The Social Context of Contact Improvisation

The Social Context of Contact Improvisation was the topic of a discussion in which I took part at the 10th European Conference for Contact Improvisation in Amsterdam, January 1995.* In what follows I want to engage with some of what was said in Amsterdam.

I’ll start with the contention that the “nature of the form” (CI) is “intrinsically subversive”. I want to argue that this is misleading precisely because I think CI has some relationship to “radical values”. As far as I can tell most people in the CI scene hold vaguely left/liberal views but do not really engage with social reality, being more interested in individual psychology or aesthetics rather than social structure. One popular belief seems to be that working for “big changes” is futile and that you have to “start with small changes”, preferably with yourself.

As much as I agree with the idea that personal change is an essential part and prerequisite of larger social change, as emphatically do I disagree with the notion that it is in itself sufficient, and with the allied simplistic view that political campaigns, civil disobedience, sabotage, etc. somehow have no effect.

I think that talk about “starting with yourself” or “if you change yourself you change the world” (quote from the discussion report) usually serves the purpose of justifying political quietism and social inaction – and, in my eyes, displays a shocking degree of liberal delusion and lack of radical social analysis. So this is why I am highly skeptical of statements such as “whenever we meet to do CI we perform an act of defiance against the mainstream” (quote from the discussion report).

After getting down so hard on the CI scene I want to make it clear I’m not so happy about the radical left (as far as I know it) either. Most leftists – and even many socialist feminists – still seem to have a veritable paranoia of anything to do with therapy, are usually ignorant of many cultural/aesthetic developments and generally have little awareness of the needs and desires of ‘their’ bodies. This is a regrettable state of affairs and I believe that if socially subversive, oppositional groups are to survive (one day to gather the momentum required to bring about the abolition of gender hierarchy, the socialization of the means of production, the dissipation of the state, the end of racism… and so on…) this will have to change.

Of course, the personal changes CI facilitates go some way toward making us a little less neurotic, teach us to cooperate, improvise… these are prerequisites for living a different life in a new society… But if these personal changes happen only in on relatively isolated and inconsequential segment of society, then the question is: how incompatible with post-modern late capitalism – that requires flexible, self-determined, creative individuals (at least in the white collar labor force of the ‘developed countries’) – the traits we cultivate in CI really are. But, more importantly: what we do in CI is possible only within an ‘artificial’, ‘neutral’, protected space, cut off from real social relations. That we share our weight doesn’t mean we’ll share our income.

In a way CI is based on a ‘real abstraction’: we abstract from what we are (men, women, middle class, working class…) and pretend to be ‘just human’, just bodies. CI is a waking dream, a dream of another life, where the divide this society has erected between the physical – associated with femininity, nature, the ‘primitive’, the ‘laboring classes’… – and the intellectual – associated with masculinity, culture, ‘whiteness’, the bourgeoisie… – is abolished; where bodies are intelligent, the mind physical, a utopia where the body is no longer under the sway of ‘natural difference’, god-given or biologically determined racial and gender hierarchies of ‘blood’ or ‘genes’, but enters into the freedom of abstract bourgeois equality. It is a dream, and let us not mistake it for reality! In everyday life, the division of body and mind continue, the brutal stereotyping of people according to gender/racial… categories based on physical traits does not abate and, internalized, continues to create those ‘self-evident’ delusions that make up a lot of what so many people feel to be their ‘identities’.

CI is pre-oedipal, involving the desire to be ‘everything’, male and female, ‘primitive’ childlike movement and primary physical sensations. In CI we experience the return of something we – as a society – have never integrated into ourselves but only repressed.

I do believe CI carries within itself a radical potential, contains a utopian desire. But it would be to compromise this utopian desire, to waste the potential if we were to pretend that ‘just doing CI’ changed anything much. For me what is radical about CI is how it reminds us of what could be, how it makes our desire flow beyond what is… In a way, it is like a drug; if we are not aware that it is not the real thing, it can become a pacifier, a false satisfaction, something to kill the pain of alienation with.


* A report on this discussion by Jackie Adkins was published in Contact Connection No. 2 (1995) and later, along with an edited version of this text, in Contact Quarterly (Summer/Fall issue 1996)