Knowledge, Certainty and Body-Positivism

In attempting to tackle Task 1 in the Reader, to ‘take the body of work from a dancer and relate it to knowledge, certainty and body-positivism, and taking the approach of making my own personal interpretation of their work in terms of these notions and philosophers, I realised I needed a crash course in the history of philiosophy!
So, after many hours of trawling Youtube watching the most basic ‘lectures’ I could find on the most obvious philosophers, and reading the basics, I’m not sure I am any the wiser! I did, however, attempt the task, and focused on Isadora Duncan, as I had looked at her life and works many years ago.
I decided to write a very brief overview of her early life experiences, and any influences that could explain her own outlook on life and dance. These range from a grandmother, who had a trace of “a Spanish type of Irish beauty”, and who was said to “dance an Irish jig”, and an aunt who had a “talent for acting and singing” (Blair p.13), her mother who told her “There is no Santa Claus and there is no God, only your own spirit to help you.” (Blair p. 12) And her own belief that she started dancing in her “mother’s womb probably, as a result of the oysters and champagne – the food of Aphrodite.” (Blair 1986 p.7) From this very brief look at Isadora’s early life, it would appear that her knowledge of dance stemmed from the influences of her families’ interest in the arts, music and dancing. Her mother was musical, and dance must have been important as it was a means to earn a living for the family at that time, as they gave lessons in social dancing.
We could say that Isadora’s life experiences were the source of her knowledge of dance, as put forward by John Locke –who believed that fundamental human knowledge must come from the senses, that, at birth, our minds are a blank sheet that aquire basic knowledge of the world through the senses. Experiences can be categorized and stored in the memory. “Only then can the mind start to assemble it’s own new ideas and think independently from the senses“. (Robinson and Groves on Locke, p.64) Looking at Locke’s school of thought, it would seem that Isadora’s sensory quality in her dancing emerged from her life experiences, and then became her ‘knowledge’. Locke thinks all our ideas are derived from experience. However, he also says knowledge is fallible and that we can’t say for certain how ‘things’ behave. Clarke and Vaughan (p.128) say Isadora’s ‘first inspiration was the natural movement of the waves and trees’. Blair (p.14) says in DC, Isadora’s notebook, ‘Swaying poppies, soaring birds, sweeping waves – all seemed to be dancing, and she danced with them’. Many children experience the swaying and soaring of nature around them, but they aren’t inspired to create dance from those experiences. Why, then was Isadora? If Kant’s contributions are applied, as in ‘reality was in the eye of the perceiver’, perhaps Isadora’s childhood experiences caused her to perceive the objects, i.e. waves, leaves, flowers, with her sensory body.
Or was her Grandmothers feel for dance held in Isadora’s body as knowledge of generations? Darwin believed that the body held the knowledge of generations through evolution.
Another early influence on Isadora was the work of Francois Delsarte. Although primarily a student of music, a theorist of movement and a voice coach, studying anatomy had awakened his interest in the relationship between movement and emotion. Blair (1986 p.18) says ‘The young dancer was struck by his observation that all natural movements are expressive of something such as a thought, a feeling or a motive.’ Isadora was later to write “My dance is not a dance of the body but of the spirit. My body moves because my spirit moves it.” Initially, Isadora danced reflectively about the world around her, and I believe she embodied her life experiences and used them as a source of inspiration. If we agree with the notion that ‘experience is knowledge’, then the dualist approach, as in Descartes ‘reality through disembodied thinking’, doesn’t fit here.
Isadora studied ballet briefly, but eschewed it saying “I am an enemy to ballet which I consider to be a false and preposterous art”. Admittedly, at that time, ballet could be described accurately in this way, as, in wishing to display technique, ballerinas would ‘interpolate pas de deux from other ballets without regard for either unity of choreography or of music’ (Blair p.28). Her belief that ‘toe dancing’ caused deformed bones and muscles, could be likened to Aristotles recognition of induction, that all of the ballet dancers she had met had deformities caused by the physical demands of their art, therefore she believed that all ballet dancers will have these deformities. Hume, however, said that findings based on observation and induction must remain conjectural and temporary. Induction can never offer you the certainty that logic can. We could say that, logically, if we dance on our toes for many hours a day, which we know is not the ‘natural’ design for the human body – it is a skill that is practiced and learned – there will probably be some deformation in the bones. However, these days, a healthy, well-trained ballet dancer’s body is physiologically well aligned, with muscles that work efficiently, creating a slender, lean shape, arguing that Hume was right in his thinking.
