michael j. morris

Thoughts on Embodiment

As mentioned in a previous post, I am currently (slowly) making my way through Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. The progress is slow because of how many ideas each page provokes. Thus, I recommend it.

Here are some thoughts brought up today:

The dualism of “the body” and “the mind” is an abstraction of the reality that these are not separate entities but essential components/qualities of person-hood and experience. “Pure reason” (free from bodily concerns such as emotion, etc.) is an abstraction in that human reason does not in fact exist in processes free from the body. In an age that seems so increasingly “disembodied” by philosophy and technology, it is a refreshing reminder that none of those experiences or thoughts take place apart from the body itself, anchored and driven by its processes. Disembodiment too then is an abstraction, and for me, a threatening illusion. 

An idea that I am sure will be expounded upon is the idea that bodily processes (including emotion) are not separate from thought/reason/logic/concepts/propositions, but are something like the initial playing field in which those things develop. Meaning (or how we make sense of life, ourselves, this world, etc.) is emergent, not hierarchical, growing up out of the physical experiences, bodily reactions, etc. Even when we are not conscious of it, our emotional reactions are intrinsic and basic for our thought processes. They are the stage on which our ideas and reasonings unfold.

With this breakdown of the body/mind dichotomy into a body-mind or mind-body (I also like the term “soma”), there is a breakdown of the abstract classifications of “subject” and “object”, “self” and “environment”, “person” and “object”. Experience is the basis of our understanding or meaning-making, and experience is an active, moving interaction between the self and the environment, the subject and the object. These two things, although perhaps abstractly distinct as ideas, are never truly discrete; they are constantly connected in moving experience.

The centrality of movement in experience is the subject of the first chapter in Johnson’s book, and I am loving it. It gives whole new layers to dance as a field when movement is seen as central to life, experience, and meaning-making. There are two quotations I would like to share. The first is by Maxine Sheets-Johnstone. She says:

“In the beginning, we are simply infused with movement–not merely with a propensity to move, but with the real thing. This primal animateness, this original kinetic spontaneity that infuses our being and defines our aliveness, is our point of departure for living in the world and making sense of it . . . We literally discover ourselves in movement. We grow kinetically into our bodies. In particular, we grow into those distinctive ways of moving that come with our being the bodies we are. In our spontaneity of movement, we discover arms that extend, spines that bend, knees that flex, mouths that shut, and so on. We make sense of ourselves in the course of moving.”

The second quote is by Johnson himself. He says:

“Movement occurs within an environment and necessarily involves ongoing, intimate connection and interaction with aspects of some particular environment . . . From the very beginning of our life, and evermore until we die, movement keeps us in touch with our world in the most intimate and profound way. In our experience of movement, there is no radical separation of self from world.”

This idea of challenging “person and world” and replacing it with “person moving in world” is profound for me. Just as the mind does not exist apart from the body, the person does not exist apart from the environment. And that unity of existence is negotiated in movement, in time, etc.

Curiously, this reflects my present cosmology, in which the unique, discrete, distinct individual is merely a singular expression of a common Oneness that is existence. My current belief system is one in which all things that exist share a common substance (which might be existence, energy, Love, divinity, etc.), and that common substance finds unique expression in the individual (separateness), in order that our truer nature (oneness) might be reveled through action, relationship, and love. Our existence becomes a process of accessing and recognizing our oneness/commonality, beyond the details of our individual person, while also honoring those individualities and personal details as unique expressions of that commonality.
Something about this idea of “person in environment” as constant state of being (rather than “person” and “environment” as discrete states of being) seems to relate to this cosmology.

I am full of thoughts. I hope you are too.


connections here at an end
11 December, 2008, 12:00 pm
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We have reached the end of the quarter, my first quarter of grad school. I only had a minor postpartum meltdown last night, mourning the absence of so much that has filled my every minute for the last few months. My paper on Nijinsky and Nijinska is complete for now. It’s title is “The Negotiation of Gender in the Work of Nijinsky and Nijinska,” and comes in just over 25 pages. I cannot say that I think it is finished. I hope that I continue to let that material sort itself out in my mind, and that I can revisit the paper with more of my own thoughts/speculations/contributions to the dialogue of Nijinsky and Nijinska, rather than writing a paper that simply agree and disagrees with previous statements made by other scholars. So I see the paper as an ongoing affair, continuing to dance with these ghosts a bit.

