Dance Lessons: A Comparison of Precarity and Contingency in Contemporary U.S. Choreography and Ethnography

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Laurel's prior posts: post 1 & post 2]

In last weeks posts, Deepa and Ali both talked about a professionalized model of fieldwork in which intellectual work happens under certain practical constraints and towards certain ends.  Deepa also pointed to the benefits of doing ethnography on the sidelines, talking about how “parcelable” time working towards someone else’s ends can free up time for other, more reflective work. And in a last week’s post, I, too, talked about the sometimes-sunny side of ethnography-for-hire, as often enabling new forms of creativity and teamwork and as offering clearly-bounded projects, research goals, and timelines that produced results, i.e., got my team and me to write.

Like all of the contributors and commenters in this series, I have a stake in thinking about the possibilities for ethnography and anthropology beyond the traditional forms and institutional contexts of long-term, immersive fieldwork underwritten by graduate fellowships or university tenure-track positions.  But I also believe that as we move on to new ways of imagining ethnography, we must face head-on what we stand to lose as a result of precarity and the increasing trend of the casualization of academic labor.  My research with experimental U.S. choreographers may be a useful backdrop against which to explore the dynamics and effects of job precarity in fields of cultural production.  It has helped me to see how precarity affects not only producers (dancers and choreographers), but how it affects the product itself (the dancing and the choreography).  More dance ethnographic specifics in a bit, but first a look at how the jargon of self-determination and flexibility that often accompanies discussions of contingent positions can disguise power imbalances and modes of domination that precarity engenders.

Who better to explicate the dark, depressing side of social processes than Pierre Bourdieu?  In “Job Insecurity is Everywhere Now,” a talk delivered at a 1997 European conference on precarity, Bourdieu declared:

It has emerged clearly that job insecurity is now everywhere; in the private sector, but also in the public sector, which has greatly increased the number of temporary, part-time or casual positions; in industry, but also in the institutions of cultural production and diffusion—education, journalism, the media, etc. In all these areas it produces more or less indentical effects…Casualization profoundly affects the person who suffers it: by making the whole future uncertain, it prevents all rational anticipation, and, in particular, the basic belief and hope in the future that one needs in order to be able to rebel, especially collectively, against present conditions, even the most intolerable (p. 82).

And as if that were not grim enough, Bourdieu goes on to make the point that precarity not only affects those in explicitly unstable positions, but also creates an atmosphere in which “objective insecurity gives rise to a generalized subjective insecurity,” giving those who do have steady work the sense that their jobs are “a fragile, threatened privilege (pp. 82-83).”  Precarity’s forms, then, are various, but its pervasive social effect is a shared anxiety about the present and lack of ability to plan for the future.

Precarity in the domains of knoweldge and cultural production very often involves processes of deprofessionalization as producers (artists, scholars, lawyers, doctors, e.g.) are decreasingly able to determine the terms and conditions of their own work. In academia, deprofessionalization is not just borne by the adjunct faculty member.  The adjunctification of the university is just the most extreme outcome of the bottom-line logics of managers and administrators’ drives to maximize returns while minimizing long-term investments.  For adjuncts and other part-time faculty, deprofessionalization takes the form of low wages, few benefits, no research stipends, limited access to office space and library privileges, no paid time off in the form of sabbaticals, and, finally, no job security from semester to semester.  For tenure-track faculty, “job creep” in the form of increased teaching loads, heavier service commitments, and reduced support staff are a few features of deprofessionalization.  Faculty unions, some exclusively for adjuncts and others that bring together contingent and full-time faculty, have begun to make inroads in addressing these conditions.  But while the symbolic gains have been great, the real working conditions of adjuncts remain untenable, especially for those who are primary wage-earners for themselves or their families.

