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Bordering, Social Choegraphy and Transmodernity: Dance Beyond Capitalist Modernity

This is a revised version of a talk delivered at the Tanzkongress in Hannover, 18 June 2016.

Argument in brief

In this analysis I’ll situate the emergence of dance as an art form within the geo-historical trajectory of political bordering process in the 18th and 19th century Europe. I'll suggest that with the rise of capitalist modernity, which ushered in both the bourgeois nation-states as a form of internal social regulation and the imperialism as a form of global economic expansion, the dance gradually differentiated itself out as a separate artistic field. In its evolving focus on composing collective movement of freely expressive bodies, it reflected four structural aspects of the rapidly maturing capitalism: nominal equality of all members of the society, subjection of bodies to the industrial process of production, abstract mediation of social relations through commodity exchange, and gradual exclusion of pre-modern routines, gestures and rituals from the capitalist organization of life.

These four aspects would become both emphatically encapsulated in popular social dances and, relevant for the analysis here, symptomatically encapsulated in dance as an art form. Against the backdrop of these constitutive aspects of capitalist society, dance's concern with the composition of collective movement, freely expressive bodies unfettered from social coercion, abstract dance relieved of conventions and pursuit of cultural difference provided at once a representation and a performance of social relations: an embodied expression of bourgeois ideology of freedom and spontaneity of dynamic social relations – and thus a form of “social choreography”. It is within these registers that dance’s socially reflexive, ambivalent and potentially critical capacity had resided.

However, from this close relation to capitalist modernity follows that in the geo-historical contexts where the capitalist development was stunted by socialist revolution or subjected to imperial conditions, dance as an art form did not undergo the comparable process of constitution as it did in the West, but rather followed different trajectories. Using the example of post-socialist semi-periphery of Croatia, I'll show that even the transfer of organizational forms that define dance as an artistic field in its Western tradition does not lead to uniform developments, and thus that the modern and contemporary dance's dominant modes of presentation, techniques and discourse are neither general nor generalizable. They are rather “provincially” Western.

Still the non-Western contexts themselves are not, particularly not after 1989, outside of capitalist modernity. They operate within it, assimilating its forms and being assimilated by its forms. But they also operate outside of it, drawing on the endogenous artistic traditions and forms of critical rationality. The two modernities are thus different, but viewed from a longer historical perspective, proposed by certain schools of historical analysis, are part of the combined process of trans-modernity.

The parallel operation of capitalist and non-capitalist modernities is nowadays not reserved only for the periphery. At a moment when the sphere of labor no longer guarantees social integration and when underemployment and social insecurity are becoming a shared condition across societies with various levels of economic development, the condition of two modernities is in evidence in the post-industrial societies of the capitalist core. Stable industrial labor vis-à-vis which dance as an artistic field constituted itself is a thing of the past and this is reflected in how the field has been transforming over the last twenty years – de-constructing its traditional forms of artistic representation and forms of institutional reproduction. To conclude, it is an increasingly convergent trans-local condition that sets a new horizon allowing us to think the future of dance beyond its wedlock to capitalist modernity.

Bordering as a frame of analysis

It is only recently that the political space has become defined by stable national borders. Borders have solidified into geopolitical boundaries of national territories only with the demise of the interlocking regime of large empires and fragmented feudal fiefdoms. This process of solidification didn't start in Europe before the signing of Westphalian treaties – and as late as the second half of the 20th century across the post-colonial world. Borders are today regarded – at least in international law, if not in political practice – subject to legitimate change only by self-determination or international agreements.

Yet with the stability of national borders becoming a norm, borders have transformed into a flexible regime of governance: no longer running simply along the lines of separation between sovereign territories, borders now operate across the entire political territory as multiple institutional and symbolic mechanisms of control, regulating economic flows and differential inclusion of populations. As Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson argue in their study Border as Method,1 the growing internalization of bordering capacity to integrate and separate, to include and exclude, goes hand in hand with a process of economic expansion. A stable boundary implies an advancing frontier. National re-territorialization implies global de-territorialization. Thus, the border system between European nations didn't emerge without the colonial frontier expanding across the rest of the world. The disaggregation of national border systems into multiple forms of institutional regulatory control over the flows of labor, goods and capital didn't emerge without capitalist frontier penetrating deep into para-capitalist societies across the world. Migrant labor is at once absorbed within the national borders and excluded from claim to rights. Refugees are both welcomed and cordoned-off, subject to humanitarian aid and allowed to let drown.

