“In our culture, we simultaneously fetishize and disdain the athlete, a worker in the body. For we still live under the sign of Descartes. This sign is also the sign of patriarchy. As long as we continue to regard the body, that which is subject to change, chance and death, as disgusting and inimical, so long shall we continue to regard our own selves as dangerous others”
-Kathy Acker in Against Ordinary Language: Language of the Body
In this essay, Acker paints the language of the body as antagonistic to the verbal world of meaning. Her aggression is disruptive. Disturbed, I cling on to the primacy of language, at risk of drowning. It is words that make us free, that allow us to reach out from our little mental space, and that define the shifting landscape of what can be thought, no?
But I am soothed. To soothe me, Acker reaches for the metaphor of meditation, the centring of breath, which forces thought to recede. Thought must be forced out, we must treat it with aggression at first, because thought is involuntary; language comes so easily to us that it fills up our channels, we are jammed.
Sometimes, transcendence purges us. I am in Friedrichshafen on the shore of the Bodensee. All day the light changes on the lake. The Alps appear out of mist; the water by the far shore glows green or white; slice-thin cloud shadows wander towards us; rain hides the mountains; at evening they suddenly blaze clear and pink in the falling sun. I can stand at my window and lose time, go blank, be an empty room. I am not ill and yet I feel convalescent. I feel space in my thoughts, like muscles loosing tired bones.
But there is a special transcendence in the discipline of the body that I felt once for a while keenly when I was training in capoeira, when I was young and strong and made out of rubber, feeling neither cold nor fatigue. There is a busy silence in the skull that is discipline. There is a dialogue with the flesh that has no words.
I am only confirming that I feel what Acker felt, or recognise at least, that rich world she describes. It is a sinister world because we are heartless masters of our bodies there. We exert a right that no one can rightly have over another. We are cruel dictators, and through our cruelty we achieve something a little more than the ordinarily human. And we enter a self-knowledge that is transcendent in its very materiality.
For many people this must be a surprise substitute for religious experience. I feel the cynicism of western culture works to push transcendence out of reach, especially for groups of people who are excluded from cultural experiences. I do not think it is only vanity that motivates so many young men to go to the gym.
Perhaps we all go in vanity, but keep going, become addicts, for transcendence rather than only endorphins. To give up on words that can entangle and oppress, that are bearers of untruth and inequalities, that place us in our old boxes, that make uncomfortable demands. In the body is a place to escape, to be outside the constraints of words.
It is easier to control the body than to control words and their meanings.
Descartes drew a line between body and mind that science must hold spurious, yet which largely endures as a defining meme in western culture, maintained by the language it has nested in. The mind is allied to divinity, the body to dirt. Acker calls this divide patriarchal. Patriarchy, we might say, treats women as unclean bodies serving the unclean bodies of men, who live the rest of their lives in the mind. So, what would the world look like if the Cartesian wall came down? Does Acker bridge the gap, or does she only problematize it by opposing the two realms? Does she only ask that the body receive its proper reverence?
I am a word worker and I can’t speak for those whom words exclude. But I can hear and speak a little in the body’s speech too. In dancing, as in training, we enter self-knowledge, and dialogue with the body, framed in a new language. Can we add the dancer to the athlete? They are both disdained by western education, which enshrines the Cartesian gulf, which makes the brilliant dyslexic a worthless idiot because she cannot read. When we listen to one who is speaking through the body, we rehabilitate the body as a channel of communication as well as a source of transcendence.
In The Hepworth gallery, I dance to the sculpture. It’s not just me; the current exhibition of contemporary sculpture will culminate in an outdoor ballet performance on Saturday 11th May. The sculptor Andy Goldsworthy also worked with a dance company to create a ballet. This is dance in ceremonial, high culture mode. It makes signs, it interprets, it opens a conversation with other cultural forms. Like sport, it crosses borders. I want to ask for the participatory and communicative vernacular of the language of the body not to be despised; respect for workers in the body, and respect for all bodies…