Erin Manning


On her book Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy

Cover Interview of April 13, 2010

The wide angle

Relationscapes is a very Whiteheadian book.  From the outset, it philosophically attempts to lay out a process philosophy and to outline how Alfred North Whitehead’s thought is in conversation with the work of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Henri Bergson, Gilbert Simondon, William James, and Brian Massumi, to name a few.

Whitehead’s process philosophy is focused around the idea of the actual occasion. For Whitehead, while process is what constitutes the extended continuum of the world, a certain monadicity is absolutely necessary.  The emergence/prehension of actual occasions is synonymous with what we know/experience.  There is no actual experience outside of an occasion’s coming into appearance, and “we” are not prior to them.  Occasions are co-constituted with their worlding, creating superjects (subjects of the event) in their passing.  A radically reconstituted engagement with subject/object relations, Whitehead’s approach offers an opening for a microperceptual analysis such as that undertaken in Relationscapes.

The first arena of emphasis Relationscapes thinks through is dance, specifically relational movement.  I conceptualize relational movement (which is a continuation of the movement exploration foregrounded in Politics of Touch, which circled around Argentine tango) as the very modality of movement: movement always moves relationally.  This takes into account Bergson’s idea that duration (movement-moving) is extracted (as displacement) when measured as such.  Movement is thus not what is added to time but what is subtracted from duration.  If all movement is already relational (creates spacetimes of experience even as it composes with them), movement-moving can no longer as easily be sidestepped (as it has often been in dance and in cinema in lieu of a focus on a movement-grammar, a narrative structure, etc.).  To engage with movement-moving is also to create a more complex vocabulary around choreography and improvisation (where both can function as subtractions of movement-moving).

Relationscapes then continues its movement exploration within the realm of Encephalitis Lethargica, a medical condition associated with Parkinson’s’ disease where the activation of movement is inhibited.  The focus throughout this chapter and in the subsequent three chapters/interlude—on Marey’s chronophotographs, Norman McLaren’s animations, and the contemporary field of dance and technology—is on forms of activation as they relate to incipient animation (be it in terms of Oliver Sacks’s patients, motion detection software, or the editing process in cinema) to highlight how these divergent practices make use of the microperceptible edge of movement-moving.

The book takes a turn toward the political in the last chapters, proposing first that we take a closer look at the movement practices foregrounded in Leni Riefenstahl’s films.  Contrary to much work on Riefenstahl’s filmmaking, these are not images of solitary bodies: they are uncanny composites of movement-moving.  No matter where you cut them, not only do they continue to move, but they continue to operate serially, both within and across the frame (each image is always more-than the image of a single body).  This has implications as regards the so-called fascist aesthetic and the notion of transcendence.

The following chapters look at the politics and aesthetics of contemporary Aboriginal painting in Australia.  This section perhaps most forcefully draws together how a focus on movement is also an invitation to rethink ethics/politics.  Examining in detail the ways in which Aboriginal people in the Australian central desert build their politics out of a durational notion of movement, and then paint this movement in a recasting of the interplay between the abstract and the representational, these chapters suggest new ways of thinking art in relation to a moving landscape and a spiritual realm that moves-with life in the making.

This is pursued in the final interlude, which explores the work of Arakawa and Gins. The last chapter turns its attention to language, exploring the politics of representation in theories of language and literacy that effectively shut down the potential of language with respect to affect and the sensing body in movement. Focusing on the autistic activist Amanda Baggs’s film In My Language, I suggest that we have a lot to learn through modalities of thought and communication proposed by Baggs.  Imbricating spacetimes of experience with communication (foregrounding the complex sensory dimension of the world conceived as relational environment), Amanda Baggs complicates the notion that language functions only denotatively and proposes instead a challenging and important interweaving of the sensing body in movement and language in the making.

As a dancer, an artist and a philosopher, these concerns are very close to home for me.  I strongly believe that different practices hone different vocabularies and articulate themselves according to the technicities the practices foreground.

When language opens itself up to more-than semantic articulation, a wide array of potential is unleashed that provokes a more complex aesthetic and political field of engagement. Working transversally across practices allows for this complexity to begin to come to light, repositioning the role of the academic/philosopher in relation to art. To delve into the experiential microperceptual realm allows for a dancing-with, a painting-with that promises no pre-constituted ethics but allows, perhaps, for a different kind of conversation to begin.  The politics of this conversing seem to me to allow for a more sustained engagement with difference at the very incipient level from which movement moves us. It is here that the creative germ is most powerful, and with it, the potential to activate the incipient links between creative practice and micropolitics.