Transitioning to the Symposium 2020.3-2021.6


The Return and Repetition of the Body of Zoē or the Corpse
That Is Never the Same Again

Shinichi Takeshige

Giorgio Agamben, in Homo Sacer, focuses on the difference between the two words for life in ancient Greece: zoē and bios. Zoē refers to the fact of being alive―bare and indistinguishable from other animals. Although Agamben does not use the term so openly, it would not be wrong to say that it refers to the life of a laborer as a slave. Bios, on the other hand, means cultural life―the life of a polis citizen with political awareness. Ancient Greek democracy actually relied on the hierarchy between bios and zoē. Agamben, on the other hand, sees modern democracy as a demand for the rights and liberation of the zoē. This means that zoē has penetrated the bios, and “having a body” has become a political subject. In other words, it is the bare body that holds the power in the modern country governed by law.

If this is true, then it should be obvious in dance―a genre which adopts bodies as its media. The history of dance has undergone various innovations since the 20th century, but in my opinion, most of the bodies we see under the name of “dance” are only bios bodies. Even the body of Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Dance Company is like that. However, there are at least three dancers who have exceptionally deviated from the bios body and reached the bare body of zoe. These are Vaslav Nijinsky, Tatsumi Hijikata, and Ko Murobushi. Then, under what aspect did their bodies as zoe appear? This is a topic that should be the subject of a whole book, but here I would like to offer a short introduction.

In Homo Sacer, Agamben takes up the ancient Roman figure of homo sacer as a precedent for the modern zoē. This is a figure that Pompeius Festus describes in the heading “sacer moms” in “On the Significance of Words”:

The sacred man is the one whom the people have judged on account of a crime. It is not permitted to sacrifice this man, yet he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide; in the first tribunitan law, in fact, it is noted that “if someone kills the one who is sacred according to the plebiscite, it will not be considered homicide.” This is why it is customary for a bad or impure man to be called sacred.

That is, homo sacer is a life that cannot be sacrificed, but can be killed―in other words, a life that deviates from both the religious and legal realms. In a related vein, Agamben discusses an interesting ancient Roman ritual called the “image ceremony”. There, after the death of the sovereign, the wax statue of the emperor is “treated like a sick man, lying on a bed; senators and matrons are lined up on either side; physicians pretend to feel the pulse of the statue and give it their medical aid until, after seven days, the effigy ‘dies’.”

This motif of the statue seems to be extremely important in considering the body as zoē in dance. In this respect, another text by Agamben, “The Immemorable Image” from “The Potentiality of Thought,” is highly indicative. In this text that discusses what precisely is returned to in Nietzsche’s eternal return, Agamben considers the notion of <Gleich>, which Nietzsche says is the same that returns forever. The German word Gleich is formed from the prefix ge- (which indicates something collective, a gathering together) and leich, which can derives from “lich” in Middle High German, and finally to the theme lig, which means appearance, figure, or likeness―and in modern German, Leiche, corpse, cadaver. Because a corpse is that which has, per excellence, the same image, the same likeness [as the deceased before death]. In other words, the eternally recurring “same” can be said to be the image of a corpse. And to reinforce this idea, at the end of the text, Agamben quotes Schelling’s “Philosophy of Revelation” as saying that this ever-returning image that “would pass over into being before all thought” is “an Immemorable.”

“An Immemorable”―that is, what cannot even be recalled, is what time has been cut off, and we come to realize that this is exactly the word that Ko Murobushi always emphasized in his own attempts at dance. Convulsions also deeply characterize Ko Murobushi’s dance, but convulsions must be accompanied by rigidity, or they will degenerate into mere choreography. What is important is rigidity. Rigidity―to cut off time. To be as close as possible to the material = corpse. This is a revolutionary challenge to dance, which has been thought of as the temporal development of movement, an attempt at anti-dance. Nijinsky’s “The Afternoon of a Faun” is a pioneer of this attempt; but unfortunately, in the West, I don’t think this is understood anymore, incorporated into the tradition of ballet instead. Nevertheless, I think there is a reason why Nijinsky came out of the ballet tradition. This is because there is no other dance in the world that is so focused on the body’s axis. His insistence on suppressing the fluidity and dynamics of movement is clearly oriented toward the spatiality of the body. This spatiality is a geometric symmetry, a space of representation. Freezing the axis as a statue and turning the dancing body into a corpse―a statue outside of time, an immemorable image that will return forever―is what Nijinsky tried to do in “The Afternoon of a Faun.”

Perhaps it was Tatsumi Hijikata who first noticed the innovativeness of Nijinsky’s anti-dance attempt. Hijikata’s words, “Dance can be defined as a corpse standing propped up on the verge of death,” should be reconsidered from that perspective. How can “a corpse standing propped up on the verge of death” be called the body of zoē? Hijikata, in an interview with Akira Uno titled “Gaze at the sanctuary far into the darkness,” stated the following:

I deny the origin story of butoh, which is that there is rhythm first and then the movements follow. Use a purgative to rhythm…The Japanese folk dances that are based on the rhythm of the Harvest Festival probably originated from what the wondering monks would be reduced to dependence on a rural village and inspire the laborers by giving them the rhythm instead. However, in reality, if you remove the cruelty and misery from their labor, butoh would be 80% dead.

Here, Hijikata defines butoh as something distinct from the rituals and rites of the community (the religious realm), and then exposes the bare bodies of the workers (in this case, directly the peasants) who deviate from it. The body of the worker, stiffened by the laxative applied to the rhythm and cut off from time, is precisely the body of zoē, who penetrated the bios and became the sovereign. And according to the words of Ko Murobushi, the body of zoē, or the immemorable image, is spasmodically recurring and repeating itself without end. However, it is in a form that is never the same. “Repetition, the repetition of the same thing but never the same, it is a constant repetition, a series of strikes into the emptiness without origin! That’s what repetition is.”

<Giorgio Agamben (Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen), Homo Sacer, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.>

Shinichi Takeshige

Shinichi Takeshige Born in 1965. Dance critic. Since 2006, he has contributed to “Terpsichore News letter”, “DANCEART”, “THE BOOK REVIEW PRESS”, “Dance Yearbook”, and drama review sites “wonderland” and “WL”. Currently, he is serializing the dance theory “For the dance to come” in the Terpsichore Newsletter.

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