“I salute the birth of the future community of International Love.”
— Isadora Duncan
“I fight the world, I fight you, I fight myself
I fight God, just tell me how many burdens left
I fight pain and hurricanes, today I wept
I'm tryna fight back tears, flood on my doorsteps”
— Kendrick Lamar & Abel Abraham Tesfaye, “Pray for me”
Liberation For All and/or Dispossession of the Future.
Isadora Duncan’s motto sans limites makes her now one of the most radical and also dubious of the modern prophets. However, her idea that dance and liberation could be, as they already had been in human history, intertwined to bring back the body as a place for revolution and the renewal of life, history, and society, should be looked at through the lens of the possibilities that it purports to set forth. Maybe the revolutionists can never see the limits of their visions. But here we are, looking at the ruptures of their work’s tissue. Maybe we can discover something that would change the way we dance, and, through that, necessarily the way we are in the world of today.
“Duncan was naive enough to believe in revolution without ideology. To her, communism was a renewal of democracy without greed and villainy and class injustice of capitalism.”
— Ann Daly, “Done Into Dance. Isadora Duncan in America”
She was maybe amused by the old Athenian idea of democracy as the rule of people, yet she forgot that this very idea of a just society was there belonging only to one class of people—”citizens”—and that it excluded women, children, enslaved people and foreigners from voting. That exclusion was perhaps motivated by an antique and yet seemingly ever-present belief that there must be no true equality between people as we are not free in the same way, that we are already born into different types of being free and some of us must necessarily stay less free and less valued than others (see: slavery).
I propose to read Duncan’s theory of dance as the revolutionary text and political project that can be today re-read along with other archaic theorists like Marx, Nietzsche or Hegel. With the aspiration to “emancipate” her very project of liberation from its own limitations, I wish to to see her through the school of thought that might challenge her claims about universality as spoken from the position of an identity that today may be crumbling. Yet there seem to be multiple projects to resurrect or settle with those exclusionary notions of identity.
The claim about universality of dance must be necessarily challenged as it is based on the idea that what we value and aspire to must also be accepted, reproduced and worshipped worldwide. The history of dance as it is being told is often limited mostly to that solipsistic sentiment of European art and academia. And maybe there is nothing wrong with that, but we must check in and see how ideologies of supremacy and beauty of Western form and thought endlessly reproduced by Western artists have not moved us anywhere from that old exclusionary politics of self-construction and self-realization.
In the introduction to the book, “Critique of the Black Reason,” Achilles Mbembe writes about the shift in which Europe is no longer the world’s center of gravity. European identity must be nowadays confronted not only with its imperial, colonial history but with the ongoing arrival of people who rely with their lives on support from the European states, while Europe seems to be an increasingly hostile and fascist place where those people (refugees as we call them) are no longer welcome. Yet those people’s dignity and livelihood are now in hands of those states that manage both wars in foreign lands and the organization and distribution of resources for those who fled their countries to have any future, and we just don’t want to share. Italy first, Poland first, Brexit, closing or burning of refugee camps, fascist marches, art about refugees, America First ( and Foremost), the Nukes, the collapse of the world. White people before other people, rich before poor, ours before theirs.
“...throughout its history, European thought has tended to conceive of identity less in terms of mutual belonging (cobelonging) to a common world than in terms of a relation between similar beings—of being itself emerging and manifesting itself in its own state, or its own mirror.”
— Achilles Mbembe, “Critique of the Black Reason”
Franco Berardi talks about the comeback of the old story—of the radical ideological tendencies across Europe and United States as the white working classes support the political descendants of Mussolini and Hitler due to the precarity of their jobs, families and lives.The rise of fascism is fueled by the disappearance of the possibility of hope, the corruption of democracies and sense of humiliation that calls for the “impossible victory” that most probably, as Berardi says, will destroy the world. The rise of white warriors brings the concept of “white race” as one of the most violent ideological forces of our times and takes us back to the long history of exclusion and extermination of the world that we do not see.
We live in times in which we cannot morally afford remaining blind to our structures of beliefs and privileges. We need the revolution of thinking that will be manifested through reorganization of ideas, values and redistribution of power. We must understand the foundations of our identities and the ideological underscore of our lives to arrive at the full understanding of what autonomy and co-habitation mean. We must stop producing weapons to secure our future at the expense of people who are invisible, made so non-valuable, to us. We must dissociate from the fear of not being the one that wins, and help each other to abolish the systems that impoverish us and make us compete for survival.
