Archives for the month of: November, 2013

I found jotting down 10 things I know about phenomenology a helpful exercise for consolidating and summarizing knowledge of a central approach in embodiment research. Over the last few weeks, I have repeatedly come across the term ‘Somaesthetics’ in relation to embodiment and have done some preliminary reading on the term. In an effort to make sense of the fledgling understanding I’ve gained, I decided to try the ’10 things I know’ approach again. Without looking at books, notes or papers, I scribbled down the following:

1. Somaesthetics is an emerging discipline primarily proposed by Richard Shusterman, who argues for it to sit within Philosophy, and more specifically the philosophical sub-discipline of Aesthetics.

2. Somaesthetics as a discipline foregrounds the role of bodily experience in aesthetic appreciation. Shusterman argues that it will offer a more substantial and systematic framework for research on the body.

3. Somaesthetics comprises three branches: Analytic somaesthetics; Pragmatic somaesthetics; Practical somaesthetics

Somaesthetics Diagram

4. Analytic somaesthetics comprises interpretive studies of bodily practice. These occur on a theoretical level and would include research linking the body and bodily practices with the organization of society and the individual psyche. Shusterman argues that the work of Foucault, Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty would all constitute analytic somaesthetics.

5. Pragmatic somaesthetics comprises bodies of thought that suggest ways of training or harnessing bodily experience. Practices such as Tai Chi and the Alexander Technique are accompanied by ideas and theories of the body and these would belong to this branch of pragmatic somaesthetics.

6. Practical somaesthetics consists of the practice itself – the Tai Chi, or the yoga, or the Alexander Technique. It is not entirely clear which bodily practices Shusterman chooses to accept within practical somaesthetics. He seems to place less value on athletics or football, and much more on solitary practices that reference bodily understanding more explicitly.

7. In foregrounding the body in aesthetic experience, Shusterman argues that a distinction needs to be drawn between representational foregrounding and experiential foregrounding. In the former, the body is seen and treated as an external object. In the latter, the body is a fundamental part or vehicle of lived experience.

8. Critiques of somaesthetics include the linking of the discipline to normative approaches to the body. Somaesthetics places a value on the physical cultivation of the body and this is reminiscent of doctrines that treat the body as an object to be molded into a form that conforms to the social ideal.

9. Shusterman’s response to this critique rests on the distinction he makes between representational and experiential foregrounding of the body. Thus, he argues that cultivating the body as it is experienced (rather than as it is represented) does not relate to social norms, but rather to the improvement of individual perception and action.

10. Shusterman advocates that there is a role for somaesthetics in education since it enables us to ‘feel better’ in both senses of the phrase. Cultivating bodily practices heightens our sensations and perceptions of the world around us; they also encourage us to be more in control and more caring of the self.

The combination of theoretical and practical approaches to the body certainly makes the discipline of somaesthetics an interesting prospect, but I am left with questions about the possibility and worth of trying to merge these perspectives. Shusterman’s framework makes such a sharp and convincing distinction between analytic, pragmatic and practical somaesthetics, that it isn’t clear how it draws these together at all. How are Foucault’s theories of the body related to the theory or practice of yoga? How can somaesthetics help us to access this relationship? Is this a relationship that should exist given how different the objectives related to each project are? Certainly, I believe that theorists of the body can learn much from bodily practices and practitioners who work with the body, but what is the benefit of binding them together in a single discipline?

Shusterman, R. (2008) Body consciousness: A philosophy of mindfulness and somaesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shusterman, R. (2006) Thinking through the body, educating for the humanities: A plea for somaesthetics. The journal of aesthetic education, 40(1), 1-21.

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Victoria Grace Walden

Embodiment, digital technology and site visits

New twentieth century technologies of representation and narration… have increasingly collapsed the temporal distance between present, past, and future that structured our previously conceived notion of the temporal dimensions of what we call history (as the latter is differentiated from experience). That is, event and its representation, immediacy and its mediation, have moved increasingly towards simultaneity.

(Sobchack, 1996:4-5)

Having had the pleasure of being involved in one of the Holocaust Education Trust’s recent Lessons from Auschwitz projects, this quote made me think about how the project’s young participants engage with memory and history during their visit to the Nazi concentration-death camp.

The project involves 16-18 year old students from the UK attending an orientation seminar in London, a day trip to Oświęcim and Auschwitz-Birkenau, followed by a second reflective seminar in London. The students then return to their school and translate their experience into some form of educational or commemorative outcome.

As part of the orientation seminar, students are encouraged to discuss a quote from Janina Struk’s Photographing the Holocaust (2003). Struck suggests that “a camera puts a distance between the person taking the photographs and an otherwise distressing experience.”

In On Photography, Susan Sontag states, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture” (quotes take from the Holocaust Education Trust handout).

Both of these stances are critical of taking photographs and suggest they diminish our experience of place, offering instead a safe barrier between us and the traumatic aura of the site we encounter. Previously I have agreed with this position. When I first started taking photographs of atrocity sites for my research, I felt awkward -as if I was intruding on someone else’s history; as if I was being disrespectful.

However, the students I spoke to were rather vehement about the importance of taking photographs. One said “it proves you were there”, another “they are memories”. Does taking photographs or video footage augment or diminish our embodied experience?

