Archives for category: books

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.

Food for thought:

‘…developments in technology point towards the possibilities of post-bodied and post-human forms of existence…’ (Featherstone & Burrows, 1995, p. 2)

Featherstone, M. & Burrows, R. (1995) Cultures of Technological Embodiment: An Introduction. In M. Featherstone & R. Burrows (eds.) Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk. London: SAGE. 

By Mona Sakr

Embodiment isn’t just about recognising the importance of the body. It highlights the need to ‘read’ bodily actions and make sense of the semiotic work that these actions are doing. In a current project, I am attempting to make sense of the work done by different hand actions in the context of scientific inquiry. Is it possible to map hand actions to stages in scientific inquiry?

‘Reading’ parts of the body requires classification systems – systems that will make sense of all of the types of movement that can be performed. Hands might be used to move objects, to ‘know’ the texture or weight of objects, to gesture at objects present, or to gesture about objects absent. Systems designed to classify these types of hand action are a starting point for making sense of embodied forms of interaction.

One such system – based very much on function rather than form – is presented by Streeck (2009) in Gesturecraft. Streeck presents 6 categories of hand action, or, as he calls them, ‘gesture ecologies’. What do you think of the distinctions he draws?

1. Making sense of the world at hand (moving and touching objects)

2. Disclosing the world within sight (drawing attention to a shared visual focus e.g. through pointing)

3. Depiction (gestures used to represent content)

4. Thinking by hand (gesture that facilitates thought e.g. grasping at the air when you are trying hard to describe something)

5. Displaying communicative action (showing or foreshadowing aspects of the communicative act)

6. Ordering and mediating transactions (regulating the input of other participants; managing your interaction in an exchange)

But there are problems with classification systems that work purely on function, just as there are problems with those that relate purely to form. If we classify movements and actions only on the basis of function, how do we go about making the classification? It becomes an activity that relies entirely on ‘reading’ the surrounding context – you don’t end up ‘reading’ the body at all. For example, in order to know whether someone is currently ‘thinking by hand’, I would need to know what’s going on in their mind.

On the other hand, systems based only on form (e.g. those that distinguish pointing from grasping) are only helpful when making sense of the body’s semiotic work if you assume that the work of the body is inflexible – that form maps neatly, one-to-one, onto function. We know that isn’t the case… we know that pointing isn’t always about establishing a shared reference point, and we know that establishing a shared reference point isn’t always done through pointing.

What you need is a system that takes both form and function into account, one that encourages the user to think about the surrounding context – the ‘multimodal ensemble of activity’ (Goodwin, 2001) – but at the same time enables some insights to be made on the basis of the body itself.

Streeck, J. (2009) Gesturecraft: The manu-facture of meaning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Comapny. 

By Mona Sakr

Monaghan (2005; cited in Malcrida & Low, 2008)

Monaghan explores the possibility that spoiled body identities can be saved via online communities.

Identities are often spoiled through perceptions of the body. One common example is the de-valuing of identities associated with ‘fat’ bodies. But how are these bodies presented and performed in online spaces in order to save the identities with which they are associated? Forums and communities build up to celebrate these bodies. The virtual constructions of ‘fat’ bodies are fundamentally different to their constructions in the offline world.

‘the internet allows fleshy bodies to become more durable and valued cyborgs’ (p. 60)

‘the internet provides space for alternative definitions of… embodiment’ (p. 61).

Monaghan, L. F. (2005) Big Handsome Men, Bears and Others: Virtual Constructions of ‘Fat Male Embodiment’. In C. Malacrida & J. Low (Eds.) Sociology of the Body: A Reader (pp. 57 – 65). Ontario: Oxford University Press. 

By Mona Sakr

In imagined bodies, I talked about the way we make sense of digital communication and suggested that engaging with a blog depends on imagining the embodied actions of the blogger.

One way to think about this is through Sigrid Norris’s concept of frozen action, which she uses in order to frame the communicative work of disembodied modes. Disembodied modes are those that don’t belong to a human body e.g. writing or the organisation of furniture in this room. Norris argues that disembodied modes are understood through frozen action rather than real-time action. Frozen action is action that has been performed previously. For example, a magazine on a table is understood in relation to the actions of (1) purchasing the magazine and (2) placing the magazine on the table, although neither of those actions are currently taking place.

“These actions are frozen in the material objects themselves and are therefore evident.” (Norris, 2004, p. 14).

In this framework, disembodied systems of representation rely on deductions about embodied action. In digital environments, the perception of what others do will be based on assumptions about the embodied work underlying these events. Empirical research is needed to answer questions that arise as a result of this framework:

  • What kinds of deductions do we make about embodied work on the basis of digital communication?
  • To what extent are these deductions correct i.e. do they match the embodied work that did actually enable the digital communication?
  • What results from the way we imagine embodied work underlying digital communication e.g. does it influence the way we think about the person we are in communication with?

 

Norris, S. (2004) Analyzing Multimodal Interaction: A methodological framework. New York: Routledge.

By Mona Sakr

‘Just as others have argued that it is through our ways of seeing the world that we become viewing subjects (see Crang, 1997), it is through our bodies that we become doing subjects.’ (p. 261)

Jaworski, A. & Thurlow, C. (2011) Gesture and movement in tourist spaces. In C. Jewitt (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 253 – 263.

By Mona Sakr

The 3rd edition of Chris Shilling’s ‘The Body and Social Theory’ was published in September 2012. The book provides an overview of the body as an organising principle in sociology. 

The body and social theory 2

Shilling suggests that bodies are being taken more seriously than ever by sociologists. While the founding fathers of sociology may have only talked about the body implicitly, a robust sociology of the body is emerging as a result of various social changes. Feminism, consumerism and an aging population have all drawn our attention to the body. We’ve started to think about our bodies as active entities rather than passive containers. They are essential in our identity, since how can we perform if not through the body?

Shilling makes a link between body and ‘self’. Who are we if not our bodies? But how exactly are our bodies implicated in the construction of self? I think about this relationship in three ways (but I’m sure there are others):

PERFORMANCE: We might use the body to perform to others. Getting a tattoo is a way of using the body to construct a public self, but also to re-assert self in our own eyes.

MOMENTS: The body plays an essential role in the fundamental moments of our lives. Periods of illness, the physical components of distress and joy, bodily embarrassment – these aspects of existence may be what we think about when we think about ‘self’.

MEDIATION: The life we lead depends on the body we have. My experiences of the world are mediated by my body; as a result, my ‘self’ is also mediated by the world.