BODY FIRST: Somaesthetics and Popular CultureVol 5 No 1 (2019)
Body First: Somaesthetics and Popular Culture
As the highbrowed critics of the mass culture debate (Ortega y Gasset, Adorno, Arnold) mocked popular culture audiences throughout the 1920s, 1930s and the 1940s, Hannah Arendt stepped up to defend the ‘masses’ in her essay “Crisis in Culture” (1959). Arendt reminded the intellectuals that we all need entertainment. She criticized the critics of mass culture by saying that the biggest threat for art is found in the philistines, who snobbishly take art to be only education and civilization—which is not the most fruitful way of thinking about art—and who so use to it for example to build class difference.
2019 intellectuals are not polarized in the same way as in the early 20th century, but an echo of the discourse of the ‘philistines’ of the debate keeps haunting us. We constantly face a rhetoric pointing to ‘active’ viewer of movies, of art projects which activate people in the suburbs and the need to be an active consumer and not to just go with the flow. Could the obsession with the active audience be considered to be one form of the neoliberal? It is definitely, at least, a philistine way of approaching culture. Where the word active is used about audiences, and when it is not pointing to works of art where audience participation is encouraged, it is also not hard to note, that in today’s society that means intellectual activity, not physical—and that often being active means that one consumes culture with some kind of connection to something we might label highbrow. It is not that we’d laugh actively or that we’d dance actively in the disco, it is that we’d for example reflect actively on the environment or the society, or that we would reflect actively on politics.
Without debasing our needs to reflect on political and environmental issues, it is hard to understand what is wrong with just getting entertained?
When families cue to the roller coaster in the amusement park or when teens go to watch a movie, which they assume will frighten them and make them nearly jump off their chair, they consciously want to activate their bodies. We find this interesting. The active body is central in many aesthetic inventions and it has motorized the development of countless aesthetic phenomena. Contrary to highbrow arts and the work of academic philistines, popular culture has not been shy about this. The breakbeat in rap music was developed to extend dancing in parties. Many clothes are either autoerotic or designed to arouse others. And for those who are interested in people reflecting on things actively, of course these bodily traditions have sparked and fueled also active analysis and reflection.
Discos and amusement parks are obvious examples of popular culture, where the body is really the priority, but then there are other forms of culture where the active body is if not central, then at least quintessential for the practice. Think about action films and the way you can feel tickling in your sole when Tom Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocoll (2011). Think about horror films where disgust and chills in the spine are central for the experience. Don’t forget how romantic novels warm up the chest and how if nothing else than at least nodding your head is an integral part of listening to live jazz music.
It is not, though, that these forms of culture would only be contemporary. In the classical debate in Indian philosophy on the rasa (emotive affect), the 11th century Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta notes the physical side of the experience of theatre by analyzing how sight and hearing, when well stimulated, can sublimate the audience spiritually (spiritual elevation so follows somatic stimulation). And if you think about it, Aristotle’s ‘catharsis’ nails the physical effects of drama. Today we know that the audience of Greek spectacles came to the ‘show’ like they would arrive to football matches, often late and drunk. (One could think that his theory is as much about popular culture as it is about art with the capital A, the Greek culture was so different from ours.) Aristotle’s way of borrowing the term catharsis from the medics of his time, who talked about bodily purification, is no coincidence. And it is an allegory which is easy to understand. The way good drama, thrillers and horrors of fiction massage our stomachs is a commonplace for modern and postmodern (wo)man.
Sometimes it feels even that popular culture is mainly about the production and consumption of bodily effects. Jan Mukarovsky wrote about ‘aesthetic functions’ in his Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Fact (1936), and discussed a lot of folk and popular art in his work. Mukarovsky’s function is of course semiotic, as Mukarovsky was a member of the Prague School, but the concept is also very appropriate (and not in dissonance with Mukarovsky’s work) for discussing bodily effects, which are produced to us in popular culture and which we seek for when we enter the realm of popular culture. What is the function of horror or circus? A lot of it is found in the realm of the body.
Anyway, whether the body really comes first, like in the amusement park, or whether it is just integral/quintessential for the practice, we’d like the reader of this volume to think for a while about the role of the body in entertainment, mass culture and the vernacular.
