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.

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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.

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.’

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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.

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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.

Totum corpus laborat / Another day at the office: a guest post by Helen Slaney

‘The Body in Mind: Reflections on Research Embodiment’ explored the patterns of everyday movement, and – as I saw it – challenged two essential misconceptions: first, that ‘dancing’ consists only of special types of codified movement; and second, that academia, as a notoriously sedentary profession, involves no movement at all. Our exploration consisted of various exercises involving spatiality, objects, the transformation of habitual actions into repeatable sequences and the interrogation of their apparent naturalness. Sprawling backwards across a chair-seat, swarming through its upturned legs, or sitting demurely cross-legged as in a seminar are all potential responses to the chair’s multiple affordances, but the conventions of the university permit only certain configurations of bodies in space. One does not deliver an academic lecture reclining on the ground, for example, or strolling through the colonnades, whatever they might have done in Plato’s day.

How much of our study and research environment is determined more by default than by design? And does the position of our bodies, their attitude vis-à-vis the work we produce, matter at all? The conceit that the life of the mind has nothing to do with the body is certainly false, however we might labour to expunge our physical selves from our products and processes. This pressure to not have a body, certainly not one that makes its presence known, is perhaps felt most acutely by female academics.

The stereotype of the disembodied academic is groundless, anyway. After copying manuscripts, medieval scribes would frequently add a closing remark, a colophon such as Tres digiti scribunt, totum vero corpus laborat. Qui scribere nescit nullum putat esse laborem (‘Three fingers do the writing, but actually the whole body is working. Only people who don’t know how to write think this isn’t hard work!’). Whether you illuminate vellum, touch-type on the keyboard, or prefer – like me – to think in biro, writing is an intensely tactile activity, as sophisticated in its fine-motor precision as playing a musical instrument. Our cognitive labours, whether we acknowledge it or not, take place in an organic milieu. Do you get your best ideas while walking? Did you find your concentration improved at a kneeling desk? Academia is as physical a profession as any other, even if the movements we execute are imperceptible. This workshop brought them into conscious focus, demonstrating how attention and framing can take the most banal or subtle of movements and make them a dance.

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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. Her monograph The Senecan Aesthetic: A Performance History is coming out later this year in the Oxford University Press ‘Classical Presences’ series.

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.

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

‘Raven Becomes Voracious’: a guest post by Amy McLennan

Raven is both a creator and a trickster in the mythology of the people of the Pacific Northwest.

His story, drawn from Franz Boas’ records and performed by Rebecca Leach, was one of satiation, of being struck down with illness and misfortune, and of returning to contented family togetherness. Then – suddenly! – the whale fat sizzled over a fire, and others coerced Raven into tasting it. His new hunger was profound.

Raven was hungry. So was I.

But this hunger was nothing compared to that experienced by the conscientious objectors involved in the wartime Minnesota Starvation Experiments. Stanley Ulijaszek read research records, describing participants’ aggression, illness, asociality and psycholological distress. Their hunger was profound.

When Raven’s people could no longer feed his insatiable hunger, they sent him to new lands, which flourished under him. Following WWII, hunger was likewise flung to the far corners of the world, away from developed nations rebuilding following the conflict. But insatiable hunger did not disappear. There is the everyday hollow-belly hunger of precarity and poverty on the one hand, with all of the devastating impacts documented during the starvation experiments. And the everyday hunger of always-wanting-more on the other, with bodies and ecosystems that, like Raven’s community, cannot support the constant demands for excess.

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Amy McLennan is a medical anthropologist whose interests include food and nutrition-related health. In her spare time she enjoys rowing, exploring, and experimenting in the kitchen. Follow Amy on Twitter at @amykmcl