Author: Maaike Bleeker
First publication: 01/01/2004
Language: English
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 3
Made available by: Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek
Media: article

Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in: Linden, M. van der, L. Wildschut, J. Zeijlemaker (eds.) (2004), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 3. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp. 36-41.

Onderstaande tekst is een lezing die ik geschreven heb voor de conferentie The Human Body: A Universal Sign (Krakow, 6-10 april 2003). Op deze conferentie stond het menselijk lichaam in het theater centraal. Met mijn lezing wilde ik vraagtekens plaatsen bij de titel van de conferentie, in het bijzonder bij het universalisme dat in deze titel besloten lijkt te liggen. Ik doe dat aan de hand van een historisch voorbeeld, namelijk John Martin’s theorie van de moderne dans. Martin introduceert het begrip ‘inner mimicry’ om te verklaren hoe moderne dans kan werken als een universele taal die mensen direct aanspreekt op een lichamelijk niveau dat voorafgaat aan cultuur. Zijn theorie is hem op veel kritiek komen te staan en is in de loop van de tijd in onbruik geraakt. Toch is het de moeite waard om bij zijn ideeën stil te staan. In de eerste plaats omdat ze een voorbeeld zijn van een aantal hardnekkige misverstanden die steeds weer opduiken in het begrip van het lichaam als teken. In de tweede plaats omdat, ontdaan van zijn universalistische pretenties, Martin’s begrip van ‘inner mimicry’ wel degelijk interessante aanknopingspunten kan bieden voor het denken over lichamelijkheid in hedendaagse dans en theater.

In the thirties of the 20th century, American dance critic John Martin introduced the term ‘inner mimicry’ to account for the experiences evoked by modern dance in terms of a bodily response. This response provides us with a direct physical link to the emotions experienced by the dancer. For, in watching dance:

‘[w]e shall cease to be mere spectators and become participants in the movement that is presented to us, and though to all outward appearances we shall be sitting quietly in our chairs, we shall nevertheless be dancing synthetically with all our musculature.
Naturally these motor responses are registered by our movement-sense receptors, and awaken appropriate emotional associations akin to those which have animated the dancer in the first place. It is the dancer’s whole function to lead us into imitating his actions with our faculty for inner mimicry in order that we may experience his feelings’ (Martin, 1939, p. 53).

With his theory of inner mimicry, Martin presented a rationale for the then new modern dance. His theory presents an alternative to theories that explain the meaning of dance in terms of representation. Furthermore, his theory does not limit itself to any particular dance style or technique. And, Martin comes up with an explanation of the way in which our bodies are involved in how we experience what we see. At this point, Martin’s theory seems to link up remarkably well with today’s attempts at reformulating the role of the body in processes of perception and meaning making.

However, a closer look at his theory also reveals one of the pitfalls of rethinking the role of the body, a pitfall that Martin did not manage to avoid. I refer here to the persistent tendency to conceive of the body and of bodily meaning making as something more natural and therefore more authentic and less culturally or historically specific than for example language, words. In Martin, this tendency typically takes the shape of a claim for universality. Bodily movement appears as a universal language and the body as a universal sign. Strangely enough though, it appears that some bodies are more universal than others. Martin’s body willingly mimics some bodies but refuses to mimic others. The central example in Martin’s text is Martha Graham. To a lesser extent also other American modern dancers like Ruth St.Denis and Doris Humphrey. And also, but to a still lesser extend German expressionist dancers like Mary Wigman. These are the bodies that serve as his examples of how the body speaks to us in a language that is universally valid. At the same time, however, Martin uses his idea of inner mimicry to criticize other dancers, other bodies. These are especially black and native bodies, which he considers to be too specific to evoke what is universal.

The Body as Universal Sign

Universal, according to the dictionary, is that which is of all persons or things in the world. Universal refers to the characteristic of being shared by all.

How then does this apply to the human body as a universal sign?

We all have bodies. Or, as I would prefer to say, we all are bodies. The body therefore can be said to be universal in the sense that we all share this condition of being a body. But does this make the body a universal sign?

A sign, in the famous definition of Peirce is something that stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. Peirce’s definition understands signs in terms of relationships between thee different ‘some’s’. Brought to bear on John Martin’s example of Martha Graham, this means that there is Graham’s dancing body, there is the emotions for which her moving body presents a vehicle, and there is Martin in whom Graham’s moving body evokes emotions. What this ultra short analysis of Graham’s body as a universal sign points to, is the difficulty of locating the universal within this three-some relationship that constitutes the sign.

