Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you body and soul
—Johnny Green, Edward Heyman, “Body and Soul” (1930)
“What am I even doing here?” I asked myself as I sat on the bathroom floor at Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, wiping my dirty, bare feet with wet paper towels. Once my feet were rid of whatever debris could easily be removed, I rejoined 20 or so fellow barefoot participants in Northwestern’s week-long summer Performance Studies Institute (NU-PSI). As I re-entered the black box theatre, the diverse collection of actors and scholars ranging from performance studies to black studies to the study of rhetoric were pretending to pull themselves across the room with an invisible rope using only one arm. Standing at the edge of the space, I considered the research time lost that day to struggles against imaginary constraints, or running around the room while guiding a partner whose eyes were closed, or slowly lifting myself from the fetal position to standing without using my hands. In the middle of my quick calculations, I made eye contact with one of my fellow participants—a seasoned performer, Brittney, had already impressed with her ability to make an engaged performance out of even the smallest of motions. A subtle roll of her eyes, meant only for me, signaled that although her body, unlike mine, seemed comfortable with the exercise, she too questioned it. Followed by a quick smile, she motivated me to continue, giving me hope that I was not alone in my thoughts.
At the beginning of the Institute, convener D. Soyini Madison, professor of performance studies, African American studies, and anthropology at Northwestern University, had explained that in past iterations of the week’s workshops, the emphasis had been on readings and discussions (a seminar-style institute typical to academia). But this year would be different, she said; this year, the workshops would be based in performance, allowing us, the participants, to explore different methods of embodied knowledge that may at first glance appear to counter traditional forms of academic thought. In this essay, I reflect on the embodied knowledge I experienced at NU-PSI, a way of knowing that is by and large different from the methods many academics use on a daily basis. Like Madison, I ask how humanities research can be shaped by embodied experiences, offering my own research as a case study.
Standing at the edge of the space, I considered the research time lost that day to struggles against imaginary constraints, or running around the room while guiding a partner whose eyes were closed, or slowly lifting myself from the fetal position to standing without using my hands.
There is a reason academia is often referred to as “The Life of the Mind.” From the beginning of graduate coursework, many students are conditioned through overwhelming amounts of reading to finish, papers to write, and research to carry out, to value the ability of the mind above all else. I have often been happily trapped in my disembodied, intellectual bubble of isolation. I say happily because the ability to research and write about topics that greatly interest me, that I find to be meaningful, and that have the potential to impact others, is not something I would ever claim as a burden. However, my background as a performing musician has taught me that I can learn much more from playing a piece of music, from struggling through challenging passages and breezing through easy melodies, than I could ever learn from simply thinking about playing the piece. In preparing for a recital of piano pieces by Dave Brubeck, I learned how truly enormous his hands were; when encountering passages I had to alter because they were unplayable for my hands, and in changing my own pianistic physicality to match Brubeck’s “pounding” on the keys, I began to embody his improvisatory language.
However, the types of embodied performative lessons taught at NU-PSI were not musical, and so I struggled at first to understand how to map the seemingly abstract activities onto my intellectual interests in music. My mind often felt frantic as I thought deeply about everything we did: I thought about the assigned readings in relation to the embodied performance activities we did; I thought about the interactions between people in the group and the instructors; and I thought about how uncomfortable I felt about having my body looked at in what I perceived to be abstract and awkward forms and motions. “I’m an academic!” My mind would silently rage. “Don’t you know that I need to think, that my body doesn’t move like this?” But even as my mind chafed at what was being asked of my body, I complied, moving further into the discomfort of relying on my body over my mind.
As the second day of the Institute wore on, my mind’s anxieties began to win, and I made my retreat to the bathroom (washing my feet). Upon my return, Brittney’s eye roll and smile became part of a thread relating a number of experiences that week that were ultimately transformative to my research—and beyond that, my broader life experiences.
“I’m an academic!” My mind would silently rage. “Don’t you know that I need to think, that my body doesn’t move like this?” But even as my mind chafed at what was being asked of my body, I complied, moving further into the discomfort of relying on my body over my mind.