It’s not hard to imagine what happens to individuals under these conditions (burn-out, personal economic crises, demoralization, abandonment of research projects), but we should also be concerned about what happens more generally to knowledge production and dissemination under such conditions.  A look at recent developments in contemporary concert dance in the U.S. provides a useful counterpoint as we consider: 1)  how precarity and deprofessionalization affect careers and destabilize narratives of success; and 2) how such conditions can eventually change an entire field, including the products created under its aegis and the very minds and bodies that create these products.    The professionalization and deprofessionalization of modern dance took place in a very compressed span of time, from about 1965, with the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, through about 2000, by which time the effects of national, state, and private funding cuts had firmly taken hold in the field.  In the interim, during the 1970s and early 1980s, a “dance boom” occurred, during which dance companies received infusions of grant money that enabled them to pay dancers for most of the year as opposed to just for performances.  Additionally the sheer number of dance companies grew rapidly as young choreographers were able to win no-strings-attached grants that could be used to rent studios, pay dancers, or simply to “buy” the creative time necessary to build a body of work.  Institutions that supported this growth (college dance departments, professional organizations, and new touring networks) also sprung up, giving rise to a layer of managerial positions in the field.   Consequently, a new narrative of success emerged, one that used institutional stability (i.e., the maintenance of a dance company) as both a sign of success and a way of ensuring its continuation.

This implicit narrative of professional success is  where the connections between dance and academia may become clearer: the attainment of a dance company with non-profit status as a badge of success and “professionalism” is roughly equivalent to the acquisition of tenure in an academic setting.  Professionalism, in both cases, means not only a stable relationship with an institution that materially and symbolically supports one’s work, but also a degree of control over the production and content of one’s work.  Moreover, in each of these cases, it is not only success but also basic professional legitimacy that continue to be measured against a standard attainable by only a very few.

Also comparable are the shifts in how work products themselves (choreography and, in our case, ethnography) are understood and underwritten.  In dance, funding models have largely shifted from general support of choreographers and companies (fellowships and company grants) to the funding of particular projects.  This shift partly reflects a concern with measurable outcomes and accountability, concerns that grew out of  the culture wars of the 1980s and1990s, but also resonate with contemporary corporate modes of thinking.  As choreographers have adapted to project-based models of funding, their ways of making dances have changed.  Because project-based funding is inherently unstable and contingent, choreographers must be able to sell themselves to a variety of funders and audiences and, if successful, must then pull together resources (time, space, dancers) on short notice.  In concrete terms, this means that the vast majority of choreographers can no longer count on a stable company of dancers and that most dancers can no longer count on stable work with a particular choreographer.  So instead of becoming expert in a particular technique (Graham, Cunningham, or Balanchine-style ballet, for example), dancers must be stylistically flexible, i.e., able to take on the styles of a variety of choreographers.  Dance theorist Susan Foster terms this ideal dancer a “body-for-hire” that “train[s] in several existing techniques without adopting the aesthetic vision of any” (254). In exchange for this marketable ability to be literally and figuratively flexible, argues Foster, dancers must give up the depth of knowledge and expression that comes with training in a single technique over an extended period of time.

Foster’s assessment of the effects of workplace flexibility in dance may indeed be a cautionary tale for knowledge workers as a whole.  As Emily Martin famously points out, flexibility is a dominant metaphor in the contemporary U.S., operating in domains as varied as medicine, organizational theory, corporations, and new age philosophy.  The flexible corporation (or dance company, university, or market research firm) is able to cut costs by hiring and firing workers as needed. And the flexible worker (the “free agent” or consultant) is able to attain work by being quick to learn the codes and exigencies of particular workplace and/or project.  But if the flexible worker is adaptable, pliant, and quick, s/he is also necessarily more acquiesent, interchangable and disposable (Martin, pp. 143-158).   The paradox for choreographers and dancers in the contingeny-driven, project-based model is that it takes time and money to literally keep a bodies and minds flexible and agile.  In order to maintain one’s technique, a degree of constancy in working conditions is necessary, namely in the form of a regular place to take classes and rehearse.  In the absence of those conditions, it is nearly impossible to attain, maintain, and build physical skills and expertise.    In this case, as in others, the tropes of flexibility and free agency gloss over the ways in which insecurity can ultimately inhibit creativity and adaptability.

