Thread: Somatic Lives of a Thing

Paola Esposito



On a sunny afternoon in early spring 2014, five researchers were strolling through the streets of Old Aberdeen. They had known each other for only a few days since an event had brought them together. The event was Performance Reflexivity, Intentionality and Collaboration: A Sourcing Within Worksession, convened by anthropologist Caroline Gatt and performer Gey Pin Ang, as part of the ERC Advanced Grant project “Knowing from the Inside,” at the department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen. This workshop aimed to explore aspects of creative decision-making in performance to assess their relevance to anthropological practice. For three days, participants had engaged in intensive physical and vocal training, seeking to act in ways that felt intuitive and not forced. Five of those participants—Brian Schultis, Peter Loovers, Ragnhild Freng Dale, Valeria Lembo, and myself—unintentionally continued those explorations after the workshop.

Our wanderings around the old town took us to the St Machar’s Cathedral. As we were lingering by the graveyard, Valeria took out of her bag a yarn of golden thread. This, she said, was an object of “personal relevance” that she had brought along to the workshop as a prop to work with, following Gey Pin’s instructions. Now she was unravelling it, offering one point to each of us. As we untangled the yarn, we resumed walking. Held from different points, the yarn became a web. Its threads shifted, vibrations reaching our fingertips as we moved. As we entered Seaton Park, which is adjacent to the Cathedral, the threads registered our encounters with the bumpy path, trees, wind, and passers-by as visible, tactile, and kinetic qualities. Pulls, resistances, flows, and gaps triggered a sense of “enmeshment” (Ingold, Lines 11) in a living, breathing world, something greater than ourselves.

Walking Threads (henceforth WT), as we retrospectively named the experience, has since developed into a publication (Ang et al.) and a series of invitations extended to larger groups, at conferences and symposia, to walk with the golden thread ( In our basic WT practice, the yarn is passed around. The thread unravels and we begin to move. No instruction is given to participants, in order to avoid their over-conceptualising the walk. We begin in silence in order to encourage an attitude of “listening,” that is, of opening one’s perceptual awareness to what is happening in the moment. This has not prevented participants from spontaneously using their voice at later stages of the walk, through song, recitation or the exploring of vocal sound.

While WT outings are sporadic, the golden thread has continued to be part of my life in subtle ways. Since the last walk in September 2015 at the Beyond Perception symposium in Aberdeen, the thread has repeatedly come to mind. I began to pay attention to these appearances of the thread not as a material object but as a so-called “mental image.” By focusing on the image of the thread, I intentionally recalled some of its properties as a thing that connects, tangles, ties, and is untied, properties that the WT had made salient. By allowing those properties to inform my relationship with my body, the thread turned into a somatic image, a process that I describe in this paper. Thus, this paper continues the WT project’s creative explorations of bodies with threads. This time, however, the thread is not conceived of as a material object but as an image.

A few words on my understanding of images are in order. Since 2006 I have been dancing and researching butoh, a dance style that originated in Japan in the post-World War II years. Butoh is a formless dance: it resists codification into a conclusive system of movement, relying on intensified proprioception—the perception of one’s own body—to sustain movement work instead. The use of verbal imagery is widespread among butoh dancers: words act as devices to evoke sensory experiences and “scaffold” (Downey) perceptual attention in order to achieve nuanced qualities of movement. The practice of butoh has informed my understanding of mental images not as merely visual but also as kinaesthetic, that is, engaging the sense of movement. This connection is hardly new; Csordas, for instance, talks of “physical” or “sensory” imagery, rather than merely visual (146–47).

While I never intentionally used butoh to relate to the thread, my training and sensitivities as a butoh dancer are likely to have played a role in my relations with this object, as filtered through the WT experiences. Based on my background as a butoh dancer and “thread-walker,” the approach of this paper may be understood as one of anthropology with art: one in which the modes of observation supporting artistic and anthropological inquiries coincide (Ingold, Making 8). An artist’s engagement with materials, tools and things—including the body—is speculative, experimental and open-ended, rather than descriptive or documentary. This type of engagement can question established ways of seeing. For instance, we generally think of objects and bodies as belonging to different domains—the inanimate and the animate, the lifeless and the living. This paper questions this assumption and hypothesises that, through a particular kind of perceptual engagement, which mobilises the somatic and the imaginary simultaneously, objects and bodies can merge. An object can be embodied and, vice versa, a body can become a thing.

The paper draws on autoethnographic occurrences of relating to the image of the thread, in the form of short somatic narratives, or narratives “from the body” (Farnell). Each narrative aligns the image of the thread to a particular aspect of somatic awareness: thinking, breathing, and muscle-bones. Far from claiming universal validity, these personal accounts engage a “somatic mode of attention” (Csordas 139) to venture in the potentialities of image-based thinking (Sousanis; Jackson). The exploration finds that, as the materiality of the thread retreats into the background, its image unlocks aspects of self-perception that normally escape conscious awareness (Leder). The image of the thread becomes a perceptual device that, by facilitating access to somatic awareness, reshapes relations with the world and, internally, with the body. It is in this sense that I embody the thread. 

