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.

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References:

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

CFP: Materiality and the Body: A Body and Being Network Writing Workshop

We navigate the world through and with objects; consciously or tacitly, in symbiotic or conflicted interaction, our embodied selves are entangled with the materiality that makes our everyday. In this one-day workshop, we aim to explore how critically engaging with objects might allow us to access experience. Specifically, we aim to examine how objects evoke and challenge our understandings of the body in writing, and how we might rewrite the body through focusing on a single object with which the body interacts.

The workshop will take place on Friday, 12 June 2015, 10am-5:30pm, at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. The day will include an intensive writing session, followed by group sharing and discussion. It is anticipated that the writing produced in this session will form the basis for an online collection. If you are interested in participating, please send a 200-250 word abstract, introducing the object you’d like to explore and explaining how this object might further our understandings of the body, alongside a brief bio (up to 100 words) to bodyandbeingnetwork [at] gmail.com. The deadline for submissions is 5 June.

* The workshop is sponsored by St Hilda’s College, Oxford. There are no registration fees, but applying to participate is essential. A limited travel bursary is available; please inquire with us further.

Event Announcement: “Embodying Emotion”

Where does emotion reside? How do we share it? To whom does it belong?

Performing an original piece based on Ovid’s tale of Myrrha (developed as part of Avid for Ovid), choreographer and dance artist Marie-Louise Crawley and composer Malcolm Atkins will explore the embodied expression of emotion. The performance will be followed by facilitated audience discussion.

“Embodying Emotion” will take place on Wednesday, 3 June, 5.30-6.30pm, at the Jacqueline du Pré Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Attendance is free, but please register for the event by 1 June – either by completing the form below, or by writing to us at bodyandbeingnetwork [at] gmail.com

This event is generously supported by a research award from St Hilda’s College.


Please note that Ovid’s tale of Myrrha includes themes of incest and depression.

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