- Diana Thielen
Is contact improvisation political?
I start with the question: “Is contact improvisation political?” and end up with the much more interesting question “with what type of politics should contact improvisation be combined?”
The concept „political“
I use the word “political” as meaning: relating to domination and exploitation; in this sense of the word, not only “big”, public politics, but all structures of society are political.
„Contact is political“
Almost everything is political. At least since the New Left and the second wave of the women’s movement, we know that “the personal is political”. And what is the personal? As I use the concept, it includes, for example, emotion, sexuality (including emotional “labor”), domestic work, “partner” relationships and relations between parents and their children… But the above mentioned slogan refers not to the contingent, individual aspect of the personal, but, one could say, to the general aspects of the personal.
For example, it is almost certainly politically irrelevant whether I prefer raspberry over vanilla ice cream. On the other hand the existence of certain typical patterns of behavior that reproduce power and emotional exploitation in my relationships is a politically relevant issue.
Politically relevant – politically subversive
But just because a certain practice is politically relevant, that is, has some, even very diffuse effect on social relations, does not mean at all that it is necessarily politically subversive. In my scheme of things, being politically subversive would mean being capable of effecting social change on a larger scale.
Subversion – “subjective politics”
Due to a certain psychologization of politics, the reaction, in left-liberal and alternative circles, to any mention of “big” social changes is often skepticism or even outright hostility, usually followed up with the claim that, instead, it would be best to start “with little things” and “with oneself”.
As much as I agree with an insistence on the necessity of personal change, experimental lifestyles etc, as vehemently do I disagree with the one-sided fixation on (so-called) “subjective politics”: as the last 25 years have shown, lifestyle politics and alternative culture remain stuck in the individual sphere, increase the variety and differentiation of our society of commodities and commodification, and generally do not destabilize broader social structures in any relevant way – and often real social change is secretly, at some point openly, not (or no longer) even the goal; it is only for reasons of self-justification that individual alternative lifestyle choices are still presented as socially transformative when quite obviously they are not.
Like all culture contact improvisation is politically relevant. Furthermore contact improvisation is in tension with “official” culture and embodies values that could be termed at least partly oppositional. In my eyes contact improvisation is not subversive, that is, capable of effecting social change, because the changes wrought by contact improvisation are restricted to small and relatively marginal parts of the middle class, and even these changes only marginally influence our real life practice within the objective constraints of patriarchal-racist commodity society (even if we have the subjective impression contact improvisation has completely changed our life).
I believe it is a grave analytical error to overestimate the significance of cultural practices of this or that avantguardist scene concerning their degree of social subversiveness.
I believe that contact improvisation can realize its subversive potential only in coalition, in combination with other political, social and cultural tendencies. And here the question arises, not whether “contact is political”, but with which kind of politics contact should be combined! Obviously my answer is that this should be a radical left, subversive politics, and not a social democratic or otherwise reformist kind of politics.
In the present situation I am for keeping contact improvisation in its culturally marginal position. I am not per se opposed to trying to penetrate the cultural mainstream. I just think that in such a test of strength with hegemonic culture the risk of complete recuperation and normalization is very high; especially in the present reactionary social climate.
(This text was originally written in German in January 1994, English translation by the author in 2007)