Beginning with a Loose End: Spinning Thought into Thread-Form

As I begin to write this paper, I witness my thinking taking the form of a thread.

It first appears as a loose end. I see it in my mind’s eye, and from a short distance. The loose end of a golden thread floating in a dark space. I cannot see how far it extends.

Instead, the gaze of my imagination glides towards its surface as though attempting to grab it.

Even so close, I cannot touch it. Still I can contemplate few of its qualities.

I meet its reassuring continuity.

A glimmer catches my attention: it is a few silver filaments inside the thread, glittering.

The thought-form of the thread is a sensation of thin electric current between the temples.

I sense the space between my eyes and forehead, their muscles and bones, subtly engaging.

The same space begins to narrow down into a corridor. It is narrower and narrower.

My thought spins itself into thread-form.

In the 1980s, movement therapist Thomas Hanna defined a perspective from inside as “somatic,” that is, pertaining to soma, the ancient Greek word for “living body” (20). The somatic involves the perception of the corporeal from the inside rather than the outside: “to yourself, you are a soma. To others, you are a body. Only you can perceive yourself as a soma—no one else can do so” (20). As a first-person perspective on the body, the somatic involves attention to perceptual processes (Csordas). Yet, in daily life, self-perception is the exception rather than the norm. Being in the world is active rather than reflective (Leder). Otherwise put, being alive requires a mode of engagement that goes “forwards” rather than “in reverse” (Ingold, Making 8).

Were we constantly aware of our own presence and actions, this would obstruct their unfolding (Leder 19–20). In order not to inhibit its capacity for being, the body must remain to a great extent “absent” to itself (Leder 19). Some reflective possibilities nonetheless exist. In meditation, for instance, one can attend directly to bodily processes, with aesthetic and contemplative benefits (18–19). The opening somatic narrative presented my visualising of the golden thread as such a kind of reflexive engagement. There, the activity of visualising ceased to be an orientation towards an externally conceived “object” (the thread), becoming itself the end, or object, of perception.

One may ask: What kind of sensory perception is mobilised in positing the “visualising” of the thread as “object” rather than as background process? I suggest it is proprioceptively-oriented kinaesthesia or, the perception of self-movement. In this mode of perception, the activity of visualising the thread yields kinetic and spatial impressions. Visualising, that is, is perceived as a movement of attention (Sheets-Johnstone 420–22).

The image of the thread, meanwhile, has suggestively merged with the activity of visualisation, in two stages. First, it has guided my attention towards an otherwise-recessive bodily process. Secondly, it has lent its form to an otherwise-indeterminate bundle of sensations. I elaborate on this latter aspect in the following section, where the next somatic narrative posits thinking as a perceptual object, in the form of the image of a web of threads.

Seeing through the Veil

Walking home one day I noticed some thoughts unpleasantly affecting my mood. In recognising their negative impact, I decided that I should try and detach myself from them. I imagined that the thoughts were like threads woven together. This image of interwoven thoughts developed into another image: a coherent system of thoughts, or worldview, was like a “veil” spread between my eyes and the world. I could, quite literally, “remove” the veil through an act simultaneously of proprioceptive awareness and imagination, leaving my mind uncluttered. As new thoughts rushed in to form a new veil, I could also remove these and so on. As a reminder of this experience, I jotted down these words:

If the veil is made of ideas
Then thinking is weaving.
Sometimes I can see the veil
Made of the substance of
My thoughts.

When I see it,
When I see the fabric
Of thought that forms it,
Then it disappears.

When I see it
When I can really see the veil,
It’s by a certain way of seeing
Which is in my forehead.

To see that way,
Really look, with your
Eyes as well as
With your mind
For the mind itself
Can attune,
Can look, can see through the veil.

Leder writes, “insofar as I perceive through an organ, it necessarily recedes from the perceptual field it discloses. I do not smell my tissue, hear my ear, or taste my taste buds but perceive with and through such organs” (14). Similarly, in ordinary conditions, I cannot think about my own mind. To see through the veil of thoughts requires a reflexive effort. It is to attend to the act, not the content, of thinking.

This form of awareness can be seen as gestural, as it calls into play the body—a certain way of seeing/which is in my forehead. It is both a stepping back from thoughts, which allows me to see them as objects (a veil), and a removing of them, as though they were tangible things.

Weaving the Body into the Night: Breath and Physical Forces as Knots

The definition of somatic in the previous section anchors it to the point of view of the perceiver. The next somatic narrative describes how, through the image of thread, the perceiving I dissipates into contiguity with the world. Following my experience of perceiving my own thoughts as a veil, I further practised “moving my thoughts” through that image. One night the image of the veil “moved me,” that is, my entire body, in turn.

