"Words fail me: dancing with the other’s familiar"

This paper was presented as a keynote address at Towards Tomorrow?, INTERNATIONAL GATHERING 2005 at the Centre for Performance Research, Aberystwyth, 6-10 April 2005.

Only a being obsessed with impossible/unsolvable problems can make a breakthrough in possible knowledge. (S. Zizek, Organs Without Bodies, 2004:139)


The challenge is…to imagine a theory that could explain how it happens, a theory that would place the phenomenon as an effect of some cause, any cause. (Pinker, How the Mind Works 1998:562)


I want to look briefly today at the issue of practitioner-expertise, asking first where and how practitioner expertise can be identified in Performance Studies writing; and why, if the recent work of a professional company such as the Wooster Group can be described in terms of "demonic virtuosity", it is so rare to find practitioner expertise, performance mastery and virtuosity referenced as such in those registers of writing. It is rare, even in the case of those writers who consistently engage with expert practices and practitioners from their own position as expert spectator. For the sake of my argument today, I propose to take "practitioner expertise", "professional" or "expert" practices and/or "disciplinary mastery" as tokens, to mark out not simply an other of Performance Studies writing, but an other with which Performance Studies writers tend nonetheless to be familiar – as expert spectator – in practice. My central argument, in brief, is that performance expertise and performance virtuosity have been failed by writing, hence by many performance-theoretical writers – not least when we draw apparently productive metaphors into writing in this contested field.

Metaphors can figure as fancy footwork within discursive turns, hence my interest here in dancing. But I'm going to argue that the widespread use of metaphoric models in performance writing means that writing has turned, turned and turns again, around an excluded other that is a performance expertise and mastery which continues however to drive those of us who continue to go to the theatre or performance event. Each turn serves to mask, and thereby to perpetuate the existence of an absence at the centre of much performance writing in the university: what is missing is an account of performance mastery, how to identify it as such; how to account for what that mastery makes spectators do, and how to grasp the role of that complex multi-participant mechanism in the economy of performance production itself. My simple suggestion here will be that it is the historically-conditioned habitus (1) of those of us who are writers – that "durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations"(78), "laid down in each [of us] by his [or her] earliest upbringing"(81), involving a particular "harmony of ethos and tastes", and particular "dispositions of those whose aspirations and world-view they express" – that stands in the way of our writerly engagement with performance expertise and mastery as such. I am going to attribute to expert performance-practitioners a difference in habitus, thereby wilfully re-othering them, for the sake of my political argument.

In order to attempt to persuade you of this case, I can't avoid looking back at writing, for the simple reason that looking back at writing is one of the things professional writers in the university tend to do. Our writing is rarely forward-looking or predictive, at least where creative practices are concerned. I am going to suggest again that those of us who are writers need to re-appraise some curious aspects of writing itself, from the perspective of our own professional expertise, as well as reappraising some of the claims that writing makes on its own behalf. But I want also to draw on a rather different field of recently-published research to signal possible future directions for a writing about arts-practitioner expertise. I am going to use the terms 'brain' and 'mind' to signal, respectively, the other and her familiar.

Part I: "I am not Darcey Bussell"

Perhaps, if I'm talking about history, then 'the problem' of practitioner expertise for writers is a generational thing? Some months back I put a couple of questions to the wider PARIP community online. The first concerned what I am calling the already-theoretical status of certain expert or signature performance practices – such as those of Liz LeCompte, Robert Wilson, Robert Lepage, Ariane Mnouchkine and Simon McBurney – and the difficulty some of us who are writers have, to accept that the term "theoretical" might be non-identical with the specific registers of writing through which it is widely articulated.

My question was whether the readers and writers that the PARIP list members are might entertain the notion that in certain instances, certain registers of expert performance practice, but not others, might actually already operate as mixed-mode and multi-dimensional, multi-participant theoretical practices. I was hinting at the need for some of us in the university at least to move on from the notion that 'the theoretical' is necessarily commensurable with the writing which has tended to serve it as vehicle. I was hinting at the possibility that Rosemary Butcher might theorise choreographically; that Elizabeth LeCompte, and Robert Wilson and Ariane Mnouchkine might theorise as mise en scene, without any of these expert practitioners needing to write, either literally or metaphorically.

