The cumulative heritage of traces

“If man is the animal which has a history, then the nonbiological, artificial transmission of acquired features is another name for human culture. The animals communicate; they do not transmit. (They know the message by the signal, not the cumulative heritage of traces).”

-Translation of Régis Debray, “Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?”

I have a tendency to think about Argentine tango first when I think about language and communication – perhaps since it’s the language I learned most recently, and one I plan to study for the rest of my life. In Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler notes that “Language is almost invariably regarded as the most powerful communication system by far.” But what about a tactile language that fulfills higher social functions of recreation, artistic expression, and community building and doesn’t necessarily convey explicit concepts or messages, being instead, in a sense, movement and communication for its own sake? (A language that in some ways transcends spoken language since two people without a common spoken language who both know tango can communicate through movement?) Is there a way to take an integrative “complex systems” approach to this particular contemporary medium?

A quick explanation of tango. It’s completely improvised, at least the way it’s danced socially. To dance it, you learn a vocabulary of movement and common phrases as well as a syntax of technique. Once you begin to grasp the basics, there is room to invent. Tango is usually danced to music produced in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1930s and ’40s. (Including in communities of people who don’t speak Spanish and have never been to that region.)

The embrace as the first medium. Tango dancers communicate their content (interpretation of the music, emotion, and personality) through the embrace. Generally one partner is the “leader” (traditionally a man) and the other the “follower” (traditionally a woman). The embrace cuts down many walls: between man and woman, between self and other, between mind and body, and between message and interpretation. Here’s my all-time favorite example of the connection that’s possible through tango. (Note that the music they’re dancing to is contemporary, not classic tango music.)

The music as the first content. Returning to Chandler’s articulation of semiotics, can tango music be an example of double articulation? The same music is referred to over and over, but each time, between the venue, the partner, and the moment in the dancer’s life, it will mean something different. Some core songs are played by different orchestras in different times, perhaps recorded on multiple occasions, perhaps recorded to a record, perhaps transferred to digital formats – or transcribed and played live. Dancers then dance to those various core songs at various moments in time, probably with various partners, definitely with different meanings associated each time.

The couple as the next medium. The embrace and the music make possible the movements that are perceptible to the outside world, be it people at a tango event (milonga) or the millions watching YouTube videos. As first a student, or simply an appreciator of tango, then as a dancer or even teacher, we learn to observe tango from outside the couple. The movements that result from the synergy within the embrace are decoded by viewers, either as part of a community (or outside a community) or as an anonymous viewer online, and also interpreted individually.

Online video as the medium that takes tango global. There is no question that the proliferation of videos of tango performances on YouTube has affected the way tango is taught, learned, and danced. But what is the meaning of that medium itself? For me, what’s powerful about these videos is their relationship with time. They “capture” one couple in one instance of interpretation, but they live on far beyond that instance. The dancers can only dance that particular moment in their lives one time, but I can watch the performance years later or over and over again. In the case of this video, this couple is no longer together, but in the imagined community of tango-video watchers, their collaboration lives on, creating new meanings.

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About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.