Dancing Dead or Alive: Useless Bodies as Resistance within Necropolitical Web Choreographies
by Renee Carmichael
- View Renee Carmichael's Biography
Renee Carmichael is an artist and researcher exploring dance, code and plague.
Dancing Dead or Alive: Useless Bodies as Resistance within Necropolitical Web Choreographies
Let us name this state of matter, in which a body is still alive, but without any sense of self-awareness, somebody's virtual condition. Corporeally one is still there -a sleeping body does not disappear only because it has fallen into the black box of a dreamless sleep-but one is actually not self-aware anymore of one's bodily existence in the sleep modus of oneself. - Arno Böhler
A body sleeps, and so it enters the realm of the virtual, outside of the functional time of Capitalism's produce, produce, produce conditioning. The body is useless to the system just as it is useless to its own agency. The body is still alive, for the system of production controls the hours in which it operates. Death can only be a simulation. The system eventually alarms the body-wake up-and the recharged body materializes as a cog in the system once again. In-between both states, one thing remains: the material form of the body, its corporeality breathing constantly with or without agency. Does the useless body dream?
Another body is fully awake and yet it is also useless to the system. The material body remains, its agency alert, and yet it does not have the power to act. It is dead to the gears of production. But it is alive. This alive body is merely a simulation, a ghost to a system unaccepting of its actions and its form. It is without power to act, and yet it is remains awake and present aware of what little agency it has left. Does the simulated body dream, stuck in the liminal space between being dead and alive?
Both bodies remain as material forms, as corporealities. It is the tool that they have that withstands the uselessness of their agency within the system. The first body can move between being asleep and awake, between useless and function. The second body, rendered useless by necropolitics, can move only fully awake and aware of their movements as useless. Can these bodies also dance?
This essay proposes dancing bodies as a form of resistance within a world of necropolitics that renders useless some bodies and a web of choreographies that commands them all regardless. Design can be seen to choreograph how bodies should and should not move, creating their understandings of the world. Design also includes some and excludes others, its necropolitical code looping behind and executing bodies every second. This does not result in death, but in ghosts of bodies left useless to the system. The code kills only their agencies, but not their materials. And yet design is for all, for dead bodies, alive bodies and even ghosts. Design commands these bodies telling them how to move. By moving to a different tune, can bodies intersect the flows of this power? Can bodies not just perform the movements that perpetuate the system, but also dance freely to the tune of their own dreams that resist as well?
To achieve resistance, this essay will argue, requires a certain affect-and dancing. As the web choreographs, bodies respond asleep to the tune of their hardcoded memories of navigating online. Click here and scroll there, bodies do not need to think or feel as they are told what to do. They do not need to become a body, to leave their dreaming or ghostly state, as they can act as one anyway since the cues are already there. They remain in the world of useless dreaming. But to become a body that can also resist they must also feel. They must unite their agency to their material form: "When I think of my body and ask what it does to earn that name, two things stand out. It moves. It feels. In fact, it does both at the same time... Can we think a body without this: an intrinsic connection between movement and sensation whereby each immediately summons the other?" (Massumi 1). This liminal space between movement and feeling is affect, and with it, bodies can become themselves as bodies that dance to their own tune, free from the hardcoded memory of the executing web that choreographs. This essay illustrates this power of dance as resistance by juxtaposing dance pieces with internet memes to illustrate how bodies can learn to feel their own bodily becoming, embrace their otherness and allow themselves to glitch. Glitching bodies become dancing bodies and dancing becomes resisting.
So how do these bodies become in the first place? First bodies will be shown to loop in the realm of becoming thanks to the executing power of necropolitics. This realm will be argued to demand new forms of resistance. The web is then argued to be a choreography that commands movements from these bodies. Dancing will be argued to be the key for a resistance to these power flows as it is through dancing that bodies are able to enter affect through examples of becoming, becoming other and glitching. Finally, the general body will become a specific body-I, showing that a body can resist by dancing directly online as long as it is awake within its dreaming. Sometimes the only power left is to dance, arms waving widely to the tune of an infinite bodily scroll.
Necropolitics kills. The term was first coined by Achille Mbembe in his essay of the same name in which he outlines the way in which death is essential to becoming, and thus to politics. Politics become "the power of death" (Mbembe 40) itself. Freedom and death go hand in hand by constructing the norms of the body in order to subjugate life to the power of death. Fit in to be free or else die. A choice must be made vertically in order to maintain stable societies: thirty people dead saves thousands.
