In Practice: Body Nerds: Judith Butler and Monique Jenkinson

Two performers standing talking

Monique Jenkinson, left, and Judith Butler in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

On November 3, 2017, philosopher Judith Butler took to the CounterPulse stage and, be still my beating heart, danced. Joined in mutual illustriousness by Monique Jenkinson in a tempered version of her drag persona, Fauxnique, the duo of theory queens performed Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body[1], what will go down in my personal history as the greatest lec-dem of all time.

Picture it: two queer icons alone together on the dance floor, step-touching their way through theories of gender, embodied identity, and precarity. Their dancing demonstrated that the philosopher has a body and the dancer has a mind—in other words, everyone is a bodymind—and the toll dancing and scholarly labor takes on the body was made visible by their talk about it. For years I’ve been arguing that talking and dancing are never mutually exclusive enterprises, and both talking and dancing flesh out theory. Are we understanding something different about the same thing when we investigate that thing through non-verbal movement vs. through words? Can we arrive at the same understanding of the same thing from different sensory and cognitive approaches? Is that even a desirable goal? What do we want when we say we want to bridge the gap? Butler and Jenkinson chose to perform the gap, to wade in, swim, tread water, float, and play chicken in the gap—though there wasn’t a spirit of knocking opponents off shoulders.

Dance is a popular metaphor among philosophers, including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but there was nothing metaphorical about these two dancing bodies theorizing. When Jenkinson mentioned the pelvic clock, she was referring to a somatic practice, not some idea about waning fertility; when Butler, discussing the body as a set of interrelationships, said, “Oh fascia, who knew? Fascia is the center of the universe!” she was locating the web of connections in her body as a source and a source of healing for her chronic joint pain.

And yet, of course, Jenkinson and Butler were also illustrating the webs of the social through this bodily discourse. But before I turn to those connections, allow me to linger a bit longer on the subject of the philosopher’s body.

When French critical theorist Evelyne Grossman visited UC Berkeley in 2010, she gave a seminar entitled, “An Authentical Body of Sensibility,” in which she discussed the drawings of theater director Antonin Artaud. In it, a student asked, “Why do you think Artaud drew pictures of teeth falling out?” And Grossman replied, “Because he had so much electroshock therapy—all his teeth fell out.” Later that same year, I took a seminar with Ramona Nadaff (whom I’d first met in dance class at Shawl Anderson—dancing scholars unite!) and discovered that Marx suffered terribly from carbuncles.

Learning that Butler suffers from her own “systemic joint disease,” and hearing about her embodied practices—yoga, meditation, walking, swimming, getting up from the computer every 20-40 minutes to move—brought me back to her 2009 Hegel seminar. I got into the seminar on the basis of a proposal to study the relationship between the Alexander Technique discourse and practice of “non-doing” and Western philosophies of the Self. Somatic practice meets critical theory.

Bookended by a little bit of Kant and a little bit of Marx, the course focused on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which we read very slowly and very carefully. Despite this loving approach to the text, I took very little away in the way of Hegel’s philosophy (or Kant’s, or Marx’s). In fact, it’s a good thing there are no final exams based on content in graduate seminars because what I remember most from the course are Butler’s gestures. I often wouldn’t hear a word she was saying, so fixated was I on the symmetry of her hand gestures and the way that symmetry would break down as she held an idea in one hand and used the other hand to demonstrate its complexity. Any gesture studies scholar will tell you that the gestures of a philosopher have much to tell us about their thinking. We get to know something else or something more, even if that knowledge escapes verbal articulation—we enter the phenomenological feeling space of being together. But attending to the philosopher’s body does something else as well: it reminds us they have a body in the first place, and that they’re vulnerable, and that they give and require care.

So, even before witnessing her James Brownesque shuffles and a move I’ll call “schlumpy chicken does the Hollywood hula,” Butler was already, for me, a species of dancer. And just like my experience in her seminar, my notes from her performance with Jenkinson are largely incomprehensible and my memory deeply selective. Here’s a selection:

  • Butler’s left fingers twitch as she lies on the stage, the seemingly involuntary gesture revealing layers of movement inscription—all the writing, all the typing, all the touching.
  • Butler erupts into a lasso maneuver amidst her rhythmic step-touches and says, “Well, some of us didn’t really want to dance but here I am.”
  • Jenkinson matches Butler’s step-touches and remembers the many conversations she has had “in this state, over the music, queering the conversation.”

Butler and Jenkinson’s discussion revealed biographies that overlapped in ways that might have been surprising had the two not been performing with such synergy. Both are best known for pioneering work from decades ago (Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990, Jenkinson won the Miss Trannyshack Pageant in 2003; I think Jenkinson spoke for them both when she said, “I’ve done a lot since then!”). Both went to Bennington College. And both have a long-standing and always evolving relationship to drag—Butler remembering the “gorgeous, fabulous, perfect freedom of expression” of the drag performers upstairs at Partners Bar in New Haven, Connecticut in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the lesbians were “dancing, debating separatism, and breaking up” downstairs, Jenkinson noting that ballet is also drag, “a codified way of being feminine.”

