Walking Threads / Helen Slaney

Networks have become a dominant metaphor in discussions of relationships. We are accustomed to the abstract concept, but it is not often that we are confronted with the physical reality of entanglement, of connectivity. Despite speaking of ourselves as LinkedIn, we conduct ourselves as autonomous. The Walking Threads workshop provided a powerfully gentle reminder of the ramifications of action; not simply the immediate feedback of tugging on a string, but the cascading, unpredictable consequences of one small gesture that ripples through the web.

A group of some dozen people assembled in an anonymous conference room. The furniture was pushed aside. Standing in a circle, we passed around a ball of gold thread until we were lightly and loosely chained together, one by one. We began to feel the subtle tides of give and take that passed through the group like breathing as the thread was gathered and stretched. The ball continued its progress, however, no longer passing round in sequence but establishing further connections, fashioning lateral flyovers and spaghetti junctions until each of my fingers was wound with a separate spool, each could be twitched and called upon to respond if an action occurred across the room that reeled me in or travelled around the intricate whorls too rapidly for the eye and too randomly for the predictive guess to follow. Motion was constant. We ducked and stepped, spun and wove and recoiled, with no objective other than remaining connected via the threads. Our moving sculpture, our human installation took up the whole room. At one point, we added sound, humming and buzzing, changing our pitch along with the level of our strands and transforming the geometry of the thread into an immersive dome composed of sonic vibration. Towards the end of the exercise, we brought our glittering cobweb outside to let it evolve on the grass and dissolve in the sun.

Many characters in classical mythology are weavers: patient Penelope weaves and unravels a shroud, hubristic Arachne outspins a goddess, Philomela communicates her violation through tapestry. But their activity is solo; each weaves alone. Our exercise, on the other hand, was choral, a communal cat’s-cradle that did not precede our involvement and could not outlast it, but rather functioned as the coexistent imprint of our movements in space. I have participated in similar group-mind activities before, where the challenge is remaining alert and responsive to any offer perceived while subordinating personal impulses to the choral will, insofar as it is kinetically manifest. The thread externalised this relationship, making it possible to see as well as sense a collective consciousness.

~~

Helen Slaney has just completed a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and is about to join the Research Facilitation team at the University of Roehampton. She has research interests in kinaesthesia and classical reception, and for the last three years has been running the practice-led project ‘Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers’. Her monograph The Senecan Aesthetic: a performance history was published in 2015 with Oxford University Press.

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Workshop Announcement: Walking Threads: Being in Motions

Friday, 1 July, 1–3pm
School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, 64 Banbury Road, Oxford

wt(Photo credit: walkingthreads.wordpress.com)

Life moves. Think of the weather; human and nonhuman activities; our very bodies’ physiological processes. Though we sense changes in and around us, those motions may elude direct perception.

Inspired by theories of transduction (Ingold 2013; Keane 2013) – that is, the converting of a ‘message’ from one kind of medium to another – this workshop aims to sensitize participants to movement variations and multiplicity, through the particular medium of thread.

We ask: Can thread help us attune to the world’s manifold animation? Can it extend our perception of our bodies and of ways of being in the world? What imagery or lexicon does engagement with threads conjure up?

Participants will be invited to entangle with threads and elements along the way, weaving their moving bodies into a fabric of physical forces. Corresponding with bodies and things, exploring shifts in scale and perspective, we will be attentive and open to where the threads take us.

Attendance is free, but please RSVP by 30 June: Karin.Eli[at]anthro.ox.ac.uk

Walking Threads is an ongoing project involving scholars and practitioners Paola Esposito, Ragnhild Freng Dale, Valeria Lembo, Peter Loovers and Brian Schultis – and a yarn of golden thread.

Event announcement: “Stories”

CA and Samantha Mann

  23 May, 7.30pm-9.00pm

  24 May, 7.30pm-9.00pm

  Jacqueline du Pré Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford, OX4 1DY

 

Join Charles Adrian or Ms Samantha Mann for stories about love, loss, missed connections, some poetry and a rabbit.