While principally regulating economic and population flows, the bordering processes are overdetermined by symbolic and normative functions, reproducing the classist, ethnic, gendered, racial, sexual, cultural, ableist and religious identities and separations. These identitarian elements have their embodied dimensions. Workers demanding their right to fair compensation or unionization are decried for souring the business climate and competitive position of the economy. Women are relegated to a reserve army of labor and encouraged to stick with the child bearing and rearing. The disabled are institutionally patronized in order not to demand right not to work. The immigrant populations are racialized and ghettoized in order to consent to their precarity.

Whilst the territorial borders still continue to exist, the bordering processes reach deep into societies, and work deep into the minds and bodies of non-citizens and citizens alike. They operate at various scales, from geopolitical to micropolitical to embodied, to enable the expansion of the economic frontier and the reproduction of the statist regime that facilitates that expansion. Yet, struggles to unveil the process of bordering, to organize across the separations of language, race, religion or gender, to halt their dis-empowering effect are a strong vector of political subjectivation and agency, one that I'll return to later in the conclusion.

Dance as a distinct art form emerged with the rise of capitalist modernity in Europe in the 18th and 19th century, a period that saw both bourgeois nation-state and national economy establish themselves as dominant modes of social control and economic regulation. With the industrialization that soon followed, the fundamental regulatory mechanism of that joint formation became inclusion and exclusion from the sphere of productive labor, internalizing bordering process deep within the territory of society and radically re-configuring all other separations of privilege and disadvantage, domination and subordination. It is against this geo-historical context that dance consolidated into an artistic field. However, the context still does not clarify the structural imbrication of dance with capitalist modernity.

Social Choreography and Productive Labor

Aesthetic forms stand in a relation of co-constitution with structures of social relations and institutional forms they assume. They are foundational for our orientation and agency as they provide us with a shared scheme of representation of our social reality. According to Andrew Hewitt,2 it is dance that holds a position of privilege in crystallizing that shared scheme of representation in the period of early capitalist modernity: dance is a collective and performative practice that both allows spectators to observe the complexity of dynamic social relations and allows participants to experientially integrate that complexity of social interplay.

Starting from the analysis of Schiller's appreciation of English dances, where all social ranks are equally allowed to participate in the choreography and hence equally represent the totality of that movement, Hewitt detects a historic turning point in the late 18th century where dance acquires a socially general character: it stops being either a representation of courtly decorum or an emphatic exercise of popular ritual, and becomes a vessel for spontaneous ideology of bourgeois society driven by norms of social mobility, equality and freedom. From that point on, the representation of social dynamic whole and participation in its collective performance, that which Hewitt calls “social choreography”, acts as an organizing principle of both popular social dances, which soon become subsumed under the logic of entertainment, and dance as an art form, which slowly develops into an autonomous artistic field concerned with choreographic exploration of body and movement – the separation between the two no longer structured by social stratification, but rather by separation between the commodified and non-commodified spheres of social production.

Whilst popular dances will have to remain outside of the scope of present analysis, the privileged position of dance as an art form within capitalist modernity and its performance of bourgeois ideology are in need of further specification. There are several other processes that come to define its nexus to capitalist modernity as they both mature into the 20th century. Firstly, it extracts the body and movement from the sphere of industrial production, where these are subsumed under the dictate of productivity. Secondly, it dematerializes the product, thus operating in analogy with the abstract mediation of social relations through commodity exchange and cash nexus. The former finds its expression in modern dance's lasting focus on freely expressive body and movement, the latter in its lasting focus on abstract composition. Thus extracted and abstracted, it becomes fixed on “transcendental subjectivity [of the dancer(s)] instead of social and political intersubjectivity” that dominates the relations of production – including its own.3

Thirdly, by differentiating itself from the sphere of productive labor, where machinic choreography of industrial production subsumes the body and movement to the maximization of surplus value, the modern dance starts to constitute its autonomous field around the logic of choreographic exploration of body and movement, their compositional, kinesthetic and expressive capacities. This autonomy, which will gradually become instituted into a full-fledged artistic field, encompassing constitutive aspects such as dance techniques, choreographic schools, dance ensembles and hierarchical structures of production, will enable modern dance to build its own formal language and reflexive structures, allowing it to fully emancipate itself from the courtly decorum of the Italian stage and conventions of ballet.

