For the past several years, my choreographic research has revolved around the generic: the objects and ideas that are so pervasive we become unable to see their specificity. Sometimes this work looks like sliding through a pile of recycling, tangled in an extension cord, wearing a unitard from an old show, accompanied by a slowed-down loop of the “Macarena,” reaching for my collaborator’s hand. Sometimes it materializes in language, appearing on signs or sharpied on skin or embedded in performance scores. In this text, which is a document of a performance lecture, I am trying to be as direct as possible, though the concept itself is as elusive as ever. This writing traverses and defines the surface of the generic. Below the glossy surface is an endless web of citations, annotations, connections, events, anecdotes, riffs, inklings, live wires – all gathered in a companion piece published on Mn Artists linked via the footnotes.
Close your eyes.i
Imagine a generic bottle of beer.ii Draw the image in your mind.
What is written on the label? Does it have a name?
Where does it come from?iii How did it get there?
Do you drink this beer?
Doesn’t everyone drink this beer?
Now, in your mind’s eye, picture a door.
What does it look like? What is it made of? What is the color, the texture? What is the shape of the frame, the handle? Is it open or closed?
Is this door in your house? Is it somewhere in the world that you know?iv
Or is it more like the idea of a door?
What is a song that everyone knows?v
Who is everyone?
How do you dance to this song?
Who do you imagine dancing to this song?vi
No onevii wants to be called generic. Few would describe the things they like as generic. Yet generic things are all around you.viii Anything can be generic: an object, a brand, a gesture, a structure, a desire, an idea. When you call something generic, you mean that it’s common, ordinary, obvious, predictable, standard, unremarkable, unoriginal; yeah, you get it, some general gloss of all these qualities. If you went a step further, you might call it universal, but that would be too grandiose. Generic is that thing that is everywhere out there (gestures into the distance), but please not in here (hand to heart).
A generic on purpose, something that is made to be generic, is the store brand with the plain label. There’s nothing special about it, except that it’s economical. Something that’s generic, but not on purpose – that’s just embarrassing.ix
Generics are things that are all around you, and they wouldn’t be all around you if they didn’t move.x Generics are slippery. They can slide into almost any situation, often before you notice them. Sometimes this is because they are useful, necessary, even. Every kitchen needs a can opener.xi You don’t really think about it unless you can’t find it, and even then, you don’t think about all the tiny actions and repetitions of human history that put this device between you and your food.xii
Generic things are unobtrusive – but are they that way by nature, or did they get that way because you got used to having them around?xiii Safety equipment and traffic cones were made in bright orange, until you became so used to it that the loud color wasn’t working anymore, and they had to switch to something more neon.
Generic structures are made to fit. The coffee mug has a handle the size of your fist. The loading dock is built to accommodate the dimensions of the shipping container.xiv You have to fit yourself into the airplane seat. You get married because you always thought you would. (!) It’s happening at all scales. It’s part of a vast choreography that extends across the entire world. You can conform without thinking, or you can grumble and do it anyway, because what are your other options? Or you can choose to resist, absolutely, but there will be consequences. These things happen over and over. They repeat until perhaps, one day, they become different.
In this era of capitalism, we are all expected to individuate – homogeneously.xv Everyone has to have their own thing. If someone makes something that can be described as generic, it’s like they haven’t done the work, they’ve just recycled or regurgitated or picked up whatever was floating past them. It’s too easy.
This implication of individual and collectivexvi points to a key feature of the generic: what you think is generic says more about you than the generic thing itself.xvii
What you think is generic says more about you than the generic thing itself. It’s your particular universal.xviii Where did you get this idea of what everybody knows? What do you believe to be mass culture? What has been attributed to human nature, or the laws of science, or just the way things go, you know? Another way to put it is: where have you been all your life? What is the horizon that has been on the edge of your vision?xix
Generics are norms, and they operate on everyone – differently. You might have had others remind you of this from a young age: your difference, the ways you don’t fit into the standard.xx You might fit the mold very closely, with the need to shave just the littlest bit off the edges. You might wake up there and find yourself restless.xxi You might take a generic shape as a strategy, performing the role to get what you want, which might be survival. You might decide to reject it wholesale. You might find yourself back in the place where you started.
You might cringe at generics, but you can’t disavow them. They’re in your backpack, on your camera roll, in your storage unit, in your incognito tabs, in your hopes and dreams.xxii They’re too close; you can’t deny them. It would be a lie.
To name something as generic designates a lack – of originality, of personality, of definition. It’s without a brand, otherwise translated as without a mark.xxiii The generic enters when the thing doesn’t have a name. But the thing is still what it is, right? What do you mean, a generic? A generic what? A generic box of tissues, a generic can of beans, a generic essay, a generic selfie, a generic painting, a generic contemporary dance piece. The generic is most often a modifier, but there is something tangible there. The parasite needs a host; the genus must have a species. It’s an example, perhaps a specimen, that is indicative of a type or class of things.
The generic is a dig, as you know. Basic also means at the bottom, as in fundamental, and generic means at the root. The Latin genus means stock or race. To invoke the word generic is to shout about sameness, the force of homogenization, standardization, deindividuation. Things receive names, which brings them into being, while also limiting their horizons.
And yet this operation, the smoothing over of difference, depends entirely on the fundamental division of things into types. And by things, this means objects, actions, animals, plants, ideas, atoms, fungi, human beings. This is the stealth of the generic, to hover in between distinctness and indistinctness, shape-shifting for power, tricking everyone.
