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
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.