5 | 2020
Unmoored Languages

This volume explores the complex relations developing between a literary text and the world beyond the representational function. Not content to capture, narrate or describe the existing world, writers keep creating autonomous worlds and inventing new languages to account for yet unmapped territories and experiences. As the materiality of language and its poetic quality come out, the sounds, rhythms and visual effects of the text become living milieu rather than material or simple instruments subordinated to thought. Though the effect first produced upon the reader may well be of strangeness or obscurity, such unmooring of language warrants a valuable extension of language likely to bring back to the reader buried, unsuspected emotions and aesthetic experiences, should she be willing to adopt an open type of reading, more fluid than the automatic system of conventional associations on which reading largely relies.

In this collection, writers and literary scholars from the U.S. and France focused on the nature of the mutations to which unmoored language is submitted, as well as on the various ways in which the text makes sense in spite of all. How to describe that which exceeds language rather than avoid the confrontation by relegating it into the vague category of the ineffable? Throughout, literary, linguistic or philosophical analyses have as their horizon the vision of language reflected by the unmoored text, as well as of the relations between language and the world.

5 | 2020

Sharing and Distributing the Sensible in Jackson Mac Low’s Dance-instruction-poems The Pronouns (1964)

Célia Galey-Gambier


This paper analyses Jackson Mac Low’s The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers (1964) as an intermedial artform, both choreography and performance poetry, with a special emphasis on the “mutually defining relationship” between the aesthetic and the political. Through the lens of Rancieran “distribution of the sensible” theory the collection is shown to challenge the relationship between author and performer as well as the social determinations attached to performance practices. Ultimately the spectator is invited to join in the “pla[y] with the shifting nature of all normative patterns”.

Texte intégral

The choreographic idea traditionally materializes in a chain of bodily action with the moments of its performance being the first, last, and only instances of a particular interpretation. […] As poignant as the ephemerality of the act might be, its transient nature does not allow for sustained examination or even the possibility of objective, distinct readings from the position that language offers the sciences and other branches of arts that leave up synchronic artifacts for detailed inspection.
William Forsythe1

1In The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers (1964), Jackson Mac Low (1922-2004) came to grips with choreography from the perspective of performance poetry. This might seem irrelevant to an art form usually thought to be “purely” physical — as writes Forsythe, “the body in motion […] is still subtly relegated to the domain of raw sense: precognitive, illiterate”2. But from ballet to Modern Dance, the reliance of choreography on narratives, plot, and/or characters reveals how literate the form actually is. The expressive and textual foundations of dance were even targeted by the avant-garde of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Merce Cunningham’s collaborations with John Cage famously harnessed chance operations to untie the theretofore strong intentional bonds between choreography, music, and text. Cage’s music and Cunningham’s choreography may happen simultaneously, but the conventional hierarchy between the two vanished: the music was no longer subordinated to the dance it “accompanied”, and the latter ceased to express the melody, rhythm, tempo, and mood of the piece being played.

2West coast dancer Anna Halprin went further in freeing choreography from the gestural codes of modern dance, working with the entire range of movement and indirectly paving the way to The Pronouns. Her task-based movements, which anybody could achieve, focused on given actions rather than on the technique of realization. No longer concerned with what the movements should look like, “non-matrixed performing”3 redefined the relationship between instruction and performance in non-mimetic terms. This new perspective on choreography resonates with experiments that all transcend disciplinary boundaries, such as Allan Kaprow’s happenings, George Brecht’s events, or the post-drama of the Living Theatre. These intermedial forms epitomize post-Cagean art in general, as they offer a new perspective on how loosely and indeterminately an instruction may prefigure its performance4. Even though Mac Low may not have been very familiar with Anna Halprin, he knew Simone Forti after she had participated in the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop in 1959. Mac Low discovered Forti’s “dance constructions” in a Chambers Streets performance in late May 1961, and a week later he composed Nuclei for Simone Forti5 that consisted of action cards carrying basic instructions for performers to improvise from. He used the “nuclei” to write each poem of The Pronouns a few years later.

3The Pronouns were first published in full as a mimeograph in 1964, with the support of the Judson Dance Workshop, then in a boxed folio edition with colored graphics by visual artist Ian Tyson in 19716. Its performance by a group coordinated by Meredith Monk in 1965, during the 3rd Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival, was documented by Peter Moore’s photographs that are included in the better known 1979 edition7. This brief and incomplete overview of the collection’s multiple contexts and media testifies to Mac Low’s relentless contribution to intermedial art. His cultivation of indeterminacy in all artistic media had both aesthetic and political implications: its direct effect was to loosen the composer’s authority over the performer. The political implications of form took center stage in Mac Low’s performance writing from 1954 on.

