© Liza Cortois

Leestijd 13 — 16 minuten

‘For they do not know what they dance’?

(a lecture-essay hesitantly affirming the idea that every lecture is also a performance)1


0. (Motto)

Thinking or writing would count for nothing if it didn’t at times produce some limited degree of understandability – of the potential to understand without the realisation of any particular understanding. The same goes for the making of art, in whatever medium, and the art of dancing, acting, or playing music.

1. (On thinking and theorising)

Let’s start with some distinctions. In What is Philosophy?, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest that there are three modes of thinking. There’s thinking with and through concepts, existing or newly invented: that’s theorising. There’s thinking with and through formal elements (such as numbers) by means of abstract operations (such as subtracting or squaring), the net result being empirically testable formal models: that’s indeed science. And there’s thinking in and through percepts and affects, in and through ‘the sensible’: that happens in the arts.

There is thus thinking in general, with or without words, visually or discursively, or even bodily; and there’s the more particular mode of thinking called theorising. Thinking changes into theorising with and through explicit conceptualisation, or the deliberate forging of more general notions and definitions that abstract from particular phenomena.

A theory is a self-referential network of concepts in which concepts refer to concepts. A grand theory is a conceptual network covering all relevant phenomena. It’s a conceptual simulacrum, it reconstructs everything that is relevant for the theory in its own conceptual terms.

Most art theories are rather limited conceptual networks fitting a restrained collection of artistic phenomena by negating many others. They are not encompassing but selective. This is not a shortcoming, only a restriction – albeit one that should be acknowledged. Beware of essays or reviews that start with a sentence like ‘contemporary dance shows a marked tendency to (etcetera)’. That kind of statement is always about a specific niche that is considered paradigmatic for reasons that are, as a rule, not explicitly articulated.

2. (On theory and dancing)

Theory often claims enlightenment: the theorist knows what the theorised do not know. However, dancers do know what they do – they just do it unknowingly from the point of view of theory. The dancer’s knowledge therefore has a paradoxical character: it resembles what Giorgio Agamben in another context terms ‘knowledge that is not known’, knowledge ‘that does not have a subject and can only be recognised’.2 The dancer is knowledgeable, and for sure not only physical – but ‘dancerly’. She enacts or practises an implicit knowhow – a non-discursive knowing-how-to-go-on. Often that knowhow is called intuition, yet that word precisely indicates a knowing that is not able to know itself.

Dance is thought, always. The dancer is a thinker, always. There’s thinking in the doing. The dancer doesn’t think conceptually or formally when moving, but using unreflexive movement, moves thoughtfully. To think as a bloc of moving sensations is to dance the dance as dancer – at least when one tries to conceptualise this activity.

3. (On the notion of art/dance)

Is, for instance, eating a pear on a stage a dance work? The question is ontologically undecidable because ‘dance’, just like ‘art’, is a performative notion. A dance work only exists as such when it is observed as such: one names – or doesn’t name – the eating of a pear on stage a work of dance (and one indeed names with more or less symbolic power).

However, the real lesson of conceptual art is that art is not only a performative but also a moral notion. Saying ‘this is an artwork’ – and even more so, saying ‘this is an interesting artwork’ – equals saying ‘it’s worthwhile’, ‘it deserves respect’.

Most art critics and art theorists practice some form of art ethics. What (who) should we respect, what (who) not? – that’s in the end what the struggle for symbolic recognition or, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, the endless quarrel over legitimate and illegitimate works is about.3

4. (On teaching theory in art schools)

Teaching theory involves different things: be a voice of others, trying to find now and then your own voice, and creating a climate that facilitates the students’ voicing back. It’s about thinking and, quantitatively more important, it is about transmitting what has already been thought. The question of the canon is indeed crucial.

The sociologist Lewis Coser once jokingly characterised intellectuals as second-hand dealers in ideas.4 Theory teachers in art schools are often intellectuals dealing in fashionable expressions. That knowledge is very useful to those students aspiring to a career as art maker: they need the right buzz words when writing dossiers, selling their work, talking with critics. Off- and on-line talk are hyper-important in an artworld; it’s crucial one uses the right words when networking.