Auschwitz gates

To return to the Sobchack quote, modern technology has the capability to collapse the temporal dimensions of history. It can diminish the sense of a narrative where the past is behind us, the present is what is being experienced and the future something yet to come. The individual frames of photograph or film can bring to our attention the significance of the experienced event and raise questions about the notion of history as ‘story’. Each click of the camera or press of the record button signifies an embodied moment or event detached from a wider narrative – a moment of action dictated by the body and one where choices are made by the photographer. What is it from this moment that they wish to capture? What, in the perceptual horizon in front of them, is their intentionality drawn to? What are they specifically conscious of at this moment? How does their choice of framing and positioning emphasise their corporeal experience of the site? Sobchack reminds us that consciousness is always consciousness of something and the camera can often be a tool that augments our experience of a place by allowing us to capture the specific objects of our intentionality at any given moment and return to it repeatedly. Sometimes, upon re-viewing the image we can see shapes or objects we didn’t notice with the naked eye.

The action of the click collapses the temporal dimensions of time because it highlights its subjective nature. Time is not necessarily experienced as a mythical, objective narrative that joins individual moments together. Instead, here the photographer has a relationship with the past, present and future simultaneously. This is not to say they live the time we refer to as the past, the now and a futuristic moment at once, but rather that in the moment when they click the button on their camera they instantly collapse their embodied relationship with these three temporal dimensions. That is to say, their pressing of the button identifies that they are making a conscious choice not only to look at the traces of the past in front of them, but to reflect on this past in the present moment, by taking an image that will continue to commemorate both this present and the past being reflected on, in the future.

The representation and remembering of history thus becomes an event which will eventually be sutured into the participant’s story of the Holocaust (for it is in our nature as human beings to make stories of everything even if we do not experience life as such). In the embodied action of the click of the camera they say: “Here I was, looking at the traces of what happened here. I ask you to also see. Look and remember.”

But there is always the problem of iconoclasm. At an site such as Auschwitz, which has come to stand as a symbol of the Holocaust and a symbol of evil in the public consciousness, do we take photographs of things which affect us personally or take photographs of those objects which we recognise as iconic?  Are we in danger of repeating the same images and reducing the Holocaust to a set of trope photographs which could be misinterpreted as the sum of the entire event?

References

Sobchack, Vivian (1996) The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, London, UK: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography, London, UK & New York, USA: Penguin.

Struck, Janina (2004) Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, London, UK & New York, USA: I.B. Tauris.

By Mona Sakr

An overview Loke and Robertson’s ‘Making Strange’ methodology and a discussion of its relevance to embodiment

In Loke and Robertson’s (2008) ‘making strange’ methodology, the way we perceive and feel the moving body is actively unsettled in order to find new perspectives on the body and bodily interaction. The practice of ‘making strange’ builds on the work of dancer Maxine Sheets-Johnstone who explored the phenomenological consequences when individuals disrupted their familiar or habitual movements. In ‘making strange’, our assumptions and habitual understandings about the body are unsettled through explicit inquiries into movement. Loke and Robertson argue that de-familiarising the movements of the body can open up new spaces in the design of artefacts and technologies. It can help us to invent or devise new types of movement; it enables an investigation into the experience of movement; and it encourages us to find new methods for re-enacting or recording movement.

 So how does ‘making strange’ work? Loke and Robertson suggest a range of techniques that can facilitate innovative thinking about the body and movement:

  • Scoring – a simple score might consist of three movements e.g. walking, standing and crouching, but by improvising in terms of the speed, duration, order, focus, or use of space, these movements can be radically altered.
  • Falling – unorthodox movements, like falling, can help us to re-feel and re-negotiate our relationship with the moving body.
  • Somatics – certain practices, like Qi Gong, can help us to become more aware of our felt sensations and to prioritise these over the external perception of movement.
  • Finding Pathways – what part of the body do you lead with when you move, and what would happen if this were changed? Try walking left shoulder-first, or leading with your elbow when you lift your arm.
  • Imagery – the language we use to talk about the body and movement can help us to enact movements differently. Think of the ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ game that you may have played when you were younger. Chanting these words as a group while lifting one of your peers changes the experience.

For dancers, these techniques are a way of accessing, inventing and designing new forms of movement. For researchers of the body though, we also need methods for capturing responses to these movement techniques. And as designers, we need to link these responses to, or ‘write’ them into, systems that depend on movement.

Some ideas for recording responses might include:

  • Video to capture the movement
  • Transcriptions of the movement through visual plots e.g. plotting the motion of particular points on the body
  • Photography to capture the moments that define the essential points of the movement e.g. when we raise our hands, the essence of the movement is in the fingers raised towards the sky
  • In situ comments on the phenomenological consequences of the movement
  • Oral or written reflective commentaries

‘Making strange’ is an exciting starting point in the design of embodied interaction. Beyond the techniques it suggests though, we need robust methods for capturing the outcomes of practising these techniques, along with guidelines for implementing them in the design of systems that depend on whole-body interaction. For me, the next step in understanding the ‘making strange’ methodology will be to try the techniques suggested by Loke and Robertson and to capture my responses in the ways I’ve suggested.  Will the outcomes be useful in thinking about and designing for whole-body interaction?

Loke, L. & Robertson, T. (2008) Inventing and devising movement in the design of movement-based interactive systems. OZCHI’08 (81-88).