PHILOSOPHY /// The Body as a Material Assemblage in Japanese Martial Arts & Dance as seen by Basile Doganis


Basile Doganis is a French philosopher particularly interested in the field of Japanese culture (see his work about the silence in Ozu’s cinema for example). His book, Pensées du corps: La philosophie à l’epreuve des arts gestuels japonais (danse, théâtre, arts martiaux) (Body thinking: Philosophy confronted to Japanese Gestural Arts (dance, theater, martial arts)) (Paris: Les Belles lettres, 2012) is an analysis of the way the body is considered in those arts and how it can be approached through concepts created in Western Philosophy (Deleuze, Bergson, Whitehead etc.). The book is also prefaced by Alain Badiou who used to be B.Doganis’ professor. In his research, jujidsu, kendo, butoh, no have all in common to depersonnalize the body in order to make it a “puppet” subjected to the forces of its environment. Of course, this requires some explanations not to be detrimental to both Japanese gestural arts and B.Doganis’s writing; and that is why he goes back recurrently to this idea along the book in order to provide a clear visualization of this paradoxal status (one would think that the puppet is precisely what one would want to avoid to be in the situation of dance or fighting).

My translation (all originals excerpt at the end of the article):
We therefore come up with a paradoxical situation that we could formulate as the following: if the body, in its most primary manifestation and its mere existence, presents more intensity and depth than a conscious artistic intention, then we would have to seek the minimal degree of intention that is of particularity, of personal will. However, since a part of consciousness and will always remains in action, the regulatory ideal will consist in “being dead” while being alive or, at least, to give to the body some properties based on pure inertia. For Hijikata, as we saw it, the will to dance always goes, in butoh, with a surprising desire of dispossession and handicap. Handicap is like a limit, where the body is silent and refuses any principle of will and control. The dancer chooses to give up progressively all his ordinary capacities to become only an instrument, a tool, a mere support through which an uncontrollable intensity acts. (P62)

In his extensive description of techniques to reach such a state of receptivity. B.Doganis involves a reading of the gravity center of one’s body and its micro-variations through the movement at every scale of its components. Just like John Cage (whose silence is repeatedly compared to Ozu’s all along the book) insisted and expressed the fact that “silence does not exist”, he affirms that “immobility does not exist either”.

If we “delete” the body action (among other ways, through a total immobility or by laying down), the center constitutes itself through the simple game of material and geometrical proportions of the body, of individual’s muscular tensions that are variable depending on their initial muscular structure, and mostly on the use of those muscles and their powered habits. If we add to all those parameters the fact that respiration and other “vegetative” activities of the organism like the blood circulation are making the real immobility of the body impossible, we understand, after the observation that silence does not exist, that immobility understood in a strict meaning does not exist either and that, consequently some perpetual micro-variations are affecting its gravity center. (P54)

What is true for a human body is also true for architecture which should not be considered in any mean as immobile. All along the “life” of a building, the latter will be subjected to a quasi-infinity of micro-movements of its material composition. The latter is fundamental to explain B.Doganis’ argument proposed in this book, which considers the body and its direct environment as a material assemblage that one has to learn to read, interpret and act upon to master Japanese gestural arts.

Oftentimes, in their pragmatic use of centralities relationships, in inclusion and participation, several Japanese gestual arts are considering the individual as a simple part of a whole that goes beyond him infinitely. From there we can observe the strong development of a value for everything that the body participates to rather than the part it constitutes alone. The entirety of the individual’s talent will consist in finding in him all the faculties that relates to this whole and not to be satisfied with being only a part, a partial element. In martial arts, all the relationships of strength can be thought in the same spectrum and not as the simple superiority of a part over the opponent one: the winner will therefore be the one that would have identified himself to the ensemble of the fighting situation including opponents and environment, and who would have became the ensemble itself and would have make his opponent’s status become only a simple part of this whole. (P59)

