Presence, or: a reflection on walking backwards without looking

I stand at the mouth of a makeshift aisle, flanked by chairs, my back a sea of eyes. I close mine and listen for his steps. My own steps follow, hesitant. My feet take me by surprise; the heels of my shoes sway before I know I’ve shifted my balance. As I wobble, my attention shoots outward, refracting, imagining: all those eyes. And then back, to the immediacy of floor and feet and posture and breath. I begin to walk. With each step, his presence grows while the audience’s dims. I feel his hand outstretched, ready to support my back. My steps grow more confident. I trace an assured path through the aisle, trusting the moment and my body, suffused with sensory knowing. And then, a subtle shift. He asks that I change my angle slightly. I take another step back. A chair scrapes. My arm slides past someone’s hair. The room reappears. I stop. He asks me to keep going. I take a few more steps. He touches my back. I open my eyes and discover I had walked into the very corner of the aisle, half an inch away from colliding with a chair.

The hand that stopped my walking backwards was Charles Adrian Gillott’s. The exercise was the final act of Gillott’s ‘How do we use the body? examinations of (dis)comfort’, which explored embodied presence, upon its reassuring, meditative comforts, and its self-aware, critical discomforts.

This is my own tale of (dis)comfort. It speaks of the relativity of embodied presence: how languidly it grows and how quickly it recedes; how the very feelings that embrace us into confidence can, over the course of a second, unhook us into doubt.

But this tale also speaks of the inner sinews of presence, the inchoate moments of perception, motion, and emotion that we imagine as ours alone. These moments, the tale contends, exist beyond the bounds of the body: they are co-constituted through our active presencing and absenting of others.

My minute of meditative comfort, walking backwards, eyes shut, was created in dialogic presence. Though it was my embodied self that chose to cause a near collision, the assuredness and dedication of that motion was produced through my presencing of Gillott’s hand and voice. Then, in my moment of discomfort, realizing the awkward path I had walked, I absented Gillott and awoke to the audience. And though it was my own critical imagining that recast my steps, the critique was produced through my presencing of the audience’s witnessing gaze.

In ‘Somatic modes of attention’, Thomas Csordas (1993) writes that our embodied selves are always-already imbued with the presence of others. Our very being-in-the-world, he argues, requires that we attend to the visceral dynamics that surround us. Reflecting on walking backwards without looking, I find myself wondering about the slipperiness of intersubjective attention, and the cultural logics that guide its often-instinctive, inarticulable redirecting – from one person, to an observant crowd; from hand and voice, to gazing eyes.

Reference:
Csordas, T. J. (1993). Somatic modes of attention. Cultural anthropology, 8(2), 135-156.

~~

Karin Eli is a medical anthropologist and a co-founder of the Body and Being Network.

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