Cynthia Francica on "The Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty"
The Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty
Reviewed by Cynthia Francica
Erin Manning’s illuminating reflection on the potentially productive and often disregarded intersections between queer phenomenology and transnational politics intriguingly uses the practice of tango as its springboard. Manning suggests that tango is a dance that “travels” and finds its origins, rather than in Buenos Aires, in the feeling of “place-lessness” of the immigrants who created it. That same sensation of uprootedness marks the lives of the protagonists of Happy Together (1997), the film Manning analyzes in detail. In her text, more than as a national dance, Manning makes us think of tango as a “transnational movement of desire” which has been appropriated by imperialism and recast as an exotic, eroticized and choreographed display of difference. But what renders this dance fundamental within the text is precisely that which these forces of assimilation have attempted to obscure and de-politicize, that is, the perception of tango as a practice grounded on touch, on what Manning terms “an improvised encounter with the other.”
Manning defines tango as a dance characterized by touch and a reaching-toward the other, as a “modification of space-time, …a movement that evokes the in-betweenness that are bodies-in-motion.” According to her, tango as a transnational practice of desire bears the potential of threatening “the organizing of social locales that depend on national and state limits of identity and territory,” which helps to explain the constant attempts to exoticize and thus de-politicize it. Throughout The Politics of Touch, the author reflects on how the existence of “unstable bodies,” that is, of “the other, the outside, the homeless, the refugee or the stranger, the sexual ‘deviant,’” challenges the organization of the body-politic. Manning argues that consensus in modern societies is built on the myth of the body as a whole, coherent entity that is largely independent from both its surroundings and other bodies. Individual, coherent, normative bodies are pliable to the categorizing and disciplining thrust of cultural regulations and at the same time contribute to maintain the “myth of a secure border” by making it possible to articulate a clear division between the outside and the inside of its own “body,” of its own limit. But a body that constantly re-invents itself through the improvisational practice of tango, transforming its shape and surface, is a body in movement that resists ready-made categorizations.
Manning insightfully reads in tango other stories apart from those that subsume the dance within “nation-state vocabularies of identity and territory,” stories that “challenge race, class, and gender/sexual distinctions without being tied down to an imaginary of national identity.” However, the author seems to idealize tango to a certain extent, casting it as a dance based on the balanced connection between two partners, on what she terms a “friendship of hearing.” On this assumption she builds her argument on the significance of rethinking friendship as an “improvised tango.” Tango as a transnational movement, then, may potentially yield a type of friendship “that cancels out a certain genealogy that depends on filiation, on fraternity, on national belonging.” What Manning seems to downplay in order to build her argument, though, is the fact that in most settings the gender politics of tango have been and, to a large degree, are still based on the hierarchical relation between a dominant partner who proposes the movements, who creates the flow of steps and cues, and a second individual whose role is to follow those cues. Even if there is some space for the partner who is being led to improvise, such space is minimal and is mostly limited to a number of flourishes or secondary movements. It would be interesting to see her develop her argument in such a way that these complex, local intersections of gender politics and power are acknowledged and somehow integrated within the utopian notion of tango as a transnational dance of desire, democratic friendship, and mutual contact.
Manning’s re-reading and re-creation of the concept of “friendship” becomes a unifying thread throughout the text. Friendship as a state pregnant with political potentialities is, according to Manning, built on touch and hearing, two of the preconditions of tango. In her analysis of Happy Together, the author traces the growing friendship of Chang and Fai, two of the main characters, and defines it as uncanny, strange, “homeless.” Like the tango they dance, their friendship is unknowable and is played out far from the confines of “home” and known territories. It is a “friendship-to-come,” a link that, rather than binding them to one another, allows them to listen, to hear, to touch, to “make con-tact.” Manning then proposes that we conceive of friendship as an improvised tango, as “a coming-together of difference” through the building of a space of “in-betweenness.”
Even while she idealizes tango as a dance that allows for the allegedly balanced encounter of two individuals who listen to one another and create a space-time in movement, in-between, Manning suggests an insightful and potentially productive model to think about social phenomena and popular culture in terms of its gestures of resistance, its spaces of otherness. Behind her argument lies an interesting notion of fluid, unmoored identities that crystallize and re-crystallize their boundaries through multiple physical encounters, more specifically, through touch and movement. The idea of subjects/bodies redefining the self through their mutual, non-hierarchical interactions, detached from prejudices and negative predispositions, while a bit utopian, could potentially provide an interesting path towards a more integrated, a more “friendly,” though uncanny, home.
The Politics of Touch proves to be an intellectually productive read mostly geared towards an academic audience, although a variety of readers may find insights in its pages provided they do not mind getting lost in the movement of the argument once in a while. Leaving our reservations aside for a moment, let’s empty our minds of all thought, put on our dancing shoes and breathe in the sounds of the accordion, the scent of a lost home.