Abstraction as Violence: Cyborgs as an Action of Survival

We’ve discussed the notion of the Harawayan Cyborg thoroughly in class, but I had a thought about it while attending the Technocultural Futurisms Symposium this past week held as part of the Illinois sesquicentennial conference held at the I Hotel in Urbana, IL. Over the course of many amazing panelist presentations, one of the main ideas that carried across most of them was the notion of abstraction as violence. This was puzzling for me, because much of my training in dance composition holds abstraction as a key element to making. The idea of recontextualizing certain gestures, phrase work, and symbols seems central to me as a contemporary choreographer interested in the methodology of postmodern dance artists.[1] To consider it as a form of violence was jarring for me. I hadn’t considered that it could be synonymous with separation and/or dislocation, but the more I’ve considered it the more truthful it’s impact seems. Abstraction as it applies to my scholarly-creative work needs to be questioned.

If abstraction, as a process, is the distilling of a something to become independent from its associated context, then, in my view, the cyborg as an assemblage of parts is a gathering of abstracted ingredients. Where Haraway may see this gathering as overflowing with possible futures, Delaney might see a reinforcing of colonialization through abstraction as a form of both control and escape [[REVISE THIS SENTENCE]]. The aspects we’ve talked about in class have created a binary between plentitude (utopian/Haraway) and lack (dystopian/Delaney), but I’d like to add another aspect to the argument about the cyborg metaphor; the notion of cyborging as survival. What if we consider the cyborg not from the notion of a character or quantity, but from an action?  

Delaney isn’t wrong that something is missing from the notion of a cyborg metaphor because it creates a caricature, a double, a copy of something by highlighting only what the entities of comparison share rather than where they differ. But what if the cyborg isn’t just a character to aspire to, and actually a form of survival, or ongoingness that Haraway posits in Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulhlucene? It’s a kind of survival that suggests that some things will inevitably be lost or come to an end in the regards to human exceptionalism and bounded individualism, but it also puts forward the possibility of earthly tethering between all things – that we might be able to positively affect and be affected by the entities, objects, and environments we are surrounded by. Cyborging can be a way of living and dying well – to let live the aspects of humanity that show ongoingness and to let die the aspects that attempt to put humans in a vacuum.

For me, tap dancers have proven that this kind of futuring is possible, but only as it became a necessity for survival and perseverance. In a history full of trauma, tap dancers have been considered less-than-human in their attachment to slavery, indentured servitude, and minstrelsy. The originators of the form used their respective cultural dances and music as a compost language. What I mean is that the dance and music became the common denominator between the various groups involved with the Atlantic Slave Trade and created a new method of communication through percussive movement vernaculars and a blending of musical instrumentation (drums, fiddles, etc). They composted their cultures into a soil that grew into the beginnings of American art and American identity, and they did this not as a method of having too much or not having enough. They did this because it was the only way for African slaves and Irish indentured servants to survive. Entire cultures were reduced down to the materials of movement and music, and used to assemble something other-than-themselves.

So in this aspect, Delaney is right: something gets lost in the translation of cultures into hybrid assemblages. The European-African assemblage of tap dance could stand as a utopic symbol of unity, but the bodies within the practice are still raced and classed even if they begin to adapt each other’s performative qualities by proximity. Not all bodies fit the utopia of the cyborg character through this frame; difference still prevails. However, Haraway is also has a relevant point: there have been times that this kind of cyborging has been crucial to the ongoingness of certain worlds and demographics, and actually created something entirely new. In the combining of cultural practices, African slaves were able to disguise themselves as simultaneously adhering to image of the “masters” while subverting their influence by using it as a source of humorous imitation and mockery.[2] The problem presents itself clearly: are the parts or the gathering of parts more important? And should we openly embrace a form of making-with that encourages us to seek out this trouble for the sake of planetary ongoingness, when there have been people subjected to this trauma without any kind of reparation aside from their survival? The people who have endured, or have ancestors who endured the violence of abstraction did so because they had no choice. Why do people want this trauma? From the outside, it can seem to bear fruit, but again – something is lost in the translation of traumatic experience in the space between witness and subject.


EGOTIST EXISTENTIAL CRISIS MODE: I don’t have an answer for this existential dilemma, but I know it will be one of the cruxes of my scholarly-choreographic work over the next several years to come. Tap dance exists as a cultural hybrid that has cyborgic qualities the way it’s made and the way it continues to remake itself. The question I find myself stuck in is whether or not my own treatment of tap dance is continuing the violence it has experienced by attempting to hybridize it with my modern dance training and postmodern choreographic interests. As a practitioner of tap dance I consider myself an insider within the genre’s larger community, yet I often feel like I am moving outside the cultural norms that have been set up by tap dance masters of the last century and a half. Is that a form of violence? Or is it a form of becoming-with the various entities that made me? Is it both? If so, is that okay? Does that matter? I wish I knew whether my undying love for the genre is enough for me to continue experimenting with its form. My ability to make choices within it manifests in its manipulation. It is unavoidable that my work will have some sort of effect – it makes me nervous that I may not know what form the effect will take until it unfolds, which may take lifetimes. But perhaps this is just what’s to do be done: choice making is form making, and that’s all that I can do is make choices based on the knowledges that I’ve produced over the last 26 years. Tap dance as it is known en masse will inevitably exist long after I put my contribution forward – regardless of my potential effect. Perhaps, my fear of having an effect is just a symptom of my white-passing hetero-male ego telling me that I will inevitably have one. Perhaps, I won’t and it won’t matter. But I can’t ignore the part of me feels responsible for making tap dance matter: whether it’s desire for forage a more visible future, or love for the genre that has given me so much information and that has manifested into the cyborg I am today. Abstraction is violent, and I am a product of that violence. I will probably always make work that reinscribes that violence. But I will work hard to be aware of it.

Perhaps that is all Delaney wants… for us to be aware of what is being lost in the violence of abstraction and translation; for us to mourn those losses. To memorialize them and carry them with us as we cyborg our way into the future.


[1] The term postmodern in dance (to me) often stems from the work of artists associated with Movement Research and the Judson Church during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, and Deborah Hay are a few examples of these artists. Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto and Trio A often stand as the seminal text and choreography respectively for the movement: http://www.1000manifestos.com/yvonne-rainer-no-manifesto/

[2] Tap dance and the archetype of the trickster are heavily intertwined. In Fall 2017, I wrote an essay on this connection by identifying several historical and contemporary examples of performances where tap dance is associated with values of mockery, divertive tactics, and trickiness. Tap dance scholar, Constance Valis Hill, also talks about the importance of imitation stemming from the influence of African and Irish trickster gods in their respective mythologies. For more, see the first chapter of Hill’s comprehensive history of tap dance in Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. 

Charles Maybee