It’s normative in the sense that it’s everywhere, but liminal in the sense that it’s sneaky. The generic wipes its own name off of its face. It’s playing at invisibility. This capacity, this movement quality, of the generic is how it conceals its own violence: the violence of normalization. Norms are forged, repeated, and upheld in social categories of all kinds, through forces that are brute or covert, or both. For example:
Whiteness conceals itself by marking itself as unmarked. You know: “standard,” “normal,” “without difference,” “no distinction,” “without a culture” vulture, “innocent,” “nothing to see here,” “keep moving.” It’s a specific type of branding, this persistent unspecificity, this sheer gloss that’s been layered and layered and layered until it attains opacity.xxiv
The idea that whiteness is unmarked is, of course, a lie.xxv It’s a lie and yet it functions. Many of you are able to pass through the world this way, which is to say, easily. Many of you find yourselves bearing the consequences of this, even though you didn’t ask for it at all. It’s not really a question of conscious belief – though it can be – you just find yourself operating based on it. You’re not actually superstitious, but you do knock on wood, your literal fist on the actual table.
There is violence in the maintenance of categories, in the patterns of critique and discipline that try to keep people in line. To be what you “are.”xxvi To be legible to others and thus part of the social world. To be able to circulate. It can be subtle, but the stakes are very high.
You might have been waiting for me to talk about pharmaceuticals. This shines a light on something crucial: a generic cannot be copyrighted. Consider a generic drug. Its chemistry is both complex and specific: it has a type, a name, a function. But it can be recreated by anyone with the means.xxvii
Now consider the field of cultural production, and dance as a method for understanding how currents travel, change, become material, come back around.xxviii In contemporary capitalism and industrialized nations, the contexts that support the creation of culture are professionalized, and individual authorship is a primary currency. Leveraging your name, your mark, your brand, your fingerprint is the only way to gather necessary resources.
But dance is ancient and copying the movements of another body is instinctual.xxix Your grandmother, on the dance floor at the wedding reception, gives a little shimmy with her shoulders and so you shimmy back. You smile at each other. The shimmy repeats and starts to open up and transform into something else.
What to do about this inevitability of influence? I would like to propose that the trick is not to deracinatexxx the work, to cut it off from its sources, to fatalistically proclaim that if nothing is original, then nothing matters. Of course it matters. Instead, you might make a proliferation of authorships, an abundance of citations.
And if you make a list, your list will look nothing like my list. It’s incredible. Your voice sounds different; no one has the same architecture of your throat. The way your authorship does not exist is intensely personal, driven by your taste, your desire, your life circumstances, the doors that have opened for you. You are totally a type, and you are also totally yourself.
The Latin genus became French, générique, which also means the credits that roll at the end of a film.xxxi You can’t make this shit up. Race is bound up with authorship, with claiming, with lineage, with provenance, with movement and looping and scrolling.
My horror at discovering the generic in myself, over and over.xxxii
The pleasure, glee, abandon with which I see people pursue generic objects.xxxiii
Almost everyone repeats the word “generic” back to me, with a wink or a cringe or both.
This is part of a vast choreography that extends across the entire world.xxxiv You fit your plug into the socket and the circuit lights up. The containers grid into the ship and your doorbell rings for a package. Send a text to someone sitting across the room from you, look up at the ceiling, look down at their phone, and laugh when it dings. Things are moving.xxxv
You have the impression that you’re lightly skimming the surface, pulling your suitcase off the moving walkway with tired eyes, barely glancing down from 30,000 feet. Circulation and friction are two sides of the same coin. Though the two sides are not equal.xxxvi You can find the generic in almost anything, but it absolutely does matter where you stand, and what you decide to do about it.xxxvii
Many of you are wading through this messxxxviii with me. Many of you have been questioning dominant forms of culture and redistributing value away from the generic. This may appear as a turn towards the specific: the citations, the lineages, the bodies that have been othered through the same process that creates generics. This is completely necessary and extremely overdue. And anyway, things can’t help but become particular, as any gesture moves through a body.xxxix
The generic survives by reproducing itself over and over. It becomes infectious; it compels you to participate in the loop, the echo, the reverberation of the generic, the generic, the ge e ic, the e . Yet you know that when you say a word over and over and over, it doesn’t sound the same anymore. It becomes strange to the ear.xxxx What is this potential?xxxxi
We have now arrived at another score, a prompt to be activated. Ready? Someone also has to take out the trash.xxxxii Someone has to pick it up, and if you haven’t already been doing so, it’s probably your turn. The trash does not disappear even if we bury it in the ground and build a subdivision on top of it. Even if we float it out to sea, it’s still there. What I’m talking about is power and what it leaves behind. We can reject generic things, but we also need to contend with what remains. I don’t mean just taking it apart and looking at the pieces, but actually figuring out how to be next to these things.xxxxiii How to be with the attachment and revulsion and indifference and persistence that arises, how to look at it from a different angle, how to hold onto it differently, how to put it toward a different purpose. Because most of these things are not going to decompose for a very long time.
Sameness produces its own difference and its own undoing. The generic repeats itself over and over, but it will never be the same again.xxxxiv
This essay has been published in partnership with The Luminary as part of their Residency Program, and with Mn Artists, a publication of the Walker Art Center.
Emily Gastineau is a choreographer, performer, writer, and editor based in Minneapolis. Her current research focuses on the generic: the objects and ideas that are so pervasive we become unable to see their specificity. She has presented work nationally and internationally, including as part of the performance duo Fire Drill. Emily is currently the editor of Mn Artists, a platform for local artists at the Walker Art Center, and is one of seven co-artistic directors of Red Eye Theater. She studied at DAS Choreography, Amsterdam University of the Arts.