Parasitic Noisification: A Four-Part Dance Blog by Andre Lepecki, #0 – 1

I do not know what a blog is. I have never blogged, and probably will never blog again. I suppose it has something to do with “spontaneity” and the “moment.” My contract with New York Live Arts states that: “Each writer will additionally produce 4 blog posts for the New York Live Arts blog, on topics of their choice that somehow relate to New York Live Arts, the performance community in New York and abroad, and current events.” I believe what follows does all that. Apologies if it does not. Anyway, it will not happen again. But, it is as spontaneous as I can get. And, it is nothing but “of the moment.”

In his extraordinary book The Parasite French philosopher Michel Serres explodes with some paradigms that have long been the basis of communication theory as we know it. His propositions impact so strongly on some popular conceptions of what it is “to create” and “to transmit” art that they prompt the urgent need to theoretically revisit those conceptions (and his book, first published in French in 1980). I believe that Serres’ notions advanced in The Parasite are key to assess some recent practices in dance making, particularly the increasingly more visible emphasis on dancing and on the figure of the dancer (or perhaps better, on the task of the dancer) in recent experimental choreography (after the decade of strong emphases on addressing as main compositional focus, the choreographic apparatus in all its implications – representational, disciplinary, scopic, economic, etc. — between 1995 and 2005).

It is worthwhile to stay a bit with Serres’ book, and to outline briefly what I think are its most relevant points for a general theory of art, and particularly to a theory of dancing. Briefly, what does Serres propose? He takes as his philosophical starting point the polysemy of the word “parasite” in French, which has three main denotations. Just as in English, “le parasite” denotes any organism that thrives and reproduces itself by consuming the life of another, while keeping the other alive. Metaphorically, and again just as in English, it also refers to any social agent perceived as being non-productive, and whose mode of living is based upon the exploitation of others’ (i.e., productive beings’) lives. But the French language assigns a third meaning to the word – and it is in privileging theoretically this third meaning in its relation to the other two that Serres’ theorizations on the parasite become truly interesting. What is this third meaning? “Parasite” in French also means “noise.” Serres’ conflation of the three meanings of the word shakes some well-established ideas on what it means to “communicate.” Not without some significant consequences for all of those whose lives are dedicated to the creation of aesthetic objects, the transmission of messages, or the communication of ideas expressed in essayistic texts, choreographies, or dances…

Let’s remember that communication theory presupposes the existence of several stable entities that must all be in place and functioning in order to guarantee the smooth transmission of something called “a message.” These stable entities are: an emitter, a signal, a channel, a code, and a receiver. For any successful communication to take place both emitter and receiver must share a code – this sharing is the only guarantee that a signal (pure abstract physical impulse) can be converted (or translated, or concretized) into a sign (a signal imbued with signification) expressing a meaning. However, as communication theory also posits, between emission and reception another entity looms, threatening the success of communication as such: noise. This is the parasite, the supplementary entropic, the disturbance in the smooth channels of semiotics. Noise is that extruder/intruder whose random actions disrupt communication and its possibility. Thus, every communication system must be armed with redundancies in order to fight external, disturbing, parasitic noises. However, there are two crucial problems with this classic model. First, a teleological problem: what communication theory privileges is the success of transmission, which becomes the emphasis of its theoretical discussions. Noise is perceived as simply that: background disturbance, an annoyance in a network of mostly successful transmissions and receptions. Particularly at the level of semiotics (which deals with systems of intentional emission of signs and their intentional reception among humans), noise is seen as a purely non-semiotic, physical phenomenon, by nature strictly para-communicational (it is present in communication but it is perceived as not belonging to it).

Serres grabs this scheme and turns it upside down. In The Parasite, he reminds us that what mostly exists in the world (the physical world, for sure, but certainly, and in its highest degree, in the human world), what rules the world as its Law, what makes the world as such, is not a prevalent communication occasionally disturbed by noise, but mostly and overwhelmingly noise occasionally traversed by the rarest of events: communication. Thus, what rules the functioning of the world, what worlds the world, is truly, mostly, sovereignly, the parasite. In other words: what mostly exists, overwhelmingly, is non-communication – and mostly non-communication is what rules and defines the plane of communication called “human interaction,” “linguistic exchange,” etc.  As Serres writes in a short chapter, appropriately titled “Noises”: “We are buried within ourselves; we send out signals, gestures, and sounds indefinitely and uselessly. No one listens to anyone else. Everyone speaks; no one hears; direct or reciprocal communication is blocked. […] The most amazing thing in the world is that agreement, understanding, harmony, sometimes exist.”

You may think, not without reason, this is terribly pessimistic. And you may ask, also not without reason: why should this matter to dance? To your objection, I would say that Serres is less pessimistic as he is cruel. But, only if we take for “cruel” the sense Artaud gave to it, as synonym to both “lucidity” and “life.”  As to your question, I would say it is crucial to consider the parasite as model of (non)communication so we may develop non-semiotic, non-expressive, and non-creative theories of dance making (and indeed of art making) which prompt instead affective and active modes for theorizing the making of dance, and for making dance theorize its own actions, away from the ideal model that art is made for communication.

View all Parasitic Noisification posts. Come back next Friday to read #2.

André Lepecki is Associate Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU. He is the author and editor of many books, including Exhausting Dance (2006); Of the Presence of the Body(2004); Planes of Composition (with Jenn Joy 2010); and DANCE (forthcoming 2012). He works also as an independent curator. In 2008 he received the “Best Performance Award” from AICA for directing and co-curating the redoing of Allan Kaprow’s “18 Happening in 6 Parts”. He was the chief-curator of the festival IN TRANSIT 2008 and 2009 (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin); and in 2010 he was co-curator with Stephanie Rosenthal of the Interactive Archive on Dance and Visual Arts since 1960 for the exhibition MOVE (Hayward Gallery, London).