The performance is free, and is part of a research study conducted by the Body and Being Network. So, as an audience member, you’ll also become a research participant. Participation will involve taking a questionnaire following the performance.

If you think you might be interested, visit our Eventbrite page and read our information sheet. If you’d like to participate, sign up for *one* performance. The only catch: we won’t tell you who is performing on each night – you’ll find out at the theatre!

For additional information, or if you have any questions, please write to the study’s Principal Investigator, Dr Karin Eli (Karin.Eli[at]anthro.ox.ac.uk).

 

Charles Adrian is an actor, writer and podcaster who lives in London: charlesadrian.com

Ms Samantha Mann is an award-winning librarian and Spoken Word Artist: mssamanthamann.com

This event is generously supported by St Hilda’s College.

 

CFP: Matters of the Mind: The Materialities of Mental Ill-Health and Distress

Volume edited by Anna Lavis, University of Birmingham and Karin Eli, University of Oxford

From medications to diagnostic manuals, somatic sensations to brain images, the landscape of mental health and illness is replete with diverse materialities. Against the background of a wider ‘material turn’ across the social sciences and humanities, this edited collection will offer the first text on mental ill-health and distress from a materialities perspective.

Cross-disciplinary explorations of personhood and subjectivity have engendered nuanced understandings of lived experiences of mental ill-health and distress. Explorations of these as socio-culturally patterned have been accompanied by an attention to social marginalisation and structural inequalities. This has highlighted the dynamics of stigma and the structural contexts of mental ill-health and suffering. Scholars across the social sciences and humanities have also undertaken theoretical and applied evaluations of diagnostic and treatment processes, and the reach of their global flows. Yet, although these existing cross-disciplinary strands of thought have all acknowledged the roles of material environments, discourses, and substances, to date none has drawn the myriad clinical, symbolic, and mundane (im)materialities of mental health, illness, and distress to the fore of analysis.

The editors of this volume are interested in soliciting chapters that explore how an attention to materialities offers a novel critical lens onto otherwise obscured aspects of mental ill-health and distress, ranging in focus from the intimate and individual, to the cultural and societal.

With a particular emphasis on engaging with lived experiences, we welcome contributions from scholars within anthropology and sociology; medical humanities; critical and cultural theory; critical psychiatry, psychology and public health; history; literary studies; architecture and design; science and technology studies; and geography. Relevant topics may include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • Object(ive)s of psychiatry: the materialities of diagnosis and treatment.
  • Global flows of psychiatry’s objects: texts, pharmaceuticals, diagnostic and treatment devices.
  • The materia medica of healing and (self-)care, both clinical and mundane.
  • Somatic and experiential (im)materialities: voice hearing and visions.
  • Bodies and minds: corporeal materialities and embodied subjectivities of distress.
  • Materialities of neuroscience and the ‘new genetics.’
  • Spaces and places of suffering and care: clinics, homes, neighbourhoods.

Interested authors are invited to submit an abstract of approximately 250 words, accompanied by a bio of 100 words, to Anna Lavis (a.c.lavis[at]bham.ac.uk) by May 22nd. If accepted, submissions of no more than 8,000 words each (including abstract, notes, and references) must be submitted by December 2016.

‘Corporeal’ (M/C Journal)

Our special issue, ‘Corporeal’, is now out in M/C Journal. Inspired by the Body and Being Network’s ‘Embodied Objects’ workshop, this interdisciplinary special issue explores how corporeality comes into being through encounters between bodies, objects, spaces, and structures.

Table of contents:

CFP: ‘Corporeal’ (M/C Journal, 15 January 2016)

Stemming from the Body and Being Network’s June 2015 workshop on Materiality and the Body / Embodied Objects, papers are now invited for a peer-reviewed special issue of M/C Journal, to be edited by Body and Being Network co-founders Anna Lavis and Karin Eli.