This materialist reading -often exposed on this blog- is crucial to understand the body as a biological and anatomical “machine” which cannot be interpreted as the receptacle of the soul’s orders, but rather as a whole whose limits are not as clearly established as we usually define them (through the notion of skin for example). In fact, the body not only interacts materially with its environment, but also composes assemblages with the “molecular” composition of its surrounding. That is the case with the architecture including the body, with the opponent or the partner in the case of Japanese gestural arts and also with the notion of tool or weapon as B.Doganis explains:

The fake limits of the body, animation and contamination

If, oftentimes one starts by training oneself to martial arts through bear hands techniques (like for jujutsu, aikido or karate), and then continues through weapon techniques (kendo, aia, kenjutsu), so that those disciplines could inform one another with their own specificity, it is also because, more fundamentally, the weapon becomes quickly, just like the worker’s tool and the blind’s cane, an extension of the body, a legitimate organ. A surprising experience is the relatively fast development of the ability to exercise the sense of touch with a sword’s extremity, to feel through this extremity. As Alain Berthoz says:

“The tool extends the body. We feel the object not from the edge of the tool, but rather from the edge of an ensemble constituted by the hand and the tool as if, suddenly, the tool became a part of our body, just like the hand had been extended. The person who irons clothes has the same sensation with the iron, the surgeon with his (her) lancet. The ring we wear around our finger tends to be integrated to the finger itself. On the top of stilts, we feel the ground from the extremity of those prosthetic.”

 It seems like, indeed, that the body does not stop with the surface of the skin: it can include, appropriate exterior elements and to project itself in themselves, or feel through them and interact with the world. (P81)

We can therefore form, deform, inform or reform the material assemblages our bodies are (i.e. we are). Through that thinking, we allow ourselves to stop distinguishing our “body” from the various other material assemblies that surrounds us (whether the latter are prosthetic, clothes or even architecture). By doing so, we can also get rid of the old notions of nature and artifice to only keep the former as the ensemble of material and forces that compose the world.

Genius consists precisely in finding (again) the “abstract line” for which the various natural or mechanical elements, “human-tool-animal-thing” are going to put themselves in a configuration, an assemblage in which their relationships between each others will be completely disconnected from their previous associations and assemblages. In the mass of things and beings and their multiple relationships is being drawn the original figure of an assemblage that, in some sense, does not leave the “nature” and all the artifacts that the latter allows but rather, print within it some capacities that were unreachable before the machine.
In that sense, the “machine”, in its traditional meaning of strictly mechanical object is only a specific case of the abstract machine, or “abstract-line” that orders all the other apparatuses. Just like the cavalryman, the warrior (and more generally any human carrying a weapon or a tool) is a machine, with its assemblage human-sword which radically differs from a “unit” whose value would be strictly subordinated to its pure physical strength. The abstract line of the machinistic assemblage “animates” this whole and gives it an “organic” cohesion even if the organic would be only a part of this machine. Weapon and animation are therefore as involved in the “inert” than in the “organic”. That is what explains the prodigious “life” that animates the Japanese dolls of bunraku or Kleist’s puppets. We saw how the butoh was using hybrids apparatuses of beliefs, in the case of Amagatsu Ushio, for example, to invite the dancer to think of himself as an offshoot of the ensemble of humanity and evolution, transforming him in a simple cog of an extremely complex and dense abstract machine. Through a different mean, Pierre Levy, in his analyses of the great movement of virtualization that characterizes the modern world and that affects the body of every human comes up with very similar conclusions

 “Transplants organize a large circulation of organs in the human body. It depends on the individuals but also between living and dead. Among humanity, but also for other species, we transplant baboon’s hearts, pig’s livers, we make them ingest hormones that were produced by bacteria. Transplants and prosthetics blur the boundary between mineral and living: glasses, lenses, fake teeth, silicone, pacemakers, acoustic prosthetics […] A deterritorialized blood flows from body to body through an enormous international network from which we cannot distinguish the economical, technological and medical components anymore. […] The collective body comes back to modify the private flesh. Sometimes, it brings it back to life or fertilizes it. The constitution of a collective body and the individuals’ participation to this physical community used purely symbolic or religious mediations for a long time. “this is my flesh, this is my blood.” It now borrows technical means. […] Each individual body becomes an active part of a gigantic hybrid and globalized hyperbody.

