The Body Vagabond: Seeking Language, in Form

“Like a body wholly body, fluttering/ Its empty sleeves . . .”

— Wallace Stevens, “Idea of Order at Key West”

Are we minds hallucinating physical reality, or bodies hallucinating we have minds? Perhaps neither, though the arguments for both extremes exist. Descartes and other founders of Western Philosophy made the mind-body schism a central part of their philosophy: Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) positioned cognition as equivalent to existence. To say “my mind is elsewhere” suggests that the mind and body are capable of being divided, but to say “mind over matter” is to privilege the mind’s powers over those of the body.

“In first-world countries, food is, seemingly, everywhere — and in the split consciousness of Western Culture, it’s both exaggerated in importance, as a source of pleasure for the leisure class, and diminished, as a source of weakness for those seeking to lose weight or achieve a certain look.”

The body-mind disconnect can allow for great feats of endurance, or cognitive power (even writing a novel or running a marathon takes an enormous amount of self-discipline), to say nothing of helping us survive trauma through mental dissociation. If to be “present” implies a unification of body and mind (“presence of mind”), we are often, in our waking lives, stuck on autopilot, or are simply not present. How can we minimize body-mind disconnects — at work, when we are engrossed in thought, or during trauma — and begin to bring the body back into focus? What is the difference between “articulating the body” (in, say, dance or yoga), and “articulating the mind”?

Many studies correlate body-sensitivity with a greater social and emotional awareness. In a recent study[1], video clips of ballet dancing were shown to two groups of people: professional ballet dancers, and a control group of those with no dance experience. The clips were silent, and the dancers’ faces were blurred, so no facial expressions were visible. With no context to go by other than the moving bodies, participants were asked to rate their emotional response, whether they liked or disliked the moves, or found them to be happy or sad. The result? Both groups “read” the emotions of the ballet clips correctly. But in their automatic sweat response and in the way they rated the moves, the dancers had much stronger reactions to the emotional content. “The very cool thing about this study is that the dancers not only recognized the emotions better, but their bodies would also respond more sensitively to the displayed emotional movements,” says Julia F. Christensen, a research fellow in the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit at City University London, and lead author of the study. “Dancers’ bodies differentiated between different emotions that were expressed in the clips, where the controls didn’t.” [2] If dancers respond more powerfully to movement, it would make sense if writers and readers have an equally powerful relationship to language due to their increased exposure and training. The sensitivities and predilections of language can often coincide with the present body, the divided body, the wandering, wayward body: what poet Martine Audet calls “the body vagabond.”

Unfortunately, the body-mind relationship in popular culture often takes the form not of a body-mind rapprochement, but of ignoring the body, or in excessive attention paid to the body, in an attempt to control it. Bodies need fuel to survive. In first-world countries, food is, seemingly, everywhere — and in the split consciousness of Western Culture, it’s both exaggerated in importance, as a source of pleasure for the leisure class, and diminished, as a source of weakness for those seeking to lose weight or achieve a certain look.

“I wanted to transcend the specifically female body, and, more generally, the material world.”

Among those populations that can afford to buy food, there is a subset of the population who undereats, or otherwise maintains a low weight, for psychological or aesthetic reasons. As author Marya Hornbacher says, “We turn skeletons into goddesses and look to them as if they might teach us how not to need.” Anyone who has ever gone through a period of self-induced starvation (to say nothing of involuntary starvation) understands that it is indeed possible to survive a long time on a severely restricted caloric intake. You can eat next to nothing, or a mostly liquid diet, for months or years: either in pursuit of an ideal (e.g. Natalie Portman in Black Swan), or because of sickness. Looking back at my own years of struggle with my body, I don’t think it was a disease concerning my physical appearance or even body-image. It had more to do with genetics, adolescence gone awry, and coping with the physiological consequences of malnutrition and electrolyte imbalance. For years, I thought I was apathetic about certain things, and that I lacked ambition, focus, and drive. Looking back, I can see now that I was weak from lack of calories and nutrients. And in complete denial about the “facts of life,” which included the need to eat regularly.

I wanted to transcend the specifically female body, and, more generally, the material world.

