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Jackie Wang, Oceanic Feeling and Communist Affect

Jackie Wang’s research interests are broad: there is first and foremost prison abolitionism, and the links that exist between the carceral system and the debt economy (perpetuating race inequalities and precariousness). But her work also explores a poetry of togetherness, the research for an individuality that transcends the borders of the “I”: it is the experience of the “oceanic feeling,” which can be reached through music (Alice Coltrane’s, for example) or meditation. Commenting the theories of various authors (from Romain Rolland to Julia Kristeva, Marion Millner to Fred Moten), Jackie Wang sketches out the horizon of another form of sociability.

Oceanic Feeling and Communist Affect

by Jackie Wang

Yesterday I watched Lucile Hadžihalilović’s new film Evolution. In a review of the film Laura Kern wrote, “Water is omnipresent throughout, in part, as Hadzihalilovic says, representing the ‘maternal waters’ that many maturing youngsters find difficult to escape.” The film depicts the lethal ocean of Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. On Twitter I asked, “What is the relationship between the maternal and the oceanic?” I promised that today I would share an essay I wrote on this topic. Here it is–I might eventually take it down because my professor wants to publish it in an anthology.

This essay is about the creative, social, and political implication of oceanic feeling. It might be of interest to anyone interested in the psychoanalysis of mysticism, psychoanalytic debates about religion, Fred Moten, Spinoza, affect theory, and critical theory. There was so much more I wanted to write–about the oceanic experience H.D. wrote about in Tribute to Freud. About the psychoanalysis of creativity. About Wilfred Bion, Michael Eigen, and other psychoanalysts who have written about mysticism. About the relationships between trauma, ecstatic experience, and monstrosity. About the political dimensions of mysticism….

Alas, we cannot say everything in every essay.

Now, to dive….


Between 1923 and 1936, the French novelist and mystic Romain Rolland exchanged twenty letters with the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Inspired by his exchanges with Rolland, Freud elaborated the concept of “oceanic feeling” in his 1930 work Civilization and Its Discontents. In this work Freud describes “oceanic feeling” as a feeling of limitlessness that marks a return to the infantile, pre-Oedipal mode of being, whereby the infant cannot distinguish itself from its mother. Rolland, however, describes “oceanic feeling” as a mystical feeling that enables one to commune with the universe. For Rolland, the “oceanic” was the affective state underlying all religious experience.

This essay examines the concept of “oceanic feeling” in psychoanalytic and philosophical discourses. First, I trace psychoanalytic debates about oceanic feeling and mystical experiences in the work of Freud, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan. Next, I look at British psychoanalyst Marion Milner’s playful avowal of oceanic states during the creative process. Then I examine Rolland’s Spinozist conception of oceanic feeling and discuss some of its social implications, particularly the potential for oceanic states to serve as an affective foundation for social modes that are communistic. Lastly, I discuss how Fred Moten’s theorization of blackness revises the psychoanalytic conceptions of the “oceanic,” as he relates the “oceanic” to blackness and to the trauma of the Middle Passage.

There are two distinct notions of the oceanic operating in the work of Freud, Rolland, and Kristeva. On the one hand, we have a notion of the oceanic as defensive, infantile, and dissociative; on the other, we have a notion of the oceanic as joyful, connective, and integrative. I will take up the latter form of oceanic feeling in my essay for the purpose of elaborating a project of communist affect. In particular, I am interested in how the disintegration of the ego alters one’s orientation to the world and others. Given that the oceanic has the potential to unsettle subjectivity, I argue that the oceanic can be a point of departure for new socialities and political models that do not rely on discrete selves. My analysis of the social implications of oceanic feeling will draw heavily on the performance studies and black studies scholar Fred Moten’s discussion of blackness and paraontology. Though some psychoanalytic thinkers have disavowed the oceanic, at its best, oceanic feeling can, as Gérard de Nerval says, illuminate the “transparent network that covers the world” and sensitize us to the way that “everything lives, moves, everything corresponds.”⁠1

Regression: Freud and Kristeva

In 1930 psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first popularized the term “oceanic feeling” in his work Civilization and Its Discontents. In chapter 2 he notes that the text, like his 1927 text The Future of an Illusion, is a study of religion that is focused on the role of religion in the life of the “common man,” rather than the “sources of religious feeling” for mystics and saints. For Freud “great men” of religious feeling are rare, but in the opening chapter of the book, he prefaces his analysis of religion with a discussion of the comments of one such “great man”: the religious scholar, novelist and mystic Romain Rolland. Rolland had written to Freud after reading The Future of an Illusion expressing that he was sympathetic to Freud’s critiques of religion, but noted that he overlooked that all religion is, in some sense, rooted in mystical experience or “oceanic feeling.” Freud writes:

“One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, [The Future of an Illusion (1927c)] and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic’. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.”⁠2

On Rolland’s view (according to Freud’s account), even if organized religion is an undesirable perversion of the subjective experience of eternity, it still derives its energy from this source. Freud then goes on to subtly dismiss “oceanic feeling” as a potential topic of psychoanalytic investigation by claiming that it is difficult to undertake a “scientific” study of feeling. He then goes on to deny the “primary nature of such a feeling;” however, his dismissal of Roland’s claim seems to be based on his ignorance of the nature of the experience. He writes, “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself,” but goes on to admit that he does not deny that the oceanic occurs in other people.

Freud describes Rolland’s notion of oceanic feeling as “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.”⁠3 In psychoanalytic terms Freud understands this “feeling” (which he notes is not a pure feeling-tone but a projection of intellectual concept onto a feeling-tone) as an ego disturbance that unsettles the boundaries of the self. When the ego is functioning properly it produces a solid sense of the self as autonomous and unitary. However, on Freud’s account, oceanic feeling harkens back to the time when the infant at the breast was not able to distinguish itself from its mother or the outside world. During this stage the ego included everything. Freud argues, by way of a strange digression about the (non-)traces left behind by ancient cities such as Rome, that this archaic experience of non-differentiation may be preserved in the psyche, and that oceanic feeling is a regression to this stage.

In Freud’s non-religious account of the psychic processes undergirding the experience of oceanic feelings, the oceanic (contrary to Rolland’s claim) is not the source of the need for religion. Rather than being the cause, Freud argues that the oceanic is associated with religion later, when it is offered as a kind of consolation for a helpless subject in the face of infantile impotence. Julia Kristeva’s conceptualization of “oceanic feeling” is similar to Freud’s in that the “oceanic” state is considered an infantile regression. In Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, she describes the oceanic as a depressive denial, a form of symbolic suicide, and a “fantasy of untouchable fullness” that “leads the subject to commit suicide without anguish of disintegration, as a reuniting with archaic non-integration, as lethal as it is jubilatory, ‘oceanic.’”⁠4 However, while Freud did not characterize “oceanic feeling” as either feminine or masculine, Kristeva’s description of the oceanic in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, suggests that it emerges from a feminine psychic structure. Throughout the book Kristeva associates feminine melancholia with the “lethal ocean.” Though Kristeva acknowledges the ecstatic aspects of “oceanic feeling” (jouissance), she ultimately dismisses it as a form of wounded narcissism which allows women to gain a kind of protective omnipotence by “limitlessly spreading her constrained sorrow” to achieve a “hallucinated completeness.”⁠5 In a sense, Kristeva’s oceanic is a kind of premature death that is paradoxically a preemptive defense against death.

[…]

In both Kristeva and Freud oceanic feeling is threatening, infantile, and rooted in a pre-Oedipal (or perhaps even pre-natal) experience of non-differentiation. The oceanic is threatening because it has the potential to dissolve the individual’s subjective boundaries. For Kristeva , oceanic feeling is linked to feminine psychic structures. When speculating on why Freud was dismissive of both music and mysticism, Kristeva writes that although Freud was a “courageous explorer into the ‘black continent’ of femininity,” he—perhaps unconsciously?—was trying to ward off the threat of the maternal feminine.⁠6 Here the “feminine” is figured as a kind of terra incognita because, insofar as the feminine resists symbolization, it is unmappable. Though darkness is used as a metaphor for oceanic feeling and the maternal throughout Kristeva’s work, the “oceanic” is treated with more nuance in her later book The Incredible Need to Believe. In this work Kristeva attempts to take seriously the “prereligious need to believe” and thus distances herself from Freud’s position on religion, mysticism and ocean feeling. Kristeva makes the bold assertion that belief is the cornerstone of the subject’s capacity to speak. She writes, “Faith holds the key to the act of speech itself, even should it be plaintive (I am afflicted, men lie, etc.). Because I believe, I speak; I would not speak if I didn’t believe; believing in what I say, and persisting in saying it, comes from the capacity to believe in the Other and not at all from existential experience, necessarily disappointing.”⁠7 Not only is it necessary to believe in the existence of the Other in order to speak, but for psychoanalysis to work it is necessary to believe that it is possible to know. For Kristeva knowledge is not limited to reason or “calculated consciousness,” but also knowledge of inner experience that is gained through the process of signification in a psychoanalytic context. Though oceanic feeling, without the life raft of the loving father’s gift of the signifier, would obliterate the subject, the oceanic—insofar as it accompanied by a feeling of certainty and truth—can ground the subject by affirming the possibility of knowing. While Kristeva treats the oceanic as lethal in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, in her later work the oceanic is an expression of the prereligious need to believe. Perhaps Kristeva did not so much change her position on the oceanic as she did merely emphasize the need for the paternal function and language to regulate the “destructivity” of the maternal oceanic and to “give meaning” to what would otherwise be an “unspeakable trauma.”⁠8 The capacity to “name” the experience ensures that the oceanic does not become a “catastrophic” dissolution of the self (thus, writing can also be a way to manage the oceanic). Essentially what Kristeva is proposing is not so much a disavowal of the oceanic on the grounds that it is infantile (as Freud does), but a new orientation to the oceanic, one that insists that the oceanic can be a gift or source of artistic inspiration so long as it is mediated and managed by the (psychoanalytic) practice of signification. For Kristeva it is important to affirm the prereligious need to believe—along with religion and the oceanic—because secularization and the abolition of faith has grave social consequences (Kristeva even goes so far as to say that secularization has a causal relationship to the holocaust). Perhaps, rather than trying to purge, disavow, avoid, or control, the “traumatic excitation” of ocean feeling, it makes more sense to dwell in it, to silence the repulsive dread of maternal suffocation, to inhabit the feeling (getting filled-up and blissed-out) knowing full well that on the other side of the experience lies an opportunity to assimilate the gift (of direct knowledge of the space beyond and outside the ego) by processing and naming it (in psychoanalysis or through artistic creation and other acts of sublimation). Perhaps it would be possible to alternate between these divergent affective spaces and use them to enrich each other.

