Ethics, Staged


  • Carrie Noland University of California, Irvine



ethics, dance studies, Cunningham, Agamben,


This article stages a dialogue between Giorgio Agamben’s theory of gesture and the 2016 reconstruction of Merce Cunningham’s 1964 choreography, Winterbranch. This juxtaposition encourages a comparison between Agamben's and Cunningham's respective approaches to the semiotics of dance, the way that dance can generate meaning but also evade meaning in a way that Agamben deems "proper" to the "ethical sphere." For Agamben, dance is composed of what he calls "gestures" that have "nothing to express" other than expressivity itself as a "power" unique to humans who have language. For Cunningham, dance is composed of what he calls "actions," or at other times "facts"—discrete and repeatable movements sketched in the air that reveal the "passion," the raw or naked "energy" of human expressivity before that energy has been directed toward a specific expressive project. I will look more closely at what Cunningham means by "actions," and to what extent they can be considered "gestures" in Agamben's terms; I will also explore the "ethical sphere" opened by the display of mediality, the "being-in-a-medium" of human beings. What, then, do dance gestures expose that ordinary gestures do not? Why would such an exposure be “ethical” in Agamben’s terms? And why would (his notion of) the ethical rely on a stage?

Author Biography

Carrie Noland, University of California, Irvine

Carrie Noland is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.  She is the author of Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology (Princeton, 1999), Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture (Harvard, 2009), and Voices of Negritude in Modernist Print (Columbia, 2015).  She is also co-editor of two interdisciplinary collections: Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement with Barrett Watten, and Migrations of Gesture with Sally Ann Ness. At present, she is completing a manuscript entitled Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary (forthcoming from Chicago University Press).


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How to Cite

Noland, C. (2017). Ethics, Staged. Performance Philosophy, 3(1), 67–91.



Special Section: Towards an Ethics of Gesture