Bodies

A gesture is a form of communication between individuals, but also an expression of embodiment unique to each individual. We know this already: gait, the form of gesture held as a primary example by Giorgio Agamben in his "Notes on Gesture," may be implicated algorithmically in apparatuses of surveillance that capture, inscribe and identify each of our methods of walking through quasi-public spaces. Our gestures, whether they are purely functional (to roll a cigarette, to shoot a basketball jumpshot) or strive to approach the sublime aspects of both play and virtuosity (the dance of bodies in improvised sport), are singular expressions of our being-in-the-world that may sometimes also be shared in processes of communication or co-emergence.

If we can suggest that the postmodern era features docile identities to match the docile bodies of the modern era, then to maintain the liberatory possibility of continually inhabiting and passing through the confines of identity-constructs we must possess the ability to assume the gestures of another individual. Or, to lean on a rather impoverished term, one must be able to speak and translate between different body languages.

Of course, this process of inhabiting the gestures of another individual already existed with actors in the theatre and cinema, a fact which assumed a particularly salient fascination and fetishization during the latter stages of an industrial capitalism that attempted to strip away all forms of physical literacy not serving to maximize economic efficiency or minimize political insubordination. In the age of post-fordism, however, it is gesture — both functional and virtuous — that becomes the motor for sign value creation and the approaching consequence of pure equivalence in exchange this implies. Whether the expression of one's own singularity or the performance of another, the control society leverages a moebius strip of surveillance and spectacle in its attempt to appropriate and exploit gesture.

Perhaps the negative space of the gesture, most clearly expressed in Erin Manning's elaboration of the tango, offers a solution to this paradox of embodiment and representation? As she articulates in her book Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty, the tango is a continual negotiation between two dancing bodies, one of which leads the other during performance while at the same time always being led. Never a perfect replica of the other's body in negative space, for there is always a zone of approximation, a zone in which the unspoken remainder of negotiation resides, a zone of fuzzy logic or error. Nonetheless it is a replica faithful enough, a micropolitics considered and reconsidered, a document for one to archive in the muscle memories of negative space and its processes of embodied forgetting.

If the cinema emerges from the coupling of image and theatre, so too does the tango emerge from the coupling of sculpture and play. Sometimes skin, but always flesh.

The problem with Manning's tango is that it is usually a two-person dance, or a predominantly binary form of gesture and communication: the several is neglected. Perhaps pickup or improvised team sport may be where the tango-as-dance becomes multiple? Pickup sport fragments and fractalizes the binary relation of the tango's negotiation into part-subjects and many-relations that wholly adequate themselves to a field of potentiality emerging in real-time. That such activity itself forms a competitive endeavour remains secondary to this a priori phenomenon of coming together in sport.

As mentioned earlier, the tango and its negotiations are primarily haptic forms of gesture and communication that may be contrasted with a State power relation operating in a more optic sense of individualization and surveillance. But Foucault reminds us that

the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system … a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use (1977, p. 205).

Hence the abstract diagram that optimizes the function of the prison also allows, with the necessary modifications, for the optimization of the factory, hospital, school or stadium: the capillarization of power enabled by this abstract diagram may be translated from one space of discipline to another. Even as these sites of enclosure are in a general state of crisis and permeability, the abstract diagram survives by adapting its striating function and leveraging haptic techniques in the service of administrative vision.

Similarly, though in contrast, we should acknowledge that the tango is itself not simply a form of dance that enjoys a particular haptic negotiation between bodies and a particular resonance in Argentina. The tango may also be a Russian martial artist surfing the waves of channeled aggression flowing-toward from one or many opponents. It may also be a number of self-determined and networked communities more or less simultaneously playing pickup basketball in Canada, China, Macedonia, Poland, Uruguay and the United States.

In other words, we ought to recognize the tango (like the panopticon) as an abstract diagram or general architecture of embodied micropolitics that may, with the necessary modifications, be applied to different forms of coming-together or community. Here, body becomes bodies, the tango's lightness as diagram matched only by the heaviness of the flesh in which it finds embodied form.

Regular Polygons

I have been wondering about spaces used in combat sports, almost all of which are formed by regular polygons: from the circle of sumo, to the square of boxing, to the octagon of mixed martial arts.

Regular polygons: circle, square, octagon

The circle is known in many cultures as the perfect shape or form: all lines of force radiate perfectly from the centre of the circle to its perimeter. In gladiatorial sports contested within a circle (which also include freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling and various forms of animal combat) motion is continually assured by the degrees of freedom that this geometrical form allows; even when against the perimeter boundary there is plenty of room to maneuver.

The square competition area in organized boxing has existed at least since the institution of the London Prize Ring rules in 1743. Why the square (ironically referred to as a ring) instead of the circle for boxing? Is it because of the strong linear references characteristic of architectural forms in the modern age?

(As an aside, the circular area of competition in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling is inscribed on a square mat, which is then rolled up into a cylindrical form for storage. Similarly, the circular sumo dohyo is inscribed on a raised square platform, which presumably is meant to honour the historical traditions of the sport while fitting into the rational rectilinear spaces of modern Japanese arenas. Was this always the case for spectatorship of sumo?)

With the square, we cannot make the same claims to maneuverability mentioned earlier, despite its perfect symmetry on all axes that bisect the centre point. Lines of force are fairly constrained along horizontal and vertical dimensions, which leaves dead spots of motion in the corners — the last thing a boxer wants to do is get trapped in a corner with no line of flight to escape. This is not to say there is a dead spot in action; to the contrary, the constraint on motion often yields to a violent increase in action.

As for the octagon of mixed martial arts, it seems to exist primarily as a form of differentiation from other combat sports that serves an important role in the brand strategy of the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization. But beyond this pragmatic association, the octagon seems to offer us, by way of superficial observation, a hybrid of the two spaces mentioned already. Geometrically, this makes sense to us: a circle is nothing more than a regular polygon with an infinite number of sides, so the fact that the octagon doubles the number of sides of the square suggests that it will be more like the circle in the way it structures movement possibilities within.

Interior AnglesWe notice the difference particularly in the corners of each polygon: the interior angle of a boxing ring (black line) measures 90 degrees, while the interior angle of a mixed martial arts octagon (red line) measures 135 degrees, giving combatants in the latter space 45 more degrees of freedom to maneuver should they become trapped in a corner. What does this mean in terms of practical consequences? It suggests a competition with more mobility, more movement, and more action.

But we must qualify this last term: what do we mean by "action"?

In the glory days of prizefight boxing last century, action often meant a flurry of punch combinations being rained down on a boxer trapped against the ropes or in the corner; large, lumbering, powerful boxers, relics of the industrial age. Action today, by contrast, is far more about speed, with the goal being to sacrifice as little of the earlier gains made in power as possible. Thus, the newfound mobility offered by the octagon creates new kinds of strategic challenges as part of the action. How does one engage an opponent without sacrificing too much power in the more open space at the middle area of the octagon, or when retreat by the opponent is more easily possible, particularly in a lateral sense?