Beyoncé’s new single “Formation” calls for ladies to “get in formation” (’cause she slays). Ostensibly the line asks her dancers to get into one of the choreographed dance formations that appear in many of her videos. Against the backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans and #BlackLivesMatter imagery, however, it’s not hard to see how the idea of formation takes on figurative meanings as well. Formation might signal a kind of aesthetic unification against the media regime catering to middle-class white tastes. Hot sauce, cornbread and collard greens pronounce Beyoncé’s roots in southern black culture even as her Givenchy dress and private helicopter unsettle class-based stereotypes associated with entrenched poverty. Queen B will have it all—her roots and her aspirations, a pop song and a political slogan.
When heard rather than read, the lyric “now let’s get in formation” could just as easily signify as “now let’s get information.” Plenty of people have riffed on this pun already. Read as part of the overt political message of the song, however, I think the coincidence of in formation and information can clue us into much of the song’s complexity as an example of embodied knowledge. Better than any other contemporary musician, Beyoncé embodies a paradox of American class and culture by inhabiting social spaces reserved for extraordinary affluence while always pushing at the margins of black respectability. To coordinate a social form around that paradox will require access to embodied forms of knowledge that do not always translate easily as information. Performance, as Diana Taylor teaches us, often exceeds the archival record. (Someone ought to map Beyoncé’s performances onto Taylor’s suggestive invocation of Olin, no? A deity who intervenes in social matters anyone?)
Choreography provides a useful model for understanding how embodied knowledge fits uneasily within the empirical world of documented and cited scholarly writing. Usually understood as the design of a dance, it’s easy to see how choreography provides the information, the coordinates, the instructions for a dancer to carry out as a performance. The performance itself requires embodied knowledge of dance movements, cultivated strength and grace that do not come from an abstract understanding of choreography. The easy opposition between abstracted, choreographed information and embodied, performed dance gets more complicated when trying to imagine choreography as a form of writing. Derived from the Greek words meaning dance-writing, one has to wonder, how do you write a dance down? Anna Heyward asks just that question in a short article from the Paris Review and answers it by showing that the problem has persisted since at least the seventeenth century. Dance thwarts attempts at written documentation by challenging the basic idea that we can put knowledge in formation by reducing it to two-dimensional schematics.
When Beyoncé tells ladies “to get in formation,” we can understand her to call also for a type of information that exists at the limits of documented knowledge. Re-imagining information as the product of embodied practices—such as dance—rather than impersonal modes of record keeping should also force us to think about how different bodies interact with information technology. As Zandria Robinson points out, Beyoncé foregrounds those questions by bringing into the mainstream relatively marginalized artists like Big Feedia and Messy Mya. They represent parts of a political formation that go undocumented by mass media and unknown by white middle-class tastes. Beyoncé’s new single calls for ladies to get information about the limitations of those tastes in order to imagine new ways of knowing the world. In this light, her boast about being a black Bill Gates in the making might have as much to do with turning the world of information inside out as it does with accumulating wealth.