How, then, to translate this rather specialized example into useful lessons for ethnographers working under conditions of precarity?  While we may agree that mobility, changing circumstances, and quick gigs can sometimes stimulate creativity and new ways of thinking, just as often their opposites, stability and constancy, are what we need in order to produce truly innovative and valuable work. (George Marcus examines this predicament in his discussion of the anxiety-provoking tensions between the unbearable slowness of anthropological research and the conditions under which ethnographies are produced these days. Thanks to Deepa for this citation.) Without romanticizing either the classical Western artist-patron relationship or the situations of tenure-track academics, we cannot ignore the real benefits of unimpeded time and space to work in ways not directly and constantly determined by outside interests.  Secure postions with living wages and benefits in academic or other research institutions can free up the mental and physical time and space needed to conduct research and produce rich analysis.  While recognizing that this model of intellectual production has long ceased to be the statistical norm (and admitting that it has always had its own set of constraints), it pays to be attuned to how working conditions of adjuncts, contract workers, and part-timers can create economic and psychic levels of instability that impinge upon the gestation period and access to resources that intellectual work often requires.  As we move bravely into new forms and locations of ethnography, it bears asking indvidually and collectively how we can retain levels of professionalism that enable self-determination or creative co-determination of research questions and goals.

Laurel George is an adjunct assistant professor in New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Gallatin Division, as well as a humanities scholar with The Paul Taylor Dance Company. She received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Rice University in 2002.

7 thoughts on “Dance Lessons: A Comparison of Precarity and Contingency in Contemporary U.S. Choreography and Ethnography

  1. @Laurel

    Most of what you write here is so apt and well-described. There is, however, one point at which my personal experience diverges from the model you present. I cannot agree with the statement taken from Emily Martin that But if the flexible worker is adaptable, pliant, and quick, s/he is also necessarily more acquiesent, interchangable and disposable (Martin, pp. 143-158). An important part of the business of anyone dependent on project-based income is finding ways to become less acquiescent and, as far as possible, indispensable. What I’m about to say may not work for dancers whom, I suspect, are like professional athletes and have a short period in which to succeed or fail before their bodies betray them. But in the line of work in which my wife and I have found ourselves, translation and copywriting, abject acquiescence is a terrible, dead-end strategy. The key to success is neither to accept or reject client complaints but, instead, to discuss the source of the complaint (which is often no more than a query) and be ready to offer an option that improves on whatever the client suggests. This “third-way” approach demonstrates professionalism and builds a reputation for adding value as well as being easy to work with. Proceeding in this way and adding a store of expertise on which regular clients come to depend is the way to achieve a stable and comfortable livelihood.

  2. To maybe build on John’s point above, I wonder if “becoming indispensable” is a tactic within the larger shift that Laurel and E. Martin and others are describing? In other words, were dancers, choreographers, ethnographers and other intellectual and creative workers worried about indispensability in the same way, prior to the era of projects?

    Also, I have often been struck by the rising prominence of projects in general. In many fields—especially but certainly not limited to anthropologists working outside of academia—knowing how to manage, envision and implement projects can often seem to take precedence over expertise or depth of knowledge. But Laurel, maybe you could clarify this: Do you think that people are thinking about, approaching, planning and working in the category of “projects” in a new way today, or is this just about funding? Or perhaps there is another dimension to this that I’m missing?

  3. Michael, thanks for moving this forward. At least for me, a critical source of what is going on these days has been labor economist James K. Galbraith’s Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay (1998). The point I remember most vividly from this book is Galbraith’s observation that, while business people say they revere the free market, every single one of us wants to create a monopoly, to become the sole source of whatever our customers need and thus be in a position to command a high price for it. Why? The answer is simple. In a perfectly free market, margins are terrible. In the theoretically ideal case where supply exactly matches demand, nobody makes a profit.

    From an advertising perspective, what Galbraith is talking about is brand-building, described in one formulation as moving prospects from awareness to interest to serious consideration to to preference and, finally, the Holy Grail, can’t live without it. From an employment perspective, this is why smart people no longer look for jobs; they think about ways to grow a reputation and build a career.

    The problem with jobs is that a job is fundamentally a task that can be performed by any number of people with similar skills, making the people in question easily replaceable. Thus, cynically speaking, getting and holding a single job is inherently deskilling. When all your time is taken up by doing the routines that you are paid to do, you aren’t thinking, learning, looking ahead, searching for the next step to something you’d rather be doing.

    What is damned hard is finding yourself in a position where there are so many people wanting the same job you do that from an employer’s perspective you become easily replaceable. In this respect, I imagine, the world of academia and the world of dance are now very similar. When hundreds audition for places in the chorus and the stories of those who make it from the chorus to star are mythic because they are rare, the competition is fierce and hierarchy (A-list, B-list, no-list) is given. Those who make it to the top may not be the smartest or most talented (though they are usually both smart and talented). What they are is totally dedicated and ruthless when necessary to achieve what they want and, yes, they usually start with a leg up, an unfair advantage of some sort, connections or other resources that others lack.

