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Part of the magic of dance is that it resists an essential impossibility through physical acts, through real leaps of faith. As an articulation of the body in rhythm, dance coordinates movement with beat, whether up, down, or off. Beats are read as a pattern, and the body moves rhythmically in dance. The impossibility is simply that dance relies on a faith in rhythm. For while the dancer perceives rhythm as a syntax of beats, rhythm’s value for dance lies in its telos, in a pattern projected into the future. Rhythm structures events that do not yet exist.

Dance rests on the projection of rhythm, the sense of which rests on the relation to, and the matter of, time. It is faith, perhaps, faith that a next beat will come to be, that allows rhythm to be realized, and that allows the body to synchronize movement with the beat in the rhythm of dance. Or if not faith, even a weak and naive one, it is physical fact, or if not actual fact, it is practical correlation, that informs the keeping of time and that inspires one’s keeping on time in the series of motor and musical events.

Dance configures beats in a sense of rhythm and coordinates body movement in anticipation of rhythmic repetition, but as it does, what is its sense of time? Does the dancer, for example, experience the present instance of each beat in a passage of time, perhaps as an event that punctuates the flow of temporal matter or that moves forward on a line of time? If true and factual that time is the medium upon which rhythm is projected, then is dance, to some degree, not so much the anticipation of actual beats as the measuring out of identical temporal fragments? Time as such then would be the medium, flow, line, or fabric, upon which events, from musical beats to human births, happen. Dance in this sense would constitute movement as an analog to the flow of time and perhaps only secondarily as an expression of beat.

But it is possible to consider dance in the first instance a correlation of movement to beat. Instead of rhythm defined as the organization of time, as musical theorists would have it, rhythm could be considered an organization of events, each beat an event with its own life, each its own whole. Such dance would be structured on the rhythm of events as they transpire, on the lives of whole events, which are not identical bits of perfectly parsed time. The possibility of dance would not be based on the fact, fabric, and flow of time, but on the realization of events, on the occurrence of beats.

A present concern in literary criticism, once again, is the anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot. Because of his stature and his dominance in modernist poetics, most especially in England, Eliot’s prejudices are discussed and apologized for more often than are those of Ezra Pound or Henry James, for example. Eliot, the Missourian who became an “Anglo-Catholic Royalist” “more British than the British” is treated in something of the way that Shakespeare is: his stature nullifies serious accusations of anti-Semitism. It is a tautology applied to a writer essential to the canon: since he is great, he is great, or in a deductive variation, since his work is great art, it must be of great spirit. Eliot’s depiction of a Bleistein or Shakespeare’s of Shylock cannot be evidence of anti-Semitism, or so the logic goes.

The current reading of Eliot makes a distinction that seems to me similar to the problem of dance. Eliot can be a great artist and an anti-Semite; I find nothing in aesthetic theory or moral philosophy that precludes either. But one can take note of how one reads his anti-Semitism, whether in themes or in bits. The two extremes differ in that one emphasizes the general sense of the flow of meaning while the other emphasizes each literal event, one at a time. Those who emphasize theme read Eliot backwards, from a general meaning that explains individual events. Such a reading finds that the whole makes sense and makes sense of the constituent parts. To put it musically, the sense of rhythm makes sense of the individual beats.

On the other hand, locating Eliot’s anti-Semitism first in the constitutive elements of The Waste Land, such as in the etymological, metaphorical, and grammatical bits, emphasizes the construction of meaning along other lines. The individual events of the text come to accrue meaning through syntax, through a logic of synecdoche and sequence. The lack of capitalizing jew or the etymology of Bleistein can be identified as fragments in the logic of Eliot’s anti-Semitism, or can they? Critics of this reading of Eliot often argue that each such poetic event, on its own, is benign and can appear prejudicial only to those so disposed to finding anti-Semitism.

In a non-poetic example of the syntax of prejudice, the video tape of the LAPD beating of Rodney King broke down the movement of racism into its individual beats. On behalf of the police assailants, Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, the defense attorneys slowed the video tape to its individual still frames, down to the individual events of the beating. They then challenged the jury to identify the exact instance of the violation of civil rights. The defense insisted that at no individual beat in the dance of police violence was it possible to identify a rhythm or theme of racism. After an acquittal and the LA riots, Koons and Powell were subsequently convicted of the lesser crime of denying civil rights. The defense for racist beating or anti-Semitic writing is that the individual need not participate in a rhythm.

In the end, it is not the passage of time or the freezing of time that matters so much in the story of a beating: each nightstick blow hurt with each individual strike, and the sequence of blows by which white LAPD officers on a fallen Rodney King beat out a pattern, beat out a racist rhythm. The story of racism is a series of beatings, blow by blow in a rhythm whose theme is dominance. The dance of power, the movement of bodies to administer violence in the single beat as well as in rhythm, is a dominance that mystifies. Racism has no time. It is a pattern of beatings here.

-Alfred Arteaga



ŠAlfred Arteaga. From HOUSE WITH THE BLUE BED, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1997. Published by permission of Mercury House.


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