Performing the Rehearsal: The Strip Tease of Modernity

Hegel changed the course of modern philosophy when he asserted that history, driven by changes in the ideals and values of a given people, is  contradictory by nature. Yet modernity for Hegel was characterized by a sense of universality, thus lending itself to a certain idealism which was soon shattered by Marx, who used Hegelian dialectics to illustrate why modernity’s self image of a universally free and just society was, in fact, history’s most dangerous contradiction.

 The contradiction of modernity is a reoccurring theme in the work of Francis Alÿs, who currently has a retrospective at MoMA. While watching his 2006 video, The Politics of Rehearsal, I was reminded why the image of the prostitute is such a fitting representation of modernity. Just as the strip tease is always a rehearsal (for the sexual act is never performed), modernity never actually performed the very image it had rehearsed, the image of a universally free and just society.

The film begins at The Slipper Room in the Lower East Side. Shot in black and white, it opens with a woman practicing operatic scales behind a grand piano before cutting to footage from Washington D.C., January 20th, 1949. The television presenter announces that “The life of a democracy is about to be renewed.”

In his inaugural address, Truman announces to the American republic: “We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas…Democracy alone can supply the vitalizing force to stir the peoples of the world into triumphant action against their human oppressors.”

We transition from Truman to the title of the piece and are told that the Politics of Rehearsal should be considered a metaphor of Latin America’s ambiguous affair with Modernity. Forever arousing, and yet, always delaying the moment it will happen.

We return to the Slipper Room, the piano player, the soprano, and soon, a woman in a sequin dress. First we see her foot, enveloped in rocket tall heels. It emerges from the wings, and a leg follows. Without words, just a sway of her hips, she announces her presence. We are captivated. A man’s voice tells us in Spanish:

“I was rethinking the implication of the rehearsal as a comment on modernity. And what becomes immediately obvious is the notion that modernity is pornographic.”

Baudelaire, that great poet of modernity was well-known for his reoccurring image of the prostitute as the juxtaposition between Paris past and present. But it’s Benjamin who uses the work of Baudelaire to make the explicit connection between prostitution, the commodity, and commodity production. In Convolute O of The Arcades Project, Benjamin discusses the prostitute and the gambler in relation to the suspension of time. While the gambler lives in a fantasy of suspended time, the job of the stripper, as entertainer and performer, is to suspend time.

The stripper must arouse and then prolong that arousal. This is what the spectator wants, for arousal to be maintained throughout the duration of the performance. But, because arousal is suspended, the spectator forgets that the sexual act will never actually be performed. The performance is, therefore, nothing more than a rehearsal of the act.

Modernity is incredibly appealing; it is seductive (even Hegel was enraptured) but, as the narrator warns us in the film, “even as it displays itself, it’s impossible to appropriate it.”

Truman’s speech is a rehearsal for modernity. The words behind his monotone voice arouse and seduce the listener. Like the order in which the stripper removes her clothes, the argument for democracy unfolds sequentially, (“First, we will continue to give unfaltering support to the United Nations…Second, we will continue our programs for world economic recovery…Third, we will strengthen freedom-loving nations against the dangers of aggression…”)

But,  in the decades that followed, the act of democracy was never actually performed; only rehearsed. Like the stripper, the role of the politician and his or her political ideology is to keep us in a constant state of arousal. The final act, the “What we have achieved in liberty, we will surpass in greater liberty,” will never be delivered. To satiate that arousal would put the stripper out of her job, the President out of power.

This means that stripper and the audience are not on the same time. She keeps it moving (she’s clocked in after all) while ensuring it never goes anywhere (stay aroused by my liberty and you will come to surpass it).

The stripper in the video removes one pair of underwear, only to present us with another smaller, sexier pair. Our eyes work hard to imagine what is behind that underwear, but, no matter how hard we try, only she, the performer, can remove them. And, when she finally does, time is up.

The strip tease of democratic fair dealing is a very nice display, but touching is forbidden. The spectator, believing it  possible to eventually overcome this small detail, repeats and repeats until there is no money left to pay for the show. We realize arousal costs a fortune and modernity never comes.

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