Fourthly, while the movements of manufacturing machinery instrumentalized the movement of the workers, the movement of dancing bodies was produced out of creative self-causation. It is in that immanent free movement of dancing bodies, liberated from the external necessity of labor, that the fundamental ideological operation of modern dance unfolds – a vitalist “synthesis of the body and movement”4 – where either the movement of the body is a singular expression of subject's inner experience or the body is a crystallization of a singular inner impulse to movement. “Movement becomes ontologically bound to the body”.5

Sixthly, the exceptionalism of the dancing body gives it freedom to assume an exploratory and transformative relation to various existing kinesthetic registers: gestural or quotidian comportments that increasingly become governed by the modern organization of life and commodified consumption or ritualistic, spiritual and folkloric practices that increasingly become suppressed from the modern world as its exotic other. Difference and otherness as opposed to uniformity and identity thus become a lasting commitment. Reacting to the dualisms between work and leisure, dependency and freedom from work, corporeal and spiritual, manual and intellectual that are characteristic of the process of capitalist modernity, modern dance embraces spiritual practices that prime the body and spirit of the dancer to the requirements of artistic expression.

Finally, while modern dance establishes and maintains a critical tension to the sphere of labor and capitalist modernization, work ethics nonetheless finds its way into dance in the form of techniques which subject the dancing body to strenuous practice, disciplining it to achieve mastery and virtuosity of performance. In fact, while competition in the labor market requires from the worker to maintain the capacity to labor – meaning her strength, her health, her sanity – the dancer becomes the epitome of the power to endure and to transform. Nowhere is the political unconscious of dance art more clearly expressed than in the ableist spectacle of self-transformation achieved through self-disciplining: a dancing body is a negation of laboring body, but at the same time its purest crystallization. An ideal laboring body, yet withdrawn from the process of production.

Dance in the Periphery and the Illusions of “Developmentalism”

The constitutive withdrawal of the body and movement from the industrial process of production sheds light on why the interruption in the development of modern dance that was brought about by the socialist revolution is not simply a case of stunted modernization, but a different trajectory of development. Not a derailing or aberration, but an altogether different formation. Socialist revolutions have all taken place in countries where capitalist modernization was in its early stages and the social mass of bodies was still not subjected to the exigencies of the industrial process of production. Thus, parallel shock brought about by a rapid socialist modernization that mobilized masses of producers into a collective undertaking of constructing a new society, a constructivist merging of productive and social life, precluded dance art from forming as an autonomous field.

Rather than constituting and instituting itself as an autonomous field of choreographic inquiry, at whose center stood the transcendental subjectivity of the dancer, dance as an art form developed either in dialogue with ballet, musical theater, or more contemporary art forms such as film or performance – or as representational forms of collective choreography such as slet. While dance thus developed as an undercurrent through and in dialogue with other forms, the modern dance proper mostly appeared as a continuation of vestigial forms of rudimentary bourgeois culture or direct borrowing from the capitalist center without opportunity for adequate institutional anchoring.

Consider post-socialist Croatia. Over the last eight years the dance field in Croatia has made huge inroads in achieving what are perceived to be institutional milestones of a fully constituted autonomous artistic field within a national culture: it got its national dance center with the opening of Zagreb Dance Center, separate funding under the Cultural Commission for Drama and Dance Art at Ministry of Culture, and Dance Education Program at the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Arts. Although the Dance Center is not officially a national dance center, the Commission doesn't have ample funds to help develop the field, and the Dance Program is struggling with insufficient faculty and support, these are typical institutional forms that serve the reproduction of a discipline. Thus it would seem that the dance has completed the paradigmatic passage from an unacknowledged and marginalized art form into an institutionally differentiated field such as it exists across the cultural systems of developed liberal capitalist countries in the West, where modern and contemporary dance have after all emerged in what is assumed their paradigmatic form.6 With that, the process of belated modernization on the periphery, only temporarily interrupted by alternative socialist modernization, would have seemingly reached its consummation.

