The impetus for this issue dates from a symposium on Embodied Knowledges held at Edith Cowan University in Perth in 2011. The Symposium arose from the shared interests of a diverse group, many of them practice-led researchers, and should have been a clue that the call for papers for this issue would attract different conceptions of the body. Nevertheless we were surprised by the many kinds of bodies implied in the 17 papers received and are pleased to offer a selection in the 'embody' issue of M/C Journal.
Part of the difficulty of talking about the body as a source of knowledge, and also as a product of culture and history, is the backdrop of unproblematic representation of the body in popular culture. The linkage of the body to the brain, and by implication the mind, is particularly hard to escape. Through a scientific/medical lens, viewers of medical documentaries like The Human Body have learned to interpret representations of the brain. “Slices” of the brain are instantly recognisable through technologies such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans. The metaphor of the brain lighting up due to thought and activity, derived from mediated brain imaging technology, has entered common usage. Such images are understood even by non-scientists as different parts of the brain at work, running the body. Brains, bodies and thinking seem well connected in popular culture.
In the academic realm, the relationship of the brain to the mind is contested, as is the place of the body. In Western culture a dualist mind/body division has contributed to a particular understanding of the body, and of knowledge making, in which objective, propositional knowledge has been privileged. An alternative monist view has variously been used by theorists of the body from Nietsche to Deleuze but also by contemporary neurophysiologists such as Damasio. Using these philosophical positions, the body is either the weaker side of a partnership, or subsumed into a whole which does not acknowledge the specificity of actual bodies, or their potential as sites of knowledge making.
Merleau-Ponty posited the body as both object and subject and that access to knowledge could only be obtained by the lived experience of the body. He suggested that we can only know other objects and perceive space and time through our own bodies. The phenomenological approaches resulting from this stance have, to some extent, recovered the status of bodily knowledge. Psychoanalytical thought has contributed to the extension of what we consider to be the boundaries of the body and blurred the articulation of mind through concepts like body image and body schema (see Weiss) and later neural maps (e.g. Damasio). However, Elizabeth Grosz went further when she issued a challenge in the early 90s “that all the significant facets and complexities of subjects, can be as adequately explained using the subject’s corporeality as a framework as it would be using consciousness or the unconscious” (vii). The body has been shown to be plastic when considered within lived physical and cultural spaces (Giblett; Grosz). Regardless of where one positions the body on a continuum from pure nature to a surface overwritten by culture and history, it seems foolish to disregard it as a source of knowledge.
The authors of the papers presented in this issue attempt to show that knowledge resides in, can be acquired through, and flows out from, the body. Many of them see a connection between how and what can be known and their practice as artists, performers, researchers and writers. This way of knowing – through the thinking body – is connected to a developing family of methodologies called practice-based or practice-led research. It is research that aims to add to knowledge and understanding by carrying out an original investigation “in and through the acts of creating and performing” (Borgdorff 46). While many art practices clearly involve the body, Mercer and Robson point out that practice-led researchers often put the body at the centre of the inquiry and that “corporeal attention and information completes an otherwise insufficient way of theorising and philosophising” (18).
Jo Taylor’s feature article on embodied trauma traverses 118 years between Jean-Martin Charcot and Robert Scaer. It captures both the problem of separating mind and body and the importance to recovery, of acknowledging knowledge held in the body. In the accounts of two physicians working in different times, cultures and places of access to scientific knowledge, it is the knowledge available through their patients’ bodies that is common. The image of the body arched in hysteria, the experience of trauma locked inside, will perhaps ensure that the body is not lost in this selection of writings.
Ffion Murphy and Richard Nile also address trauma but with respect to the lost body in relation to an imagined community. Both the personal trauma of war and the communal experience of war can be sensed in the lost literature of the First World War. These attempts to represent or resurrect the war dead through writing can be considered acts of grief for embodiment.
Karina Quinn and Kirsten Hudson ignore the spectre of the hysterical in examining maternal embodiment. Quinn takes up Julia Kristeva’s challenge to write from the body, providing a visceral account. Hudson also writes her lived experience, and offers her embodied art practice as site of resistance to cultural expectations of Australian motherhood.
The bodily experience of art by the viewer is addressed by Prue Gibson, while Roz Drummond, Jondi Keane and Patrick West consider the interaction between embodiment and place from three different artistic practices. Chaim Noy’s detailed discussion conveys the kinaesthetic skill of the martial arts practitioner within a community of practice. His autoethnographic narrative highlights the knowledge of the body-in-motion against his written reflection.
Vanessa Bradshaw, Cynthia Witney, Lelia Green and Leesa Costello show that embodied knowledge can be shared in a community even when that community is a virtual one. Whilst being diagnosed and treated within a dominant scientific/medical discourse, which prescribes one way of knowing breast cancer, women’s embodied experiences can be exchanged through an online support site to provide an alternative source of knowledge.
Re-enactment and embodiment of cultural memory is explored by Michaela Callaghan in her work on the carnival dances of the displaced campesinos of the Andes. Within an urban setting, the campesinos collectively dance into being their ancestral place using physical memory. Her description of the body within place implies movement, perhaps showing that writing need not take us away from the body.
The bodies represented in this issue feel like living bodies, they are not the bodies without organs of Deleuze and Guattari or the flesh of later Merleau-Ponty. They are bodies of sexual difference, bodies interacting with, and reacting to, other bodies, within particular spaces. Even the ghostly dead bodies of the war poetry, reported by Murphy and Nile, exert a powerful influence over the living.
In using the term embodied knowledge we affirm that knowledge making includes the body. This 'embody' issue of M/C Journal is not about rejecting the mind in favour of the body. It is about the richness of knowledge and practice, grounded in our bodies-in-the world. As Grosz (vii) would have it: “Bodies have all the explanatory power of minds”.
Borgdorff, Henk. “The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research”. The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts. Eds. Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson. London: Routledge, 2010. 44-63.
Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. London: Vintage, 2004.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Giblett, Rodney. The Body of Nature and Culture. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994.
Kristeva, Julia, and Arthur Goldhammer (Trans.). "Stabat Mater." Poetics Today 6.1-2 (1985): 133-52.
Mercer, Leah, and Julie Robson. “The Backbone of Live Research: A Synthesis of Method in Performance Based Inquiry”. Live Research: Methods of Practice-led Inquiry in Performance. Eds. Leah Mercer, Julie Robson and David Fenton. Nerang, QLD: Ladyfinger, 2012. 11-19.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.
---. The Visible and the Invisible. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.
The Human Body. Prod/Dir. Richard Dale. BBC, 1998.
Weiss, Gail. Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.