What exactly is universal here?

Miss Universe

According to Martin, what is universal is the relationship between movement and emotions. This link, according to him, is naturally given within the physical structure of our bodies and provides us with direct access to the emotions and feelings of bodies seen. However, as pointed out above, in this respect some bodies appear to be more universal than others, and Martha Graham is certainly Miss Universe.

Of course, Miss Universe does not represent the universal human body. On the contrary, she is supposed to represent the most perfect, the most exquisite example of a body, in her case, of the female body. ‘Universe’ here does not refer to the fact that we all have such a body or that we all share in her beauty. Instead, ‘Universe’ refers to the idea that everybody will agree that this is the most exquisite example of the female body.

But is this not exactly the kind of claim that Martin makes about Graham’s body? Her moving body, he argues, is the most exquisite example of the dancing body as a transparent vehicle for a pan human realm of emotions. According to him, this will be recognized as such by all naturally, independently from any particular point of view.

Many critics before me have pointed out the relationship between the body of Miss Universe and a very specific point of view. These critics point to the relationship between the universal beauty of Miss Universe and what is called the male gaze. This gaze, apart from being male, might be characterized as white, heterosexual, middle class, Western – to mention but a few possible characteristics. This gaze, therefore, represents a point of view that can hardly be called universal in the sense of shared by all. The vision on the body as related to this point of view implied by the gaze, can only appear as universally valid as long as the specificities of the point of view implied remain obscured. This gaze and the point of view implied within it, is precisely what also remains obscured in Martin’s account of Graham’s body.

Martin points to the fact that being in contact with whatever we are confronted with, always involves our emotional and physical reactions. I could not agree more. The problem is that in Martin’s account, the physical and emotional response of the one perceiving gets conflated with the physical experiences and emotions of the one perceived, the dancer, and this conflation is constitutive of the supposed transparency of movement as a vehicle of emotions and feelings. For, what we, the spectators, perceive in watching dance, according to Martin, is not our own feelings, but the feelings of the dancer seen. I quote:

‘It is the dancer’s whole function to lead us into imitating his actions with our faculty for inner mimicry in order that we may experience his feelings.’ (Martin, 1939, p. 53, my italics)

We all share the condition of being a body but what we do not share is the condition of being the same body. Therefore, if we want to consider the role of the body in processes of experience and meaning making, it is of crucial importance to ask “whose body?”. Whose body is perceiving Graham’s dancing body as an expression of universal emotions? How does culture mediate in this process of recognizing the things we feel as being universal? Whose point of view is implied within the human body perceived as a universal sign?

Universal Human Meat

In 1997, Mike Tyler, an American artist working in the Netherlands, presented the performance Holoman: Digital Cadaver[i]. In this performance, he used digital images of the human body produced by the Visible Human Project. The goal of this project of the United States’ National Library of medicine was to create a highly detailed digitalized version of a human cadaver. To produce this cadaver, they used an actual human body that was scanned and cut into 1mm thick slices. Digital photographs of the slices, together with the scans, were put in a computer to produce a digital resurrection of the cadaver now representing the “universal human meat.”

The makers of the Visible Human Project preferred a body of an executed criminal because this would provide them with a relatively undamaged body. They looked around on death row and guess what, the universal human being turned out to be a white man. This choice can hardly be called incidental. Taking into account the average population on death row in the US, this choice seems to testify of a certain determination.

In his performance, Tyler confronted the images of the body of the Visible Human Project with an actor who represented the person – the human body – used to produce the images. This actor was a black man. Before every performance, his entire body was painted white with glow in the dark paint to produce an uncanny reappearance of the other in the guise of the same. Tyler thus presented a critical commentary on the way the human body gets represented by the Visible Human Project. His performance points to relationships between this particular visualization of the universal human meat and the cultural/historical context of Western Modernity characterized by binary oppositions like male-female, white-black, mind-body etc. These oppositions are not symmetrical but hierarchical, and these hierarchical oppositions structure the dominant fictions that pass for reality, for ‘how it is.’ Tyler’s performance also points to the history of the anatomical dissection and how this history produced understanding of what ‘the human body’ is and how it can be known, and to the relationship between the digital representations of the Visible Human Project and contemporary visualization techniques used in a wide variety of fields. This way, he was able to expose the relationships between the ‘universality’ of this body and a culturally and historically specific point of view.