To understand one tangible effect NU-PSI had on my research, and particularly the form of embodied knowledge it promoted, I must explain a small portion of my research. I have spent a considerable amount of time studying the Time magazine covers featuring jazz musicians in the mid-20th century: Louis Armstrong (1949), Dave Brubeck (1954), Duke Ellington (1956), and Thelonious Monk (1964). When I first encountered these images, I was struck by the fact that of the four musicians, Brubeck, the only white musician, was also the only musician to look out from his cover. Put another way, Brubeck’s gaze was the only gaze that could be met; viewers could not meet the gaze of the black musicians. Looking through other Time magazine covers from the period (1949-1964), I found that only three black figures were featured like Brubeck, as looking out: Sugar Ray Robinson (1951), Althea Gibson (1957), and James Baldwin (1963). All other black figures were featured as looking to the side, or to the top or bottom of the cover, while white figures were portrayed looking both out or to the side in equal proportion.
This is significant because of the power relationship involved in meeting another person’s gaze. Unlike when audiences view the Time portrayals of African American jazzmen, the audience cannot simply gaze at Brubeck; they must instead meet Brubeck’s outward gaze. To meet a black person’s gaze would have been rare for much of Time’s white, middle-class audience at mid-century. By depicting black jazz musicians as not returning the viewer’s gaze, Time’s illustrators pacified the anxiety their mid-century white viewers might have felt in looking at a black man who returned their gaze. In other words, race defined the difference between looking and seeing.
Prior to NU-PSI, I had used feminist scholar Judith Butler’s theory of recognition alongside Ralph Ellison’s writings on invisibility to theorize the relationship between viewer and subject in these images. According to Butler, recognition happens when “subject and Other understand themselves to be reflected in one another, but where this reflection does not result in a collapse of the one into the Other.” The ability to not only look at someone, but to have them return your look, is an act of recognition. The ability to be recognized, and to recognize another, is a form of visibility, of power, and of agency. For Ellison, recognition grants humanity and further, responsibility toward humanity. When recognition is denied, so, too, is responsibility toward one another.
This was my theoretical understanding of what it meant to meet another person’s gaze. But throughout the week at NU-PSI, my understanding of the gaze steadily deepened through performative interactions with the other participants.
First, there was my partnership with Patricia: we were tasked with coming up with six exercises, each of which included some kind of rhythm (whether tapping our thighs, snapping our fingers, or using the floor to create sound). We were then instructed to perform our six actions three times: at regular speed, then very quickly, and finally very slowly. As we began the slow exercise, it became obvious that in order to successfully match each other’s tempo, we needed to look at each other. We briefly made eye contact, but something felt insecure to me, so I quickly shifted my gaze to her hands, watching them as they moved unhurriedly above our heads. I wondered about the other groups performing simultaneously and what they looked like, and I thought about the groups watching us. I looked again at her eyes and found them still trained on me and my eyes. This time, I maintained eye contact and together, we slowed the pace of our movements even further. Our gaze connected us, and through it, we wordlessly communicated the abilities of our respective bodies. I walked away from this partnership not with a theoretical concept, but an overwhelming feeling of being supported—a trust.
After that performance, I experimented with looking more deliberately at others in our exercises. In a welcome exercise with Geneva, we looked at each other and my eyes immediately fluttered down, finding somewhere, anywhere to land other than her eyes. Recalling my performance with Patricia, I looked up again, to find Geneva still looking directly at me. As we continued the exercise, we maintained eye contact. Afterward, I wondered to myself what it was that made that moment of contact so difficult, so insecure. What was it that I automatically wanted to avoid?
That day, we considered images of “terrible beauty”—and indeed, the ethics behind using the framework of beauty to look at images of poverty, violence, and neglect. After hours of working through our interpretations of the images shown and the cruel issues brought to life, Taylor, Angelina, Nathan, and myself worked to create the framework for an improvised performance that expressed our own reactions to the day’s content. In the middle of our performance, Taylor delivered a song, and we sang in call and response. With each stanza, Taylor would move her body in an improvised shape, and as Angelina, Nathan, and I responded, we would also move our bodies in our own abstract shapes, as if in chorus to Taylor’s utterances. This resulted in four different shapes from each body.