Walter Benjamin writes in his analysis of urban Paris and its poets, “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism” (1939), how traffic, factory work, new media (photography, film) and Tivoli shared the same rhythm and shocking nature. The body was also central for Richard Shusterman’s theory of rap music (Shusterman 1992), where its function of ‘moving the ass’ sparked the later discourse of somaesthetics. But what we’d like to think of here, in this introduction, is the fact that the body is in so many ways involved in leisure and entertainment, that we might need a small moment for just thinking about it and nothing else. The examples mentioned earlier are just a start when one decides to accept that the body could be seen as the key for understanding the whole field of the popular. It is more like we’d need to ask: in what ways is the body important for this and that practice? The bottom of our stomach gets massaged when we watch an entertaining ice hockey game (ice hockey journalists often talk about the catharsis of the game, especially in relation to hockey fights) and sometimes we want to listen to music which resonates with our pulse. List your 10 major uses of popular culture and think of their bodily extensions. We believe you might surprise yourself.
This volume includes texts by 7 authors, who are Davide Giovanzana, Scott Elliot, Noora Korpelainen, Adam Andrzejewski, Janne Vanhanen, Sue Spaid and Max Ryynänen. Their texts touch upon issues like Ballard’s/Cronenberg’s Crash, the everyday practice of yoga, the bodies of popular art works, provoking images of violence, and the way media imagery distances us from the bodies of the ones who suffer. We are not describing their texts in a Reader’s Digest fashion as we believe that it is more interesting for you to go straight into their thoughts. The texts do not always follow our intuitions in this introduction, but the spark was given by some of the thoughts mentioned here. We are very happy to provide you this set of texts, which circulates around the topics explained above, and we have already learned a lot during the editing process
We hope you, as the reader, enjoy the texts of Body First: Somaesthetics and Popular Culture as much as we do.
Jozef Kovalcik & Max Ryynänen, Issue Editors
Somaesthetics and TechnologyVol 4 No 2 (2019)
Somaesthetics and Technology
This special issue of the Journal of Somaesthetics contains articles that deal with the aesthetic relationship between technology and the soma. Special focus was intended on the applications of somaesthetic theories and practices on the design and evaluation of technology, and their comparison to other theoretical frameworks. Instead, we have mostly received contributions that are discovering somaesthetics. Regular and invited submissions went through a peer review, combined with editorial suggestions. We hoped the submissions would focus on the theory and practice of somaesthetics. What the articles have in common is their focus on the techno-social materials and themes.
Migration, for example, is an important socio-dynamical construct. In the artistic work INTIMAL, Ximena Alarcón Díaz explores the soma expressions of Colombian migrant women in telematic sonic improvisatory performance work. The design of the system has been informed by several interdisciplinary practices including embodied music cognition and deep listening, as well as an oral archive with testimonials from Colombian migrants. Alarcón presents data from field work with migrant women and two experiments with groups improvising to the oral archive, while being recorded with optical motion capture and sensors for breathing and muscle activity. Based on the results, Alarcón presents the design of the system.
Recently, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality had tremendous momentum. It is widely accepted that soma-based experiences will be an important design goal for these techno-social extended realities. We (Erkut and Dahl) present an approach of teaching virtual reality interactions, as used in our embodied interaction course for master’s students at Aalborg University. In order to help the students to develop the designer skills necessary for successful development of virtual interactions, the course includes theory on soma-based design, movement exercises with focus on first-person experiences, and a practical workshop jointly with students at the Danish National School of Performing Arts. We present four student projects from the course and discuss them in relation to experiential somaesthetics.
Two invited papers aim to highlight new voices in the field. The Doctoral Committee papers from the 2018 Movement and Computing Conference were invited, revised, and organized by the guest editors. They together expand the bounds between body, brain, and environment to inanimate objects and matter in the environment.
Kensho Miyoshi highlights the potential use of kinesthetic empathy in the context of design. Can the designers feel kinesthetic empathy to objects as much as they feel towards people? Beyond their function, could the quality of object movements evoke feelings useful for design? The author applies kinesthetic empathy to the perception of kinetic objects, with the aim of revealing the relationship between object movements and our embodied and empathic reactions. Kinesthetic empathy could open a new perspective on our embodied and visceral response to dynamic objects and environments, in relation to somaesthetics.
In the second doctoral work summary, Garrett Laroy Johnson and his colleagues focus on techno-social construction of ensembles in designing responsive media. Within their work Lanterns, they show how people and augmented pendant lamps together form an ensemble and how people are entrained with the Lanterns. Based on the concept of ensembles, the authors summarize their design tactics and investigations, which provide insights about the embodied experience with respect to technicity.
The highly speculative essay by Monica Yadav combines the diverse fields of neuroscience, philosophy, and theatre into a techno-social bound between body, brain, and environment. Specifically, technology, seen as a surface, produces in reflection an encounter of the triadic relation of body-brain-environment with itself. The author proposes that the triad is in both a material and virtual relation, where material and virtual are allelic pairs.