What my question concealed was the suggestion that the writerly habitus of many of us in the university, a complex mind-set enabling and applauding certain sorts of actions, and not others, actually prevents many of us who are already professional writers and educators from contemplating the possibility that the expert-arts-practitioner-other might theorise in modes and registers of complex practice which operate wholly or in significant part outside of writing. I wanted to suggest that we try out the notion that in the field of professional or expert performance-making, only some theoretical practices are writing-based.

Of course, the notion of an "outside of writing" is itself a writerly one, and to invoke it betrays a writerly anxiety. What might be less clear to those who operate professionally outside of the economy of writing is the extent to which the inside of writing is naturalised and normalised, for those of us who enjoy its rewards as well as its challenges. Let's make no mistake here: the economy of writing, at its most benign and generous, is vast and highly organised. It has its own preferred inputs and outcomes, its own modes of production and production-processes, its own preferred rhythms; in more abstract terms, it has its own agendae, targets and teleology; its own evaluative mechanisms, its own "harmony of ethos and tastes", linked to "the dispositions of those whose aspirations and world-view they express". The economy of writing conjures its own cosmos into being; it has its own heroes, as well; and it has a fairly solid, if relatively brief history, as should be clear to anyone who reads How The Mind Works, by the evolutionary psychologist and Professor of Cognitive Neurosciences at MIT, Steven Pinker(2). In that text, professional and successful writer that he is, Pinker goes so far as to identify mind itself in terms of "words and sentences". Musing on mind and its working, Pinker observed, in 1997, that in contrast with words and sentences, however, "there is something peculiarly holistic and everywhere-at-once and nowhere-at-all and all-at-the-same-time about the problems of philosophy" (564). Philosophy's struggle, then – and it is given as a writerly struggle – is with an outside of words and sentences, with what is other to the particular combinatory norm that is syntax.

The primary code in the university as scriptural economy, no matter how much some of us might like to pay lip-service to difference, continues to be a writing produced and marketed within it, in its own terms, even if something called 'practice' has recently been admitted, on condition that it aspires to the condition of discursivity. The research-productive and research-evaluative balance is tilted toward writing, to the writerly habitus, and to the "cognitive-mapping", to use a Jamesonian metaphor, specific to the writing community, to such an extent that those expert performing arts practitioners amongst us who aspire to enter and then to operate successfully within the university's hallowed halls can only do so if they are metaphorically two-faced, double-brained, of a mind to – as one says (although one probably means 'of a brain to') – operate differently in two spheres at once. Even those few who achieve this, however, will not last as such: some of the turns and returns of writing, after all, are contagious, as well as infectious; and the university research system is set up and resourced, such that the expert performing arts practitioner will realise soon enough which mode of undertaking is more resource-efficient; more mobile, easier to own, as intellectual property; more likely to be identified by peers as authoritative.

To come back then to my first written question to the PARIP list: might Robert Wilson already theorise, as arts-professional or expert mixed-mode multidimensional and multiparticipant practice, without recourse to writing and its economy? And if that might be the case, what might be the role of expert writing, in its regard? I have argued elsewhere that the use of writing in critical-analytical registers, as interpretative apparatus, as though to 'decode' a written-theoretical a priori of an expert performance production, reinforces the widespread tendency to mistake performance effects for performance causes, to attempt to find the means to infer causes from effects. Confronted by the inexplicable outside of writing, Pinker suggests, the challenge, is, after all "…to imagine a theory that could explain how it happens, a theory that would place the phenomenon as an effect of some cause, any cause"(3). I want to leave my first question on this note, by rewording Pinker: confronted by an inexplicable (because unworded) performance expertise, the challenge to writing in performing arts is "to imagine a theory that could explain how the work [of a Darcey Bussell – or a Kate Valk of the Wooster Group, or Robert Lepage for that matter] happens, a theory that would place the phenomenon [of singularity of/and practitioner expertise] as an effect of some cause, any cause".

