Ben Spatz’ examination of concepts of technique and practice in embodied knowledge is a richly rewarding read, both for its rigorous discussion and clarification of ideas which can often be confused and confusing, and for its thought-provoking analysis of a range of examples. He argues for embodied knowledge, such as found in the three areas of physical culture, performing arts and everyday life, as a major field of knowledge on a par with the humanities and sciences; and ultimately makes challenging practical suggestions as to how embodied knowledge might find a stronger place in academe through the development of appropriate modes of documentation and resulting possibilities for scholarly investigation and research. Reading from my perspective as a dance practitioner I have found much here that can help to articulate the underpinnings of dance practice and their consequences for pedagogy. Spatz’ examples drawn from a range of other fields resonate strongly with current debates and concerns in dance.

The book begins its unpacking of philosophical ideas by asking Spinoza’s question (as formulated by Deleuze 1990) “What can a body do?” (as opposed to what is the structure of a body). From this starting point, his curiosity fired by telling episodes from his own practical experience as a theatre practitioner and researcher, Spatz builds up an epistemology of practice; arguing that technique is the transmissible knowledge derived from embodied practice which provides answers to Spinoza’s question. Spatz sees practice as a process of research which potentially not only seeks to understand techniques better through academic analysis, but also to generate new techniques through practical exploration and experiment; such generative research as not exclusive to the university but taking place world-wide in practitioners’ studios and more everyday social and cultural life contexts.

Spatz usefully teases out knotty and contested definitions, starting with his choice to work from a more ancient understanding of “arts” as “fields of craft, technique and knowledge” (Spatz 2015 p9), as opposed to singular objectified “art”, as a means of maintaining the focus on the embodied experience of practice rather than the spectator’s vision of performance. His understanding of embodiment is similarly broad, rejecting the Cartesian notion of mind-body split to embrace the mind, intellect, rationality and language as well as the physical; acknowledging the potent contribution of phenomenological thinking and social epistemology to his thesis.

Chapter 1 lays out the theoretical framework of Spatz’ thinking, initially via a historical account of the development of the idea of technique from its roots in Aristotle’s concept of techne. Following its entry into the English language in the early 19th century, the word technique undergoes a process of Romantic disparagement as “mechanical” and “mere”, by comparison to god-given art and genius, which remains widespread today (ibid. p29). The value of art forms is hereby seen to reside in what remains after the subtraction of technique, a residuum that is unique and unrepeatable; a Romantic view Spatz later labels as “the trope of excess”. In performing arts the privileging of the ephemerality of performance from the viewpoint of the spectator largely ignores the stable, repeatable and transmissible aspects of embodied practice.

Spatz credits as technique’s first major theorist and apologist the French sociologist Marcel Mauss, who attributes four characteristics to what he sees as “the greatest achievement of humankind” (ibid. p29); technique as knowledge, which is transmissible, that engages with the material world, and that could be bodily as well as instrumental (using external tools or technologies). Foucault provides further insights; his historical perspective charts the evolution of techniques over time and the relationship of knowledge and power; but also examines the idea of technique inwardly directed as a “technology of the self” (ibid. p34).  Spatz brings his survey of major thinking in this area up to the present day with reference to sociologist Nick Crossley’s expanded notion of body techniques, and dance theorist Randy Martin, whose insights into the interaction of different technical knowledges in the dancer’s body provide a salient example from a growing body of dance scholarship exploring the part played by technique in the formation of the dancer.

Practice as a term has recently been the subject of greater academic attention through “the practice turn” in contemporary scholarship; but it remains a problematic concept which Spatz goes on importantly to define and distinguish from technique, clarifying the relationship between these. Spatz contends that practice is specific to people, occasions and places, and therefore non-repeatable; whereas technique can be seen as the knowledge content that can be derived from practice, which remains unbound by time and place, with the potential to spread through history and across continents. For Spatz technique as knowledge structures practice in its engagement with material reality; it is through our techniques that we come to know and understand the world, what Spatz calls the “substrate” (ibid. p64). Embodied technique by its nature is thus provisional, shaped through our particular “attentive engagement” with our own distinct bodies in all their variation; raising political implications where material realities are different. Explorations and sustained direct enquiry along a particular pathway both open up new knowledge, and close off other alternative possibilities. This suggests important resonance for the study of codified dance forms where technique is often envisaged and defined from the outside, from limited generalised imagery or conceptions of the ideal body; thus either inhibiting creativity or being distrusted and rejected. By contrast Spatz sees technique as essentially multiple, with both breadth and depth, metaphorically describing it as “a network of fractally branching pathways that vein the substance of practice” (ibid. p44); technique as a boundless and ubiquitous presence in our lives, more widely visible when thought of as “way”.

Foucault’s notion of “discipline” and Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” convey a picture of embodied social practice of techniques which define and control the unconscious individual; yet Spatz reminds us that submission to discipline and technique, even if absorbed to the point of unconscious automaticity in practice, do not necessarily signify a lack of individual agency and choice. Spatz here not only draws on the example of expert instrumentalists but also on Saba Mahmood’s ethnographic study of the embodied techniques of Muslim women in their daily religious practice (ibid. p53). Technique is seen to move between the conscious and the unconscious as it sediments itself in the body.

Training including a range of teaching and learning methods is the means of transmission of technique between individuals and community; however technique as episteme requires the coexistence of training – the passage of existing knowledge – with research – the development of new knowledge. For Spatz therefore “If technique is knowledge, then practice can be research” (ibid. p61).