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Embodiment — and embodied language — can seem like a chimera to those who have struggled with body image or body issues relating to food, motherhood, aging, sickness, or disability. And that’s most of us. The politics of embodiment extend far. In writing culture, the lyric’s history is that of embodiment, in the voice of the poet, and the memorization of the listeners. In Homer’s time, lyric recitation and repetition was a panacea against cultural forgetting, an oral practice as sensual and participatory as it was cerebral and historical. Many years later, now fully immersed in written culture, we tend to think of writing as a head-centered, not body-centered, activity (thus emphasizing that Orphic dissonance between head and body). Public readings and recordings are opportunities to see and hear poetry performed, and to hear what Roland Barthes memorably called “the grain of the voice.”

“Since pain is a radically subjective, hence inexpressible and incommunicable experience, in torture, the victim’s voice (his or her power of articulation) is destroyed, and by extension, so is the victim’s world.”

We also tend to think of athletic activities as body-centered, not head-centered. But many writers have famous relationships to their sport or physical activity of choice: to name a few examples, the British Romantic poets, Wallace Stevens and Einstein took walks to clear their heads, and many writers have written extensively about their relationship to the body, such as Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water, in part about her life as a swimmer.

© Knopf Publishing Group

One form of exercise I do is running. While I appreciate the many excellent training books and memoirs in the market about running, such as Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, there are not many that look at running from a literary — or more specifically language-centered — point of view. Another part of my exercise routine is weight training. Kathy Acker’s Bodies of Work is a book I return to time and time again, when I am thinking about the body, particularly the body in language.[3] Acker describes bodybuilding in terms of intentionality: it is a practice whose vocabulary is limited to numbers (weights and reps). In this way, says Acker, it’s more like meditation than art. If it were an art, in fact, it would be the art of failure, as muscle mass is built upon muscle failure: upon shocking the body into growth. “Is the equation between destruction and growth also a formula for art?” Acker asks.

What is most fascinating about this preface and the essays that follow, is the attempt to bring language — and therefore light — into a realm that, other than aforementioned manuals and memoirs, doesn’t necessarily receive extended “literary” treatment by writers. Not just bodybuilding, but many other physical activities such as labor, sports, dance, sex, and childbirth, “reject[s] ordinary language,” as Acker puts it, “and yet, itself constitutes a language.”

Physicality can resist language, yes — and so can pleasure and pain. Often, at the height of pleasure, or pain, there is speechlessness — or, even, a lacuna of thought.

Elaine Scarry speaks eloquently on the subject of pain and language, providing an analysis of physical suffering and its relation to the numerous vocabularies and cultural forces — literary, political, philosophical, medical, and religious — that engage with it.[4] Patients are asked to rate their pain (related to medical conditions) on a scale of 1–10, because there is so little descriptive language that accurately conveys the experience of pain (mild discomfort to excruciating agony). Since pain is a radically subjective, hence inexpressible and incommunicable experience, in torture, the victim’s voice (his or her power of articulation) is destroyed, and by extension, so is the victim’s world. The victim’s unshareable pain is then denied by the torturer, and used to buoy up the sense of power the torturer wields.

© Oxford University Press

On the level of language, pain not only provokes negative feelings, it represents negation itself. Abuse and torture constitute the negation of subjectivity, the denial of what makes us human. For animals, though this is not part of Scarry’s treatment, the problem is compounded. For animals, there is no spoken human language to be erased — just sounds (which mark the continuum from pain to pleasure in much the same way that human sounds do). [5]

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Could we say that positive sensations — pleasure — are experienced by the body as pure surplus? What radical states of subjectivity — beyond the extremes of pleasure and pain — can we experience, or describe? Often, it’s the very lack of language surrounding the human body or a sensitized subject that distinguishes it — but as what? Language-resistant, or just a “private” subject? I once spoke with writers Kathleen Rooney and Martin Seay about the sense of smell and the privation of words to describe smells versus other senses (especially what Mick Jagger called “the whore of the senses” — sight). We came up with a list, poetic in its brevity. [6]

When a rich, heterogeneous vocabulary doesn’t exist around a certain subject — or once did, but has become routine, calcified — that is when we resort to cliché. Jaw-dropping views. Heavenly smells. Soothing touch. Smooth jazz. The list goes on and on. Inventing new words to accompany new sensations isn’t easy (going against the grain of received language never is) but — especially if one believes that language doesn’t just define but creates experience, neurologically speaking — it is worth the effort. And sometimes silence is golden.

