Response 26 – A Path of Greater Resistance

Dear Marie,

I’m glad you returned in this task to the question of how we each differently think about art. In this task, I was asked to:

Consider what is ‘embodiment’ in your work and reflect on what it means to you as an academic to include your physicality/body into your work when you write, think, make films etc.

As an academic, I started with definitions. What is embodiment? I was interested to find that what I think is your own preferred understanding of embodiment, as meaning that the body comes ‘first’ and is the means of our being in the world, seemed to derive rather than differ from the understanding in this OED definition: ‘the corporeal “vesture” or “habitation” of a soul.’ Is your vision of embodiment a domestication of a religious idea?  Where once the body was the vessel of the soul, you have made body and soul identical by asserting the body as the ‘truth’ of being, and in so doing generated a new opposition of soulbody/mind? Is this why ‘body’ is so privileged in your own discourse, and deliberate thought dismissed as, I dunno, ‘book learning’?

Aaanyhoo, we’ve had some grumpy discussions about all this this week. I did ask you what embodiment meant for you, having been frustrated by various phenomenology-derived definitions I found online, but you felt the question was aggressive, and I felt your answers were evasive. You described embodiment in terms of the body, not as the tool, but as the agent of being in the world. The body itself enacts this being-in-the-world and has/is its own mode of knowing. But (I thought), it is also a sort of destiny to be embodied, even if the body in our time has come to be seen as a malleable entity beyond even gender, one that can be moulded according to a desire somehow not of it.

I speak as the body of an intellectual. Academic embodiment is an interesting question (to me). I always thought the ultimate cultural symbol of the academic/intellectual was that Annie Liebovitz portrait of Stephen Hawking which removed him from the picture and showed only his wheelchair. With all due respect to the late Professor H., and notwithstanding the great man’s tenacity and relentless individuality in the face of a debilitating condition, the photo suggests that the body of the thinker is entirely a question of outsourcing. Culturally speaking, says the image, the thinker is a brain suspended in a more or less effective exoskeleton.

And yet, that has never been my experience as either thinker or teacher. As a teacher, you are a body in a room with other bodies. As students, we know things about the physicality of our teacher that the teacher might be unconscious of, and we bring all sorts of social and cultural prejudices and assumptions (as well as multiple registers of aversion and desire) to ‘reading’ the teaching body and to ascribing or denying it authority. You compensate, as a teaching body, for the knowledge of yourself you lack, by projecting a larger version of yourself into the classroom. This inevitably partakes of stereotype. As an Irishman, I find myself ineluctably claimed by the persona of irascible overstater: think Bob Geldof.

John Updike once said that celebrity is a mask that eats into the face; the ‘enlarged’ body of the teacher is a carapace that erodes the subtler lines of the individual within.

And yet, I know from being a student the appeal of the performing body of the teacher. When I was studying, certain lecturers were popular less for the content of their classes than they were for the way their love of their subject seemed to propel their physicality. I remember one professor whose body seemed to helicopter around his thought. My mental image is of him actually spinning in the air over the dais. We students would talk about how we loved this man. It didn’t really matter what we learned in any conventional sense (I could only ever follow him for the first third of the lecture); we admired his presence and aspired to inspire as he did. I’m reminded of a tribute by Min Jin Lee to the great teacher and writer bell hooks:

The temperature in the room seemed to change in her presence because everything felt so intense and crackling like the way the air can feel heavy before a long-awaited rain. It wasn’t just school then. No, I think, we were falling in love with thinking and imagining again.

The actuality of the teacher’s physical presence in the classroom is something that insitutional dogma these days wants to disavow, with all this talk of the flipped classroom and blended learning. At Leeds, lectures are audio- or video- recorded by default, and (though this is denied) students are implicitly encouraged to consider their presence at the lecture itself as optional. The image and/or sound is enough.

The Teaching Body: all hunched shoulders and no legs

I risk being disingenuous, though, if I don’t acknowledge that teachers’ bodies are clothed, sexed, gendered and raced. They emit a voice that is marked by accent and idiom and thereby by class and geographical origin (or a voice that has been careful to efface these markers). Most teaching bodies in the UK academy are perceived as ‘white’, and the most ‘senior’ (those granted greatest status) are overwhelmingly self-defined as ‘male’. And this, maybe, is the key difference between your and my understandings of embodiment. I imagine that you imagine some sort of pure embodiment in which the body speaks an extra-social truth. In Response 23, when I was required to improvise movement, you were asking me not to be self-conscious. But that seems to me a nonsense: I am a white cis-male body—yes, with its own history of pain and humiliations, but conspicuously privileged. How can I not be ‘self-conscious’ of that? How can the framing of my being in the world (e.g., in a movement improvisation task) not begin from the social and not merely the physical fact of my embodiment?

