the silly social animal

There is a reason why the home page of this blog has a video celebrating rhythm. All movement is rhythm, all language is rhythm, all interaction is rhythm, it is the lifeblood of presence. And being (in the ) present is the lifeblood of attention, a core theme of this blog. Stomp comes about as close as it gets to getting this across in a visceral way. Which in a most literal sense is the only way it can be really understood.

But their performance goes beyond rhythm to the core of the kind of animal we are: playful, creative, social, groupist. Enjoy!

This show-don’t-tell philosophizing on human nature may be wildly popular as entertainment but also deserves credits for its intellectual depth. Another star of this genre is Reggie Watts:

Next time you walk the streets, look for a good spot to practice the art of people watching. When you pay close enough attention to your fellow humans the weird, funny, exciting, inspiring, and, yes, also sometimes depressing and aggressive games we play may become visible right there and then. No tickets required. The performers above have done exactly that to put their shows together: look for the social rhythms on the streets, in offices, at family tables, and distill the essence of what they saw, just as the monk who creates a zen garden

I don’t blame you if you think the videos are fun but my accompanying words are meaningless babble. Talking about the rhythm of our social games quickly sounds new age but there is a serious – be it niche – field of anthropology called kinesics which studies “syncing” or “being in sync”, the unconscious, synchronous movement of people in a harmonious manner as a form of communication.

Let me quote from a book by one of its kingpins, Edward T. Hall:

. . . Rhythm is basic to synchrony. This principle is illustrated by a film of children on a playground. Who would think that widely scattered groups of children in a school playground could be in sync. Yet this is precisely the case. One of my students selected as a project an exercise in what can be learned from film. Hiding in an abandoned automobile, which he used as a blind, he filmed children in an adjacent school yard during recess. As he viewed the film, his first impression was the obvious one: a film of children playing in different parts of the school playground. Then — watching the film several times at different speeds, he began to notice one very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. Concentrating on the girl, my student noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. Many viewings later, he realized that this girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground! There was something about the pattern of movement which translated into a beat — like a silent movie of people dancing. Furthermore, the beat of this playground was familiar! There was a rhythm he had encountered before. He went to a friend who was a rock music aficionado, and the two of them began to search for the beat. It wasn’t long until the friend reached out to a nearby shelf, took down a cassette and slipped it into a tape deck. That was it! It took a while to synchronize the beginning of the film with the recording — a piece of contemporary rock music — but once started, the entire three and a half minutes of the film clip stayed in sync with the taped music! Not a beat or a frame of the film was out of sync!

How does one explain something like this? It doesn’t fit most people’s notions of either playground activity or where music comes from. Discussing composers and where they get their music with a fellow faculty member at Northwestern University, I was not surprised to learn that for him, and for many other musicians, music represents a sort of rhythmic consensus, a consensus of the core culture. It was clear that the children weren’t playing and moving in tune to a particular piece of music. They were moving to a basic beat which they shared at the time. They also shared it with the composer, who must have plucked it out of the sea of rhythm in which he too was immersed. He couldn’t have composed that piece if he hadn’t been in tune with the core culture.

Things like this are puzzling and difficult because so little is known technically about human synchrony. However, I have noted similar synchrony in my own films of people in public with no relationship with each other. Yet, they were syncing in subtle ways. The extraordinary thing is that my student was able to identify that beat. When he showed his film to our seminar, however, even though his explanation of what he had done was perfectly lucid, the members of the seminar had difficulty understanding what had actually happened. One school superintendent spoke of the children as “dancing to the music”; another wanted to know if the children were “humming the tune.” They were voicing the commonly held belief that music is something that is “made up” by a composer, who then passes on “his creation” to others, who, in turn, diffuse it to the larger society. The children were moving, but as with the symphony orchestra, some participants’ parts were at times silent. Eventually all participated and all stayed in sync, but the music was in them. They brought it with them to the playground as a part of shared culture. They had been doing that sort of thing all their lives, beginning with the time they synchronized their movements to their mother’s voice even before they were born. . . .

Before the Renaissance, God was conceived of as sound or vibration. This is understandable because the rhythm of a people may yet prove to be the most binding of all the forces that hold human beings together. As a matter of fact, I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. This explains why some composers really do seem to be able to tap into that sea and express for the people the rhythms that are felt but not yet expressed as music.

From The Dance of Life, The Other Dimension of Time, by Edward T. Hall, pp. 154-156

Just in case that after the above you are still game for a classic that was shot from the standpoint of a similar kind of sensitivity to what we are immersed in, what connects us viscerally, what is inescapable, may I offer you Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 Koyaanisqatsi, with a score by composer Philip Glass.


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