Berardi claims that Europeans will never be able to repay moral debt of what the 500 years of the white civilisation imperialism has done to non-white people. The growing precarity of the European workers and the weakening of democracies open the door, once again, to the revival of the national or pan-national racialized myths that celebrate dignity and supremacy of the white achievements, and resurrect some old heroes.
The path from the adoration of “purity” and “beauty” of white European civilization to the theories of racial hygiene can be surprisingly short. But that puritan dream of the upper classes defines their utopian vision, which is limited to co-existence of only those who can be recognized as similar, as being of (supposedly) the same "origin".
“Plato in his “Republic” recognized that music is life and beauty... But we should not have so much of the other kind—the ragtime, the trivial foolish jingles which are heard so much in America. Such music is disease and death, whereas that of Beethoven and Chopin and Schumann is life itself.
—Isadora Duncan, “Music and Dance”
For this ongoing procession of the old ideas in new forms to be disrupted, we need new goals and new heroes.
Isadora Duncan’s distaste for “negro dances” and the “savagery” of the jazz rhythms and popular dances like the Charleston, which she saw after her return to the US during wartime, shows her failure to live a truly revolutionary liberation project. The freedom of expression wasn’t there to be exercised by all dancing bodies, as some expressions seemed to her “vulgar” by their very nature. Her travelling through the states of whiteness of the American upper classes and European traditions of noble art and life left her unable to welcome the rupture in that solid puritan identity. Though she fought American puritanism on her own terms, she was herself trapped by the lack of knowledge and incapacity to receive any dancing body that was shaped by history and struggle other than her own.
Her post-war comeback to Europe was marked by perhaps more radical and socially critical approaches to art making, but the working classes of Russia, whose children she wanted to teach, needed bread and shelter before they needed her dance. And the government that she had praised as “the only one that cares for its children”, dispossessed the citizens of resources rather than redistributing them. The dance of liberation dies slowly when bodies are abandoned to starvation or deprived of rights.
Who needs a hero?
“Perhaps I’m becoming a Bolshevik. But all my life I have wanted to teach children, to have free schools and a free theatre. America rejected this, but there they still have child labor, and only the rich can see the opera, and beauty is commercialized by theatre managers and motion picture magnates. All they want is money, money, money.”
—Isadora Duncan, “I will go to Russia”
Duncan’s moving to Russia was apparently the only option she had at that moment of her career to try yet again to work on her utopian project. Her disengagement with politics made her perhaps overlook that the ideological radicalism and its enactment through politics was depriving people of food, education and freedom. And the liberated art could not save them all from the misery of life under the newly emerging regime. There was hope though, we could imagine, after World War I and the end of October 1917— with the emergence of ideas for a different organization of society and capital, the promise of a future was present at the ruins of post-war, post-aristocratic Europe.
Today, Berardi talks about yet another “apocalypse of Europe”—to propose an alternative to American capitalist imperialism seems to be ever more difficult as we all live on the borrowed ideas ( that are given to us as political anglo-american solutions to global problems yet seem to perpetrate the very destruction of the world) and are more than ever dependent on the speculative global market. It seems like we arrived to the moment where value is increasingly a matter of speculation in hands of the relatively small group of people who do not consider the future to be necessarily a global common. That can be privatized too.
The governments now are more keen on discussing democracy based on the “right” to private gun possession rather than a right to free healthcare and education. Rather arm people than feed them. Rather make people compete for their lives than introduce the reforms of thinking that would erase hostility and bring end to fear politics.
We might be talking about the utopia but at the same time wonder how the utopia of someone else is already constructed and lived, but on our expense, being NOT for us. What kind of alternatives do we have? How to we propose the New that the world needs?
“Despite all its rhetorics of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new.”
—Mark Fisher, “Ghosts of my Life”
The prospects of artists to stand against the system that defines their realm of work are bleak. In “The Privatisation of Hope”, Ronald Aronson points out that we do not know how to afford taking over, after generations of emancipatory movements, the task of reforming the reality in the present moment—when hope is becoming privatised and the supremacy of the individual “weakens collective capacities to solve collective problems”.
In aspiring for a better/different governing system of the art world that stands on the side of supporting art production and regulating the conditions of work for the artists, we as artists must ask ourselves to which audiences we address our work and what social concerns inspire our work in a world that, to the most of its population, is on a daily basis a non-liveable, heavily precarious or already gone place, the world in disarray.
If the ultimate product of contemporary art must still reflect the good taste of the aspiring receivers of that art so it can be then monetized and transformed into the confirmation of belonging to certain economic/intellectual classes— how do we as artists breach that production of value and resist the very monetization of meaning?
