Anthropology Reading Journal Series
VI. 10/17/2011: The Body in/and Performance
This week’s focus is a continuation on the Body and the theory of embodiment of culture in performance. It’s a critical review day so we won’t be discussing articles but instead I’ll be reviewing the book, Sensational Knowledge by Tomie Hahn, written by a professor from RPI who teachers dance and performance.
Book #2 Critical Analysis
Hahn, Tomie. 2007. Sensational Knowledge. Middletown CT: Wesleyan UP.
Tomie Hahn’s, Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance, is an ethnographic text that studies Kabuki’s cousin – and lesser known dance style – nihon buyo. By examining the practice of nihon buyo, Hahn explores how culture is passed down and embodied through dance.
In her introduction, Hahn highlights the concept of dance transmission, writing that transmission is “the information between teacher and student, sender and receiver, and embraces the relationship that evolves” (p. 2). She goes on to give historical background on the Japanese concept of mind and body as one. Throughout the beginning chapter, this unity of oneness is emphasized as Hahn builds her case in support of how theory arises from practice. This sets the groundwork for Hahn’s interests and questions relating to embodiment. She begins by explaining to the reader that translating embodied culture and experience into text is wrought with difficulties due to the nature of actual experience. Hahn expresses these concerns by framing them with the surrounding questions of, “How does culture shape our attendance to various sensoria and how does our interpretation shape our individual realities,” (p.33). She references Lila Abu-Lughod’s Writing against Culture as an inspiration for disrupting her insider perspective, enabling her to better convey sensory knowledge through multiple voices.
With these questions in mind, Hahn organizes her text in a variety of ways. In her first chapter, Hahn speaks as both a practitioner of nihon buyo and as a researcher. She approaches her analysis of the dance experience by utilizing reflexive voice, being aware or conscious of herself in relation to both the ‘self’ and ‘other’. This intimate approach to Hahn’s ethnography has both its benefits and downsides. On the one hand, the reader is imparted with a very personal account of the cultural transmission occurring through Hahn’s experience as well as a unique perspective on that experience due to Hahn’s dual ethnic background.
Hahn points out several dualities in her background, including her German-American and Japanese ethnicities, her status as dancer and musician and its influence on her research. Within her narrative, these dualities become more apparent as they appear juxtaposed throughout the subsequent chapters. For example, we see her as performer/researcher and student/teacher, dualities that inform both her own dance perception as well as the way the reader perceives her.
On the other hand, one can argue that writing in a reflexive voice raises concerns with providing a somewhat egoistic perspective, one that in Hahn’s case is stylistically nostalgic. This is displayed throughout her writing as she imparts vulnerable and intimate experiences about dance by beginning each new chapter with vividly-written vignettes; often diary-like.
Hahn’s writing style employs an innovative and creative structure in which she labels sub-chapters or sections to metaphorically reflect movement. For example, she titles one section, Sensu-unfolding site, with the word sensu meaning both ‘fan’ and ‘sense’. By employing wordplay, Hahn has likened her text to “embodying dance as a gradual unfolding process” (p.9). She uses this technique again in her second chapter, Moving scenes, building a structure through which her audience can follow and watch a process unfold. In this chapter, the reader is given background on the history and social structure in which the Tachibana school of nihon buyo originated. Hahn engages the reader with thoughtful insights to naming conventions and the importance that the Japanese placed on tradition and institution. She explains the importance of naming conventions and their meaning in the school like the word iemoto (headmaster). The etymology of the word iemoto is traced and found to mean house, family, and foundation. This signifies a social system, creating constructive control of transmission. Hahn believes that the iemoto system arranges a specific mentoring relationship; in this case centered on the transmission of dance.
Furthermore, Hahn explains the significance of gaining a ‘stage name’ and how it becomes the only name by which a dancer is referred once inside the school. The naming process is an example of “embodiment of lineage” – the recipient’s special name is created by using kanji of his or her headmaster’s name (p. 35). The end of chapter two also shows us what Hahn calls “orientations”; a page or two of concept training exercises that appear at the end of each chapter in which Hahn asks the reader to envision and interact with certain scenarios and performances, placing the reader in a similar mindset to what a dancer might experience during transmission.
In chapter three, Hahn discusses the body’s pairing with choreography, highlighting the importance of ‘kokoro’ (body) showing inner nature reflected in mindful moves that relate essence. It is interesting to note that Hahn’s notions of cultivating both the mind and the body are similar to Kung Fu and other martial arts, in which muscle memory or body memory can impart narrative when one’s body and mind are in balance. At this point in Hahn’s book, she goes on to further support dance transmission by discussing Zen, Japanese aesthetics and aspects of Buddhism’s spirit. She relates how these Japanese aesthetics can be reflected in a dance such as “Kurorkami”, which illustrates aesthetic principles of the Japanese culture, like simplicity and impermanence.
In chapter four, Hahn utilizes media in the form of a DVD to show video reenactments of dance to the reader. In her first examples, she describes the differences that can be seen in the bodies of three different types of dancers, a beginner, an intermediate dancer, and an advanced dancer. Much of the text of chapter four describes what is being seen in each filmed example. Hahn has broken her DVD chapters down into visual, tactile, oral and aural, and media transmissions. This, in effect, both guides readers and places them within a framework in which to comprehend Hahn’s main answer to embodiment, “that transmission, executed via a variety of sensory modes, imparted movement, sound, timing and beyond.” (p.78), in essence, that culture is a multi-sensory experience.
Finally, in her last chapter, Hahn summarizes these modes of transmission and their transformation as seen in her Iemoto, Returning to her initial question of how is Japanese culture embodied through dance?; Hahn correlates a dancer’s skill of portraying a variety of personalities and code-switching between these identities to that of the Japanese people’s ability to adapt and be fluid. When this ability is effortlessly present in a dancer, Hahn believes they have achieved “flow, an optimal experience of consciousness and awareness” (p.165).
Overall, I found Hahn’s ethnography well-written and engaging through its employment of a variety of descriptive techniques. Hahn’s textual presentation and the visual aid of a DVD helped to further elucidate her claims of embodied culture through dance. However, her reflexive voice often provided a somewhat anecdotal perspective on experiencing embodiment. Likewise, Hahn’s thesis could have been made stronger with the inclusion of a comparison of different school’s dance styles, i.e., juxtaposing her Tachibana school’s style with that of students who had studied nihon buyo at other schools or in other regions. With that said, value can still be gained through her exploration of studying Japanese culture through multi-sensory experience.
In addition, though Hahn has gone to great lengths to provide a detailed and coherent description of her fieldwork, it makes me wonder if the experience can only be fully understood through one’s own participation in learning the dance. Perhaps Hahn’s greatest achievement with this ethnography is bringing to light the understanding of culture through multi-sensory or sensational knowledge.