The cogs evoked by B.Doganis allows me to finish with another Spinozist interpretation of the world, one in which each “event” is the “logical” result of the sum of every others of the past. It is often claimed that such a determinist reading deprives humans from their very freedom, to which we can answer by trying to determine another definition of freedom than the one commonly used (and sometimes even used to legitimate wars!). This definition w0uld try to articulate a vision in which freedom is the informed expression of the forces that animates us. Basile Doganis’ book is a helpful treatise to think that way.

APPENDIX: Original Excerpts from Pensées du corps: La philosophie à l’epreuve des arts gestuels japonais (danse, théâtre, arts martiaux) by Baside Doganis, Paris: Les Belles lettres, 2012

Nous arrivons donc a une situation paradoxale, qui pourrait s’énoncer comme suit: si le corps, dans ses manifestations les plus primaires et sa simple existence, présente plus d’intensité et de profondeur qu’une intention artistique consciente, alors il faudra rechercher le degré minimal d’intention, c’est-a-dire de particularité, de volonté personnelle. Or, comme il reste toujours une part de conscience et de volonte dans l’action, l’idéal régulateur consistera à “être mort” tout en étant vivant ou, du moins, a conférer a son corps des propriétés relevant de la pure inertie. Pour Hijikata, comme nous l’avons vu, l’envie de danser s’accompagne, dans le buto, d’un surprenant désir de dépossession et de handicap. Le Handicap est comme une limite, ou le corps est réduit au silence et rompt tout principe de volonte et de contrôle. Le danseur choisit de renoncer progressivement à ses capacités ordinaires pour ne devenir qu’un instrument, un outil, un simple support, traverse d’une intensité qui lui échappe. P62


Si l’on “supprime” l’action du corps (notamment par une immobilité totale, ou une position allongée), le centre se constitue par le simple jeu des proportions matérielles et géométriques des membres du corps, des tensions musculaires variables d’un individu à l’autre en fonction de leur structure musculaire initiale, et surtout de l’usage de ces muscles et de leurs habitudes motrices. Si l’on ajoute a tous ces paramètres le fait que la respiration et d’autres activités dites “végétatives” de l’organisme telles que la circulation sanguine font que le corps n’est jamais réellement immobile, nous comprenons, après le constat selon lequel le silence n’existe pas, que l’immobilité au sens strict n’existe pas non plus, et que par conséquent de perpétuelles micro-variations affectent son centre de gravite. P54


Il est fréquent que, dans leur utilisation pragmatique des rapports de centralité, d’inclusion et de participation, différents arts gestuels japonais traitent l’individu comme une simple parcelle d’un tout qui le dépasse infiniment. Il en découle une forte valorisation de ce tout dont l’individu participe, plutôt que de la partie qu’il constitue à lui seul. Tout le talent de l’individu consistera à retrouver en lui les facultés qui relèvent du tout et qui englobent la partie, afin de devenir lui-même ce tout et de ne pas se contenter de n’être qu’une partie, qu’un élément partie et partial. En arts martiaux, l’ensemble des rapports de force peut être pense dans les même termes, et non comme la simple supériorité d’une “partie” sur la partie adverse: le vainqueur sera ainsi celui qui aura su au mieux s’identifier a l’ensemble de la situation de combat englobant adversaires et environnement qui sera devenu l’ensemble et aura relégué son adversaire au statut de simple partie de ce tout. P59


Les fausses limites du corps, animation et contamination

S’il est fréquent de passer dans les entrainements d’arts martiaux, des techniques a mains nues (comme le jujutsu, l’aïkido ou le karaté) aux techniques avec des armes (kendo, iai, kenjutsu), afin de les éclairer mutuellement par leurs spécificités respectives, c’est aussi que, plus fondamentalement, l’arme devient vite, telle l’outil de l’ouvrier ou de l’artisan, et la canne de l’aveugle, une extension du corps, un organe a part entière. Une expérience surprenante est le développement, relativement rapide, de la faculté de “toucher” avec l’extrémité d’un sabre ou d’un bâton, de sentir en cette extrémité. Comme le dit Alain Berthoz:

