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Bojana Kunst: Working Out Contemporaneity
Working Out Contemporaneity
(S. 59 – 70)

Dance and Post-Fordism

Bojana Kunst

Working Out Contemporaneity
Dance and Post-Fordism

PDF, 12 Seiten

This article reflects on the relation between dance and contemporary production, which is today very often described as postfordism. The discovery of the body and its autonomous movement is in the history of contemporary dance closely linked with the strong resistance to the disciplinary and repetitive modes of production. On one side, autonomous movement of the body is influenced by the kinaesthetic knowledge developed in the fordistic factory; on the other side it is transforming the same knowledge into the aesthetic and perceptive research of the liberated subjectivity and her singular movement. This article shows that political potentiality of dance has to be reflected again from the perspective of how we produce today, or to put it differently: How do labouring subjects exist in contemporary society? The autonomy of creativity and aesthetic experience, which was an important part of the resistance to the rationalisation of labour in the 20th century, nowadays presents an important source of productive value. Subjugation consists today of continuous movement, flexibility of relations, signs, gestures and bodies. Production encourages constant transformation and crisis of a singular subject, with the intention to capture the outbursts of creativity and bestow it with value. Production demands ceaseless collaboration, which has to be temporary but not too affective, otherwise it can become ill-timed and destructive. How then do we exactly work, when we work with dance? Political potentiality of dance is not related to the leisure space outside of work, but it has to be put into the conversation with flexible production modes and immateriality of the contemporary work. In the last decades we can follow these changes in recent dance performances, especially when we observe some interrelated phenomena: the visibility of working procedures, redistribution of collaborative bodies and production of (dancing) knowledge.

Two images of movement


I would like to start this essay with two personal images. At the moment I have two homes, one in Ljubljana and another in Hamburg. In Ljubljana, my window overlooks a small circular park beside an old people’s home, where its residents can take daily walks along the paths of a circular shape. Whenever I look at the park through my window, I feel that something has changed in my perception; in the loudness of the city, a movement is revealed that cannot be looked at without a kinaesthetic feeling being triggered in the body. These are not only walks where slowness appears, the slowness of a body no longer capable of the continuous and invisible transition of the city inhabitant, harmonised with the omnipresent rhythm. Instead of walking and moving forward, the old people are actually trying to avoid obstacles touching the street carefully with their steps. Their walk would not be possible if they did not while they are walking at the same time measure the relations in the space surrounding them making sure to not be knocked down by a cyclist, a recreational runner or a small child chasing after its dog. When I take a break in Hamburg, my kitchen window looks into another window, which is the window of a small dance school (with a funny name – dancealot) where people can learn how to dance East Coast Swing and West Coast Swing. Every evening, the lights are turned on in a small studio inside an old abandoned building where young and old dancers try to attain virtuosity in swing dancing, attempting to move smoothly and learning the steps, touching the floor with their steps carefully, as if there might be some obstacle on the floor, and measuring the space they can take, in order not to bump into each other. 


These two images are the same and fundamentally different at the same time. Both images are disclosing how movement is not only getting from point A to point B. Movement is not a unity of quantitative differences that can be endlessly multiplied, as Deleuze warned.1 Movement is not only a transient movement in space, but it should also be understood as change, as quantitative differentiation. As an example Deleuze refers to the eminent philosophical parable of the fearless runner Achilles. Despite his youth and strength, his movements resemble those of the old people in the park, who represent the turtle in this parable. It is not about equal speed, but about an equal mode of duration. Achilles’ movements can be quantitatively divided into steps; with every step, however, the movement changes in a qualitative manner. Deleuze says: “What seems from the outside to be a numerical part, a component of the run, turns out to be, experienced from the inside, an obstacle avoided.”2 The inner perception of movement is therefore quantitative and enables change, precisely because movement concerns us from the outside. Movement is a relation. It constantly dispossesses and changes us by means of obstacles and materiality that we cannot not relate to if we wish to move. And this might be the most interesting observation about the old people taking walks: the inner experience of movement as qualitative change imprints itself continuously on the surface of the body. Paradoxically, when this happens and we are actually perceiving the movement as change, the body seems to be incapable of moving, as it would be totally drowned in the precarious slowness of avoiding the obstacle. 


