Scholar’s Corner: POLITICS OF PIETY

As a doctoral student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, I am currently preparing to take the long-awaited “Second Examination” in August. This consists of a rigorous set of written and oral exams on three scholarly fields that I myself have defined. In this way it is unlike the much broader “First Examination,” which covered all of theatre history and theory in the widest possible scope.

My three fields are as follows:

1) “Approaches to Embodied Practice” (30 books)

2) “Actor Training in the U.S. since 1930” (25 books)

3) “Affect, Politics, and Performance” (25 books)

With the idea that these topics could be of interest to the Movement Research community, I will be posting brief discussions of some of my favorite books here throughout the month of July. Each of the books I will address was published in the past ten years, and each is excellent overall. They are all scholarly works, although some are more accessible in tone and language than others. I hope that these blog entries will point theory-minded practitioners towards some new ideas in emerging scholarship — and perhaps tempt some scholars to the website of Movement Research.


The first book I will discuss is Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject by Saba Mahmood (Princeton University Press, 2005). If a truly great book is one that combines important subject matter with profound insight, and which on top of that is well-written, then this one is a contender for the best book I have read in four years of graduate school. Mahmood offers an intimate ethnographic portrait of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, a subject that has had special relevance ever since the “West” began to demonize Islam and which has only more important since the extraordinary events of this past year. Even more importantly, for my purposes, she enacts a thorough rereading of the giants of critical theory (especially Michel Foucault and Judith Butler) and takes a major step forward in theorizing embodied practice.

Mahmood joins cultural critic Jeffrey Minson in critiquing humanist ethics since Kant for the “relative lack of attention given to the morphology of moral actions, that is, to their precise shape and form” (25). In other words, Western notions of morality and ethics have been focused too narrowly on rational decision-making and have ignored the details and implications of more embodied practices. Mahmood goes on to analyze such practices in the context of the women’s moscoque movement by looking at embodied aspects of religious life such as prayer, storytelling, and the wearing of the veil. I cannot go too deeply into this particular cultural context here, but instead want to mention some of the implications of Mahmood’s work for theatre, dance, and performance.

For Mahmood, “it is only through an analysis of the specific shape and character of ethical practices that one can apprehend the kind of ethical subject that is formed. These practices … include corporeal and body techniques, spiritual exercises, and ways of conducting oneself” (29). The key here is the link between the body and ethics, which have too often been viewed as separate domains with little or no relationship to one another — or, if there is a relationship, it has been depicted as one in which ethics is an escape or transcendence of the (sinful) body. But Mahmood encourages us to look at how bodily practices, whether new or traditional, can in themselves be ethical. For example, she asks us to look at the veil not as a “sign” or “symbol” viewed from the outside but as a practice designed and intended to cultivate certain virtues, such as modesty, in the practitioner. Whatever we might want to say about the sexist bias according to which it is more important for women to cultivate modesty than men, Mahmood’s point is that we cannot even begin to understand such practices until we understand how they work for and on their practitioners.

In making her point, Mahmood brings in the example of “virtuoso pianist who submits herself to the often painful regime of disciplinary practice, as well as to the hierarchical structures of apprenticeship, in order to acquire the ability—the requisite agency—to play the instrument with mastery” (29). For Mahmood, the example of the pianist demands a rethinking of notions of agency and subjectivity as these are currently understood in feminist and other critical theories, since the pianist’s “agency is predicated upon her ability to be taught, a condition classically referred to as ‘docility.’”

Although I have barely scratched the surface of this book, I don’t think I need to explain how this is relevant to dance and to the age-old question of technique in dance. Recent scholarship has often gotten stuck focusing on the oppressive aspect of discipline and failed to understand its crucial role individual and communal empowerment. Dancers and dance scholars in general have a more sophisticated understanding of discipline as a double-edged sword. I therefore find it particularly exciting to draw a link between the issues as they appear in the performing arts and in an overtly social, cultural, and political context like the one Mahmood describes.

In a recent blog post, Joy Brooke Fairfield wrote of her frustration that a course on “Feminist Methods” was likely to teach “how to see and analyze … injustices, but not … how to deal with the difficulty of integrating this knowledge into my daily life.” In order to bridge the gap between analytical and practical methods, it will be necessary to develop a nuanced view of agency and discipline like the one Mahmood outlines.

Ben Spatz
Artistic Director
Urban Research Theater
MR-AIR 2010-2012


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