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Kathy Acker

Our collective embodiment is what gives us our shared humanity. But what about difference — bodies of difference, and difference between minds? The Christian doctrine of salvation underscored the idea of individuality in Western culture: God judges each man (and woman, once women were grudgingly accorded souls by the fathers of Western Philosophy) separately, and accords him or her a place either in heaven, hell, or limbo depending on the state of his or her soul. But individuality, like salvation, isn’t a static concept; it’s a process, and one that can be encouraged or denied. “When all is repetition rather than the production of meaning, every path resembles every other path,” said Acker, in Bodies of Work. Acker’s statement suggests that when all lifestyles or exposures resemble each other, our “identities” do, too.

“We are taught, in the rhetoric of the faux-meritocracy, to try our best, compensate for deficits, and expect success. If we don’t (in creative pursuits, work, romance, relationships, or parenting), the blame — and shame — often is internalized […] ”

My father likes to say “If you want to feel good, do good.” Fair enough. A very common contemporary replacement for this, however, is “If you want to feel good, look good.” Beyond the poles of moral and physical fitness, however, we have form — aesthetic form, but also bodies. And not just the appearance of bodies, as they appear to us from without, but how they are experienced, from within. White bodies, bodies of color, queer bodies, trans bodies, non-“normative” bodies of every shape and size. When media represents our lives and experiences as identical (or easily replicable), everybody begin to look more or less the same, not because our bodies are the same or similar, but because the media shapes, spins, and distorts reality. Homogeneity, if represented as such, is a ruse. As is ableism, the notion that there is an able-bodied standard against which all other bodies are measured.

It’s impossible to exist and not encounter physical challenges, whether through disability, sickness, limited mobility, or other psychological and physical disorders. When encountering these challenges, it is easy to see the body (and discourse of the body) as a failed project, the enemy of the mind. The subject of “failure” (muscle failure, career failure, entrepreneurial failure, financial failure, relationship failure, body failure) is another concept that is undertheorized as well as underrepresented, in culture. We are taught, in the rhetoric of the faux-meritocracy, to try our best, compensate for deficits, and expect success. If we don’t (in creative pursuits, work, romance, relationships, or parenting), the blame — and shame — often is internalized, as with epidemic of poverty, when the actual causes have much to do with structural inequity and the unequal distribution of wealth. But failure is all around us, and its long shadow is so often — but not always — the underside to “success.”

Figurative language can be a way out of the literal (body obsessions as a kind of dead metaphor), but it can also end up becoming a closed self-referential loop.

There is even an aesthetics of failure[7], as introduced in 2002 by electronic music composer Kim Cascone, but since taken up by a number of writers and scholars such as Jennifer Moore[8]. In her close reading of the work of “sincerist” poets Matt Hart and Tao Lin, Moore states, “ . . . What distinguishes this recent interest in poetic failure from earlier iterations is the source of its discontent: these contemporary poets are grappling with the failure and exhaustion of the postmodern itself, and the postmodern object of resistance is, in the case of poetry at the turn of the century, Language writing.” [9]

Moore’s pivotal essay also discusses modes of irony, resistance, authority, and voice, vis à vis these two poets: in her reading of Lin, she notes, Lin doesn’t respond directly to narrative scenes that might provoke emotion, or, he assumes a neutral tone when one might expect articulation of emotion. “Rather than sketching a situation in which a speaker feels ‘out-of-control anger’ and then responds to this anger aesthetically (i.e., writing it out), Lin chooses to sever the connection between the emotion and the supposed response to that emotion.” Moore adds, “The speaker in both of these poems acknowledges his emotions (‘out-of-control anger,’ ‘suffering’) but chooses not to express them. Rather, he expresses the event of not responding to them, of choosing neutrality through, for example, direct observation of oneself (‘without falling out of my chair’) or by deliberately calling attention to language usage (‘i put quotation marks around it’).” “Putting quotation marks around it”: the very typographical gesture of irony, of distancing.

© Alice James Books

There are as many ways of distancing oneself from one’s emotions as there are in distancing oneself from one’s corporeality: from the fact that, to quote from the title of poet Ellen Dore Watson’s collection, We Live in Bodies. Seeing as though our bodies eventually age and die, are such acts of distraction, or sublimation, a necessary failure?

Body obsessions are symbolic. The counting calories, the secret workouts, the obsessive habits: many of them are damaging if not life-threatening. Each gesture carries meaning, enacts the scaffolding of a private world, of a search for meaning, for the impossible ideal. And that, ultimately, is what is so heartbreaking about an unhealthy obsession with the body. Like a Freudian or Lacanian worldview, in which a subject can get fixated on one stage (or drive) without moving on, in healthy development, to the next stage or drive, eating disorders represent a fixation in and with the body, as endgame rather than vehicle. The body becomes a battlefield, as it does in the issue of reproductive rights, in a lose-lose war between one’s projected self-image and reality.