My second question to the PARIP list took up the notion, coming via the branch of philosophical enquiry called "speculative pragmatism"(4), that much performance-theoretical writing, published under the heading of Performance Studies, has been put together on the basis of the presuppositions of a spectator theory of knowledge. I have argued elsewhere that much Performance Studies writing, historically, has been produced not just on the basis of spectator presuppositions, but from the concrete positions, relational set-up, and through the perceptual apparatuses specific to spectator practices in and after the performance event. That writing tends to be historical and post-event-interpretative, largely reactive to the already-made, whose emergence it will have been unable to predict. The spectator theory of knowledge, its presuppositions and its productivity are once again ancient, bound up within Pinker's "problems of philosophy". Spectator knowledge-practices tend to objectify, to identify performance as over there, hence other to spectator-writing-production; or those same spectator knowledge-practitioners claim for themselves the role of the performance-other's familiar, as though they might write in her name, as though on her behalf. Those of us who are expert-spectators, and overly familiar, tend to use the pronoun "we", to identify the other and ourselves, on which basis we proceed to dance a step or two with her, to the tune of one or another writerly turn – the textual turn, or the discourse turn, the narratological turn, the interdisciplinary turn, the psychoanalytical turn, the pedestrian turn, the cultural studies turn, the archaeological turn or the critical ethnographic turn; the visual turn, which seems to continue to hold many of us in its embrace – and, speaking of that warm embrace, the turn of "the body". Turn, turn, and turn again: it feels a bit like dancing. My head is spinning. Words fail me.

Although many 'critical theoretical' writers, published over the final decades of the 20thC, have pointed out some of the dangers of recourse to the binary oppositions of "Cartesian dualism", linked to spectator theories of knowledge, spectator presuppositions, and spectator knowledge-practices, few have pursued that critique into the performance space itself – into that space and that event which naturalise and normalise spectating, just as much as they naturalise and normalise a particular moment in expert performing, as though that moment were the 'thing itself'. Naturalisation and normalisation of spectating, on the one hand, and of 'the show' itself, on the other, of its famous autonomy as sense-event, tend to bring with them the neglect, by spectating, of those other moments upon which the expert practices of performance expertise depend.

Patrice Pavis, at least, and Annie Ubersfeld before him, have made spectating, spectator presuppositions, and a spectator theoretical practice central to the performance-analytical models they differently propose. Some of our best friends, after all, are expert spectators. Nonetheless, the urgent political question which has seemed to me to emerge with the entry of expert arts-disciplinary practitioners into the research frameworks of the university, remains. I want to pose it again here in terms of expertise, in terms of radical difference between performing arts practitioner expertise, and spectator expertise. It is this: if much performance writing is produced in terms specific to a naturalised spectator theory of knowledge and its presuppositions, and if this mode of observation and production unselfconsciously replicates older knowledge-conventions and discursive productivity, what might constitute an expert arts-practitioner theory of knowledge? What might be the presuppositions of an expert arts-practitioner theory of knowledge? Who amongst us within the economy of writing of the university might be in a position to identify these and to act accordingly? What might constitute the habitus of the arts-disciplinary expert practitioner?

I want at this point and on the basis of this question to suggest that we begin to qualify the writerly habitus in negative terms: it was once the case – and this is once again a matter of generations – that some of us identified devised performance-making as "non-textual"; it was once the case that Michel Foucault, and Deleuze after him, was inclined to distinguish, in words and sentences, and with Pinker's "problems of philosophy" in mind, between "discursive practices" and "non-discursive practices". In order to maintain coherence with that tradition, despite the neo-Cartesian dualism it articulates, I want to negatively qualify my own writerly habitus, my own status as professional writer and educator as 'non-performer', where, by 'performer', despite the ongoing appeal of the "pedestrian turn" of the 1980s and 1990s, I mean 'expert' or 'professional' arts-disciplinary practitioner.