You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it,
but you’re always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you’re falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time.3

The body doesn’t only move, but it also hesitates. With the walk it takes, it doesn’t only pass by or make a transit, but it lasts, it endures in-between. 


The same conclusion could be also drawn from the people dancing in the dance school in Hamburg. There dancers are also stumbling, they are slow and precarious, they hesitate a lot; however, with each step, they leave less and less visible imprints of their hesitation on their bodies. These dancers are internalizing the relational component of the movement in a precise way, because only thus does it become possible to make their movement continuous and smooth. If they want to enjoy dancing smoothly, they have to rehearse and train in order to make the qualitative aspect of movement invisible. It is necessary to hide the qualitative change deeply in their virtuosity: only then can the movement autonomously take over and become an endless quantitative change of steps, directions and dominations over space and time.


However, even if both the images I described above are disclosing movement full of clumsiness, stumbling, alertness, and care in such a way as to reveal the relational component of movement, these two images could, at the same time, not be more different. The swing dancing people can be described as the representation of the kinetic subject of Western modernity (or at least they were trying to become one), still a bit clumsy but efficiently becoming skilled in their spinning around and traversing the space. Their learning can be seen as a light version of subjecting themselves to the disciplinary techniques through which, in the history of contemporary dance, interiorization of movement can be attained. The result is the illusionary skill that movement springs entirely from the body which is traversing the space, a skill so powerful in Western history that, with its power, as Lepecki observes, it emptied the space for the Western subject and its possessive inner freedom of continuous movement.4 However, in their attempts to learn the dance, there is a lot of enjoyment, not only in the learning process, but also a kind of future enjoyment; the joy that has yet to come, when they will have mastered the dance. Enjoyment can be considered to be a subversive potential, because it always comes back even in the middle of the most disciplinary techniques and mocks the institution that trains the every day body to transform it into that of the dancer. Slovenian philosopher Jelica Šumić Riha wrote that dance is always surpassing the phantasm of the institution which is training the body to become so skilled as to become the other. In her opinion, dance is always somehow mocking this phantasm, even when it does not have a distance towards it and it actually wants to support it. She argues that dance, when being a stage for the institutional phantasm, is at the same time playing with and disclosing what this phantasm is actually covering: a specific way of subversive enjoyment which should be supporting the given social order.5

In the image of the old people taking their daily walks the insecurity and alertness of the walking bodies is deeply grounded in the necessary awareness for someone who cannot any longer move with the city that movement is a constant qualitative change, a continuous rearrangement and replacement of the body in relation to the other forces and trajectories of life. Carefulness springs not only from the care for the body and its injuries, but it is the care of the world by which the body is being moved. It springs from the awareness that movement has to be grasped as belonging to other people’s movement, things, objects, worlds, as much as to the consciousness of the one who moves. Therefore, the trajectory of these bodies cannot happen in an empty space, but is always deeply embedded in the potentiality of the one who moves with being moved by the world at the same time. Since the trajectory of these moving bodies is always deeply embedded in the potentiality of being moved by the world, they cannot make their trajectories in an empty space. 


My observations on walking can be related to the visibility of everyday movement, which in the second half of the 20th century gained a strong political potential when walking entered the field of dance. What bodies do in daily life (how do they walk, move, stand, stop, sit etc.) opens an insight into the complex relationality between the movement of bodies and the materiality of the world. Situated within the world a body is not only a trajectory in space, but a heterogeneous composite of forces, tightly intertwined with other forces of life. One of the main consequences of the exploration of everyday movement in dance was the acknowledgement that movement does not consist in an endless quantification and division. Segmenting and enumerating movement always served as the way to produce the other body, i.e. the perfect kinetic subject in the service of the state, the factory or the company. Movement here is closely related to qualitative change and alteration, to the ways in which bodies are being moved and how they move within the world/interact with the world. Usually, the political potential of the discovery of everyday movement is described as a democratisation of movement (in the sense that everybody can do it, everybody can dance it). However, the consequences of the discovery of everyday movement are more complex and don’t necessarily have emancipatory power, as is mostly assumed when we talk about everyday movement in connection to performances. Nevertheless, if the walking bodies want to enjoy walking, it is first of all necessary to slow down and become attentive, since the space is full of movement which moves us: only in that way it is possible to embrace the change that is happening. 