Creativity and Aliveness: Marion Milner

Is it inherently bad to “regress” to a childlike state? Perhaps, rather than thinking of the oceanic as an infantile need to restore a sense of omnipotence in response to feeling helpless, the oceanic can be thought of as a stage in a cycle of creativity where a return to a state of infancy acts to wipe the mind clean (of a certain kind of knowledge) and represents the rebirth of the subject. In the psychoanalysis of creativity, the creative state is often described as a return to the immersive experience of child’s play. Infantile states need not be thought of as immature, defensive, or representative of the subject’s inability to cope with reality, but experimental, restorative, joyous, and enlivening.

In the work of British psychoanalyst Marion Milner, creativity is a dialectical and cyclical process that includes periods when the subject descends into an “incommunicable world” punctuated by states of focused consciousness.⁠9 Another way to put this is, there is a dynamic interplay between what Milner, drawing on the work of Anton Ehrenzweig, refers to as the “depth mind” and the “surface mind.” As she writes in her 1956 essay “Psychoanalysis and Art”:

“The state of mind which analysts describe as a repetition of the infant’s feelings in its mother’s arms, the state which Freud called oceanic, is thus being regarded by certain writers on art as an essential part of the creative process. But it is not the oceanic feeling by itself, for that would be the mystic’s state; it is rather the oceanic state in a cyclic oscillation with the activity of what Ehrenzweig calls the surface mind, with that activity in which ‘things’ and the self, as Maritain puts it, are grasped separately, not together. And the cyclic oscillation is not just passively experienced but actively used, with the intent to make something, produce something.”⁠10

Milner, like Kristeva, affirms the possibility of using the oceanic to “make something,” but in order to transform the oceanic state into an aesthetic object the artist must oscillate between different modes of perception and awareness because the oceanic state, like dream states, resists signification.⁠11 In other words, the writer or artist must “submerge” and then come to the surface for air. I would also add that oceanic states animate writers and artists precisely because they are inexpressible. If we agree with Lacan’s assertion that the subject’s desire is animated by lack, then the impossibility of expressing the oceanic state may paradoxically incite the subject’s desire to symbolize that state. The gap opened up by the oceanic state creates tension, frustration, and perhaps even sadness. When the oceanic state is over and the artist’s cognitive faculties return, she has already lost it. However, artistic creation itself can become a way to mourn the lost state (and its attendant feeling of completeness) when the artist succeeds in finding a substitute for that which always eludes the subject. Anticipating Lacan and Kristeva’s emphasis on the process of signification, Milner writes:

“Analysts find that in their most deeply disturbed patients the process of symbol formation has been interfered with, or perhaps never properly established. And two ideas are emerging from this. First, that the achieving of a symbol (a symbol being seen as essentially a substitute) involves a mourning for the loss of that for which it is a substitute. Second, that the process of finding the substitute requires a temporary merging of the idea of the original thing with the idea of the substitute.”⁠12

Here, loss is the precondition for all symbolic processes. It is not surprising that many writers, especially poets, have an extremely fraught relationship to language itself. They know that no matter how many signifiers they spill they will never be able to fully capture the affective states that they pass through. Perhaps this is what Samuel Beckett means when he writes that “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.”⁠13 Milner’s essay discursively enacts this “failure.” Throughout “Psychoanalysis and Art” she writes about how difficult it was for her to write anything about creative and oceanic states. She opens the essay by acknowledging that when she approached the topic, her mind went blank. She notes, “I am trying to talk about a state of mind that does in a sense stop being that state of mind as soon as we separate ourselves from it sufficiently to talk about it in logical terms.”⁠14 Separating from such states in order to attempt to symbolize them is often psychically painful; however, this torturous separation (which may resemble the initial maternal separation) is necessary in order to create a substitution for the lost thing. If one were to dwell in the oceanic state indefinitely than one would never experience the wrenching separation that paradoxically may animate signification.

Cosmic Connectedness: Rolland and Spinoza

Rolland noted in his letters to Freud that he derived the concept of “oceanic feeling” from the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza proposed that “existence belongs to the nature of substance” and that all of existence consists of a single infinite substance he refers to as God or Nature.⁠15 In Rolland’s terms oceanic feeling is not an infantile defense or regressive return to a pre-Oedipal state, but part of a mature process of becoming; an experience of ego loss that enables one to commune with the “substance” of existence in a way that radically alters one’s orientation to the world.

In his letters to Freud, Rolland distinguished between organized religion and religious feeling. He writes, “I would have liked to see you doing an analysis of spontaneous religious sentiment or, more exactly, of religious feeling, which is wholly different from religions in the strict sense of the word, and much more durable.”⁠16 For Rolland, religious feeling could be accessed directly by people by way of the oceanic, which he described in a letter to Freud as “the simple and direct fact of the feeling of the ‘eternal’ (which can very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and like oceanic, as it were).”⁠17

Rolland was raised Catholic, but ultimately left the Catholic Church because he found it corrupt and oppressive. However, spirituality remained a central part of his life, and he was able to maintain a connection to religion through a direct contact with the eternal afforded by his oceanic experiences. Henri Vermorel, quoting Rolland, notes that “Shortly after losing his Catholic faith, one day in 1887, alone at his desk, reading Spinoza’s Ethics, he had an ‘illumination’, ‘the white sun of the Substance.’⁠18 He experienced it as an immersion in God, in the Universe, in the ‘Ocean of Being’, bringing him peace of mind.”⁠19 Thus, after Rolland “lost” his religion, he began to adopt a syncretic blend of Spinozism and Eastern religious traditions, which Jussi A. Saarinen described as “a pantheistic monism derived, amongst others, from Advaita Vedanta philosophy, Tolstoy, Leibniz, and Spinoza, the ‘European Krishna.’”⁠20

The influence of Spinoza on Rolland’s development of the concept of the “oceanic” cannot be understated because Spinoza not only provided a philosophical framework through which to understand oceanic feeling, but also because the oceanic was inspired by a mystical experience Rolland had while reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Rolland’s Spinozist conception of oceanic feeling differs from the psychoanalytic conception most markedly in its characterization of the affective state undergirding the experience. While Kristeva relates oceanic feeling to melancholia (and feminine melancholia in particular), Rolland—perhaps drawing on Spinoza’s affective philosophy—relates oceanic feeling to joy. This is a significant distinction because, for Spinoza, the ‘sad passions’ (what we might call depression or melancholia) decreases a body’s capacity to act, whereas joy enhances it. Thus we might distinguish between Kristeva’s morbid oceanic and Rolland’s vitalist oceanic, which produces a “vital upsurge” in the person experiencing it.⁠21 I would argue that a vitalist conception of the oceanic rooted in the thinking of Spinoza is more socially and politically enabling than certain antisocial psychoanalytic conceptions of the oceanic.

In recent years, Italian, French and American post-Marxists influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s thought have also used Spinoza to theorize the nature of collective struggle and the politics of affect.⁠22 It is not surprising that post-Marxists who feel that communism is at an impasse have turned to Spinoza, both for his affective philosophy (which posits joy as the most empowering emotion) and his radically ecological thought. For Spinoza, if God is infinity, then everything that exists is in God; therefore, all creatures and things are part of the single substance that is variously called Nature or God. Thus, Spinoza’s philosophy, which is sometimes called a rational mysticism, reveals a kind of already-existing communism, even while on another level, we inhabit a historical milieu that is considered post-communist (insofar as the major communist political endeavors of the 20th century have failed). But if we concede that communism failed, perhaps it is not due to a failure to figure out the best possible social and economic modes of organization, but because we didn’t have the affective and imaginative resources to even begin to envision a mode of existence centered on connectedness over differentiation.

Indeed, contemporary post-Marxist deployments of Spinoza were not the first attempts to articulate the social implications of Spinoza’s metaphysics. Rolland felt that mythical experiences could move subjects toward the social. As Saarinen writes, “Rolland was notably wary of any sustained mystical disengagement from worldly affairs, and emphasized instead the energizing effect of the oceanic orientation on social and political action.”⁠23

Social Implications of Oceanic Feeling

“…one instant’s contact with the Infinite is sufficient to make the Illusion of all ‘differentiated’ egos, our own and other men’s, disappear immediately.”⁠24
—Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna

As I have discussed so far, Rolland, unlike Freud and Kristeva, rejects the view of the oceanic as a “regressive-defensive withdrawal from the world” and instead asserts that the oceanic can enhance one’s being toward the world by disappearing the boundaries of the ego.⁠25 This perspective begs the question: Is our experience of ourselves as bounded, discrete selves just a trick of the ego? Is it an effect of language, which operates through differentiation and naming? Or is the self a construction or mode of perception conditioned by an idea of the “individual” articulated in the discourses of the Enlightenment, psychoanalysis, and liberalism (which locates freedom in individual choice and agency)? Whether psychic, discursive, linguistic, or ideological in origin, affective states that take us beyond the boundaries of the self and illuminate the “transparent network that covers the world” may be more than just personally formative experiences; they have the potential to open up new modes of relationality. On this view the oceanic cannot be reduced to mere egoic dysfunction or a delusional hallucination, but instead could be considered a revelation: the illumination of an already-existing communalism and the direct experience of our embeddedness in the world.

To dismiss oceanic feeling on the grounds that it is infantile tacitly locates “adult” subjectivity in the capacity to differentiate self from other rather than the capacity to conceptualize of the subject as connected: as part of an assemblage or node inscribed within a larger world or network. Framed this way, it becomes possible to see that the denigration of oceanic feeling by some psychoanalytic thinkers also reveals an attachment to a specific idea of the subject. In a sense, oceanic feeling as an affective state has the potential to open up the subject by temporarily dissolving its boundaries. While this has interesting implications for how we define and understand subjectivity (which I will get to in my discussion of Moten), it also has interesting social implications.