4But his focus on the dynamic, mutually defining relationship between politics and aesthetics is outstandingly clear in The Pronouns. By contrast, the rest of his production activates questions that may not be relevant to a large amount of people — such as the implication of notation, sounds, performance on language, on poem and poetry as a genre8. Mac Low’s “Reflections on the Occasion of the DANCE SCOPE Issue”, on the contrary, states his political perspective on aesthetics in very simple terms:

Unique situations may arise during performances of such works, & the experiences of those participating in them (whether as performers, audience, or both) cannot help but be of new aesthetic (experiential) meanings. The works not only embody certain metaphysical, ethical, & political meanings but also bring into being new aesthetic meanings & may cause changes in the sensibility of the participant which are not only valuable in themselves but conducive to the embodiment of the social principles in concrete practice9.

5This seems to offer an early (and simpler) version of Jacques Rancière’s “distribution of the sensible” theory, wherein artistic practices are viewed as “‘ways of doing and making’ that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as in the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility”10. In other words, while artistic practices may be experienced thanks to their conformity to existing norms, they may also partially alter (redistribute) these norms and make new practices visible. For Rancière, the active questioning of the consensual “police order” (the totalizing, normative organization of the community) enacts a “political moment” that is disruptive and dissensual in itself11. Mac Low’s collection undeniably contains (so to speak) such political moments. It heads for uncharted artistic, literary, and aesthetic territories that lie beyond existing generic and normative mappings, eluding the “police order” of stable, clear artistic categories. It is indeed hard to identify what these texts are and how they should be read, as well as to locate where they take place. To this extent, they escape the power of identification and enact a process of “subjectification”, to use Rancière’s terminology as translated by Julie Rose12. Mac Low’s collection invites autonomous, anomalous worlds by making it impossible for the performance to emerge without unmooring itself from sociolinguistic norms and from the text instruction altogether. Analyzing The Pronouns through a Rancieran lens brings to light to what extent the political moments generated by the collection alter both the author-performer relationship and the social determinations inhering performance practices at large.

Poems-dance-instructions: neither poems nor dances, but both

Denouncing the restrictiveness of labels

6Despite what we might expect from someone whose intermedial production disrupts clear-cut definitions, Mac Low did not shun labels — he was actually very prolific on that front. But most labels he came up with were peculiarly obscure. Either their inclusiveness rendered the definition ineffective, or the multiple labels referring to a common object debunked one another mutually, rendering their referent elusive. From the outset, the complete title — The Pronouns, A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers (my emphasis) — is blatantly nullified by the very medium that bears it, since the pages of a book cannot literally contain bodies in movement. The final “Remarks to the Dancers” further undermine the authority of the title on the front cover, as Mac Low no longer calls each element of the collection a “dance” but uses instead the hyphenated phrase “poems-which-are-also-dance-instructions” (my emphasis). This lengthy label suggests that the collection consists of mere texts whose genre is yet to be defined: are they “poems” or “instructions?” For sure — or so it seems —, primacy is given to text over dance, with the added power connotations of the word “instructions” that ends the phrase.

7Yet this sense of hierarchy is simultaneously called into question by the hyphens and the adverb “also”, which open an interstitial space between the poems and the dance instructions. In short, the compound label elicits more puzzlement than it provides any explanation. What type of poems may readily constitute dance instructions? Conversely, what type of dance instructions may be read as poetry of any literary value? Of all the shorter alternative phrases Mac Low uses to refer to his “Pronouns” in the following pages of his “Remarks” — “dance-instruction-poems” and “dance-poems” — none provides any satisfying answer. Nevertheless, the hyphenated compounds and the extra-disciplinary title of the collection all achieve a “redistribution of the sensible” wherein the usual co-defining links between medium, genre and artistic discipline are undermined.

Unperformative language acts?

