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  • Lex van der steen

On style

Although it might seem that style is not that important for everyday life, and that this discussion is only relevant for the arts, I believe the opposite is true: in the end, style is an ethical and political matter.

I wanted to write a text that was more accessible than this one. I might try to achieve that later. For now, however, I would like to mention that, although this text turned out quite dense and technical, it does, I believe, reflect the current state of my personal thinking quite well. Therefore, this text makes me happy.

In a breakdance battle, or any other dance battle, the dancers and the public all accept that the winner is decided upon by the judges, despite the clear fact that such a decision, in the end, remains subjective. Despite there being some concrete and quasi-objective elements which can be taken into account by the judges, ultimately, any battle is overarched by the simple knowledge that a different set of judges could, in some cases more than in others, result in a different outcome. Yet, all dancers always train and compete as if only the quality of their own dance, in some type of objective manner, determines whether they will achieve their victory or not.

Within the breakdance community and culture, originality and style are perhaps the most important elements that determine the quality of someone’s dancing. In accordance, stealing somebody else’s moves is considered to be so bad that, if it were truly obvious, it wouldn’t matter how hard that breakdancing would be to perform technically; insofar the movements are ‘stolen’, and there would as such not  be a bit of originality in the moves, the set becomes basically worthless, despite other possible qualities (assuming, for now, in accordance with general beliefs, that style is a quality). There is even a separate word and accompanying gesture that competitors can use to accuse their opponents of such an act of stealing: ‘biting’. Of course, technicality, performance and overall difficulty of the moves involved are important as well, but in the end, style is what holds the totality of somebody’s performance together and give it, or not, it’s decisive character.

But what is this ‘style’? What is clear from the general way in which people talk about it, is that it is, in one way or another, connected to somebody’s unique existence, to their singularity, to what makes them them. I am quite sure that most breakers (people that breakdance) agree with me that style can also not be bitten, only particular, concrete movements can be (and, apparently, there must then be a difference between style and ‘just movements’). But how can style, as ‘uniqueness’ or singularity, ever figure as something that can be done more or better than another, how can it ever be a decisive force in judging who wins a dance battle? Is singularity by definition not incomparible?

In her essay On Style, Susan Sontag aims to overcome the distinction made in art criticism between ‘style’ and ‘content’. In the context of breaking, this would be the difference between mere movements and style. Sontag points out how the idea of a distinction between content and style is not necessarily popular, but that, in practice, the contemporary art critics remain to uphold such a distinction. As a result of this implicit dichotomy lurking in the background, artworks are treated as ‘statements’. Sontag writes that “At least since Diderot, the main tradition of criticism in all the arts, appealing to such apparently dissimilar criteria as verisimilitude and moral correctness, in effect treats the work of art as a statement being made in the form of a work of art”. When the work of art is treated as a statement, as a claim about the world, which then becomes its content, ‘style’ is considered to be the way in which that statement is made. As such, ‘style’ is reduced to a decorative outside, a secondary and non-essential embodiment of what is the core of the artwork. Breakdance could be understood in a similar manner: the concrete movements of the dancer are the content, and ‘the particular way’ in which they make these movements is their style. I think that most breakers, perhaps most dancers even, would agree with this categorization. I would even say that an idea like ‘you can copy a certain movement as long as you make it your own, as long as you slightly change it according to your style’ is generally accepted among breakers. (However, what remains unsaid here is that ‘copying but according to your own style’ only works as long as it is a relatively small number of movements; if somebody copies a whole set ‘according to their style’, it will still be considered biting.)

It is here, in light of the distinction between ‘style’ and ‘content’, that the dance battle shows itself as a resisting and therefore problematizing force. If style would only be a secondary and decorative addition, how can it also be such a decisive element in the outcome of a battle? And if style would be distinct from content, how could it ever be the locus of a comparison (the primary task of the judges)?

In her essay, Sontag critiques this way of understanding art and style (as distinct from content) and tries to formulate an alternative. The difference between the old way of understanding style and Sontag’s alternative is expressed most schematically, I believe, when she writes that “A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world”. This experience that is provided by the work of art contains a special type of knowledge, namely a ‘knowledge’ about knowing: “the knowledge we gain through art is an experience of the form or style of knowing something, rather than a knowledge of something (like a fact or a moral judgment) in itself”. So, for Sontag, a work of art is a particular style of knowing, and in the encounter with an artwork we experience this style. Throughout her essay, Sontag leaves short definitions of her idea of style, which further elaborate style as a way of knowing. She writes that “Style is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist’s will”, and that therefore, “if art is the supreme game which the will plays with itself, ‘style’ consists of the set of rules by which this game is played. And the rules are always, finally, an artificial and arbitrary limit”. So, style, as a way of knowing, comes about by willing certain rules, certain limits upon the act of knowing and interpreting, which give it its unique character. Later in the text she formulates the same idea slightly differently by saying that “every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive”, and that therefore “Every style is a means of insisting on something”. Style, then, is a willed (i.e. chosen), epistemological insistence on certain things and events over others, and the artwork coincides fully with this way of knowing. When read closely, it seems to follow from Sontag’s definition that, although she doesn’t explicitly mention it herself, style is not about ‘having’ but about ‘being’; one doesn’t have a certain style, one is a certain style. Style is not outside of the artwork or dance, it is the artwork, and the artwork is the style. What follows, is that dancers don’t have their own style, but they are their own style. As such, it also doesn’t make sense anymore to speak of the content as opposed to the style.

