Choreographies of Protest Performance: 2. Somatic Communication and the experience of intensity
Whereas song can generate a vocabulary with which to perceive a situation or issue by re-distributing cultural images, in this essay there is the development of the idea that coherence amongst an emerging group of political actors proceeds by way of somatic dialogue manifesting as active and passive gestures and postures between bodies. In choreographies of protest, kinaesthetic intelligence is privileged for giving spontaneous movement form which sustains and amplifies the intensity of protest as the body receives and conveys rhythmic properties. For those in somatic dialogue, there is an investment into unity as creating difference in spatial relations as somatic communication motivates norms of reciprocity amongst a collective body of protest performers who establish affinity based on contact and connection.
The Meaning of Song
Music has been studied as a form of communication, with the potential to convey messages and spread information which traverses social, psychological and spatial distances (Steeger:
1987). Music can be a powerful platform in which public opinion is influenced as the words in song create and amplify a state of feeling which creates personal and subjective resonance (Gilman: 2009; Hobson: 2008). At the very same time, song lyrics might be satirical, metaphorical and they may even express ambiguous meanings (Gilman: 2009). In Plantation Protest: The History of Mozambican Song, Vail & White (1978: 6; 8) provide an interpretation of plantation song “Paiva” which was initially sang by workers jeering their plantation landlord “whose speech and walk would be imitated into a dance”, and the song has posthumously survived him to symbolise “the inequalities brought to the area by the monopolist company system and a satire on the disproportion between wages and profit”. Despite the shift in usage over a 50 year period, Vail and White (1978) make the observation that in duration, Paiva was often presented with a certain buoyancy whilst narrating pain and suffering.
To answer how individuals resonate with ambiguous and metaphorical messages, it has been suggested that “words presented in a fluent language produce greater affective responses than words spoken in a second language” and therefore, metaphors and ambiguities are automatically resolved by those who speak the language, in which the song is presented, fluently as they are able to situate intent (Duncan & Barrett, 2007: 1199; Seyfert: 2012). This is to imply that the messages conveyed by song are not ambiguous, but phonemic as they convey meaning to the ‘we’ included whereas the satire excludes a ‘they’ which is attributed with another set of signifiers. Song becomes a way of entering an internal-external dialectic of identification according to categories of signification such as “we” and “they” (Jenkins: 1996 in Clark, 2006: 500). Firstly, with every repetition of song, there is re-distribution of cultural images which etch out ideas of being and belonging, having empowering and disempowering consequences for those included and excluded, respectively. Secondly, the ideas expressed through song generate a vocabulary with which to perceive a situation or issue and oftentimes suggest actions which could address a situation or issue.
In the alternative, Bo, a research participant, infers that the literal meaning of a protest song is not the pull factor to participate in protest performance as he understood the vernacular in which the songs were presented, but in the moment of protest performance he did not use that meaning of the songs of protest to interpret and reconstruct his lived experience. The type of resonance created by the distribution of cultural images via song, covert and overt, has often perplexed music commentators who have long observed that the biggest consumers of Hip Hop music, which conveys information on and messages about growing up in state housing projects, the distribution of illicit drugs, being in and out of state penitentiary institutions and racialised police brutality, happen to be white and middle class (Gilbert: 2004). A phonetic analysis, aimed at developing a comparative understanding of the meaning making which takes place as a result of song becomes complicated by the fact that the manner in which song is accepted or rejected by listeners, and by extension performers, of song is complex and suggests that resonation goes beyond an understanding of lyrical content (Angrosino, 2007: 68).
As football has become a ubiquitous form of entertainment, which brings people together in their support of and participation in local, regional and international tournaments and leagues, there is a growing interest in the ebbs and flow of movement during a football match. Whereas Massumi (2002) drew out the ways in which the ball organizes movement both on and off the pitch, others have narrowed in on supporter cultures (Armstrong & Young: 1999; Clark : 2006; Giulianotti: 2013; Pearson: 2012). In what the latter view as the production and reproduction of symbolic power, it has been argued that the world of chanting fans pitches [us] into a world
…filled with passion and love, with parallel and co-existing hatreds, with the crucial aspects of a narrow and ferociously demonstrated cultural identity, with a commitment to events that at other times and in other circumstances would be laughable and ridiculous (Armstrong & Young, 1999: 173).
Chants, for and against certain actors and actions, provide the background music to a series of movements through which “those who would ordinarily be subdued and suppressed use their body to signify a status or position” (Armstrong & Young, 1999: 176). In initiating movement or going with the flow of movement, football fanatics are able to have an alternative conversation to the one ascribed on their bodies e.g. they can show disapproval for decisions made by their teams’ executive managers in ways that they are ordinarily, outside of the pitch, not privy to due to societal structures which denigrate the opinions of so-called ‘chavs’ (Armstrong & Young: 1999). As a chant or song cannot perform the function of being a status nullifier outside of the stadium or during off-season times, the liminal space-time is not created by heckling, but rather chant or song creates an opening for participants to become “other” in its duration.