The body becomes the weapon. As Mbembe mentions, "Technologies of destruction have become more tactile, more anatomical and sensorial, in a context in which the choice is between life and death" (34). Bodies must be present, within shooting range, to reek havoc. What happens to this urge to kill of bodies that are virtual and cannot actually touch? Political bodies loose their purpose, their agency, they become useless trolls within the system. But the system still needs them, they need their ghostly remains of material, their data.
Useless bodies that are in need is the very contradiction that creates the age of uselessness. Instead of hand to hand combat, bodies glitch. Online time is out of sync, it makes bodies nervous, "Nervousness reminds us of the affective costs and conditions of our relations as well as inequalities in who performs emotional labor and who experiences affective distress. It makes us aware of the work required..." (Dunlop). It reminds bodies that they must work to survive. At the same time this difference does not matter, as Alexander Galloway mentions in defining his idea of the whatever, "A harbinger of the truth regime, the whatever dissolves into the common, effacing representational aesthetics and representational politics alike, in favor of direct immanence in matter" (Galloway 142). Bodies are different, whatever, and yet they should be hardcoded into material resulting in data menus of identities, whatever. Everything the body does gets stuck in a loop of identity that predicts the body's contradiction and halts the presence of change in the tracks of its material forms.
Codes, however, execute. It is the term used when a code is processed. Codes also execute as a weapon, as Schuppli illustrates, "...execution by guillotine has been replaced with that of execution by an opaque and rapid agglomeration of black-boxed algorithms fed into remote drone operations..." (18). Body to body combat is replaced by algorithms. At the same time, codes are written by people who have biases. These biases get written into the systems as in the case Scannell illustrates of policing algorithms, "The problem with predictive policing algorithms, and the fantasy of smart government it animates, is not that they can "become" racist, but that they were built on a law-enforcement strategy that was racist all along." High paying job advertisements show up in Google for men and not for women. A plurality of gender, race, poverty and disabilities is written out of technology. The codes, not bodies, are the weapons and the lesser bodies are written out of the process altogether. And yet the bodies are still online, whatever. They still have a hardcoded menu of identity, but that identity is merely a ghost pushed to the millionth page of a google search. Only the dream of becoming survives.
The body is no longer needed to kill and it is always hardcoded material. It exists as a ghostly shape dreaming to become a fleshy YouTube star while giving its data along the way. Within a world of useless bodies, what happens when bodies dream of resistance instead of function? When they accept the fate of their ghostly shape? The body learns to feel and thus resist, "We're always avatars, avatars must die, we have to learn how to accept our own death, we have to learn how to embody death, pain and suffering in the virtual beyond just signing petitions and making ourselves feel good when we did that" (Sondheim 44). Just as a rhythm of movement, a dance style, is unique to a body, death is a unique sensation that only the body alone can experience. It is time to wake that body up to rhythms of resistance.
4. Web as Choreography
Being resisted or not, the web commands useless bodies. As Sicchio discusses, the definitions of choreography are changing so that dance is separated from choreography, and choreography can be seen as "an organization or composition, rather than just a physical activity of the body" (147). This allows choreography to be taken away from the body and into the computer. Choreography is a set of structures just as codes are instructions as well. At a practical level, design itself is starting to see the webpage as movement, as a stage. The designer becomes a director, "You are responsible for directing each element's entrance, performance, and exit" (Henderson). Design is also studied in terms of Laban Movement Analysis, a notation system that explores different qualities of movement. The glide, an action that is analyzed as direct, slow, light and free, is likened to the "swipe to open" on an iPhone or the swipe left on a gallery of photos (Lepore). Useless bodies are commanded here and made to look there. Ghosts and flesh march alike to the same commands for attention, to the same loops of control, to the same dance of choreography. Scroll, scroll, scroll-the menu is still a menu, the page is still a page-the web all looks the same.
The body is commanded and it is tricked. As Giannachi argues in her book Virtual Theatre: An Introduction, "[virtual theatre] is not so much the place in which the viewer is liberated from the canon and the dramaturgy of theatre arts, or even life, but the place where the viewer is continuously performing the simulation of that liberation, and thereby continuously re-enacting their own performance of the medium" (8). The body is constantly performing its freedom, which as Mmebe has illustrated is a small twist away from death. The choreography of the web creates a mass of bodies with incorporated swipe gestures, norms and thoughts. The body is stuck in the same loop of uselessness as defined in necropolitics, but this time within a choreography. If the body is performing a choreography anyway, then can the body have drama, flair, and its own style of movement that breaks the loop of simulation? After all, if "Politics goes nowhere without movement" (Martin qtd. in Exhausting Dance 12) then the remaining dancing, useless bodies can shake things into being and not just dreaming.
