In the Beginning Was Dance

Workshops in the Humanities

Mahnaz Yousefzadeh

Supported by NYU Curricular Development Challenge Grant (2014-2015)

 That the case for the Liberal Arts is made more effectively and powerfully outside of Liberal Arts departments is significant.  Key sectors, financial as well as scientific – which are typically posited as competing with humanities or as replacing the logic of the humanities pushing it into the so called “crisis”– are recognizing a renewed role for an education in the arts and philosophy. Yet this demand is articulated at the same time that, in a context of the high costs of education and the need to provide employable skills, humanists are “digitalizing.”   In the Beginning Was Dance, departing from the logic of “digital humanities,” adopts a practical and experiential approach akin to that of G.B.Vico, the father of modern humanities, to situate and re-embody the literary insights and philosophical concepts in real life contemporary institutions. As the capstone workshop Epigenesis: Between Science and the Humanities revealed, an education in the Humanities not only builds character but, through its characteristic methodologies, has direct bearing on scientific discoveries in “dominant” fields such as evolutionary biology. The theme of beginning (origins) and change (learning) were investigated across philosophy, biology, dance, museology, and theatre.  In each workshop, specific assignments were created to ‘re-embody” the philosophic and scientific insights and concepts practically. Website with a record of the assignments and edited video of each event is under is here.  Below you will find a synopsis.

Eros, Mimesis, and Poesis  (Casa Italiana, October 2014 with Courtney Escoyne and Martin Reichert) investigated the three key notions in Plato’s philosophical texts through dance practices.   It established that dance was included in the Platonic Academy’s curriculum, as well as in the education of the guardians because, according to Plato, it is through dance that one learns to recognize measure, numbers, and what is rational.   In The Republic, Plato’s dialogue on Justice and a privileged text of the liberal arts, he  discusses the importance of an education in dance for a just and well ordered social and political life. The curriculum introduced the students to a philosophical world view where the mathematics of music and dance were fundamental to understanding the universal system.  Dance, through a mimesis, or an imitation of the movement of the heavenly bodies, teaches men the “lore of one and two,” thus measure, rhythm, numbers, calculations, rationality and the very possibility of thinking.    In the beginning was Dance, because for Plato thinking — that is, the knowing of the most abstract concepts — begins with movement of the celestial bodies and their imitation in communal dance. Dance belonged to the platonic curriculum, because it prepared the student for thinking, for recognizing measure and what is rational.  All forms of knowing — scientific, rational, conceptual — in fact had their origin in dance. The second and third terms of the trio — eros and poesis or creation — are intimately related, and are discussed in Plato’s Symposium. After a lecture and close reading of the original text of Plato, two practical movement and dance exercises that I created in close collaboration with Courtney Escoyne (a former student and Tisch Dance major) translated these abstract concept into an practical workshop.

images2Visual and Sonorous (NYU Washington Sq. October 2014) with Julia Pascal)  presented the ideas of origins, repetition, and change in St. Augustine’s Confessions, Rumi’s Reed Flute Song and in theatrical techniques developed in avant garde plays.  Given that contemporary culture privileges the visual and the visible over the sonorous, images over words, we examined the aesthetic qualities as well as the ethical stakes of the sonorous.   In the 11th and the philosophical chapter of his Confessions, St. Augustine, that other staple of Humanities education, examines the origins of the world and elaborates what might be called one of the most enduring and consequential as well as poetic theories of the emergence of time. If god lives in eternity, where there is no time, how did he speak when he created the world?  How did he say, let there be light?  Augustine says that, by speaking, God initiated human and historical time and nature as such. Words or language do not happen in time, but constitute time. This aesthetic and ontological quality becomes the foundation for an ethics of listening.  Sound, singing, and listening to song allow one to be in time and present in history, as well as get a glimpse of eternity, timelessness, in moments of “revelation.”   For St. Augustine Truth is “revealed” through listening or hearing.  After close readings of relevant passages of Augustine and Rumi to elaborate these concepts, students listened to a monologue by Julia Pascal which demonstrated the dangers and powers of the sonorous.  The response from the students during the interactive component of the workshop was extraordinarily moving, and is included in the edited video.

Curating Culture (London February 2015 with Pita Motture and Julia Pascal) highlighted the differences between the academic and museological approaches to arts education, specifically intended to place the students in a position of understanding their learning process. Guest Speaker Peta Motture, Senior Curator at the Victoria & Albert, gave a detailed presentation  about her first-hand involvement in the work undertaken in building and curating the new Medieval and Renaissance wing of the museum. Students got a glimpse into the work behind the scenes of exhibitions and glass showcases, which often “hide” the very process of culture creation our students are called upon to engage with; they came to  appreciate that far from being a ready-made product, the museums are creative, ideological, and economic spaces of production and problem solving.  Students had visited the galleries before the lecture and were invited to draw upon their own experience at the museum to reflect upon the origins and legacies of the texts they encounter in the classroom.  That they had an expert who provided the financial, logistical, political and organizational limits and framework in the creation of the iconic images they encountered at the museum was illuminating.

photo-52Epigenesis: Between Biology and Philosophy (London April 2015 with Valerie Wells and Yulia Kovac) This capstone workshop approached the fundamental questions of origins and change, mimesis (repetition) and poesis (creation and change) through an exciting interdisciplinary dialogue between humanities and natural science:  It presented the latest discoveries in evolutionary biology epigenetics, and new readings of the “system of epigenesis of pure reason” in the work of German Philosopher Immanuel Kant.  The seed for this workshop was sown two years ago, when as a visiting professor in London I accompanied Professor Valerie Wells on a student trip to the Eden Project in UK, immediately after I had heard a lecture on Immanuel Kant by Catherine Malabou — who has recently claimed that “we are living in an era of cultural epigenetics.” Yet I realized that in order to understand how the moral philosopher Kant was using the word epigenesis, I had to understand the biology, since he was using a biological metaphor to explain the working of transcendental reason.  While this is interdisciplinarity pursuit at a very basic level, the workshop addressed deeper questions: What are the consequences of the latest discoveries in evolutionary biology or genetics for philosophy and the teaching of philosophy?  What does it mean to say with Antonio Damasio or Malabou that philosophy “pre-figures” or anticipates science?  The discussions pushed the ideas of simple analogy and metaphors between philosophical concepts and scientific discoveries, to demonstrates significantly that in fact methodological characteristics of the humanities, such as hermeneutics, are crucial to understanding and making sense of scientific discoveries.  Again, these fundamental and difficult concepts and methods were translated into practical assignments and exercises conducted during the workshop.

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