In turning to performance and embodiment, the interest is in thinking through difference or that which enables an instance of protest performance to entail much more than the objective structure of song as many people may hear song, but not follow or join in its duration. This may be due to lexical differences or lexical indifference, but human perceptual systems tune out sensory information regularly that even upon hearing song, it may be ignored until it fades to the background (Moore & Yamamoto: 2012). In what follows there will be an exploration of the becoming of bodies in the context of protest performance through the development of the concept of somatic communication, a relation of encounter between bodies, in choreographies of protest.
Choreographies of Protest
The term choreography is a portmanteau of the words dance (choreo) and writing (graphy) and it implies that movement is a “form of articulation” which is representative of much more than an ephemeral dance piece or form (Parvianen, 2010: 315). For Hewitt (2005) and McCormack (2003), choreography is not limited to rehearsed dance forms, but can be applied to “all events in which movements appear as meaningful interactions and relations between agents”. In building a choreography of protest, consideration is given to the questions provided in the article ‘Choreographies of Protest’ such as:-
…what are these bodies doing?; what and how their motions signify?; what choreography, whether spontaneous or pre-determined, do they enact?; what kind of significance and impact does the collection of bodies make in the midst of its social surround?; how does the choreography theorize corporeal, individual and social identity?; what kinds of relationship do they establish with those who are watching their actions? (Foster, 2003: 397)
Observation: Somatic Communication at a Student Body Meeting
As autumn winds gathered what remained of the day with dusk approaching, some students began to walk to Eden Groove to attend the student body meeting called by the SRC to discuss issues of transformation and the name Rhodes University. Although the meeting was set for 7:30 pm, the procession to the venue started earlier with numerous individuals engaged in animated conversations outside the venue seating or standing in groups of 2, 3, 5 or more. For some time, I stood at the bottom right entrance, scanning the room, looking for a seat. There were many seated students who had arrived earlier; some had their bags and jackets placed in seats near them holding the space for their friends yet to make their way in. By the time I entered, the only spaces vacant were the stairs which divide the lecture venue into three sections. All around the room were frequencies and melodies of protest song. I made my way to the stairways which divide the bottom half of the room. I remember looking around thinking “this is a lot of people”. Whenever there’s a seminar, a human rights talk, a book launch at Rhodes… around 60 people show up. But this particular event had attracted way more, overcrowding the venue which ordinarily can hold around 350 people. As I perched myself on the stairs, more students were arriving, but they couldn’t enter the venue. On each entry/exit door, there were about 20 students standing, trying to peek into the venue. The people inside were either having conversations amongst themselves or participating in the tuning of protest song via rhythmic clapping, swaying of arms or stomping of feet.
Outside the venue, by the doorway, or while giving the room a 360 scan, what was observed was the coming together of bodies. The transcendence from standing outside to seating inside is a reading-in of the room and what follows signals the start of contact improvisation with the space and the bodies held within. In the room, there was a territorialisation of “intimate personal spaces” with bodies or belongings to communicate to other bodies the physical boundaries of the room (Urmston & Hewison, 2014: 219). Listening and noticing the physical boundaries of the room helps an individual deliberate their point of entry; oftentimes students would test the physical boundaries of the room by employing the dance technique of “reaching” through which they would wave, high-five, fist pump, dab or clench their fist and raise it above their head while maintaining eye contact with someone they know (Rosch: 2018). The reciprocation or acknowledgement of their reaching hand gestures establishes contact and connection with other bodies already there. A body already there may catch the eye of an entering body, motion for it to come closer to it and remove their belongings from the intimate personal space they have just created, to signal that the seat was reserved for it. Once the body reaches the seat reserved for it, it may reach out to hug the body which was already there, in gratitude for holding the space for it or express sheer joy at seeing a familiar face with a head tilt and a soft chuckle in its embodiment of a smile. Two bodies may simply acknowledge each other, without touch, through a synchronic nod and moving their bodies in closer proximity via the placement of their chairs.
Relations of encounter are premised on somatic dialogue between actors. According to the contact improvisation view, somatic dialogue is contingent on the physical proximity of bodies for sensory receptors to relay the information received from “the outside” to motor reflexes (Goldman: 2007; Stahmer: 2011). Contact improvisation emerged in the early 1970s as an avant garde dance style by a collective of young artists who participated in social ‘contact jams’ and in the contemporary it is widely taught to and practiced by drama students as a “supplement to technical training and choreography” (Albright: 1997; Novack: 1990; Stahmer, 2011: 21). Contact improvisation is a form of social choreography which is separate from form, but gathers its nature in displaying synesthetic and proprioceptive movement, that is, the kinaesthetic intelligence of sense and coordination in response to and in communication with another body (Goldman: 2007; Parviainen: 2010). At the very same time, the bodily sensory system is comprised of “distant senses” such as vision, hearing and smell, which do not require physical touch to transmit information between bodies (Arnheim, 1969: 17). Affective contagion studies point to the workings of pheromones, which when released by one body change the behaviour of another as an illustration of neuro mirroring in response to another (Brennan: 2004; Dewsbury: 2000; Moore & Yamamoto: 2012). Thus, even in absence of physical touch, participants in protest can communicate on a kinaesthetic level in response to the presence of another actor or to the idea of another actor as bodies of the crowd become entrained together, influenced by the actions of other bodies in the crowd into unconscious and automatic mirroring (Brennan: 2004; Foster: 2003; Hirsch: 2002; Parviainen: 2010; Stern: 2004; Wetherell: 2012). Whether based on contact or connection, in somatic communication, the body assumes a passive and active role, listening and receiving the frequencies of other bodies through multiple sensory orientating systems and responding to them or initiating movement which is then listened and received by other bodies (Albright: 1997; Henriques: 2011; Stahmer: 2011).
