Moments with Sara Shelton Mann, “Once in California…” August 2018

This weekend at Dock 11 in Berlin, Sara Shelton Mann and friends. The program entitled “Once in California…”

Once in California, almost a decade ago, a friend of mine introduced me to Contact Improvisation. Back then, my friend was in a workshop with Sara Shelton Mann. Following my friend into the dance scene, into body-mind practice, I became acquainted with something I must always have been in touch with: myself and therefore the world. Many years later, this is  becoming familiar. A striking confession, coming from a purported philosopher.

This weekend is thick with nostalgia, but I can’t grasp the home I long for. Around 2010, when I first began to observe dance from a self-imposed exile at its periphery, it was about the Zero Point. This was the title of Sara Shelton Mann’s alchemy then, for which I was present, in California.

What I feel when I’m in this space with Sara – it’s as big as a warehouse – is that I’m family. But there is neither inside nor outside this family. This is the perennial family.

Everyone calls Sara, Sara. There’s no artifice here. But now that I’m writing, far from the relieving certitude of presence, I vacillate between the familiar and the formal, second-guessing. In the neither inside space nor outside space opened by the performance, this partition was lifted. There was a resulting ease: just speaking a language that is not distance.

When someone is at rest in movement and in movement at rest, artificial boundaries dissolve. It is the openness of presence, the magic of reality. Openness is an inaccurate description, liable to cause confusion. For me, Sara is neither closed nor open. This duality is dissolved in the achievement of renewed integration. Her presence is momentous: it is simply of the Moment.

“Have you seen Kira?” Sara asks familiarly, brushing past me on the sidewalk. I’ve neither been introduced to Sara nor do I know Kira Kirsch. I am being treated as part of the world, this harmony that is free from imposition. I am here and the world is addressing me. For me, this is another pang of homecoming. I am deeply touched – by anybody. (“Sara” cannot know that I was briefly introduced to Kira many years ago, before she stepped onto a stage to dance a breathtaking duet inside an illuminated circle, at whose periphery I was, tiptoeing in the dark, creating ambient sounds with kitchen utensils and a flute, somewhere at the edge of the world).

To give in to what we already know. Strange that we should take pains to ignore what we know. This willful ignorance is pain itself.

Chatting with friends outside, I say that Kira moves with some grace. A friend corrects me: her movements are primal. She moves, then, with primal grace: that ease of movement, recovered, which is our birthright – but which is only her own. “Primal” means simply “one,” the beginning. Kira studies and teachers human movement, the Axis Syllabus. The exertion required to shed our accumulated encumbrances can’t be exertion, if we are born with primal grace. It is, in this regard, similar to the paradox of original enlightenment. I will shed these accumulations that are foreign to me, finally becoming nobody, only so that I can become myself.

It is also the paradox of yoga, that rigorous discipline which, in the end – which becomes a beginning – leads to complete spontaneity. If disciplined spontaneity or spontaneous discipline seems like a paradox, it is only because we do not see far enough. Does not yoga, too, originate? What, then, is the meaning of discipline, if this discipline itself was born of chaos?

The word “chaos” is Greek. It means, originally, abyss, emptiness, groundlessness. For a long time it has meant disorganization, confusion, something to be controlled.

In the middle of the performance Sara sits in a chair across from Jesse Zaritt. “Let’s talk about love.” “Does love have to do with control?” Sara asks.

“Maybe we can remove this line from the floor.” Jesse peels a long strip of masking tape from the stage. Mentioning the migration crisis, she says, “and then the people over there will start eating with and having sex with the people over here, and it will all just be… okay.”

The fear of being with each other as the fear of emptiness, of groundlessness. Things could get chaotic.

But it is time to know that we are harmony “just by living,” as Sara later says. I witness a new harmony that we are, historically, only now glimpsing. I’m deeply touched.

As humans, it is our task to connect today with yesterday and tomorrow, not to secure the future by fixating the past. For the work that is proper today, one must be humble and brave. It is brave to work at the edge of the unknown, which is how Sara’s teaching has been described. It is humble to allow the coming to presence of the new, which must exceed the domain of our will. 

In his lecture The Principle of Ground (1955) Heidegger traces Western thought to its root in the arch-axiom “nothing is without reason.” In German, the word “reason” is the word “ground.” The axiom in German reads, “Nichts is ohne Grund.” Reason or rationality is the giving of reasons or grounds. Ratio is that which underlies, the common denominator which allows the reckoning. According to Heidegger, Western Metaphysics culminates in calculation.

