… a continuation of my blog from 16 November …

After many years of thinking about Chinese as a basis for his universal pictographic language to improve understanding between peoples, the philosopher Leibniz abandoned this undertaking; however he retained a deep adoration for what he saw as the ‘other’ concentration of human cultivation and refinement (alongside Europe) – namely China.

As I was pondering (again) his suggestion of using Chinese characters for the conception of his universal language, I felt that he was onto something. It occurred to me that in its pictorial nature, Chinese – and Leibniz envisaged ‘rationalised’ version of it – are perhaps comparable both to the modes of communication used in modern media technologies (such as icons on computers and touch-tone telephones) and to bodily languages such as specific dance forms. The digital form of the smiley, a stylised representation of a smiling human-like face, is now used quite widely worldwide, as I can testify from receiving email messages signed with smileys, or occasionally the opposite  , from all corners of the world. On the internet I found the following image of a sign in Yerevan, Armenia. The text reads: “Have a nice day”:

Tracing the development of this phenomenon, I soon found out about an Internet method of expressing emotions through simple typographical symbols such as dots, circles, etc. called Emoticons (a hybrid of emotions and icons). They apparently first appeared in the 19th century, hence the pre-Internet period, in casual writing when they were designed to alert the addressee of a message to the mood of the correspondent.

Emoticons work because people worldwide grasp the sign, and its associated expression, instantaneously without the need for translation. Facial expressions are universal, so universal in fact that we share many facial expressions with primates such as chimpanzees, as scientists have shown in many publications in this field. (Admittedly, the view of the universality of facial expression in a species, expressed most prominently by Darwin, has also had its challengers).

This brings me back to the topic of dance, as this commonality of facial (and, to a large extent, bodily) expression is the foundation of modern dance: remember the New York dance critic John Martin’s theory, which claims that we as audience members empathise with dancers on stage both psychologically and even physiologically through corresponding reactions in our musculatures. It is our bodily memory that allows for what he called “kinaesthetic empathy”: we ‘read’ the facial/bodily expression of the on-stage character, relate it back to our own experiences and expressions of that emotion (for instance grief) and sympathetically ‘suffer’ with him or her. Presumably this was how Martin thought we would watch Graham’s “Lamentation”. Now, Martin – ‘our’ Martin! – these are my thoughts about not going too far into the other direction – and you are right.

So, in theory, Asian and European participants in and viewers of dance can grasp the emotive nature of each other’s dancing or works immediately. And perhaps they do. We ‘know’ immediately whether a piece is ‘angry’ or reconciliatory by picking up on gestural and facial clues or the atmosphere – to refer back to Ola’s blog – but I guess that this only works when we are expressing fairly basic emotions or moods. In the instant when we seek to incorporate representations from our everyday life, it becomes a little trickier.

We might perhaps pick up on Pacific Islanders using rowing gestures in their dances. However, the grasshopper example shows that if we interpret dances according to what they represent in the real world, translation issues can become a problem. And as our discussions about the various Asian and European choreographers’ demand for a ‘natural’ means of expression shows, what is considered ‘natural’ is not a universal given ‘by nature’. And when works are neither expressive nor narrative nor representational, but for instance conceptual, I wonder if they are more or less difficult to comprehend?

On Chinese characters, smileys, and grasshoppers

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