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.