5. (On irritating theory)

So, what to teach? Not only fashionable expressions, not only critical theory but first and foremost irritating theory. I advocate criticality in theory; I defend irony over knowing better and the cynicism often accompanying it. Yet that criticality should not confirm established cliches of being critical, and the irony must not just be entertaining. The primary task is to irritate. Being friendly is not a virtue in the kind of theorising I favour. Of course, this does not eliminate the possibility to teach unfriendly theoretical insights in a friendly way.

An example of irritating theory might be teaching a course on the concept of beauty in an era that spits out the word beautiful when it comes to art. Or perhaps teaching hard core Marxist class analysis in a subculture that indulges in identity politics and preaches intersectionality – yet that is conspicuously silent on the class background of the average spectator or on the harsh precarity further down the social ladder.

Theory particularly irritates, not least in artistic contexts celebrating individual expression, when it is radically a-humanist and brackets the evidence that one is an autonomous subject making self-consciously personal decisions, which are subsequently translated into intentional actions, life plans and other liberal virtues. Irritating theory questions the dominant ideas on agency and individuality, partly in the form of ideology critique (for they vastly legitimise neoliberalism), partly in a more principal mode when it comes to the notion of ‘the human’ as such. Be it structuralist or post-structuralist, the decentring of the subject must remain at the centre of theory teaching.

‘The human’ is a moral-ideological notion. Its performative impacts are vast and also positive, witness the idea of human rights. However, ‘the human’ – the human being, a human person, humanity – does not constitute a genuine scientific or theoretically sound object of knowledge. There exist no human sciences, except as a critique of the notion of ‘the human’ through the research and theorising of anonymous structures and systems on the one hand, their self-regulation and modes of self-organisation on the other.

What is commonly called a human being is a collection of alternately loose and structural couplings of various potentialities, such as the one to move, to digest, to think, to speak, to affect and to be affected. These capacities operate according to complex self-regulations, thereby entertaining input-output relations to other self-regulating potentials. A so-called human being is a shifting state of relationality, a self-regulative plane of consistency made up of capacities. To say ‘I understand you’ may be a moral obligation in some situations, yet it is theoretical nonsense.

For that matter: we meanwhile realise that our subjectivity is dependent on a hypercomplex system called the environment. The Anthropocene is a reality becoming ever more Real.

6. (On authenticity)

Teaching for social systems theory or psychoanalysis allows one to vastly irritate those students – and they are many – who believe in the possibility of an emotionally authentic communication. Yet it’s quite easy to see that there’s a fundamental split between what happens in the mind or the body on the one hand and communication processes on the other. Thoughts or emotions are private whereas communication is public; thoughts or emotions are inaccessible for any other whereas communication is per definition accessible.

One may communicate about thoughts or emotion – or blood cells, neurons etcetera – but they stay ‘inside’ the one communicating. The communicative sender can therefore always feign emotions: the principal split between the private and the public, the individual and the social realms is the ultimate condition of possibility of what is commonly called personal freedom. To put it bluntly: no freedom without the possibility of lying.

Given this split, a person can never claim authenticity when communicating about emotions. Authentic communication is theoretically impossible; one can only believe that a communication is sincere, or that an emotion is directly and therefore truthfully expressed by another whose interiority is per definition a closed book. Authentic art is art faking authenticity – which may then be believed.

7. (On /the/ dance)

There are at least four terms involved when seeing a performance: a choreography, one or more dancers, the dancers’ actions, and the dance. These are the usual distinctions, to which I’ll stick here. It’s important to keep the four terms separated. The dancer is not the dance; the dance – and hence, the dance’s performativity – is that what is at once immanent to and emerges out of the interactions between the score, the dancers and the dancers’ actions. And yes, when speaking of a public dance performance one should add the viewer plus the relations between the viewers, resulting in a collective gaze.

During a performance, the dance is nowhere – and everywhere. An individual can learn dance movements and master dancing – but the dance exceeds the individual. The choreography, the dancer and the dancer’s actions make the dance possible to happen. Add to this the public’s gaze, music and lighting, and the point becomes even more clear: the dance is a living multiplicity immanent to and emerging out of a heterogeneous assemblage consisting of nameable elements, yet whose very nature escapes us. It’s here, now – it’s nowhere. It’s a virtual reality. It’s an imaginary object. It’s a phantom.

