Some thoughts on the empowering sensual objectifications in Contact Improvisation

This text was part of a workshop I facilitated at the Symposium „Queer Contact Improvisation“ in Hamburg, organized by Wiktor Skrzypczak and Katya Engbrecht. Kindly, it was first published on Diana Thielen’s Blog www.movementactivism.com 


 „To be a subject was good; to be an object was bad. But, as we all know, being a subject can be tricky. The subject is always already subjected. Though the position of the subject suggests a degree of control, its reality is rather one of being subjected to power relations. Nevertheless, generations of feminists — including myself — have strived to get rid of patriarchal objectification in order to become subjects. The feminist movement, until quite recently (and for a number of reasons), worked towards claiming autonomy and full subjecthood. But as the struggle to become a subject became mired in its own contradictions, a different possibility emerged. How about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing? An object without a subject? A thing among other things?“
— Hito Steyerl, A Thing Like You And Me

What has struck me from my first CI class was the surprisingly pleasant experience to actually not be encountered and perceived as a human, as a person, as an individual, as Beata, but to simply be used as some sort of material, as a supporting object used by others to carry out different motions and movements. It was not offensive, but refreshing and relaxing, because the touch and the encounters did not want something from me directly. The touch was occupied by other intentions and I was just a mere medium to discover aims that were not mine. This feeling was not entirely new. I enjoy to be checked for dangerous goods by Security at the Airport for example. And in a more planned and direct way I am also familiar with objectification-games in BDSM-contexts, e. g. when people are used as footstools. When sharing experiences of pleasurable experiences of objectification with others, we usually embraced this experience as an invitation to take some sort of holiday away from ourselves. It’s a chance to not always be the same you. But to admit this secret pleasures and turn a concept describing problematic aspects into a fun one feels like a taboo, a no-go.

Certainly, I do want to be perceived as a whole human being with my own unique biography. Of course: „Act in such a way that you treat humanity never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.“ Objectification can actually be very dangerous, especially if it is not based on consent and when it stops acknowledging all of the other aspects that form a person. (#malegaze, and the omnipresent hegemonic sexual objectification of women.) Karl Marx used the term to describe objectifying labor, that leads to the alienation from the self as a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class, the condition of which estranges a person from their humanity. I would never doubt these approaches. But what strikes me is how objectification is mostly automatically and in a self-explanatory way considered as something negative, destructive and morally problematic per se, while words such as individuality, subjectivity and humanism are usually considered to be good and idealistic. But this devaluation of objects and objectification is not compatible with the enjoyable experiences  I mentioned before. Moreover, the overstated validation of humanism, subjectivism and emotionality can also have harming effects; just think about neoliberal working conditions that demand affective work – even the waiters at a restaurant have to do their job with their whole personality, they have to perform vitality, when probably all they actually want is to get the job done bluntly. If being a human serves capitalistic logics, then being a thing can be understood as something subversive, anarchic, rebellious. Can’t becoming an object destruct fixed and rigid systems of individuality and personhood? If so, then objectification could also be understood as inherently queer. I would like to propose that materiality could be understood as an alternative and extension for gender. We all know that even objects are not spared binary gender-categories (like the german male moon and latin female luna). But objects also have many qualities beyond gender. Interestingly enough, we already carry so much with and in us, that belongs to the world that is not gendered – like minerals, bacteria, the DNA strand. I want to argue that in processes of objectification, we don’t actually become the other or something entirely different from us, we just focus on certain dimensions of ourselves, that have always already been there, also always already beyond gender.

In the realms of philosophy, Martha Nussbaum is one of the few thinkers who directly asks about the precious aspects of objectification, especially in erotic contexts. Nussbaum believes that it is possible that “some features of objectification […] may in fact in some circumstances […] be even wonderful features of sexual life”, and so “the term objectification can also be used […] in a more positive spirit.” Nussbaum gives an exquisite example of benign, positive objectification: “If I am lying around with my lover on the bed, and use his stomach as a pillow there seems to be nothing at all baneful about this, provided that I do so with his consent (or, if he is asleep, with a reasonable belief that he would not mind), and without causing him pain, provided as well, that I do so in the context of a relationship in which he is generally treated as more than a pillow”

In cultural theory there is a recognizable shift, an interest in things and objects that is called the non-human turn and that leads to the production of books with titles such as „Alien Phenomenology – or how it is to be a thing“. In contrast to Martha Nussbaum’s concept, these theories are less about the sensual aspects of objectifying humans, but rather about objects themselves. Once arrived at that point one can ask quite existential questions: What is a thing? To define objects is not easy. Definitions quite often use the terms instrumentality. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that instrumentality can not only be applied to, say, a hammer, but also used to describe dogs, cakes, Haikus and also humans – they can all be put into use as a means to an end: I am using a taxi driver to get from A to B and I even use myself to cook myself a meal.