5. Useless Examples
5.1 Chewbacca Mom vs. Jaguar
"I dream of being a cat", says the body one day. Why would a human want to be nature, replies Hegel? And Mmebe jumps in, "the human being truly becomes a subject-that is, separated from the animal-in the struggle and the work through which he or she confronts death" (14). "Because I am already useless", responds the body. The ghostly body can resist flows of data by becoming an animal in order to create dance that once again brings about agency in "an affective choreography for a renewed assemblage with the animal in the human and the human in the animal" (Lepecki, Singularities 105). The useless body cannot be hardcoded as animal.
The meme of the Laughing Chewbacca Mom is inescapable. Filmed within the front seat of her car, a woman is eager to share the excitement of her recent purchase. Hands clapping, she begins her monologue for several minutes leading up to the big reveal. Eventually, behold the Chewbacca mask. She illustrates how when she opens her mouth the mask makes the Chewbacca noise and then instantaneously erupts into a contagious fit of laughter that lasts for over a minute. It is hard to tell whether mom or animal is on the screen. The longer it is watched the more absurd it becomes. The mask blends easily into her face and her bodily form. Chewbacca sounds are inseparable from her laughter. She is animal. She is other. But she is not hardcoded. She is human qua animal qua other.
How can the body learn to dance as resistance by embracing being other? Rather than being a star, going viral, feeding into the loop, the body should instead use the other to become nameless, "...to withdraw oneself from the corralling function naming that imprisons and domesticates both humans and animals into their absurd mode of co-existence, is to open up life's horizon" (Lepecki, Singularities 108). To resist the meme, the body should be more like a Jaguar than a Chewbacca in the style of the dance piece by Marlene Monteiro Freitas with Andreas Merk.
In Jaguar both Freitas and Merk create a unique language of movement that is inhuman and absurd and yet representative of this age of uselessness. It is an hour and half epic tale of all the emotions felt while being online, from boredom to euphoria. It is "a silent horror film from the 1920's, puppets from a creepy children's show actually made for adults and a behind the scenes look at a call center full of snickering trolls typing away the woes of the internet" (Carmichael). In a peak moment of the dance, the iconic music of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the ballet that caused a riot in its premiere in Paris in 1913, plays while Freitas and Merk become headless, dirty towel covered bums with arms that scratch themselves. Taking a step back, the human form is lost to a headless, unnamable creature out of the likes of a dream-world. The image of the headless bum may become popular, a viral meme with its very own name, but until then the dancing bodies resist because their absurdity cannot be easily recognized within the fast paced attention economy of scrolls and clicks. They create a new loop that, for the time being, is not commanded. This loop, instead, commands and questions outside of menus of hardcoded identities. The headless bum is representative of an army of useless shapes, "Monstrous nature. Or we can also now say: my body is always a reciprocal spatialization of your body, of their bodies, of the planet's body's" (Lepecki, Singularities 109). By becoming animal, bodies realize the position of their body within the hierarchy of human necropolitics and as such can start to resist categories of power.
5.2 Awkward Glitches
The second useless example is about the awkward moment of glitch. From the web as choreography, we find the meme of Ken Bone, who stole the show in the 2016 US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with his question on energy policy. It was not the question that drew him to fame, however, it was his name as well as his red cardigan-his body. It was a glitch within the hatred and drama of politics. The public could not get enough of Ken Bone. It brought both sides together, but only superficially, a moment of grounding before bodies continue in movement, fighting each other to the death, "We [humans] need [the ground] to rest on, to recover from the exertions of dance, a moment which is clearly not part of the dance" (Kleist qtd. in Exhausting Dance 3). Ken Bone was not part of the dance of the system of politics. He is an outsider and a social glitch as a moment of reprieve.
