Nudity in Song

The way one feels could be likened to an opening
or a slamming
or a breathing hard
all of them,
all of them
have seen inside my mouth
have grown and flown south

one day I’ll be my own Leadbelly
and I will grow a baby
oh he will move so swiftly
to hold me completely

all of them
all of them have pushed into the air
all of them
all of them will bathe with me
when we are safe
in the salty caves.

A triumph of song, of poetry. A triumph, in the precise sense of the Greek thriambos from which it derives: a hymn to Dionysus. Dionysus was of course the God of drunkenness, madness, and revelry. Nietzsche insisted that this Dionysian spirit is nowhere better exemplified than in music, in the revelry of the chorus that begs us to sing, to lend our voice, to participate, and of course, to dance. It begs us to expose ourselves, but not alone, rather to expose ourselves together, and insodoing, to stand naked together.

In his analysis of the figure of dance in Nietzsche, Badiou insists upon the essential nudity of the dancer: “Of [the dancing] body, one will necessarily say…that it is naked. Obviously, it matters little if it is empirically so. The body of dance is essentially naked…Dance, as a metaphor for thought, presents thought to us as devoid of relation to anything other than itself, in the nudity of its emergence. Dance is a thinking without relation, the thinking that relates nothing, that puts nothing in relation.” [Handbook of Inaesthetics, p 66] One might assume that such a figure that stands naked, without relation to anything but itself, is therefore incapable of holding anything in common, or constituting any sort of togetherness. And yet we all know that no one can dance alone. Even when dancing alone, one cannot be alone, because there is no one there: the dancing body does not strictly relate even to itself, the self of the dancer, but only to the nudity of the dance, to the pure, meaningless, contentless exposition of the dance itself.

In the dance, the dancing body only relates to itself insofar as it is itself nothing, a pure nothing embodied in the ephemeral flailing and contorting of the flesh, no matter how disciplined these movements. The monstrosity, and monstrous beauty of dance rests in the possibility of a rigorously disciplined and coordinated, choreographed, movement that itself signifies nothing, that is not disciplined in the name of some higher authority, but precisely for no reason, taking the exposition of its own exuberant and restless extraneity as its essence and purpose. An essential inessentiality, and purposive impurposiveness.

No one can dance alone, because no one can dance: dance can only begin when there is no longer anyone to resist the somatic seizure of dancing, to oppose some meaningful posture to the imposture (the deceptive, the placeless, the positionless; impostor, without posturing) of movements resolutely bereft of meaning. In dancing together, with others, we share in this nudity, this exposure of the nothing we are, and we stand naked together in the face of the Nothing, Nihil, abandon and extinction. Yet even without anyone to share in this exposure, we nonetheless cannot dance alone, because in dancing what is exposed, what stands naked, is no-one, the no one that can never be anyone (das Man) and can never belong to anyone, can never properly be anyone. In dancing together, we share in this being-no-one, we are no-one-together.

It is the same with song: in song, the voice no longer says anything, it is only the exposure of the nudity of the voice, a voice that says nothing and can say nothing, because it is a voice that speaks for no one, the voice of no one. It is a voice that gives no meaning, no content, and says nothing, not in the negative sense of not speaking or saying nothing of value, but in the positive sense of saying nothing itself, putting nothing itself into words (even if this forces words themselves to come apart at the seams). In song, even the most explicitly narrative song, the act of singing itself amounts to the exposure of the nudity of the voice, such that the meaning of the words and the story they tell is only a vehicle for the exuberant voicing of meaninglessness, the utterly inessentiality of the voicing itself, which might as well not happen. Even if we pretend there is some necessity to saying these words, there can be no necessity in singing them, other than to revel in the madness that they might be voiced at all.

In song, the voice is no longer an instrument of the one who speaks, and thereby imparts some meaningful discursive content. The singing voice is that of no one, it is the voice and voicing of no one, it is the always potentially humiliating exposure of the no-one and nothing that I am. In singing and dancing, I always risk humiliating myself, because I must confront and very well may recoil from the meaningless and inessential nothing that is my identity, even as I refuse and cover it. And in singing and dancing together, we refuse to allow one another to stand so humiliated alone, without also encouraging cowardly recoil into prideful posturing. Here we find and rejoin the chorus, the revelry of the chorus, the spirit of Dionysus.