    So what can you do, if you are not one of these totally dedicated, ruthless, equipped with special advantages competitors who make it to the top of the heap? I only know of two possibilities. The history of unions shows what can be done when people band together and fight collectively for a fairer share of the pie. That’s one way. The other is the one my life represents, finding a niche in which you can make yourself indispensable to enough regular customers that you are pretty well off, which, if my experience is any indication, involves a lot of knocking around, trying this and that,finding what you are good at, and acquiring unique expertise that’s unique because very few others will have followed the same critical path and learned the same things that you have. The dancer who dreamed of Broadway earns a living as a personal trainer, a physical therapist, the proprietor of a ballet school or something totally different.

    That’s my take.

  4. @John: Your comments on dispensability and indispensability are well taken. To be sure, abject acquiescence to client needs would be a pretty horrible business model! It’s been instructive to hear how you and your wife have built a business (and a life, really) outside of an academic context, but using your training and expertise to enhance your clients’ projects.

    What resonated with me in Martin and Bourdieu’s discussions of flexibility was the ways in which this pervasive and positively-valued idea of flexibility can be a cover for really deep and broad exploitative processes that reach far beyond the realm of knowledge work. And what I found relevant to this series is the ways in which these new modes and locales of ethnographic practice can involve accommodative strategies (see Ben, Gottleib and Beth’s comments on Nate’s Week 2 post) that may be personally, ethically, or intellectually compromising.
    The question for me is, to continue the dance metaphor: “In pursuing new professional opportunities for the practice of ethnography, how far can I bend before I break?” For me, these questions pertain both in how I imagine and shape professional and intellectual pursuits (projects, jobs) and also how I carry them out once there.

  5. @Michael: About projects: I definitely think that the project-based model is pervasive (in business, academia, research, the arts, etc.). It seems to me part of the casualization of labor across fields and sectors. In business, it seems that within companies “teams” are drawn together to complete “projects,” whereas before perhaps before there would have been a more stable (or static) envisioning of work. Part of my argument about the experimental dance world is that this project-based model which focuses on discrete time-bounded projects is not only a result of shifts in funding, but also reflects a fundamental shift in how we think about what goes into (and what comes out of) being an artist/creator. Although excellent work can get produced under these conditions (and some artists or academics or managers) prefer to work this way, the problem with the project-based model as a default in creative and intellectual pursuits is that it can lead to a constricting instrumentalization of work (e.g., does this dance meet all the aims of the funder? does this ethnography deliver actionable “learnings”?). I guess that’s part of my questiton about what gets lost. Sometimes we need the structure, deadlines, and goals a project provides to be creative; sometimes, though, and sometimes we need a walk in the woods or 3 months in the studio or a sabbatical. So I do think it’s partly a question of funding and economics, but I think there is also an ideological dimension which both generates and helps to rationalize the economics.

  6. What resonated with me in Martin and Bourdieu’s discussions of flexibility was the ways in which this pervasive and positively-valued idea of flexibility can be a cover for really deep and broad exploitative processes that reach far beyond the realm of knowledge work.

    For me, other critical sources in considering this problem include George Ritzer (1993) The McDonaldization of Society, Robert Reich (1992) The Work of Nations, and Daniel Pink (2005) A Whole New Mind. To me, all three point to the need to examine flexibility in light of class differences and employer and employee perspectives. To be an unskilled worker in a large pool of unemployed confronting employers who are trying to minimize their obligations is not, I suggest, the same situation as that of a smart knowledge worker facing a situation in which opportunities along the dream career path are shrinking, but others are opening up along other (sometimes morally dubious) paths. The situations of someone young and single, starting a new family, or with kids in college, mortgages to pay and elderly parents to care for also differ in ways that strongly inflect the implications of flexibility, on both the employee and employer sides.

  7. Absolutely 100% agree about the differences in the how casualization of labor and the exploitation of labor manifest themselves differently in the domains of manual and/or service labor vs knowledge work. That is partly what I meant to allude to when I talked about the “broad and deep processes of exploitation far beyond its boundaries.” Guess I could’ve been more explicit– thanks for bringing the contextual aspects of “flexploitation” to the fore — and thanks also for the cites!

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