Ghostly shapes, however, can resist for more than a moment as well. "Hold still", bodies say. The 1994 dance piece, Nom donné par l'auteur, from the French Choreographer Jérôme Bel illustrates the power of stillness. The dance piece is one hour of silence: two men stare at each other as if in conversation, they pick up objects, a vacuum cleaner, a stool, a ball, they move, and then stand still, they hand each other objects, and so it continues. The only sound is the static of a vacuum cleaner which adds to the pressure building within the space. They never speak, and there is an urge to shout at them: "speak!" to break the tension. It is cringe worthy in its intensity, painful, in a way that gets to the body's guts: the awkward hour of silence. Stillness, however, is a type of glitch that does not just allow a moment of respite in the motion of the political wheel, it changes time and "reveals the possibility of one's agency within controlling regimes of capital, subjectivity, labor, and mobility" (Lepecki, Exhausting Dance 3). As Seremetakis says, "It is the moment of exit from historical dust" (qtd. in Exhausting Dance 15), an exit from the world of necropolitics where a body's agency is free from Capitalism's function and can act within its own loop not needing to perform. It is the useless yet awake body's chance to escape just as the sleeping body becomes useless.
Ken Bone was a glitch to swoon at and then move on. The stillness of dancing bodies within the context of a dance is a glitch that endures outside of time, and as such it provides a moment of connection, a moment where virtual bodies are indeed allowed to share their dream with the world. The author of the web as choreography is exposed and bodies unite "By activating the community of bodies (objects, performers, audience) rustling needs in order to operate its "plural delectation," [Bel's] piece [Nom donné par l'auteur] introduces...the destruction of the myth of the unitary figure of the master-author" (Lepecki, Exhausting Dance 55). Useless bodies have the power to resist the politics of movement as they do not need to function anyway. Be still, and together they can unite within a new looping of time.
These useless examples have juxtaposed memes that the web of choreography uses to command bodies with dance pieces that illustrate how these bodies can resist. The bodies resist by becoming something that cannot be hardcoded as human and by glitching into new times that command different types of agencies. As Lepecki mentions, dance, and dance alone, has the power to address directly the neoliberal power flows of our time (Singularities 8). How fitting when all that useless bodies have left is their bodies. They may be useless, but if they learn to dance they can also create new rhythms. How does this dance play out online? Bodies must first wake up.
A body is always dancing subtly online, each movement a minuscule muscle memory commanded by the web that choreographs. The web of choreography has the body where it wants it: awake, but within a state of habit in which the body merely performs the motions. It does not matter which useless body it is, it happens to all bodies, including mine. I swipe left. I type without looking at the keys. I scroll up and down. I right click with two fingers on the trackpad. All of these make up the choreography of which I am only partly in command. I can scroll sleepily slow or lively fast, but the page commands me that I should scroll in the first place. I do this everyday, unaware of my performance. Bodies, including myself, need to wake up-alarm-themselves to their movements in order to be able to dance. For bodies fall prey every night, and for some every second, to the bodily habits of the necropolitical codes engrained as shadows that haunt our waking dreams. Stop being a sleepwalker, and ask, "Who is performing the walking of this walk?" (Böhler 24).
"I am", says the useless body suddenly aware that no matter what the system says, the body exists with agency because the system needs its movement to survive.
7. Dancing Awake Online
7.1 Dance of the Absurd
In a system of useless bodies and medias of terror, death is never far away and along with that comes fear. Bodies are afraid, and I am also afraid. But bodies are also evolutionary beings that have movements that protect themselves in times of attack. I do these movements automatically when caught off guard. How do these evolutionary movements manifest themselves virtually when the attacker is far from being present? I use an ad blocker. I filter my social media profiles. I cover my webcam with a sticker. I protect myself by making myself incompatible with the system, hiding my identity, but to no avail. I enter the protected mode within the system itself, "Codes with compatibility problems begin to grow wild and to adopt the same opacity of everyday languages that have made people their subjects for thousands of years" (Kittler 360). I protect myself, but why? The reason is hidden within the looping functions of the systems we face everyday and not necessarily my own fears.
Movements of protection must belong to the body and not be hidden away within source codes for bodies to be able to dance. The system capitalizes on bodily instincts, but in the end these instincts are something that my body does regardless of whether I am included in the codes or executed by them. The key to dancing as resistance is bringing this movement back to the animal nature it once was. In the project, Un-fearing by Aya Bentur and Bili Regev, flight, freeze or fight gestures, the actions of fear, are choreographed into an upbeat dance which anyone can do and submit videos online. As the artists argue, "The absurdity of dancing without fear, with the gestures of fear, allows us to actively take control over our physical and mental reactions." Taking Un-Fearing as guide, bodies can take control virtually.
