Scholar’s Corner: THE PRACTICE TURN IN CONTEMPORARY THEORY

I hope everyone is surviving (and thriving) in this hot summer city. Meanwhile, I have saved perhaps the most difficult book for last.

schatzki_et_al

The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, edited by Theodore R. Schatzki, Karen Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny (Routledge, 2001) is a collection of essays on practice from the perspective of social theory. This means that, although many of its examples are drawn from embodied practice — some even from the performing arts — it is most of all concerned with practice in the broadest sense: “fighting together, hunting together, sailing together, singing together, even, in the present-day world, doing science together” (25).

Anyone seeking to engage with the notion of “practice” in dance or performance should take a look at the philosophically rigorous and analytically provocative ideas contained in this book. While writers on dance and performance theory tend to assume a certain notion of embodied knowledge, even if they don’t call it that, these authors make no such assumption. Instead they actually undertake to prove, step by step, the insufficiency of “propositional knowledge”in accounting for the realities of practice. Thus:

The practice approach … is summed up in its forceful opposition to representational accounts: meaning and language, arising from and tied to continuous activity, cannot be telescoped into representations or mental contents, which themselves acquire the property of being about something by virtue of how people use and react to them. (12)

This is, among other things, clearly linked to my critique of the linguistic metaphor for dance technique. Rather than seeing movement as a kind of vocabulary, we should see language as dependent on practice and embodiment for its functionality. Moreover, each of the essays in this book in some way unpacks common assumptions about knowledge as statements, propositions, and facts. They also develop an understanding of how groups and communities organize themselves around practices and why this process is not reducible to the following of “rules.” All this is done with reference to a wide range of social theorists, many of which are not heavily cited in dance and performance studies.

For those who aren’t sure what relevance this has to the special case of performance, consider this:

What then can we say about what anchors social practices, or why some social practices seem more firmly anchored — more enduring and more influential — than others? The first claim is that practices of a particular kind — those that enact constitutive rules that define fundamental social entities — are likely to be central, anchoring whole larger domains of practice and discourse. The second suggestion is that practices may be more firmly anchored when they are at the center of antagonistic social relationships. Third, the establishment of new social practices appears not so much to require the time or repetition that habits require, but rather the visible, public enactment of new patterns so that ‘everyone can see’ that everyone else has seen that things have changed. (87, italics mine)

In other words: 1) some practices are more central than others; 2) when practices are the subject of debate (think gender or religion) this often works to make them more rather than less stubbornly fixed; and 3) changing such practices is accomplished not (or not only) through slow, incremental shifts in habit but through the public display of compelling alternatives.

There is much more in this book than I can possibly refer to here. In closing, I would just like to mention a field of inquiry called the “sociology of scientific knowledge” (SSK). As alluded to above, this field is the study of scientific research and knowledge production as social and embodied practice. Among other things, it argues that even the most apparently “propositional” knowledge acquires meaning only in relation to fields of social and embodied practice. This perspective is relevant to any consideration of “embodied knowledge.” In fact, I think these are some of the strongest foundations upon which a rigorous argument for embodied knowledge might be constructed.

I am grateful to Movement Research for the opportunity to share these thoughts on what I think are some of the most important recent scholarly books on embodiment and embodied practice. The books I have written about this month, under the name “Scholar’s Corner,” all address issues that I think are relevant to dance, movement, and performance research. Although they come from very different fields (including anthropology, sociology, and history as well as theatre and performance), they are all part of an increased interest in theorizing embodiment and practice, and they have much to offer performing artists and embodied practitioners.

I also believe that the kind of work supported by Movement Research has much to offer these kinds of theories. Examination of contemporary movement practices should not be limited to the field of dance studies. At the same time, I realize that the classes and showings organized by Movement Research could seem as opaque or uninteresting to many sociologists and anthropologists as do these books to many dancers and performing artists. We should not rush to force these two worlds together but should look for ways — like the Movement Research Studies Project — to bring them together in mutually supportive and critical collaboration.

Ben Spatz
Artistic Director
Urban Research Theater
MR-AIR 2010-2012

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