In a world that seems to be calling for action, can we refuse to work (what work?)? And in that refusal, is there space for solidarity and for collective action?
Jock Young in his book “Vertigo of Late Modernity” writes:
“We have a process which i likened to bulimia of the social system: a society which choruses the liberal mantra of liberty, equality and fraternity yet systematically in the job market, on the streets, in the day-to-day contacts with the outside world, practices exclusion. It brands as ‘losers’ those who had learnt to believe that the world consisted of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.”
On one hand we deal with the capitalist absolutism—the alternative modes of production and social organization shrunk over the last few decades making space for the ever expanding global capitalism that monetizes the time and lives of the whole planet while speculating on the arrival of technologies that will sooner or later make our lives surplus, and we will join those who have already been rendered invisible and marked as “losers” in the global race for power and capital. The outcasts. Then there comes the call for solidarity which in the context of westernized art making is, let’s say, yet another way to provide often provisional and still marketable products of social engagement that we can decide to read or approach from the safe distance of formalist critique.
The extinction of lives, and the apocalypse of ideas and of the society at large can feed our creative imaginations but it does so only in the frame of the already predetermined working narratives in which we are no more than slaves of the dream of progress and accumulation while the time is up for the world anyway and only those who got there to the top will enter the next phase of celebration and of somehow, the future. Many of us are already living in the past, are erased from the discussion on contemporary and more importantly, from the discussion of the world’s future. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman claims that we live in the times of an absolutely unprecedented crisis of humanity; the competition for space, resources and power destroyed the fabric of the society on a global scale. Franco Berardi talks about “the slow cancellation of the future” - recalling the early punk slogans of “no future” he follows the development of the hyper-individualist, Apple produced societies that participate in the system that makes the world gradually unliveable for most of the people, in which not only work became reduced to the means of generating the financial value but all the human activity including love, friendship and creativity got entangled with the utilitarian notions of commodity and profit.
“Tell me who's gon' save me from myself (...)
Mass destruction and mass corruption
The souls are sufferin' men
Clutchin' on deaf ears again, rapture is comin'
It's all prophecy and if I gotta be sacrificed for the greater good, then that's what it gotta be.”
—Kendrick Lamar & Abel Abraham Tesfaye, “Pray for me”
How do we fight that? How do we find ways of engaging with the world that transcend the realm of self-fulfilment, so that we can unlock the ideas of commons and of the communal and can discuss the notion of solidarity in the context of our emancipatory practices and their cultural impact? The hegemony of the individual success over the thriving of communities shows itself in our inability to be in one place and engage locally with a recognition of the struggles—we live off distraction and existential fluidity.
“There are no more workers as such. There are only laboring nomads. If yesterday’s drama of the subject was exploitation by capital, the tragedy of the multitude today is that they are unable to be exploited at all. They are abandoned subjects, relegated to the role of ‘superfluous humanity’.”
—Achilles Mbembe, “Critique of the Black Reason”
The work market is everywhere and we follow the opportunity with our suitcases, giving up the sense of belonging and of security for the sake of participation in the cosmopolitan village of art/ global capitalism. Yet, as Bauman emphasizes, we have not yet arrived at the point of “cosmopolitan consciousness”—we do not know how to deal with the complexity of the world (and the Other) and how to exit the system that brings the world closer only in order to feed on its exploitable body. We are enslaved by capitalism to the point in which any refusal to work or to participate means death. There is no life outside of waged work; we live in the times in which employment means survival in a literal sense. The valuing of the individual in terms of their utility within the production system creates a world in which we do not have any time to change anything. We are led to think we cannot change anything at all, as many of us, yes, struggle to comprehend how we ended up in such a state of insecurity, in which competition followed by a need for self-creation, rather than solidarity, is the strategy for construction of the social.
The ideological prevalence of neo-liberal capitalism is marking now a moment in history in which we must acknowledge the inescapability of the apocalypse that comes with it.
The blossoming of the art production will have its end too as we, already now, cannot imagine ourselves working on the projective horizon for the decades to come. The collapse of democracies and of state economies will bring the end to funding in general and without funding we can be left to starve as we failed to generate the field of activity that is sustainable outside of the for-profit system. The culture of protest and strike has gradually disappeared, as the master narrative of cultural production is rather one of the necessity of producing value, and is trapped in a paradigm of pleasure and beauty that does not welcome the actual disruption. We acquired the taste and the language, and the knowledge, to narrate the world’s disaster and show it to our fellows as something that will hopefully bring some fame. As being an artist is inseparable from the notion of waged work, and the notion of visibility of the author based on their appeal to the ideology of our times, we must be ready to refuse to work and to also refuse the existential anxiety that will come with both saying ‘no’ and acting on the ‘no’.