What would it mean to socialize (or communize) oceanic feeling? Could the oceanic act as a feeling-in-common that serves as the experiential basis for the co-construction of new worlds? If the experience of ego loss (and the attendant feeling of being cosmically connected to the universe) has the capacity to denaturalize the individual and undo the fiction of the bounded subject, then the oceanic has the potential to open up new socialites.

In the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, the “rhizome”—a root system that grows laterally and puts out roots at intervals—is frequently used as a visual metaphor to imagine a networked form of social entanglement. With rhizomatic plants, what appears to be, say, a forest of bamboo consisting of discrete plants may actually be a cluster connected by a single root system. If we recalibrate our vision and filter our social worlds through the idea of the rhizome it would be difficult to clearly demarcate where one “I” stops and another begins. In a 2013 Tarnac seminar on love, Le Love Gang notes that in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, “‘I’ is not a monad surrounded by objects. I is a world, a mechinic assemblage, a certain nexus [nouage]. To love is not to project a closed ego towards another ego, hoping to make a two-part unity. It is to assemble [agencer], to destabilize and map out new lines of escape [lignes de fuite].”⁠26

In recent years a group of anonymous friendship theorists drawing on the work of Deleuze, Guattari, Tiqqun and Spinoza have used ‘constellations’ as a way to visualize their social mode: “We form constellations. Our bodies are never isolated, are always enmeshed in shifting patterns of relations. Scattered across space, our selves form patterns, trace connections ethical but unseen. They give us consistency and form outside of our solitude. When we make our connections material, our constellations take shape, become tactile, make worlds.”⁠27

This use of constellations to imagine social relations emphasizes the need for both social imagination (to put things in relation and experiment with new forms) and material acts that make the constellation tangible. For instance, a constellation may be made palpable when a group of friends live together, care for each other, think together and create new forms of life. Affinity thus becomes not just a matter of shared personal or political beliefs, but the entwinement of our everyday lives. As the constellation becomes more material, it becomes more difficult to imagine that the self “can ever be understood in isolation.”⁠28 Furthermore, the creation of constellations enchants our social worlds by giving intention and meaning to our webs of relations.

The image of the constellation struck me because I had recently read Kristeva, quoting Nerval, describe the oceanic as the illumination of the “transparent network that covers the world.” What is a constellation if not the illumination of possible lines of connection between scattered celestial bodies, such that they form a larger body? When forms become ossified, could the oceanic be a way to map out new constellations? Perhaps when the differentiating mind is silenced, during those moments one experiences the “oceanic,” it becomes possible to imagine oneself as embedded in a constellation.

Collectivity and the Unbounded Self: Moten’s Seaborne Sociality

“Never being on the right side of the Atlantic is an unsettled feeling, the feeling of a thing that unsettles with others. It’s a feeling, if you ride with it, that produces a certain distance from the settled, from those who determine themselves in space and time, who locate themselves in a determined history. To have been shipped is to have been moved by others, with others. It is to feel at home with the homeless, at ease with the fugitive, at peace with the pursued, at rest with the ones who consent not to be one.”⁠29
—Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study.

While oceanic feeling is a term that was popularized by Freud and subsequently taken up psychoanalytic thinkers, Fred Moten’s theorization of blackness bears striking resemblance to both Freud and Rolland’s take on oceanic feeling. For Moten, blackness is a paraontological mode of being that is literally connected to (and produced by) the ocean. In Freud and Moten’s discourse black being and oceanic feeling are both connected with the maternal, though unlike Kristeva, Moten does not frame the maternal as threatening, nor does he describe the maternal as engulfing and in need of the intervention of the paternal function. For both Rolland and Moten, the sea is that which unsettles being. However, while Rolland used the ocean to illustrate Spinoza’s conception of the single substance as a kind of metaphor for the experience of limitlessness, in Moten’s writing the sea is linked to legacies of slavery, and in particular the dispersal of people of African descent around the world via the slave ship. In Moten’s work and the work of Afro-pessimist thinkers such as Saidiya Hartman the sea is also a passage that marks an ontological rupture.

The “unsettled” and uncoded way of being (which Moten calls ‘blackness’) is described by Moten in the essay “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” as the “unmappable zone of paraontological consent.”⁠30 The “paraontological” mode of being differs from ontological or intersubjective modes of being in that it does not presuppose discrete, self-contained subjects who interact or encounter each other. Moten’s notion of paraontology comes from Nahum Chandler’s reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s discussion of the strange meaning of being black. According to Moten, the idea that black being functions differently than other modes of being is elaborated in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and through Jacques Derrida’s work and theorization of différance. While the German philosopher Martin Heidegger makes a distinction between the ontic and the ontological as well as being and beings (a distinction that is analogous to Socrates distinction between essence and instance), Moten resists this distinction and argues that paraontological force of black being disrupts fundamental categories and even the idea of the category itself. Moten’s paraontological subjects (perhaps “subjects” is a misnomer here) are without boundaries. They are oceanic. Not only are they affected by others, they spill over, into and are haptically undone and remade by each other.

This notion of paraontology dispenses with an idea of selfhood as a kind of property relation characterized by self-ownership. Being is not self-possession or even self-determination; it is movement and circulation. Another way Moten has formulated this notion of blackness is by describing it as both MORE and LESS than ONE. If “one” is the self, than blackness disrupts the very idea of the self as singular. Moten notes that the history of blackness is history of the imposition of this “less than one” (or notion of black selfhood as not-full) onto black people. This dual quality of blackness as, on the one hand, nothing and less than one, and on the other hand, as multiple and excessive, is why Moten insists on describing blackness as paraontological and not ontological. This is also why Moten refuses to define blackness as an identity, though he acknowledges that black people have a privileged relationship to blackness because of their intimate relationship to loss, pain, suffering and deprivation.

Furthermore, blackness is also oceanic insofar as it is not fixed to a particular land base. For Moten blackness unsettles the notion of home, for black being is marked by dislocation.⁠31 But unlike Afro-pessimists such as Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton, Moten does not believe that blackness amounts to social death. For him blackness is irreducibly social. As he writes, “The zone of nonbeing is experimental, is a kind of experiment, this double edge of the experiment, this theater of like and unlike in which friendship’s sociality overflows its political regulation.”⁠32

For Moten blackness is also an ejection from the symbolics of legitimate personhood. Thus blackness is an uncoded zone of being that exist outside the arena of social recognition. Though Moten does not downplay the brutality of this imposed banishment from subjectivity, he does see it as the condition of possibility for the creation of insurgent black social life, or what he sometimes calls undercommon sociality. When Moten writes about “the wailing that accompanies entrance into and expulsion from sociality,” he does so in a lyrical register that captures both the terrible and the ecstatic dimensions of this violent expulsion-entrance.⁠33

This expulsion from “human” sociality and entrance into black sociality is also constituted by the violence of the Middle Passage. He writes, “It’s terrible to have come from nothing but the sea, which is nowhere, navigable only in its constant autodislocation. The absence of solidity seems to demand some other ceremony of hailing that will have been carried out on some more exalted frequency.”⁠34 Throughout Moten’s work, the sea—as well as the experience of being shipped—is used to theorize the fluidity of blackness (the “absence of solidity”). To be a citizen of the sea is also to be stateless. In a breathtakingly beautiful passage that opens with an uncited reference Hart Crane’s poem “The Broken Tower,”⁠35 Moten writes:

“And so it is that we remain in the hold, in the break, as if entering again and again the broken world, to trace the visionary company and join it. This contrapuntal island, where we are marooned in search of marronage, where we linger in stateless emergency, is our mobile, constant study, our lysed cell and held dislocation, our blown standpoint and lyred chapel. We study our seaborne variance, sent by its prehistory into arrivance without arrival, as a poetics of lore, of abnormal articulation, where the relation between joint and flesh is the pleated distance of a musical moment that is emphatically, palpably imperceptible and, therefore, exhausts description.”⁠36

The experience of existing “in the break”—of being blown, shipped, marooned, dislocated—produces an “abnormal articulation” because it is an experience that exhausts description. Given that these subterranean modes of being are outside the realm of social recognition, black social life registers as “nothing” to those who don’t understand it. While Moten concedes to the Afro-pessimist analysis of blackness as a condition of bare life (read: flesh) that they characterize as a kind of nothingness, this nothingness has texture. Moten writes, “If the slave is, in the end and in essence, nothing, what remains is the necessity of an investigation of that nothingness.”⁠37 This investigation is only possible by way of an affirmation of negation and the introduction of a set of new terms to understand sociality outside of (white) notions of subjective self-possession. The uncontainability of blackness, like oceanic feeling, deconstructs notions of the subject as bounded.

Concluding Thoughts

In this essay I have analyzed psychoanalytic debates about oceanic feeling and discussed possible creative and social implications of this feeling state. Following Rolland and Milner (and departing with Freud and early Kristeva), I argue that oceanic feeling can be a source of creative and social inspiration. Given that this essay deals primarily with theoretical questions, perhaps the sections that discuss the ways in which oceanic feeling is enabling beg the question: Would it be possible to induce an oceanic experience? If not, why should we concern ourselves with an affective state that is only available to a few lucky (or unlucky) initiates?

In response to these questions I would argue that oceanic feeling, as described in psychoanalytic discourse, is largely involuntary; though my research on the topic suggests that it may be linked to trauma (in that people who have been traumatized may be more prone to having oceanic experiences). In trauma studies many scholars have noted that people who have experienced trauma do not experience themselves as selves at all. As Judith Herman notes in Trauma and Recovery, “Survivors routinely describe themselves as outside the compact of ordinary human relations, as supernatural creatures or nonhuman life forms. They think of themselves as witches, vampires, whores, dogs, rats, or snakes. Some use the imagery of excrement or filth to describe their inner sense of self.”⁠38 The linking of trauma to oceanic feeling might support the idea that oceanic feeling is a kind of manic defense against pain. However, even if this were the case, it still might (paradoxically) also be true that the oceanic is a source of ecstatic joy: a kind of terrible gift.

Furthermore, though oceanic experiences may be an involuntary mystical experiences, it might be possible to induce (or cultivated) oceanic experiences through meditation, rhythmic breathing, psychedelic drugs, participating in a riot, fasting, sleep-deprivation, tantric sex, BDSM play, chanting, emotional pain and grief, physical pain, exercise, prayer, music, experiences of collective euphoria and any number of other activities that push one to a threshold state of consciousness. [Don’t try this at home, kids!]