8While these forty “pronouns” are choreographic scores, performing them is no five-finger exercise. They are more likely to be experienced as hurdles to their realization as dances. The abstruse text of the “dance-poems” makes them stereotypically “poetic”, which confronts performers with significant challenges. Many poems are fraught with semantic tension, as in the 6th dance: “I put society at odds with a family,/ letting a new sound be again, / & I send a warm thing by spoon over a slow one”. The lack of semantic cohesion (can a spoon be slow?), the vague reference (“a warm thing”?), the logical contradictions (if a “new sound” is repeated, it loses its newness), the clash between vague (such as the absurd adverbial phrase “by spoon”) or abstract terms (“society”, “family”) and the necessity for them to be physically rendered: all these aspects make the instructions quite useless. In short, despite the poems’ basic lexicon, the lack of semantic cohesion at sentence level leaves little room for either spontaneous, rational, or emotional embodiment.

9Moreover, the instructions that form The Pronouns are often aporetic in terms of their performability. Negative or alternative clauses, for example, are bound to be partially erased by the performance. However, Mac Low clearly states in his postface “Some Remarks to the Dancers”: “although they are to interpret the successive lines of each of these poems-which-are-also-dance-instructions as they see fit, dancers are required to find some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line…13” Performers are thus confronted with multiple double binds, such as in the 27th dance: “At least nobody ends up handing or seeming to hand snakes to people”. On the one hand, performing the action being negated rules out negation itself and replaces it with an actual embodiment; on the other hand, the more adequate performance of the negation of action, namely its non-performance, fails to propose any embodied interpretation of the line and to falls short of Mac Low’s requirement.

10The same goes with alternative clauses, as in the 21st dance: “Whoever gives the neck a knifing or comes to give a parallel meal is beautiful & shocking”. The first option is to perform both actions. Their articulation by “or”, which called for the exclusion of one of the two branches, would then be performed as though the two verbs were coordinated with “and” — whether the combination appears in temporal succession or simultaneity. As a second option, the performance of one branch of the alternative follows the command (do this or that, not both), but in so doing fails to perform the entire line and erases the alternative structure itself. These two cases among many others illustrate how, when performing The Pronouns, one is inevitably spurred to “de-create” the linguistic order of the “instruction” and to produce an unheard-of, embodied reference — rather than to faithfully transfer the instruction into movement.

Activating the intermedium

11The forty “Pronouns” programmatically empower the performers to expand their range of action, as the lack of transparency of the instruction structurally and programmatically undermines its alleged authority. Rather than establishing legible rules to legislate the performance, the poems simply remain poems on the page. They are also turned into instructions (“dancers are required to find some definite interpretation…”14) to be performed as dances onstage. The published version is one medium among others that Mac Low worked with — not only as a means to circulate his work, but also as a point of departure and an invitation to the voyage in the realm of performance. What happens along the way is that what and how a poem means is enlarged. The signifying process, rather than being limited to the controlled construction of a cohesive reference, may well encompass the elusive moment in or of the text when performance casts it off to create its own moorings.

12In so doing, Mac Low did not annihilate the frontier lying between the different media but maintained and activated it as a creative medium. In this respect, his practice is in keeping with Dick Higgins’s initial definition of “intermedia” based on the example of happenings: “the happening developed as an intermedium, an uncharted land that lies between collage, music, and the theater. It is not governed by rules; each work determines its own medium and form according to its needs”15. For both Higgins and Mac Low, the intermedium is a medium. Treating the interstice as a space loaded with artistic potentialities worth exploring, Mac Low conceived the intermedium less as an impure medium lying “between” (“neither… nor”) than as a maximized medium wherein the possibilities of all contiguous media accrued (“and”). He explored the disruptive power of the inclusive “and”, calling the performers’ attention to the opaque and problematic nature of the passage from page to stage as well as to the multiple layers coexisting in each of his “pronouns”.

13The danced “pronouns” provide embodied solutions to aporetic poems that do more than foster poetic and performative creativity — they make it necessary. However strong the potential for political redistribution which The Pronouns circulate is, it is seen most clearly in the interstitial space that stands between the page and the stage and that takes shape when re-reading the poem from the perspective of its dance performance — that is, not as a mere poem. The impact of Mac Low’s positive, inclusive anarchism is yet to be found in the details of each dance.

