Dancing the unspeakable, or the question of how the memory of slavery influences contemporary artistic creation
The artist Alain Foix takes a philosophical look at the relationship between history, memory and artistic creation. Thanks to his art, the artist is not assigned a skin colour and not irredeemably condemned to dance an unspeakable history. Instead, he is part of a dialectic: he is both free and possessed. By creating, he becomes the master of his own history, which allows him to overcome the past. His artistic intelligence must be seen as a “ruse” that produces a new influence on the world and, by creating an open and indeterminate work, encourages the sharing of cultures.
Influence: “the action by which a fluid flows from the stars, which is supposed to act on human destiny”. That was the original meaning of the word. According to the theory of universal gravitation, the stars exert an influence on each other according to their respective masses, and this influence is produced by gravitational waves which, in a certain way, correspond to the fluid of the Ancients. We humans are therefore influenced, in a sense, by the very principle that nails us to the ground.
This idea of influence – passing from a cosmogonic, or mythical, conception, to a cosmological, or scientific, conception, and passing from astrology to astronomy – was revisited in the nineteenth century by the Bonapartist scholar, Pierre-Simon de Laplace, in the form of mechanical determinism. This determinism is illustrated by this famous sentence from his philosophical essay on probabilities: “We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant, an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective positions of the beings which compose it – an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit this data to analysis – it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain, and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.”
In other words, we believe that we are free and autonomous subjects, even though we are the objects of the events that preceded us, and therefore remain under their influence.
But then, is it the effect of chance, or of an epistemological and ideological moment, that during the reign of Napoleon (1804-1815), and at the very moment when he restored slavery and deployed intensive colonization, other scholars, like George Cuvier, seize this deterministic conception, adopt it by applying it to the notion of human races, thus creating a scientific racism, in which scholars with dire reputations – like Gobineau, Friedrich Blumenbach, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Vacher de Lapouge – engulfed themselves? All of them confined these races in the historical determination of their constitutions.
And if “God does not play dice with the universe”, to use Einstein's famous quote, there would be, in the order of this universal harmony, a logic in things – according to which there would be the chosen and the damned, visible and scientifically identifiable by their morphology. We know that it was such mechanistic thinking that encouraged the brutal mechanics of the industrial expansion of slavery.
Unfortunately, long after the abolition of slavery, and in spite of the progress of science in all fields of biology, anthropology and hard sciences like physics and astrophysics, this conception endures in our minds even today, and filters our cultural background. Have we not heard, on television and in the media, about the “curse of the Haitian people”, following the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 – thus associating a theological thought with a tectonic phenomenon linked to economic, political and social causes? As if the event remained under the influence of a past coming from some primal condition, whose cause is age-old. This obviously makes it possible not to take into account the colonial issue and the political and economic history – which controls the destiny of this island even today.
Let us be wary, then, of the notion of influence, which, like a double-edged sword can wound those who wield it. Because not being wary could lead to this return of meaning that would imply we are determined – condemned to paint, dance, sing, play and film to infinity, this backdrop that constitutes the residual memory of the inhuman deflagration that made us what we are. Condemned to dance the unspeakable.
So let us be careful not to adopt this determinist and racist conception of human beings, to the point of making those among us who are capable of artistic expression – the storytellers and painters – the prisoners of our history.
For a non-deterministic history
Because the history of slavery is not our Big Bang – that first moment from which everything flows mechanically and irreversibly – because there is a past, that is the pre-colonial history of Africa and the Americas. And something beyond: the future to be built. Science and new conceptions of history have allowed us to discard this dangerous mechanical determinism and its conception of influence.
In the middle of the last century, Werner Heisenberg introduced the notion of indeterminacy, or the uncertainty principle, into quantum physics. It means that an object is never anything but an object for a subject, and the subject who observes, separated ontologically from the observed object, cannot grasp it without knowing that he exerts an influence on it and he must take this influence into account. There is therefore no absolute and determined object, nor absolute subject, but a relationship. A relationship induced by the action, the movement, the thought of the subject himself in his relation to the object.