Facebook's safety check feature is controversial and yet indispensable. It too choses a necropolitics of who is worthy of safety (Paris) and who is not (Beirut). It is also an efficient way of keeping track of a large amount of bodies. In both cases, it produces "unnecessary panic and paranoia" (Noor). When I see a Facebook safety check initiated, what are my movements? Step 1: shock face, get closer to the screen, body posture is tense. I am still. Step 2: Google something to figure out what it is. Frantically clicking on links and scrolling fast to get the gist of the story. Step 3: Return to Facebook and see who has not checked in. Step 4. Keep checking obsessively. Fear is induced and a certain choreography enacted. What happens if the movements are practiced outside of the looping of terror? What happens if I look at every Facebook post as a shock and if I watch every video as if I am watching a live stream of violence? What happens if I repeat, repeat, repeat and the fear becomes a part of me instead of safety check? My body becomes an archive of these movements, and as such, I also render myself useless, "...reenactments enact a promise to the end of economy....as an author's blood spilled twice for the sake of self-obliteration" (Lepecki, Singularities 124). As long as I am aware, awake, of my movements, I can reenact a dance of uselessness within my own terms.
7.2 Dance of the Error
The web as choreography is full of buffers to ease the pain of the glitch that happens between the message and its response. These buffers are easily manipulated by design, and as Farman argues in his essay Fidget Spinners, they are also part of the message itself. The design commands how I experience waiting. At the same time, waiting is part of my imagination, it is where I can dream.
This dream is at the moment when the code is executing, the very process that renders my body useless. The page finally loads and I am back to scrolling the commands given to me. But if I stay in the process of execution, can I not only dream, but also do so outside of function, creating a new loop where my body is no longer useless but an error in the system?
In the net art installation, The Spinning Wheel of Life by Winnie Soon, white throbbers, the common buffers that are often animated by moving in a circular motion in order to show time passing while something loads, change speed based on the speed of the network in real-time and are left on a black screen in the installation looping and looping to no end (213). They create a rhythm that reveals the invisible network that surrounds the installation. What happens if I create my own rhythm as well? If I put my social media profiles on constant waiting mode? If I do not feel the urge to respond constantly because the three dot buffer already calls itself a message? I can actually start to feel the moment when the code executes, and I am written out of the system, free to dance to a different tune, "No longer subjected to music, she can probe deep for undertones. No longer subject to continuous motion she can embrace the still act as movement of resistance" (Lepecki, Undoing the Fantasy 6). And so all bodies can finally feel enough to dream in the pending moments of their executions.
8. Conclusion: They have made an embed, now dance in it
At the very moment that prepends the execution of the body by the coded weapons of necropolitics, it is repeated "Who is performing the walking of this walk?" (Böhler 24). And the response is again the body saying "I am." However, this time I am not only fully awake, I am also online and able to feel the virtuality of my presence as it is embedded within the tune of the gears of produce, produce, produce and the clinking of each execution. They wanted to put me to bed, to force my hand in dreaming, but they forgot that my material body was already always its own embedded form that lies upon the bed that they designed for us to dream in. I am a body that can dance. I am resistance. Why? I have learned how to not only move, but to feel as well. I embrace the remains of my embedded material form. I have been able to enter the liminal space of affect by feeling my becoming other and resisting a menu of hardcoded identities. I have been able to remain still in the looping of a glitch that keeps time stuck in the execution of an error. I have practiced my un-fearing and incorporated the movements as my own tune. I have resisted the urge to respond and remained in a buffer in order to feel my own execution. I take control of my own useless state. I dance to my own tune.
Politics requires movement, but the web that choreographs can only suggest which way to go. The web cannot choreograph feeling. It can only hint at emotions. Necropolitics can only execute to leave behind embedded remains. When bodies feel their execution and their difference, they wake up to the authorial commands of design, and do not just perform the functions of agency, but they dance to their own tune as well, free of function but full of the power to intersect and create new embedded flows of agential dreams. The body still remains the best tool we have left, no matter which body we have and where it is rendered useless within the hierarchy of the politics of movement.
And so we must start dancing and feeling to understand: "...questions like 'how do you achieve this kind of choreography?', 'how do you translate this kind of choreographic idea into danced movement?' or, 'how do you express that kind of feeling through movement?' deserve only one answer. As Cunningham would say: 'How do you do it? By doing it'. Because only danced gesture yields meaning: emotion is born of movement and not the reverse." (Gil 125). It is up to us to wake up our bodies as they are embedded in the systems that render them useless and dance. We must feel as we move, dream or die in order to resist. We are dead data to them anyway; let us dance ourselves to death.
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