Dynamics of the occulted body
Appearances are a sight of the unseen.
I am a dancer; my body is the material for my art, and movement is my practice, the medium of dance. Movement arises mysteriously, at the very source of life and before even a self forms. Butō (which translates as ‘dance steps’) is unique amongst dance forms, perhaps most markedly in the way movement is discovered or evoked in the dancer, who is continuously engaged in pushing body and psyche into the eremos, the wilderness and borderlands, where one encounters oneself as a stranger, as enemy, ancestor, animal, as elemental force, as a shape dredged from the primal ocean. Butō is engendered by the living body confronting death. As one of my teachers, the late, great Ko Murobushi wrote, ‘… the smell of the corpse makes life stand out, stand out desperately. The origin of butō is in the intensity of this stance …’ (Murobushi, ‘Hinagata’ Works 1972 – 2013. Ko&Edge Co. 2014). We are born to this visceral and vital struggle; becoming aware that it is a dance, the dance, in time.
Counter to this experience of the closeness of death, and impossibility to move, is an exultant delight in unrestrained movement, and the experience of the fullness of sensual being. The other element of my practice concerns Babalon. Without going into the detail of my magical and occult practice, which I have touched on elsewhere, this work is very much grounded in the retrieval of the body and its inherent potentials from the bonds that have been put on it. Babalon is naked, unconditioned power; female sexual response and the female orgasm evince this power in its inexhaustible variety, its unquenchable fire – although it is a force in which all participate and in which all are burned. It is a work that leads to an intimate knowledge of the occulted body; its subtle anatomy; and its role in sorcery, divination and the cultivation of sexual and erotic energy. It is a work which, like the practice of butō, utterly immerses one in the experience of the flesh, and through which one touches and comes to know ‘the flesh of the world.’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1968. The Visible and the Invisible).
The occulted body
First, what do I mean by the occulted body, and particularly its relation to consciousness and ‘the unconscious’? In the first place, it is the body; a body that has been obscured or overwritten. But more specifically, I equate the occulted body with what is anatomically hidden, or in the dark; what the philosopher, phenomenologist and former dancer Maxine Sheets-Johnstone calls our ‘bodily insides’ (Sheets-Johnstone, The Roots of Power: 172); that is, what is accessible to us only through the ‘dark’ senses: touch, kinaesthesia, proprioception; or what lies below the threshold of sensory awareness, such as those processes associated with the autonomic nervous system. In butō, this body is often referred to as nikutai – the ‘body of flesh’ or ‘body of desire’ – which is the lived, individual body (as opposed to a generic and purely functional one) and is the vehicle for the manifestation of the interior lanscape, and the realm of images.
The occulted body is possessed of its own selfhood, it has autonomy, it is autopoietic and conscious. It is a dynamic, living body. Kinetic processes cycle incessantly at every level of its organism, from the molecular and neural to the gestural, and at every level inhere it in its environment and interrelations. Furthermore, these movements are in no way mechanistic or motoric; they exhibit autonomy and coherence across the entire spectrum of being; what the bio-physicist Mae-Wan Ho described as ‘organized heterogeneities, or dynamic structure on all scales.’ (The Rainbow and the Worm: 21)
The occulted body is the source of the ‘body consciousness’ or ‘ground consciousness’ from which arises psyche, and a subject (or ego). Freud, in ‘The Ego and the Id’ acknowledged: ‘The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego…’* but the psychoanalytic method he pioneered is rooted in discourse and not in the body. My practice reaffirms the authority of the body: it is first of all the body that communicates, revealing its inner life, its affectivity, its vulnerability as well as its strength. Discourse does not, and cannot, efface or replace the originary ground of existence. The body is the mother of language; our prelinguistic mother tongue, the primal voice of movement.
- And his footnote: ‘The ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body. It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body…’
For behold, I am Understanding, and Science dwelleth in me.
– the Daughter of Fortitude
Movement is essential to tactility, proprioception and the kinaesthetic sense. An organism or body’s incessant motion gives rise to its proprioceptive, kinaesthetic and tactile consciousness. As the foundation of the sensorium and affectivity, the moving body is fundamental to, and generative of, gnosis. Aristotle recognised how fundamental movement is to life; he calls it koinē aisthēsis (De anima III, 1, 425a27), that is, the sensus communis or common sense; the primary faculty of perception, as it unifies all the senses, and underpins an organism’s self-awareness or apperception. Aristotle ascribes to the koinē aisthēsis the ability to discriminate or judge, and as such we can link it to understanding: a deep instinctual preternatural understanding.
For me, to dance is to to initiate myself into the body’s mysteries, again and again; to know myself in the process of becoming and to know the world in its becoming, through an intertwined corporeal consciousness. Here is the ‘place of enquiry,’ the repository of ancestral knowledge and accumulated individual experience.
