Dark Flow

Kalle Macrides
NYU Graduate Program in Performance Studies
Ritual, Play, and Performance – Richard Schechner
Final Paper, May 12, 2001
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You awaken in a haze. You're head is pounding and your mind is racing, trying to re-create the events of the night past. The empty bottles you stumble over as you make your way to the bathroom remind you of the cause, but you're still reaching to remember the consequences. You splash some cold water on your face and look into the mirror. Suddenly, like a high-powered locomotive, it hits you, what happened, what you did. You can't believe you actually did that, you never thought you were capable of it, but then again, when were you ever so drunk? So you blame the bottle for last night's transgression. But what if there weren't a bottle to blame? What of the times when a person commits acts that are beyond the scope of accustomed behavior without the explanation of inebriation? Perhaps the person was in a state of Dark Flow . . .

The scenario described above calls into question the correlation of action and identity; an act was performed that was contrary to the person’s identity. Identity is a multi-layered and multi-influenced attribute. Oftentimes actions are conflated with identity. A person may define himself by his occupation or familial relationships or be defined by his occupation or familial relationships. Certain behaviors are expected from those occupying certain social roles. Hence, there exist the expectations of others as well as the expectations that are individually generated. The expectations of both entities can effect how an individual identifies herself. Identity is also composed by recalling one’s past actions and molding parameters of what one is and is not capable of doing; I am a person who pays bills on time, I am a rebel, I am a fighter, I am a pacifist, I am loving, I am independent. The scenario on the previous page depicts a trauma to someone whose self-identity is based on that person’s perceived parameters of action. Throughout this essay, the term reflexive-identity shall refer to a person’s subjective image of herself based on her acceptance of certain parameters of action.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi composed a theory of Flow that explores the pleasure that individuals take from toying with their reflexive-identity. Csikszentmihalyi began his project with an investigation of motivation. He noted two types of motivation, external and internal. External motivation is predicated on the drive for external rewards, such as money, status, or prestige. Internal motivation can be regarded as the motivating factor operational in the absence of any apparent external reward. An activity that is rewarding in itself or that provides a microcosm that is enjoyable is most likely utilizing internal motivation. Csikszentmihalyi resolved to devote himself to further study of internal motivation in order to find ways to make everyday life more meaningful, and to make work more enjoyable, not to mention he feared that our planet’s resources would eventually become depleted as a result of society’s dependence on external rewards! He conducted a series of tests to determine "what’s going on" when people perform tasks for no apparent external reward. Consistencies in Csikszentmihalyi’s findings include the complete involvement of a person’s physical, sensorial, and/or intellectual skills, and a feeling of control over one’s actions. Csikszentmihalyi refers to the state of experiencing intrinsic rewards as Flow. A major factor in Flow is the expansion of reflexive-identity as "self" merges with "action." [footnote 1: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 1990. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. Jossey-Bass Publishers.]

Remember that reflexive-identity refers to a person’s image of herself based on the acceptance of certain parameters of action. While in Flow, a person is able to surpass these limitations and to experience a state not found in everyday life; Flow emancipates a person of her perceived parameters of action and affords her with a new sense of self. While in Flow, there is no separation between self and action. The person in Flow functions in harmony with her environment, as there is no need for negotiation there is no need for "self". [footnote 2: "Self" here implies a mediator between the needs of the organism and social demands.] In order to achieve Flow, a person must center her attention on a limited stimulus field. Flow necessitates full involvement and active participation and results in a sensation of transcendence, of loss of self and fusion with the world. Though she feels in control of her actions and her environment, she is not the master. Rather, she is moving in coordination with something else. While in Flow there is no pause to evaluate feed back, action and reaction become automatic. This is best exemplified in a popular acting exercise -- "mirroring".

In mirroring, two people imitate or mirror one another’s movements. There is no leader and no follower, no giver and no taker. The two people work together to "discover" a movement; no one imposes a pre-planned or conscious movement, and both are fully engaged. Ideally, this movement leads to emotion without either person willfully forcing an emotion. By attempting a dual focus -- self and other -- new movements and new emotions are experienced, or new associations are made with familiar movements. This is an example of a Flow activity – a structured system of actions that helps to produce a Flow experience.