Subjectivation through shifting pronouns

Uncharacterized performing subjects

14The title of The Pronouns hints at one of the compositional procedures used by Mac Low: he initially decided to write a dance-poem for each pronoun listed as such in his edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and eventually narrowed the number down to forty. Each pronoun served as the only syntactic subject in each text. Mac Low did not limit his scope to the common and expected personal pronouns, but also included the archaic, nominative forms “thou” or “ye”, determinate impersonal pronouns such as “it” or “one”, as well as indeterminate pronouns such as “whatever”, “whichever”, “whoever”, “anybody”, “nobody”, “noone”, and so on. The latter are, obviously, impossible to perform as such and enhance the difficulty there is to find an adequate referent for all pronouns. As Tyrus Miller notes16, pronouns are instable as “shifters” — their reference literally shifts depending on the context. As a consequence, writes Miller, The Pronouns free the performance from the necessity of a mimetic representation and create their own “situations”: “the text asserts its relatively high degree of autonomy in a situational field of language-events and its resistance to mimetic embodiment”17.

15The rough contours of the pronouns’ reference therefore constitute as many linguistic tools for redistribution and launch a process of “subjectification”, to borrow from Rancière: “By subjectification I mean the production through a series of actions of a body and a capacity for enunciation not previously identifiable within a given field of experience, whose identification is thus part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience”18. Despite their undefined reference, these pronouns are subjects of the actions composing every single line of the poems — it is relevant that none of them functions as an object (hence the absence of the archaic “thee”). Reading The Pronouns through the Rancieran lens highlights what happens to the grammatical subjects in the transition to performance. As pronouns are deprived of a stable reference, they are in excess of labels or given identities, and escape identification. The “I” of the 6th dance may for instance very well be embodied by a different person in each action-phrase. It would then cease to be identifiable as a single subject — an “I”. What if a member of the audience were to come onstage to embody one of the actions? Nothing in the text precludes such a possibility. Such a performance would make it possible to experience a world wherein all parts are given the same amount of freedom to define a community of equals, composed of as many active subjects and Is.

16Within this untotalizable whole, solipsism is uprooted, as is further confirmed by the chronological order of personal pronouns whose succession structures the collection. The pronoun “I”, which one might expect to find in the inaugural dance, only appears in the 6th dance. Instead, The Pronouns open with a “he” that does not stand for Mac Low’s hidden signature. It is a hidden dedication to dancer Fred Herko whose repeated requests to get hold of the Nuclei for Simone Forti deck — at a time when it had been borrowed and brought to California by Trisha Brown — spurred Mac Low to compose The Pronouns. Because Mac Low could not recover his action-cards soon enough, he decided to derive the forty poems from the same list of instructions as Nuclei, starting with “he”. Then comes the poem based on “she” as an acknowledgement of Trisha Brown’s indirect responsibility for the project, followed by “they”, “you”, the pronominal phrase “all of you”, and finally, “I”.

In favor of relational and multiple subjects

17The pronominal subjects of The Pronouns are quintessentially political because they play the role of syntactic subjects in the poems while being ill-defined from a referential point of view. As a result, they often lose some of their linguistic characteristics in performance. For instance, the 34th Dance is based on “neither”, which entails a double annihilation of the referent. Its first line (“At the beginning neither tests different things”) opens a series of alternative phrases in the negative form which are never founded on any previously defined element or noun. In this case, just like in the poems based on “whichever”, “some”, “others” to quote a few, the indefinite subject is in excess of any visible embodiment. Despite this, even “neither” structures the sentence as much as would a personal pronoun or a named person (in the poems at least). Mac Low thus proposes a new perspective on the nature of subjects, one that is inherently, purely relational — not only because they are “shifters”, but also because they are semantically related to missing elements: “whichever” what, and from which category? “Others” in relation to what “same” or “I?” “Neither” of which group of things or people? The distribution The Pronouns encourage is one wherein the very concept of individuality — as undivided, singular and isolated from others — is made obsolete. It is striking that the poem-dance whose subject is the phrase “all of you” comes before “I”. It is as though establishing the existence of an externalized community in relation to an “I” was a prerequisite for the “I” to be perceived less in its monadic self-sufficiency than in its essentially relational, shifting, de-centered dimension.

