Bodily Inscriptions

‘Bodily Inscriptions’ was written for A Contemporary Struggle, a publication edited by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, 2013 and that accompanied their collaboration, Project O.

A 50-minute romp through the politics of identity driven by basslines, paper signs and deftly thrown shapes.

Get a copy here.

So, how to begin?

On the edge of a single pool of light, the books are arranged into a neat square on the floor. The circumference of the spotlight is broken by their brickwork shadows paving a path to the unlit back of the stage.  A veil of darkness and uncertainty separates the two dancers and their audience. We know that we are facing one another from either side of the spotlight and the silent books, listening to a recorded discussion between Alex and Jamila. Before the lights faded, the two women had gradually moved themselves upstage, backs turned, gyrating, not once turning to look at their audience. Not until the music abruptly stops, and the dancers relaxed, turned, and sat. To say that they had broken character wouldn’t be quite correct. They simply were there, as were we.

I just want to be there.

Later, speaking with Alex, I was struck by her comment that she and Jamila had deliberately tried to put their knowledge of theory- their texts, their books – to one side when they began working on ‘O’: A contemporary struggle, in order to concentrate purely on the body. Yet, she said, ‘they (the books) kept creeping back in’.  And here, as the dislocated voices of the dancers discuss what they want, what they intend to do, how it could or should be, the only thing we can see (if only partially) are the books.

Thought, speech and text. And, somewhere, bodies. Boxes within boxes, we can open these things out to map a metaphysical line of communication between the internal and the external. In Of Grammatology[1], philosopher Jacques Derrida critically unpacked this ‘logocentric’ line of thought in order to construct a different understanding of the practice of writing in order to reaffirm its importance to the creation of language and the determination of meaning. Through this consideration of writing, he also addresses our understanding of the interiority and exteriority of being. This is represented by the interplay between thought, speech and text and questions whether both the terms, and indeed the delineations of inside and outside, can be so easily compartmentalised.

Derrida’s objection to ‘logocentric’ thought, focuses on his criticism of the subjugation of writing. He says that it becomes a kind of absence; the furthest point of outer representation from the signified (the signified being thought). Speech comes in-between the two, as presence, and the more direct signifier of thought. He argues, with a complexity that cannot be addressed here, that this is a false understanding of writing; that it is not simply a signifier of a signifier and therefore should not be pushed out to the edge of representation, but that in actual fact writing has a more direct link to the process of thought that creates language.  Derrida contends that presence and absence, and indeed speech and writing, cannot be so simply differentiated from one another –  that writing works within speech and speech within writing, presence and absence fluctuating within both. This fluctuation in what he terms the ‘metaphysics of presence’, is created by the somewhat abstract notion of  Differance, which in relation to the french verb différer, construes both to defer and to differ.

Are we avoiding things? Are we putting off starting?

Sat in the dark, separate, deferring starting, deferring meeting, we mull over Jamilla’s first question: What is the ideal relationship? And which relationship should we consider? The relationship between the performer and the audience? The relationships between people? Perhaps the relationship between their spoken words – their worries, thoughts and ideas – broken by laughter. The waiting books hovering downstage on the edge of the light and the bodies in between. The dancers want to be there, to be present as themselves and as dancers, without mediation. Is this possible?

Everything is too loaded, too pressured?

Too emotional!

Too emotional.

And personal. ‘O’ is very much about personal experience. By focusing on the body, the dancers draw attention to how our self-knowledge – how we conceive of ourselves and our relations to others – is constructed by our lived experiences. The intermingling of text, speech and lyrics within the dance exemplify cultural  representations of gender, race and sexuality in relation to and of the body. The body thereby becomes a site of representation; the site of interplay between inner and outer experience that is  integral to the construction of self.

It seems key that the books should be so visually prominent at the beginning of the piece, as we think about how to go forward. Books and texts are a basis for knowledge. Writing itself is very much a part of the construction of knowledge. Text becomes a fixing of thought to be organised into disciplines, stacked up and supporting one another. Learning and reading go hand in hand, and what we read has a great impact on what we think and who we are. The books we love, or count as important, are personal to us. Certainly the books featured in ‘O’ are personal and pointed choices: The Three Gollies by Enid Blyton, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Lady Chatterley by D.H.Lawrence, autobiographical dance texts by Martha Graham. These books relate to how the dancers see themselves as individuals, as black women and as dancers. This literary and theoretical knowledge is often associated with abstraction, as removed, but ‘O’ emphasises the necessary presence of the body in reading. The dancers read the books through contorted limbs, often standing astride them. Not only does this remind us that a book is a physical thing built for hands and eyes and vocal chords unconsciously caressing words in the throat, but that there is always a specificity to the body that reads. It’s personal, this relationship with the book. It’s physical.