Lastly, since this essay deals mainly with theoretical discussions about the origins and nature of oceanic feeling, it is beyond the scope of this essay to examine empirical research that has been done on the effects of mystical experiences on how people relate to the world and others. There has been a renewed interest in research on psychedelic drugs that not only looks at how mystical experiences can help “treat” addiction, depression, and other disorders, but also how such chemically-induced experiences foster empathy and enrich social relationships.

Jackie Wang is a black studies scholar, prison abolitionist, poet, multimedia artist, performer, and PhD candidate at Harvard University in African and African American Studies. She is the author of Carceral Capitalism (2018), a number of punkzines including On Being Hard Femme, and collections of dream poems. In her most recent work she has been researching the bail bonds industry and the history of risk assessment in the criminal legal system. She has performed and exhibited work at many venues including MoMA PS1 (New York), Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), The Kitchen (New York), Los Angeles Filmforum’s Cinema Cabaret (Los Angeles), CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts (Glasgow).

  • Gérard de Nerval quoted in Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 170.

  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, James Strachey (trans.) (New York: Norton, 2005), 11.

  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, James Strachey (trans.) (New York: Norton, 2005), 11.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 19-20.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 74.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 74.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 74.

  • Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Leon S. Roudiez (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 74.

  • Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 156.

  • Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 159-160.

  • Like Kristeva, Milner links these oceanic states to the feminine side of mental functioning, which she contrasts with a masculine, logical mode of thinking. If the formal logic of the conscious mind avoids contradictions, then, according to Milner, mystical thinking is dialectical, more suited to holding the ambivalence and contradictions of subjects who are partially opaque to themselves (insofar as the unconscious mind is always operant).

  • Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 175.

  • Samuel Beckett quoted in Harold Bloom (ed.), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008), 118.
    Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 175.

  • Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, Forty-four Years of Exploring Psychoanalysis (London, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), 175.

  • Baruch Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, Edwin Curley (ed. & trans.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 160.

  • William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling, Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 172.

  • William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling, Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 173.

  • Romain Rolland quoted in Henri Vermorel, “The Presence of Spinoza in the Exchanges between Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland,” in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 90, issue 6, 2009, 1234-1237.

  • Henri Vermorel, “The Presence of Spinoza in the Exchanges between Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland,” in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 90, issue 6, 2009, 1237.

  • Jussi A. Saarinen, “The Oceanic Feeling A Case Study in Existential Feeling,” in Journal Of Consciousness Studies 21, June 2014, 201.

  • William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling, Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 174.

  • Most notably in the work of Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, and Tiqqun. See Antonio Negri and Timothy S. Murphy (ed.), Subversive Spinoza: (un)contemporary Variations (Manchester, NY: Manchester University Press, 2004).

  • Jussi A. Saarinen, “The Oceanic Feeling A Case Study in Existential Feeling,” in Journal Of Consciousness Studies 21, June 2014, 213.

  • Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna, E. F. Malcolm-Smith (trans.) (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1929), 73.

  • Jussi A. Saarinen, “The Oceanic Feeling A Case Study in Existential Feeling,” in Journal Of Consciousness Studies 21, June 2014, 201.

  • Le Love Gang, “Love // Tarnac Seminar,” Robert Hurley (trans.) in Friendship as a Form of Life 2, 2016, 51.

  • Le Love Gang, “Love // Tarnac Seminar,” Robert Hurley (trans.) in Friendship as a Form of Life 2, 2016, 62.

  • Le Love Gang, “Love // Tarnac Seminar,” Robert Hurley (trans.) in Friendship as a Form of Life 2, 2016, 64.

  • Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons, Fugitive Planning & Black Study (London, New York: Minor Compositions, 2016), 97.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 752. 

  • Insofar as blackness is defined negatively in relation to self-possession and ownership, Moten says that anyone is free to claim the gift of blackness so long as they are willing to give up the idea of home or being ontologically settled.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 768.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 746.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 744.

  • Moten’s use of Hart Crane in his discussion of what it means to be of the sea is moving and strangely fitting when one considers Crane committed suicide by jumping off a ship between Cuba and Florida. The “Broken Tower” (1932) was the last poem Crane published before ending his life. The exact wording of the lines referenced in this passage are as follows: “And so it was I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love, its voice.”

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 743.

  • Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Religion and the Futures of Blackness, Vol. 112, issue 4, 2013, 744.

  • Judith L. Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 105.

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Ann Cooper Albright, Contact Improvisation and the Politics of Empathy

Ann Cooper Albright, whose research and teachings merge theory and practice, considers that an understanding of our bodies and an awareness of ourselves and others occur in particular through dance, the study of phenomenology as well as art history. In this text, the American scholar and dancer aims at transcending the subject/object dyad that shapes our perception of the world. The skin is no longer a boundary, or a shield, but a porous surface enabling an interconnectedness between bodies and world, so that both the inside and the outside can be felt simultaneously.

Feeling In and Out: Contact Improvisation and the Politics of Empathy

by Ann Cooper Albright

In an extraordinarily profound and poetic short essay on Rembrandt’s paintings, art critic John Berger traces the differences between the artist’s drawings and his paintings—particularly the late portraits. Whereas in his drawings Rembrandt is a master of proportion, in his paintings this realistic perspective is radically altered. Berger asks: “Why in his paintings did he forget—or ignore—what he could do with such mastery in his drawings?”⁠1 Alluding to the historical context of Rembrandt’s time, Berger suggests: “He grew old in a climate of economic fanaticism and indifference—not dissimilar to the climate of the period we are living through. The human could no longer simply be copied… the human was no longer self-evident; it had to be found in the darkness.”⁠2 Berger searches for language to address what is not directly visible in Rembrandt’s painting, and postulates that “Something else—something antithetical to “real” space must have interested him more.”⁠3 Vital yet elusive, palpable yet not immediately visible, this “something else” present in Rembrandt’s work is defined by Berger as a “corporeal space.” By distorting a part or parts of the bodies he was painting, Rembrandt was able to give them what Berger calls a “special power of narration.” Tellingly, this corporeal space is incompatible with architectural, measured space. It is connected to energy, not geometric lines. Berger writes: “corporeal space is continually changing its measures and focal centres, according to circumstances. It measures by waves, not metres. Hence its necessary dislocations of ‘real’ space.”⁠4

In order to give his readers a sense of the different orientations of this corporeal space, Berger charges us to “leave the museum”⁠5 and go the emergency room of a hospital. It is there, Berger insists, that we will find

“[t]he space of each sentient body’s awareness of itself. It is not boundless like subjective space: it is always finally bound by the laws of the body, but its landmarks, its emphasis, its inner proportions are continually changing. Pain sharpens our awareness of such space. It is the space of our first vulnerability and solitude. Also of disease. But is also, potentially, the space of pleasure, well-being and the sensation of being loved.”⁠6

For Berger, this corporeal space can be felt by touch more clearly than it can be seen by sight, which is why it is the space that nurses occupy more often than doctors. “[O]n each mattress, within each patient, it takes a different form.”⁠7 I am intrigued by Berger’s notion of a corporeal space, one that requires another “way of seeing” to register its potency. In the writing that follows, I want to explore how this space prioritizes touch and “feeling” rather than seeing, shifting the traditional subject/object dynamic of these exchanges. Of course, I am writing not only about the social and political relationship between painter and model, or even that of an art critic and the work of art, but also of the relationship between one’s self and an “other.” I will argue that by attending to the practice of feeling rather than its affects, Contact Improvisation can help us revise Western notions of empathy that are based on a psychological conception of the individual subject and an object of sympathy.

In English, feeling is both a noun and a verb form. Its many definitions span the gamut from the strictly material – such as to finger, palpate, or touch something—to the highly cerebral. It can be used to describe a physical sensation (I feel something sticky), an intellectual perception (I have a feeling that…), or an emotive state (feeling blue). Feeling can refer to both the surface of the body and the interior self. Feelings, of course, are closely linked to empathy, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the German term Einfühlung, which can be translated as feeling in or feeling into. As Susan Foster outlines in her recent genealogy of empathy, this term was originally coined in 1873 by German aesthetician Robert Vischer and subsequently translated into English as “empathy.”⁠8 In its late 19th century German context, feeling into (or empathy) was primarily used to describe the experience of contemplating, moving into and merging with a work of art, something that John Berger does very well in his perceptive writing. In an early 21st century context, however, empathy usually refers to the experience of relating to someone else’s circumstances, and constitutes the stuff of daytime talk shows à la Oprah Winfrey. As feeling moves from a verb to a noun, from the physical sensing of touch to a projected image of another’s experience, it can take on the colonial baggage of sympathy and the psychic mantle of emotion.

But what if we were to refuse this stabilizing of a verb into a noun—of an active experience into a passive object? What if we kept feeling at the surface of the body, rather than letting it sink into what Foster describes as the late 19th century’s “newly constructed interiority whose proclivities for repression, identification, transference, and sublimation were just beginning to be explored and whose defining consciousness could be fathomed only through intensive introspection”?⁠9 What if we approached Einfühlung, or feeling into, as a kinesthetic practice rather than a psychological state? By holding our attention to the physical, I am not trying to suggest that this realm is any more authentic, natural, “real,” or less culturally grounded than the psychological. On the contrary, I am quite interested in foregrounding the socio-political moorings of corporeal training. But it is crucial for us to recognize just how quickly and easily we tend to elide feeling with emotions, setting up a subject position based on possession (I have emotions) rather than one based in sensation (I am feeling).

Contact Improvisation has been around for almost four decades and I have been involved with the form for three of those decades. I have participated in and taught workshops in many different communities all over the world. Although the form has changed and moved as it adapts to different historical circumstances and geographic locations, there are some fundamental elements that comprise the core of the physical training, no matter whether it is conducted in German or English, Mandarin or Tamil. One of these is a focused attention to sensation at the level of the skin.

As we all know, skin is one of the largest and most sensitive of our organs. It covers our entire bodies and it is impossible to exist in the world without one’s skin. Ironically, however, many people go through their everyday lives with little awareness of their skin as a perceptual faculty. This is because our current post-industrial culture reifies the visual almost to the exclusion of our other senses, including those of sound and smell. Most of us use sight to navigate the world—off-line as well as on-line. Generally speaking in the West, seeing is believing, and feeling is suspect. We tend to become aware of our skin only in extreme situations such as fear (the skin crawling up the back of my neck), awe (it gave me goose bumps), or pleasure (the tingling sensation of a lover’s caress). Much of the foundational training in Contact Improvisation attempts to reverse this cultural hierarchy by reducing our dependency on the visual and bringing awareness to the nuances of the tactile. In Contact, one’s skin becomes a primary site of communication.