Part II: "I can't dance, don't ask me"

Writing from the negative position, as a "NON-professional-arts-disciplinary practitioner", I have nonetheless been able to observe that I 'have' – or perhaps I should say, I operate consistently on the basis of – what I want to call writerly intuitions, those sorts of expert intuitions which seem to emerge from a nowhere of writing, from a nowhere of "words and sentences". I am going to suggest at this point that a number of professional writers who are also "non-professional arts-disciplinary practitioners" – like Foucault, like Bourdieu, like Jameson, indeed – might well have proceeded to develop their theoretical writing intuitively, not least when each has looked out, from his "words and sentences", at the outside of writing. This suggestion, if indeed it is valid, makes it particularly curious that few of the notorious writers of the later 20thC, whose names figure so prominently amongst the dramatis personae of performance-studies and related 'theoretical writing' of that period, include the term 'intuition' in the index to their published writing. Amongst the cluster of exceptions are Deleuze and Guattari (but not Deleuze alone), Gregory Ulmer, and, more recently, Brian Massumi. Even the excellent Massumi, however, in 2002, lists only three entries for intuition, on pages 112, 134, and 136, where he links intuition in the Bergsonian model to "operative reason", calling intuition a "thinking feeling" – hence nominalising its processes, while conferring 'thing-ness' upon them. I was minded at this point to provide you with an extensive list of those later 20thC writers and texts – not least in Performance Studies – which fail to include intuition in their index, but we don't have all year to do it. In brief, many of the texts which omit intuition from their index pages include, under the letter "i", "iconology", "identity", "ideology", "illness", "image", "imagination", "imaging", "improvisation", "incorporation", "individuality", "informatics", "information", "information theory", "innovation", "insanity", "inscription", "institution", "isotope", "intelligence", "intention", "intentionality", "internet", "interpretation", "interpretative apparatuses", "Irigaray", "iterability" – I could go on, but my head is spinning.

It is in large part on the basis of the evidence of the exclusion/erasure of intuition from/in the index of a majority of published critical-theoretical and cultural-theoretical (and Performance Studies) writers and writings, coupled with my abiding sense that it is often however via the operation of writerly intuitions that these very writings have eventually been brought into published being, that I propose to identify professional intuition as a familiar other of published theoretical writing. I am going to argue, in addition, that the operations of intuition in performance-making, and the site where professional intuitions meet the logics of production, are together emblematic of the key differences between the work of the expert-arts-professional in performance-making and the work in performance of the expert spectator. I have noted elsewhere, for example, that performance-making intuitions cannot be recuperated as such by spectators from the latters' spectatorial contact with the performance event, for the apparently simple reason that where the outcome of expert intuitions is retained by performance-makers, that material is transformed on contact with the logics of production, with the consequence that spectators (can) only see the outcome of that transformation; or the outcome of expert intuitions is discarded. But I am going to add to this knowledge-problematic situation something I hinted at a few moments back, which is my growing sense that it is precisely in the operations of expert intuition, that the writerly habitus might meet the habitus of the expert arts-disciplinary practitioner. They could well dance together, if they could only learn to be more transparent and accountable about all of the processes involved in their different sorts of expertise.

Why this wholesale erasure of intuitive processing and insight, from the dominant post-WWII discourses in critical-theoretical and cultural studies registers? What is "the [writerly] problem", for the dominant critical-theoretical and cultural studies registers of the later 20thC, of expert intuition? Why are intuitive processes only accounted for, even in writing on speculative pragmatism, in terms of an "anteceptive underpinning" or "overflowing", rather than in terms of their role in professional expertise? "Words [and sentences]", in certain registers at least, have largely failed it. That omission is not, however, 'natural'; rather, it is learnt, and, on the evidence, it is learned. Curiously enough, in Bourdieu's 1977 text entitled Outline of a Theory of Practice, which has no index entry for intuition, the index entry "docta ignorantia", on page 244, simply reads "see mastery: practical".