8. (On a-humanism, again)

A-humanism is not just a theoretical axiom but first and foremost an experience. Who speaks? Who writes? Who thinks? – Who dances? The results of speaking, writing, thinking, dancing will be attributed to an author – a subject, an I, a person having self-consciousness, a will and intentions. This individualisation of speaking (etcetera) is a social and moral necessity or, rather, a necessary fiction to produce moral responsibility and to prevent social life from becoming too complex. (It also follows partly from the syntax of language: ‘I speak’ – and, whoops, there is the suggestion of an ‘I’ causing the speaking).

And a fiction it is. Everybody knows from first-hand experience that thoughts, words, or movements do not have a clear origin. They just happen to arrive in the metaphorical space associated with the word consciousness or body. It’s indeed more correct to state that one speaks, one writes, one thinks, one dances – with the individual consciousness or body just acting, and only partially so, as a controlling and correcting observer of what arrives to one, to some body, to some mind. ‘I’, the subject, is second to – and seconds – what becomes. And where does that becoming come from?

We can only speculate on the ground (subiectum) that bears us when speaking, writing, dancing – on the otherness undoing me when I do. The results of this thinking are the stuff theory classes are made of: elaborations on language or habit formation, concepts like the unconsciousness, discourse, system or potentiality, not to mention Being (with a capital letter). Or Life (also with a capital letter). There is yet another candidate knocking on the door: the brain, the neurological system. The day that someone’s brain self-reflexively understands itself will be the day that Hegel’s dream of the Absolute Spirit becomes true, and all my theory books will be deemed rubbish.

And yet, also after that day I will see individuals dancing: because giving meaning differs from explaining; because authorising activities will remain a necessary social and moral fiction; because the brain will not suddenly refrain from speculating when it self-reflexively understands the underlying mechanisms of jam-session thinking; because – this is the crucial point – even if the brain may only produce consciousness as a necessary interface between its own neurological reality and the reality out-there, it still realises itself through language.

When everything is explained, meaning and the desire for meaning remain the enigma they were, are and will be.

9. (On art/dance criticism, part one)

One sees a dance performance; one comes home and writes a review. Two acts are involved – viewing and reviewing – to perceive and being affected on the one hand and to work with the memories of those percepts and affects on the other hand. The viewing is not in the reviewing: there exists an irreparable fissure between both acts.

Let’s agree that the reviewer is not just giving consumer advise but is an essayist: someone trying (the literal meaning of essayer) to understand her viewing. The space of genuine criticism is the space of ‘essayism’: reflexively dealing with the memories of sensations elicited by one or more works one tries to understand, to interpret, to give meaning.

The critic indeed operates with and on archives. Writing on art – for what I say here on art criticism also goes for art theorising – starts from reminiscences of an experience that is not ‘just subjective’ since it first and foremost consists of pre-subjective percepts and affects mutually battling to become conscious. When re-viewing, one works with the interaction between the conscious condensations of these sensations and their resonance in a partly conscious, partly unconscious archive consisting of traces of previous experiences in the sphere of the arts, traces of book readings, of concepts, of talks. Each body is an archive of archives (an ‘an-archive’); like every artist, an art writer is operated by that archive – for you don’t chose the resonances between what you’ve seen and the remnants your personal cultural history.

10. (On art/dance criticism, part two)

Every artwork is a unique riddle; the critic tries to solve the puzzle – knowing that this is impossible. The basic rule of art criticism (and again also of art theorising) stipulates that you try to do the impossible by doing it as if it is possible. Only in that way may one write something meaningful superseding cliché-talk such as ‘it was interesting’. The critic saying that art equals ineffable, unspeakable experiences should be criticised for being incapable of performing the impossible as a possible shortcoming.

The riddle that every artwork is, cannot be unravelled – of course not. The stake of criticism is to show that the riddle is a riddle and not just an arbitrary mixture of for instance movements, gestures, poses.