The first step in this process of retraining our corporeal habitus is to release the tension that is a direct result of what I call a territorial approach to the body’s integrity. We can conceive of our skin as either a boundary or a conduit and this shift in perception leads to a radically different understanding of the relationship between myself and the world. If my skin is seen as a barrier to disease, infection, or any kind of “otherness,” I might well approach life with a certain Cold War mentality, shoring up any breaches in my defense system and using my skin as a wall or a container meant to keep me safe from the outside world. If, on the other hand, I experience my skin as the porous interface between myself and the world, then I will be more apt to engage my skin as a permeable, sensitive layer that facilitates that exchange. As Corey Spiro, one of my students in a recent Contact class, suggests:

“I feel as though we live in a world where the boundary between self and ‘other’ is constantly being defined, labeled, and monitored. This is especially apparent in our perceptions of the ownership of space. MY PROPERTY, MY ROOM, etc. Nowhere is this line more clearly drawn than at our skin […]. It’s all too easy to convince oneself that the skin represents the ultimate energetic boundary between self and other. Of course, this barrier works both ways, just as it stops the world from coming into us, it similarly prevents our conception of self from expanding beyond the limits of our physical bodies.
I would expect then, that opening the pores of my skin wide enough to let the world in would be a frightening experience. Rather than an upsetting intrusion, however, I was surprised to find out that it was actually extremely refreshing. My energy in class was perhaps lagging a little bit today, but I felt that by opening myself up I was able to simultaneously expand outward into the energy of Wild Main Space and also feel more acutely the electromagnetic fields of everyone else standing around me. In short, opening my pores did more than just “let the world in,” it also let me out. The feeling was one of freedom and relief, as I was no longer alone within the prison-like confines of my injured and fatigued frame.”⁠10

In this dialogue between the self and the world, one becomes aware of the intriguing possibilities of interdependence, including a deeper sense of responsibility. I think of responsibility not as an oppressive duty towards others, but rather as an ability to respond, an ability to be present with the world and as a way of being present with oneself. This is the fruit of kinesthetic attention, a physical mindfulness that prepares one for improvisation. It is also a kind of somatic engagement which leads to a profound psychic reorganization as well. If the world is already inside one’s body, then the separation between internal and external—self and other—is much less distinct. The skin is no longer the boundary between the world and myself, but rather the sensing organ, which brings the world into my awareness. Given the anxiety swirling around boundaries and bodies in contemporary society, however, this latter sensibility requires a bit of practice.

One of the earliest exercises that I give in my improvisation classes is referred to as “the small dance” or “the stand.” First developed by Steve Paxton in the early seventies as he explored the physical skills that would lead towards defining the form of Contact Improvisation, the stand allows one to focus on the internal movements created by the shifts of bones, muscles and breath required to stand “still.” After they have been warming up, moving through the space for awhile with big, vigorous movements, I ask the students to chose a spot and stand in a relaxed, but active manner. Engaging one’s peripheral vision is crucial to this process, and I tell the dancers to try and release the fronts of their eyes, allowing images and colors to come into their head instead of straining their eyes in order to go out and grab the visual image. Often, I will call their attention to the sensation of the moisture on their skin, asking them to feel the difference between air and clothing. Next, I ask them to concentrate on opening the pores of their skin so that it becomes like a window screen, allowing air, smells and sounds to come in from the outside. I ask them to try to breathe through the pores of their skin. Only once they sense the responsiveness of their own skin, are my students ready to work with a partner and feel their weight shifting back and forth between two people. I emphasize the homonymic connections between pore (of the skin) and pour (as in pouring water from a pitcher), asking the students to reflect in writing on what it feels like to open the pores of your skin wide enough to let the world pour in. Here is how Isabel Roth, another of my recent Contact students, responds to this physical practice:

“I think the idea of opening pores as being similar to the idea of opening your mind. It’s not as if you can actively think to open pores and actually feel the individual pores opening. But it is a palpable feeling of release, of spreading and opening your skin to the physical space and people around you […]. Just like opening the pores of the skin allows you to be ready to receive, it also makes you ready to give. Skin is such a pliable and ever-flexible organ, constantly shifting and regenerating, depending on movement and contact. By opening the pores you prepare the skin for contact and for the willingness to open up to another’s touch. Now ready to accept that touch, it is easier to reciprocate pouring weight from open pores to a partner.”⁠11

As you may have noticed, each of my students’ responses uses feeling as both noun and verb – an active state of sensing and also a reflection of that experience. These two meanings of the word resonate with one another, vibrating in an ambiguous space between a subject (who feels) and an object (of feeling). Reading the students’ descriptions of their experience, I am reminded of Berger’s sense that corporeal space is measured in “waves, not metres,” and is predicated on touch, not sight. The somatic state of responsiveness that these students articulate is crucial in preparing the body to enter safely into a Contact duet. But before I move into an analysis of the physical dimensions of touch and sharing weight, I want to look at two different ways of thinking about empathy by making a distinction between introspection and interoception.

Etymologically, introspection means to look into one’s self, which is usually specified as one’s own mind or feelings. This interior space is the site of empathy, envisioned as contained within one’s self until it is drawn out by the object of one’s gaze, sympathy, or even pity. As Foster demonstrates in her study cited earlier, introspection is implicated in the scopic economy of the 19th-century self. Interoception, on the other hand, replaces the visual emphasis (spect) with the more tactile sensibility of cept. Used mostly in neuropsychology, the term “interoception” references one’s ability to feel sensations arising from within the body, specifically one’s visceral organs, giving us the term “gut feelings.” Advances in brain imaging over the last decade have helped scientists locate interoception in the right frontal insula, a part of the brain also identified with emotional intelligence. It could be easy to collapse these two terms into an overall feeling of empathy. But as any Zen master will tell you, feeling does not necessarily have to evolve into emotion. In fact, I want to suggest that the physical mind of interoception can produce an entirely different kind of empathetic exchange, one that stays with feeling without getting stuck in the emotional baggage of feelings.

Once my students are comfortable with opening the pores of their skin, we begin the infinitely interesting process of learning to pour our weight, like water, into one another’s bodies. Starting with two hands, one partner will firmly, yet openly, touch another person on the back or shoulder, kinesthetically “asking” their partner to pour their weight into the receptacle of their hands. The asking partner can regulate how much weight is given by resisting and pouring back even as they accept the responsibility for the other person’s weight. This mutual pouring creates an energetic dialogue that continuously loops between the partners. Eventually, the partners begin to pour their weight back and forth, using different body parts as their physical contact revolves around the space and across their bodies. As the dancers gain fluidity in the giving and receiving of weight, the dancing tends to speed up. This is the moment when the responsiveness of one’s body is critical. There is no time for the lengthy processing of emotions here; one has to focus entirely on keeping up with the point of contact.

This point of connection is sometimes referred to in Contact parlance as the “third mind.” Allowing their dancing to be led by this “third mind,” the two partners endeavor to follow its spatial and rhythmic journey throughout the studio space. At first it may seem clear which partner is leading and which one is following, but eventually those roles evolve into such a fluid and subtle exchange that the categories of leader and follower lose their oppositional moorings. This does not mean, however, that all difference is collapsed. For me, this ‘third mind” marks an intersubjective space in which one is aware of sensations both internal and external without necessarily categorizing those feelings into socially recognizable roles. The notion of a “third mind” directs attention away from the oppositional poles of self and other, stretching a single line into a more open field of play. Contact trains for a physical interconnectedness that is akin to what Deirdre Sklar calls “empathic kinesthetic perception.”

“Emphatic kinesthetic perception suggests a combination of mimesis and empathy. […] Whereas visual perception implies an ‘object’ to be perceived from a distance with the eyes alone, empathic kinesthetic perception implies a bridging between subjectivities. This kind of ‘connected knowing’ produces a very intimate kind of knowledge, a taste of those ineffable movement experiences that can’t be easily put into words. Paradoxically, as feminist psychologist Judith Jordan points out, the kind of temporary joining that occurs in empathy produces not a blurry merger but an articulated perception of differences.”⁠12

It is this “articulated perception of differences” that I want to focus on in these last few pages. When I am teaching Contact and I use terms such as “interconnected,” “feeling one’s partner’s experience,” or “moving together,” I emphasize that this “going with the flow” does not mean one becomes a neutral container, nor does it suggest a “blurry merger” of energies such that the dancing homogenizes into one long fluid chain of rolls and lifts. Quite the contrary. The sensitivity to another’s experience also creates an awareness of subtle differences, differences that can be celebrated within the improvisation. While I do not have time to fully engage with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about intersubjectivity and touch in this context, I do think it is important to point out that in French the verbs for “touch” and feel” are both transitive and reflexive verb forms. That is to say that one feels an “other” at the same time that one feels oneself feeling. Similarly one can touch something and feel oneself being touched at the same time (such as Merleau-Ponty’s famous example of one hand holding the other). This looping across to another and then back to oneself intrigues me, for it loosens up the psychological patterns of always already relating to an “other” as an object (of empathy, scrutiny, or desire…). This play of difference can be accentuated in another dance score, which I give to my students. Here are my instructions:

“This is a duet, not an exercise. A dance, not an activity. To begin, one person lies down, completely passive, allowing their weight to sink fully into the floor. Their partner begins to move their body with attention to giving the passive person an experience of the weight of their bones and the mobility of their joints. As any one who has ever done any kind of body work or physical therapy knows, a passive body allows one to feel sensations unavailable to a body that is self engaged, even the most released one. Focusing on their breaths, the partners establish a vibration of energetic exchange. Bit by bit, percentage point by percentage point, the passive partner becomes increasingly active, engaging first the core of the body’s structure and working outwards to mobilize the limbs—arms, legs, head and tailbone. Both partners dance together in a fully active state. Eventually, the originally active partner becomes progressively passive until they are lying on the floor, enjoying the sensations of their own body through the manipulations of their partner’s.”