18At this point, it may not come as a surprise if the collection of “poem-dances” is followed by several political essays. Among these is the visionary “THEY Manifesto” wherein Mac Low reveals his precocious awareness of the social and political components underlying gender distributions in language — particularly the allegedly neutral masculine pronoun:

Use they, them, their, theirs, & themselves, in place of he or she, him or her, […] or the generic he […]
These usages appear in at least three entries of the Oxford English Dictionary. […]
The examples, from 1464 thru 1875, including ones from Caxton, More, & Shakespeare (who in The Rape of Lucrece, as printed in 1600, has Every one to rest themselves betake), end with the 1874 citation, from Dasent’s Half a Life: Every one likes to keep it to themselves as long as they can. […]
Why not give the language its head by adopting & extending this usage so widespread in our speech & even in literature, & sanctioned by at least three entries in our foremost lexicon?19

19This line of thought remains acutely relevant more than half a century later. Similar arguments may currently be found among advocates of less sexist grammar rules and of solutions to integrate transgender, non-binary identities linguistically. Mac Low’s questioning of the status quo regarding gender distribution in language supports the idea of a plural subject that erases gender altogether, against the heteronormative, exclusive formulations that pervade even inclusive phrases (“he or she”). The fact these issues remain highly divisive nowadays is enough to measure the profound impact of The Pronouns.

Performing inclusive communities

20Since the constitutive lack of gender or number makes indefinite pronouns unperformable literally, they are necessarily turned into tangible subjects of actions in the context of performance. To some extent, indefinite pronouns lead to the greatest augmentation of action and are most freely determined in their transition from language to gesture. The 27th dance, which uses “nobody” as grammatical subject, best illustrates this phenomenon. The violence of the exclusion implied by “nobody” is most obvious in its substantive form: “a nobody” may either refer to a stranger whose identity does not matter, or to someone who is insignificant. As it is the epitome of the invisible subject, “nobody” best corresponds to the faceless masses Rancière calls the “uncounted”. “Nobody” is, linguistically and literally, a non-subject. It is not even a person, deprived as it is of a body and, consequently, of the power to discuss and act. Yet it is given a chance to speak and to perform actions by Mac Low in the context of The Pronouns. The performance of the 27th Dance gives “nobody” a face, a body, a voice, and maybe even some gestures. The moment of the performance embodies the political subjectification whereby parts in excess impose themselves in the collective count, triggering new distributions.

21This alchemic transformation is perfectly illustrated by Clarinda Mac Low, the daughter of the poet, in her “Experiment #1” at St Mark’s Church in May 201220. She recites the poem, standing in the middle of the stage with her back against the wall, literally in the spotlight that casts two shadows of her standing figure on both sides of her actual body. These shadows both represent the faceless, anthropomorphic shapes of “nobodies”, and are literal transformations of the impossible “no body” into three bodies. Far from excluding the invisible subject from the audience’s perception, the shadows at once challenge the usual distribution that excludes the negation of a body (no-body) from the realm of presence, and embody the logical dead-end of a dance instruction whose subject of action is “nobody”. We may say Clarinda’s performance divinizes and turns “nobody” into the Trinity. Furthermore, she makes the voiceless “nobody” heard twice by reciting the text as a dialogue. Her first persona (in roman characters below) projects her voice in the entire hall, while the second one (in italics) speaks in a microphone with the soft, insinuating voice of a serpent:

Nobody does any waiting
& nobody has an example.
Does nobody give gold cushions or seem to do so,
& does nobody kick?
No … body21.

22The suspension points in “no… body” transcribe the pause marked by Clarinda in the middle of the pronoun, but the original text reads “nobody”. As Clarinda vocally underlines nobody’s lack of body, she turns it into some bodies, or even many bodies — at least three for the eye, and two more for the ear. Nobody’s presence becomes ubiquitous.

Parts and whole: redistributing the roles

Collective authorship

23As the lines of text are replaced by physical gestures, the performance becomes a reading and a rewriting that renders the poem at once “sensible” (in Rancière’s meaning, that is, both audible and visible) and unrecognizable. As noted by Tyrus Miller who attended two nights of Clarinda’s complete production of The Pronouns in September 2012, the diverse means that can be used to perform these poems — from “purely verbal” to “almost purely nonverbal”22 — often intervene between us and the content of the original poem. For example, the stretch of time over which Clarinda performs the beginning of the 10th Dance in “Experiment #1” significantly outlasts the time it takes to read the instruction: “thou goest between & thru unserious-seeming goings-on / & thou hammerest / Presently thou art making a bridge…” She first addresses the spectators through speakers (“so… I think… um… just relax… take it easy… there’s no reason to get excited… just kick back. I’ll be there soon…”) from backstage, while proceeding to the performance space (“thou goest between?”). As she walks in with a hammer in her right hand, she greets her audience casually (she even claps hands playfully with a man in the audience) and speaks continually. She thus unfolds the different meanings of the phrasal verb “to go on” by entering the stage, by talking so much that it nearly becomes annoying, and by performing strange activities (“goings-on”).