Interpretative writing obliges one to logical linearity, to discursivity, to a minimum of argumentation – all qualities that deny the capricious nature of experiencing or thinking, not to say anything of dancing. Yet its principal effect is the ‘textualisation’ of what the text is about. One gives meaning, thus turning the artwork into a book. The critic is indeed first and foremost a reader presupposing there is something to understand. Whereas the viewer was fascinated by signifiers, the reviewer is obsessed by their signification: she wants to tame the signifiers’ excessive character. And yet precisely this operation completes the art experience. Only sensually experiencing an artwork is missing the experience of it.

‘In order to be experienced completely, every artwork needs thought and philosophy (theory – RL), which is nothing else than thinking that resists being hampered’, thus Theodor W. Adorno rightly contends.5 There’s a crucial reference here to speculative thinking. The critic indeed speculates on the possible meanings of the riddle. To speculate: to meditate on, to ponder over, to reflect on or to reflect upon, to chew over, to think over, to excogitate, to contemplate, to muse, to mull over, to ruminate, to conjecture, to hypothesise… and, yes, to theorise.

There’s yet another effect of the necessary act of textualisation accompanying interpretation in art writing, which is particularly reproduced in dance writing: the overlooking of the looked at bodies. They transform into passive, even invisible bearers of the choreographic message; they work but are reduced to quantité négligable when it comes to a dance work’s overall meaning. All reification is a forgetting’, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno assert6 – and what is forgotten in textualism is the autonomous materiality of the text, the physical work sustaining the work, the performers producing the performativity one applauds. Their bodies are ‘excribed’ when the dance is described, analysed, interpreted. Is this unavoidable?

11. (On art/dance criticism, part three)

The artwork’s uniqueness makes – in Kant’s well-known terminology – a determinate judgment impossible: an artwork’s valuation cannot be based on general standards or concepts. However, an artwork’s interpretation may contain bits and pieces of theorising or theory.

Theory not only enables one to ennoble a piece; it’s first and foremost a tool to generalise the stake of an artwork. Concepts resemble money: through their abstract nature, they act as standards of equivalence, allowing comparisons with other works, situations, actions.

Thus, a concept such as ‘the distribution of the sensible’ (Jacques Rancière) opens up a background that foregrounds a work’s general qualities and gives it an exemplary value.7 To prevent the work’s devaluation into a contingent illustration of the invoked concept, the critic must point out in detail where that very concept meets the work. This involves painful labour art critics or theorists often eschew (I know what I’m talking of: I’m guilty).

12. (On the ‘politicality’ of art/dance)

The socio-political dimension of all art regards the compositional relationship between the general and the particular, the work as a totality and the constituting elements, its rational conception and its material components eliciting various sensations.8 In dance, this distinction is traditionally grasped as the relationship between the choreography and the selected movements, gestures, poses or whatever actions the score organises. The general compositional logic associated with the notion of choreography stands for the grip of reason and, especially, of power onto the individual elements. It’s an organisational, even administrative logic implying an exercise of power that is only partially expressed in the inequal social division of labour between choreographer and performers (and that will not disappear, only be differently arranged, in more collaborative modes of producing a work).

Composing equals writing in the general sense, which of course includes choreography; writing in the general sense operates with one or more materials (media) that it decomposes into sensible elements (signifiers: ‘letters’) on which it subsequently imposes a grammar, a syntax, a structure. Does the writing make room for an emancipation of the components? Does it allow the possibility of excessive signifiers? Does it offer the chance of particularisation, always implying a specific ‘sensualisation’, to colours and lines, tones and sounds, movements and standstills? These are the kind of questions circumscribing the ‘politicality’ of an artwork.

I deliberately do not refer to individuals as elements or components of, for instance, a dance work. A society, and hence a dance company, does not consist of individuals but – as was already suggested – of the at once generic and individualised potentials to speak, think, imagine, feel and move.  A free society is one in which these capacities – these powers – are free to associate and radiate. No anarchism implied, quite the contrary. For what is required is not a freedom from organisation but an organisational setting offering dispersed potentials the possibility to associate in such a way that a momentary coherence or consistency may be found or, rather, can be actively constructed through experimentation: this is the stake of every form of emancipatory politics.9

All genuine politics, whatever the medium, is a specific kind of composing and choreographing: constructing and trying out consistencies among whatever kind of elements in such a way that they can excel excessively in order to cohere in hitherto unthinkable ways.

