The spring of action: in butō improvisation

In Routledge Handbook Philosophy of Improvisation in the Arts. London: Routledge (forthcoming)

Authors
Carla Bagnoli
University of Modena
Abstract
This chapter discusses butō dance as an example of improvisation that challenges not only the extant philosophical definitions of improvisation, but also some fundamental presumptions about self-government and agency that are current in action theory. In the first part of the chapter, I identify the main features of butō improvisation, with regard to the nature of its basic movement, and the kind of subjectivity implicated in its generation. I then raise some questions regarding the philosophical characterization of this form of dance, and in the second part of the paper, I argue that butō improvisation undermines the intuitive distinctions between “ordinary” and “specialized action”, thereby eluding both the philosophical rationalistic theories of action as mediated by intentions, and the theories of arational action as expressive of individual subjectivity. My claim is that butō can be better interpreted as a shared action which is neither mediated by intentions nor expressive of the individual self, meant to generate a community by sharing the experience of the living body. This characterization has the advantage that it helps to put in the right perspective the puzzle about the normative standards of improvised action, which is addressed in the third part of the chapter. According to Nelson Goodman, improvisation as such undermines the very idea of a normative paradigm against which to evaluate possible solutions. In the case of butō, the absence of normative standards of action (e.g., success, correctness, or rightness) may be also connected to the absence of a subject in charge of his action. This is because butō improvisation does not count on the dancer as a pre-defined subject existing prior to and independently of her performance. In contrast to these interpretations, I hold that there are normative criteria for butō improvisation, which govern its explorative and generative functions by a training based on unselfing. This model turns away from the rhetoric of spontaneous free movements and the search for individual authenticity. It advocates for a model of intentional agency that it is not mediated by (individual or joint) intentions, but aspires to generate a community by sharing the experience of a living emotional body.
Keywords action theory  dance theory  buto dance  responsibility  practical knowledge  collective action
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