One of the things that I was interested in coming out of this blog was new thought sparked by the juxtaposition of other thoughts, which is so evident in my “tag cloud” on the left. The big words are the ones that have been mentioned with more regularity, and so on. Today, the biggest words are Election, Gender, Nijinska, and Research, with Love and Yoga and Dance coming in next. Things I see when I look at the cloud:

-“Election” nestled between “Dance” and “Emergent Taxonomy;” what a beautiful implication, that somehow dance might contribute to the emergent (democratic) process that governs policy in our nation. It makes me think about the role of the body, the presence and intelligence of the body, governance of the body, laws that impose hierarchical concepts on the body (like, in New York, you have to have a permit if three or more people are dancing in a public space; or transfats being banned by the FDA; laws that restrict/prohibit specific sexual activities in certain parts of the country; etc.) The body is so intrinsic to the individual. We so frequently in our culture operate under a Cartesian understanding of the body as a machine which houses the mind or spirit, and yet the body is central to all experience. It is through the body that we are present in the world, it is through the body that we sense, perceive, know, decide. All of our thought processes begin in the body. So what does it say about a society that is supposed to operate out of a consensus of individuals that governing bodies impose restrictions on bodies? It is so much deeper than restricting action. It feels like censorship of the individual experience itself, that from which everything stems. And maybe it seems benign, but I am interested it how it even comes about, and what it might mean that a society allows that sort of governance. . .

-I see the three big words of “Election” “Gender” and “Nijinska.” I could (did?) write a small book on the subject of Nijinska and gender right now . . . but relating it to “election” (which today is representing the democratic process, the process of government coming out of decisions made by masses, people casting votes and their laws and leaders coming up out of that process. . . maybe it’s just because it is right above “emergent taxonomy” but democracy is intended to be emergent) . . . Nijinska’s two most significant works were Les Noches (which you can see videos of in a previous post) and Les Biches (of which only accounts remain). Both were profound social commentaries on gender, the former an examination of the oppression that was (is?) intrinsic to the institution of marriage, specifically in peasant Russia, the latter which protested gender roles by radically reconstructing and redefining them in a vibrant cast of characters that addressed a range of social taboos, including narcissism, voyeurism, lesbianism, gender ambiguity, group sex, etc. 
My first thought from this juxtaposition has to do with same-sex marriage in this country. This is an issue that should not get quiet. I think about Prop. 8 and how America is systematically outlawing (but thankfully not without avid resistance) marriage between individuals of the same sex. And I think about Nijinska’s commentary on marriage in Les Noches, how the individuals were simply swept away by the tide of social expectation, in which marriage had nothing to do with love, mutuality of feeling, or even the individuals involved. Instead, marriages were arranged by families in order to provide the groom’s family with a new worker, the bride. So much more severe is the oppression of the bride, who is stripped from her family, her mother, and handed over to her “new” family. But the oppression is no respecter of gender, because desire of the groom is also discounted. he becomes merely the vehicle through which to expand the family, by adding a bride and, by implication in the ballet’s last image, the wedding bed, children.
I can’t help but draw connections between Nijinska’s perception and representation of marriage, and the perception/representation of marriage in America today. Inversely, America seems to say that the ‘oppression’ of marriage is a respecter of gender, because it is an oppression of exclusion based on gender. It somehow maintains  a disconnection from love, mutuality of feeling, and the individuals. Likely married heterosexual couples would disagree. They would say that do love one another, that it was by their own election to marry and to consecrate their relationship in this institution. I would ask them to recognize that while that may be true, clearly that is not the reason they are married, because our country is legislatively stating that those factors are not enough to be married. To married you must before all else be a man and a woman; that remains the essential component. You can be married without love, without mutuality of feelings, or likely even without the election to such state by the individuals in involved (I think of couples who get married to please their parents, or out of pressure by their spouse, etc.). In looking at the role of gender in the decisions being made in our country through the lens of Nijinska, I have to say I am a bit startled. Her piece was staged in 1923 in Europe. How bizarre that despite all of our social progress, connections can still be made between the society, marriage, and treatment of gender then to now.

