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The body as text

Photo by Celena Sinko

We must not treat the body as an object uniquely exempt from textual discourse just because the two words that complete this sentence are not in actuality une pipe. If we disallow interpretation of body experiences via language, then reflexively we prohibit the body from its own descriptive potential–concomitantly suggesting that a photograph could never tell a story. The body may be partially understood through text, just as gravitational waves may be described with language. Like the incomplete range of terms for colors available to portray the full swath of a Hawai’ian sunset, the body cannot be exclusively read as a text itself. If we accept that all language is metaphor, however, then we can include text as one method among a multiplicity of approaches towards understanding the self (Lakoff 4).

Questions about the function of text as investigation of personhood do not sincerely pose whether text is acceptable as a means of understanding the body, but rather ask whether text as interpretation of the body offers enough information. Barbara Browning may wish that we would learn to comprehend polymeters by actually dancing samba’s polyrhythms, but by nature of writing about samba’s polyrhythms she suggests the antithesis of her thesis (46). Text allows us to experience a particular flavor of knowledge. I once fainted upon reading a novel’s description of an assault. I embodied the text, and the words communicated information distinctive from a film of the event, a picture, or a real-time act. It may have taken more time to read the description then the quantity of seconds it described, but the words offered were potentially no less powerful than other means of presenting their content.

Every form of communication precludes absolute knowledge. Text lacks. It is also important. In recounting how the emergence of experimental American dance was tied to changing ideals of the female body, Katherine Borland and Sheila Bock describe the period’s features of “initiating waves of movement from the torso, dancing barefoot, employing free movements of the entire body, and exploring light and three-dimensional space” (22). If the reader were able to see these actions, or to enlist mimesis and employ these descriptors in full-bodied motion, then doing so would offer additional information. Browning and Rebecca Bryant would suggest that an absence of evident action signifies a lack of vigorous comprehension. In synchronicity with Browning, Bryant notes the Turkish sensibility that emphasizes an “aesthetics of self” that “links virtue […] to practice ” (233). But Bryant might also have argued, had she been an apprentice in prose or poetry, that text may also be part of an embodied practice. Text can be both a source of discovery of body–it is after all, the body that writes and reads–as well as for sharing elements of that discovery.

I welcome Diana Taylor’s disquiet over privileging of textual discourse over other forms of knowledge generation (xvi). We must use multiple tools for comprehension and communication. Movement and personhood can be inclusive of a range of responses. Scholars should not preclude themselves, however, from enlisting text as a method of understanding the sun’s colors or our body’s experience. We can both dance and write the “body electric” (Whitman).

 

Bibliography

Borland, Katherine and Sheila Bock. “Exotic Identities: Dance, Difference, and Self-Fashioning.” Journal of Folklore Research. 48, no. 1      (2011): 1-36. Print.

Browning, Barbara. “Samba: The Body Articulate,” in Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance. Goellner, Ellen W.      and Jacqueline Shea Murphy, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Bryant, Rebecca. “The Soul Danced into the Body: Nation and Improvisation in Istanbul.”

“I Sing the Body Electric by Walt Whitman.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. 16 February 2016.  Web.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. “Metaphors We Live By.”Chicago: University of Chicago Press,   1980.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Archives. Durham and London: Duke University Press,      2003.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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