As I cycle back home in the light rain I sense my own presence weaving in the fabric of the night. The fresh air flowing into and out of my nostrils and lungs, my feet pressing against the pedals, pushing my body up from the saddle, my legs looping. Dynamic energy mingles with currents of air passing through my body, and shining asphalt flowing under the wheels. Rhythm, like sowing my presence onto the air. And though the road is steep, tonight cycling up the hill feels effortless. My mind is empty and alert, engaging with the fabric of reality I can see. Is this “reality” or just my imagination? It would not make much difference to me.

This somatic narrative reintroduces the image of the veil on a different scale. Now I see the veil as though through a microscope: myriad intertwining threads, and I am part of it. Threads run out of my limbs and lungs: gathering and propelling, pushes and pulls, in- and out-breaths. They weave with the night’s very limbs and lungs: streets, trees, the hill, the breeze, the deep embrace of the sky.

For Ingold “every living being is a line or, better, a bundle of lines” (Lines 3). Lines are the movements that living beings perform as they relate—“corresponding,” “clinging,” “tying,” and “untying” (3–7)—to other living beings and the world. Breathing also is a line: “as we breathe in and out, the air mingles with our bodily tissues, filling the lungs and oxygenating the blood” (70). Or rather, breathing is a knot: it ties the inside with the outside. “Breathing is the way in which beings can have unmediated access to one another, on the inside, while yet spilling out into the cosmos in which they are equally immersed” (67).

Cycling up-hill, breathing in and out, pushing and propelling, is a weaving of my body, a bundle of lines, with the ebb and flow of the weather-world (Ingold, Lines). This image evokes an outer spatial dimension to the body, an opening. It recalls my being one of multiple people holding and walking with the thread in the WT project. As with WT, feelings of resistance, flux, and being part of something bigger emerge.

The image of threads feeds into the somatic perception of body-in-action, and vice versa. Here, engaging in action and imagination are not in contradiction but imply one another. They “correspond” (Ingold, Making): it is because my actions unfold through the imaginary framework of the night as veil that they can flow as they do, sinking in perceptual tracks of extended being.

Muscle-Bones as Threads

For anthropologist Michael Jackson, metaphors reveal the identity of domains of being that the intellect strives to keep separate, such as the cultural and the natural. “Metaphor reveals unities; it is not a figurative way of denying dualities. Metaphor reveals, not the ‘thisness of a that’ but rather that ‘this is that’” (142, emphasis in the original). Whenever a crisis occurs, which undermines the unity of being-in-the-world, metaphors can be called upon to resolve the impasse and to make people “whole” (149).

The final somatic narrative is an example of how an image can restore the unity of the physical and the mental. By imbuing the visceral body with the tangible qualities of a thing, the image of the thread turns the absent body into a sentient, responsive body. This, in turn, helps to overcome the impasse created by physical pain.

Lying on the floor, sinking into it. The pain has been with me for years now. When stressed or tired, it spreads through the left side of my body. I have begun imagining the pain’s epicenter as a knot inside the pelvis, between left hip and tailbone. Looking inwards, I try and see the muscular fibres enveloping my limbs, connecting top to bottom. I summon the image of the thread. I make its fibres overlap with my muscle fibres. I want the thread to be the muscles, and the muscles to be the thread. This way I can disentangle the knots and find relief. My body is a deep, dark well. Breath is the rope that takes me down. Breathing in and out creates ripples of movement. They gently undo the knot, ease the pain.

In this somatic narrative, my body is, once again, a bundle of threads. This time, however, this image has an anatomical inflection. Instead of generic movements, it is my very muscles that are threads. Early modern Dutch anatomist Ruysch also described muscles as made “of many parallel threads of different lengths,” which fitted with his overall view of the human body as divine “embroidery” (van de Roemer 180–82).

In the previous section, a knot was a device for binding and securing life relations to survive a world that is, by its very nature, adrift (Ingold, Lines 67). Breathing enacted one such kind of knot “tying” the inside with the outside. In contrast, now a knot is a place of stagnation, of tension, where movement does not flow as it should. Breathing triggers minute movements throughout the body, which allow me to gradually undo the knot, releasing tensions and bringing relief.


Drawing on personal experiences, this article has sought to show that corporeal relations with an object can transcend its materiality. By engaging imagination and somatic attention, the thread lived a second life within and through my body.

Based on the object’s characteristics and properties, the image of the thread refashioned, albeit momentarily, my relation with my body and the world. It allowed me to fill a perceived gap between body and world, between imagining and being.

Finally, in relating to “unthinkable” aspects of being—mental and physical pain—the image of the thread was beneficial and even healing. It yielded sustainable notions of the corporeal.


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Copyright (c) 2016 Paola Esposito

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