From reflections on embodiment to the material and affective turns, theoretical approaches to the body are much debated across a range of conceptual and real world contexts. Drawing on and threading across these debates, this issue will focus on corporeality by engaging with the objects that we encounter in day-to-day life. Such objects interact with, make and shape what a body is and does. They illuminate its thresholds and boundaries, possibilities and limits. As such, objects ‘tell’ often-surprising tales about embodied being and offer a prism through which to unsettle familiar discourses on the body. We invite essays that engage with objects to experiment with new ways in which to conceptualize and write corporeality, its potentialities, edges and frailties.

Areas of investigation and focal questions may include, but are not limited to:

  • What is ‘a body’, and where do its boundaries, thresholds or intersections lie?
  • How do the objects we encounter in everyday life shape or create bodies? (Examples may include medical, structural, technological, sexual, artistic, or edible objects, among others.)
  • How might such ’embodied objects’ further reflections on the corporeal and its potentialities or limits?
  • Materiality and corporeality: How are bodies made material and/or immaterial?
  • How might we write or rewrite the body through focussing on a single object with which the body interacts?
  • Cyber-corporeality: how do we define corporeality in a virtual space, or through virtual objects and encounters?
  • Absences and presences: how do objects foreground the body? How do they make the body retreat into the background?

Prospective contributors should email an abstract of 100-250 words and a brief biography to the issue editors. Abstracts should include the article title and should describe your research question, approach, and argument. Biographies should be about three sentences (maximum 75 words) and should include your institutional affiliation and research interests. Articles should be 3000 words (plus bibliography). All articles will be refereed and must adhere to MLA style (6th edition).

UPDATE (10/11/2015): Abstract submission will close on 30 November 2015.

Details:
Article deadline: 15 Jan. 2016
Release date: 16 Mar. 2016
Editors: Anna Lavis and Karin Eli
Please send abstracts and any enquiries to corporeal@journal.media-culture.org.au

Myrrha: Embodied Emotion, Corporeal Resonance / Anna Lavis

Emotion is ‘the qualification of the felt intensity of affect within the processual materiality of the social’ (McCormack 2014).

Where does emotion reside? How do we share it? To whom does it belong? These questions were the focus of the Body and Being Network event in June 2015 in which choreographer and dance artist Marie-Louise Crawley and musician Malcolm Atkins from ‘Avid for Ovid’ unfurled Ovid’s tale of Myyrha from page to stage.

Having rushed to get to the performance on time, I fought to conceal my ragged breathing as it emerged disruptively into the pre-performance hush that blanketed the room. Yet, as I folded the unruliness of my noisy outdoor body into a neat and unobtrusive spectator’s posture, and the first chords signalled a moment of beginning, I realised it was not only my own corporeality that was jostling into my consciousness. I could feel the heat emanating from the person next to me as I became aware of the juxtaposed solidity and transience of her body. And I watched as Malcolm’s foot manipulated keyboard pedals, the ethereal complexity of the music originating from its socked mundaneity. And then there was Marie-Louise of course. As her dancing bodied forth Myrrha I found my eyes drawn to her hands. Hard pressed to the floor, their human frailty showed brittle in the sudden rush of blood to tips as her knuckles whitened. An echolalia of vulnerability between performer and spectators emerged as Myrrha’s finger-roots bearing into the earth met my own attempts to draw my breathing under control; a moment of embodied encounter took shape in a space of liminality poised between stage and spectators.

In our discussion after the performance, it appeared that bodies had also been hyper-present, in ways beyond the obvious fact of watching another body dancing, for many other audience members. The words shared in the group were corporeal –– ‘bony’, ‘womb’, ‘maternity’ and ‘visceral’ as well as ‘oppressive’ and ‘vulnerable’. And many talked of the performance as felt within our own bodies; with Marie-Louise, a neck had ached, a leg twitched, a back stiffened. Enfolding themselves into each movement on stage, therefore, were all the other bodies in the room. In this joining there was a fragmentation of somatic forms; the limbs and viscera coming into insistent awareness were distributed along strings of sentences as they had been in sequences of movements. Such fragmentation arguably articulates moments of transformation not only seen by the audience, but also felt within the space of the dance.