My theatrical background influenced my interest in Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow, as it seems to be very similar to an actor’s challenge to remain "present" while performing. This state of "present-ness" refers to more than a magnanimous stage presence, but to the actor’s ability to remain physically, psychically, and emotionally within the play frame, constantly acting upon and reacting to the play frame. To successfully act "as if" she were a given character she must be able to enter a state in which there is no separation between self and action. Her actions must appear to come of their own accord without her taking "time out" to summon them consciously (This is a major complaint of the acting technique known as Emotional Recall!). She must be able to work moment to moment, action to action.

Where I feel dissatisfied with Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow is in the assumption of intention. His model assumes that a person must willfully decide to embark upon a Flow activity in order to experience Flow, and must willfully desire a certain result from the Flow experience. However, there are times when Flow is not dependent upon willful decisions. I am very interested in theorizing about "what’s going on" when a person "ends up" doing something he not only hadn’t planned on doing, but also hadn’t thought himself capable of doing. To address such phenomena, I will construct a theory of "Dark Flow." My point of departure with Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow lies in the conscious decision to execute a given action.

I would like to take this moment to re-iterate that I am locating the transgression within an individual’s reflexive-identity. I am not concerned with the law, or in societal norms, or even in a peer group’s taboos, but rather in the expectations an individual has of himself. Furthermore, I wish to clarify the nuances associated with the term "dark". In alignment with Richard Schechner’s reference to "Dark Play", [footnote 3: Schechner. 1993. The Future of Ritual. Routledge] in Dark Flow, the actor is in the "dark" in that he never consciously decided to execute a given action. I am using "dark" to refer to awareness, as the term is used in such euphemisms as, "did you know what they were intending, or were you ‘in the dark’ up to the last moment?" To further clarify my intention with the term, I am not using it to connote evil or amorality as is espoused in the pop-culture phrase, "have you crossed over to the ‘dark side’?" Using "dark" as a moral referent obscures subjectivity with objectivity. After all, to a "hard-core" Darwinist, to re-enter a burning building to save people too weak to exit on their own would be foolish, despite any headlines praising this act and this person’s valor. I am concerned with the unanticipated break from subjectively accepted behavior.

In Dark Flow, a person surpasses parameters of accepted activity while in a state not found in everyday life. Dark Flow is accomplished by:

  • full involvement with and investment in an activity
  • removing any notions of separation between self and action
  • centering one’s focus on a limited or adjusted field of stimulus
  • acting in coordination with the environment resulting in the absence of any need for negotiation
  • the absence of a prior conscious decision to execute the resulting action

Before I go on to specific examples of Dark Flow, it is important that I clarify what I mean by "conscious decision". Some groundwork can be laid through reference to a few legal terms. The term temporary insanity refers to, "…a defense by the accused that s/he was briefly insane at the time the crime was committed and therefore was incapable of knowing the nature of his/her alleged criminal act." For the purpose of constructing a model of Dark Flow, I wish to take certain liberties with this definition (…that would certainly not hold up in any self-respecting court of law!) by hypothesizing on what could be meant by the "nature of his/her alleged criminal act." I offer that the nature of the act could also be regarded as the consequences of the act. Hence, if temporarily insane a person cannot consciously concede to instigate the results of certain acts. The term "temporary insanity" calls forth a mental journey wherein a sane person temporarily becomes insane, and returns to full sanity. The term "diminished capacity", on the other hand, does not imply actual insanity at the time of the crime, rather that "due to emotional distress, physical condition or other factors s/he could not fully comprehend the nature of the criminal act s/he is accused of committing." Disregarding the implications of legal transgression, diminished capacity comes the closest to what I am evoking when saying that in Dark Flow a person does not consciously decide to commit certain acts nor the consequences of such acts. [footnote 4: All legal terms cited from http://www.law.com]

The work of neurologist Antonio Damasio can contribute to this discussion. Damasio uses the metaphor of a "movie-in-the-brain" to refer to basic consciousness - our mental images or representations of the outside world. One of the crucial elements of consciousness is, accordingly, to establish that there is an owner or observer of that movie. Furthermore, there are many levels of consciousness. In fact, "...consciousness and wakefulness, as well as consciousness and low-level attention, can be separated. This fact was based on the evidence that patients can be awake and attentive without having normal consciousness..." [footnote 5: Antonio R. Damasio. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harcourt Brace & Company. 15.] For our purposes, I shall refer to two of Damasio’s classifications, "core-consciousness" versus "extended-consciousness".