24She then gives her performance some direction as she squats down to hammer pieces of wood together in order to “make a bridge”, while telling us a joke that is not in the poem:

So there’s a rope who walks into a bar… piece of rope… sits down, orders a drink. Bartender says I’m sorry, don’t you read? This sign above the bar says: [7 hammer strikes] We don’t serve rope, tacks, string, hammers, other household objects.’” So the rope, very dejected, goes out. [1 strike] Then he has an idea in the parking lot. [8 strikes] So he twists himself all up and he [3 strikes, Clarinda stands up, impersonating the rope by twisting her body up] … teases out the top … you know … his … end [Clarinda tousles her hair], and he walks back… [7 strikes] and he sits down, … and the bartender says, really, I swear [1 strike], we don’t serve rope, you’re a rope. [11 strikes] And the rope pulls himself up in the most dignified stance [she stands up again to mimic the rope's attitude], and says I’m a frayed knot!
[no laughs in the audience] CML: Please, somebody!

25Here, not only does Clarinda add text to the poem: she turns her own new text into a dance instruction, performing her story physically as it goes. Her performance exceeds and supersedes the original dance both verbally and choreographically. Her authorship intervenes in the instruction to the extent that she co-authors both the poem and the dance embodiment. As a result, the basic distribution of the sensible pertaining to a score is disrupted. What no longer stands is the partition (in French, the word means both “score” and “division”) which marks the conceptual, spatial, and medial separation between a score and its execution as much as it allows dance and poem to share the same identity. This distribution is replaced with a creative continuum, an enlarged and open text with no distinct contours nor definite state.

The end of identity?

26Mac Low relentlessly encouraged his performers to “listen and relate”, to dedicate themselves to the collective situation, and to avoid “ego-tripping”. These leitmotifs come up in all his instructions. It is quite telling, in this respect, that Clarinda framed her “Experiment #1” with the very dances whose texts most acutely negate identity or ego, starting with the 28th (“No one”) and ending with the 27th (“Nobody”) dances as though to integrate Jackson’s philosophy of performance. Moreover, her staging choices for these dances materialize Mac Low’s practice-based critique of authorship. For the opening 28th dance, her voice comes down from a balcony where she recites the text with her hand covering her mouth. The embodiment of God’s transcendence and ubiquitous Word as “no one” provocatively questions his divine authority when confronted with the final dance’s fallen Trinity, hidden in Clarinda’s shadows. Such framing choices resonate all the more in the venue where the performance takes place, namely in St Mark’s Church — a Church that has supported artistic events including the experimental Poetry Project or Dancespace project. Clarinda ironic stance toward transcendence in the opening and ending dances of “Experiment #1” perfectly frames the disrupted authority of the written text that all the intervening dances call for, as our previous analyses have shown.

27Such empowerment of the performers undeniably overturns the hierarchic relation between published text and performance, as well as between author and performer. However, what does the loss of linguistic elements that inevitably results from the dance realizations of indeterminate “instructions” do to the political moment of subjectification? In the many dances using an indeterminate pronoun, such as the 24th Dance, “Whatever awakens yesterday when the skin’s a little feeble / & whatever, when making or giving something small, monkeys with something that’s not white”, the subject “whatever” will necessarily become some body onstage. The same goes for “whoever gets out with things” in the 21st Dance; indeterminacy is not performable as such. From language to the performers’ bodies, the political moment(um) may be slowed down as the “uncounted” morph into the defined shapes of the norm and the familiar. Ultimately, the gaze of the audience returns the indefinite, shifting pronouns to the count of the totalizing whole: the unstoppable identifying habit of the mind cannot but qualify and label the actual bodies it registers.