This issue includes an insightful interview with Kia Höök on her new book Designing with the Body, conducted by Dag Svanæs. Not only did Höök “shop for” and transfer somaesthetics into actionable research in somaesthetic interaction design, but she also produced and documented beautiful soma design exemplars and literally “moved” an international research community with her effort. Svanæs, another strong mover on the importance of the body in interaction design, brings out fine details of the book in the interview. Both the book and the interview are highly recommended readings in soma-based design of the current and future technologies that shape us.
The last contribution is a book review. Max Ryynänen critically assesses the anthology Aesthetic Experience and Somaesthetics edited by Richard Shusterman containing thirteen articles. Ryynänen discusses a selection of them concluding that the notion of somaesthetics, on the one hand, offers an accessible and necessary conceptual platform for thinking and practicing with and through the body, but that, on the other hand, the contributions are in danger of losing philosophical rigor and depth that could be regained by connecting to the field’s philosophical foundations as elaborated by Dewey and Shusterman.
Compared to the first call for papers, the issue clearly is very different than we the editors have first imagined. The contributions challenged our disciplinary competences, indicated many future directions, and took us to reach out for reviewers in many different fields. We hope that they will have the same effects on you, including slowing down a bit and feel the fundamental question of interaction design with your entire soma: “what if …”.
Cumhur Erkut and Sofia Dahl, Issue Editors
Somaesthetics and its Nordic AspectsVol 4 No 1 (2018)
Somaesthetics and its Nordic Aspects
In my introduction, I want to focus on two aspects of this issue of The Journal of Somaesthetics: first, to describe the picture an open issue paints of the current field of somaesthetics, and secondly, to discuss the Nordic component of this issue.
The first issue of 2018 is an open issue without any thematic focus except that the articles have to position themselves within the theoretical or pragmatic field of somaesthetics. It is based on an open call with the intent to explore the field of somaesthetics from various angles. The majority of contributions in one way or another deal with art. Of course, this should not come as a surprise, because aesthetics has been connected to art reception since the modern rise of aesthetics as a scholarly field coincided with the modern rise of the autonomy of art. More recent developments in contemporary aesthetics have sought to bring aesthetics back to its original broader conception as concerned with sense-making and appreciation that finds expression in all of life’s domains. This development, however, has mainly been analyzed through objects – art and design artefacts, and seldomly by tracing human sense-perception and anthropological research. In this context, the concept of somaesthetics proves important, because it focuses on the aesthetic experience of the soma, the living, perceiving, purposive body, as an integrated aspect of aesthetic experience and a medium of research. Concurrently, the field of artistic research and arts-informed academic inquiry is rapidly expanding, yielding novel approaches and a renewed debate about how we should understand the notion of knowledge in aesthetics, in its academic and artistic ramifications. The vocabulary of somaesthetics seems to be able to embrace and facilitate this novel demand to aesthetics and knowledge.
In addition to this expansion of the aesthetic field, there can be seen another closely related development. As art increasingly embraces audience activation converting audiences from contemplating onlookers to participants and co-creators, so the field of aesthetics must consider the active participant as intrinsic part of the work of art transforming art into events of experience and consumption in line with other cultural artefacts and events. Seen in this light, aesthetics has to enlarge its methodical tool box towards a thinking through and with the soma as a perceptual and sense-making ‘organ’ in order to be able to capture the experiential, creative, and ameliorative dimension – not only of art making and art perception, but also of other cultural fields that rely on aesthetic perception.
The second point I wish to mention is that The Journal of Somaesthetics, founded from the outset in Aalborg University, Denmark, is now in a period of reorganization to emphasize its Nordic dimension by establishing a predominately Nordic editorial board. We hope this will strengthen the Journal’s contribution to presenting Nordic approaches to the many topics and applications of somaesthetics, but we aim to do so by also engaging with and publishing the best research in somaesthetics from scholars in the wider international research community. Although it is hard to generalize, Nordic research has a distinctive take on questions concerning somaesthetics because of certain features of Nordic culture and Nordic academic histories, practices, and aims. Noticeable is the interest for letting somaesthetic theory and concrete somatic practices permeate each other. The idea here is not simply practice as a mechanical application of somaesthetic ideas and concepts, but rather an academic research from within framed and observed, but always experienced practices. Practice should here be understood as either the investigatory measurements and activities of distinct professions and fields of research and/or the compassionate but analytical observation of and interaction with professional or everyday actions of distinct social groups. It is not surprising that in recent years there have been a significant number of research-oriented practical workshops in somaesthetics in Nordic countries.