Protest performance and choreographies of protest are instances when the body receives and conveys rhythmic properties. Participants initially observed and then attended to the atmosphere through movement in their improvisation of a shared point of contact, such as rubbing their elbow with one hand while the other is drawn to their chest when standing which is improvised via the clapping of hands in formation with the collective body. Participants often stated that they were not aware of the complexity of their movements, but rather were ‘going with the flow’ during an uncertain and ambiguous moment. The lack of divergence from the atmosphere found, referred to as ‘going to with the flow’, becomes interesting because although the movement was spontaneous and improvised, it either sustained or amplified the intensity of the atmosphere or vibe which was initially encountered. According to those who study human kinaesthetics, spontaneous movement has form because, in its emergence, bodies evaluate exteroceptors and interoceptors, make necessary proprioceptive adjustments and relay responses which appear as coordinated motor activity (Gardner, 1983 in Parviainen: 2010). The movement of the body is not only the escape of imperceptible forces and intensities from the body, it illustrates a decision made in that uncertain and ambiguous moment in which the body was initially overwhelmed by the feeling or vibe of protest.
Interactive communication between newly formed acquaintances, who share a participation connection in the exchange of contact, gestures and postures, establishes weak ties of reciprocity and social recognition (Granovetter, 1973: 1364- 1367). This is, in part, due to the manner in which gestures and bodily postures, such as reaching, eye contact, synchronic nods and at times, laughter, draw bystanders into a choreography of protest as they accept, reject or improvise gestures and bodily postures which unfold. Any type of response signals a bodily investment or disinvestment to the somatic dialogue between two or more bodies which is then developed through the repetition of exchanges of contact and connection.
Whereas Thrift (2008) proposes that there is a certain identity in entrainment to a common mood, Polletta & Jasper (2001) advance that collective identity might be based on the connections one has to members of a group. Once somatic dialogue has been developed through subsequent performative acts in choreographies of protest, it has been attributed with fostering the imagination of an alternative reality, referred to as utopia, to the ‘world out there’ (Kershaw:1997; Moore & Yamamoto: 2012). This has played out in the displacement of space via the expression of unity as difference in human shields, die-ins, and occupations. What can be gathered is that the coming together of bodies is productive for it obliges, due to norms of reciprocity and social recognition, individuals to protest along with or on behalf of bodies it identifies with. Individuals in protest become invested in the contact and connections which bind them and the somatic dialogue between actors does develop as a preferred affinity of interest for the actors of protest performance.
Earlier literature on activism failed to account for the emergence of spontaneously organised relations between bodies. It merely argued that when it was there, it organised collective minds in the instances of haphazard decision-making and strategy, but as it plays out in choreographies of protest it signals a kinaesthetic intelligence which is not only a sense of movement, but orientates the movement forms which sustain or amplify the intensity of protest. The immersion of bodies in protest performance is self-referential as the participants did not join protest due to an adherence to the structure of song, an “intense identification with the values of an organization” or the “pre-existing organization of preference structures” which has been said to “dispose an individual towards participation” (McCarthy & Zald, 1977: 1236; McAdam, 1986: 64; Oberschall: 1973). In a choreography of protest such as protest performance, unity of movement bypasses socio-linguistic schema in recruiting individuals to activism and such recruitment occurs as a response to and a product of the communication between bodies.
It could be said that in hearing song first, bodies are recruited via their resonance with the lyrical content of song, but participants reflected on a somatic event which is felt by its rhythm and flow and not the invitation afforded by the structure of the lyrical antiphony. Instead of adhering to the ideas expressed through song, much of the duration of protest performance is the experience of intensity which makes the participants go with the flow of movement and it is going with the flow of movement which organises relations between bodies. Protest as a performance which appears and disappears in choreographies of protest has been imagined as an event which gathers its nature in duration as the body evaluates, makes necessary adjustments and relays responses which illustrate form and coordination from spontaneous movements. What differentiates the theory of affect from present theories of collective action is that activism functions differently; firstly the potential to become a protestor in an already occurring protest is characterised by resolution of the feelings induced by song through becoming immersed in the rhythm of song. Song merely creates an opening which is then addressed by other sensory systems in order for the body to become in its actualisation as a protest performer. Secondly, it is the reception and reciprocation of the somatic event which reveals a type of recruitment to activism which is prior to the socio-linguistic organization of preferences and interests as these have not been framed yet.
Read Choreographies of Protest Performance: 1. The Transgression of Space here