Archives for posts with tag: performance

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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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).

by Victoria Grace Walden 

Speculations on a cinema of moments.

Tom Gunning (1995), in his paper An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator, defines the cinema that preceded classical narrative films “the cinema of attractions”. He describes it thus:

The aesthetic of attraction addresses the audience directly, sometimes… exaggerating this confrontation in an experience of assault. Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfilment.

 (Gunning in Williams (ed) 1995: 121)

Gunning’s cinema of attraction is an attack on the senses; a cinema of moments which engages the spectator with the fundamental essence of cinema: the look. He is aware that the cinema of attractions did not completely disappear with the advent of classical narrative cinema. When you watch many films from the classical, new and contemporary eras of Hollywood there are evidently sequences which could be classified under a cinema of moments. These moments are perhaps not “attacks” on the senses, but certainly sensual moments which encourage the spectator to comprehend the cinematic image through the body. These images highlight what Laura U. Marks (2000) calls “haptic visuality” – images which provoke sensations of touch and movement. I argue, it is not just the “act of looking” which audiences are aware of in these moments, but the act of sensing, through all the senses: through the body. These “moments” are asides from the narrative. Through foregrounding the body they encourage the spectator to consider how the body is socialised within the film’s context: issues of gender, power and emotion become the focus rather than narrative storytelling. They could be considered corporeal monologues or asides.

Let me share three brief examples:

The Great Dictator (1940)

Ballet sequence: Slapstick is a genre conventionally characterised by “moments”: comical set pieces. In Charlie Chaplin’s commentary on Nazi Germany, the ballet sequence is a typical example of the cinema of moments. Chaplin signifies his aside by stating “leave me. I want to be alone.” This is followed by a majestic ballet routine in which he bounces a balloon which represents the globe. The dance illuminates the absurdity of man as all-powerful. In the moment in which he holds the whole world in his hand, Chaplin’s dictator loses his power. As he spins the balloon, lies on the desk, flicks the balloon with his buttocks and gazes at it romantically, his gestures feminize the body. He is beautified – an image of performance and theatre; a subject of the gaze, quite contrary to the strong Aryan worker concept of masculinity. The disappearance of the balloon emphasises his bodily gestures and signifies the end of the aside.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Hitchhiking: When Ellie Andrews and Peter are walking down a deserted road, she dictates the start of the aside when she decides to “go sit right down, over here” on a roadside fence. Peter’s carrot munching is reminiscent of Bugs Bunny’s iconic image establishing him as rough and perhaps animalistic. The gag that ensures focuses on gestures. Peter illustrates a variety of hand gestures, each more confident and stronger (and more absurd) than the one before. The certainty of his final gesture mimics the patriarchal mythology of the strong handshake and the importance for a man to perform his dominance through gesture. As Peter fails to hail a car his gestures become less controlled, more frantic and finally plain rude.

In contrast, Ellie’s first attempt is successful. Rather than bothering with firm hand gestures, she simply raises her skirt to expose her thigh. Interestingly, this sequence does not portray the female as object for the male gaze (as Laura Mulvey notes in many films of the time (1975)), rather the female controls it. Ellie gains power over Peter, the driver and the spectator by telling all of us when and where to look at her body. This is a fabulous sequence illustrating how performance of the body emphasises gender difference.

Taxi Driver (1976)

You talkin’ to me: In this scene, most famous for its dialogue, the concentration of medium and medium close-up shots of Travis emphasise it is a sequence about the body. Again, it is established as a narrative aside: Travis is alone in his apartment. Travis begins by pacing and crossing his arms, the latter motion is an attempt to establish a defensive position. Then he begins to flick his gun out rhythmically. As he does so, the gun and the body’s movements become one – a symbol of his body at its prime: his body as war machine. He later turns his back slightly to the spectator signifying he is gaining control over the fictitious conversation. Travis establishes himself as choreographer of the scenario – when he turns away, he stops talking and the interaction ends. After a pause of motionless, Travis turns once more towards the camera flicking the knife with ease and thus establishing his violent intentions. He is a threat. He dominates. He is restoring patriarchal power to his body and to his country. The sequence illustrates the crisis of masculinity imposed by the Vietnam War and Travis’ attempt to restore order.

These are just quick thoughts on a notion and not completely theorised as yet, but to think about a cinema of moments we must think through the body. Haptic moments are not confined to the avant-garde, the most mainstream narrative stories are interrupted by such moments which help us to reflect on the body and its social role.

By Mona Sakr

In my last post, I talked about the link between bodies and ‘self’ and I suggested three ways of thinking about this relationship:

PERFORMANCE (bodies perform the ‘self’)

MOMENTS (bodily moments make up the ‘self’)

MEDIATION (experience is mediated by the body)

boat race 1

Watching the boat race this weekend, they seemed like a good way of making sense of the part that bodies played in this spectacle, and a starting point for further questions about the body…

PERFORMANCE: In sports, we use every trick we have to create the conditions for our success. Part of this is using our bodies to perform to others. We use our bodies to perform competence, to perform victory. Before the boat race began, the competitors inhabited their bodies in particular ways. They sat up straight, they looked straight ahead, they embodied the role of fierce and focused competitor. In moments of physical exhaustion, the performance crumbled… At the finish line, the individual in ‘stroke’ position in the Oxford boat, collapsed backwards and was dribbling. It took him a few minutes to regain composure and embody the role of victor. When can we perform and when can we not? What role do the moments of non-performance play in the making of ‘self’?

MOMENTS: I can’t say for sure, but I would guess that the individuals taking part in the boat race will remember it for a long time to come. What will they remember? Will they remember the physical exhaustion and exhilaration? They might well talk about these aspects of the experience, but is it possible to remember bodily experience? Try remembering what it’s like to feel cold when you’re hot, or what it’s like to feel nervous when you’re relaxed. What is the relationship between body and memory?

MEDIATION: Not everyone can participate in the boat race. Not everyone has a body that fits the bill. Only the men’s boat race is televised. Bodies allow us to own certain experiences and not others, so can they be conceptualised as currency?

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.