Precise actions

Posted: July 25, 2010 in Uncategorized
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…as exemplified by chess and other mental and bodily movements

This piece is about precision in actions. For the purpose of this little post, I define an action as a bodily movement with a precise purpose other than signifying (if the purpose of a bodily movement is to signify, it’s a gesture). The example I choose is “to make a move in chess”. This is a tricky example because chess is not a game of skills (like soccer) but a game of strategy. To put it boldly: a man doesn’t need to have arms to be a good chessplayer, he needs legs to be a good player in traditional soccer. Machines have already got as good at playing chess as humans,

but albeit a well-cut video makes it look decent, they are very far from being as good as humans at playing soccer:

As opposed to soccer, chess has nothing to do with actions in my limited sense and by consequence the faces of the opponents (and the moves as abstracted on computer-screens) command more attention than their hands:

However, and this is interesting, when humans play chess, there are bodily actions involved. They are not a necessary part of playing chess, but they are a part of it in what used to be its most common practice before the computer-age.

And in this practice, chessplayers develop precision in their actions, their bodily movements more precisely execute their purpose than those of an amateur chess player or someone who only pretends to play chess (as people do in movies). Therefore professional chessplayers often laugh about actors pretending to play chess.

Look at this demonstration and compare it with the one in the initial scene from The Wire:

It’s quite obvious that the teacher in this lesson knows his moves not only in the intellectual sense, but also in the bodily sense. Maybe you could even say that his body knows the moves, because elegance of moving your hand in chess is not part of what you want to do. So it can be supposed that the elegance (elegance is a lot about precision & economy of means) has been acquired by the player’s body in many years of practice.

This is even more obvious if you look at activities that imply skills. When I did things like building a fence with my grandpa, it was obvious that he had many (more than 60 years) of practice, while I  only performed this kind of work occasionally. And I was sometimes amazed at the precision of his actions.

The paradox is that precision exists in domains where there is no codified behaviour. In Ballet, for example, it is defined what it means to correctly perform a pirouette and experts are trusted judges of correction, whereas it is not defined what it means to correctly move a pawn from d5 to c6 to capture another pawn or how to correctly move your arm to drive a nail into a fence. If there is a standard of correction as in Ballet, the movement that is closer to the standard can be called more precise

In chess there is no such standard, however I hold, that it makes sense of talking about precise actions: we can see that the experienced players are more precise in their movements.

Now there is an interesting intermediary case, which I would like to evoke without discussing it: martial arts.

In a Kata, people execute movements, judged according to a standard of correction, which can also be executed as actions, for a purpose, mainly attacking someone or defending yourself, or just breaking a brick without hurting the bystanders.

Traditionally, people think that executing a kata according to the norms will also make you a better fighter, but this view has been challenged in Free Fight Competitions and Mixed Martial Arts, where it is often those who don’t have any classical education in martial arts and wildly mix techniques who win.

Precision in movements has always fascinated me and many if not all professional dancers acquire a precision in their ordinary actions and bodily movements that distinguises them from other people. How can you explain that?

I believe the most likely explanation is that there is something as an implicit standard of precision in executing ordinary actions and that many of us are sensitive to this standard.

Open Challenges: take them up (and let me know)!

Examples of contemporary art (performances) or dance where the subject is ordinary gestures or actions (and their precision)

Experiences of precision in ordinary life or art

Video-footage of precision of dancers or workers in performing ordinary tasks

Conceive and execute a performance that consists in precisely performing ordinary tasks

A study of standards of precision in executing everyday actions (what does it mean to walk precisely, to precisely cut bread…)

Under what circumstances is precision transversal (e.g. Do those who dance precisely usually walk precisely?)

Making a video of actions precisely performed in different domains

Other suggestions and examples are welcome


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