Body Lies

Body Lies

in Combinatorial Practicum, incomplete sequence


Choreographer Jerome Bell, in his interview with Gerald Siegmund in 2002, seemed to define a lie of the body as the inauthenticity produced in it through its subjection to constructed human contexts. In other words, bodies are socialized and institutionalized in schools, jobs, families, and are rendered inauthentic long before choreographers prescribe dance movements for them.

In his interview he said:

A choreographer who shall remain nameless said: ‘The body does not lie.’ Such a remark is based on that disgusting old modernist myth bogged down in Judeo-Christianity. The body is not the sanctuary of truth, authenticity or uniqueness. It is deeply subjugated to culture, politics, and history.


Decades prior, so said the modernist choreographer Martha Graham:

“The body never lies.”


In the 1950s, Mary Starks Whitehouse developed Authentic Movement, thereby bringing together her work as a Jungian psychotherapist and Graham-based modern dancer. Describing Authentic Movement, Whitehouse said that “When the movement was simple and inevitable, not to be changed no matter how limited or partial, it became what I called ‘authentic’ – it could be recognized as genuine, belonging to that person.” She sought to accomplish this by devising a protocol for performance and observation that placed movers and witnesses in pairs. The witness, like the dancer, practiced embodied, non-judgmental self-observation. Implicit in her work is the idea that the body lies when it seeks to project certain information, and its inauthenticity is driven by the assumption that any witness is also a judge. Whitehouse sought to isolate movement from the burdens of social self-presentation, replacing the performer intents and audience interpretations with a practice of “the sensation of moving and being moved.” 


“No to moving and being moved.” So ends Yvonne Rainer’s famous 1965 No Manifesto, “move or be moved by some thing rather than oneself,” she writes a year later in her essay A Quasi-Survey of Some Minimalist Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A, continuing in the essay by saying, “I am interested in finding solutions primarily in the area of moving oneself, however many excursions I have made into pure and not-so-pure thing-moving” (33). Yvonne Rainer and her contemporaries within Judson Dance Theater sought what she called “a neutral doer.” Rainer presented a statement for her 1968 work THE MIND IS A MUSCLE, concluding that “if my rage at the impoverishment of ideas, narcissism, and disguised sexual exhibitionism of most dancing can be considered puritan moralizing, it is also true that I love the body – its actual weight, mass, and unenhanced physicality.”


On page 73 of The Logic of Practice (1980) Pierre Bourdieu states the following:

The body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief. It does not represent what it performs, it does not memorize the past, it enacts the past, bringing it back to life. What is ‘learned by body’ is not something that one has, like knowledge that can be brandished, but something that one is. This is particularly clear in non-literate societies, where inherited knowledge can only survive in the incorporated state. It is never detached from the body that bears it and can be reconstituted only by means of a kind of gymnastics designed to evoke it, a mimesis which, as Plato observed, implies total investment and deep emotional identification.

Through this idea, Bourdieu theorized habitus as processes of inscription that embeds society into the very physicality of its participants. And yet, in his text addressing sociological craft, Bourdieu plants the work of the sociologist firmly within the terms of language and seeks sociological transcendence therefore in the great hope that sociologists could mean something by meaning what they say. Thus transcending jargons, “ordinary language” and retrofitted/metaphorical terminology, the work of sociologists would have a chance at epistemological vigilance.

However, because the body, as Bourdieu theorizes, is a receptacle for inherited knowledges, it follows that the problems with sociological clarity not only arise from linguistic constructions, but from the socialized inscription of such knowledges over the generations of sociologists who believe their play at reading and writing about the play of others at culture. Sociology is itself a culture, each sociologist carries the inherited knowledge of sociology in and through the physical practice of reading, and sociology’s literary corpus depends on being carried forth by each actual, literal corpus of each acting sociologist.


In his writing on the dancing mania of Strasbourg in his work On Invisible Diseases, the 16th century physician, mystic, and alchemist Paracelsus wrote of the St Vitus Dancers that, it was “as if they [the sufferers] were trying to say: ‘if God is not willing to perform signs through us, then we will do them ourselves.’” Paracelsus identified the dance as self-induced disease — as a sickly state manifested by bodily action. Invisible diseases were for Paracelsus those manifested by the perversion of faith. In his work, he sought to reorient the whole of Reformist iconoclastic angst toward what he saw as a massive problem of faith produced by the power of embodied practices that reinforced false belief through physical and experiential expression (aka, performance). Thus, Paracelsus’s approach to the religious debates refocused away from paintings, murals, stained glass, and other such objects. He looked instead toward the performativity of body.


In 1725, Giambattista Vico wrote a description in his book New Science of how philosophers might likewise self-induce deception through their bodies not by enacting the works of God, but by acting as if the world were made in their own image:

for when man understands he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand he makes the things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them.


In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” His words resonate at the heart of Christian evangelism, and they speak ever so strangely of a religious ethic that might allow the performance of any act — not in reflection of the truth of the doer’s faith — but to incite Christian sentiment in others.


Jerome Bell’s description of the “myth bogged down in Judeo-Christianity” of the body as a “sanctuary of truth, authenticity or uniqueness” has, at best, existed always alongside its inverse. History is full to the brim with thousands of years of evidence that Judeo-Christian thinkers perceived the body akin to Bel: as “deeply subjugated to culture, politics, and history.” The rise of the Enlightenment wasn’t a mere search toward clear methods of scientific inquiry, in part, through secularization. Even after the Enlightenment, science remains ideologically indebted to a long history of religious suspicion of the body.


And yet, no scientist operates without a body.


Somewhere on the planet, a physiologist is dissecting a body in a cadaver lab. She reaches out through the simple spontaneity of physiology, with her arm, instrument in hand, to touch the arm of the body she dissects. In that moment, the facility of the body is put to use to find something true of another body. It can never be the case that the body of the investigator be extracted from its spontaneous, embodied knowledge in order to dissect the clues of spontaneous, embodied knowledge left over in the cadaver on the table. The physiologist who studies embodiment is never immune to the subjectivity of embodiment. The primary difference between her own body and the one on the table is the fact that she is alive and it is not. This is why she does her work and this is how she will do it: through the deadfulness of her subject – in other words – through its subjectivity rendered not objective but into the status of an object. In such a case, the body that lies, lies on a table, and lies of nothing else.

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