Manola K. Gayatri — Breath in Performance

Fluidity as a conceptual category

My PhD dissertation was premised on the idea of ‘making fluid’ the ‘binary between body and word’ ‘through breath’ (in Volatile Bodies Elizabeth Grosz looks at the feminist critique of phenomenology – concentrating on Irigaray’s work on Maurice-Merleau Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible – remarking on Irigaray’s contribution and critique of philosophy through theorizing fluids and fluidity and making it important in vocabulary of the feminine episteme). I approach breath through explorations of breath techniques in performance traditions, and also as a philosophical category to understand relations between actors in performance space including time, object, text, performer, space, audience, rhythm etc. Breath in performance has a very special relationship with body and text through the embodied actions of the actor. Breath is both a gesture of the body but also extends beyond it. The extension of breath beyond the body is crucial for theatre. It is the real capacity of breath to belong and not belong to the body that allows for an expression of meaning to occur. When Tim Long says, “The subjectile is hypothetically a body in an extended sense”, it is an almost perfect description of breath especially in performance. Breath acts as a subjectile on the word in performance as it makes the word (object) a fluid entity connected to the body of the actor (subject). Is the human body a subject or and object, and if something extends from it what does it become? A subjectile may be simply in the state of becoming something. For Irigaray breath is the first truly autonomous act that we perform. If in her work the absence of the lost umbilical cord is prioritized over Freud’s theories of the phallus (ie castration anxiety and penis envy), then one of the first acts of the self corporeally differentiated from the mother’s body is to breathe. It is also an activity that no other can do for oneself. Can breath then be the feminine subjectile, which has the potential to replace the lost phallus/ umbilical cord giving birth in this way to an autonomous self? And it is by learning how to control the capacities of her own breath that the actress makes her first emergence as an autonomous creative subject.

A Maternal Economy of Sharing Air

In The Forgetting of Air Irigaray searches for a ‘pre-Socratic evocation of an opening’. When Heidegger proposes that philosophy as a discipline has reached a point where it must think about what it should philosophize now, he suggests that the “clearing” as opening. To this proposal, Irigaray asks a question that has not been asked to Heidegger before, and that is, “What?” She states the problem of Western philosophy has been an inability to theorize fluidity and in this connection she in particular considers air. This has been to philosophy’s detriment as she says, “No wonder philosophy is dying, without air.” Of all the elements it is air that, according to her, is most ‘open’, especially in relation to Being. She even reminds us that it is only in air that the human being is able to be at all. We cannot live in the earth or in fire or in water and it is interesting to note that only after death we are living rites mankind our entry into these elements either through ceremonies of burial, cremation or immersion. Still speaking of clearing, Luce Irigaray also draws our attention to the circle as a general.

The Sanskrit stage as described in the Natyashastra and in the general opinion of scholars, based on the text and on existing models of performance spaces within constructions such as temples, suggests that the shape of it was in general rectangular (Mehta, Tarla, Sanskrit Play Production in Ancient India, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsi Das, 1995, p. 48). Yet many folk performances that take place in more outdoor ‘clearings’, usually take the form of a circle as well and many stages currently in auditoriums tend to follow a more hemispherical design. This has also to do with the choreography in general in which performers are holding hands and tend to make circles or form arches in their movement patterns. When performances happen in public spaces that have not ‘erected’ a stage, the clearings tend to be a circular space around which people sit and observe the performance. What can one make of the difference between the rectangle and the circle as spaces of performance? It is interesting to me that the Sanskrit stage, that appropriated many regional and tribal cultural spaces, is rectangular and the more local one is circular. Sanskritization as process has been described as a means by which lower castes ape the upper castes in an effort to move up the social ladder, but conversely we must also be aware that Sanskritization actually begins with the appropriation of local cultures through history to create a hegemonic single culture.

In Faulker’s reading Irigaray asks in particular about the elements of water and air. Arguing with Hedeigger’s concept of dwelling and place, Luce Irigaray differentiates space as that which becomes possible when boundaries are opened instead of understanding space as what is contained within boundaries. For Irigaray, a place is still more than a space when opening up of boundaries to an inter-subjective encounter is made possible. In this instance the subjectivity of each is no longer a fixed and stable self-contained one but manifests itself in this encounter – thus the subjectivity of an autonomous woman performer may also be understood as a subjectivity that is fluid. If each subjectivity is not a closing up identity but keeps a fluid opening up of the boundaries between different subjectivities, does this not then offer a model more comprehensible, especially for the stage? The actresses in the contemporary performances that I look at in fact do shift subjectivity constantly. In the stage there is a suggestion of a demarcated space and of the actress in ‘representation’ as taking on the role of a particular character. Yet a lot of contemporary texts demand a characterization and shifts in subjectivity that is not simply a question of moving out of the boundary of one character into the other.

Further bibliography

Irigaray, Luce, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, trans. Mary Beth Mader, University Press of Texas: USA, 1999.

  • Between East and West: From Singularity to Community, Stephen Pluháček, New York, Columbia University Press, 2001; reprinted by Delhi: New Age Books, 2005.
  • “Perhaps Cultivating Touch Can Still Save Us”, in Substance Vol. 40, no.3, 2011; reprinted in Building a New World (Palgrave 2015).
  • “How can I touch you if you are not there?” in To Be Two, trans. M. M. Rhodes and M. F. Cocito-Monoc, London, Anthlone Press 2000.
  • “To Begin with Breathing Anew” in Breathing with Luce Irigaray, Emily A. Holmes and Lenart Skof (eds.), London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • In the Beginning She Was, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Nair, Sreenath, Restoration of Breath Consciousness and Performance, New York: Rodopi, 2007.

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