Yet, transformation is perhaps not the right word, and nor is metamorphosis. These suggest a becoming of one thing, already having been another – a linearity of alteration like Myrrha’s body to myrrh tree. Instead, the ebb and flow of corporeal intensities circulating during the performance, and the viscerality of words we used to articulate these afterward, speak of a less linear becoming. Our bodies were made material in their encounter with Myrrha. Or, to put it another way, in those moments of somatic connection, we found ourselves to have and become bodies in a way that is not always acknowledged for an audience. Certainly academic audiences are (at least supposed to be) disembodied parts of bodies – ears, eyes, and maybe a hand that takes notes.

It is through this materialising and presencing of processual corporeality that we are drawn back to the questions posed above, and to a consideration of emotion. In her exploration of emotions, cultural theorist Sara Ahmed seamlessly draws together what we had felt in a tensely liminal but embodied way during the performance – the ineluctable intermingling of affect and corporeality; she writes, ‘emotions play a crucial role in the “surfacing” of individual and collective bodies’ (Ahmed 2004). Somatic resonances and intensities arguably therefore cannot be dislocated from emotion. And this sense of the surfacing (or producing) of our own feeling materiality warns against thinking about emotions in a linear way.

It suggests it too simple to assume that the emotions in the room ‘came from’ Myrrha, or from Marie-Louise’s performance of her. Instead, holding in mind the fragmented but embodied encounters that arose during the performance offers up to recognition an alternative sense of directionality. As Ahmed argues, it ‘suggests that emotions are not simply “within” or “without” but that they create the very effect of the surfaces or boundaries of bodies and worlds’ (2004). As such, it is not only that Myrrha’s pain, made to move and traverse by Marie-Louise, was dripped like tree sap into our own bodies. Rather, our bodies, in the contingent becomings of neck aching, leg twitching and ragged breathing produced a collective pain; it materialised with and through our bodies as the audience were not just done to, but also doing; we were present and productive. This reminds us, perhaps, that not only in the heightened affect of dance but also in the hush of lectures and the intellectual dynamics of seminars, the academic body feels as well as writes; it aches, breathes and twitches as well as disappears. Or, as Virginia Woolf (2012) put it, ‘all day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.’

~~

References:

Ahmed, S. (2004) Affective Economies. Social Text, 22(2), 117-139.

McCormack, D. (2014) Refrains for Moving Bodies: Experience and Experiment in Affective Spaces. Duke University Press.

Woolf, V. (2012) On Being Ill: with Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephen. Paris Press.

Read Marie-Louise Crawley’s blogpost on the performance from her perspective here.

~~

Anna Lavis is a medical anthropologist and Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on embodied intimacies of illness and caregiving, particularly in relation to mental health and with an emphasis on gender and young people. Anna is also an honorary Research Associate in the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford. There, with Karin Eli, she co-founded the Body and Being Network.

The Bead Necklace / Karin Eli

It was a reproduction, an artefact of a time, made retrospectively. Sarah* had already been discharged from the eating disorders ward when she made the necklace, its tiny, floral arrangements of beads in keeping with the necklaces she had made, in succession, during the in-between times of living in the ward. She made it for me because I had admired the others during my visits, she said. And there it was, in blue and cyan, casually commemorative.

When I visited her at the ward, just a few weeks earlier, Sarah told me of those in-between times. She told me of her boredom, of the gnawing sense that her mind was wasting, of the frustrating lack of activity or interest, of a day marked by meals and water breaks and post meal surveillance, of feeling idle as she was confined to a chair, glaring at television shows she didn’t want to watch, craving a conversation or a lecture or a class or a walk. But inevitably, during my visits, the stretches of silence were broken. Not being there with her, in surveyed ‘restful’ confinement, I couldn’t quite share the embodied tension of which she spoke.