The fear of groundlessness. What is this madness, this violence of control? Gathering big data to make the world computable, grasping the past to control the future. Repressing the new. This cybernetic tendency – from the Greek word “steering” or “control” – is the legacy of the Occident. It will not yield to the Moment.

But I have glimpsed the Moment. It is the only place we can properly exist.

Sara Shelton Mann says that space-time is not just outside us, but also inside us. If space-time is outside us, we can control it. If it’s inside of us, we no longer have the distance of control. It moves with us. We are it. We become participators, not controllers, and are left with the possibility of being here properly. “Proper” means what is our own.

The esoteric teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism speak of macrocosmic and microcosmic identity. The universe, the macrocosm, is constituted in the body, the microcosm.

Why has the body been ignored by most Western religions and philosophies? Why does the East teach that enlightenment is in the body?

As far as I’m concerned, the true contemporary philosopher must be a dancer, broadly construed.

I’m finding my way home.

Jesse says, looking across to Sara in the audience, “Teach me how to get water from a stone.”

Tino Sehgal’s Seminar at Spike Berlin July, 2018

I was at Spike Art’s headquarters last night in Berlin-Mitte to listen to Tino Sehgal. He was invited to give a lecture in the context of the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art.

The space chosen for the lecture was packed. The audience overflowed into the adjoining rooms. Sehgal’s approach to the situation reflected his intellectual concern for the evening: questions about ritual, holism, art, experience, involvement. Given the crowd, he elected to leave the podium, preferring to stand at a corner where he was more directly involved with everyone. I found his easygoing interactions with the audience and his modest aim – to better understand cooperatively the text he’d brought with him – a refreshing corrective to the stylized performance of latinate art theory that’s typical of this cultural scene. As we know, Sehgal isn’t interest in performances, but rather situations.

Sehgal had selected a text, “Art and Reality,” by the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, in which she, in my opinion, reacts to the fragmentation of experience in modernity. She locates and criticizes this fragmentation in the context of art in present-day society: the museum, the artist as individual. (Reaction is to be distinguished from the practice of questioning and understanding.) She claims that to better understand the problems of the relation between art and society, we’d better consider indigenous religion, rather than studying indigenous culture according to our limited categories of music and design.

T.S. Eliot in his “Notes Toward a Definition of Culture” – which, interestingly enough, was also published in the early 1940s – remarks at the outset of his essay that it’s very difficult to separate religion and culture because we’re dealing here with the matrix of meaning. (My words.) Essentially, Mead is concerned with organic unity at an ontological level. (But I don’t think she’s aware of that.) If we want to understand the leaf, we cannot do so without considering the tree. The tree is religion, culture, the organic whole. The leaves are the different cultural products, such as “art.” For Mead, these considerations have to do with her question concerning “art and reality.” That which unifies “a phrase of Balinese music, the design of a Balinese frieze, or the pattern on the border of a cloth” is the common root.

According to Mead, art should cause an “increase in the whole individual’s relationship to the whole of life.” This is not what, according to her, modern art does. In fact, Mead’s characteristically modern intellectualism is a symptom of a larger movement which the unease underlying her tendentious critique puts her in touch with, but which she hasn’t understood. Nietzsche remarked from the beginning that thinking leads to dis-integration. What modern thought dispensed with when the efficient cause became the new God of explanation was holism. The problem of ontogenesis and teleology remain, by the way, inaccessible to contemporary physics. (See “Making Sense of Life” by Evelyn Fox Keller.)

Mead is reacting to what I’d call the “idiocy of individualism.” (The list of people who have merely reacted to modernity instead of thinking it through is endless.) The word “idiot” comes from the Greek word idios which means “private” or “one’s own.” We call people idiots when they can no longer communicate with the rest of us.

How can we be together but still experience ourselves as individuals? We are dealing with the relationship between the general and the particular. It has been remarked upon by various thinkers that an exaggeration of individualism leads to an increase in a certain rigidity and generality of social structures. We lose ourselves at both extremes: the idiot is cut off from the space of meaning in which it becomes first of all possible to be someone; the extremity of abstract generality destroys the particular content that makes being an individual possible.

The general and the particular meet in the present. There is a temporal-historical component here.

It seems to me that Tino Sehgal is questioning, experimenting with, understanding this.  Ritual isn’t something we ever got outside of. We’re so much inside ritual, that we don’t notice. Somehow ritual allows for one to be an individual in the whole. Rituals are repetitions, but they are never rote. They thus maintain the balance, in the temporality of the situation, between the general and the particular, the individual and the collective.