-I see “Love” situated right in the middle of the list . . . and it seems simple to see an ideal portrait of all that surrounds it as an emanation of this central concern. Love in our listening. Love in our research. Love in our art and the appreciation of/participation in the art of others. Love in the Art Lab. Love in our elections, our democracy emerging from love rather than discrimination and hate. Love in our dance, our collaboration, our choreography. Love in our anxiety. Love in our marriage. Love in our technology. In our Yoga.
Clearly that is an ideal. It raises the question from where do all these things emanate? What is situated at “the heart of things,” as it were? What are the underlying values that we are privileging in the work we do, the way we work, the things we research, the kind of nation we are building?  As we participate in emergent processes, what is it we bring to that field of potentialities, and from where do our contributions come from?


I think these are good thoughts, good connections here at the end of the quarter. New ideas arising out of the ideas that have been catalogued here.

Lastly, check out the new blogs in my blog role. An array of different voices, mostly my colleagues, each with a different approach to blogging, with spectacular ideas to contribute to your own emergent taxonomy today.


Tonight I am thinking about listening. This is a recurring concept in my creative outlook, one that arises from my experiences with Butoh, various somatic forms, and an aesthetic that is continually fixated with subtlety. It finds resonance with the work and words of Pauline Oliveros and her practice of “deep listening”, an almost meditative practice of heightening sensory awareness as a method for creating, where creating (in her case music, in my case dance) comes out of absorbing, processing, responding, approaching an environment with an open mode of consciousness and letting the creative act arise from that form of engagement. This concept of listening is finding new echoes in subjects I am experiencing here in grad school: the concept of “emergent taxonomy” from Applied Technologies in Dance, the idea of an organization of material (which is what creating is all about) arising out of what is there rather than imposing an organizational structure hierarchically; also, the practice of “post-positivist research”, a way of looking as a subject without defining absolutely what it is you are observing, without deciding what form your findings will take, allowing the direction of the research to evolve from the practice of observation; in reading/reporting an article on Pauline Oliveros and the construction of gendered identity in her music. The author (Timothy D. Taylor) writes about Oliveros’ invocation of “feminine” characteristics in music such as intuition and sensitivity, as opposed to the “masculine” qualities of notation, prescription, and order. Gender politics aside, reading about the investigation of these approaches (intuition, sensitivity, listening) in the creative process was invigorating.

So, what I’m curious about is what this looks like in dance. There is certainly precedence, especially in areas such as improvisation, contact improvisation, Butoh, etc. Even in other choreographers’ creative process, the idea of a choreography emerging from the process/experience of dancing (such as appropriating/structuring improv experiences into choreography) is not unheard of. That is not typical of my choreographic approach. Typically, find myself fixated with a subject. I steep myself in that subject matter, then generate movement material as a metaphorical exploration of the subject. This material is given to dancers, structured, rehearsed, and eventually performed.

I am wondering what would happen if I deepen my research/understanding of these “listening”/awareness based practices (Butoh, somatic techniques, Oliveros’ “deep listening”, etc.), then direct dancers through experiences in these processes of listening with the body, and eventually allow choreography to surface from this practice of listening, even through to the point of performance, maintain a constant approach of dance and movement as listening rather than expressing. What would that experience look like? How would it feel for the dancers? For the audience?

More and more my aesthetic is drawn towards details/subtlety/nuance. I connect these propensities to this quality of awareness, or listening.

I have a sense that this might be the starting point of what might evolve into my MFA research project. I am interested in exploring other ways of listening. . . even this blog is an experiment in both speaking/authoring, but also listening, paying attention to what is emerging, what responses there are, and allowing that awareness to shape the content. That is part of how this blog is a creative activity for me, and how it is playing a role in the way I am thinking right now, especially in how I am thinking about my art. It’s very circular: something is set into motion, that motion is observed/listened to, that awareness loops back into the creative process to shape the direction of that which is being set into motion, more feedback, more response in the way in which information (movement, writing, graphic, etc.) is generated, etc.

What do you think?
How do you listen with your body, or in your own creative media? How can the act of creating also be an act of listening?

I would love to hear your thoughts.