What could have been done differently in the ‘avoid being awful’ rehearsal for it to be of value to you? If you were to make a physical element for a joint performance that is NOT awful for you, what could replace improvised movement without removing the actual body from this element?

‘The social fact of my embodiment.’ This is a banal theme, and I think banality is the key for me. Yoga aside, I’m not a trained mover and not a trained improviser. As such, any movement or improvisation I do will tend to fall into cliché, which is one way of saying ‘will take my privileged embodiment for granted’. So, I want to avoid being ‘interesting’, or trying to create ‘interesting’ movement. The banal for me should be my point of departure. Banal movement. Things I do as a matter of course: walking, cycling, lying down, lecturing, yoga. I like the idea of starting with or integrating anti-theatrical and boring lecture-style elements to a performance. But challenging the authority of that. Deploying the poetics of unresolved juxtaposition and proximate modes. The use of strict parameters, of permutation (as discussed here), rather than a free form sort of investigation.

The ‘free form’ seems to me to take ‘me’ too much for granted, as if I am some sort of natural occurrence. Improvisation seems to me the path of least resistance. Use obstructions to guide instead to the path of greater resistance, where the political texture of the banal is placed under magnification.

Begin to work out how a performative segment would be choreographed/composed/acted out using ‘your form’.

 What I was going to do:

My original idea was to make a film of me in lecturer mode, in the same space and with the same chair used in Response 22. I would have alternated sitting or standing Ted Talk style and would have read from a script about the teaching body (not my own words; see below). That would have been one screen, probably on the right-hand side. Another screen, on the left, would have shown me putting together clothes combinations and outfits (more and less informal) that I have worn or would wear in teaching or conference situations, laid out ‘empty of the body’ on the floor to signal their social semiotics. The lecturing-me in right screen would be seen wearing these constructed outfits, edited in such a way that the soundtrack was continuous while the image track jumped between different combinations of clothes as well as me declaiming naked (yeah, right!). However, then we discussed the following assertion in the car, yesterday, on the way back from Aarhus:

I realise that the chances of getting you to work directly with your body for this task are slim! I will keep asking though…

What!

But I have been working directly with the body in many of the project responses! What is it about these that didn’t fit your expectations or your criteria to be recognised as ‘working directly with the body’? I asked you this as mildly as possible in the car yesterday. It became clear that several responses were concerned with yogaand so didn’t count! Yoga, you said, is regimented movement, whereas improvisation is something else. Yoga movement has no agency, you said.

I think you meant to be provocative, but the statement pointed to a scale of values that we don’t share.

What is yoga for me? One key thing is that it is a way of mediating my relationship to the social and physical environment and to the machinery of work and creation. I sit cross legged when I work at the computer. Yoga helps to grant me a fluency of gesture in teaching contexts. Certainly, it is not so much a big part of, as it is intrinsic to the texture of my life and being in the world.

How could yoga not be part of any performance we might do? Risky of course: in doubtful, instagrammy taste. When I’ve seen yoga done as choreography, it’s always been cheesy or self-congratulatory.

Still, after our shocking car discussion, I decided to do a ‘yoga improvisation’ instead of my planned clothing-and-lecturing (and nudity) film. I wanted to test the agency of the yogabody, accessing the embodied knowledge acquired over twenty years of practice. I had in mind an investigative yoga class we attended once in Aarhus, where the teacher had us freestyle to music. So the edited sequence you see below is improvised to music around a set of coordinates to do with hamstring stretches, hip openers, balances back bends and so on. However, according to the principle of unresolved juxtaposition, I’ve removed the music and ambient sound and replaced it with Siri reading extracts from the text I intended to use in the originally planned film: The Teacher’s Body: Embodiment, Authority, and Identity in the Academy, intro. and ed. Diane P. Freedman and Martha Stoddard Holmes (SUNY Press, 2003).

I leave the whole crude thing stand unadorned (though the image is speeded up), with Siri’s mispronunciations and my stumblings left ugly and intact. I would have liked to be more fluid and creative in my movement, but I have an injured shoulder and had a disturbed night’s sleep. It’s better this way I think (though you won’t be tempted to watch it more than once, if you make it that far). More banal.

 

See here for next task.