One of this issue’s authors write from within the field of art and art research: Rasmus Ölme, a dancer and researcher, writes in his article “Suspension” about his practice-based research on the materiality and immateriality of movement, thereby investigating the performative relationship between the cognitive and sensory, movement and space, and artistic experience and academic theoretical conceptualization. My own article, “Into the Woods with Heidegger” can be categorized as arts-informed, academic research in that it is a reflection on an autoethnographic project documenting my encounter with some passages of Heidegger’s essay “The Origin of the Artwork” while helping an artist constructing a land-art piece. The project’s aim was to find common grounds between art theoretical and artist-practical work. The encounter has led me to the question, whether the soma harbors inherently ameliorable capacities via bodily self-reflections or whether the body merely is a performative machine for very disparate ideological content. In her article “Care of the Self, Somaesthetics and Drug Addiction: An Exploration of Approaching and Treating Problematic Use in Non-Coercive Settings”, Riikka Perala reflects on her work with drug addicts in the context of the Finnish social system. She proposes a somaesthetic understanding of drug addicts as full members of our societies and of everyday life. By shifting from the idea of drug addiction as an illness towards drug addiction as a (hopefully temporary) life condition, she suggests that harm reduction measurements can be seen in a Foucauldian light of “care of the self” and that somaesthetic awareness can occasion more positive ways of living and better tackle the addiction.
We also find in this issue Nordic contributions that take on more traditional topics of aesthetics. Martin Ejsing Christensen’s article analyzes Dewey’s idea of doing philosophy as an aesthetic, experiential practice by comparing it with Richard Shusterman’s idea of somaesthetics, and he implicitly transforms his writing of the article into an aesthetic experience.
Finally, Martin Jay and Ronald Shusterman use ideas from somaesthetics as tools in analyzing various musical and visual art works. In a short article, Martin Jay describes Ken Ueno’s work Jericho Mouth with Barthes’ distinction between pheno- and geno-song, the former being in the service of representation and communication, the latter as somaesthetic performance from a pre-subjective depth. Ronald Shusterman’s looks at the deterritorializing ambition and effect of a selection of urban artworks that disturb the familiarity of and expectations of shared social space and urban order. He argues for a metaethical effect of these works, because their perception constitutes a transitional passage because expected orders are momentarily annulled, the emerging void asks for an altered view and another perception of urban spaces. These moments of singularities are like jokes and laughter, opening an abys.
Falk Heinrich, Editor-in-Chief
Bodies of Belief / Bodies of CareVol 3 No 1 & 2 (2017)
This double-issue on Bodies of Belief and Bodies of Care originated in two conferences held at the Center for Body, Mind, and Culture, respectively January 2015 and January 2016. Only a few papers from those conferences, however, have found their way into this volume; the others collected here came from independent submissions to the Journal. We should begin by explaining the underlying logic that motivated the topics of these conferences and the papers of this double issue?
With respect to the question of belief, human bodies are shaped not only by their genetic endowment but also by the belief systems of the cultures in which they develop and function. Such belief systems vary from unarticulated background assumptions to ritualized practices and explicit doctrines or even to formulated laws enacted and enforced by social institutions. The beliefs that the human soma embodies and expresses are not confined to established social norms; they also include items of faith and commitment that are individualistic, nonconformist, or even antagonistic to the cultural mainstream. More than a mere instrument of compliance or worship, the soma is also a site and weapon of protest against beliefs we reject and find oppressive.
As to the issue of care, bodies are obviously the targets of one’s daily care in terms of personal hygiene, grooming, exercise, and proper nourishment. They are also objects of care in the sense of worry or concern, since we all suffer illness and death through our bodies. However, the sentient, purposive, active body or soma is also a subjectivity that examines and cares for the body as object, whether it be one’s own body or the bodies of others who one wants to help or comfort. We all need such curative help or comfort at some point in our lives; and some people devote their professional and personal lives to giving such care. Bodies need and give care in many ways and for many reasons: to overcome illness and disability, to address and alleviate dependence, to learn new skills and remedy bad habits, to inspire greater confidence for personal flourishing and greater social betterment.