Having defined his terms, in the three following chapters Spatz explores examples of embodied technique in transmission and development; in physical culture, in theatre performance and in the enactment of gender in everyday life. Chapter 2 traces the phenomenally successful development of postural yoga in the 20th century to demonstrate the emergence of new techniques from ancient sources, and examines differences in pedagogy and philosophy among yoga teachers through two recent case studies. Spatz highlights how from primarily therapeutic purposes yoga developed largely through the teaching and research of Krishnamacharya as a specifically Indian physical culture, which drew on skills from gymnastics and wrestling to become increasingly physical and postural; establishing flowing sequences of poses and a range of approaches which began to be disseminated by his students and disciples world-wide, adapting to Western environments and social needs. Spatz locates its gradual transformation within a current overarching discourse of “healthism” engulfing many embodied techniques, which must increasingly justify their activity in terms of health benefits and fitness (ibid. p83). The athleticism of modern postural yoga has brought it huge popularity, resting on a dominant assumption that athletic prowess is synonymous with health; but as Spatz goes on to argue, athletic achievement often means that health is in fact sacrificed to performance. Spatz also draws attention to the success of modern postural yoga through its appeal to both men and women; as originally masculine ideas of health have become a more mainstream aspiration for all, yoga’s combination of athletic and somatic practice has made it particularly attractive as a technique for “numerous middle-class white women” (ibid. p95). Spatz’ insightful analysis ends in discussion arguing for a wider conception of physical education, beyond the prevailing culture of athleticism and what Richard Tinning calls “the tyranny of the cult of the body”(Tinning in Evans et al. 2004, p219).

Chapter 3 looks at acting technique as a field of knowledge. The ambivalence of many current theatre practitioners towards teaching technique and the notion of transmissible technical knowledge has created a resistance to describing and documenting exercises, and a distrust of standardization, a continuing manifestation of the romantic view that talent and presence are innate and unteachable. Spatz’ historical account of the concept of training serves to reinforce his case for the “dynamic interaction of training and research”, the former as the means whereby “existing knowledge is intentionally passed along, inculcated, or absorbed” (Spatz 2015, p123). Crucially research is needed to generate new knowledge and techniques; practical research in acting rather than research about acting; prompting reflection on how building a research culture would be challenging in today’s context of commercialism and competing methods. Spatz’ analysis of certain practices of both Stanislavski and Grotowski provide examples of the integration of training and research leading to the development of new acting techniques and approaches; and this prompts discussion of the validity of acting practice and investigation not primarily aimed at performance or audience; justifiable as would be “blue sky thinking” in scientific research. As a blueprint Spatz offers Bryan Brown’s balanced triadic model of spaces for acting: the school for training, the laboratory for research and the theatre for public display and dissemination (Brown cited in Spatz 2015, p164).

Spatz entitles his fourth chapter “Gender as Technique”; suggesting that the similarity between the processes of development of professional identity through embodiment as discussed in the previous chapters on yoga and acting, are not so different from the processes of inculcation of cultural identity including gender; where embodied practice is structured “not only by habit (or habitus) and performance (or performativity), but also by knowledge” (Spatz 2015 p173). However we are reminded that despite growing popularity serious practice in yoga and acting is by definition a chosen minority pursuit, an “extra-daily” technique; whereas everyone has a gender identity, making gender an “everyday” technique that is not optional. Spatz calls for the need for research in everyday life, rooting his argument in influential texts by de Certau and John Roberts, on the practice of everyday life, and the definition of the everyday. Rather than the grand call of the Situationists for a revolution in life’s social practices, Spatz sees progress via a gradual evolutionary process of small discoveries by “humble” researchers, which initially unnoticed may later unexpectedly spread. His examination of the debates around sexual difference and how it relates to gender thus illustrates theoretical stances with a range of thought-provoking examples of informal research by specific groups and communities, through their developing practices of new ways of dealing with issues of gender identity in life; ultimately pondering as to how much these particular responses to specific situations may gradually permeate wider thinking and cultural practice, and to what extent their findings may be diluted in dissemination.

Spatz states in his introduction, “I have tried to develop concepts with which something productive can be done. Ideally, the reader will come away with a sense of new projects in the offing… I hope that the ideas contained here will be of use to those who wish to articulate the complexity and importance of embodied knowledge and practice in the world today.” (Spatz 2015 p15). His final chapter on the current state of universities, discussion of practice as research initiatives, and suggested approaches as to how the episteme of embodied knowledge that he defines might find a respected place within academe, leads the book to an idealistic and optimistic conclusion. It is hard to see how given the current trend to the marketisation of higher education and increasingly narrow utilitarian views of the purpose of the university, such a utopian goal might be reached; but Ben Spatz has through this volume provided a valuable impulse towards this end in his enlightening analysis and passionate argumentation for a clearer understanding of a vast and major field of human knowledge and achievement.

Susie Crow

13th May 2016

 

References:

Spatz, Ben (2015) What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research Abingdon, Oxon and New York, Routledge

Deleuze, Gilles (1990) Expressionism in Philosopy: Spinoza New York, Zone Books

Evans, John, Brian, Davies and Wright, Jan eds. (2004) Body Knowledge and Control: Studies in the Sociology of Education and Physical Culture New York, Routledge

Brown, Bryan (2013) “Tracing the Laboratory Line: The Phenomenon of the Theatre Laboratory and Its Manifestations in Russia” PhD diss., University of Leeds

 

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