Another thinker who was nearly obsessed with holism from the beginning, is Martin Heidegger. The tension between the general and the particular runs through “Being and Time” like a fault line that threatens to simultaneously break apart and close forever. In my opinion, studying his works is the key to understanding all of this. But that would be some serious thinking.

Byung-Chul Han in the Garden

A year or two ago, Byung-Chul Han castigated me in a seminar at UDK in Berlin. At the zenith of a so-called breakdown that apparently precipitated his departure from the university, he was behaving ludicrously. I was stunned and disarmed. He seemed to be the only philosophy professor in the city who cared. I believe he suffered for it.

Byung-Chul Han literally makes scenes: he sets stages where the ridiculous state of academia and the heartbreaking thoughtlessness of public space are revealed in an appalling spectacle. In seminar that day, between his astute goading, he told us that we should be paying him 200 or 2,000 euros to attend. At his trial, Socrates impudently suggested that Athens should pay him for his services and warned against killing the gadfly, whose sting awakens people, lest they spend the rest of their lives asleep.

In our times, it shouldn’t be clear who in the room was saner: Byung-Chul Han with his impossible accusations or a man who took them so seriously that he stamped out of the room, violently slamming the door to punctuate his theatrical exit. Byung-Chul Han certainly can’t be held responsible for the cultural condition for the possibility of these scenes. People who criticize his behavior are missing the point, blinded by their quick judgment to the possibility of Byung-Chul Han the human being. In recent years his books have been brutally criticized in the press for their degeneration into repetitive truisms. But it doesn’t seem like anyone hears what he’s saying.

He must live in my neighborhood, because I’ve seen him riding his bicycle a couple times. First, a few months after the incident in the seminar, during his period of indefinite leave from the university. He looked nearly homeless, wearing jeans and a pair of worn-out Crocs. He peddled slowly, looking in front of him with his head down, as if he were afraid of being caught outside.

A few days ago, after I announced another “Han sighting” in the neighborhood, my friend sent an excerpt from a talk Byung-Chul Han gave in Barcelona a few months ago.

“I am different, I am surrounded by analogue objects. I have two 400kg pianos and for three years I have grown a secret garden that connects me to reality: colors, scents, feelings… I have allowed myself to notice the earth’s otherness: earth had weight, everything was done by hand, what’s digital has no weight, no resistance, you can move a finger and there it is … It is the abolition of reality. My next book will be called Eulogy to earth. The secret garden. Earth is more than digits and numbers.”

(https://elpais.com/elpais/2018/02/07/inenglish/1517995081_033617.html)

This fits what I observed. Byung-Chul Han looked restored, rejuvenated, nicht mehr so fertig.

I was walking near my apartment when a cyclist going the same direction passed by. Byung-Chul Han was keeping a relaxed pace. He turned towards me and I looked into his eyes before he moved on.

The impetus for this post was a message I sent in conversation with my friend:

They’re making him a laughingstock in the papers again. I have great respect for this guy who allows his person to become the theater for their meaningless gossip. Plus, his writing is financing some fine, weighty pianos. The peal of those soft, crystalline notes is priceless. I think he’s just expressing a sanity that everyone else is too embarrassed to talk about because it undermines the ego’s prized complexity in the digital age. I’d love to have a garden and a nice apartment, wearin’ my Crocs. But I’m sure he went through hell for this.

Inauguration

As inauguration, here are some thoughts I had recently.

 

We live in the order-lessness of a totalizing order, where nothing has its place because everything’s place is determined. There is a different order, where everything takes its place. This authority rests with neither man nor God.

 

People who begin to see are not becoming aware of the situation, they are becoming the situation.

 

Philosophy at the university means arguing and reasoning. It’s like fighting, going somewhere to prove yourself. That’s what we call it, defending your position.

 

When you hit up against given reality, the brute circumstances of your life, if you’ve dug deep enough to have finally struck the surface, you can no longer provide explanations. A person who manages to be the whole, she can only, as they taught us in elementary school, when we were learning to write — show… not tell.

 

Today the philosophy student discusses in seminar the destiny of humankind, and in the evenings must answer to, “So what are you going to do with that after you study?” Because the philosophy student has no self-respect, she develops an attitude of revenge toward the public.

 

People are dying for connection. In fact, intimacy happens so quickly, gets so deep, that people don’t know how to handle it. For the sake of this intimacy, we must learn to let each other be.