“L’outil prolonge le corps. Nous sentons l’objet non pas au bout de l’outil, mais au bout d’un ensemble constitué par la main et l’outil comme si, soudain, l’outil était devenu une partie de notre corps, comme si la main s’était prolongée. La repasseuse a la même sensation avec le fer à repasser, le chirurgien avec son bistouri. L’anneau que l’on porte au doigt tend à s’intégrer au doigt lui-même. Monte sur des échasses, on sent le sol au bout de ces prothèses.”

Il semble donc bien que le corps ne s’arrête pas à la surface de la peau: il peut englober, s’approprier des éléments extérieurs et se projeter en eux, voire sentir a travers eux et interagir avec le monde. P81


Le génie consiste précisément a (re)trouver la “ligne abstraite” en vertu de laquelle les différents éléments, naturels ou mécaniques, “l’homme-outil-animal-chose”, vont se mettre dans une configuration, un agencement, ou leurs rapports mutuels seront complètement déconnectés de leurs associations et agencements antérieurs. Dans la masse des choses et des êtres, et de leurs rapports multiples, se dessine la silhouette inédite d’un agencement qui, en un sens, ne quitte pas la “nature” et tous les artefacts auxquels elle a donne lieu, mais y imprime des possibilités inconcevables avant la machine.
En ce sens, la “machine”, au sens usuel d’objet strictement mécanique, n’est qu’un cas particulier de la machine abstraite, ou “ligne-abstraite”, qui commande les autres dispositifs. Tout comme le cavalier, le guerrier (et plus généralement tout homme muni d’une arme ou d’un outil) est une machine, avec son agencement homme-sabre qui diffère radicalement d’une “unité” dont la valeur serait strictement subordonnée a sa force physique brute. La ligne abstraite de l’agencement machinique vient “animer” ce tout et lui donner une cohésion “organique” quand bien même l’organique ne serait qu’une partie de cette machine. L’arme et l’animation concernent donc autant l’inerte que l’organique. C’est ce qui explique, par ailleurs, la “vie” prodigieuse dont sont animées notamment les poupées japonaises du bunraku ou les marionnettes de Kleist. Nous avons vu comment le buto exploitait des dispositifs hybrides de croyances, notamment à la manière d’Amagatsu Ushio, pour enjoindre au danseur de se penser comme un rejeton de l’ensemble de l’humanité et de l’évolution, le transformant en un simple rouage d’une machine abstraite extrêmement complexe et dense. Mais par un biais radicalement différent, Pierre Levy, dans ses analyses du grand mouvement radical de virtualisation qui caractérise le monde moderne et qui affecte jusqu’aux corps de tous les hommes, parvient à des conclusions tout a fait proches:

“Les greffes organisent une grande circulation d’organes entre les corps humains. D’un individu à l’autre, mais aussi entre les morts et les vivants. Parmi l’humanité, mais également d’une espèce a l’autre: on greffe aux gens des cœurs de babouin, des foies de porcs, on leur fait ingérer des hormones produites par des bactéries. Les implants et les prothèses brouillent la frontière entre le minéral et le vivant: lunettes, lentilles, fausses dents, silicone, pacemakers, prothèses acoustiques […]. Un sang déterritorialisé coule de corps en corps à travers un énorme réseau international dont on ne peut plus distinguer les composantes économiques, technologiques et médicales. [..] Le corps collectif revient modifier la chair privée. Parfois, il la ressuscite ou la féconde in vitro. La constitution d’un corps collectif et la participation des individus a cette communauté physique usa longtemps de médiations purement symboliques ou religieuses: “ceci est mon corps, ceci est mon sang”. Elle emprunte aujourd’hui de moyens techniques. […] Chaque corps individuel devient partie prenante d’un immense hypercorps hybride et mondialisé.” P103

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