Isadora had always danced spontaneously, but later began to ‘analyze movement and re-examine everything she had learned about her art’ (Blair p.44). Her technique aimed at fluidity, and was based on the principal that the bodies’ centre of gravity is the solar plexus. John Martin, a dance critic, wrote
“she has described her search for certain key movements which should arise out of elemental emotion experiences such as fear or love…..the only possible means that lay within herself was memory……..A state resembling fear itself must be recreated to stimulate the impulses of suitable movement. This could only be done by recalling previous experiences of fear”.
Isadora’s search for a ‘school’ of movement doesn’t appear to have its grounding in separation of mind from body or Descartes’ ‘disembodied thinking’. She almost definitely uses a non-positivist, embodied approach. She was certain that the confines and restraints of other available forms of dance were not for her, and used her ‘knowledge’, gained by experience, to define a ground breaking dance form, not only in style, but in dress.
It is interesting to note, in Adesola Akinlye’s extract, that ‘Orphic priests required worship through movement’; Isadoras building of a technique involved influence from the culture and art of ancient Greece, and her costumes were usually flimsy shifts reminiscent of this time. Akinlye also mentions ‘Greek orgeia dances to Dionysus involved losing control of the body as part of the experience of devotion’. In discussing Isadora’s technique, Blair (p.49) says
‘it is necessary to pass through the stages of psychological and physical self-awareness to reach this stage of self-forgetfulness, of surrendering to the music and the prompting of one’s innermost being’.
I wonder if the ‘orgeia dances’ and Isadora’s ‘surrendering’ are synonymous?
It is also interesting to note that, at this time, the German philosopher Nietzsche died leaving a legacy that ‘God is dead…..’, and that ‘the ancient Greeks were superior to the modern Christian world’ (Robinson and Groves p.84). Was this another influence on Isadora?
I have struggled with the term ‘body-positivism’ and can only seem to relate it to Isadora’s own confidence in her body at a time when a woman’s body was always covered and considered corruptive. Her costume and dance style were challenging to the audiences of the day, and, coupled with the assumptions carried with dance and the female body, frowned upon by many. I believe her lack of formal education, and subsequent education by her mother, who herself held quite radical views about religion, would have influenced Isadora to be unaffected by the controls of society at that time.
Although Isadora sought to define her own unique theory of movement, her relationship with certainty in terms of her themes of choreography embodied her dramatic and tragic life experiences. The ‘thing,’ or message, emotion or inspiration she set out to convey was a constantly changing force throughout her career. Her ‘inspiration and movement came from the solar plexus’, but her own ‘drive and inspiration were not technically oriented’. (Blom and Chaplin The Intimate Act of Choreography p. 149). These themes were often reflected in her choreography, with dances of a pastoral and lyrical nature in the early years, such as ‘The Spirit of Spring’ and ‘A Dance of Wandering’, her dance Sonata Pathetique after the tragic deaths of her children, to revolutionary dances such as March Slave, in 1924 in response to her experiences in Russia and the Ukraine. (Blair 2001). She used ugliness in her dance, as in The Dance of the Furies, to portray an emotion not usually included in dance then.
I believe Isadora’s legacy has left a great impact on, not only the world of dance, in terms of ground breaking and innovative choreography, but also the sense that her work ‘changed’ the lives of those around her, and influenced those dancers and choreographers who followed her, such as Martha Graham. She had a ‘liberating influence on customs, costume and women’s moral standards’ (Blair p.400). I believe her knowledge has been defined in her work. It can be said that Isadora celebrated the body and emotions, opposing and challenging the current thinking in her era, and the legacy of Christian control. In terms of body-positivism, Isadora embodied her own life, and what emerged was a constructed and constantly changing ‘thing’ – the work of Isadora Duncan.
I’m really not sure if I have really understood Isadora’s work in notions of the philosophers, and knowledge, certainty and body-positivism, and would welcome any comments that might help my understanding here. Sorry this has turned out to be quite a long blog!


One thought on “Knowledge, Certainty and Body-Positivism

  1. Hi Cathy
    Great, the idea of this task is to do exactly what you have done: try to understand massive philosophical ideas by placing them in a context (such as looking at the life/work of a dancer). Although there is much more behind the general short cuts we have for what different philosophers have said, you do a great job of identifying philosophers who have ‘grandfathered’ the development of Western thinking on embodiment.
    Great work


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