The relevance of the body, and an acknowledgement of its specificity in the formulation of knowledge, is key to the feminist reading of the inherent politics of epistemology. This critique argues that there are political commitments interwoven into almost any philosophical position or dominant narrative, and stresses the import of considering the socio-political position of the knower. Additionally, in separating the body from knowledge within the binary codes that describe experience – internal/external, mind/body, rational/empirical – the specificity of the subject is ignored and knowledge is rendered perspective-less. Traditionally associated with the body, feminist discourse highlights women’s separation from the abstract and rational masculine realm of the mind, and thereby knowledge construction. There is a tension, strained in the contorted limbs of the dancers that encompass the books they hold, between the lived, gendered, classed, racial, sexual, cultural bodies and the abstract structures that define knowledge, protected by fake impartiality, and taught as definitive. This is played out rather menacingly in the opening of ‘O’: the two dancers kneeling in front of the books, building up movement to lyrics that state “Ima  read that bitch. Ima take that bitch to college. Ima give that bitch some knowledge. I don’t like that bitch. Ima read that bitch. Proof read that bitch.” As the movements of the dancers become more and more extreme, it is clear that the ‘knowledge’ being offered here is tantamount to the control and possible destruction of the female body.

As a critical approach to the study of knowledge, Feminist Epistemology seeks to develop the female body as the subject of knowledge in order to reveal the phallocentric and partial nature of dominant discourse and help create new possible ways of knowing and producing knowledge.

How to begin?


The female body as discursively and socially constructed, and as currently experienced by women, may form the basis of a political and cultural critique. [2]

In her essay Bodies of Knowledge: Feminism and the Crisis of Reason, Elizabeth  Grosz[3] considers the socio-cultural surface of the body as inscribed, traversed and infiltrated by knowledge: “Whereas psychoanalysis and phenomenology focus on the body as it is experienced and rendered meaningful, the inscriptive model is concerned with the process by which the body is marked, scarred, transformed and written up or constructed by the various regimes of institutional, discursive and non discursive power, as a particular kind of body.” Again the metaphysical opposition between interiority and exteriority is transcended, to create a kind of depth in which the surface effects help to generate an interior. However, not only are these bodies written on, the ink seeping through skin , they become inter-textual, narratives creatively dissembling social codes. As much as bodies can be read, they can also be expressive. Grosz argues that in acknowledging the body as inscribed it can also become a site of resistance that, no longer passive, can actively inscribe itself upon social practice and hold the possibility of creating counter knowledges.

The physical act of writing has been identified by several feminist writers as a a method of mediating the phallocentric tradition. In her essay The Laugh of Medusa[4], Hélène Cixous emphatically encourages women to write in order “to invent for herself a language to get inside of”. This writing is described as radically personal, intimate, sexual and physical; a reaffirmation of the body that frees the feminine to inscribe itself “into the text-as into the world and into history-by her own movement.” The beautiful, scary, heart-breaking laughter of Medusa that shatters ‘the truth’ is echoed in the witty anger of ‘O’ and its play on the representations of the body through lyrics, dance and costume: a de-propriation of the image of the body as constructed and lived through discourse. This body might be female and black, but it is also simply personal, subjective, physical, and exists in relationship to others.

The danger with the return to the body is to invoke a reductively essential or biological account, which would be restrictive rather than freeing. However, Cixous is careful to underline the rich subjectivity of the feminine writing she is advocating: “what strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality as uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes-any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another.”  In some ways this practice of writing, which acknowledges the body as the generative site of socio-political discourse, embodies feminist theory’s protagonism of a pluralistic recognition of different subjectivities within the construction of knowledge: that there may be other ways of proceeding. Crucially, in being plural, this does not render previous or prevailing knowledges useless, only recognises them as limited and partial, and aims to understand their self-development; the historicity and materiality of different knowledge constructs.

As long as there is something to ‘get’.

The books are picked up and put down, read and then discarded, selected, moved, stood upon, gathered up and tossed across the floor. Are they a help or a hindrance? Perhaps both. Just as Cixous and other advocates of Écriture féminine all write with a knowledge of historical discourses, the books perhaps remain as essential building blocks to be examined, learnt from, leaned on, questioned and sometimes thrown away. Knowledge thereby becomes a practice and an activity.  The shattering effect of Medusa’s laugh should not be to destroy, but to break up the materials required to build, and re-build, continually.

The performer is allowed to flicker between whoever she wants to be.

And the audience feels equally comfortable with seeing something that is never finished.


So, how to begin?


[1] Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Of Grammatology, Corrected edition, 1997

[2] Janet Wolf, Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture, 1990

[3] ‘Bodies of Knowledge: Feminism and the Crisis of Reason’, Feminist Epistemologies, 1990

[4[ trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (1976)


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