Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/29/2011

Mankind: Hunter-Gatherer or Dancer? The Battle of the Bands.

The obvious: Questioning the “meaning” of the arts—especially music—has occupied philosophers and artists since philosophers and artists have been asking questions. Why do we participate in these more or less useless activities? Why do we derive so much pleasure from and/or have such strong reactions, positive or negative, to Lady Gaga’s singing and Pablo Picasso’s paintings?

What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest (1).

We play certain games, sing, and dance in order to defend ourselves against our enemies, and win the contest (whatever contest). My playing the organ defends me against my enemies just as our ancestors at Lascaux 15,000 years ago painted on the walls of caves to propitiate the gods.

Plato explains the “why” of our participation in these useless activities. But he doesn’t explain how these activities give us so much pleasure or why react so strongly to them. I’d guess most of us who think about these questions would answer that we participate in or pay money to see and hear others perform these activities because they raise such strong emotions (of all kinds, from intense pleasure to abject terror) in us.

I’ll skip a few thousand years of theory and explanation since Plato, and say I don’t think we continue to participate in these activities in order to experience emotion. I think neither Beethoven’s Symphony Number Five nor The Exorcist (the scariest movie ever) raises emotions in us. As one of my professors decades ago said, “Music sounds the way feelings feel.” Music does not cause emotion, it is an expression of the forms of feelings we already know.

Susanne Langer explains that whereas feelings are spontaneous, in art “on the other hand, form connotes formality, regularity, hence repression of feeling” (2). Rather than causing emotion, the arts portray feelings that we already know. Music is “a motion of forms that are not visible, but are given to the ear instead of the eye” (Langer 107). By extension, dance depends on music and “all dance motion is gesture . . . but always motivated by the semblance of an expressive movement” (Langer 174). Music and dance are “not stimulation of feeling but expression” of it (Langer 28).

This is a simple concept. When some idiot driver gets in my way, my anger is spontaneous. On the contrary, even though I may react to Beethoven’s Fifth, my response is always based in my mind and always the same. I know exactly what the progression of harmonies is. I cannot have spontaneous emotional reactions because the Fifth is not random or spontaneous. No human activity could have a more fixed and logical (not spontaneous) form.

Now, a leap of logic too complex to explain here: our rituals are (or at least function) the same as artistic endeavors because they have certain fixed shapes and are repeated over and again. We know what to expect. Major league baseball games begin with the national anthem. Does the anthem engender feelings of patriotism? No. We know to feel patriotic because we know the anthem and what it means and, therefore, why it’s sung at baseball games. Art. Ritual (3).

Langer and others have posited that ritual, based in music and dance, predates—or was at least as important to our earliest ancestors as say, for example—war. We may well have been dancing before we were killing our cousins.

In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was ill-advised to depict the first tool as a weapon when it could as easily have been a drumstick, and the first battle may not have involved killing at all but merely a battle of the bands. . .  Using the cultural-survival approach, the evidence for dancing is certainly as good as that for hunting” (4).

The Battle of the Bands, or the propitiation of the gods. Our ancestors went the next step (pun intended) and developed dancing.

Although it takes two to tango, a variety of forms of social systems [rituals] could have developed from various forms of dance, such as square dancing, line dancing, the riverdance, or the funky chicken. It is likely that the footsteps at Laetoli represent not two individuals going out for a hunt, as we might think, but the Afarensis Shuffle, one of the earliest dances. (5).

Let me tell you about the useless activity of square dancing. It’s a ritual, and “Rituals. . . supply or are access structures to meanings in their own way” (6). That is, rituals are structures (forms, in Langer’s vocabulary) that provide us access to significant ideas. A ritual involves bodies because

[as Emile Durkheim suggest] the very possibility of society is contingent upon individuals being incorporated into [the] corporeal experience of solidarity . . . [and] for Durkheim, ritual was a more potent source of social energy than belief because of its basis in the emotions aroused by collective action” (7).

The question of “emotions aroused” does not conflict with what I’ve said above because Durkheim’s point is that emotions are aroused by collectivity, not by the specific form of action. Square dancing, first and most obviously is “collective.” By definition, square dancing involves enough people to make a “square.” That’s eight people. It would be possible to make a “square” of four people, I suppose, but that would necessitate a complete change in style. The point is square dancing is a collective activity. No one in the square is more important than another. All must participate equally.

A tip (or dance) does not—cannot—express emotion. It does, however, express the form of a feeling of which everyone is aware. It is the form of the feeling of acceptance and community. I would go even farther. I would say that it expresses the form of the feeling of old-fashioned American egalitarianism. And the ritual forms are much more complex than the dance itself. Square dancers have a ritual of greeting (hugging one’s “corner” in the square, for example, even has a name—“yellow rocking”). They have a formal way of saying thank you to each other at the end of each tip. An evening of dancing has a specific (and in my short experience) immutable format.

I do not intend to say that square dancing is a ritual on a par with—with what? a high church Episcopal Eucharist?—but to say that, like many other activities, it has become a “more potent source of social energy than belief,” and is thus an important ritual for the participants. And the ritual—centered in a musical form, an expressive form of dance—is, I think, more important than the dancing itself. It is the one activity in which I participate in which neither my PhD nor any other characteristic or accomplishment of mine or anyone else’s makes any difference as long as we know the calls, can participate bodily in the ritual.
(1) Quoted in: Huizinga Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1950 (19). (I cannot find my copy of the Huizinga book, and I do not know which Plato writing this is from. I have this quotation in a notebook of ideas about aesthetics I have kept since I was in graduate school thirty years ago.)
(2) Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner, 1953.
(3) OK. So you want scholarly support for my idea? Here: Rituals, moreover, are to be situated within the systems of sign-complexes such as play and art, whose semiotic power and distinctive configurations. . . run parallel to or intersect with ritual’s own, without being identical. Rituals. . . supply or are access structures to meanings in their own way. Innis, Robert E. “The Tacit Logic of Ritual Embodiments.” Social Analysis 48.2 (2004): 198. There, aren’t you glad you asked?
(4) Sussman, Robert W.  “The Myth of Man the Hunter, Man the Killer and the Evolution of Human Morality.”  Zygon 34.3 (September 1999):  547.
(5) Sussman loc. cit. (Laetoli is the site where Mary Leaky discovered 12,000-year-old fossilized hominid footprints in 1976; Afarensis is an extinct hominid that lived 3,000,000 years ago, the most famous of who is Lucy.)
(6) Innis loc. cit.
(7) Mellor, Philip A., and Chris Shilling. Reforming the Body: Religion, Community and Modernity. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1997. Quoting: Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.


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