This schematic narrative of development path of dance as an artistic field implicitly dominates the self-understanding in the field. Its actors, who are understandably pursuing the “boundary-work” necessary for their field to achieve the desired recognition, frequently argue from a perspective of institutional underdevelopment of the cultural system and its lagging behind other, mostly West European contexts. There the dance is truly recognized as an art form, holds a position of prominence in the cultural system and has all the support structures needed to achieve significance in the national and international cultural context. The underlying argument here – the catching-up argument purporting that “if this or that institutional prerequisite is fulfilled, our artistic field can achieve the same level of development it has in this or that milieu” – relies on assumptions of linear development that reduce the historical process in a deterministic and teleological way.

Yet, these actors are frequently confronted with the experience that the introduction of an institutional solution fails to achieve comparable effects as elsewhere – dance center is not functioning as a national dance center, separate funding is inadequate to the potential the field holds, the academic program cannot offer all of the benefits such programs have in “more developed” contexts. This experience reflects the fact that the evolutionary processes cannot be transplanted from one socio-political context to another, nor can the introduction of institutional solutions bring the evolution of a certain context from one stage into another. That which we consider as belated and troubled process of catching-up is nothing else than a transfer of institutional forms into a context where the structure of social relations and already existing organizational forms provide different affordances and different resistances to a transplanted form than its original context.7

Crisis of Labor and Crisis of Dance

The demise of two competing regimes within the world-system after the fall of socialism and the opening of China has seen the capitalist relations become uncontested, the division of labor global, the social inequality deeper. The flexibilization and proletarianization of the working class are a predominant social fact. If the sphere of productive labor and labor market provided the integrative mechanism of industrial capitalism, the modern dance has built its autonomy vis-à-vis that exact mechanism - and the post-modern dance has questioned that autonomy. Yet today, with the advanced de-industrialization in the capitalist core, high levels of unemployment and prevalent unstable employment, the socially integrative role of labor is crumbling away. And as its crumbling away, so is the constitutive relation of dance vis-à-vis the sphere of productive labor becoming troubled.

If flexibility, adaptability and malleability of capacity to labor have become a general requirement for survival in the labor market, the border running between the subsumed body and the free body has become unsettled. Not only is the self-transformative laboring body of a dancer demanded of everyone, but the prevalent condition of the uncertainty of employment and multiple careers are more than ever a lot of a growing global dancing community. The logic of inner differentiation built around the axis heteronomy and autonomy of body is thus crumbling away. The laboring body is increasingly enjoined to be free and enterprising, while the dancing body increasingly demanded to show itself laboring to justify its privilege to free exploration.

But the crumbling-away of the constitutive relation of dance to labor sediments in various other aspects through which the dance field reproduces itself. As the number of trained dancers increases, the apprenticeship under a master choreographer becomes rare, the employment at a dance ensemble for most unlikely, the fragmentation and competition more expressed. Dancers surf between performing for many and making their own choreographic work; acquiring the broadest range of techniques and developing their own post-technique practices; scraping by and doing odd jobs on the side, producing small works, doing workshops and residencies and rarely reaching stability.

As a reflection of this a crisis of labor that is also crisis of dance, since the end of the 1990s the development of contemporary dance, primarily in what is known as conceptual dance or choreographic theater, is marked by upending of conventions of the theatrical representation and suspension of ontological identity between the body and movement. The performative formats seek to step outside of the scopic regime of theatrical stage, where the totality of choreographic relations is made transparent, and seeks other dispositives of encounter. Production formats are becoming fluid, smaller and transformed into education, exhibition or residency. Dance seems no longer able or willing to uphold a position of privilege as an aesthetic form that provides a representation and experiential integration of bourgeois ideology dominating the present.

“Provinciality” of Dance in the Western Tradition and the Trans-Modern


If the geographic and historical emplacement of modern and contemporary dance in the context of capitalist modernity holds up to scrutiny, then we have to acknowledge that its canonical story of development, that its grandmistresses and grandmasters and its institutional framing are not a general condition of dance in the modernity nor are they generalizable to other contexts. There's more to the story of dance and modernity than the “provincial” story of dance in the Western tradition and its Romantic epistemology. There’s an untold story of being within and outside of capitalist modernity, undercutting the dominant structure of bordering within the world-system.