Yet, although the distinction between content and style here breaks down and stops functioning, it is no clearer how style, as the expression of something singular, can be the object of a comparison. Rather, another unclarity has surfaced, namely how style can both fully coincide with a being, with an existence, while also being ‘a way of knowing’, or, as Sontag also names it, “living, autonomous models of consciousness”.  Sontag does elaborate briefly on how styles can be intelligible (and therefore available for the comparison of the judges). She writes that style “is a plan of sensory imprinting, the vehicle for the transaction between immediate sensuous impression and memory (be it individual or cultural). This mnemonic function explains why every style depends on, and can be analyzed in terms of, some principle of repetition or redundancy.” Simply put, a style establishes connections of similarity between sensuous impressions over time, that is, between the now and the past. A style, as a way of knowing, always takes place as the recognition of similarities over time, which are chosen and specifically focused on. Hence, styles can be recognized as a principle of repetition: “For, if one does not perceive how a work repeats itself, the work is, almost literally, not perceptible and therefore, at the same time, not intelligible. It is the perception of repetitions that makes a work of art intelligible”. Yet, Sontag’s elaboration does not fully resolve the tension between style being both the expression of a singularity and individuality, and also being something intelligible and therefore general. Rather, it only emphasizes this tension, it only designates its presence.

The modern word ‘style’ comes from the Old French stile, which meant something like ‘fashion or manner of writing’. This in turn came from the Latin Stilus, which referred to a certain writing device, a sort of pencil. Hence, the etymological development of the word ‘style’ has a trajectory from ‘writing device’ to ‘manner of writing’. A literal connection between these two is easily understood: a writing device determines the way in which something is written. A pencil writes differently than a marker does. The word pencil comes from the Latin penicillus, which literally means ‘little tail’. It concerns a little tail insofar it referred to the brush of a painter, which is made out of hairs. Here, again, different types of brushes mean different manners of painting. Whether the brush is made out of goat hair or squirrel hair matters for the eventual painting. As a matter of fact, the scope of the way in which there can be painted is limited by the type of brush, by the type of hairs used. In principle, one could make a schema of different types of hair, or even different types of animals, and the different types of brush strokes that coincide with them. For every animal that grows hair, there is a coinciding brush stroke, a coinciding style of painting.

This image of a graph with hairs and their coinciding styles expressed through brush strokes evokes a clearer understanding of the relation between style’s intelligibility and its expression of something singular. It is well known that, in general, hair has a communicative function. Think, for example, about the hairs of a cat’s tail when it is angry. Another example would be the lion’s mane. Most zoologists agree that the mane of a lion exists mainly for communicative reasons (to impress the female lions). Furthermore, hair reveals perfectly how a distinction between style and content doesn’t hold, since the shape and color of hairs is determined by ‘internal’ processes like nutrition and hormones. By nothing but the mere fact of existing and taking shape as a being (something that is), hairs (and, in fact, all of life) have the capacity to leave marks that are particularly susceptible for being recognized as similar (and in fact, they constantly actualize this potential). A transition takes place from, for example, a singular squirrel to the brush strokes on a canvas. And while the squirrel ‘by itself’ (imagined as something relation-less) might be absolutely singular and therefore inexpressible, the brush strokes appear with a pattern of similarity. The squirrel however does not ‘will’ (as Sontag would have it) this expression of the brush strokes, it rather always already is this style. The squirrel, in fact, is the transition from singular to intelligible. And this is what it means to be one’s own style. Taking all this information into account, the image of the hair-brush comparison resolves the remaining tensions in Sontag’s text. At the end of her essay, Sontag also intuits that style is not limited to art: “style is a notion that applies to any experience”. Hairs are always already style, and so is all of life.

The definition of style that followed from Sontag’s essay was a willed, epistemological insistence on certain things and events over others (that creates patterns and is therefore intelligible). However, I would suggest to think of style rather as a particular lived, epistemological emission of patterns and marks, which all beings constantly embody. The experience of a style, in an artwork or a living being, is to experience their lives as a flow of constant interpretation and expression (a way of knowing and being known), and to recognize it as such.

How, then, should the task of the breakdance judges be understood? How do they compare styles, especially if all life always already is style? This question is important, because it makes the difference between style being an empty notion or not (if all life is always already style, does that not make style a completely empty concept?). If style is so important in dance, it would mean that what matters is the particular activity of understanding and expressing that the dancer embodies. To dance well, then, means to somehow put the emphasis on this constant stream of interpretation and expression. The dancer has to exactly reveal that the particular movements done are not important insofar these are impressive by themselves, but insofar they are the taking place of the dancer’s understanding and expression of dance, the body, life. The dancer that most clearly exhibits their dance as a certain knowing of dance, as their style, wins.

Life is an epistemological dance. Dance is the expression of an epistemological life.


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