MUAC: A Talisman / Darryl Stellmach

Image credit: Luis C. Diaz (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.



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’.

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] 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]

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.


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.

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.

‘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.


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

The Body in Mind: Reflections on Research Embodiment

Participants recorded their reflections during the event. These are some of the results.
Participants recorded their reflections during the event.

The body can be messy, inconvenient and unpredictable. When you’re a scholar, the body can also be suspected of disrupting the research process. Academic cultures tend to negotiate the body by making it invisible – ignoring how it looks, moves and feels.

In this workshop, we explored what it means to be an embodied researcher. What is the relationship between our bodies and our work lives? How can we understand the roles of the body in research? In what ways do these roles differ depending on our subject or method?

Facilitated by independent dance artist Cecilia Macfarlane and sociologist Juliet Rayment (City University London), this participatory workshop included both movement and discussion.

‘The Body in Mind: Reflections on Research Embodiment’ took place on 25 February 2015, 5.30pm-7.00pm, at the Jacqueline du Pré Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.