28The hyphenated label “poem-dances” typographically materializes the intermedial stretch created by the mutual dynamics of mooring and unmooring between text and performance. The Pronouns counter William Forsythe’s subsequent thought that forms the epigraph. The collection allows a sustained examination and practice of Mac Low’s performance principles, whose political implications keep unfolding and evolving over time thanks to the plasticity of the intermedium. Before Forsythe looked at developing choreographic thought through “choreographic objects” whose unusual set-ups allowed users to experience their body’s mass, weight, and coordination in new ways, Mac Low at once actively dispensed with the stability of the object and the strictly physical foundations of dance. The Pronouns best illustrate how he relentlessly worked to launch unbounded activities, rather than trying to establish his oeuvre once and for all through objects, whether in the guise of texts, drawings, or recordings. Mac Low’s stance contributes to fight exclusive binaries with an inclusive approach to language, artistic and performance practices. Gilles Deleuze’s “becomings” best characterize the dynamic tension “between” and “beside” poem and dance that materializes in The Pronouns and in Mac Low’s entire production:

Becomings are not phenomena of imitation or assimilation, but of a double capture, of non-parallel evolution, of nuptials between two reigns. Nuptials are the opposite of a couple. There are no longer binary machines: question-answer, masculine-feminine, man-animal, etc.23

29Lying beyond all binaries, Mac Low’s aesthetico-political “becomings” do escape all definitions and their accruing hierarchies in order to lay the foundations for open, egalitarian communities ruled by flexible structures. The Pronouns are tied in with his anarchic beliefs, as expressed in positive, inclusive terms in the essay “Reflections on the Occasion of the DANCE SCOPE Issue”. It very much sounds like Mac Low was working to make Rancière’s “political moments” sustainable beyond mere “moments”:

An anarchist does not believe, as some wrongly have put it, in social chaos. He or she believes in a state of society wherein there is no frozen power structure, where all persons may make significant initiatory choices in regard to matters affecting their own lives24.

30However, Mac Low may have unwittingly given shape to a substantial ethical and political aporia. For, in Rancieran terms, there may be no other political subject here than the poet who disrupts the status quo. His authorization of the performers (literally, the fact they are made co-authors) directly derives from, and reenacts an authority that he seemed unable to completely relinquish. The performers’ co-authoring role has been redefined for them: in trying to “subjectify” the performers of his work, Mac Low may have proven that authorship, authority, and subjection cannot be dispensed with. Nevertheless, his practice-based critique of ubiquitous power dynamics plays with the shifting nature of all normative patterns and invites us to join the game.


Deleuze Gilles & Parnet Claire, Dialogues, trad. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam, New York, Columbia University Press, 1987.

Forsythe William, “Choreographic Objects”, in Steven Spier (ed.), William Forsythe and the Practice of Choreography, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 90-92.

Higgins Dickins. “Intermedia”, in Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Esthetics Contemporary, Buffalo, Prometheus Books, 1989, p. 173-176.

Kotz Liz. “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the Event Score”, in Words to Be Looked At, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2007, p. 5998.

Kotz Liz. “The Poetics of Chance and Collage”, in Words to Be Looked At, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2007, p. 99-134.

Mac Low Clarinda, 40 Dancers Do 40 Dances for the Dancers: Danspace Project at St Marks Church, New York, 2012. <https://vimeo.com/150124201>.

Mac Low Clarinda, The Pronouns (Experiment #1), 2012. <https://vimeo.com/46337295>.

Mac Low Jackson, Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces, 1955-2002. New York, Granary Books, 2005.

Mac Low Jackson, The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers, 3 February-22 March 1964, Barrytown, Station Hill Press, 1979.

Mac Low Jackson & Tyson Ian, “Ian Tyson & Mac Low”, Tate. Accessed November 9, 2017. <http://www.tate.org.uk/search?q=ian%20tyson%20mac%20low>.

Mac Low Jackson & Tyson Ian, The Pronouns - a Collection of 40 Dances - for the Dancers, London, Tetrad Press, 1971. <http://www.tate.org.uk/search?q=ian%20tyson%20mac%20low>.

Miller Tyrus, “Me, You, Nobody, Who: Pronouns Set to Dance”, Accessed November 10, 2017. <http://www.academia.edu/2315646/Me_You_Nobody_Who_Pronouns_Set_to_Dance>.

Miller Tyrus, “Situation and Event: From The Pronouns to the Destinations of Sense”, in Singular Examples, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 17-41.

Miller Tyrus, “X Poetics: Tyrus Miller on Mac Low’s The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers.” X Poetics (blog), 2012. <http://xpoetics.blogspot.com/2012/10/tyrus-miller-on-mac-lows-pronouns.html>.

Rancière Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Translated by Julie Rose. First Printing edition. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Rancière Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, New York, Bloomsbury, 2004.

Tulane Drama Review, vol. 10, no 2, 1965.