Post-colonial and post-socialist peripheries (although the notion of periphery might be not the appropriate notion here, as it still – to speak with Walter Mignolo8 – falls squarely within the frame of conversation privileging the West), operate within capitalist world-system and its rationality. Yet, comparable to revolutionary anti-capitalist forces in the core, they operate within and outside of it – drawing from their own endogenous artistic traditions, frames of conversation and forms of critical rationality.

Rather than assuming that the dance outside of the Western tradition should be either its transplant or its exoticized other, we need to acknowledge that the Western dominance in general is part of a larger historical process of modernity that pre-dates and post-dates Western capitalist modernity. It both includes the long durée of Greek thought that is passed down through the Islamic Golden Age to the Iberian Peninsula and from there to the Netherlands and into the early capitalism and to Latin America and into the colonial conquest. And it includes the contributions, enabling conditions and the political challenges that European powers faced from Asian empires. This development of modernity has grown to engulf almost the entire world in the present and defines an uneven, yet combined and shared condition where different critical rationalities obtain vis-a-vis instrumental rationality of capitalist modernity. This is a historical development Enrique Dussel calls trans-modernity.9

A historical singularity of trans-modernity is thus a parallel existence of forms of contemporary dance alongside the alternative forms that capture social choreographies characteristic of the peripheries of the world-system. Yet still, the register of inherited forms, be they in the Western tradition or outside of it, although still operative today, are no longer sufficient to do justice the changing conditions within the context of the global division of labor. The crisis of the dance as an art form is an opportunity neither to settle with the process of capitalist modernization nor its subaltern other, but to open up an opportunity for a new body, new movement and new choreography that will claim a position of distance, a position of sociality, a position of solidarity, transgressing the lines of separation in the global borderscape.

* * *

In The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism 1860-1914,10 Ilham Khuri-Makdisi traces back the singular role that the social ferment of Eastern Mediterranean's nodal cities of Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria played in the articulation of universalist anti-imperialism. That universalist anti-imperialism emerged from the encounter in those cities of migrant workers arriving from the rural hinterland, itinerant anarchists and socialists arriving from Europe, diasporic post-Nahba intellectuals arriving mostly from Syria. Periodicals, books, translations, reading rooms, conferences and – last but not least – theater stagings had created networks of dissemination and popularization of radical ideas and forms of agency such as mutualism, socialism and anti-colonialism that were synchronous and interbreeding across both sides of the Mediterranean and beyond in Americas and Asia.

While the sea is seemingly the least bordered expanse of Earth, connecting radicals in faraway ports, it can be both – as we're witnessing in the present – the advancing frontier and the forbidding fortification. Both the trade routes sustaining vital interests of nations and the peril for people pushed from their lands by war, dearth and environmental degradation. It was across this Mediterranean geography that the trans-modernity resonated as the chapter was closing on the British hegemony of the imperial world, now it is again the same lands and the same sea that enjoins us to discover a different modernity, so we can work to close the chapter on the present hegemony of the capitalist world.

  1. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, Or the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013).

  2. Andrew Hewitt, Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement (Duke University Press, 2005).

  3. Ibid., 3.

  4. Bojana Cvejić, Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance and Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 16.

  5. Ibid., 33.

  6. The idea that modern and contemporary dance are formations specific to liberal democracies, while dance as an art form followed an altogether different development path in the socialist East was the foundational idea of East Dance Academy, a joint project by performing arts journals Frakcija, Maska and The Walking Theory. Janez Janša clarifies that idea in Frakcija, no. 51–52 (2009).

  7. It thus comes as no surprise that, as of this writing in 2017, the Zagreb Dance Center, due to the fact that the Zagreb mayor has annexed it to a larger city theater, is in imminent danger of being lost for the dance field. Nor that the continuity of financing seemed at risk as a radical right government assumed power in Croatia in early 2016. At least that government’s term in office was short lived.

  8. Walter D. Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom,” Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 7–8 (December 1, 2009): 159–81, doi:10.1177/0263276409349275.

  9. Enrique D. Dussel, “Transmodernity and Interculturality: An Interpretation from the Perspective of Philosophy of Liberation,” Transmodernity : Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World, 1, no. 3 (2012): 28–59.

  10. Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism 1860-1914 (University of California Press, 2010).