My head, as I loiter in the index pages of a sky-high pile of authoritative texts, each of which is characterised by denial, is spinning. Words fail me – and I can't dance, don't ask me. If I spin around, however, what I might find is that intuition is present as a major 'knowledge-category' in texts relating to three disciplinary fields: the first is professional practice in education (and in nursing training, by the way, where intuition tends however to be feminised, and to be approached within the institutional framework of best practice); the second is in some folds, but not others, of philosophical writing; and the third is in some folds, but not others, of the cognitive neurosciences. Its role is particularly strong in generalising theories of creativity – once again under-represented in Performance Studies in the final years of the 20thC. It appears, in a minor key, in texts like Rudolf Arnheim's 1967 text, Visual Thinking (Univ of California Press) where he distinguished between what he called "intuitive and intellectual cognition".

I have already alluded to the work of Steven Pinker in Psychology and the Cognitive Neurosciences. Interesting enough, to my eye at least, looking from where I do, is the distinction made in many writers in the cognitive neurosciences, between brain and mind. I have been contemplating for some time, over a number of years' work with professional practitioners, my sense that whereas we are in many instances like-minded, and both of us 'researchers', in terms ratified by formal research funding bodies, our professional expertise differs. What's more (setting "Darcey [the body] Bussell" to one side), although that expert practitioner and I may roughly share a "common musculo-skeletal anatomy", we tend to differ first according to "the acquired skills that [the choreographer at least] has learned", even if she no longer expert-dances herself, and second, according to the sites where those acquired skills are lodged and remain accessible.

When Steven Pinker writes, with reference to mind – which I would call a largely-intuited 'knowledge-category' – that "… the mind owes its power to its syntactic, compositional, combinatorial abilities" (Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997:564), he might seem at first glance simply to be using writing as a tool to refer to an already-existing outside of writing. Indeed, he writes with an apparently casual and engaging authority, such that the good Slavoz Zizek has thought to take up Pinker's observation, slightly modifying it in the process, to read, "due to the way it emerged in the course of the evolution, humanity [sic] 'owes its power to its syntactic, compositional, combinatorial abilities'"(5). Both observations, however, from both writers, ontologise; they call into being, and thereby they naturalize – Zizek as though on behalf of humanity – while seeming only to refer. In this particular instance, that calling into being identifies "mind", and/or "humanity", in terms, firstly, of the power of its "syntactic…abilities". Indeed, Pinker compounds this order of mind in which syntactic power takes first place, by carefully adding this: "[o]ur bafflement at the mysteries of the ages may have been the price we have paid for a combinatorial mind that opened up a world of words and sentences"(6).

In arguing that academic writing as institution authorises some of us to ontologise – or to seem to bring into being – what words and sentences might otherwise seem only to refer to, I am practising an "immediate politicisation", through writing, upon writing, and thereby upon that mode of engagement that some of us are authorised to take professionally for granted. The notion that so notorious a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neurosciences at MIT apparently effortlessly ontologises in terms of what I would argue is a largely-intuited "mind", which he then articulates on the basis of his professional-writerly habitus, seems to me to be alarming, for all of those here within these walls, within this institutional set-up, who are expert or professional arts-disciplinary practitioners – not least when the professional writer-educator employs those writerly turns which are both authorised, and seduce. It is alarming, for all of those here who, as arts-disciplinary professionals, have been encouraged, through their careful reading of a whole range of authoritative texts, to qualify their own intuitive practices, mastered in performance-making, with that indice of abjection, 'just' – as in 'just intuitive'.

It may well be precisely on the basis of identifying syntactic man – and 'mind' – in terms of "words and sentences", that Pinker has been able to proceed to identify the "problems of philosophy" in the terms I have already quoted – i.e. "there is something peculiarly holistic and everywhere-at-once and nowhere-at-all and all-at-the-same-time about the problems of philosophy" (564). He might, had he chosen a more specific, modest and local phenomenon, have been writing about certain aspects of spectator-experience of Wooster's To You the Birdie. In so doing, however, he should have had reveal that it is the writerly "words and sentences" habitus, as well as the limitations of writing, that together have the greatest difficulty in imagining the performance-making processes at work in that production; that must proceed, then, for the lack of an understanding of the expert arts-practitioner habitus, to attempt "…to imagine a theory that could explain how it happens, a theory that would place the phenomenon as an effect of some cause, any cause". Words fail me.

