Against embodied practice

Everyone from designers to educators to New Agey types seems to be talking these days about ’embodied practice.’ I believe there is a more literal meaning as well as a more figurative one. According to the literal meaning, one is actually to be involved in some activity where one is conscious of being an embodied human being. According to the figurative meaning, one must get ‘out of one’s head’ and throw oneself fully into doing something or other. Or, rather, concepts–misunderstood to be the kinds of things that are only mental–are thereby to be put ‘into the world.’ I disagree.

In an earlier set of posts about philosophy of mind (for an overview, see here), I have already suggested that our commonsensical, modern conception of mind is in error. From this, it would follow that our desire for ’embodied practice’ would be taking on board a misconception of our mental life. That is to say, if one’s mind is, somehow or other, separate from the physical world, then it would seem attractive to speak of ’embodied practice.’ But this is a mistake.

In this post, I examine only the literal meaning of ’embodied practice’ with a view to showing that it is in error. I will likely consider the figurative meaning in the next post.

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The corporeal experience of a good philosophical conversation

Let us define eros as an experience of nearness and extraordinary aliveness. Then we can begin to describe the experience of eros for an adept in philosophical life. My experience anyway.

As a good philosophical conversation unfolds, I sense eros like so (though the ‘feel’ of each event is different, unique, fine-grained):

  • my lungs grow larger, deeper, fuller;
  • my breathing gets deeper, reaches farther down into the diaphragm and past that even, sometimes as low as my belly-button; sometimes my lungs flutter;
  • my eyes get softer, watery, bluer, unfocused on one thing, focused on the brightness and ‘feel’ of colors;
  • my hearing becomes more acute, more attentive;
  • my throat narrows as if speaking were not ‘too much’ but simply unnecessary;
  • my jaw, neck, and facial muscles soften, slide down, remain still;
  • above all, my words grow longer, slower, grainier, more textured.

Poor inquiries do not elicit these corporeal experiences of sober joy. These experiences accompany only good inquiries in which we make sense of things, and they occur most often near the end. With especially good conversation partners, they occur in the beginning even. Interestingly, it does not matter whether the philosophical conversation takes place in person or over the phone. Regardless, it is a form–perhaps one of the highest forms–of intimate knowing.

A conversation ends with a deep exhalation, as full and slow as an exhalation can possibly be. Not before and not held onto after. The period achieves its purest expression in the philosophical good-bye.

What a body can do

In the past three decades, my body has changed its size and shape and look many times. There was my baseball body, my weight lifting body, my 10-year rock climbing body. There is my meditative running body. I have been blessed to always have a beautiful, lean body, regardless of exact size or shape. Above all, I have been blessed by movement, by the edifying nature of a body functioning properly.

I want to examine what a body can do in order to transform our understanding of “beautiful body.” My thesis will be that a body engaged in virtuous (i.e., excellent) activity, where this activity is self-sustaining, just is a beautiful body. This thesis should strike us as counterintuitive but should nonetheless have considerable appeal.

Let’s consider our intuition. Our misguided starting point is to look at the body as if to say that the beautiful body can be regarded by the camera. The woman who poses nude give us our first intimation of this regard; the model who stands rail thin before the accommodating camera gives us our second. From this understanding of the beautiful body as a Still Frame, we then ask how our body can conform to this external standard, how it can approximate itself to this model.

When, on this misguided understanding, a body does not look attractive or appealing, it is said to be distended, overweight, disgusting, vastly underweight, unappealing, shameful, gross, and so on. It is usually at this point that medical terminology makes the rounds: at the point when we start talking of “normal” or “abnormal,” “healthy” and “unhealthy.” Even a more moderate standard measurement or norm makes the same mistake by allowing a more elastic Still Frame to be the guide. To the degree that the Still Frame is the standard unit of measurement, to that degree men and women will continue to strive to approximate the Still Frame. And then we will hear more railing about ‘beauty’ and even more nauseating talk of ‘health’ and ‘illness.’

The grand edifice of ‘nutrition science,’ ‘dieting,’ stomach surgery, ‘body image,’ ‘patriarchy,’ and whatever now comes into view. Perhaps the whole thing has gone off course, yes?