The dance and the walk: two politics of dance


From the break at my kitchen window, I will now make a rather strange jump, a jump into the analysis of contemporary production. My hypothesis here is that the human capability to move stands at the centre of the contemporary exploration of human forces and is one of the most explored and appropriated human qualities when thinking about contemporary production. In one of his texts, Paolo Virno states that, in contemporary capitalism, fundamental abilities of the human being come to the foreground. Contemporary production consists of sharing linguistic and cognitive habits, and it is this affective and intellectual exchange of knowledge that constitutes Post-Fordist labour production. “All the workers enter into the production as much as they are speaking-thinking. This has nothing to do, mind you, with ‘professionality’ or with the ancient concepts of ‘skill’ or ‘craftsmanship’: to speak / to think are generic habits of the human animal, the opposite of any sort of specialization.”6 Other qualities that are usually connected with Post-Fordism, like the disappearance of the difference between work and non-work, the appearance of the cognitive proletariat, the abstraction of language and the exploration of human potentiality as such, are consequences of that shift of the generic qualities of the human being to the centre of production. At the forefront of Post-Fordist production are the generic habits of the human animal: language, thought, self-reflection and the ability to learn. Or to put it differently, in the extreme phase of contemporary capitalism, human potentiality stands at the centre of production. The constant actualisation of human potentiality is subjecting forces of life to a continuous appropriation by contemporary biopower and capital. 


However, there exists another generic quality of the human being that is not mentioned by Virno’s analysis of the cognitive aspects of Post-Fordism. It is nonetheless deeply inscribed in the potency of a human being: namely movement. When I talk of movement as a generic quality of a human being, I especially think about movement as a continuous becoming and alteration, as a qualitative multiplicity and not as a constant quantitative division which goes on endlessly in an already totalised space. Isn’t movement today one of the generic qualities of the human being standing at the forefront of contemporary production? Doesn’t this generic quality of human movement as alteration go together with the excess of collaboration (which is not only significant for artistic practice) in the recent years? Today human labour is closely connected to flexibility and mobility. The potential of human beings constantly on the move is highly explored as a productive human quality. It does not only imply moving territorially, but also being on the move between many projects, flexible jobs, and moving between many disembodiments. Movement places people into the present. It is only when they move that people can actually become visible in the present where they constantly add to the contemporary flow of money, capital, and signs. Interestingly enough, this development produces its own backside exactly in the same work community that enables contemporary mobility. More and more non-collaborative or non-belonging people or groups move in the invisible (secret?) and deadly channels of illegality, poverty, invisibility and escape. It seems that there is something in our daily rhythm and in the way we experience this sharing of language and thought, which puts us into a state of constant mobility and precariousness where nothing is stable but the deadline of working together and where space is generated as a consequence of mobility. So, isn’t the exploitation of the human capability to move one of the basic conditions of contemporary capitalism, where subjectivities have to hurriedly and continuously work out to stay fit for the demands of contemporary mobility and radical experimentation with time? And isn’t the “massive accumulation and proliferation of apparatuses of communication” (which, according to Agamben, defines the extreme phase of capitalist development)7 assigned to produce even greater mobility and quantitative differentiation of synchronous moving constantly producing subjectivities with many possibilities? 


