Neither a Leader Nor a Follower Be
Last updated: Feb 24, 2020
Sync & Syncopation
Zeyao and I worked (as assigned) to develop a method of walking that would allow us to move together without following or leading. It took us a while to get started. We initially were looking for some way to remove almost all of our agency: I suggested we hold hands and lean outwards from each other (relying on gravity to pull us down towards the floor in opposite directions) and Zeyao suggested we find some way to be thrown from one place to another. In both cases, the limits on our active ability to lead would limit both of our influence over where we moved to. This proved difficult, and in both cases, the argument can be made that we were following some third force.
I suggested we try an exercise from fencing. A common footwork drill involves both fencers advancing and retreating in turns as each watches for patterns of footfalls and speed and tries to jump on the other’s hesitations and inconsistencies. I explained the rules of right of way to Zeyao, and he rightly pointed out that in this situation we would both be “following” the rules.
In any case we tried it. The rules of right-of-way are complicated enough and the gesture is unfamiliar enough that we had a fair amount of trouble with it. But the sense of pull-and-push felt less like leading and following and more like a kind of continuous negotiation.
Leading and Not-Following
After trying some methods of carrying each other, we settled on a kind of walking where we press our palms together. Then we both walk. We decide as we move where to go, and both of us have influence over each other’s movement and over the movement of our unit. Observers argued that the forward-walking partner was leading, although in the group it felt like the backward-walking partner may have had more influence over the unit by pulling than the other did by pushing. We helped each other to dodge obstacles, and at one point, I stopped—effectively forcing Zeyao to stop as well.
“Well, now you’re leading,” he said.
“I think I’m just refusing to follow,” I said.
The Limits of Gesture
We stay together as a unit and we do follow the rule that says we are no longer walking together if our hands separate. We gently press against and softly pull away from each other’s hands—is this gesture? In some sense, yes. The press or pull communicates something about where I may be going or where I may want my partner to move. However, in this exercise, where both participants watch each other and determine where to collectively move, where is the line between communicative gesture and pure movement? Steps and breaths can be understood to contain meaning, and can be read and deployed as gesture. If we are watching and being watched so intricately and intimately, is there any way to avoid gesture?
Probably our carefully maintained gesturelessness says something too.