It is fitting that Mountain Man voice their hymn in such a choral style, with the bare and naked voices of the singers unaccompanied, unsupported, calling out and echoing in the dark night of silence. One can easily imagine, beginning from this song, the utter silence that is so barely abated by the flickering candle of the choral voice. The silence is so starkly present it seems to threaten extinguishing the song at every moment.

The choral theme is only affirmed in the lyrical content which insists on the refrain: all of them. All of them, who? “Have seen inside my mouth”; “will bathe with me” – first, all of those who have seen me so exposed, in the voice as issuing from “inside my mouth”, from the raw pink flesh which recedes into ever darker depths, depths which have no bottom, in which one will never find an original and reassuring source. Inside my mouth, one does not find the source of the voice in the sense of the one who speaks, but only the pure no-one of the nude flesh whose articulate groaning has been so disciplined into song. And yet they, “all of them”, are not obscene voyeurs in whose gaze I stand humiliated, laid bare in the quivering nudity of my insides. They “will bathe with me”, they will share in my nudity, “when we are safe/in the salty caves”, together in the darkness of being-no-one, of being our very nudity.

The difficult first lines must be read in this light: “The way one feels could be likened to an opening/or a slamming/or a breathing hard”. An opening, or a slamming: an exposure, or a desperate covering up, closing off, blocking out. A singing, an opening and exposing of oneself in song, that could just as easily be extinguished in silence, the silence of shutting up, slamming one’s mouth shut out of embarrassment. “Or a breathing hard”, the difficult breath, the pained exhalation that could as easily become song as despondent sigh. “The way one feels” – who is this one, this impersonal one from which we begin and begin to slide into something more personal, more intimate and desperate? It could be anyone, perhaps. This could mean “the way one is feeling, the way one happens to feel”, but also, with a bit more interpretative risk, perhaps “the way in which one feels, can feel, is capable of feeling anything, that by which feeling is possible”. It is this very precariousness of exposure that is the very condition of possibility for feeling anything, and in whose dialectic the composition of emotion is constantly drawn and redrawn.

It is from this condition that the personal voice of the singer then begins to confront “all of them”, and exposure before them. Yet this confrontation is not limited to the precarious shift between being exposed to others and sharing in this exposure with them. “All of them…have grown and flown south”; “all of them have pushed into the air”. The first mention of departure follows the anticipated humiliation of exposure, as perhaps a flight from the frightful spectacle of the denuded singer. Yet in the final verse, the theme is repeated just before exposure becomes shared. The bridge between these two repetitions is the second verse: “one day I’ll be my own Leadbelly/and I will grow a baby/oh he will move so swiftly/to hold me completely”. Leadbelly was of course the infamous outlaw folk singer whose inspiration is palpable even without explicit citation. If Leadbelly does serves as an inspiration, and as an example of inspiration more generally, then the music of Mountain Man is marked by a certain inheritance, a certain familiarity. Leadbelly stands in for a tradition from which Mountain Man’s music is born, a new offspring. Yet the narrative voice here wants to become this figure of inspiration, and wants to give birth to a child of its own.

Perhaps it is to hasty to say ‘a child of its own’, for the next lines betray an inverted relation: it is not the child that belongs with and to the family or tradition from which it is born, but rather, it is the child that ‘holds completely’ that which bears it forth. This holding, embracing, ‘enowning’ of the inspiration is accomplished in a “move so swiftly”, which might be the means by which the holding is accomplished (he will move swiftly, and in this movement, I will be held), or simply a haste in taking hold (he will be swift in taking hold of me). Either way, we have here a clear sense in which this embrace is tied to swiftness, which undoubtedly resonates with the lyrics about taking flight. Specifically, it becomes clear how, in having pushed into the air, they thereby become capable of embracing me in my exposure. Taking flight can only signify a radical departure and abandonment in which that ground from which one originated cannot be carried along, lest swiftness be encumbered by the burden of tradition.

There is far more in these dense lines then can be unpacked here. Yet we should be attentive to the sense in which, within this song, the singers aim to reconfigure their relation to tradition, the tradition of folk music which has plainly borne them. They want to embrace this tradition, and to embrace the nudity and exposure that is at its heart, specifically at the heart of singing, voicing, and especially voicing anonymously, words that are ‘traditional’ belonging to no one, even the moment they are first conceived intended only to be sung by innumerable voices and to become lost amongst them, to become completely embraced by the voices they inspire to sing, to expose themselves in song. The tradition of folk music is one of a shared anonymity, it is a tradition of anonymity, of being-no-one in song, together in song, in sharing song. And it is a tradition of giving oneself over entirely to the embrace of an inheritor that can never know you, but will nonetheless embrace you in this totally nullified and denuded being.