“Finally, self realisation, the notion of constructing one’s own destiny and narrative, become a dominant ideal. There is overall, a sense of detachment from the taken for granted social setting and with it an awareness of a situation of choice and freedom. So that which was once experienced as a thing—monumental and independent of human artifice—becomes de-reified and the social construction of reality is glimpsed particularly poignantly in everyday life, especially alarmingly at moments of personal crisis or sudden change.”
—Jock Young, “The Vertigo of Late Modernity”
The promise, and an obligation, to well-doing, well-being, etc. has become a suicidal drive of the whole system that can see only what’s in front of it and denies the cost of the acceleration that it produces. We are not doing well at all and unfortunately social media activism and yoga classes are not sufficient enough to make things better. Pity. However, we could also imagine how great it would be to change something, to transform our given powerlessness into a potency, into the organization of the masses for the sake of the collective future. We must dream big and stay alert to how and in whose interests our freedoms are shaped.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.”
—Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”
How do we dissociate from the overarching practice of looking at ourselves so that it can become a self-reflection placed outside of the self in an act of care for the common good, outside of immediate personal gain? Here Slavoj Zizek has something to say about the freedom and the predetermination of our choices:
“True freedom is looking into and questioning the presuppositions of everything that is given to us by our hegemonic ideology, to question everything including the notion of freedom itself.”
We are then always necessarily making our choices from the pool of ideologically well-curated possibilities. The interests of the curating party might remain obscure to us but they shape our desires and decisions. And when there emerges a discomfort with what is presented to us we might be already nearly drowned in the complexity of what we think we have chosen for ourselves. Yet it was chosen for us. We were shot into the sun, but yea, as always, our wings have melted and we are now in the water—drowning. People watching from the distance.
Isadora Duncan claimed that art should be more powerful than governments.
The political task of dance could be a dissolution of the production-oriented field of pleasurable experiences for the sake of growth of the bodily practices and discourses that would have cultural impact while engaging with the fields of philosophy, social activism and academic infrastructure. Thus, dance could bring the reform of how society works and how it is (or is not) regulated. Dance participates in the systems of production of capital (and meaning), it reflects the contemporary structuring of the work market and the workers it produces are tied to participation in the consumption of goods and the performance of the social/economic class. The disruption of the ongoing conditioning of lives will not, perhaps, come from an institutional body that is a product of the neoliberal state dependent on the capitalist market. As much as those institutions and states are shaken by the ongoing struggle and war, they stay engaged in the production of capital and national/ regional wealth rather than lets say… saving the world from the seemingly unavoidable yet politically constructed disappearance of life, or providing hope for those who survive. We cannot escape the world as it is coming at us. As Berardi mentions in a conversation on his book “Heroes. Mass murder and suicide”, not only are our lives ever more precarious, but the whole world is in crisis and the despair can be present even in the happiness and the immediate satisfaction of the present—the immobilizing fear of world collapse comes right at us and we are fed some bleak imaginations of the sci-fi utopias of the rich. None of us will be rich though, as the future we are driving toward can exhaust the majority of the population, deprive them either of homes, job, dignity or life.
“Place your hands as i do on your heart, listen to your soul, and all of you will know how to dance as well as I or my pupils do. There is the true revolution. Let the people place their hands in this way on their hearts, and in listening to their souls they will know how to conduct themselves.”
Isadora Duncan’s dream of the dance revolution called for the revolution of hearts and was necessarily based on the yearning for freedom and the proclamation of the Future. Her very project was founded on the recognition of the imprisonment of bodies and minds, and the imagination of the subject who will manage to overcome their given condition and become free.
“Ever since her first interview with the New York Times in 1898, she had underscored the social import of her dancing. It could not be divorced from life: it was about life, a part of life, a way of improving life.”
—Ann Daly, “Done Into Dance”
To exercise it in the context of the present historical moment we should perhaps ask what freedoms do we want and what freedoms are we living?
Futurability of the present moment must fuel the transformation of lives through the transformation of the systems. We must dare to look beyond the horizon of possibilities that are presented to us, we must check in with the reality and gradually emancipate from the bullshit. But we must hope for the emancipation of all—the new equitable utopia must challenge that seemingly inevitable exclusion and be a test space where perhaps Baumaninan “cosmopolitan consciousness” can mark the true progress of how we live and how we care.
“Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.
If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
—James Baldwin, “An open letter to my sister, Miss Angela Davis”