The implications of this score are pretty obvious. Over the course of this duet one experiences the entire continuum of possibilities of being active or passive. Normally in our culture, these various positions of active and passive are pathologized into power dynamics, where the passive figure is seen as not having control, as being either infantile or lazy, rendering them an object of pity. But my experience and that of many of my students is that the experience of being totally passive, rather than feeling powerless, actually opens up a great deal of feeling that can create its own pleasures and sense of agency. Experiencing both extreme ends of these positions can be truly revelatory. For instance, Heather Sedlacek writes:

“I also found novelty and enjoyment in being able to dance at a different level than my partner. […] It was clearly stated that we were at different levels, that this was okay, and that the high intensity partner would take care and responsibility for the low intensity partner. Thus, for the first time I didn’t have to resist when my partner resisted or attempt to match her intensity. I didn’t have to be fire when she was fire, or wind when she was wind. I could simply revel in the percentage that our teacher called out every few minutes. […] Reaching 100% intensity and then helping my partner down to 0% provided another new and powerful experience. […] I felt a sense of responsibility that I have not felt before in Contact. Instead of moving with my partner and following the point of contact, as my partner decreased in intensity, I began to control her movements and direction. I had a unique sense of agency in the dance that for me is usually left up to the Third Mind, not to an individual partner.”⁠13

Throughout this paper I have tried to articulate how Contact Improvisation creates a corporeal space in which feeling allows for an interconnectedness with another person without solidifying that relationship into the subject/object dyad implicit in classic conceptions of empathy. I have highlighted how attention to skin as porous and open to the world can facilitate a dancing based on an interchange and multiplicity of subject positions. Moving with the point of contact requires a willingness to stay engaged with feeling (verb) in the present moment, refusing to allow any one kinesthetic exchange to get stuck in a particular feeling (noun). This is not to suggest that relationships in Contact Improvisation are so fluid as to be meaningless. Quite the contrary. But we need to enter something like Berger’s corporeal space with the dancers in order to read the meaning of their connection differently. Watching two people explore the continuum of energies available in Contact, we become aware of the basic generosity at the core of the form. To dance with you, I need to first feel you, recognizing that this feeling can change. The improvisational possibilities of this dancing can teach us that Einfühlung does not have to be only an introspective process, but rather can open us up to feeling both in and out.

This text was first published in Ann Cooper Albright, Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013).

A dancer and a scholar, Ann Cooper Albright is professor and chair of the department of Dance at Oberlin College (Ohio). Combining her interests in dancing and cultural theory, she teaches a variety of courses that seek to engage students in both practices and theories of the body. Her latest book How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World (2018) offers a new look at embodiment that treats gravity as the organizing force for thinking and moving through our twenty-first century world. Her other publications include: Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality (2013), Encounters with Contact Improvisation (2010), Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller (2007), as well as Taken By Surprise: Improvisation in Dance and Mind (2003) coedited with David Gere, and Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader (2001), coedited with Ann Dils.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 105.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106-7.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 109.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 107.

  • John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 107.

  • Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy (London, New York: Routledge, 2011), 127.

  • Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy (London, New York: Routledge, 2011), 154.

  • Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 40.

  • See Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 38.

  • Dreide Sklar, “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance,” in Ann Dils & Ann Cooper Albright (eds.), Moving History/Dancing Cultures. A Dance History Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 30–32, 31. (Emphasis added).

  • See Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 17.

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Eyal Weizman, Surveilling the Virus

The current pandemic is a pretext for countless models supposed to provide us with a real-time interpretation of the progression of the virus as well as a projection of the way in which we are going to be able to live through this unheard-of health situation. Such representations are of great interest to Eyal Weizman, architect and founder of Forensic Architecture in London. Over the past ten years, the collective led fifty-odd investigations in twenty different countries about the connections between state violence and environmental destruction, either independently or sometimes in collaboration with press bodies such as The New York Times or Le Monde.

Surveilling the Virus

by Eyal Weizman

The coronavirus pandemic makes a visual diagram of our social interaction—the physical contact and relations we have to one another, our proximities, our movement, our use of facilities and infrastructure.

In order to map and model the spread of the virus, we first needed to establish an understanding of a patterns of life on the level of the individual and of the population. This is why, besides signal intelligence—the surveillance of personal devices—one of the most useful tools now is “pattern recognition” algorithms.

This form of computation is oriented both backward and forward in time. The control apparatus thus merges surveillance—of actions we have done and places we have visited—with modelling—a mathematical description of possible futures. It is a cartography of not only where we have been and who we have been near, but where we might go in the future and who with, expanding at every juncture.

The computation of our past habits, combined with predictions of our response to the evolving situation constitutes our collective and personal risk landscape. This form of surveillance aims at understanding and preempting the event of contagion that will have happened in the future.

The modelling that is being applied in the spread of the virus, is not based only on the behavior of viral life forms (in relation to climatic conditions and certain chemical drugs for example) but also on human behavior—the circulation of populations in space and their response to instructions, restrictions, prompts, nudges, as well as how behavior is modulated through these interventions. The virus makes visible a viral-human-algorithmic environment. Or we can say that the pandemic is, to a certain extent, an information system that is both physical and algorithmic.

Such modes of pattern analysis were pioneered within the context of military targeting, notably in “signature” drone strikes. These were based upon predictive pattern recognition of people suspected by the CIA of posing “imminent risk” on the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders, or by the Israeli air force in Gaza. Analysis was dependent on patterns of associations, between some people and others, and between people and sites—virtual or physical—or roads. So that if somebody drove along a particular road in a particular direction with another particular person after having visited a particular madrasa, say, they could be computed as an imminent threat and targeted. These people were not executed (extrajudicially) for what they had done but for what they might or will have done in the future. It is not surprising to see some of these security and military surveillance companies capitalizing on the current viral crisis. An anxious public is lending these tools legitimacy, allowing them to enter our daily lives in ways seemingly unimaginable only a few months ago.

So, what was already experimented upon on the frontiers of the war on terror, in these “exceptional zones,” is now emerging in the context of the exception brought on by the pandemic. The frontier-lands have thus arrived home, though in a very roundabout way. This process is reminiscent of what Hannah Arendt called “colonial boomerang,” in which frontier-land conditions and experiments are brought home.

To a great extent, historical systems of policing and control were a task left to the architects and other designers and builders of space, houses, roads, city states. They oversaw the development of site-lines, the promotion (or blockage) of circulation, the construction of nodes and walls, whether on individual streets or in vast cityscapes. In the history of urbanism, plagues, pandemics, and epidemics almost always led to a phase-transition in the development of urban forms, from the invention of the Ghetto in early 16th-century Venice employed as a way to contain the imaginary spread of the black death by Jews, to the onset of the modern State itself and the idea of a totalizing regime of partition and segregation in the fabric of human life. The racist imagination always tended to associate viral contagion with migration control. Concerns around tropical infections in 19th and 20th centuries almost pushed this association further, leading to the advent of modernism and the production of increasingly isolated buildings within landscapes.

To a great extent the history of architecture is an attempt to control contamination and its more or less subtle racial codings. Whenever a new epidemic took hold, the spatial tools developed to contain it tended to remain, to linger on, conditioning the state control that would follow. When an emergency subsides, it is the specter or the fear of its return that governs transformation in space-time formations and systems of control. There has never been a full return back to “previous normality” and its normative benchmarks. Let’s also remember that the long history of urban policing, comes not from of crime, but from the control of epidemics and its associations with social interactions. What we see now however are new forms of governing in space which have been taken over via a relation between algorithms and bordering devices, which now exist on the scale of states, streets, and homes.

Our task as critical cartographers is to understand the ways by which this diagram is mapped, to understand what is at work in this changing spatial logic, and confront the protocols being enacted now with little or no resistance or scrutiny. Our task is to expose their lines of segmentation and propose what free movement might look like after the virus.

This text is based on a transcript of a telephone interview with Weizman conducted on March 30, 2020. It was first published in The Quarantine Files: Thinkers in Self-Isolation, Brad Evans (ed.) (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles Review of Books, April 14, 2020).

Eyal Weizman is an architect, professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures and director of the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the founding director of Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research agency that investigates cases of human rights violations with and on behalf of communities affected by state violence. He is the author of several books, including Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (2017), Architecture After Revolution (2014) coedited with Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal, Forensic Architecture: Notes from Fields and Forums (2012), and Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007).

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Exhibition

Could it be that our notion of territories, bounded by borders, has determined our conception of the body? Or, reciprocally, that the idea of the bodily envelope as a separation of the inside from the outside has shaped our conception of territorial borders? Such reflections, central to the exhibition, reveals a close relationship between demarcations at different scales: there would be a diplomacy of skins, as there would be a sensuality of boundaries. This calls for covering tracks, blurring distinctions, operating undercover.

>> Wednesday 25 November, 6PM (GMT+1): TokyoSession#2 Borders with Ghita Skali [Live Instagram]

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Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2020
Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2020. Video, 23’28”. Courtesy of Forensic Architecture. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo. (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

Cloud Studies is an inquiry into a new form of cloud, namely the nebulous weapons used by states and large scale corporations: toxic gas, chemical weapons, and airborne poisons.

This study is the result of an investigation that began in Gaza in 2008 and which continues to this day. It takes the form of a film accompanied by six investigations on toxic gases, from the tear gas used to disperse protesters to the herbicides which destroy harvests and create forced migrations. These investigations are at once scientific and activist in tone, bringing together questions of environmental degradation and destruction with issues of state violence, from colonial dynamics to police brutality.

Forensic Architecture is a research group directed by architect Eyal Weizman at Goldsmiths, University of London. The group’s name points to its anchoring in criminology and suggests its methodological approach, which consists of the creation and presentation of images that serve as evidence of political violence. With the help of cartographic tools, 3D animation and simulated virtual environments, Forensic Architecture contributes to numerous legal and political inquiries throughout the world.

In the context of a contemporary art exhibition, this study also serves as a poetic meditation on the forms of clouds, their intangible nature and the threat that they can pose as immaterial arms. Cloud Studies opens the final section of the exhibition, a reflection on invasion and intrusion, the visible and the invisible.

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Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2020 (still)
Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2020. Video, 23’28”. Courtesy of Forensic Architecture. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo. (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Forensic Architecture, Exhibition view « Anticorps »
Forensic Architecture, Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Kevin Desbouis, Song of Songs, 2020
Kevin Desbouis, Song of Songs, 2020. Envelope, text, riso print, laser print, eyelits, wax steal, various elements. Various dimensions. Various locations. Graphic design in collaboration with Espace Ness. 182 + 8 copies. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

The artist and poet Kevin Desbouis operates by the vampirization and reappropriation of images, objects and words from which he extracts the most confused, pathetic, seductive, or violent aspects.

