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.

How Do We Use The Body? Examinations of (Dis)comfort

Charles Adrian Gillott. Photo credit: Oliver Proske.
Charles Adrian Gillott. Photo credit: Oliver Proske.

“One way of approaching the phenomenology of the actor is to consider him as a kind of storyteller whose speciality is that he is the story he is telling.” (from The Actor’s Presence: Three Phenomenal Modes by Bert O. States)

A performer’s body, as the cliché has it, is his or her instrument. For the second event of the Body And Being Network, Charles Adrian Gillott shared the sometimes difficult experience of learning to inhabit the body and explored the connection between self-consciousness and stage presence. He examined what it means for a performer to be ‘present’ and asked whether it is possible to share that experience with others. Participants had the chance to reflect on how it feels to observe a performer in action and were encouraged to actively inhabit their own bodies.

‘How Do We Use The Body? Examinations of (Dis)comfort’ took place on 25 November 2014, 6.00pm-7.30pm, at the Jacqueline du Pré Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Raven Becomes Voracious: Tales of Insatiable Hunger  

Rebecca Leach and Stanley Ulijaszek at 'Raven becomes voracious'.
Rebecca Leach and Stanley Ulijaszek at ‘Raven becomes voracious’.

Long ago in Haida country, in the time of the trickster Raven, lived a tribe and their prince – a prince who could never eat. Why was the prince perpetually satiated? What unlikely food awakened the prince’s hunger? And what role would Raven play in turning the prince’s stomach?

The inaugural event of the Body and Being Network brought together the origin myth of the voracious Raven, as told by artist and storyteller Rebecca Leach, and histories of experimental starvation, as read by Professor Stanley Ulijazsek, director of the University of Oxford’s Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity.

Our tales of insatiable hunger were told on 30 October 2014, 5-6:30pm, at the Jacqueline du Pré Building at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.