To begin, Taylor sang:
From that old
We changed our shapes and responded. She paused, and sang:
Such a grave
We again changed our shapes and responded. She paused again, and sang:
I have decided
On an axe
We changed our shapes. As I knelt, facing her, I found her gaze and, without looking away, returned it. The three of us paused before we responded with the lyric. Taylor continued to look at me, and I believed I could support her solo, and that that support would be palpable to her as she delivered her last line. After a long pause, Taylor sang the final stanza:
The song, written by Taylor, had a haunting melody that could just as easily have been one hundred years old, and indeed, reflected the evocative images of Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.” Like “Strange Fruit,” Taylor’s poem creates covertly raced images of black bodies—bodies that have been looked at for more than one hundred years, but that feature people rarely seen. It is that distinction—between looking and seeing—that Taylor enunciated so clearly in conversations following our performance, and that I felt shift as she sang.
As I think back now on that performance, which was so unlike any I had previously been part of, I recall Butler’s theory of recognition: when “subject and Other understand themselves to be reflected in one another, but where this reflection does not result in a collapse of the one into the Other.” When I had glanced away from Patricia and Geneva, and had initially refused to meet their gaze, I did so primarily out of fear of being visible in ways that highlighted my body over my mind—of being seen. But when I returned their gaze, and met Taylor’s, I felt an opening in myself and an offering to them that I felt was returned and supported. And in those moments, my academic knowledge of Butler’s recognition became informed by embodied experience.
But even more, my understanding of Ellison’s concept of responsibility and invisibility intensified as I connected with women of different racial, disciplinary, and performance backgrounds from myself. At the end of Ellison’s prologue to his novel, Invisible Man (1952), Ellison writes, “Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility … Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement” (14). As I write this, months after the fact, I cannot help but think about the politics of recognition and racial power dynamics at play in those moments—about how I, as a white woman, may or may not have felt recognition differently from the African American and Southeast Asian women with whom I shared a gaze. But in gazing with these women, women whose race has historically determined the amount of recognition and visibility they receive, I found myself responsible to them in ways that I would not have been able to feel without those moments of connection. Did those with whom I shared a gaze feel a similar sense of responsibility? Even if I felt that I gave them recognition, could they feel it? If they did not, what does it mean that I did? How did racial difference impact the ways in which recognition was given and was felt by myself and the women with whom I worked? These are questions I cannot answer, and may never be able to answer—but they are questions that reframe the central theories with which I worked. When recognition is embodied, it is nearly impossible to ignore.
If embodied experiences enrich theoretical knowledge, their inclusion within academic research offers invaluable depth and diversity to a host of academic fields. And their exclusion risks further separation between critique and meaning.
It is easy, after years of research in institutionalized settings, to theorize what it means to be recognized, and to draw conclusions when certain groups of people routinely go unrecognized, and are made invisible. It is even easy to say that in those moments with Brittney, Patricia, Geneva, and Taylor, I felt recognized by these women. It is an entirely different matter to understand the ways in which the potential meanings of recognition has deepened for me.
What I experienced at NU-PSI had everything to do with feeling—not as a physical stimulation of the body, but as an experience of connecting to deep emotions with those around you. Feeling recognized—working through fear, no matter the source, and receiving and giving support—has inevitably deepened my understanding of what it means to be recognized. As I reflect back on what ultimately became a transformative experience, I wonder: where is the space for this knowledge in academia? Who do I cite when I describe the feeling of a gaze shared with another? How do I measure the depth of feeling?
Perhaps the struggle to communicate these feelings is enough, or perhaps no one else need know how the gaze and recognition have been transformed for me beyond theory. But if embodied experiences enrich theoretical knowledge, their inclusion within academic research offers invaluable depth and diversity to a host of academic fields. And their exclusion risks further separation between critique and meaning.