Ecstasy and Modernity
More than any other dance imagery of the era, Drtikol's photography dramatized the controlling impulse of Ausdruckstanz: that the body was the vortical source of power in achieving a synthesis of mysticism and modernity and that in this synthesis ecstasy became reality in an expanding tech-norational culture. The body, with its seemingly infinite inner conditions of desire and energy, established the limits of both abstraction and materialism. As an abstract concept, the new dance signified the most powerful (and therefore ecstatic) claim of the body, fusing mystical transcendence of material illusions and modern fearlessness in looking at human identity with optimum nakedness and materiality. As a material phenomenon, the female dancing body boldly signified that movement toward a modern condition of freedom entailed an ambiguous and often dangerous acknowledgement of erotic desires "buried" deep "inside" the body, desires that were as old as Salome and always a motive for speculation on the dynamics of excess. But ecstasy does not come without excesses: to grasp the mysterious force of the German dance culture, one must write excessively about it. To write excessively about the body culture is to focus on the achievements of peculiar personalities, not on abstract, supracorporeal theoretical perspectives on "the body" purporting to transcend individual bodies. A modern attitude toward the the body implied recognition of it as a site of endless, untranscendable difference. The body emerged as the dominant sign of a personality. A body's identity was not the ideologically determined product of this or that school or theoretical construction; rather, a body appeared as an organic form through which competing, even contradictory theories or reflections about it intersected to disclose a unique identity: difference. The image of it constructed by the German dance culture may indeed assume greater responsibility than performance
realities for any perception of excess ascribed to the body's movement toward a modern condition of ecstasy. But the motivating power of the image depends precisely on the magnitude of performance realities that test the authority of the image, and these were considerable, excessive, on a scale never imagined before or since.
Like Russian ballet, Ausdruckstanz drew its energy from mystical images of the body associated with the East, with vast, imperial spaces "beyond" home—"The world-state is the body," as Novalis cryptically observed in 1800 (Novalis 5). In this vision of a mythic, imperial space without borders and beyond restraining distinctions between the inner and other, the beauty of human movement always produced a different, estranging, foreign identity. The great irony of Ausdruckstanz and indeed of German body culture as a whole is that in striving to make the body an emblem, even a basis, for great social unity, it wound up making the body a dominant sign of difference, otherness, distinction, heroic imagination, and tension between contradictory inner desires and the entirely external concept of unity itself. But the motivating vision of unity is less important than the historical reality. The ultimate achievement, then, in the ecstatic surge of a people, a nation, a race toward modernity, was necessarily the emergence of a cultural empire—with the body as its emblem of sovereignty—which accommodated excessively strange or diverse ways of allowing the body to "speak."
The German body culture that emerged at the end of the Wilhelmine era was imperial insofar as it sought, excessively, to appropriate minds, spaces, and institutions on a national scale, even though it had no centralized authority nor any coherent system for consolidating its goals and achievements other than a mystical belief in the body as a salvational force. It is therefore difficult to construct a grand thesis that establishes a clear positive or negative relation between body culture and the rise of the Third Reich or between body culture and the expansion of European democracy. Fascist and other totalitarian political systems fear the instabilities of perception provoked by the nudity or movement of modern bodies; for the Nazis, the solution to finding a powerful value for human identity within inescapable conditions of modernity depended on subordinating bodies to a "higher" concept of communal-national identity that transcended the corporeal differences within it. For them, the body created a unified identity to the extent that it was "the same," a reproduceable form whose power lay in evoking a strong feeling of not being alone. They therefore created a culture for the body (rather than a body culture) that glorified uniforms, drill, synchronized movement, and the sheer quantity of bodies moving in step. Weimar body culture was to "blame" for Nazism insofar as it ascribed to bodies so many complicated, differentiating significations that only a totalitarian state could dream of containing them. Moreover, by making the body a
material sign of modernity, the body culture revealed that modernism was itself a surge of irrationality, not, as often supposed, a grand assertion of rationalist abstraction and consequent liberation from ancient, pathological anxieities over the flesh. Other industrialized countries did not embrace body culture as passionately as Weimar Germany because they feared the power of modern bodies to undermine a unified national perception of modernity as an expression of rationalist abstraction and logical organizations of identity derived from "higher" categories of signification.
Body culture emphatically presented itself as an expression of modernity, and modernity carried with it an aura of unprecedented freedom of desire and action. Moreover, especially in the realms of Nacktkultur and dance, body culture tended to perceive modernity and freedom in relation to expanded capacities for ecstasy. But ecstasy is possible only through the perpetration of excesses, and wherever excesses appear, limits and boundaries thrive to mark off the difference between what is excessive and what is "enough." Because of the differentiating presures of excesses, political power within the empire of ecstasy dispersed in a fragmented fashion toward cultic organizations of identities. The empire of ecstasy consisted largely of a great constellation of competing schools, individuals, societies, and performances, and its appeal rested upon its power to align ecstasy with modes of difference rather than with modes of unity (in spite of the glib moralizing and nationalistic rhetoric with which body culture often justified itself). That was the great, unintended revelation of the German body culture: it showed how, as soon as the body became an intense focus of perception, it also became a dominant sign and source of difference, of "otherness," in relation to an ecstatic destiny that could never be the same for any other body. The body was an empire in itself.
The modernity of the body manifested itself above all and in the most convincing degree through the expression of two passions: love of nudity and love of bodily movements that were an end in themselves. The beauty of bodily movements achieved its most articulate representation not in sports or gymnastic culture but in the sprawling German dance culture, wherein the capacity to "see" the body in a new, emancipated dimension depended on freeing perception from the premodern attitudes toward the body codified by ballet culture. Women drove this dance culture; men were largely spectators of it. Perhaps this sexual difference, which did not apply to Nacktkultur , constitutes a major failure of the dance culture, a failure that probably could have been avoided only to the extent that women disclosed as intense a desire to see men dance as to see themselves dance. But this sexual difference was not peculiar to Germany, even though the dance culture was; it does not belong to the peculiar historical and cultural circumstances defining Germany. Why, then, was Germany the favored site of both Nacktkultur and modern dance? The answer, I believe, has something to do with
mysterious and as yet unidentified features of the German language itself, with the ways in which language constructs consciousness and thereby establishes some kind of inner or metaphysical space within the body. We simply do not have the theoretical or technical apparatus to understand how this construction occurs. What we do know from the evidence of history is that an ecstatic body culture emerges because a people prefers to see the body as profoundly strange and to experience deep pleasure in the strangeness.