With the bead necklace, however, Sarah’s tales of waiting materialized to my touch. I could imagine her, one bead after another, counting time, fingers moving to a rhythm made habit, four times a day, four meals, two hours, one chair.

A stay in an eating disorders ward is a protracted act of becoming, punctuated with long stretches of waiting, with the tense silences of the body, constrained and confined, in watchful conservation; cocooning between meals, enduring. Sarah’s bead necklace spoke to me of this patient body – this uneventful, deceptively inarticulate body so frequently absent when researchers write of patienthood. It is a body in waiting, made through mundane practice, in the interstices of medical time. Moving through material possibilities, marking the affordances of the clinic – with the intimacy of unassuming habit, with the invisibility of non-medicalized acts – the patient body challenges us to recognize and write the richness of what happens when seemingly nothing does.

~~

*A pseudonym.

~~
Karin Eli is a medical anthropologist and a co-founder of the Body and Being Network. Karin has conducted extensive research on the eating disordered experience; this text is based on fieldwork she carried out in Israel. A related article on experiential narratives of the eating disorders ward was published in 2014.

Intactness, or: Crouching Venus / Helen Slaney

H Slaney - Crouching Venus (2)
Photograph: Helen Slaney

Haunted by replicas, by reduplication. By all of my sisters, all my sororial twins. But I am unique: this damage is mine. What identifies me is my brokenness.

Some of my sisters, they have prosthetics. They are enhanced by other women’s limbs, transplanted, re-crafted. Well before bionics, well before implants, well before robotic pincers that grip surgical instruments better than fallible human hands, there was us. There were me.

We used to be dismembered. Around the time Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, somebody reassembled me. My husband, remember, according to the poets, the Greek god of technology, Hephaestus, was attended by an entourage of gold female automata.1 Talk about Pygmalion. Bringing a single mannequin to life – why limit yourself? Why not animate an entire shopfloor? You would have to restore us first, of course, out of the fragments you find in the Borghese basement. And what if you (or I) ended up with too many arms? What kind of monstrosities could you cook up from the scraps?2 Our limbs are all interchangeable, after all; we are modular, like classical Lego: our heads, our armbands, our toes, the folds of our bellies, our… I nearly went on into “wombs”, there, but of course our interior is stone, inanimate, barren, intractably material. Given the chance, we’d revert to geology. Boil us for mortar, we’d make you a building. That’s what happened to old mother Rome herself, says Edward Gibbon, whose own body sat itself down in the ruins and gaped, aghast, at the way the city was built out of her own entrails, churches squatting in gutted monuments.

This pernicious ideology of completeness cannot account for my multiplicity, nor my successive states of being over time: as rock, as sculptor’s medium, as artwork, as fragment, as replica, as fetish, as muse, as artefact, as digitised image.

How am I to be consumed next?

~~

1. Homer, Iliad 18.417-20.

2. ‘Fragments of gods & Senators are jumbled into the same figure of furies & Graces, till it comes out a monster.’ Barry, quoted in Boulton & McLoughlin 2012, 268.

~~

Helen Slaney is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Her current research investigates haptic responses to ancient material culture in the late eighteenth century. She is also involved in the practice-based project Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers and has been affiliated with the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama since 2009.

Being with Thread / Paola Esposito

The writing workshop ‘Materiality and the Body,’ organised by the Body and Being Network on 12 June 2015, offered participants space and time to reflect on ‘embodied objects’ of their choice. As a focus of my exploration I brought some thread. This choice relates to my ongoing involvement in a project called Walking Threads, in which five researchers engage with a bundle of golden string and the living environment as a group. I have been wondering how a more personal engagement with the thread would differ from a group engagement. As my question resonated with those posed by the workshop organisers – ‘What does your object tell us about the body? How does it do this?’ – I set out to investigate the thread somatically, that is, from the perspective of my own body.