Let’s try again. Let’s ask not what a body looks like but rather what a body can do when it does something well. I am inviting us to think of a body not as a static object but as a moving being, a being moving in a certain kind of way, a being moving toward an immanent end, an end intrinsic to an activity. My body cooks, cleans, runs, sings, dances, jumps, loves.

In this connection, we might observe how different an excellent runner’s body is from an excellent swimmer’s body and that would be a fine thing to do. But, while observing them, we would not want to say that a runner’s body is beautiful whereas a swimmer’s body is ugly. Nor would we want to compare a runner’s body at rest with a swimmer’s body at rest. What good would that be? (Who cares what a runner’s body looks like while it reclines in a chair?) Instead, we would want to attend to the evolution of a runner’s body as he went from being a novice to a trainee to an adept. We would notice, if the runner is running long distances, that his chest and back appear to hollow inward, that his arms grow thin, his legs grow thin–in fact, his body seems to get smaller, more intact, more compact until it reaches a form where it can work properly, maximally. Of course, one runner’s body may look considerably different (albeit falling within some kind of range set by “being human”) than another runner’s body. There would doubtless be room for variety. And that would be fine and intelligible and nice.

What goes for a runner’s body also goes for a swimmer’s, a sport climber’s, a pole vaulter’s, a builder’s, and so on. Our attention, recall, is focused on the transformation of each person’s body in and through virtuous activity to the extent that the body is slowly reshaped in order to actualize its capacities to the fullest. The conclusion is that the ‘look’ of the body is the product of the ongoing activities that fundamentally shape and reshape that body. If a body looks a certain way, it is because the body has made its way toward maximal functioning. Yet our eyes, once again, should fall largely on how the body performs when it is in motion, when it is at its best, neither overworked nor underworked but moving swimmingly, effortlessly along like water.

So far, I have said nothing about the nature or kind of activity, but now I want to add a further thought that some activities will, just in virtue of being the kinds of activities they are, degrade the active nature of the body. I think cage fighting too brutal and vicious, a few moments of walking too precious. I think most people do not know how to walk properly. Furthermore, if an activity makes other regular activities difficult to perform, then this activity can also be ruled out. I think body building is one such on the grounds that one cannot walk or sleep with ease or elegance. I do not believe that these activities can possibly qualify as being self-sustaining where the latter means at least “capable of carrying one on perpetually into the future.”

(My speculative claim, which I leave aside for now, is that only certain activities that accord with the Way (Dao) can count as being self-sustaining. Only activities, say, that flow like water.)

Let’s attend to the best swimmer’s body we know of. Michael Phelps’ body, it seems to me, would count as a beautiful swimmer’s body because it functions at its utmost. Phelps is showing us one beautiful thing the body can do. I do not see why we couldn’t call his body beautiful in virtue of its functioning at its utmost.

What is interesting about my story of what a body can do is that it gives us some direction concerning how we might better understand ourselves. The argument against being too fat or too skin, by my reckoning, is not narrowly moral or medical but uniquely aesthetic: the very thin man and the very fat woman are both missing out on learning what their bodies could do were these bodies to be put to good use. The very fat woman cannot walk properly, let alone jump and dance properly. Perhaps the proper emotion to feel for her is pity. Perhaps these are best comprehended as aesthetic cautionary tales.

On this understanding of learning what a body can do when it does something well, we now have license to try to act excellently in the way a dancer, a walker, a runner, a kite flyer does and, so long as we ongoingly act excellently, we will notice how our body changes its shape and size so as to perform what it performs best with greater finesse, agility, and strength. My body has been like the seasons of life. My love is the love of unfolding. It seems to me that we have every reason in the world to call our properly moving bodies exquisite, beautiful, and graceful. I watch the woman walking well and I am thereby enchanted.

‘I fear I am becoming an old man already…’

I fear I am becoming an old man already. I keep a spare tissue wedged down in the two finger nook of my pocket. Sometimes it is crisp from use or age, and when I am hard up I do not think twice of tearing off a jagged piece of toilet paper from the half-used roll sitting atop the holding tank.