Core-consciousness is a rather simple biological phenomenon that deals specifically with the here and now. Core-consciousness, "does not illuminate the future, and the only past it vaguely lets us glimpse is that which occurred in the instant just before. There is no elsewhere, there is no before, there is no after." I would add that in a state of core-consciousness a moment to moment movie-in-the-brain is experienced, but that the owner or observer of the movie is not processed. In other words, the person is reacting to the environment but does not compute a sense of "self". On the other hand, extended-consciousness is a much more complex biological phenomenon that both includes and extends beyond the here and now. Damasio uses the term to refer to a level of consciousness that, "places that person at a point in individual historical time, rightly aware of the lived past and of the anticipated future, and keenly cognizant of the world beside it." In extended-consciousness an owner or observer of the movie-in-the-brain is processed, providing the individual with an elaborate sense of self that extends beyond the here and now to include memories of the past and the capability to make predictions of the future. [footnote 6: Antonio R. Damasio. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harcourt Brace & Company. 15-16.]

In a state of Dark Flow, as in a state of Flow, a person operates on a level of core-consciousness. Where the two states differ is as follows: in the Flow model, a person in extended-consciousness decides to embark on a series of actions with a decided and desired result. Through the execution of actions, the person exits this state of extended-consciousness and, in a state of core-consciousness, enters Flow. Once the actions cease, the person returns to extended-consciousness and often feels satisfaction with the experience and the anticipated results. In Dark Flow there is not this contingency of decision to act, decision to act with anticipated results, and actual action. The actual order may vary according to situation. What is consistent in all cases of Dark Flow (…and similar to cases of temporary insanity or diminished capacity…) is that while in a state of extended-consciousness, the person never sought out the consequences of the actions committed while in a state of core-consciousness.

The Crowd

The crowd holds a strong attraction for many individuals. The desire to congregate can be found in many cultures throughout many historical periods. In the classic work Crowds and Power, Canetti wagers that both historically and currently, it has been specifically the gathering of persons at religious events that is the attendees’ source of pleasure independent of any sermon. Inclusion in a crowd can be a source of great strength and support, but it can also instigate a particular form of Dark Flow.

In this form of Dark Flow, a person’s reflexive-identity changes. She experiences a loss of extended-consciousness prior to action. She is therefore operating in a state not unlike diminished capacity, wherein the person cannot comprehend the true nature of her actions let alone their consequences. Furthermore, as she is not operating in extended-consciousness, she cannot be regarded as consciously choosing her actions.

Canetti makes important contributions to understanding identity in relation to the crowd. He writes, "In the crowd the individual feels that he is transcending the limits of his own person. He has a sense of relief, for the distances are removed which used to throw him back on himself and shut him in. With the lifting of these burdens of distance he feels free..." [footnote 7: Elias Canetti. 1962. Crowds and Power. Continuum. 20.] In addition to the "self" being a mediator between the needs of the organism and social demands, the self also implies memory, or personal history. A person will most likely act within the frame of his personal history. When in a crowd, an individual’s notion of "self" extends to encompass the crowd. In a crowd, a person ceases to identify his "self" as being bound within his individual person and instead identifies "self" as being so expanded as to encompass the entire crowd. "The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body." [footnote 8: Elias Canetti. 1962. Crowds and Power. Continuum. 15-16.] I would state that once an individual joins a crowd, his reflexive notion of "self" changes to include the other members of the crowd. The important point is that a new, "collective-self" emerges. As a new identity, the "collective-self" has no history and accordingly, no moral reference. With out any precedent to reference, the person cannot be said to have consciously chosen his actions, he operates in a state of Dark Flow.

This form of Dark Flow has been seen many a time on the dance floor. The music, the crowd, and the movement may incite the dancers to promiscuity that would not be found in their everyday life. The reason, they have entered a state of Dark Flow. The morals found in the dancer’s everyday life are not found in the new collective-identity of the dance floor.

We can assume that returning home from the dance club this person would also return to his reflexive-identity. He may undergo a revelation similar to the one depicted in the cover page, where he is stung by memories of his earlier subjective transgression. Suppose he chooses to go to the same club a second night. Will he be a candidate for Dark Flow, or will his memory unveil the consequences of returning, rendering him a candidate for Flow, not Dark Flow? If, in a state of extended-consciousness fully in touch with his reflexive-identity, this person decides to resume actions that have led to undesired consequences in the past, then could he be described as "in the dark" when he returns to the dance floor? The implication is that Dark Flow does not happen twice. The next example, however, dismantles this argument.