But what would be the nature of this relationship, of this influence, if the subject himself were determined, under the influence of a cause preceding him? It would simply be non-existent and understandable only in a mathematical equation. The principle of indeterminacy – which supposes a new, non-deterministic mode between us and our universe – therefore implies that the subject himself is indeterminate, that his action and thought are not subject to mechanical causality. In other words, the subject is free, in motion, in progress. And therefore he releases the object from himself. The object, through this dialectical indeterminacy of the relationship, regains its autonomy.
Beyond memory, being the subject of one's own history
This freedom is, in fact, that of our action within our own history. A history of which we are no longer the thinking objects, but the acting subjects. Although we are acting ourselves, by our own actions. No longer objects of a history that compels us to think through it, but subjects of a history that is built with us and by us.
We must therefore think of history, our history, no longer through the framework of the determinists, but with Hegel and his conception of the subject of history. Hegel, whose famous dialectic of the master and the slave is simply an illustration of the consequences of taking possession of one’s own history by the subject who emancipates himself from it.
Our history and our memory influence us only to the extent that we ourselves influence it. From then on, this cosmic backdrop that is our memory is no longer our only horizon. We escape from this black hole to discover its relativity. We escape it to become ourselves, to create a new time that is none other than ours. This time of my being, of my action, which is none other than myself. I am time in action. I am its expression.
This trap, this cosmic net that could become my memory, closes in on the person I no longer am. It closes on a past history, put into perspective. A history that is now mine, that belongs to me, but of which I am no longer a prisoner. I become master of my history, because I have opened its horizon. Torn its net.
I am no longer condemned to dance the unspeakable, because as master of my time, master of myself, I am also master of my choices and my expression. I am a free and autonomous subject, emancipated from my memory, and my expression cannot be read and acted only through the prism of my past, whether individual or collective. I have opened the field of possibilities.
In other words, there is no moral or intellectual obligation for a black artist to paint the blackness of his history, since he is a free and autonomous subject and recognized as such.
The artist, whoever he may be, can no longer be considered the instrument of expression of a sponsor who would be his master – master of a subject to be depicted and expressed, master of a history and a cosmogony, master of an ethic and an aesthetic, master of a vision and a conception of the world bequeathed by a history of which we are prisoners – but as the acting subject, autonomous and free in his own expression, his own vision of the world, his own history. It is then necessary for us to reconsider his work differently, through other aesthetic, ethical and political prisms. Given this freedom acquired over the determinisms of history, we must grasp the work of every artist, not as a forced expression of himself and his memory, but as the expression of a deliberate act, to which he gives meaning and existence.
The dialectic of the artist and his work
We can then perceive the artist in the dialectical order of a subject vis-à-vis his work, in the subject/object dialectic. This work is a differentiated expression, it expresses a differance – and we write this word with an a as Derrida does, because it is the act of differing, of coming out of oneself, of one's own time; something that is not oneself, or not entirely oneself. An expressive distance from oneself. The act of artistic creation is therefore critical because it expresses a crisis. Krisis in Greek means “separation, distinction”. But crisis also means, originally in French, “a decision, a choice”. This crisis is the dialectical moment of giving birth to something that comes from oneself, but is not self. This differance is an offering of oneself to what is not self, to the other. It produces an object, but a subjective object. What is meaningful in the work is that gift, which opens the possibility of sharing between the other and oneself – it is in this sharing that expression is found. In this relationship between subjects through a subjective object, which by nature engages a silent dialogue between the two.
Thus, because it is freely chosen by the autonomous subject who presents it to be seen, makes it a gift and an object of sharing with the other-spectator, the work itself acquires its autonomy, its own meaning, even its enigmatic quality, its indeterminacy, and can become an object of comprehension and understanding, differentiated from its author. This is why some authors can say that once the work is created, it no longer belongs to them – it is offered in its entirety to the universal of aesthetic input.