In this work he presents, almost hidden in odd corners of the exhibition, eight transparent envelopes whose content is somewhat visible but cannot be accessed. Like the transfer tattoos offered to visitors, the envelope is a sculptural element in motion. Desbouis gives up all control on them so they find their own circulation in the exhibition space and beyond. Indeed, it is possible to acquire the different versions of the envelopes from different accomplices in Île-de-France.

In the envelopes Desbouis has enclosed a poem he wrote in the summer of 2020. There are a total of six editions of the envelopes, each containing different components in addition to the text.

The poem evokes sex and death, a desire so strong that it turns into cannibalism. Its title, Song of Songs, is borrowed from the section of the same name in the Bible, an ode to love and sex. With these envelopes both sealed and transparent, Desbouis evokes a certain eroticism, the possibility of viewing the envelope’s contents without being able to open it suggests the exacerbation of our pleasure in bodies we are forbidden to touch. The poem contained within the envelopes is made available on this website.

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Kevin Desbouis, Song of Songs, 2020 (détail)
Kevin Desbouis, Song of Songs, 2020 (détail). Enveloppe, texte, impression riso, impression laser, oeillets, cachet de cire, éléments variables. Dimensions variables. Emplacements variables. 182 + 8 exemplaires. Design graphique en collaboration avec l’Espace Ness. Courtesy de l’artiste
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Kevin Desbouis, Song of Songs, 2020
Kevin Desbouis, Song of Songs, 2020. Envelope, text, riso print, laser print, eyelits, wax steal, various elements. Various dimensions. Various locations. Graphic design in collaboration with Espace Ness. 182 + 8 copies. Courtesy of the artist
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Kevin Desbouis, Untitled (CCMCastaner), 2020
Kevin Desbouis, Untitled (CCMCastaner), 2020. Stainless steel, painting, temporary tattoo. Endless copies. Various dimensions. Courtesy of the artist

Kevin Desbouis offers to the public a temporary tattoo on transfer paper, made available in three bowls. The motif is a set of five rough circles that together sketch out a headless body. These are borrowed to Christophe Castaner who drew these in front of an audience of children on the TV programme “Au Tableau !!!”, broadcast on C8 channel in February 2019. France’s then minister of the interior was defending the police’s use of non-lethal weapons after they had caused serious and life-changing injuries to protesters. The circles he drew were to show the children the body parts at which the police are permitted to aim.

In transforming these sketched circles into a tattoo, Kevin Desbouis underlines the way state violence penetrates our skins and tissues from very early on. The shift of medium is a provocation, the playful format of the work hiding the potential brutality of the political decision.

It is delineation that is at issue here – the “CCM” of the title standing for “Crop Circle Me”. These lines that offer a glimpse of the invisible, vulnerable body echo their inked counterparts in Achraf Touloub’s drawings and those that outline the body on Özgür Kar’s screens. Here they propose a political interrogation of the way in which we represent our bodies, turning them into fortresses and targets.

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Kevin Desbouis, Untitled (CCMCastaner), 2020
Kevin Desbouis, Untitled (CCMCastaner), 2020. Inox, peinture, tatouage temporaire. Édition illimitée. Dimensions variables. Courtesy de l’artiste. Vue de l’exposition « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Crédit photo : Aurélien Mole
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Kevin Desbouis, Untitled (CCMCastaner), 2020
Kevin Desbouis, Untitled (CCMCastaner), 2020. Stainless steel, painting, temporary tattoo. Endless copies. Various dimensions. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Florence Jung, Jung76, 2020
Florence Jung, Jung76, 2020. Scenario. Courtesy of the artist and New Galerie (Paris). Photo credit of the artist

“If you consider yourself doing well, write to info@newoffice.fr”. This ad was published to find people to participate in Florence Jung’s new scenario, provided they consider that they are “doing well”. The participants maintain a continuous presence in the Palais de Tokyo for the duration of Anticorps, visiting the exhibition or spending their time as they see fit in the space allotted to them.

Through this work, Florence Jung questions the subjective contours of wellbeing, between moral duty, political discourse and commercial strategy. What does it mean to “do well”? Have we all become “entrepreneurs of ourselves”, micromanagers of our happiness? Yoga, meditation, wellness coaches, educational and cultural outings: do these kinds of activities still have meaning now that they have been recuperated by businesses and states to optimize “human capital”, productivity, social relations and self-image?

A person who considers to be well is among the visitors, but there is nothing to identify them. The space in which they can isolate themselves is visible, but not accessible. In this way, Florence Jung invites us to reconsider the invisible bodies that surround us and to analyse the norms that govern everyday life. This solitary presence enters into resonance with the diffuse voices of the first work in the exhibition, which coalesce with one another and cry out in rage. Isn’t there something a little suspect about this intense desire to try so hard to be well?

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Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Épisode 3, 2020
Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020. Verbena, cardboard box, medical gloves, distributors. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

Heaps of verbena leaves are piled up in various places throughout the Palais de Tokyo. Fragrant and invasive, the verbena acts like a virus that spreads throughout the building.

Ghita Skali imported this stock of verbena – some 200kg – through a makeshift trans-Mediterranean network between Morocco and France that she humorously refers to as Ali Baba Express. Word of mouth, neighbourhood connections and shopkeepers’ know-how enable the Moroccan diaspora in France to source foodstuffs from their home country at the lowest possible prices. With this installation, Ghita Skali extends this network into the exhibition space to include the visitors themselves, putting on display an informal economy of olfactory memory.

Ghita Skali’s artistic practice is animated less by a material production than by processes of circulation: the circulation of knowledge, of rumours, of fables and of symbols. This new instalment of the series Ali Baba Express is conceived as an underground infiltration, and echoes the immaterial nature of the work by Florence Jung presented in the exhibition.

As part of the work, Ghita Skali has installed several “vending machines” containing pairs of gloves. Shaped like rabbit’s ears, they allow visitors to scoop up the verbena leaves. These gloves are in fact the kind used in gynaecology or proctology for examining the body’s orifices. Turned inside out, they become sachets ready to package the loose leaves. In this, the gloves blur the limits between interior and exterior, container and content, giving further form to the exhibition’s overarching metaphor that links national borders and the boundaries of the body.

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Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020
Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020. Verbena, cardboard box, medical gloves, distributors. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020
Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020. Verbena, cardboard box, medical gloves, distributors. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020 (detail)
Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020 (detail). Verbena, cardboard box, medical gloves, distributors. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020
Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express Episode 3, 2020. Verbena, cardboard box, medical gloves, distributors. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express, 2020, mind map
Ghita Skali, Ali Baba Express, 2020, mind map
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Achraf Touloub, National Materials, 2019
Achraf Touloub, National Materials, 2019. Ink and acrylic on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Plan B (Cluj/Berlin). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

In the work of Achraf Touloub, representation is always a fraught affair. Where lines have historically been used to limit, map out and circumscribe, here they are deployed to entirely other ends. Early on, Achraf Touloub’s pictorial research led him to become interested in other practices of drawing with alternative treatments of the line. He found one such approach in the strategies of symbolic representation of Persian miniatures, whose history can be traced back to China and the Mughal Empire.

Achraf Touloub deconstructs the conventions of this tradition to extract what he calls its essence or its breath (rûh): a symbolic flow that blends reality and fantasy. From this emerges a pattern which allows the artist to generate a texture using a multitude of juxtaposed lines, comma-like strokes that are repeated over and over as if to punctuate the space of the page. In National Materials and Pandæmonium, patterns resembling both waves fill sheets of paper in scenes where bodies blend into landscapes and faces become indistinguishable.

In his practice, Achraf Touloub explores the pitfalls of representation, of the gaze, and of the information that necessarily underpins all images and their meanings. In this respect, his works on paper can be considered as screens, where information swarms to the point that it becomes elusive, encouraging the viewer to feel rather than to contemplate the image.

The titles of Achraf Touloub’s works are at once clues and traps: National Materials could refer to a conflict or to a celebration, while in the diptych Pandæmonium, whose title evokes the capital of Hell in Milton’s 1667 epic Paradise Lost, faces appear to float in a kind of liquid like potential antibodies.

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Achraf Touloub, Pandæmonium, 2018
Achraf Touloub, Pandæmonium, 2018. Acrylic on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Plan B (Cluj/Berlin). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Achraf Touloub, Walking Thoughts, 2020
Achraf Touloub, Walking Thoughts, 2020. Watercolor and acrylic on paper, 80 × 51 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Baronian Xippas (Brussels). Photo credit: Isabelle Arthuis.

Walking Thoughts features a scene in which the body is rendered visible through the use of watercolours, at the same time as certain parts of it seem to disappear as if washed out or drowned. In Sight Scenario II, everything appears to be sinking, to the point that the work, despite its precise composition, looks as if it is decomposing – an impression that is reinforced by the treatment of the paper’s edges. Could these images, too, be under attack from a virus?

Superimposed on the silhouettes and landscapes of these pieces are bubbles and lines that together form a kind of celestial cartography, strange constellations that arise from the enigmas of Achraf Touloub’s graphic vocabulary. In the context of the exhibition, they suggest both antibodies and, as in the work of Tarek Lakhrissi, weapons.

In an echo of Ghita Skali’s work, the central pattern of Achraf Touloub’s compositions recalls the leaves of verbena in a perceptive cross-contamination that shapes our very experience of the works in the exhibition.

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Koki Tanaka, ABSTRACTED/FAMILY (single channel version), 2020
Koki Tanaka, ABSTRACTED/FAMILY (single channel version), 2020. Video, 110’. Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space (Guangzhou), Aoyama Meguro (Tokyo). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

Koki Tanaka brought together, over a number of days, four people who were born or grew up in Japan but had one foreign parent – whether it be Brazilian, Bolivian, Korean, Bangladeshi. Having set up this framework, he then enabled discussions. Gradually, they come to reveal to each other their shared experience of discrimination, delineating in doing so a community constituted by exclusion.

