<Book Review>
Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology. Susan Kozel. Cambridge: MIT P (Leonardo Book Series), 2007.

A dancer, a philosopher, and a theorist of performing with digital technology, Susan Kozel sets theory and practice in motion within technologically charged experiential environments in Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology. More than theory, method, or interdisciplinary treatise on the intersections of three phenomena, this book may be best described metaphorically as an “ecosystem” – a metaphor Kozel herself uses to describe one of the featured performances within it (204-11).

I suggest that Closer be viewed as a textual ecosystem in that it fits Kozel’s own ecosystem criteria. First, “[i]t is a convergence of parts into a networked whole according to complex choreographies of mutually interacting elements” (206). In other words, Kozel manages to assemble a plethora of complex phenomena, concepts, theorists, experiences, and textual forms, and to set them in motion so that they dance instead of ripping each other to shreds. As her title suggests, Kozel aims to explore the dynamics of human’s movement closer to technology and to each other through its capabilities, and to do so in a way that merges theory with praxis.

To reach this aim, she must bring together the multiple, complex concepts (i.e., flesh, the virtual) of (sometimes) divergent thinkers from diverse disciplines (i.e., dance, philosophy, performance, art, robotics, feminism) and even paradigms (i.e., art, science, technology). Though a reader will encounter theorists from Luce Irigaray, Don Idhe and Donna Haraway to Paul Virilio, Richard Schechner and Francisco Varela, the philosophical center of this textual ecosystem is “a contemporary adaptation of the later thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, filtered and expanded through the voice of others including Emmanuel Levinas and Gilles Deleuze” (2). The question, of course, is what this “adaptation” does to phenomenology. The main additions seem to be a welcome consideration of sexual difference, a refreshing and useful focus on “the conversion of theory into practice” (48), and a move to refute the charges of “solipsism” often hurled (unfairly, in my opinion) at phenomenology generally and Merleau-Ponty specifically (296). All of these extensions breathe new life into phenomenology for practitioners of technology-based performance, though some may argue that Kozel’s philosophical explanations (more so than her method) are too much of a stretch to be truly phenomenological. Because she is working to fill the need for “new modalities of reflection” (8), however, I interpret this philosophical stretching more positively than negatively.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Kozel’s text is that she not only puts forth her own version of the phenomenological method – and masterfully, at that – she also demonstrates, in multiple iterations, what evocative phenomenological processes and reports can look like. Structurally, she begins Closer with a long chapter outlining the elements of the text (phenomenological concepts, her method, key concepts from technology and performance, etc.) and moves into the remaining four chapters, each reflecting upon a major concept and a type of performance technology through the lens of performances she has participated in. The most engaging sections are those like 3.5, “From Joint to Joint: Process Phenomenologies,” where rich phenomenological description and philosophical explanation flow together to show how phenomenology can illuminate performance and vice versa. Other sections (like 2.5, which deals with pedagogy), while still exploring how best to live close to technology seem unbalanced in one direction or another, and less engaging as a result.

On the whole, though, Kozel succeeds in creating Closer as a unified whole through the repetition of concepts as well as stylistic elements. Each section begins with a title and a quote from a relevant author that serve to create dialogue and connection between themes. Importantly for a performance text the book is quite beautiful, with a layout and photos that incite reflection through their ambiguity and subtlety. For this reader, at least, Kozel creates an experience, a performative text that is felt as much as it is read. Thus, Closer can be further seen as an ecosystem in that “it has a contained and otherworldly feel” (206).

Finally, Kozel’s textual ecosystem “exists within a wider network” (208) that includes the discourses of phenomenology, feminism, dance, pedagogy, and, of course, technology. She weighs in on relevant debates, from the existence of a real/virtual binary to the ideal ethics for a technologically infused society, to the political implications of holding technology close. The question remains: how does this text relate to performance studies? Taking a cue from Richard Schechner’s notion of “is and as” performance, Kozel places the framing responsibility within the practitioner, so that “[p]erformance entails a reflective intentionality on the part of the performer herself” (68-69). Given this orientation, Closer will prove most useful for those working at the nexus of embodied and mediated performance, though Kozel’s basic method would be productive for any scholar utilizing (staged) performance as a method to learn about self and/or other(s). Her translation of phenomenology into the vocabulary of performance praxis successfully avoids the pitfalls of reduction and opacity, allowing entry without denying sustained and complex contemplation. Those familiar with the literature of performance studies will notice what seems to be Kozel’s lack of familiarity in some places (for example, in her discussion of “heterophenomenology ” which would benefit from the literature of performance ethnography), but this is overshadowed by her skillful integration of relevant theories from multiple related disciplines. Perhaps most usefully, Closer provides an argument for lived experience as a valid epistemological starting point as well as an alluring example of how experiential research journeys might proceed.

     — Shauna M. MacDonald

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