The artist, both free and influenced
It is precisely this established freedom that gives value to the gift, to the artist’s offering of his work. It gives him the capacity to create, literally – that is, to produce something new from the old, to generate mutations of form. It is by reformulating material, namely a history sedimented in cultural, aesthetic or even ethical memory, that he produces meaning.
If an artist does so, it is because he is able, by choice, to bring his own liberated, autonomous energy to the residual memory that constitutes culture. His energy is his formal action, his power to work, in the sense that Aristotle defines the word energeia (literally “that which is fully at work”, but also “that which gives form, that does the work”) – form and energy being the same thing in reality, as physics attests.
We can thus say, starting from this energeia, that the artist is an oddball, a being possessed, one who is “worked” on. One could also say, starting from the verb energeio, that he is influenced. But then, how can the artist be simultaneously free, autonomous, emancipated and influenced? This is an apparent contradiction, resolved by the simple fact that the artist is an artist, free to choose his influence, free to let himself be possessed and be worked on by a dimension of the collective memory that he makes his own. And it is at this price, because he is free, that he can impose his own form and possess what possesses him, overlap what overlaps him. This choice is precisely what, in the Sartrean sense, can be called a commitment. He engages himself entirely in his chosen material; he takes the risk because this material possesses him. And if he is possessed by it, it is because he perceives in himself a necessity, a lack that he needs to fill.
This is how we must consider the residual memory of the history of slavery: as material for the artist who wants to grapple with it.
What the artist will produce from his work is what Aristotle calls entelechy (from entelecheia, the realization or complete expression of some function). A finality of form, in a way, produced by the energy-form of the artist who gives the work its autonomy. But the work, which is not him, but which has emerged from him, remains a question, a form questioning the very enigma of history, questioning also this present in which this memory subsists.
So isn’t this work, which “journeys to its end” the act of this oddball who seeks to put an end to this memory inside him, to end this history with a new form that illuminates the past while leaving it in its place, by literally going beyond it?
A ruse of artistic intelligence
Thus the artist chooses his influence by exercising his artistic freedom precisely in order not to remain under the influence of the past and to produce the present instead. When we speak, for example, of the influence of African art or art nègre, on modern art – on Picasso, Braque, Derain, Matisse, even Apollinaire and the Surrealists – it means understanding it, not as the mechanical influence of an object on a subject, but as a relational dialogue. This influence arises because the artists were in a critical phase, questioning the forms inherited from their past and in search of new expressive materials. Thus Picasso's painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, is the fruit of a dialogue between a question of the West about its own aesthetics at a given moment, and African art, that we then discover is not “primitive” as described by some, but a bearer of creation and thought. This inspires Maillol to say that “Art nègre contains more ideas than Greek art”. This encounter therefore produces both new forms of expression and a fresh perspective on the object that introduces a new aesthetic dialogue: in this case, African art.
What is called influence is in fact a choice dictated by a need for expression. And in this expression, there is an overlap between the subject and the object, there is possession. We can say in this sense that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is possessed by African art. The work is the product of the search for a new perspective, a transformation of taste, or as Nietzsche would say about music, “a renaissance in the art of listening”. He was captivated by Bizet's Carmen, a work in which he found an African dimension. He was fascinated by it because an encounter takes place between the opera and the philosopher who, having separated himself from Romanticism and Wagner, sought a meaningful new aesthetic form that opened new horizons.
To speak of influence is in fact to speak of a search for new forms, new formal contents, capable of transforming our way of seeing, hearing and appreciating. This is a fight. Artistic creation is more than resistance – it is a “combat sport” against modes of perceiving the world and its objects that are sedimented and imposed by a dominant culture. When Martin Luther King said that “music is our weapon of war” he meant just that. This weapon is effective not only because it gathers forces around it, but also because it is able to enter the sensibility of the adversary and possess it. It speaks to him (the adversary) and, through sensibility, opens horizons. This is possible because gospel and blues in the United States are part of a common foundation, which allows blacks to speak to whites through a form of sound that opens the mind to the content of their speech. Even the speeches of the civil rights leader were chanted in the manner of gospel songs – which gave them greater penetration, and carried them towards a universal. He spoke in his speeches, of course, of the common memory of slavery, but in a form that created distance from it, to speak to his contemporaries.
