Choreographies of the Living:
Bioaesthetics in Literature, Art, and Performance
(Oxford University Press, 2018)
Among the litany of capacities said to separate us from the animals, the human impulse to make art has enjoyed a singularly persistent pride of place. Indeed, along with language, our proclivity for aesthetic discernment is often invoked as the hallmark of being human—that which elevates us above the brute beasts and justifies our dominion over them. What this view forgets, of course, is that we are those brute beasts, all of us the products of millions of years of evolution, all of us intimately connected to the rest of the living world. If we’re only separated from other animals in our artificial constructs, and if we all share the same origins in those first stirrings of animate matter, is it possible that our common inheritance is far greater than we think? What would it do to our understanding of ourselves if art turned out to be part of it? What would it do to our understanding of art?
In Choreographies of the Living, Carrie Rohman gives us an impassioned address to these questions from a particularly compelling perspective. Both an academic and a professional dancer, Rohman is among a growing number of scholars working in the emerging field of bioaesthetics, an interdisciplinary undertaking that looks at art and aesthetics as biological phenomena. Like animal studies and the various new materialisms proliferating across the humanities, bioaesthetics is part of a larger cultural movement intent on challenging, and issuing the fatal blow to, human exceptionalism. Drawing on her intimate knowledge of dance as much as on her scholarly studies of literature, art, and performance, Rohman elaborates the thesis that in fact art has deep roots in the nonhuman world, and that the same creative force that impels us to make it also courses through the non-human animals from whom it—and we—are descended. Following from this claim comes the book’s second potent refrain: that in our insistence on the primacy of the conceptual in art, we’ve largely misunderstood the real nature of its power. Indeed, as Rohman makes clear, bioaesthetics calls for nothing less than a radical revision to our understanding of art, for if art is something we share with other animals, it is much less the product of human reason than that of a deeper, more primal, more mysterious intelligence.
As a move toward forging a more creaturely aesthetics, Rohman examines the work of five iconic modern artists—Isadora Duncan, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Rachel Rosenthal, and Merce Cunningham—presenting evidence for each of a profound engagement with animality. Unlike other scholars in her field, Rohman considers not just the artists’ work but also their process, finding in it a distinctly sensorial mode of being she clearly knows with her own body. Throughout, she draws extensively on the theoretical framework of Gilles Deleuze, citing Deleuze frequently and adopting many of his ideas. But readers unfamiliar with Deleuze need not be deterred; Rohman presents his ideas with merciful clarity, and the book should be accessible to the art-curious from all disciplines. Also buttressing her argument is the work of Elizabeth Grosz, a feminist scholar whose study of nonhuman aesthetics has unsettled many cherished assumptions about art.
But what exactly is meant by nonhuman aesthetics? Central to the argument is the idea of evolutionary excess, something most clearly evidenced in the kind of performative self-intensification all species engage in during courtship. In this, the peacock’s tail is the classic example; others might include the extravagant rituals enacted by the male bowerbird to woo his lady counterparts. But the more compelling aspect of the thesis, because the less widely acknowledged, is the claim that for all animals, self-intensification by way of sensory excess is also an end in itself – not a genetically programmed mechanism for reproduction but a way of reveling in the pleasures of a body aquiver with life. (On this, Grosz’s study of Darwin provides appreciable support; apparently the phenomenon is something he observed often, noting it repeatedly in his personal writings.) Birdsong, the songs of whales, the pyrotechnic displays that alight the skin of the octopus: all suggest a delight in the activity for no sake other than itself. An impulse toward self-transcendence intrinsic to all life, it’s what Deleuze called “becoming-other,” “becoming-intense,” or “becoming-artistic.” It is, as Deleuze so extensively elaborated, the force that connects living bodies to the greater forces of earth and cosmos.
In exploring how this kind of creaturely self-othering manifests itself in human aesthetics, Rohman’s focus on the twentieth century is in itself revealing. Although much is made of the era’s romance with the machine, modernism also witnessed, in Rohman’s words, an “eruption of the animal.” In the aftermath of the great upset unleashed on the world by Darwin, artists were among the few to take the news in stride, often embracing their own animality in their pursuit of new forms. But such is the resistance to any dethroning of human reason that scholars still disavow modernism’s animal underpinnings.
The case of Isadora Duncan is the consummate example, and Rohman’s chapter on her is particularly moving. Rejecting the artificiality and rigidity of ballet, Duncan is widely credited with bringing dance down to earth, ushering in its modern form with an emphatic reorientation toward nature. Her signature barefootedness an enduring reminder of her affinities, Duncan’s essays are replete with references to how movements should be “natural and beautiful like those of the free animals.” And yet, as Rohman observes, much current scholarship on Duncan stresses her interest in the machine, that ever-invoked monument to the triumph of human reason. A similar denial is at work in the literature around Merce Cunningham, who, in spite of his exceedingly eloquent statements about the primacy of the creatural, is often associated with an “architectural” style of dance and mathematical chance operations. Rohman’s reframing of both through a bioaesthetic lens offers a timely and powerful corrective.
If our resistance to our own animality keeps us from acknowledging art’s somatic dimensions, nowhere are these dimensions more manifest than in the work of Virginia Woolf. In Rohman’s words, Woolf “dances with language,” creating prose one feels palpably in one’s body. This is especially so in her experimental novel The Waves, one of two Woolf books that Rohman explores. A novel she claimed to have written to a rhythm rather than a plot, in it we feel those same visceral oscillations one imagines in the singing bird, and indeed the same ones Woolf herself must have felt while writing. As Rohman suggests of Woolf’s process, The Waves is a book that could only have been written with a rational mind in abeyance, and with a body keenly attuned to the vibrant patterns of the natural world. Clearly more affective than conceptual, it is the bioaesthetic novel par excellence.
In an era that’s witnessing a growing respect for the intelligence of the body, the bioaesthetic call for a rethinking of art could hardly be more timely. And as the need for greater ecological awareness becomes increasingly urgent by the year, laying full claim to our animal ancestry acquires an ethical dimension we do well not to ignore. If art could be more widely understood as a mode of experiencing this deep identity —not in the brain, where we don’t want to know it, but in the body, where we already do—it could play an enormous role in the shifting consciousness of our time. Rohman ends her book on exactly this note, suggesting that one of our tasks for the twenty-first century is to acknowledge, and own, the enormous potential of our own creativity. “Although it is true that we live in precarious times,” she writes, “we also must insist upon the affirmative capacity of creatures to invent new ‘selves,’ and to harness the forces of the earth and the cosmos in embodied, vibratory aesthetic-becomings.” If we can rise to the occasion, perhaps we’ll discover that participating in forces that greatly exceed us, and that serving as conduits for those forces rather than as solo agents of our own ego, actually expands our magnificence rather than diminishing it. And if we can acknowledge that the real source of our power lies in our bodies and not our brains, those of us in the arts might discover that we’ve known it all along.