Initially, it might seem surprising to group the topics of bodies of belief and care together. However, if we consider the matter more closely, we see a deep and substantive connection between them. In the first place, beliefs are what make care possible. Because beliefs are our essential guides of action, they are therefore indispensable for guiding our actions of caring for ourselves and others. Beliefs about the body – for example, beliefs about what foods, medicines, habits, exercises, etc. promote somatic health, well-being, and pleasure -- thus govern our practices of care for the body. Issues of belief and care are also linked in the reverse direction. The fact that we care for our bodies, both in the sense of practically acting to care for them and in the sense of worrying about how to care for them, prompts us to search for the best beliefs to guide such care. As the pragmatist C.S. Peirce argued, inquiry is inspired by the irritation of doubt, and it seeks to remove such doubt by establishing beliefs that resolve the particular doubt in question. Our doubts and worries about somatic health and various problems in the functioning and appearances of our bodies promote countless inquiries to attain beliefs that will guide practices to remove or at least mitigate those worries. The things that we care for thus inspire more attention and efforts to acquire correct and helpful beliefs. Although most of our beliefs are items that we simply take for granted and that guide our actions without our giving explicit focused attention to these beliefs, we tend to give more explicit attention to beliefs about things we care about most. Our bodily condition – how we feel, look, and function somatically – is an abiding center of care and concern and thus forms the focus of some of our most explicit and critically examined beliefs.
The following papers examine diverse issues of bodily belief and care from different perspectives. Topics range from autoimmunity and psychological therapy to religious belief, tattoos, and neoliberal institutions of health care. Most of the papers adopt an artistic somaesthetic perspective, examining their topics through the methods of literary theory, art history, and theatre studies. The present issue continues the Journal’s tradition of including an interview with a distinguished specialist whose expertise relates to the issue’s topic. On this occasion we are very happy to include an interview with ORLAN, specially commissioned for this issue and introduced by Else Marie Bukdahl. The interview was conducted in French, and we provide an English translation along with the original French.
Somaesthetics and FoodVol 2 No 1 and 2 (2016)
Food and drink, perhaps of all the objects to which we direct our aesthetic energies, fall most naturally within somaesthetic inquiry. As food and drink are literally consumed and incorporated into the body, our attention to these processes likewise works to break down the false dichotomies of inner/outer, body/mind, and self/world. It may be surprising then, that in the more than 15 years since somaesthetics was first proposed as a new discipline by Richard Shusterman, there has been little sustained attention devoted to food and drink within the emerging literature on somaesthetics. In the past few years however, as somaesthetics has matured into both a unique philosophical approach to aesthetics and an interdisciplinary methodology, work has begun to appear on food and eating from a somaesthetical perspective. In keeping with this direction, the Journal of Somaesthetics is proud to present this volume devoted entirely to exploring the implications of somaesthetics for questions concerning the cultivation, preparation, consumption and enjoyment of food.
Taken collectively, the contributions to this double issue exhibit the diverse array of food related topics that are pertinent to somaesthetics. From visual art, performance art and film, to experimental psychology and nutrition, urban farming, restaurant culture, wine, and Crossmodalism, the papers collected here illustrate the impressive range of topics, and disciplinary approaches, that comprise a gustatory somaesthetics. This special issue can also be seen as providing an important counterbalance to the literature in the philosophy of food that has to date been dominated by the questions of the art-status of food and the cognitive, expressive, and representational elements of eating. As a result, the living soma has all too frequently dropped out of these discussions. In narrowly attempting to establish the similarities between food and art, some approaches to the philosophy of food tend to lose sight of the unique insights that the aesthetics of food can provide for our understanding of all of the interrelated modes of embodied human experience. As the living soma is the irreducible site of gustatory and aesthetic experience, it is our hope that this special double issue of the Journal of Somaesthetics will contribute to forging a new direction in research into the myriad ways that human beings relate to food.
Somaesthetics and Visual ArtVol 1 No 1 (2015)
The body has long been an important theme in art, but in recent years somaesthetics has increasingly emerged not only as a way of understanding contemporary art forms (especially body art, performance, installation) but also as a perspective for enriching art-historical discourse and criticism in both Western and Asian cultures. By providing important insights into the embodied creative process and interaction between the viewer and artwork, somaesthetics can illuminate aspects of our artistic tradition whether of the Renaissance and Baroque periods or the classical Asian forms of calligraphy and inkwash painting. When somaesthetics is introduced into the world of art and art scholarship, it opens up “the golden cage of autonomous art”, providing room for a wide and dynamic range of interdisciplinary perspectives and research approaches. Many fine contributions have already discussed the somaesthetics of visual art (which somaesthetics shows to be more than merely visual), but there remain many important topics that require more study. This first issue of the Journal of Somaesthetics, seeks to make a useful step in the systematic and collaborative study of the soma’s role in visual art. We hope that this will stimulate further contributions in this Journal and elsewhere.