I do not remember the last time I bought a box or cube of tissues. Soon enough, I shall buy handkerchiefs–white, gauzy, spidery ones–and groan a little upon getting into and out of armchairs, love seats, and antique sofas. Oh, I will say, as my leaky body goes down to pick up the drier sheet crabbed on the floor. Taking the shortest route, my body will perform its atonal hymn till it reaches exactly halfway to the bottom.

Oh, I will say. Oh oh.

Oh, they will say, he is on the decline.

‘Are you done with that?’

We have nearly forgotten what it’s like to take our time. Coffee comes pierced by a talon, is pulled down by a waterfall, is ready in less than a minute. It tastes like a hot gulp of brown. Daily, we are faced with the prospects of drinking big gulps, of chugging, of downing, or of slamming. We spend our lunch breaks wolfing down and bolting, sometimes unwrapping first. On the subway, we eat things wrapped, the packaging, more than anything else, being what recommends these to us in the first place. The taste of food is ancillary. By dinnertime, we think nothing of ordering takeout, for it is as disposable as we are.

Eating is our way of making up for lost time. The rich have their food delivered to their stoops. The poor use microwaves. Regardless, everyone, exhausted from the first, holds nonchalantly onto a large cup of coffee which is best consumed while walking toward wherever they have to go.

Whatever we eat is already preserved; what we eats means to preserve us; who we are always eludes us. Who we are: beings behind and gropers ahead. The truth is that we are in a great hurry to be done with our lives which we then pay dearly to prolong.

On most days, being incapable of taking our time could doubtless be palatable were it not for the few times when we try to do otherwise. It is on these rare occasions that we are reminded, painfully and without delay, that we cannot. “Are you done with that?” is a question that puts the lie to the very notion of cuisine, the very essence of taking our time. The server who asks us this has ruined everything.

It is, nonetheless, not his fault, for he doesn’t know any better and nor, for that matter, do we. Table manners, however conventional they seem, however stodgy they may appear to us today, used to be taught to the young with the idea that they would signal something without having to say what that something was. Everyone knew. In its book on table manners, which first appears at midcentury, Tiffany’s advises that “when the course is finished…   The prongs of the fork should be down. The blade of the knife should face the fork. This is the ‘I am finished’ position.” When the knife and fork are arranged in any other fashion, it means “let us be as we are.” Or, simply, “Do not disturb.”

In place of table manners, we now have BlackBerries and officiousness. The BlackBerry is the instrument by which we imply that the now is not, the next thing du jour. The BlackBerry brushes off, sweeps clean, negates. The server, a busybody by training, is always around the corner to pour our wine before we’re through, there to ask after our food before we’ve taken the first bite, there to see to our dishes which are always anyway on the verge of being taken from us. The server is the face of our conversations: clumsy, trivial, efficient. These days, the best restaurants would those that exude the highest order of efficiency: seating us, feeding us, and being rid of us in a fantasy in which ingesting and digesting were one.

The greatest gustatory pleasure, therefore, would consist of being through with the senses for good. For most, after all, nothing much is lost in any of this: such is the way of the world. For most, the empty plate can do nothing but disgust, reminding them of the shame they feel always for their bodies. A plate of food is vomit on the inside. For the few, however, nearly everything is lost but our revulsion with the question. “Are you done with that?” smacks of everything that is wrong with the efficient world, of a world that lords measure over all. Lost is the meeting, the dwelling, the holding, the exhalations. Lost the essence of cuisine.

Food, like speech, is the glory of the tongue. Food and speech, which are revealed at their highest in the eternity of the present, are eros for the mouth, love of the body, honor of communion. The plates lying before us sing a bacchanalia song; the wine glasses, stained now by uneven lips, a paean of blood and love; the words, half-drowsy, asphasic, a coda. Food and speech and wine are the very skin of the night.

Amid anamnesis, we need no reminding to let things be.

End Note: A Word on Genre

I would be inclined to say that the genre of the post is that of the harangue. The persona is, in some but not all respects, unreliable, and the dominant tropes are the hyperbole and the maxim. The mood throughout is Adornian, reminiscent in spirit of the dark fragments Adorno pens during WWII on the decline of culture. If you’d like, we could discuss the aim and function of the genre in the Comments.