13. (On intelligent art)

I once coined the notion of reflexive dance when referring to dance works that consider in full range the constitutive elements of a dance work. So not just, for instance, the performed movements but also the structuring role of lighting, the spatiality of the stage or the audience’s shadow existence (which mostly hovers between visibility and non-visibility, and also between attention and sleepiness).10 Only later I realised that the expression – which was meant to be an alternative for the awkward notion of conceptual dance – could also be used in a more literal sense, as referring to dance works that incorporate knowledge about themselves and, in a broader sense, theory or – formulated in a more mundane way –knowledge stemming from the reading of books. However, this can be done in several ways. For the sake of clarity, I propose two ideal-types.

Either one can show how smart one is, with or without textual quotes, but in any case with a visible surplus of intellectuality that often just replaces the old-fashioned bourgeois idea of depth – of a Deep Meaning. Or the reflexivity has soaked into everything visible, audible, or happening, giving the work a particular intelligibility and transforming it into something intelligent.

Intelligent art works are rare. It’s rather easy to make an engaged statement in whatever medium on whatever pressing issue; it’s quite difficult to make a work in which, phrased in traditional terms, form has taken over content because content has taken over form, with form and content yet remaining a quarrelling dis-unity.

In the realm of performance, one recurrent (not absolute) indicator of intelligence is that the doers know what they are doing – but non-subjectively. The attentive way a movement is made, be it a slow or a quick one, may testify to a razorblade sharpness and depersonalised lucidity that positions the performer beyond herself. In that icy ‘beyond’, intelligence finds its definition and shakes hands with audacity.

14. (A dance dream inspired by the idea that the only interesting dialectic is the figure of the unresolvable paradox)

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to abstain means to choose not to do or have something; to refrain deliberately and often with an effort of self-denial from an action or practice.

The definition in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is somewhat sharper: to hold oneself aloof, to forbear or refrain voluntarily, and especially from an indulgence of the passions or appetites.

Imagine someone having a genuine passion for dance and dancing;

imagine that person refraining from dancing while dancing;

imagine, in other words, what a dance abstaining from dance may look like;

imagine, in other words, a movement moving away from movement.

Call it abstaining dance: to exit dance through dancing;

call it withdrawal dance: ‘I’m just here because I’m leaving’;

call it gesturing dance: ‘I dancingly wave goodbye to dance’.

1With the exception of the introduction and the preamble, this text restates my farewell lecture at P.A.R.T.S., delivered April 26, 2022. I’ve been teaching theory classes at P.A.R.T.S. from the school’s inception in 1995 until 2021. I wholeheartedly thank Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Theo Van Rompay and Charlotte Vandevyver for their immense trust: they never asked me to legitimate the content of my teaching. My biggest thanks go to the subsequent generations of students for their eagerness to think along, their respect for the autonomy of theory, their tolerance towards my painful elaborations and shortcut provocations in ‘globenglish’ and, particularly, the many ways in which they created a climate that invited me, even regularly pushed me to think aloud and voice personal thoughts.2Giorgio Agamben, Taste. London: Seagull Press, 2017, p. 63.3See, for example, Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford (Cal.): Stanford University Press, 1996.4Lewis A. Coser, Men of Ideas: A Sociologist’s View. New York: The Free Press, 1965. I cannot immediately find the page where he gives this characterisation.5Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996, p. 393 (own translation).6Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 191.7Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2004.8This idea is a core idea in Adorno’s aesthetic theory but implicitly also characterises Niklas Luhmann’s art theory. See Adorno, a.w., and Niklas Luhman, Die Kunst der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995.9This view is much indebted to the work of Oskar Negt & Alexander Kluge, and also to the many talks I had with dancers on artistic collaboration. See, for instance, Oskar Negt & Alexander Kluge, Massverhältnisse des Politischen: Vorschläge zum Unterscheidungsvermögen. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016 and the second part, addressing collaboration in contemporary dance, in Rudi Laermans, Moving Together: Theorizing and Making Contemporary Dance. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015, pp. 246-396.10Laermans, a.w., pp. 192-211.


Leestijd 13 — 16 minuten




Rudi Laermans

Rudi Laermans is socioloog, auteur en vertaler.


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