1 William Forsythe, “Choreographic Objects”, in Steven Spier (ed.), William Forsythe and the Practice of Choreography, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 91.

2 Forsythe, p. 91.

3 Michael Kirby’s coinage, in Tulane Drama Review, vol. 10, no 2, p. 36.

4 See Liz Kotz, “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the Event Score”, in Words to Be Looked At, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2007, p. 59-98.

5 Sometimes titled “Nuclei for Simone Morris”, as the dancer was then married to Robert Morris. Jackson Mac Low, Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces, 1955-2002, New York, Granary Books, 2005, p. 59-63.

6 Jackson Mac Low & Ian Tyson, The Pronouns - a Collection of 40 Dances - for the Dancers, London, Tetrad Press, 1971, <http://www.tate.org.uk/search?q=ian%20tyson%20mac%20low>; digital copies may be viewed on the website of the Tate: Jackson Mac Low & Ian Tyson, “Ian Tyson & Mac Low,” Tate, accessed November 9, 2017, <http://www.tate.org.uk/search?q=ian%20tyson%20mac%20low>.

7 Jackson Mac Low, The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers, 3 February-22 March 1964, Barrytown, Station Hill Press, 1979.

8 See Liz Kotz, “The Poetics of Chance and Collage,” in Words to Be Looked At, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2007, p. 99-134.

9 Mac Low, The Pronouns, p. 75.

10 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, New York, Bloomsbury, 2004, p. 8.

11 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics.

12 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, First Printing edition, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

13 Mac Low, The Pronouns, p. 67.

14 Mac Low, p. 67 [my emphasis].

15 Dickins Higgins, “Intermedia”, in Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Esthetics Contemporary, Buffalo, Prometheus Books, 1989, p. 173-176.

16 Tyrus Miller, “Situation and Event: From The Pronouns to the Destinations of Sense”, in Singular Examples, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 17-41; Tyrus Miller, “X Poetics: Tyrus Miller on Mac Low’s The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers,” X Poetics (blog), 2012, <http://xpoetics.blogspot.com/2012/10/tyrus-miller-on-mac-lows-pronouns.html>; Miller.

17 Miller, “Situation and Event”, p. 39.

18 Rancière, Disagreement, p. 35.

19 “The ‘THEY’ Manifesto”, in Mac Low, The Pronouns, p. 76.

20 With this “experiment”, Clarinda presented her collective performance project for the collection, which took place five months later over three nights. See Clarinda Mac Low, The Pronouns (Experiment #1), 2012, <https://vimeo.com/46337295>; Clarinda Mac Low, 40 Dancers Do 40 Dances for the Dancers: Danspace Project at St Marks Church, New York, 2012, <https://vimeo.com/150124201>.

21 For the original layout, see Mac Low, The Pronouns, p. 49.

22 Tyrus Miller, “Me, You, Nobody, Who: Pronouns Set to Dance”, accessed November 10, 2017, <http://www.academia.edu/2315646/Me_You_Nobody_Who_Pronouns_Set_to_Dance>.

23 Gilles Deleuze & Claire Parnet, Dialogues, trad. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, New York, Columbia University Press, 1987, p. 2.

24 Mac Low, The Pronouns, p. 74.

Pour citer ce document

Célia Galey-Gambier, « Sharing and Distributing the Sensible in Jackson Mac Low’s Dance-instruction-poems The Pronouns (1964) » dans « Unmoored Languages », « Lectures du monde anglophone », 2020 Licence Creative Commons
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Quelques mots à propos de :  Célia Galey-Gambier

Université Paris Diderot – LARCA, UMR 8225
Célia Galey is Assistant Professor of American literature and a member of the research team “Littérature, Savoirs et Arts” at Gustave Eiffel University. She is also faculty member at Parsons Paris (The New School) and works as a freelance translator. Her research in Performance studies focuses on American experimental poetry and art of the 20th and 21st centuries, and more specifically on the dynamic space created by scripts and live performances. She studies the micro-constructions of gender and race through language and embodiment, as well as how the intermedium questions common binaries (written text vs oral performance, individual vs collective creation, the event vs the archive) and challenges traditional conservation curation and publication strategies. Célia is an École Normale Supérieure (2005) alumna and a former postdoctoral research scholar at the Laboratory of Excellence “Creation, Arts and Heritage” (University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne). She obtained her PhD in American Literature at Paris Diderot University (now Paris University) in 2016.