In dance, Katherine Dunham and after her, Lester Horton and Alvin Ailey, drew elements from African or Indian traditions and from the memory of slavery, and incorporated these in their creation. It was part of a search for new forms that could both illuminate the past and produce a new perspective. Jazz was born in Congo Square, a place for slaves to meet and dance in New Orleans in the US, to integrate the constituent elements of their memory into a new musical form. But it was a memory distanced by the form itself, and creating an area for a sensitive exchange between several forms of culture, several horizons.
We can then speak of a ruse of the artistic intelligence that integrates the old into the new, by going beyond the past, and enabling it to influence the way it is perceived. This is undoubtedly the meaning of métissage, hybridization – a movement towards the new that creates a new influence. The goddess Metis, the first wife of Zeus, whose name literally means “advice, ruse”, of whom Hesiod said “she knows more than any god or mortal man”, was able to influence Zeus and make him change his mind.
Thus the integration of memory, whether of slavery or any other memory, into a new body and a new form, is a ruse of artistic intelligence to influence the present. Today’s art scene is teeming with examples of this in dance, music, theatre, art and cinema. This ruse is possible only as long as we accept that the artist has freed himself from his past by integrating it into his work – that, as a free and autonomous subject, he chooses this influence and is not its object. This also forces us to see the artist and his work as ontologically separate, although related in a certain way, chosen by the artist and his mode of action on the material of memory. It also means that we must look at the work as a work in its autonomy and in the enigma of its indeterminacy. It remains open, an object of sharing and therefore of differentiated judgements, of criticism.
Finally, starting from the work itself, we cannot induce the colour of its author. Do not confine the painter in his colour because it is not the colour of the painter that gives colour to his work – it is the work itself and the critical analyses it later inspires. This work that says, in the variety of its possibilities and in the infinite possibilities of its open form and its interpretation, what Lamartine said, fighting against the abomination of slavery: "I am the colour of those who are persecuted.”
With this article, the UNESCO Courier marks the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, on 23 August. Its first commemoration took place twenty years ago, in 1998, in honour of the 1791 insurrection in Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), which played a decisive role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
- Ailey, Alvin (1931-1989), American dancer
- Apollinaire, Guillaume (1880-1918), French poet
- Aristotle (4th century BC), Greek philosopher
- Bizet, Georges (1838-1875), French composer
- Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich (1752-1840), German anthropologist
- Braque, Georges (1882-1963), French painter
- Chamberlain, Houston Stewart (1855-1927), British essayist
- Cuvier, George (1769-1832), French anatomist
- Derain, André (1880-1954), French painter
- Derrida, Jacques (1930-2004), French philosopher
- Dunham, Katherine (1909-2006), American dancer
- Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), physicist of German origin
- Gobineau, Arthur de (1816-1882), French writer
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770-1831), German philosopher
- Heisenberg, Werner (1901-1976), German physicist
- Hesiod (8th century BC), Greek poet
- Horton, Lester (1906-1953), American dancer
- King, Martin Luther Jr. (1929-1968), American civil rights activist
- Lamartine, Alphonse de (1790-1869), French poet
- Laplace, Pierre-Simon de (1749-1827), French mathematician
- Maillol, Aristide (1861-1944), French sculptor
- Matisse, Henri (1869-1954), French painter
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844-1900), German philosopher
- Picasso, Pablo (1881-1973), Spanish painter
- Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905-1980), French writer and philosopher
- Vacher de Lapouge, Georges (1854-1936), French anthropologist
- Wagner, Richard (1813-1883), German composer