what he does instead is to foster the capacity to deal with the promise, its non-fulfilment, and the horizon of expectation opened by both the promise and its non-fulfilment.
1 Rudolf von Laban, Modern Educational Dance (London: MacDonald and Evans, 1948), p. 6.