Two performers leaning against the floor or wall

Monique Jenkinson, left, and Judith Butler in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

Turning now to the social body, Butler told the story of how she and dance writer Wendy Perron, during their Bennington days, used to walk around Greenwich Village, “body slamming” into and sliding down the windows of fancy restaurants: “We would lose our balance, we would die, and wait to see if the good bourgeois people were alarmed—no one ran out.” These “choreographies of collapse” (Jenkinson quoting Perron) drew the discussion away from gender performativity and towards Butler’s theories of “precarious life,” “bodies that matter,” and “performative assembly.” This hilarious section (see photo) rubbed against the most somber of subjects, of “who might catch you, where you might land.” Jenkinson and Butler stumble walked together and fell together in an exploration of ground. “No one stands on their own,“ Butler said, and everyone requires ground on which to move—a floor, insurance, shoes, well-funded infrastructure: “The ground is part of the living that lets us live.”

Lying on the floor in the somatic X, the two performers discussed the ordinary practices of the radical body and ways to find the radical in the ordinary, “How we help each other persist” (Butler). Jenkinson tried to explain the Feldenkrais Method, which she practices with Augusta Moore, saying, “It’s kind of this,” what we’re doing,” i.e. lying on the ground barely moving. “And then Augusta would say, ‘All right, now rest, that was a lot.’” Jenkinson’s Feldenkrais humor issued peals of recognition-laughter from the audience, and she called us all “body nerds.” I’ve never felt more understood in all my life.

One performer holding another's head

Judith Butler, left, and Monique Jenkinson in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

After Jenkinson reflected on the wonder of the pubic bone being not a bone but two processes and a symphysis, the dynamically attuning duo got up to share some weight, took a minute of silent stillness each, inviting themselves to be seen[2], and took turns holding each other’s heads (see photo). This last precious exchange quieted the room—the intimacy of it, the performance of care. As Butler cradled Jenkinson skull, she wondered whether anyone would “speak with invective” if they were holding a head. Reflections on what constitutes a grievable life, a loseable life followed. And then, Butler asked Jenkinson, “How heavy was my head,” to which Jenkinson responded dramatically, “Unbearably heavy.”

It is not my intention to make naturalizing associations between the body of the theorist and the theories she produces, but to remember that the theorist has a body and that the body of the theorist theorizes. As we age, we are forced to practice, to move, to think differently, finding our sensory capacities limited and expanded, in other words, changed. We change and the world changes for us. As I watched Butler and Jenkinson attend to their changing bodies in real time, physically and verbally, it seemed clear to me that their new attunements would undoubtedly affect their cultural products.

But the ground of it all is life, liveable and grievable life. Just days after her performance with Jenkinson, on a visit to São Paolo, Brazil, Butler was met by a mob of violent, far right Christian protestors who burned her in effigy[3]. A deeply frightening experience and yet, Butler is confident that “this contemporary sexual conservatism or what we might understand as a reactionary sexual politics is an effort to take us back to a world that will never come back. […] So we shouldn’t be worried that all of our steps will be reversed. They’re trying but they will not win because our side is on the side of greater acceptance, greater understanding, it offers more recognition to more people, and people want to live with freedom, they want to live with joy, they don’t want to live with shame and they don’t want to live with censorship, so we have joy and freedom on our side and that is why we will eventually win.”[4]

Bearing witness to Monique and Judith, cradling each others’ heads, caring for and protecting the body of the dancing philosopher and the body of the philosopher dancer, it seems we have already won.

That was a lot. Now rest.

 

[1] “Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body” was the opening night performance of Hope Mohr’s 2017 Bridge Project: Radical Movement: Gender and Politics in Performance, which was inspired by the question, “What does it mean to have a radical body?” and which deserves way more than a footnote. (Hope and I are in the midst of finding a time to talk so stay tuned.)
[2] “What if every cell in our bodies (100 trillion) at once has the potential to invite being seen choosing to surrender the pattern of facing a single direction while perceiving all of the space in which I am performing (and time is my music…all of my movement is music).” (Deborah Hay, quoted on the PICA blog, http://pica.org/2006/09/20/i_still_ask_because_its_intere/).
[3] See Scott Jaschik’s “Judith Butler on Being Attacked in Brazil” on Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/11/13/judith-butler-discusses-being-burned-effigy-and-protested-brazil.
[4] “Judith Butler no Brasil | Quem tem medo de falar sobre gênero? [legendado],” TV Boitempo, published November 8, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=350&v=cozmjJpMakM.

PUBLISHED January 1, 2018

POSTED IN In Dance

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