Part III: "And if we were all Robert Wilson?"

There are professional researchers in places like these, especially where there are well-resourced and research-focused arts centres, who would like to look inside Darcey Bussell's head, not when she is engaged in her everyday being (which tends to fascinate the tabloids), but while she is dancing professionally before expert spectators, and/or watching other expert dancers at work. Some of you will have caught a short article in the Guardian, some months back, which reported the outcome of a research undertaking by a group of cognitive neuroscientsts attached to the Royal Opera House. These researchers would seem to me to have, to some extent at least, bypassed some of the highly metaphoric writing of Pinker's intuited "mind". In proceeding instead via fMRI (functional magnetic resonance) imaging, they have begun to provide some insight into arts-professional expertise, into how an expert practitioner theory of knowledge might operate, and what sorts of connectivities constituting "process threads" (Massumi) might be activated and engaged in the sorts of options for decision-making which apply in expert-dance practice. They have, in so doing, reproblematised certain discursive formulations, and undermined, in particular, that "body turn" popularised over past decades in the discourses of Dance Studies:

"Dancers always talk about 'body memory'; they have learned to do something 'in their bodies'," said Daniel Glaser, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. "But that is nonsense. They learn it in their brains, the bits of the brain that control their movement."

They report in the online journal Cerebral Cortex today that when the experts watched movements they knew well, functional magnetic resonance imaging detected greater activity in the brain's pre motor cortex and intraparietal sulcus, the right superior parietal lobe and the left posterior temporal sulcus.

These movement-control areas of the brain store unconscious fluid movements, of the kind carried out by dancers, golfers and athletes, by means of what scientists call a mirror system.(7)

What I want to do in the time remaining is not so much to draw your attention to the detail of this sort of research undertaking, as to fold over it some examples of what is conventionally identified as "theoretical writing", looking in addition at the wording of certain everyday understandings, in order to suggest that given the state in the 1970s, in Europe, of brain studies when Bourdieu developed the notion of habitus, he may well have been constrained to intuit it, proceeding then to word it in compact and intensified terms, via his recourse to that ancient rhetorical strategy (or "turn") which is called hypotyposis(8) – a vivid sketch of symbolic or schematic function, on whose basis spectators or readers infer and expand a complex 'world' of human experience – which, thus, need not otherwise have been represented by the practitioner concerned; but whose production, as a consequence, is user-specific, rather than source-specified.

My suggestion is that in so doing – much as did Jameson in the early 1990s when he put forward the notion of "cognitive mapping" (in terms of "a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society's structures as a whole"(9); for Jameson "cognitive mapping," would be linked to "that mental map of the social and global totality we all carry around in our heads in variously garbled forms" (my emphasis)) – these writers have operated at the interface where "words and sentences" are brought in, by the theoretician as creative writer, to attempt to conjure into being, to explicitly political ends, an already-existing imaginary mechanism, which the writer has sensed as a means to deal a particular conception of the "something peculiarly holistic and everywhere-at-once and nowhere-at-all and all-at-the-same-time" which we saw earlier in Pinker.

When, by way of contrast, Robert Wilson, or Simon McBurney, or Ariane Mnouchkine or Peter Brook call into being imaginary mechanisms to enable them to seem to deal with that "something peculiarly holistic and everywhere-at-once and nowhere-at-all and all-at-the-same-time", and proceed in so doing to "make [the] breakthrough in possible knowledge" peculiar to the expert metteur en scene or choreographer, I am arguing that they tend to do so in multi-participant and multi-dimensional manner; and to the extent that their work requires creative collaborations, they also systematically engage in it tentatively and speculatively, in terms of affective investment, and teleoaffectively. The constraint of Pinker's "words and sentences", of the syntactic mind, does not, on the evidence I have discovered, apply.