I brought along a yarn and three-meter yellow string in place of the golden thread that I could not find in shops. My original plan of personal, reflexive engagement with these objects fell through with the first writing exercise. We divided into small groups, and my partner started fiddling with the yellow string. He wanted to weave the string into a cat’s cradle but did not know how. I could recall the first three or four sequences so I tried to guide my partner through them, as we both held the string from different points. Yet I struggled to deliver verbal instructions for hand gestures. Somatically, I perceived the discrepancy between gesture and speech as brief interruptions of my breathing. As my fingers and those of my partner weaved through the cradle, I witnessed my own unease with proximity and contact.

Later I explored the yarn with another participant, this time at a ‘safer’ distance in that no direct contact was involved. I watched her wrapping the yarn around her fingers in a repetitive and regular circling motion. The slow and meditative pace of her movement contrasted with my own nervously explorative movements, which included pulling the yarn against the back of a chair, wrapping it around my arm and placing it onto my partner’s hair.

In both cases of exploring the string with a partner, my attention was directed not only to the string, but also to my partner’s and my own ‘being’, as collections of micro-movements marked by a distinctive pace or rhythm. This reminds me of Ingold’s (2013) definition of the body as a ‘tumult of unfolding activity’ (94). Could the thread be used as an instrument for attuning to bodies’ tumultuous aliveness?

Although I had planned to use the yarn and the string reflectively, as a ‘mirror’ to my own body, they revealed themselves first and foremost as objects that connected. Can the notion of ‘embodied object’ convey such a connective quality? Philosopher Sheets-Johnstone (2011) argues that the term ‘embodiment’ conveys a sense of being ‘packaged’, which hinders the realisation of the ‘dynamic aliveness of being’ and distorts the unfinished nature of the living body (119-126). The term ‘object’ also has been seen as semantically conveying enclosure and ‘over-againstness’, overshadowing the ‘gathering’ and intermingling of forces involved in the world’s unfolding into being (Ingold 2013: 85).

Notwithstanding the importance of these critiques, as I fiddled with the string, boundaries, limitedness and containment felt quite real, in that I existentially perceived them as such. They actualised, for instance, in actions that did not flow, and in tacit proxemic boundaries between myself and others. Also, the physical setting of the seminar room, with its chairs and desks, and the very activity of writing imposed some constraints on one’s bodily posture, and limited the body’s capacity for expansive, connective movements. So, while embodiment certainly is not conclusive for describing the body, we do ‘feel packaged’ at times.

Yet one may be able to overcome this sense of enclosure.

In my final example, another writing exercise, we looked for words that could link the body with the object. In exploring the string, this time without a partner, the words that initially came to my mind were nouns and adjectives referring to either the string itself – ‘yellow, length, texture’ – or my own body – ‘fingers, fingerprints’. As I continued to engage with the string, a different kind of noun – ‘scale, measure, tool’ – and verb – ‘pulling, binding, weaving’ – began to occur, signalling a shift in attention from either the object or my own body in isolation to the relation between them.

Somatically, the probing of the thread entailed a fragmenting of habitual, standardised action into nuanced micro-actions of perceptual adjustment to the qualities, dimensions and other physical traits of the string. As I discovered new potential for micro-action with the thread, I began to think not just of or about the thread but also with it (Ingold 2013). Developing attention to micro-actions with the thread may reveal new dimensions of the body, the thread itself, and the various combinations of the two.

~~

References:

Ingold, T. (2013) Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. London: Routledge.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2011) The primacy of movement. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.

~~

Paola Esposito is an anthropologist and butoh dancer whose work focuses on relations between practice, perception and notions of the living body. She delivers butoh-informed movement workshops and performs with the dance group When my grandfather was a fish.