Dionysus is the god who comes, the god who is coming and is to come. A hymn to Dionysus is a song for those who are coming, those to whom you will be lost, to whom you will be no-one, in hopes that they might not forget this exposure, that they perhaps will embrace this nudity in which, together, we are no-one.

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10 Responses to Nudity in Song

  1. kvond says:

    Plano: “Dance, as a metaphor for thought, presents thought to us as devoid of relation to anything other than itself, in the nudity of its emergence. Dance is a thinking without relation, the thinking that relates nothing, that puts nothing in relation.” [Handbook of Inaesthetics, p 66] One might assume that such a figure that stands naked, without relation to anything but itself, is therefore incapable of holding anything in common, or constituting any sort of togetherness. And yet we all know that no one can dance alone. Even when dancing alone, one cannot be alone, because there is no one there: the dancing body does not strictly relate even to itself, the self of the dancer, but only to the nudity of the dance, to the pure, meaningless, contentless exposition of the dance itself.”

    Kvond: Not to be difficult here, but, uh, doesn’t the dance dance to the music? Doesn’t it dance even to the earth? Dance does not dance its nudity unless it is dancing nude in the sense that Sartre argued, wearing its nudity as covering, i.e., as a stripper (and not an ecstatic Choral member of a Tragedy). If dance is a metaphor for thought, it either must wear its nudity as clothing for a gaze looking for nudity, or its music (and earth) must be located.

    • reidkane says:

      I wrote a much longer response, but the internet ate it, so I’ll do my best to remember it.

      When I say, with Badiou, that dance is without relation to everything except its own exposure or nudity, this does not mean that there is no music or earth. It only means that these elements only relate or take part insofar as they are exposed in and by the dance. One does not so much dance ‘to’ music as one dances the music itself, in the same way we say one sings a song. Dance is a mode in which all the elements that contribute to it, including the music and earth, are only related insofar as they are ‘laid bare’, exposed in the senselessness of their relation. Dance, in this regard, is like the revelry of senseless.

      As for the points about ‘wearing nudity’, they are well taken. One would hear have to explore not only Sartre, but also Deleuze’s dialectic of bare and clothed repetition, Derrida on nudity as an effect of clothing and the impossibility of being nude, Agamben on nudity as the knowability of a thing irreducible to the properties known, etc. Nonetheless, I think the point would be that, yes, nudity is always nudity for a gaze, it is still a mask, but it nonetheless is like the very finality of the mask itself, the sense in which the mask does not cover something that cannot be seen, but exposes the fact that, behind it, there is nothing to see, there is no deeper meaning that is hidden. I should say, however, that these are only initial ruminations on what will likely be a much larger project.

      • kvond says:

        The point is that IF you regard the dance as “nude” it is that you have an investment in reading it as “mask” (either as a mask hiding something, or as you say, hiding nothing), but this is your transmographication of the dance/dancer. The dance/dancer is not “dancing nude” unless you want her/him to. Or, in the case of a stripper, they are using the dance as such, and you collude.

        Instead, if you want to stop playing with masks (full ones or empty ones) and grasp the dance as such, realize it is moving to something (the music) and upon something (the earth). In otherwords, things you are yourself participating in. The music is not “laid bare” (enough with the nudity), nor is the earth, when you, the dancer/dance and the music/earth form a partcipatory assemblage. You cannot understand the dance without in some fashion “tapping” your feet. It is not self-less-ness, but the tension between self, distance, and bodily connection, the very modality of mutuality.

        • reidkane says:

          It’s not about selflessness, its about a mode of subjectivity that coincides with desubjectivation.

          I think your comment ‘enough with the nudity’, even if intended in jest, is telling, because you seem resistant to the notion of exposure. Of course one must dance to something and upon something, not to mention something (the body) must dance. The point is that dance is irreducible to all of these, and is rather a way in which their existence and relations are exposed, that is, revealed in their contingency, vulnerability, and ultimate purposelessness.