They choose intensified live "sense events", shot through with the impact of contingency, in place of Pinker's relatively controlled textualisation. To the extent that their multi-participant practices and multi-dimensional schematics, their aspirations as well as their affective investments are grounded by being brought into productive interface with the logics of theatre or performance production, they tend, as far as I can tell, to operate in highly pragmatic terms. That is, of the sort noted by Deleuze in his 1970 reconfiguration of Spinoza's Ethics, which operate not so much on a transcendental scale (the theological illusion), but in terms of relative and perspectival good and bad assessments. Not so much "as a compromise with idealism", as Zizek has pointed out on behalf of Deleuze and Badiou, "but [as] a necessary thesis of a true materialism" (Zizek, 2004 on Deleuze and Badiou).

The published outcome of the first set of experiments, entitled "Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers" was written by B. Calvo-Merino, D.E. Glaser, J. Grezes, R.E. Passingham and P. Haggard.(10) These writers have grounded their enquiry in brain imaging and its interpretation, rather than in the intuited field of "mind", preferred by Steven Pinker; and where the latter generalises, on behalf of "mind", Calvo-Merino et al have taken observational activities in the highly particular context of professional expertise in dance as the preferred focus for functional magnetic resonance imaging. They start apparently simply:"When we watch someone performing an action, our brains may simulate performance of the action we observe", but the word-terrain they have to cross is immediately experienced as hazardous, as the following three indices suggest: "[t]his simulation process could underpin sophisticated mental functions…". The speculative mode continues, as soon as naming and predication come into play: "the human mirror system", involved in observation, "might be sensitive to the degree of correspondence between the observed action and the motor capability of the observer" (1).

They are hedging their bets, here, possibly because of their awareness of the sort of argument put forward by Joseph Dumit in his Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity ( 2004), that "in the case of mental activity and brain-types, there is no…calibration" (4-5) between these two, such as one might find when a PET (positron emission tomographic) scan of the human heart is tested against a surgical investigation of the heart. In other words, there no easy correspondence identifiable between site or connectivity of brain activity imaged, and what many of us readily persist in calling the workings of the unconscious; nor does it seem to be the case that there is a spatially corresponding brain activity at work when we advise our students that their research needs greater "depth". These metaphors are thus exposed as having been inventive, before they became banal.

The sorts of conclusions the fMRI imaging allow, nonetheless, run along the lines that when as expert writer-educator I go to the ballet with Darcey Bussell (or, why not, to the Riverside with Liz LeCompte), and think that we are watching 'the same show', Darcey Bussell's brain and mine are quite differently activated, each on the basis of the impact our different expertise has made on, and then be further facilitated by, the brain. We not only 'see something singularly different' – and in Rosemary Butcher this difference would be multi-dimensional and multi-schematic – but we engage differently with it; and if asked to respond to it, would in all likelihood choose quite different modes of secondary production: I would be limited by "words and sentences" to engage with it, whereas that limitation would only be encountered by Rosemary Butcher were she obliged to respond verbally in a university seminar context.

What this experiment also concerned itself with, then, was the question of "whether a person's action observation system is precisely tuned to his or her individual motor repertoire". They hypothesised that "each person's motor repertoire is constrained not only by common musculo-skeletal anatomy, but also by the acquired skills that person has learned", enabling me to suppose firstly that habitus is not merely a matter of difference in class, but may well be internally-differentiated, within a cultural group, on the basis of a long-acquired perceiver-expertise. (You will recall that for Bourdieu, habitus is "laid down in each [of us] by his [or her] earliest upbringing" (81), and will be linked to "the dispositions of those whose aspirations and world-view they express".)

This group of researchers identified what they term "expertise effects" activated and imaged in quite specific parts of professional dancers' brains, noting in addition however "a second set of [brain] areas influenced by expertise" which had not formed part of the initial hypotheses for the study. These were areas of brain activity noted elsewhere to relate "to emotional experience"(6). The "activation in the ventromedial frontal cortex", when a professional dancer watches other professionals at work in dance, they found, as though incidentally, showed "strong responses to pleasurable and rewarding stimuli", linked to expert choices taken; other researchers, they add, have also linked these sites to the operation of "social judgement and the regulation of social behaviour". Furthermore "cingulate, retrosplenial and parahippocampal activation", shown in experts' watching other experts at work, was noted in the study to be "also consistent with these areas' role in episodic memory". Posterior cingulate activation was linked by the writers to "imagery and episodic recall from long-term storage of allocentric information maintained in other areas of the brain" (6).

