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  • The Truth About Pina Bausch: Nature and Fantasy in Carnations
  • Lynn Houston
Pina Bausch, Carnations. Perf. Tanztheater Wuppertal. Gammage Auditorium, Tempe. 22October 1999.

Freud’s elision of body-mind also suggests that the private mental space accorded to “the self” on modern models of identity, the space of fantasy, is produced to some extent by the body’s being-in-culture. Slavoj Zizek notes that “at its most fundamental, fantasy tells me what I am to others”... That is to say, our fantasies, those wonderful or terrifying stories we weave about ourselves in our supposedly most private moments, are actually extensions of culture into that space formerly and mistakenly called “mind.” Zizek argues that fantasy has a “radically intersubjective character” insofar as it is “an attempt to provide an answer to the question ‘What does society want from me,’ to unearth the meaning of the murky events in which I am forced to participate.”

—Sharon Crowley, Rhetorical Bodies,362.

Billed as ballet, Pina Bausch’s work is a choreography that prompts audience members who expect the tutus and pirouettes typical of traditional ballet to leave the theater. Bausch brings a critical consciousness to choreography and to representations of the body, a consciousness which she then places in dialogue with the history of ballet. Her work is a postmodern art especially inspired, it seems, by forces at play in psychoanalysis and its attempts to formulate the subject. In the piece Carnations,performed recently in Tempe, 1Bausch plays with the interaction between the stage and the audience, between the dancers and the spectators, so that the absence of traditional ballet and the audience’s expectations for it become the subjects of the ballet. Thus her piece becomes both a study in the violence of tradition and a commentary on the tradition of violence that pervades human interaction.

In Carnations,Bausch reveals a Borgesian sensitivity in her treatment of the uncanny that haunts the relationship between author and reader, and between performer and spectator, as she links the play of power in the gaze to other struggles for power in human relationships. In the refusal of her dancers to remain simply performers who exist just for the entertainment of the audience—Bausch’s dancers shout to us that their feet hurt—her art can be likened to Pirandello’s at its most surreal. Carnationspowerfully brings into conjuction art, theory, and collective fantasy as it explores the struggle over institutional uses of power present in how we represent ourselves physically, expressionistically, gesturally, and in how we tell the stories that construct our subjectivity.

Bausch’s piece invokes moments in the history of psychoanalysis where the relationship between the patient and the psychoanalyst are critiqued, where the notions of cause and effect that support psycholanalytic discourse are examined and questioned, and where definitions of repression and the unconscious are advanced. Her piece resounds particularly strongly with the categories advanced by Lacan in “Function and field of speech and language,” the categories which he believes betray the amnesia of the unconscious, or, in other words, the spaces where the text of truth has been collected and stored. “The unconscious is that chapter of my history,” he states, “that is marked by a blank or occupied by a falsehood: it is the censored chapter. But the truth can be rediscovered; usually it has already been written down elsewhere....” (50). Bausch works with the categories proposed by Lacan that label spaces where the truth has been posited: the body, childhood memory, systems of signs, and tradition. She communicates with these categories, these cultural warehouses of truth, in order to excavate the idea of truth that must precede such a positioning, and in order to politicize the myth of the unconscious and of the “natural innocence” of humankind, as well as to show us the violence underlying—and masked by—these constructions.

As acknowledged in Sharon Crowley’s reading of Zizek (reading Lacan) found in the passage quoted at the beginning of this article, any notion of subjectivity must be rooted in a political economy of construction. Much contemporary theorizing about subjectivity dismisses the idea of a hidden “natural” self. It encourages, instead, the view that...

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