To answer these questions in a proper way, we first need to make a small but important distinction between movement experimentation in the first half of the 20th century and the role of movement in today’s excessive phase of capitalism.8 It is well known that movement experiments were an important part of the Fordistic production and social distribution of bodies in the industrial phase of capitalism. However, they had a different character than the present exploration of the human capability to move. Scientific management theories were, for example, focused on the perfect synchronisation of the body with the machine, which demanded a radical and absolute interiorization of movement in the body. Only in that way could the gesture of the body be divided from the experience and endlessly repeated; the working gesture, we could say, could be separated from the experience of work. Usually, the bodies of industrial workers are described as machines, and their automatic work is described as alienated – very often also mocked as a dance in unison. However, behind such alienation stands the interiorization of movement as something which should belong so deeply to the body that the body of the worker is foreign to the one who works with it. Only when the movement is radically interiorized does the body became foreign, the other body which can be put in the service of the state or the factory. Here we don’t deal with the alienation of the movement from the body, but with the radical interiorization of the movement in the body, so that the body has become a space of constant quantitative division. Only in that way can a spectral and efficient working gesture appear and movement is not experienced as alteration. It is no wonder that Fordistic production was often represented as dancing together, a corps du ballet. And it does not come as a surprise that many popular representations of the assembly line mocked this interiorization of movement within the worker like Charlie Chaplin did in Modern Times. These mocking and incapable workers destroyed the whole production process because they were too dreamy to be efficient, too clumsy to work well, which actually also means that they experienced movement as change. Instead of moving smoothly, they reacted to the obstacles and to the materiality of the machine, their non-controlled gestures springing from their relation outside of the body: they were being moved by the world. However, there is a difference between the interiorization of movement in dance and the Fordistic approach to movement, because at the end, workers cannot dance, but they have to work. Scientific management was therefore successful in interiorizing movement. However, it also tried to abolish any extra enjoyment which could mock the institution by exposing its own phantasm: enjoyment was radically expelled from the body. That’s why at the beginning of the 20th century modern dance pioneers were re-evaluating the dynamic between the outside and inside of the body. They were searching for another kind of enjoyment that was connected to the autonomous aesthetic language of the body freeing itself from under the institutional and disciplinary grip. However, these attempts took place outside the factory. The modern dancers at the time were searching for the freedom in the body that belongs more to leisure than to work. That has several consequences which will be only briefly mentioned here. First the enjoyment of working bodies was reproduced in another form of capitalistic work, i.e. entertainment and spectacle; for example with the dancing bodies of the Tiller Girls or the dancing composites of Busby Berkeley.9 Second, the dance reappears in the massive spectacles of ‘natural bodies’, where movement is interiorized as the (only) nature of the human body, so that the healthy and powerful mover can be part of the naturalised masses of totalitarian systems. Third, a discovery of kinetic universality was part of the relation between inside and outside of the body, especially in the works of American choreographers like Martha Graham. Fierce aesthetic and political differences at the beginning of the 20th century have to be connected to these processes of radical interiorization of movement on many different levels; among them also the approaches of the contemporary dance pioneers. Dance artists (mostly women) wanted to liberate movement and liberate bodily expression as a force from the inner-side of the body. In these reforms human subjectivity became an ultimate source of movement, a source so strong that it could abstract its own body into the autonomous aesthetic field. In this case, we deal with the disclosure of inner freedom as a specific kinetic abstraction which can then be also connected to the fact, that in the conceptualisation of movement by dance reformers, this freedom was the freedom of time without work, i.e. the discovery of the potentiality of leisure time as opposed to the dull routine of work movement.


Exploitation of movement


In 2009 Natalie Bookchin did a video installation Mass Ornament in which she reflected the role of mass ornament today.10 In the beginning of the 20th century mass ornament functioned as the aesthetic reflex of the rationality of the prevailing economic system which I analysed as the rationality that heavily interiorized movement so that the body could effectively produce. At the same time this form also disclosed an enjoyment beside (or, perhaps, despite of) the system (coming, however, from entertainment, not from the workers). So, what could be the mass ornament of today? This question inspired Bookchin’s work, in which she collected hundreds of You Tube videos of people showing themselves dancing. Out of these videos she composed a synchronous choreography. Everybody is dancing alone in his or her own room, usually with a television recording on in the background where the same dance is performed. Bookchin choreographed and composed the recordings according to the similar moves, gestures, and dances the private dancers made. The result is a peculiar choreographic distribution of the bodies which are dancing the same dance or dancing in the same way, yet, always alone, private, but nevertheless connected and public. Such choreographic distribution could easily be achieved by the computer programme itself (if the computer programme would have the right parameters like ‘find people dancing on the song of Shakira’, ‘find people turning their head around in the living room’ etc.). Such an automatic selection and combination is actually being done regularly in the observation centres where recordings of the security cameras are analysed. In comparison to the universal rationality of the Fordistic production, Bookchin’s work creates an ornament of isolated private rooms and a showing off of bodies exposed in their difference, which at the same time is a difference of a radical sameness: a movement where change is totally spectral and replaced by a constant quantitative division of differences of those who are all trying to learn the same popular dances and show the same virtuosity.