Protean body, protean voice
The human body and the human voice have a phenomenal capacity for mimesis. This capacity emerged from our primate ancestry, but with bipedality came an enhanced potential for mimetic expression. The upright body is freed to elaborate an ingenious protolanguage of gesture and movement. At the same time, vocal expression achieves a hitherto unheard power, subtlety and range, as the apparatus of breathing and eating are modified and mastered.
One can even see this shift in the eye, with the hand and the erect phallus, a primal symbol of power, mundane and magical. The eyes of primates do not speak, they are dark, obtuse; the human eye, by contrast, is agile, mercurial. The pupil flashes and darts in its milky orb; it has intent, it hungers and it eats, it misleads or blinds, it undresses and it intimates, giving glimpse of the interior. One can make an entire dance with the eyes alone, for, like bodies, they are highly expressive, communicating kinetically, and resonant with the hidden regions of soma and psyche.
Our enhanced mimetic faculty is the bedrock of human culture: it is the ground for iconicity, for analogical and symbolic thinking, and for the emergence of language. It is an ambivalent aptitude.
The evolution of an expansive, rich and fluid lingua franca composed of sound, sign, signal and gesture – elaborated in song, dance, play and ritual – enabled communication with peers, with neighbours and strangers, and with an entire ecology of spirits, ancestors, flora and fauna sharing a common habitat, ‘a single social field’ which is vibrantly animist in character. But a shared habitat is a place of conflict and survival, in which we – as predator and prey – occupy and exploit a distinctive niche. With mimesis came a refined potential for deception, for cunning. Mimicry is a critical skill for the hunter; it is predicated on a hypersensitive awareness to one’s environs, the ability to read its signs, or listen to its utterances; and to the transmission of this art through imitation and reenactment. Vocal mimicry in particular was used lure prey. Almost universally animals cannot detect the intent behind a signal, they cannot fake; they do not participate in the ‘lie’, knowingly, subtly, as humans do. Exceptions are rare and striking: corvids, parrots and cephalopods act mimetically, and with a recognition of deception. Unsurprisingly, we regard them, warily or admiringly, as supernatural.
Both the human voice and the human body are protean in their transformative potentials. This archaic protean quality is what draws me, as a dancer and a magician, to ceaselessly explore the body’s mystery and power. It is a quality that manifests most remarkably in the body’s fascia, a coherent web of tensile strength that constantly renews and transforms itself in response to movement. I consider the fascia, the connective tissue, to be the physiological substrate of consciousness. The dense, penumbral form of the occulted body corresponds to the ‘unconscious,’ and finds in the fascial web its genetrix and matrix.
The fascia is the largest organ in the body, a web of connective tissue that structures, binds and supports. It is present throughout the body, interpenetrating and surrounding muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels; in fact, all the cells in a body are interconnected through the connective tissue. Fascia can be grouped into three main types: superficial, associated with the skin; deep, associated with the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels; and visceral, comprising all tissues and membranes covering the organs and lining the cavities within the body. The deep fascia is richly innervated with sensory receptors that convey the presence of pain, changes in movement, pressure and vibration, in the chemical environment and in temperature. It forms the bones, supplies the body with blood from the marrow, and conducts nutrients and energy throughout the body; it is essential to healing and regeneration. Intrinsically connected with movement, it is the medium through which our inner environment interacts with the outer; it is, thus, the organ of knowledge par excellence. The complex functions and phenomenal properties of connective tissue, indeed the body as a whole, is due to its liquid crystalline composition, which underlies the electromagnetic body and its subtle anatomy.
The liquid crystalline structure of the living body (which had been predicted by Joseph Needham as early as 1935) was confirmed through the research of Dr Mae-Wan Ho. Her fascinating enquiry into the quantum biophysics of living organisms is documented in The Rainbow and the Worm, and in the many papers which she has written (www.i-sis.org.uk). I will quote from one, to précis the significance of liquid crystallinity to an animate body and its corporeal consciousness:
There is a dynamic, liquid crystalline continuum of connective tissues and extracellular matrix linking directly into the equally liquid crystalline cytoplasm in the interior of every single cell in the body (see Ho, 1997; Ho, 1998; Ho and Knight, 1998, and references therein). Liquid crystallinity gives organisms their characteristic flexibility, exquisite sensitivity and responsiveness, thus optimizing the rapid, noiseless intercommunication that enables the organism to function as a coherent, coordinated whole. In addition, the liquid crystalline continuum provides subtle electrical interconnections which are sensitive to changes in pressure, pH and other physicochemical conditions; in other words, it is also able to register ‘tissue memory.’ Thus, the liquid crystalline continuum possesses all the qualities of a ‘body consciousness’ that may indeed be sensitive to all forms of subtle energy medicines including acupuncture.
– Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, ‘Coherent Energy, Liquid Crystallinity and Acupuncture.’ Presented to British Acupuncture Society, 2 October, 1999
Whilst the implications of her research have still to be played out – in mainstream science, in social organisation, in the structure of politics, and in the occult – for me, this confirmation of the body’s essential fluidity, its unified dynamic coherence, has immediate import. It affirms the fundamentally animate nature of the living body; it reveals a unified, coherent and dynamic matrix which is simultaneously the source, the medium and the field of physical form, and of psyche, that convulsive zone inhabited by a primordia of atavisms, archetypes and eidola.
Every living being is also a fossil. Within it, all the way down to the microscopic structure of its proteins, it bears the traces if not the stigmata of its ancestry.
– Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, 1970.
I call the body ‘the place of enquiry’ – in reference to the grave and divination – for the body limns and enfolds this occult world as the skin limns and enfolds the sensate. The matrix of connective tissue is the repository of our individual and ancestral memory (cf. Freud’s notion of an ‘archaic heritage’ and Jung’s description of archetypes as ‘biological instinctual constellations.’). It is equally attuned to motion and emotion, which it registers and retains, submerged in and holographically distributed throughout the liquid crystalline continuum. This body memory, which is always oriented to the future – that is, to survival and evolution – is engaged directly through the dynamics of the living body.
Revelation of the occulted body
Dance is an incessant resurrection and dissolution of forms; a ‘perpetual revelation of force,’ as consciousness unfurls itself, like the petals of a rose, awakening in the sensorium of our common humanity. The occulted body is exposed in the quality and affect of movement, in the timbre or ‘grain’ of the voice; and in its wake latent images, dreams and visions surface from their visceral dwellings.
It is with this body and voice that I work, in dance, as in my occult practice. It is important to work from the ground up, with breath and its connection to earth and body through the feet. Preliminary to beginning work, as part of my warm up routine, I practice exercises which I call collectively ‘choral techniques.’ The term derives from the work of Anca Manolescu and is discussed by Nicoletta Isar in her work on chorography and Byzantine liturgical dance; it references Plato’s concept of the chôra (alternatively, khôra), the third nature that is the mother and receptacle of being. Mirroring the cosmogonic chôra, there are in the human body its likenesses, fulfilling the same functions and operating in the same way. Plato equates the bodily chôra with the liver, which has an occult connection with vision, divination and fate; but, I suggest, we should understand the fascia as the primary choraic organ (genetrix and matrix), holding form and giving space as it does; and, above all, in its absolute affinity with motion.
The body will autonomously shake or tremble to release trauma, as it does in orgasm, and in the spontaneous movement of sexual energy through the body. Movements that rhythmically shake the body – trembling, pulsating, vibrating, undulating – such as the water body techniques of Noguchi gymnastics – exert a profound and direct influence on the connective tissue and the ground consciousness, having an energising and regenerating effect, as well as bringing the body-mind to an exquisitely sensitive and receptive state. This is at the same time a state of heightened creativity, volatile and generative. Tensions and associated habitual patterns and mental fixations are (progressively) loosened; the body is physically tempered; and the body-mind entranced.
These techniques produce a cleansing, or a polishing, of the dark mirror of the body, from which those visions arise that are ‘a sight of the unseen.’ This is critical for my dance method, and for magical practices such as divination, skrying and the techniques of active imagination. The body is prepared, it is receptive to images: those I give it to stimulate movement, as in butoh-fu, or the dance score; and those that issue from the unconsciousness, or the ‘other,’ the power or intelligence with which I am working.
Such choral techniques also have a separating or discriminating effect, as in threshing, an image that Plato employs in his elucidation of the mysterious chôra; what is unnecessary is discarded, the essential is retained. The threshing floor is a key image for me – in my expression of butō (sabbatic dance) and in the aims and methods of my magical practice – situating both explicitly in an eschatological, transforming and revelatory context. It will be the subject of a forthcoming presentation, on the witches’ dance.
The daughter of Babylon is like a threshing floor. It is time to thresh her:
yet a little while and the time of her harvest will come.
– Jeremiah 51:33
Becker, Robert O. & Gary Selden. 1985. The Body Electric: Electromagneticism and the Foundation of Life. NY: Morrow.
Ho, Mae-Wan. 1998. The Rainbow and the Worm. World Scientific Publishing Company.
Isar, Nicoletta. 2009. ‘Chôra: Creation and Pathology; An Inquiry into the Origins of Illness and Human Response.’ Europe’s Journal of Psychology 2/2009: 96–109
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, and Claude Lefort. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible; Followed by Working Notes. Northwestern University Press.
Schultz, R. Louis & Rosemary Feitis. 1996. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. North Atlantic Books.
Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 1999. The Roots of Power: Animate Form and Gendered Bodies. Open Court.
——— The Primacy of Movement. 2011. John Benjamins Publishing Company (2nd edition).