Similarly, one could wonder how Martin’s account of Graham’s body as a universal sign relates to the context from which it originated. Take for example his claim that the power of Graham’s work relies in her ability to get to her own inner core of most personal emotions, abstract them and express them in ways that make them speak in universal language. This claim is remarkably similar to accounts of the universality of abstraction in other arts in the same period; it is expressive of a similar desire for an artistic language that is shared by all, and, moreover, that is shared by all naturally.

This theory, then, is used by Martin to explain why his contemporary fellow American Graham, a white female dancer, has the superior ability to make her body a transparent vehicle for universal emotions. And, finally, his theory also helps him to ‘naturalize’ the fact that all of this happens in America. His account helps him to explain why it naturally had to be Graham’s body, and not the bodies of, for example, the German expressionist modern dancers, that is the most universal. Modern dance, he writes:

‘abstracts its material to the most pungent essences and presents it sparsely and directly. Such a method is eminently in accord with the simplicity of the characteristic American background, the great puritan tradition with its functional philosophy, its devotion to essentials and its abhorrence of waste and indulgence. When it grows from genuinely creative sources, the dance in these terms is capable of achieving heroic stature.’ (Martin, 1939, p. 241)

With his account of the universality of the dancing body of modern dance, Martin not only presents an explanation that corresponds remarkably well to the conceptions of art and of bodies held by his own American contemporaries, but also one that explains why these American dancing bodies are more universal than others, or even, why America in general is closer to universality than others.

Now, all of this is not simply to nail Martin to the cross, nor to reject his ideas altogether. Rather, I want to present Martin’s theory as an example that points to the need to stay aware of our own position in relation to what we perceive as universal. To stay aware of the fact that, as Foucault has pointed out, we always inevitably think universality in culturally and historically specific ways. Or to speak with Peirce again, that what appears as universal always appears as such to someone.

Recognizing the difference different points of view make is important even more in those cases where we are dealing with something as common as the body, or with experiences that are so intense and apparently so direct as the responses of our own body to what we see. Recognizing the difference is important to avoid the mixing up of self and other characteristic of Martin’s explanation of the bodily response to dance movement, where he mistakes his own emotional and physical response for the emotions and feelings of the dancer he sees. This distinction was the subject of Nerves: A Mental State, a choreography by Diane Elshout and Frank Händeler.

I Feel What You Mean

Nerves presents a critical engagement with what might be called the central claim in Martin’s theory, namely that he can know what the body seen dancing is feeling. Nerves is based on case studies from neurologist Oliver Sacks’ famous book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Recurring motive is the sentence ‘I feel what you mean’ that is heard time and again as voice-over and is projected on large screens surrounding the performance space. At first, this sentence seems to be something the doctor in Sacks’ stories might have said: a comforting remark that expresses the intimate connection between him as observer and the patient observed. Because he is such a good observer, he knows what the body seen feels and feels what this body means. However, the more this sentence gets repeated during the performance, the more uncomfortable and obtrusive it becomes. Who does this person speaking think he is, that he would know or feel what the other means?

One of these others is the ‘disembodied lady’. This woman has lost awareness of herself as body. Standing has become impossible  – unless she looks down at her feet. She can hold nothing in her hands, and they ‘wander’. When she reaches out for something, her hands miss or overshoot wildly. She can scarcely even sit up – her body ‘gives way’. The condition of the disembodied lady leaves her doctor speechless in a way that cannot be shouted down by the repeated assertion that he feels what she means. Her condition poses a threat to his analytical competence. Is perhaps his repeated assertion that he feels what she means, an attempt to ward of this threat? Is it an attempt at reassuring the position of the superior observer who can feel what the other means by just looking at her, like Martin’s claim that he could know Graham’s feelings just by watching her? Or does the doctor perhaps indeed believe that he knows what his patient feels, is he perhaps mistaking his own confusion for the feeling of her body seen?

The condition of the disembodied lady does not only pose a threat to the doctor’s analytical potency but also threatens the potent illusion that we, the audience, can know what a person seen on stage feels or feel what he or she means. Nerves evokes a lot of feelings but also reminds the audience time and again of the difference between these feelings of the body seeing over here and the body seen over there. It is only through our own sense of being a body that we can try to begin imagine something of the condition of the body seen over there.

[i] See also my article “Death, Digitalization and Dys-Appearance: Staging the Body of Science” in Performance Research 4 (2), pp.1-7, 1999.



  • Martin, John (1939). Introduction to the Dance. New York: Dance Horizons Incorporated.
  • Sacks, Oliver (1985). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. London: Duckworth.
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