In response to my post on the Hand Experiment from last week, main dude and friend-of-the-blog Graham Larkin wrote, tongue presumably in cheek, that he “can’t wait to see what body part features in the next installment.” Well indeed, why focus on just the hand? Why not all the other bits?
The Hand Experiment is intended to elicit a reframing of personal experience. If performed attentively, it should spark an awareness that there is a domain of meaning, grounded in physical sensation (this is what academics mean by “embodied meaning”) that lies prior to or exceeds or eludes or at least is somehow not the same as whatever we might say about it. Now, I could have just said all that and called it a day. And indeed most academic work on “embodied meaning” does exactly this, leaving to philosophical debate whether all meaning is embodied in some way or whether there are “higher” meanings that transcend space, time, and the body.*
But because of this, scholarship on embodiment often feels like a missed opportunity to me. It’s another good news/bad news situation. The good news is, we’re finally talking about embodied meaning. In this, as in so many other things, what we have seen since the 1980s is the academicization of a countercultural mood: humanities scholars who came of age during the mid-1960s-to-mid-1970s high counterculture have, during their “long march through the institutions,” given a theoretical form to the inchoate feelings and desires of their generational cohort, and younger scholars have followed their lead. I have written elsewhere of how hip sensibility was oriented to experience in the present moment—experience illuminated and confirmed not only by such gentle expedients as the Hand Experiment but also by fairly high-octane technologies like drugs, meditation, magic, and maybe most of all sound. If there is anything the humanities has gained from the hip sensibility, it is this new way of thinking about art as triggers for certain kinds of experiences.
But the bad news is that the postmodern humanities never solved the same basic problem that bedeviled Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, the Beats, and all the other intellectuals who inhabited that earlier hip sensibility: how do you write about that which by definition cannot be written about? Experience is the Black Box of the humanities. We know something is in there—something mysterious and powerful, like whatever is glowing inside the briefcase in Pulp Fiction—but we either can’t open it or don’t want to. It sits upon the lab table, closed and locked; we can weigh it, measure its exterior dimensions, describe its outer surface, but saying what’s in it . . . somehow we never get around to opening the Black Box.** For the most part, academic writing on embodied meaning remains stuck in delimiting the zone of such meanings rather than exploring the meanings themselves. Perhaps this is unavoidable. Experience in the present moment, right here and now, whatever it is you’re doing as you read this, is nothing special. It’s everywhere. You’re soaking in it! Making a big deal about it, trying to turn it into an academic specialty or something to obtain, is like one of those old corny jokes about “selling ice to Eskimos.” And yet we somehow always forget. The immediate — this thing, right here! — always dissolves into abstraction; the lived moment becomes the story you tell about it, the recorded memory, the idea. Somehow we need to keep reminding ourselves of the difference. I guess the point I am making is that we need “technologies of experience,” like the Hand Experiment, to remind us of the difference. Words on the page can never be enough.
Graham has started a website called Slow Ottawa, dedicated to helping develop strategies and resources for sustainable living in his home town. He recently recorded a podcast interview with Dan Rubinstein, which you can download here. Rubinstein is an advocate and practitioner of the fine art of walking — just walking, y’know, nothing special. But walking is one of those things, like putting your hand on a table, that is both too obvious to bother with and too profound to dispatch in a few sentences. For most of my life I’ve thought of walking largely as a time-consuming but cheap form of transportation. But for Rubinstein it seems that every walk is a thing in itself. At the beginning of his podcast, Graham offers a little meditation on this subject, starting by thinking on how journeys furnish metaphorical language that grounds our sense of our place in the world:
So many of the things we experience on a solitary walk in the wilds, like “the high road,” “the forking path,” “the road not taken,” being “lost in the woods,” “keeping your feet on the ground,” provide a lot of the raw materials for our figurative language and our thinking about life in general.
But what about real, unmetaphorical forking paths and roads not taken?
“Life’s journey!” Well yeah, metaphorically speaking that’s true, but a walk, even a short walk in a familiar place, is a real journey, and it might even become more real and more journey-like when it has an impetus but no clear purpose.
And I would venture that in an increasingly virtual world, a media-saturated and rule-bound world in which so much experience is virtual or mapped out in advance by some finely-tuned information system, or framed by marketers as some kind of “lifestyle,” in such a world, the experience of simply walking for its own sake seems like an increasingly radical act.
Consider the difference between walking a neighborhood and driving it. The neighborhood experienced at a walking speed is a very different thing from the neighborhood from which you are insulated by 4000 pounds of glass and steel. Driving through a neighborhood abstracts it. When you walk a neighborhood, your feet are crunching through leaves (if it’s fall) or snow (if winter) or sloshing through puddles or whatever, and each corner has its own pattern of light and shade, each street its incline, each house its own face. Driving enacts an abstraction through speed and enclosure. You are going too fast to catch the subtleties, which blanch out and leave only the bare lines of the map. The neighborhood becomes a system of destination points with linkages between them, and in our experience of the latter we might as well be traveling through a cheap Hanna-Barbera looping background (rock – tree – house – rock – tree – house). You don’t hear the sounds of birds, traffic, wind, etc., but only the car’s engine and whatever music you’ve brought along for the occasion. You don’t smell the woodsmoke from winter fires or the scent of honeysuckle in the summer. Etc. Etc. You see where I’m going with this? As a form of transportation, walking is obviously less effective than driving, but as a technology of experience, it is much richer.***
What remains to be said here is why these technologies of experience seem somehow to oppose the structures of consumer capitalism — why, in a “world in which so much experience is virtual or mapped out in advance […] or framed by marketers as some kind of “lifestyle” […] the experience of simply walking for its own sake seems like an increasingly radical act.” This will be what I write about next.
*See, for example, Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, which argues that all meaning, even the most abstract kinds of mathematical reason, has its origin in embodied experience.
**Though there are honorable exceptions, like Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat and Elisabeth Le Guin’s magnificent Boccherini’s Body.
***Arguably. Attentive readers will point out that because every experience has its embodied, here-and-now aspect, the embodied experience of riding in a car can be every bit as rich as walking. And this is quite true, but while some highly evolved beings might go through life experiencing everything in the same vivid way, in practice it seldom works out like that. Still, this is a complicated point and is interesting enough to merit its own blog post at some point in the future.