The following is the scripted portion of a seminar presentation that took place on 12 March 2019 as part of the Developing Your Discipline unit of the MFA Performance Practice as Research course at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama:
How can I utilise repetition to develop my own practice of — or “way of doing” — an established practice based on my limited prior knowledge of that practice and the discipline within which it’s situated? And what kinds of knowledge(s) emerge as a result of this practice?
Throughout this term, I have attempted to establish my own practice of a pre-existing practice — such as figure drawing, playing the harmonica, folding origami and playing the piano — based on my own limited prior knowledge or memory of what that practice is and might require, but without any practical knowledge of how to execute that practice. In other words, I’ve been playing at playing the harmonica. Or playing at figure drawing. And developing and mastering my own practices of these practices, and — in turn — intuitively (and profoundly) understanding the disciplines within which these practices are situated. Through the development of this practice, an inquiry has emerged that is problematising the relationship between knowing-what and knowing-how, and my own relationship to both forms of knowledge. This inquiry has also encouraged me to question and activate the relationships between explicit and implicit memory, drawing from Pil Hansen and Bettina Blässing’s theories regarding the formation of memory in Performing the Remembered Present, as well as between Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theories of practical logic and logical logic.
In considering the concept of discipline, I’ve been reflecting on Experience Bryon’s notion of disciplinarity as a process, “a successive set of displacements of the ways in which we organise and capture knowledge(s) or engage in an act of Knowledging (2018: 8).” Viewing pre-established disciplines as active or fluid processes of knowledging has provided an entry-point through which I can freely dive into and manipulate each practice within its shifting disciplinary field.
I have chosen to view knowledge first through a cognitive lens, relating it to memory, which Matthias Steup refers to as “the capacity to retain knowledge acquired in the past (2018).” I found myself activating Hansen and Blässing’s theories regarding the formation of memory, in which they “differentiate between the consciously accessible declarative memory that comprises personal experiences (episodic memory) and knowledge of facts (semantic memory), and procedural memory, which includes motor and cognitive skills that have typically been acquired implicitly through practice (2017: 16).” Thomas Fuchs would refer to episodic and semantic memory as explicit forms of memory — or a knowing-what — and procedural memory as an implicit memory — or a knowing-how (2012: 11). These two distinctions directly relate to the forms of knowledge that are at the heart of this inquiry.
This differentiation has encouraged me to break down the practice that has emerged into four stages:
Stage One: The Encounter — The first stage — the initial encounter with a pre-established practice — consistently forces me to tap into my own episodic memories of that practice. I initially encountered figure drawing, a practice I had no prior knowledge of besides what I had seen in art galleries or in films, by inexplicably drawing this original figure —
I then introduced more materials into the room that I explicitly knew were related to figure drawing (coloured pencils, pastels, paints) and began to experiment with elaborating on the figure in response to a “gut feeling” that occurred in the act of drawing the original figure. Later iterations of this first stage of the practice followed a similar pattern. My initial engagement with my episodic memories of playing the piano led me to assume a specific posture that I had seen pianists assume in concerts and in movies, as well as taping over the black keys of the piano in order to execute what I perceived as a plucking motion. Engaging with playing the harmonica led me to establish a repeatable action that involved a specific placement of my hands on the back of the instrument and a particular blowing technique.
Stage Two: Establishing Repetition — This segues naturally to the second stage, in which I establish a repeatable action that seemingly executes my practice of each practice while still resembling in some way my explicit memory of what the performance of each practice should look or feel like. Attempts were made to engage with the practices of folding origami and calculating complex mathematical equations, but I found myself abandoning those practices once I realised that I could not establish a repeatable way of executing my practice of each practice. Repetition was clearly starting to emerge as a key component of this practice. And while I at first found it be a mysterious presence in the room, Eirini Kartsaki’s description in Repetition in Performance of repetition’s force as “an erotic one: one that establishes a sense of anticipation, that recognises resemblances, that remembers (2017: 7)” has provided some clarity as to why I might be turning to it as a tool for activating this inquiry, though I anticipate engaging in further research into repetition, particularly Deleuze’s concepts of difference and repetition, as I continue to develop this practice.