          • kvond says:

            Ha. I wondered if you would take this “enough with nudity” in that way. It is precisely the opposite. I should have written “Enough with ‘nudity’!” That is enough with turning nudity into a concept that oscillates in some curious Being/Nothinginess binary, enough with nudity that operates as one kind of mask or another. The nudity that is GENUINELY exposed is the one that invades, that transgresses. The nudity of the dancer is accomplished when the music it moves to transgresses the limits of your body, as watcher, as listener. The exposure is not the “exposure” of “thought” or the exposure of another, but rather the exposure of paricipation. Enough with “nudity” is enough with turning bodies into “pure form” or representations of anything.

            Contingency, vulnerability sure, this is what happens when music and earth collide in the nexus of bodies. I have no idea what “ultimate purposelessnes” is other than a nihilistic myth we tell ourselves to convince ourselves and others that we are somehow facing the world bravely.

            • reidkane says:

              Ultimate purposelessness means just what it sounds like: purposes are always locally imposed, vulnerable to corruption, self-undermining, mutation, abandonment, etc. There are no over-arching reasons by way of which these local projects can absolutely secure themselves or prescribe themselves. If you don’t think such gestures of claiming absolute security exist, I’d suggest you talk to, well, pretty much anyone: be it God, ‘Science’, or whatever else, most think there is some correct way to exist. It has nothing to do with bravery, although it does take a certain resoluteless to maintain projects that acknowledge their own insecurity. I don’t know what you mean by ‘nihilistic myth’.

              • kvond says:

                I guess I find the word “ultimate” in the phrase “ultimate purposelessness” to hold connotations that are problematic, specifically those of valuation such as “the highest form” or “the great” or any other sort. I don’t know if the universe is best described as “ultimately purposeless” so much as to say that the word “purpose” doesn’t fit in well here.

  2. Gabriel says:

    As I do not know the song to which you refer here I cannot really comment on the section on the lyrics, however, the part about dancing as “nudity” started me thinking.

    I have for as long as I have been aware of them, been wary and suspicious of nightclubs. Whenever I am in one I always become increasingly depressed, and feel generally alienated. The reason for this, I feel, is that the dancing which takes place in these clubs is *not* a form of nudity; it is not a self-expression of the most hazerdous kind, it is precisely the opposite. The dancing which goes on in nightclubs seems to me to be entirely superficial, devoid of personality or genuine feeling (or even importantly a love of the music) the people dance because it is expected of them.

    People, if asked, go into clubs because they want to socialise, but the socialisation which goes on in clubs is profoundly anti-social. The blandness of the music, the homogeneity of the clothing worn, the hairstyles, the thinly disguised sexual posturing – it all adds up to a social situation in which no one may be themselves – we are all given the same role to play and we are expected to perform it, and if one does not, one is necessarily isolated from the mass of dancers. It is exclusive as opposed to inclusive.

    I am frankly a little confused by your section on the “nothingness” exposed in dancing and singing, I have always felt that when one sings or dances one must be representing something within. Perhpas this is is a little nieve, but I have always only ever sung or danced because I wished to express an emotional response to music. Maybe this for you is what the nothingness of it means, but for me, it is not that at all, it is if anything *fullness* which creates music.

    Just some thoughts off the top of my head. I may have totally misread you on this, and if so I apologise.


    • reidkane says:

      The song is posted at the top, if you want to hear it.

      Your point about nightclubs is of course correct, although I must admit I have had the experience of being terrified of dancing, terrified of exposing myself, only to find that in finally just doing so with friends, the experience of mutually exposing ourselves to embarrassment not only prevents any of use from becoming embarrassed, but moreover cements the friendship all the more. Nonetheless, this is probably not the norm in such environments. Here one would have to analyze the whole dialectics of obligation and shame, the manners in which shame is integrated into economies, etc.

      You are very right about the anti-social sociality that is predominant here, although I’d qualify by saying it is likely the case that these people are not ‘hiding’ behind the social roles they adopt. In many cases, they are probably exposing their own profoundly shallow character. Yet I don’t think this example exhausts the potentials of dance, nor even those available in the nightclub.

      I am deeply, deeply opposed to this sense of ‘something within’. An emotional response is the most shallow thing there is, a pure surface effect, a nexus of chemical and social reflexes, a mask we put on not only for others, but for ourselves. I think such concepts of emotional fullness and inner depth obscure the terrifying, but also potentially liberatory capacities available when we confront the groundless and abyssal character of ourselves. I’d obviously never write off arguments to the contrary out of hand, but that’s just to give you an idea of where I’m coming from.

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