Koki Tanaka filmed these four people in their daily life together. He also invited them to a discussion with a sociologist specialising in the study of multiculturalism in Japan, and to create an abstract painting together, going beyond mere realism through joint creativity. These moments of sharing and exchange were filmed at a house in Kyoto, on a theatre stage, in an artist’s studio or on a river bank. There, the protagonists give expression not only to their own individuality but also to something that goes beyond them. They stand for the existence of bodies that conflict with the fantasy of a homogeneous society, which they had again to confront at the film’s first screening in Japan, in September 2019.

In the exhibition, “antibody” is not to be understood in its biological sense only. It is also the foreign body, the body rejected on account of age, disability, class or origin. Koki Tanaka reveals not only the violence suffered by minoritized bodies but also their strategies of resistance and their capacity to invent new ways of being together.

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Koki Tanaka, ABSTRACTED/FAMILY (single channel version), 2020
Koki Tanaka, ABSTRACTED/FAMILY (single channel version), 2020. Video, 110’. Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space (Guangzhou), Aoyama Meguro (Tokyo). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Koki Tanaka, ABSTRACTED/FAMILY (version monocanale), 2020 (video still)
Koki Tanaka, ABSTRACTED/FAMILY (single channel version), 2020 (video still). Film, 110’. Courtesy de l’artiste, Vitamin Creative Space (Guangzhou), Aoyama Meguro (Tokyo)
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Josèfa Ntjam Unknown Aquazone, 2020
Josèfa Ntjam Unknown Aquazone, 2020. Photomontage, printed plexiglass, clay. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

Josèfa Ntjam’s technique of choice is montage. Photomontage, of course, but also montage of voices and times. The work she shows in the exhibition is an aquarium, but an aquarium stripped out of its scientific or decorative functions. The Unknown Aquazone is a capsule containing a mythical past and new futures in preparation.

Josèfa Ntjam draws here on a variety of water-related myths, from Mami Wata, voodoo figure and fish-woman divinity venerated in much of Africa, to the ultra-technological universe created by the Detroit electro-musicians Drexcyia in the 1990s, the Drexcyians being an imaginary people living in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, descendants of the pregnant African women thrown into the sea from slave ships.

Josèfa Ntjam uses performance, video, installation and writing to give life to vegetal, animal and cyborg creatures whose doings rehearse black and feminist struggles. Inspired by African and alternative futures as well as the digital culture of her upbringing, she seeks to build a world full of images and myths to create the spaces in which new futures are prepared.

The aquarium enters into dialogue with Tarek Lakhrissi’s Unfinished Sentence II, whose weapons suggest the tridents of mythic female warriors. It also resonates with Jackie Wang’s essay “Oceanic Feeling and Communist Affect”, published on this website, which describes an unconscious association between black identity and the ocean, deriving from the trauma of the slave trade.

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Josèfa Ntjam, Unknown Aquazone, 2020
Josèfa Ntjam, Unknown Aquazone, 2020. Photomontage, printed plexiglass, clay. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Josèfa Ntjam Unknown Aquazone, 2020
Josèfa Ntjam Unknown Aquazone, 2020. Photomontage, printed plexiglass, clay. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Josèfa Ntjam, Unknown Aquazone, 2020 (detail)
Josèfa Ntjam, Unknown Aquazone, 2020 (detail). Photomontage, printed plexiglass, clay. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Josèfa Ntjam, Unknown Aquazone, 2020
Josèfa Ntjam, Unknown Aquazone, 2020. Photomontage, printed plexiglass, clay. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Josèfa Ntjam, Unknown Aquazone, 2020 (detail)
Josèfa Ntjam, Unknown Aquazone, 2020 (detail). Photomontage, printed plexiglass, clay. Courtesy of the artist. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Pauline Curnier Jardin, “Ladies Skins”, 2019-2020
Pauline Curnier Jardin, “Ladies Skins”, 2019-2020. In the foreground: Trash Bin, 2020. Vinyl “Peaux de Dame”, acrylic painted wood. In the background: Car, 2019. Vinyl “Peaux de Dame”, enamel painted plywood. Courtesy of the artist and Ellen de Bruijne PROJECTS (Amsterdam). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

Pauline Curnier Jardin shows new examples of her “Peaux de Dames” [Ladies Skins], pale forms more or less suggestive of human skins. Heaped together, tumbling from a car door, overspilling a dustbin, caught on a barrier or overlooking a lamppost - these are women shrunk into flatness, capable of being rolled up and put away.

Pauline Curnier Jardin draws her forms from ritual, from carnival and circus – hence the often grotesque aspect of her sculptures. But her buffoonery has a political purpose, showing us “anti-bodies”, bodies invalidated for their being rumpled and lifeless, mishandled and used up. Their stigmata tell of the oppressions suffered by women in our societies: violence, invisibilisation, ageism and objectification.

Entitled “Around the Fire”, the section of the exhibition where Pauline Curnier Jardin’s works are presented, looks at the relationship between private life and the wider issues of the public sphere. What is sociability, what is society, when women are excluded from full participation in public space, flattened out and treated as mere trophies? For Pauline Curnier Jardin, perhaps, the fire around which the community assembles is built around a stake.

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Pauline Curnier Jardin, Street Lamp, 2020
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Street Lamp, 2020. Vinyl “Peaux de Dame”, acrylic painted plywood and papier-mâché lamp. Courtesy of the artist and Ellen de Bruijne Projects (Amsterdam). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Pauline Curnier Jardin, Barricades, 2020
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Barricades, 2020. Vinyl “Peaux de Dame”, acrylic painted plywood. Courtesy of the artist and Ellen de Bruijne Projects (Amsterdam) Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Özgür Kar, At the end of the day, 2019
Özgür Kar, At the end of the day, 2019. 4K video with sound, 20’ loop. 75” TV screen, stand, media player, cable reels. Flying line array speakers, stand, mixer. Courtesy of the artist and Édouard Montassut (Paris). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

At the end of the day is the second of two sculptures by Özgür Kar presented in the exhibition. The visitors are confronted with a male body, ensnared in a tangle of cables and imprisoned by a screen. His position is even more constrained than that of the figure in the previous sculpture: he is shown cowering before a towering wall of speakers from which issue forth endless variations on the same phrase: “At the end of the day, this is me. I’m me. I am myself.”

Inspired by the expressions used by reality television contestants in their on-camera “confessions”, these injunctions suggest both hackneyed truisms and philosophical introspection. Murmured and repeated endlessly, they become at once a form of psychological torture and an infinite incantation uttered over and over in the hope of some spiritual revelation.

This work questions the social imperative to exercise self-control, which has seen meditation been redeployed as a means of improving productivity. This idea of controlling our bodies and our emotions is also present in neighbouring works, whether it is a question of “staying calm” (Nile Koetting) and “doing well” (Florence Jung) or the health benefits of verbena (Ghita Skali).

“Being in tune with oneself” resonates here as the promise of a space of freedom – the freedom to accept one’s confinement.

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Özgür Kar, At the end of the day, 2019
Özgür Kar, At the end of the day, 2019. 4K video with sound, 20’ loop. 75” TV screen, stand, media player, cable reels. Flying line array speakers, stand, mixer. Courtesy of the artist and Édouard Montassut (Paris). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Özgür Kar, COME CLOSER, 2019
Özgür Kar, COME CLOSER, 2019. 4K video, 5’ loop. 75” TV screen, stand, media player, cable reel. Courtesy of the artist and Édouard Montassut (Paris). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

Hypnotised by bright televisions and phone screens, bodies in the 21st century appear to be overcome with lethargy. The work of Özgür Kar speaks to the way in which our experience of the world is mediated by screens.

He presents a monolith on wheels, made up of a black screen on which appears an undulating white line. The definition of the image is so high that it resembles a drawing on a blackboard. Stretching out to the edges of the screen, this line traces the contours of a body confined in an excessively small space. A colony of ants tramps across the figure’s back, spelling out the words whispered to us by the work’s title: “Come closer”. It is as if this piece is looking to connect with the public, urging us to cross through the screen.

Özgür Kar raises the question of eroticism in the age of digital technology and social distancing: can high definition really give the illusion of contact? Will the caressing of bodies give way to the scrolling of smartphones? Does the limit of our skin extend to the territories of our screens?

In this way, Özgür Kar appeals to the sense of touch without activating it. Inspired both by Persian and Ottoman illuminated manuscripts and cartoons for adults broadcast at night on MTV at the start of the 2000s, he explores the idea of flatness, from geometric planes to intellectual voids. These smooth surfaces and their absence of visual depth create an impression of contact, with the screen becoming a surface of proximity and affect.

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Özgür Kar, COME CLOSER, 2019
Özgür Kar, COME CLOSER, 2019. 4K video, 5’ loop. 75” TV screen, stand, media player, cable reel. Courtesy of the artist and Édouard Montassut (Paris). In the foreground: A.K. Burns, Marianne Deludes the World, 2020. Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Len Lye, Tusalava, 1929
Len Lye, Tusalava, 1929. 16 mm film transferred to SD video, black and white, silent, 9’. Courtesy of LUX (London). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole

New Zealand artist Len Lye created Tusalava, his first animated film, between 1926 and 1928, producing more than 9,500 meticulous drawings of a white grub, only guided by his intuition and the hypnotic effect the larva had on him. With this creature, he sought to capture the genesis of animal life and the cyclical nature of existence. Tusalava is a Samoan word signifying “in the end, everything returns to the same”.

The film was first shown in 1929, with a musical accompaniment now lost. Though it might have lost an essential element, the late Sixties saw it acquire a new interest on account of the formal similarity between Lye’s motifs and the antibodies process: “turned out that all the images I drew are images which have been subsequently found with an electronic microscope”.

Len Lye’s formal invention brought together the European Modernist avant-garde and the aboriginal art of New Zealand, cannibalising images to create a unique form in a vein that would be described as “Modernist Primitivism”.

The only non-contemporary work in the exhibition, the film brings to a close the section devoted to warrior tales. From the social body to cellular organisms, the evolution of forms seems to be governed by a polar opposition between domination and revolt.

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Len Lye, Tusalava, 1929
Len Lye, Tusalava, 1929. 16 mm film transferred to SD video, black and white, silent, 9’. Courtesy of LUX (London). Exhibition view « Anticorps », Palais de Tokyo (23.10.2020 – 03.01.2021). Photo credit: Aurélien Mole
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Len Lye, Tusalava, 1929
Len Lye, Tusalava, 1929. 16 mm film transferred to SD video, black and white, silent, 9’. Courtesy of LUX (London).