The exploitation of the human capability to move does not have the same ideological constellation today that it had in the disciplinary societies where movement was so deeply interiorized that the body became a kinetic machine, a small but smoothly operating cog in the overwhelming social machine. The role of the movement in Post-Fordism has to be analysed in connection to the exploration of everyday movement and of ‘what the bodies usually do’, i.e. how they move with the world. This is not only speeding up and erasing the ‘ontological slowness’ and transformative potential of bodies, but bringing about a radical incongruity among the movable ones and the ones who are expelled to eternal stillness. If we claim that movement stands at the centre of production and that it is exploited as human potentiality, then this also implies that change or alteration today is radically abstracted from the materiality of the world and of the body. Change is turned into the spectral flexibility of accelerated contemporary subjectivity. Movement in that way enables freedom as temporal enslavement. Through the appropriation of movement, we can say “productive powers shade into powers of existence.”11 What is actually grounding the immateriality of contemporary work, its “spatial” independence, is exactly the exploration or, even better, exhaustion of that generic human force, i.e. the appropriation of movement as one of the forces of life. This centrality of movement in Post-Fordistic production has also been overlooked when philosophers conceptualised the cognitive proletariat as a new force in the political battle against forces of capital, as a possibility for a new political movement. The problem is that such a cognitive proletariat is actually highly disembodied, already colonised through the temporality of accelerated and quantitative movement, or as Franco Birardi Bifo writes: cognitarians still have to search for the body.12 Human capability to move has to find forms of resistance to the continuous temporal capture, acceleration, and effective rhythms of contemporary production, and open up new embodied possibilities for the movement of the many. In that sense the emphasis is not so much on the exploration of an autonomous body or on the possibilities of the individual embodiment as in modernism. What needs to be emphasised instead are the common and general characteristics of movement such as flexibility, precariousness, instability, intensity, rhythms, and temporality which are belonging to contemporary production. 


In an interview, Paolo Virno describes how Post-Fordistic workers get their skills: 


The qualities of a post-Fordistic worker are never qualities which would require skill regarding professional expertise or technical requirements. On the contrary, what’s required is the ability to anticipate unexpected opportunities and coincidences, to seize chances that present themselves, to move with the world. These are not skills people learn at the workplace. Nowadays, workers learn such required abilities by living in a big city, by gaining aesthetic experiences, having social relationships, creating networks.13

To move with the world (and with this movement attaining skills, knowledge, aesthetic experience and developing collaborative networks) here describes specific skills that are, of course, connected with cognitive work. However, to move with the world can also be understood as a specific exploitation of the human capabilities of movement. The relational aspect of movement today stands in the centre of exploitation. Movement of the body is therefore exteriorised. It is no longer inhabiting the interiority of the body as in 20th century Fordism, where exactly through the interiorisation of the movement it was possible to be a part of the bigger social machine. Subjectivities are flexible because their bodies are organised through constant protocols of acceleration and organisation of everyday and common movement. This kind of distribution enables experimentation with temporality where change is accelerated and spectralised. There is no time for hesitation when you ‘move with the world’. The result is the typical form of contemporary subjectivation or, rather, desubjectivation, which is confronted with the brutal intensification of the processes of individuation, where old forms of life become obsolete even before we are able to absorb them. One is therefore compelled to live in a state of constant tension on the verge of exasperation. Such brutal intensification of forms of individuation would not be possible without exteriorization of movement where the relational aspect of movement is being continuously manipulated and regulated by the protocols of the contemporary control society. The potential for change is transferred into the spectral flexibility without effect. As a result, human subjectivity becomes a source for many possibilities without any influence on the real. 