In other words, these researchers working with fMRI imaging have mapped out observations, relating to a specific group of expert practitioners, which begin to allow us to observe a degree of empirical fit with Bourdieu's schooled 1970s intuiting of habitus; but they have equally mapped out, as operating in the quite specific relational set-up where expert dancers watch other expert dancers at work, sites and patterns of brain activity which correspond to some extent to Jameson's intuited "cognitive mapping", in 1991, in terms of "a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society's structures as a whole" (Postmodernism 1991, 51). You will be aware, perhaps, that Jameson's own agenda at the time meant that he sought to expand the notion to include the implication that we have a larger mental map of our world, which might be likened to Althusser's formulation of idealogy as "the Imaginary representation of the subject's relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence". 'Brain', as such, did not seem to come into the picture.

Jameson's conclusion published more recently was that "the incapacity to map socially is as crippling to political experience as the analogous incapacity to map spatially is for urban experience. It follows that an aesthetic of cognitive mapping in this sense is an integral part of any socialist political project" (163). I want to reword Jameson, before I end, to read like this: "the incapacity to recognise that others operate intellectually, on the basis of expert intuitions, without the need of writing, is as crippling to a politics of performer expertise in the university, as the analogous incapacity to map spatially is for urban experience".

My own question, on the basis of this reported experiment was this: if expert dancer-practitioner observation reaches and activates parts of the practitioner brain that are not reached or activated when expert spectators view the same expert performance practices, on the basis of what sorts of emergent connectivities, what sorts of brain actions and interactions, does the particular expertise of the signature practitioner-choreographer start to appear – not least if it is the case that Rosemary Butcher seems to be able, in the studio, to see what the expert performer is doing from all other sides of the space at the same time, as well as from mine; to judge not just what is done but what will work in terms of the discipline as it has established itself; what will challenge it while articulating it, but also: precisely how to enable the dancer to reach something like that idealised plan? For some reason, this group of neuroscientists would seem to have been unable to persuade ten professional choreographers to participate in their study.

My sense has long been that the expert performance-maker, in the most interesting of signature cases, activates, interweaves, juggles, shuffles and modulates a range of largely intuited notions, significantly including the affective and teleoaffective, submitting them progressively and necessarily to sets of material dispositifs inhering to disciplinary fields of practice. I sense that expert signature practitioners, in the performance-making, intuit, incorporate (bringing differance into the equation), and intensify, while stabilising and submitting the actional materials involved to the logics of professional production. One of those professional production logics – perhaps this will seem strange to some readers – entails the multiple, micro- and macro-level operations of judgement, the ethical negotiations, which inform (generally in other-than-discursive or oral modes), all performance-making decisions, for one or another audience. But since I, similarly, have not yet been approached by neuro-cognitive researchers in the context of imaging the brain sites and activities involved in this sort of act of reflection and writing-production, if you were to ask for greater proofs for my speculations, then I should be obliged to end where I began: words fail me.


1. P Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. R Nice, Cambridge University Press, 1977

2. S Pinker, How The Mind Works, Penguin Books, 1997

3. S Pinker, ibid

4. S. Rosenthal, Speculative Pragmatism, University of Massachusetts Press, 1986

5. S Zizek, Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge, 2004, pp 140-1

6. S Pinker, op cit, p 565, my emphasis

7. T Radford, "Why only dancers can do a mental pirouette", the Guardian, Dec 2004

8. P de Man, in On Metaphor, ed Sheldon Sacks, University of Chicago Press, 1979

9. F Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1991, p 51

10. B. Calvo-Merino, D.E. Glaser, J. Grezes, R.E. Passingham and P. Haggard, "Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers" in Cerebral Cortex, Oxford University Press, 2004

Background image from Tryst, Dancers: Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope, (Royal Opera House), Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon, Music © James Macmillan 1990, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Video production copyright © ARTE 2002, Broadcast on BBC4, 2003.

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Page last updated 28th February 2019.