Object-oriented theories try to regard things as phenomena that can’t be properly understood when categorized in hierarchical positions as subordinated to human beings. Rather, anthropocentric worldviews slowly start to decay and humans are not the center of everything. Also, objects are not merely defined by their use of humans. TV’s, planets, art pieces, fossils, nuclear weapons – they all seem to have some sort of life of their own, some agency. It can never be entirely clear who or what is actually acting. Effects of actions are always the result of networks or even collectives between animated and inanimated parties. It’s not only us using objects. Things also define us and shape the way we act and live. Furthermore, objects can unfold resistance; we are not able to change and shape them entirely by our pure will. It’s more an interactive process of reciprocal influence. Not only between humans and things, but also between things and things, objects do have their own relationships. We as humans can finally also be categorized as objects among other objects in a so called flat ontology that makes no distinction between the types of things that exist but treats all equally.Carpenters, leather, kangaroos, oil, symphonies, thunder, Martinis, Donald Duck, Japan, men and women, ambulances, mangos: influencing each other, gathering and merging. These theories have a touch of spiritual undertone: Everything is connected, everything is one.

After this digression you might ask yourself: What does all of this have to do with Contact Improv? How can we use all of this in our dance?

In a workshop by Kristin Horrigan „Contact Improvisation and Gender “the participants have been asked to write down typical roles dancers take on in CI. They gathered identifications such as: Passive and active dancer, the initiator, the listener, the clown, the antagonist, teacher, student, dying swan, acrobat, lover, energizer and so on. All of these roles are closely linked to traditional gender dynamics. By becoming aware of these gendered roles, Horrigan encouraged her students to avoid falling into those roles automatically and unconsciously, but to play with them more deliberately, aware and freely, having a chance to take a distance to them and be creative. Now I would like to expand and widen these role-selections by adding objects, respectively the thoughts we developed when thinking about objectification as a crucial phenomenon.

Becoming aware of the roles one embraces during a Contact Jam lets one question, why somebody rather takes on the role of the „invitor“ or the „follower“ or „the mother“ or „the child“ when dancing CI. Reasons can be biographically influenced, are related to experiences and histories, that in turn are shaped by society and culture. I assume that by inviting you to become objects we might have a chance to shake those automatisms that lead us into taking on typical roles. Because things can be quite different to those stereotypes they are so much more than just humans with their own little narratives.

Joining a jam with this in mind, you could not only observe yourself and if you tend to take on the role of the „invitor“ or „the follower“, but you could also experiment and play with your purely material and object-sided aspects. You can decide what materials you would like to offer others and pick what the others offer. You can become hard as a rock and observe what others do with this rock. You could feel tired and look for a human pillow to rest on. How does it feel if you allow yourself to use others as objects? How does it feel if you allow others to instrumentalize yourself? How does the difference feel? Just observe, what new spaces and possibilities this opens up.

If you intuitively feel the urge to move upwards, you might already unintentionally look for a body and bodypart, that will serve as a stable basis to climb upon or to be lifted from. We already bring along material aspects of our own selves that have nothing to do with our “soul” or innermost life. We objectively have a certain height and shape that can be used to create a scene. Finally, we bring along a certain aesthetic that can be looked at and contemplated, just as artworks in a gallery or pottery in a Japanese tea ceremony. The way we wear our hair, how you dressed, if you shaved – this all could be superficial side effects if you are interested in dance as an inner experience of emotions and feelings. But if you delight yourself in being an object, those factors can play an interesting role. It might influence the dance – maybe you dance with people whose clothes are matching the color of yours. Dance can then also be understood as a form and practice of design with its own aesthetical qualities.

Finally, becoming an object might also help you coping with emotions by materializing abstract feelings and attaching them to an object. For example: if you feel like trash, it could be empowering to not solve the problem psychologically but by just, for a staged and limited amount of time, being treated like trash, to be thrown away or even recycled – however this might look like in a dance situation. Or the minute you don’t feel like doing the dance anymore, you just break and don’t feel guilty, just like technical objects break all the time (which could also be a creative way to solve issues of consent). You are allowed to not do anything, and just get dusty like a forgotten object. Or you become dust, falling on others, freed from the demands of human life: „Become yourself, be yourself, express yourself, carpe diem“. Finally!

Picture: Ilme Vysniauskaite

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