Figurative language can be a way out of the literal (body obsessions as a kind of dead metaphor), but it can also end up becoming a closed self-referential loop. Metaphors of metaphors, or what a former professor used to call “smoking language,” instead of, ideally, a direct, charged relationship between word and world. Speaking of the ideal: a neo-Platonic ideal doesn’t factor into discussions of literature often, except in reference to the “ideal reader,” the “ideal marriage,” and in books that address and question “ideal societies.” Why are so many bodies measured against a perceived ideal?

Accepting limits makes us human. Accepting our flaws and shortcomings makes us humble. And accepting our human bodies makes us, paradoxically, both vulnerable and strong.

Mental conditioning doesn’t take long — a few years of scrutiny, criticism, and judgement in youth, and pretty soon, even the most confident young persons will begin to internalize the pressure she receives externally, applying it — even in the absence of stimulus — to herself. Exaggerated yet unexamined femininity or masculinity is just as much of a problem in culture wherein the idea of gender as performance has not yet been established outside of theoretical circles. The result: the rehearsal of gender stereotypes in attitude, career, demeanor, and looks, without awareness. This is a kind of prison, within which many emotionally stunted men and women live.

Much has been said in recent years about the epidemic of “toxic masculinity,” most recently in response to the Orlando shootings. Toxic masculinity — one way among many that the patriarchy hurts men — describes the socially-constructed attitudes that define the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, and sexually aggressive. Toxic masculinity can manifest as a fear of physical vulnerability, but also the fear of not appearing all-knowing: vulnerability of mind. To not know where one is, in space: to lack directional knowledge. To suck at games of trivia. To admit indecision about important, even life-changing decisions. To admit that sometimes, what we don’t know outweighs what we do “know”: a fact that can evoke either terror, or awe.

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Accepting limits makes us human. Accepting our flaws and shortcomings makes us humble. And accepting our human bodies makes us, paradoxically, both vulnerable and strong.

© Fence Books

Out-of-control behavior, total control of behavior, and neutralization of affect (or behavior) — all three extremes suggest a difficulty in comfortably modulating one’s responses to life. Whether the problem is clinical, psychological, or physical, this war is, at the last glance, a war of attrition, between body and mind.

© Yale University Press

Much more interesting than being at war with the body, is creative and critical work that actually attends to the body. For example, Diana Hamilton’s 2012 poetry collection, Okay, Okay, an assemblage of found texts (e.g. self-help books, news articles) that foregrounds the act of crying; books about physical passion and harm (francine j. harris, Richard Siken, Mark Wunderlich); books about the physical and spiritual travails of war (Brian Turner, Brandon Courtney); and books that concern motherhood and parenting (too many too mention, though the first that comes to mind is Catherine Wagner’s Macular Hole). These are projects that eschew the polarities of the mind-body problem, in favor of direct gain: a powerful mediation of the body, and a disruption of the very word “problem.”

© Alice James Books

harris’ second poetry collection, play dead, is a perfect example of a text whose trenchant and visceral embodiment are part of the subject matter. As Adam Fitzgerald says, “harris’s visual kinesis can be so intensely acrobatic and explosive, reading her makes me rethink just how and why for thousands of years we have linked poetry to the body.” In play dead, the limits of the body are synonymous with the limits of language: the result is nothing short of breathtaking, as the reader witnesses verbs morph into nouns, syntax dehisce, and desire take on a form of its own. From “low visibility”: “I have light in my mouth. I hunger you. You want / what comes in drag. a black squirrel in a black tar lane, / fresh from exhaust, hot and July’s unearthed steam.”

A collection about girlhood, romantic entanglements, sex, love, and freedom, play dead addresses the speaker’s emergence into puberty, and the traumas that can befall us at that time. harris’ four-part poem “pink pigs,” is threaded throughout the book, a poem that details the psychological and sexual trauma of a 13-year-old girl. The header and footer of that poem is a sequence of the word “girl” that can be read both as a catcall as well as underscoring the easy conflation of a woman with a girl.

francine j harris

Divided into three sections, this collection references visual artists Francis Bacon, Kara Walker, and poems by Horace and George Herbert. Current events are also present, such as the death of Eric Garner: “Science won’t disprove a cop/hanging from a man’s neck in a choke hold. We doubt/footage of alien ships in the sky.”

