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.
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.