Memes and the creation of new patterns of movement in dance

Prof.Dr.Christine Greiner

 Catholic University of São Paulo, Center of Dance Studies of the Department of Semiotics (PUC-SP)


This paper aims to study the influence of cultural dialogue in the creation of new patterns of movement in dance and to develop a hypothesis to understand how it works, presenting a practical example: the evolution of butoh dance in the West.

 Butoh is a radical artistic manifestation born in Japan in the late 50s; after the 80s it spread through the Western world, suffering successive degradations. Besides Pina Bausch's Tanztheatre, butoh thought can be indicated as one of the powerful memes developed in the second half of our century.

 However, we have to be careful to avoid hasty conclusions, questioning whether we can really understand butoh as a meme and, if so, we have to clarify what kind of instruction it really offers to the replication process.

 We will take as fundamental theoretical instruments: the Consciousness Thesis of Daniel Dennett (1991;1995;1997), the Meme Thesis (1976) of Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin's (1859) idea of evolution by natural selection, interpreted by Dawkins and Dennett.

Such a methodological choice transfers theoretical and conceptual matrices of the cultural dialogue problem from the outer scope of sciences that have considered aesthetical changes of choreographies as simple products of socio-cultural stimulus of the enviroment to the understanding of cultural dialogue as an action of consciousness (and not its product). Therefore, perceiving an enviroment is not to make the brain receive stimuli in a passive way.

 According to Dawkins (1982), a meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain. It has a definite structure, realized in whatever physical medium the brain stores information. This means: as a pattern of synaptic connections or in a distributed form. In the latter, it would not be detectable on a microscope, but, Dawkins insists, it still reside in the brain.

 These mental representations and the movements implemented in the body are a necessary integration (brain-body-enviroment) that affords not only the artistic making, but the survival.

 Through cultural dialogue, mental representations (memes) are changed because the brain receives new information through different modes of perception. To understand how this transformation of mental representations influences the creation of new patterns of movement in dance, it is necessary to think about the implementation of this information in the dancing body.

 According to Dawkins, a cake is the consequence of obeying a series of instructions when to mix the various ingredients but it is not those instructions translated into another coding medium. A body too, is the result of obeying instructions, but we cannot reconstruct an individual's genome by studying his body. And the same happens to the dancing body. When you learn a new dance technique and receive the instructions, you will not translate them into another medium, thereby recovering the "original". In the new enviroment, the instructions will be re-organized according to the brain-body continuum, establishing new relationships, and different mental representations that once implemented in the body, will give birth to new patterns of movement.

 Time develops an important role in this process. In the dancing body, to develop a new pattern of movement, it is necessary to conquer a minimum of stability. This stable thought, that Dennett called conscious thought, will permit a dance movement (implemented thought) to exist as a habit, i.e. a movement already incorporated to create a specific dancing body.

 According to Dennett (1991:210): "human consciousness is itself best understood as the operation of a `von Neumannesque'virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any such activities". Dennett (1996:155) explains that mental contents become conscious not by entering some special chamber in the brain but by winning the competition against others.

 In dance, memes, as mental representations and the process of replication of these representations of ideas (or other imagined constructs), are phenotypically mediated by the dancing body. In this transit between mental patterns and body implementation, natural selection occurs at different levels. There is a big difference between replicators and vehicles.


The example of butoh evolution

To understand butoh evolution we ask a question to identifie this relationship: which is the information of this universe of knowledge that is able to replicate?

 As we said before, a vehicle is not a replicator. Therefore, the dead body or even the idea of the dead body (the fundamental of butoh dance) cannot be replicated. Only the instructions that make it happen.

 At this point, it is important to review some basic principles to think about their evolution in the West.

 Semantics professor Yoshie Yoshida, discusses some of the main translations of the butoh ideogram, explaining that in general butoh is understood as the harmony between elevation (bu) and being earth bound. However, he interprets bu (from buyo) as mai (another name for dance in Japanese). In this sense, bu could mean ma-i or the action of ma (known as the conception of the time-space interval that is a fundamental aspect of Japanese culture). The choreographer Akaji Maro, who worked for many years with Tatsumi Hijikata, the creator of butoh dance, said that the body is supported by something invisible. Butoh is about capturing the spirits that live in ma. It is beyond outside time.

 To complete this reasoning, we can already mention another butoh choreographer, Ko Murobushi, who explains the dead body as the possibility of giving existence to anything. Like ma, which can be understood not as an empty place in the sense of nothingness, but in the sense of emptiness in which anything can happen.

 Therefore, we think about ma as a kind of instruction of the butoh meme. Or, more specifically, of the dead body meme, as an imaginary construction.

 If this instruction is able to replicate in other bodies, it will not reproduce or translate butoh is another medium (a western body, for example). But it will exist as another possibility of experiencing life.

After many years of studying butoh, we have concluded that a good definition for butoh is to think about this dance as a map of one of the possibilities of the state of being alive.

 Butoh is just one example. The Memetics approach can contribute to the study of dance by reorganizing Dance History and the understanding of the evolution of the different dances.

 It permits to think about what kind of instructions can or cannot replicate, according to the relationship present at the continuum body-brain-enviroment.

 Thinking about the creation of new patterns of movement in dance, based on cultural dialogue, Memetics explains that it is not enough to study the enviroment, neither the mental representations apart from their extended phenotypes. It is in the transit between mental representation and its implementation in the dancing body, that natural selection is responsible for the aesthetical result. Therefore, cultural dialogue in dance is often responsible for the creation of new patterns of movement in the dancing body, but not by a sociological effect of the external world on the inner world of the dancer, but by natural selection of the competition among mental contents, meme-effects in brains. In this sense, it's the same process that is present in all nature: an algorithmic process (Dennett,1995,1996; Dawkins,1986,1995,1996) creating new designs.



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