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.

MUAC: A Talisman / Darryl Stellmach

Photo
Image credit: Luis C. Diaz (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/luiscdiaz/3189218916

I never saw it myself, but I heard it from the medics in the hospital where we worked in Marere, Lower Juba, that when receiving treatment for wounds, Somali patients might plaster a small piece of paper with a Quranic verse into the open face of the injury, before the gauze and dressing were laid overtop. In the following days, the paper and verse would incorporate into the wound, word and line becoming one with the patient’s body.

Years later, reading “The Art of Memory,” I would be struck at Dale Eickleman’s account of the “Quranic Presence” in Islamic education in Morocco. A father gave permission to the Quranic teacher to use force, if needed, to get the Quran into the boy. The verse was the word of God and the word of God was transmitted through the teacher’s intervention into the vessel of the boy’s memory (Eickleman 1978:494). Through memorization and appropriate recitation of verse the boy—and by extension his family—came to embody and carry the power of the Quran itself.

The body was a vessel. It seemed to me it was not so much the object (the book, the inscribed scrap of paper) that was sacred, as the words themselves. If those words could be incorporated into the body—through ink mingling with bodily fluids, or through memory—they imbued the body with moral power.

In the same way as words can charge bodies with power, bodies can do the same for words and numbers. The MUAC tape is a simple device, deceptive for its bright colours and unassuming manner. The Measure of Mid-Upper Arm Circumference is a diagnostic tool for childhood undernutrition. In children under 5 years of age, circumference of the triceps and biceps is a good indicator of nutritional wellbeing and a predictor of mortality. The colourful plastic MUAC tape, a purpose-built measuring device, is designed to easily read and interpret upper arm circumference. Like the Quranic verses written on scraps of paper, this small, inscribed piece of plastic is a talisman, but of a different sort. Where the scrap paper Quranic talismans charge the body with spiritual force, the MUAC uses the weight of the body to charge numbers with moral force.

To be encircled by the MUAC is to be counted. Used almost exclusively in the context of aid programs to combat hunger and undernutrition, to be MUACed is to be numbered among the thousands of small bodies that lend their weight, in grams, to statistics. It is to add the fibre of one’s being to a moral argument: children should not starve.

But children do starve. The MUAC can tell us if the child in front of us is starving. And it does more: when the MUAC’s numbers are aggregated, through epidemiology, it shows us where and approximately how many children are starving. On individual and population levels, the MUAC implies the need for action; it brings historical, social and moral power to bear.

To be encircled by the MUAC is also to be assessed, and if found worthy, to be delivered into care. The MUAC invokes the protective sphere of the clinic, the power of the practice of therapeutic nutrition, where medicine, in the form of clinically-engineered food, is made to work upon bodies, to imbue strength and restore health.

In these ways the numbered MUAC and the Quranic verse on crumpled paper are both talismans: objects infused with a vast complex of moral, historical and social expectations—that when employed in the right context, with a certain understanding, can exert and extend protective force upon the bodies they contact.

~~

References:

Eickelman, D.F. (1978). The art of memory: Islamic education and its social reproduction. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 20(4): 485–516.

Redfield, P. (2013). Life in crisis: The ethical journey of Doctors Without Borders. University of California Press.

~~

Darryl Stellmach spent ten years as a field manager with the international emergency medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières. A 2012 Commonwealth Doctoral Scholar, he is currently in the third year of his doctorate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Follow him on Twitter.

The Yoga Mat / Nicola Kay Gale

I attach myself to you,
Use you to express me,
Use you to communicate,
To perform a me.

You support and cushion
Me. Literally. Not metaphorically.
I pound you over and over
Eroding you gently.

You become more true,
More of the essence
Of your design in
Your interaction with me.

You contain and shape
Me. Make possible
Impossibilities, and guide
Me to move freely.

Through your creation of
Space, a map of me
Emerges that has new
Journeys. I use you

To express a new me.
You become imprinted,
Scarred by me. And
Mould me in your turn.

~~

Nicola Kay Gale is Lecturer in Health Sociology at the Health Services Management Centre, School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham. She works in both single-discipline sociological research and interdisciplinary health research. Follow her on Twitter.

Embodied Objects: An Introduction / Karin Eli and Anna Lavis

How can objects evoke and challenge our understandings of what a body is and does? How we might we write or rewrite the body through focusing on a single object with which the body interacts?

These and related questions are at the heart of our new series, Embodied Objects, a collection of writings that traverse the academic and the artistic to explore the material entanglements that make our everyday.

Stemming from a writing workshop entitled ‘Materiality and the Body’, held on 12th June 2015 at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, this series critically approaches embodied experience through written engagement with objects we otherwise encounter tacitly. In so doing, it traces the outlines and shadows of bodies that are made absent or material through writing.

Focusing on a single object, from a piece of thread to a Roman statue, each contributor elucidates how objects ‘tell’ often-surprising tales about embodied being and offer a prism through which to unsettle familiar discourse on the body. Drawing on diverse literatures and underpinned by a renewed focus on materiality across the humanities and social sciences, the writings collected here thereby experiment with new ways in which to conceptualize and write embodiment and its materialities.

Our collection opens with Nicola Kay Gale’s ‘The Yoga Mat’, and Darryl Stellmach’s ‘MUAC: A Talisman’.

23 July 2015: The Embodied Objects series continues with Paola Esposito’s ‘Being with Thread’.

30 July 2015: Helen Slaney’s ‘Intactness, or: Crouching Venus’ joins the Embodied Objects series.

6 August 2015: Karin Eli’s ‘The Bead Necklace’.