Congratulations on this impressive and thought-provoking book! One of the things I find most fascinating about the book is its synthesis of a massive range of theoretical paradigms related to embodiment. We find everything from Mauss to Butler to Bourdieu, to science studies and the sociology of knowledge, to performance theories. What is exciting to you about linking these social theories through embodiment?
These are all different approaches to embodiment that have been developed over the past century. I don’t claim to be an expert in most of them, but I found myself reading through a wide range of philosophical works, looking for treatments of embodiment that could articulate what I know from experience about embodied practice.
One of the things I learned is that it is a mistake — a kind of red herring — to seek embodiment itself or embodiment in general in writing. We know embodiment through practice and through the many ways in which we live as embodied creatures. The theoretical framework that I ultimately found most powerful was that of social epistemology, which works by taking a step back and recognizing the expertise of specialists.
I found this extremely useful for writing about embodied practices like yoga, actor training, and gender. Instead of trying to comprehensively map or articulate technique, I’ve tried to use social epistemology to create spaces for interdisciplinary engagement with those fields. From that perspective it became possible to re-read Mauss, Bourdieu, and Butler, and to recognize what they all leave out of their accounts, namely the epistemic dimension of technique.
You begin the book by describing a fascinating project of yours that posed the question, “what can a body do?” Professional performers and laypeople of various kinds then answered that question – not definitively, of course – through performance. Can you describe how you came to imagine such a project?
This event took place at the annual meeting of Performance Studies International, which was at Stanford University in 2013. I had been wrestling with the concept of performance throughout my doctoral work. Performance is understood in my field as a crucial expansion and critique of theatre, but for me this never went far enough. In the ‘What a body can do’ event, I simply asked people to respond to the question of what a body can do without formalizing their response as performance. Most people did something that could have been called a performance. Some people did something that was more participatory, essentially a workshop.
What was significant for me was the atmosphere this invitation generated: the way in which we were challenged to perceive each other’s actions not only in terms of the circulation of signs and the politics of representation but also the transmission and exchange of knowledge between bodies.
I take one of your central arguments in the book to be that embodied knowledge underlies social practice, specifically in the form of technique. You put it very nicely on page 57: technique is a “network of filaments that gives structure to practice.” What do you think is useful to sociologists of the body about your concept of technique?
The main contribution I hope to make is that social practice is structured by knowledge rather than merely habit or repeated performance. Every habit has to be discovered and taught before it becomes apparently unreflective. There is still a major contribution that theatre, dance, and performance studies can make to sociological studies of practice, which has to do with our understanding of how new practices develop.
In sociology and cultural theory there is often a question about how new practices develop and this usually gets framed as a kind of resistance (Foucault), parody or catachresis (Butler), or perruque (Certeau). In every case, innovation is marked as secondary and supplementary to repetition. Whereas in performing arts and other specialized areas, it’s very clear that a crucial element in the development of new practices is research. Butler and other gender theorists are of course absolutely right about the institutional structures — many of them violent — that are in place to block changes in how we perform gender. But without an epistemic analysis of technique, we can easily miss the extent to which innovation in gender also relies on a process of research. New gender technique has to be literally invented/discovered through research in order for it to arrive to the point where there can be social debate or conflict over whether it could become normative.
This realization has broad political implications. If we understand current shifts in gender as a kind of research, first of all that means we can accord appropriate respect (and perhaps even funding and institutional support) to the people who are responsible for this innovation. This is to demand something much more than tolerance or acceptance: People who are innovating the technique of gender or sexuality or disability or racialization should actually be supported and respected as experts in these fields.
You make the compelling argument that gender is an embodied technique that pulls together unconscious habits associated with social norms (i.e. habitus) with more conscious modes of embodied technique. We “do” gender unconsciously but we also (sometimes) make gender into a bodily project. This is an exciting theoretical synthesis and an empirical observation that I think makes sense to many of us in queer communities, where gender play is (arguably, necessarily) linked to politics. What are the political implications of your theoretical synthesis here?
Yes, I think there are major political implications here that have yet to be worked out. What I am proposing is something like an ontology of technique, which has a lot in common with various new materialisms but takes a firmer ethical and political stance on the primacy of embodiment.
However, I am not sure that conscious/unconscious is the right place to draw the line. Most recently I have been combining the idea of onto-epistemological ‘cuts’ from Karen Barad with the distinction between the technical and the epistemic made by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (both theorists of science). The technical is not exactly the same as the unconscious, nor is the epistemic the same as the conscious. The cut between the technical and the epistemic is produced by a given experimental system, or by a given social situation. In a sense we could say that the technical is the unconscious of the system — everything that we assume to be relatively reliable — while the epistemic is the conscious focus of the system. But this is not a question of what an individual happens to be conscious or unconscious of in a given moment. Rather, the distinction between the technical and the epistemic is built into an experimental system or a cultural milieu.
I do believe that this way of thinking has the potential to give us new tools for working with the politics of identity. I have no sympathy with the (neo)liberal position according to which institutions should just start pretending that gender or race or class do not exist. I think the politics of identity are crucial to our survival as a species and to any possibility of future justice. But I can’t deny that these politics sometimes get stuck in overly reified articulations of marginalized identity positions. I don’t blame activists for this. But there is a simultaneous need for new articulations of identity that acknowledge both its relative stability and the possibility of innovation.
You advocate for doing research in the arena of embodied practice, both in everyday life and in the university. Can you describe what you mean by this methodological innovation and its import for rethinking the boundaries of the academy?
One of my most recent publications is called ‘Mad Lab — or Why We Can’t Do Practice as Research’. It plays on the usually insignificant distinction between ‘performance as research’ and ‘practice as research’ to hint at what a truly radical methodological approach to ‘practice’ as research could entail.
A genuinely experimental approach to (social, cultural, embodied) practice would work directly with phenomena like duration, repetition, sexuality, and kinship, which are currently barred from academia by the subject/object cut: We can write ‘about’ such practices as long as the practices themselves are located firmly outside the epistemological space of academia. Enormous risks attend the possibility of active experimentation in practice within the university. However, this is also the direction towards which all recent academic ‘turns’ have pointed, from the linguistic to the performative to the new materialist. And at a time when the university itself (and much more) is at risk, we probably cannot deny the need for such radical approaches.
My own research has turned in the past two years towards a focus on the audiovisual body. What I have discovered is that audiovisual materials (video recordings) allow the researcher to foreground dimensions of embodiment in a way that is radically different to the written word. My commitment to exploring the audiovisual body has led me to found a new videographic Journal of Embodied Research and put me in dialogue with colleagues in visual anthropology, new media studies, and feminist film theory.
To close, a few invitations: I welcome video article submissions to the Journal of Embodied Research from sociologists working with audiovisual materials. I am also hosting a symposium on ‘The Audiovisual Body’ in June 2018, with submissions open until 28 February. For more information about these and other matters, please visit www.urbanresearchtheater.com.
Ben Spatz is author of What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research (Routledge 2015); Arts & Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellow (2016-2018); and Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Huddersfield. They convene the Embodied Research Working Group within the International Federation for Theatre Research and edit the new videographic Journal of Embodied Research from Open Library of Humanities. For more information and multimedia documents, visit <www.urbanresearchtheater.com>.