My experience with Dark Flow occurred, ironically, in a "mosh pit" at an Amnesty International benefit concert. In the "pit," one recruits the high density of people in a limited area into the energy of the dancing. From the outside it appears more violent than it feels as a participant. The unavoidable contact in such a situation stimulates energy, a person absorbs the energy found in the form of a strike and integrates it or re-directs it into her own movement. The sensation is similar to Paxton’s contact improvisation, but executed by non-dancers with markedly less control in a more volatile environment. At this concert, I was actually kicked in the face. I was thrown off my feet and into a crowd of people, all of whom fell on top of me. I include this experience in examples of Dark Flow for the occasion to clarify the importance of perspective. The person who kicked me was in Dark Flow. He certainly did not intend to kick me. He felt awful, and he had to endure many dirty looks for having hit a woman half his size. When I emerged from the pile, he sought me out in order to apologize, saying that he didn’t know what happened, one minute he was dancing, the next he was throwing kicks, but he didn’t mean to hurt anyone. As Dark Flow is a subjective experience, perspective is everything. This young man’s focus was limited to the "pit," he was fully immersed in the movement and the moment, re-acting and acting in accordance to his environment, and not consciously intending to hurt anyone. His statements, combined with the intensity of the crowd, lead me to believe that he was in a state of Dark Flow despite the fact that this was doubtfully his first experience being part of the "pit". He does not enter the "mosh pit" expecting to seriously hurt anyone. Though he may remember this incident, he will remember it as an exception to the norm. The memory will not change his expectations, and consequently, will not effect his potential to re-enter Dark Flow.

Mutuality Illusion

One of the positive results of Flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is the organizing or shaping of experience. [footnote 9: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 1990. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. Jossey-Bass Publishers.] Flow can provide a structure to perception and action. Within this structure, recall that the person will feel in control of both her actions and environment, though she is not in full control. Rather, she is moving in constant coordination with something else. She does not pause to evaluate feed back, therefore her actions and reactions become unconscious or automatic. In certain forms of Flow, a feeling of co-creating an activity may occur, a sensation that two forces are actively inciting one another into furthering this mutual activity. Another way of looking at this co-created activity is as a co-created environment with which the participants coordinate their actions. This type environment can be seen in the sport of Tennis. The two opponents move in coordination with one another. One player’s act of hitting the ball into the opponent’s back left field leads that player to adjust her position accordingly. Similarly, in a debate person "A" pays close attention to the remarks made by person "B". When it is "A’s" turn to speak, he adjusts his comments in reaction to what was just said by "B". When it is then "B’s" turn to speak, the cycle repeats. Though "A" and "B" may be arguing contrary positions, their acceptance of the rules of debate forms a structure of experience. The two recognize (and adjust to) not only one another’s words, but also recognize the structure, or environment, within which the comments are made.

In Dark Flow, this mutual environment appears to exist where it objectively does not. In Dark Play, as described by Richard Schechner, one party is in the "dark" in the sense of not being aware of her inclusion within another party’s play frame. [footnote 10: Schechner. 1993. The Future of Ritual. Routledge] In Dark Flow, one party is "in the dark" about the true nature of her environment. Either she falsely assumes that others are acting within the same structure of action, or she is reacting to a false image of the other person -- rendering her with a false perception of the environment. Dark Flow occurs when there is not absolute consensus as to the nature of the environment and it’s participants.

Returning to the debate example, "A" may believe that "B" is making reference to "A’s" personal life and therefore react with a similar reference to "B’s" personal life. In this way, "A" believes that "B" has commenced a "mud slinging" debate, even if this is not "B’s" desire. Once "A" perceives this new "mud slinging" structure to be functional, any further comments made by "B", almost regardless of content, will be mis-interpreted as maintaining the structure. "A" is in Dark Flow due to her false assumption that "B" is operating in the same ("mud slinging") structure. Similar dynamics can also be seen in situations of domestic violence.

The phrase, "She drove me to it!" is often viewed as an excuse or justification for an act of domestic violence, however, it can also be read as a sign of Dark Flow. The statement implies that the aggressor views the aggressed as having willfully participated in her own beating. The aggressor imposes co-authorship of violence onto the aggressed, or falsely assumes that she is participating in the same structure of action. In such an instance, the aggressor is "in the dark" about the true nature of the environment as he falsely assumes a mutual acceptance of the structure of action. In other cases of domestic abuse, Dark Flow is found in the form of a darkened identity.