There is something deeply choreographic about today’s social machine which discloses its own compositions through constant organisation of smoothness, acceleration, non-disturbance, and the illusion that movement has nothing to do with disturbance. The material for this kind of social choreography belongs to that which the bodies can do: their everyday mobility and numerous movements through openings and closing which are today heavily controlled and regulated. One of the basic illusions of the contemporary subject is that we only move because of our inner feeling of time. This illusion serves as a basis for constantly subduing contemporary subjectivity to numerous apparatuses which promise even greater mobility to defeat our ontological slowness. However, the time of the subject is not a homogeneous time projecting into the future, i.e. a possibility that constantly needs to be realised. Rather, it is constantly avoiding obstacles, involuntary movement, a slowness in which time is running out. Contemporary dance therefore is a political field where proposals inside the human capability to move can be explored and connected to the broader social and political reality. In this sense it has to bring together two politics of dance of the 20th century which were intentionally introduced with simple images at the beginning of my text: a dance and a walk. Subversive enjoyment comes from the distance that the dancing body has towards the institutional mechanisms of the exteriorisation of movement, exactly because, in the end, it can dance. In this sense the capability to move can resist the economical and social organisation of the relational aspect of movement and open up other embodied ways of moving together, continuously creating flows of disturbances and affective persistences. With its different rhythms it can create tensions and put pressures on the apparently smooth protocols of contemporary capitalistic world. Today this need for the moving body can be very well observed in the changed strategies of political protestors such as the ‘Occupy’ movements, which transformed from disembodied networks and global movements to localised, but nevertheless connected forms of temporal persistence and endurance in places for ever engaged in the search for new political embodiments. That is why this enjoyment can be radically disruptive in a political way even if it belongs to the quantitative organisation and distribution of bodies. However, it is exactly this enjoyment that has to be connected to the capacity of everyday movement to induce change, to the ways of how to think of movement as a qualitative disturbance, a constant alteration of the forces of life, temporal dynamics and materiality of space. This enjoyment springing from the fact that the movement can induce change can work as an important point of differentiation between change that is spectral and change that directly affects the body and its relations to the world.



1 Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism (New York: Zone Books, 1991).


2 Ibid., p. 48.


3 Laurie Anderson, Big Science, Warner Bross Records, 1982.


4 Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance, Performance and Politics of Movement (New York, London: Routledge, 2006).


5 Jelica Šumić-Riha, “The diasporic dance of body enjoyment: slain flesh / metamorphosing body”, in: Sue Golding (ed.), The Eight Technologies of Otherness (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 225–235.


6 Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (Los Angeles, New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), p. 41.


7 Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009). 


8 I write more about that comparison in Bojana Kunst, “Dance and Work: The Aesthetic and Political Potential of Dance”, Emerging Bodies, The Performance of Worldmaking in Dance and Choreography, eds. Gabriele Klein and Sandra Noeth (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2011).


9 Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament, Weimar Essays (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2005).


10 Natalie Bookchin, Mass Ornament, 2009, http://vimeo.com/5403546, Access: 14. April 2012.


11 Brian Massumi, ‘The Future Birth of the Affective Fact’, Conference Proceedings: Genealogies of Biopolitics, http://browse.reticular.info/text/collected/massumi.pdf, Access: 5 December 2011.


12 Franco Berardi Bifo, Cognitarian Subjectivation, copyright E-Flux 2010, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/183, Access: 14 November 2011.


13 Paolo Virno, “The Dismeasure of Art”, Open, A Precarious Existence, no. 17, 2009, http://www.skor.nl/article-4178-en.html, Access: 14 November 2011.

  • Kapitalismus
  • Potentialität
  • Subversion
  • Störung
  • Postfordismus
  • Gehen
  • Tanz
  • Politik
  • Mobilität

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Bojana Kunst

ist Philosophin und Performance-Theoretikerin, sie widmet sich der Dramaturgie undLehre, zuletzt im Rahmen der Performance Studies an der Universität Hamburg. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind zeitgenössische Choreographie, politische Theorie sowie Kunstphilosophie. Sie ist Mitglied der Chefredaktionen der Zeitschrift Maska Amfiteater und Performance Research.

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