The poems in play dead employ sonic texturing and a kind of affectual disorientation; the sounds uttered come from the mouth, in speech and song, but also the body. From “first, take a fistful of hair”: “Empty your pockets. Check for wild fur/ and the pant. Who wad seats. Or possums who hiss/ under wild shrub. Sharp shooters check the wind./ So measure your mouth. The curve of howl. Drool/ and its drop against the wooden tiles. Possum/ under salt and pine. Screech it. Score the rope/ with your teeth. Collect the drool in tin . . . ”

Yes, play dead takes place at the limit of thought and language, but also of the body’s boundary: skin. Harris describes how memory is stored, not just in mind, but the body. From “what you trapped in a bruise, you left”: “You thought// of center, but you forgot the skin// below the skin/ below membrane . . . below the plundered melon . . . below the collision of soil, the fall/ below the tongue in the soil/ below the thump of chest against// the curtain wall.”

“Despair,” said Flannery O’Connor, “is the refusal to have experiences.” Despair — expressed through anguish or the numbing of affect — is also the refusal to let the world impact the word. To not just be, but participate in the world, requires a certain degree of courage, and resiliency. Affliction, whether the demons come from within or without, is the norm, not the exception, and the most powerful poems, stories, novels, and interdisciplinary texts bear testament to that bruising, pain, and, if not “transcendence,” then learning. If life is about anything, it is about experience — away from books, with books, and, mostly importantly, in relationship with others.

Whatever our discipline, whatever our goals, it is practical to see the body as co-extensive with the mind, and vice versa, because consciousness and form take place on a continuum, like time and space, language and silence.

Scarry’s text presents a duality not of body and mind, but of creation and decreation: creation can occur both through ideological means (invention, progress, policy reform), as well as in the body (fitness, good health). Decreation, in a world subject to the law of entropy, can mean active destruction or annihilation, but it can also mean letting go or surrendering.

Some physical disciplines encourage a unity of mind and body (such as yoga, which means to yoke or bind, through the vehicle of breath), while other physical activities can take us to the greatest zenith of thinking, or just beyond, to a thought-less state of nirvana. Whatever our discipline, whatever our goals, it is practical to see the body as co-extensive with the mind, and vice versa, because consciousness and form take place on a continuum, like time and space, language and silence. Embodied writing, like embodied ethics, carries a weight of its own: the weight of authenticity, however suspect a concept. Maintaining polarities such as body and mind, success and failure, however representative of Western culture and market capitalism, keep us from inhabiting that third perspective so crucial to deconstructing binary oppositions. Lastly, while body confidence can equate to self-confidence, that isn’t a reason to beat ourselves up about our less than “perfect” bodies, but, rather, to seek a routine, habits, and company that support the whole person, as evolving in time.

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[1] “Dance expertise modulates behavioral and psychophysiological responses to affective body movement.” Christensen, Julia F, et al. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, vol. 42, no. 8, 2016, pp. 1139–1147.

[2] Kaufman, Sarah L. “Can Dancing Make you a Better Person? Studies Suggest Link Between Ballet and Sensitivity to Others.” The Washington Post, 8 Sept, 2016.

[3] Bodies of Work (Serpent’s Tail, 1996) covers a range of subjects other than body-building, from politics and science fiction, to the work of contemporary artists and philosophers, such as Richard Prince, Kiki Smith, Nayland Blake, the Marquis de Sade, Peter Greenaway and Hannah Arendt.

[4] A full treatment of this subject can be found in Scarry’s illuminating book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford University Press, 1987).

[5] Though, if animal communication systems — from bees to dolphins — can be considered a language, this complicates the very question and role of language: what Steven Pinker calls “the language instinct” first arising, evolutionarily, from primitive needs such as expressing pleasure and pain, to warning others of danger.

[6] Kathleen has adeptly challenged this notion of a limited scent vocabulary in her excellent Diagram essay “On Learning the Alphabet of Scent and Intention,” http://thediagram.com/15_1/rooney.html

[7] Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Computer Music Journal, vol 24, no.4, 2000, pp. 12–18.

[8] Moore, Jen. “Something that Stutters Sincerely: Contemporary Poetry and the Aesthetics of Failure.” Jacket2, 8 February, 2012.

[9] Ibid.

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