In a 19th Century crime of passion, a man learns of his wife’s infidelity and begins to impose a new identity on to his wife. "Blinded by suffering, the individual develops a distorted perception of reality. By now, the partner is the personification of evil power, immorality, and the threat of a danger against which he must struggle in order to preserve his dignity." [footnote 11: Joelle Guillais. 1986. Crimes of Passion. Routledge. 56.] Imposing this false identity onto his wife allows the husband to maintain his belief that his wife is actively inciting him to violence. He views her as "personified evil", interprets her actions accordingly, and reacts while in a state of Dark Flow. Speculations have been made that subsequent disbelief at having committed a crime of passion may be attributed to guilt and an unwillingness to admit having executed the crime. However true this may be, this diagnosis does not affect the plausibility of the aggressor operating in a state of Dark Flow during the encounter. The phrase, "she drove me to it" demonstrates that the speaker is either reacting to a false image of his partner, or assuming that she willfully entered the same structure of action.

Immediacy Blindness

Mountain climbing is often cited as an example of the immediacy factor in the theory of Flow. The climber cannot look at the top of the mountain if he wishes to scale its peak. Instead, he must limit his field of stimulus, concentrating only on the immediate step. This is similar to the children’s story of The Little Engine that Could. Confronted with an intimidating hill, the little engine found that the only way he could reach the top was to repeat, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." This mantra-like phrase also served to limit his field of stimulus. In this state of present-ness, the little engine was able to climb the hill one track at a time. In both of these situations, the results of entrance into a state of Flow are in alignment with the subjects’ reflexive-identities. Furthermore, a commitment to reach a specified goal was made prior to Flow. While in Flow, the subject is dealing only with the here and now, perceptions are limited to what is immediate, and the subject is temporarily blinded to the results of his actions. However, remember that in Flow, these actions followed a desire and commitment to reach a specified goal. There is no conscious choice for the results of the actions undertaken while in a state of Dark Flow.

In this form of Dark Flow, a person concedes to immediate, piece-meal actions without regard for the consequences of the aggregate. This form of Dark Flow could be seen in a boxing ring, where one boxer is focusing on each individual punch and may not be aware of the fatal consequences of her repeated blows. By focusing on the immediacy of the situation the boxer is blinded to the end result of her strikes.

In response to my request for examples of Dark Flow, Tara Passoni offered the following statement. Tara has recently been selected to play for the Sharks, New York’s professional women’s football team. She wrote to me:

I do not consider myself a violent person, but something happens when I am on the line of scrimmage, half a foot away from my opponent. Then I become the most violent person I know, and definitely at least as violent as the person facing me. Because in football, it is tackle or be tackled, block or be blocked, hit or be hit, there is no choice about the course of my actions. As a linebacker I am a defensive player, and must stop anybody from getting past me with the ball. When I stepped out of those pads for the first time, the absolute violence with which I just acted completely surprised me. But when I was in the moment, and just playing football, it actually didn't seem that violent.

Tara went through months and months of intense training. Once she finally played "on the line of scrimmage", her immediate actions were to replicate what she had done so many times in practice. However, the environment had changed, the stakes were higher, and people were playing with more force. Though her motions may have been similar to those executed in practice, the tone had changed. She reacted to violence with violence. It is noteworthy that Tara does not perceive herself as behaving violently during the game. In part, this is due to her focusing on the immediate task of stopping anyone trying to pass her with the ball without stopping to think of the inherently violent nature of this act. Another aspect may be her having taken on the role of athlete while playing. Under this role, her actions on the field are appropriate. As she later reflects on the game, returned to her reflexive-identity, these same actions appear shocking and violent. In this form of Dark Flow, immediacy blindness involves the donning of a different identity during the event.


Whereas Csikszentmihalyi constructed his theory of Flow to improve the quality of life within the work place, I have explored a theory of Dark Flow to illuminate the dependency of our reflexive-identities on environment. In these isolated instances of Dark Flow, we are forced to confront the aspects of ourselves that our daily patterns and comfortable living situations normally veil. Consider the subject of choice in regards to Dark Flow. Tara writes that due to the nature of the game, there is no room for "choice" in her actions. Perhaps if we were to confront a survivor of a natural (or man-made) disaster his answer would be similar. The harsh environment resulting from an earthquake or from war can instigate the construction of new identities that seem to necessitate adapted ethics. What about the competitive atmosphere in the workplace, the erotic atmosphere in a dance club, the demanding atmosphere at home, the violent atmosphere in many urban settings? The challenge we face in the multiple environments of our own lives is to insert the opportunity for conscious choices where we may have otherwise given in to Dark Flow.

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