Stage Three: Practicing the Practice — The third stage – the practicing of my practice of each practice — allows me to create new semantic memories of unspoken rules for executing each new practice, and subsequently drop irrelevant movements or episodic memories and develop a certain level of mastery with each practice. This mastery takes time — I repeated my established practice of figure drawing for four consecutive weeks. I’m still in the midst of this stage with my practice of playing the piano —
And while this may — to some — sound like a masochistic act of endurance, I actually have found it quite comforting, which will figure into a key observation later on.
Stage Four: The “Ah-Ha!” Moment — This practicing of each new practice eventually leads me to the fourth stage, in which I store this repeated action in my procedural memory and develop an implicit knowing-how. I now know how to execute my practice of each practice, which is distinct from the formal or institutional practice of each practice. I’ve been able to measure my entrance into this phase by what I have repeatedly referred to as an “Ah-Ha!” moment in which a sudden realisation transforms the practice, altering it due to a slight adjustment in response to an intuitive gut feeling. Playing the harmonica suddenly became a choreographed sound and movement phrase in which the harmonica itself was no longer used to produce sound —
Figure drawing suddenly became a practice of figure sculpting, once I had realised that I could manipulate the paper into three-dimensional sculptures —
These slight derailments of the established repetitive action were indicative of a passing from a more explicit engagement with the action to an implicit engagement wherein I had the freedom to make these adjustments. I would then start to repeat this new action, building up a level of mastery in this form of the practice and welcoming the potential for encountering another “Ah-Ha!” moment as a result —
It was in response to these “Ah-Ha!” moments that I reengaged with a concept from Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice —
“An agent who possesses a practical mastery, an art, whatever it may be, is capable of applying in his action the disposition which appears to him only in action, in the relationship with a situation (1990: 90).”
I had, through some level of mastery, learned how to follow the knowledge inherent in the action of each of these practices. And out of that knowledge new modes of practicing my practice of each practice were emerging.
Bourdieu became a central figure in the development of this inquiry, particularly his theories surrounding practical knowledge and practice, which he claims “excludes all formal concerns. Reflexive attention to action itself, when it occurs … remains subordinate to the pursuit of the result. So it has nothing in common with the aim of explaining how the result has been achieved, still less of seeking to understand (for understanding’s sake) the logic of practice, which flouts logical logic. (1990: 91–92).”
I now find myself questioning the nature of the knowledge or logic that has emerged as a result of this practice, and Bourdieu’s paradoxical relationship between practical logic — which I relate to this knowing-how — and logical logic — which I relate to this knowing-what. What do I now know and not know about each practice or discipline I’ve encountered? In establishing my own unique cultural fields (of one, notably), as Bourdieu might refer to them, in which I can carry out my own practices of various practices, have I then also established my own habitus — or way in which I can truly become myself — in each cultural field through my engagement with each practice? These questions continue to problematise the relationships I laid out earlier. Which comes first — the know-what or the know-how? The explicit memory or the implicit memory? My hunch is that I am now subverting the ‘logical’ relationships between these sets of binaries by establishing my own ‘practical’ mode of displacing or redefining those binaries, which will hopefully propel my work forward into next term.
Which leads me to my final observation — I have developed a sense of comfort and a sense of power in the doing of this practice. I feel pride in these emergent practices. I have created an environment for myself in which right and wrong no longer preside over my actions. I feel ownership of my practice of each practice. And I can trust that by continuing to repeat each practice, I will build up my own level of mastery that will enable something original to emerge that’s completely my own. Or at least my own practice of the practice. My practice of figure drawing. My practice of playing the harmonica. As well as the emergence of an intuitive and individually unique act of knowledging through which I can develop a greater understanding of these practices and their disciplines.
Bourdieu, P., 1990. The logic of practice. Stanford University Press.
Bryon, E. ed., 2017. Performing interdisciplinarity: working across disciplinary boundaries through an active aesthetic. Routledge.
Fuchs, T., 2012. The phenomenology of body memory. Body memory, metaphor and movement (Vol. 84). John Benjamins Publishing, pp.9-22.
Hansen, P. and Bläsing, B., 2017. Introduction: studying the cognition of memory in the performing arts. Performing the remembered present: the cognition of memory in dance, theatre and music. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Kartsaki, E., 2017. Repetition in performance: returns and invisible forces. Springer.
Steup, Matthias, "Epistemology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/epistemology/>.
Webb, J., Schirato, T. and Danaher, G., 2002. Understanding Bourdieu. Sage.