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    Ethno-Graphics and the Moving Body Essay

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    In Evans-Pritchard’s classic monograph on Nucr religion (1956) there is a photograph illustrating a wedding dance, the caption under which reads, ‘Movement in the Wedding Dance’ (fig. 1).

    This photograph raises an impor tant anthropological question: where is the movement? Rather than single out Evans-Pritchard for unwarranted criticism, I intend to use this as an instructive example; a clear instance of an interesting yet serious stumbling-block with regard to Western ways of ‘seeing’ or not seeing human body movement. It is not uncommon to find actions reduced to a position or to a sequence of positions in this manner, such that a scries of photographs, sketches, diagrams, or positions of limbs plotted on a two dimensional graph are presented as records of movement. 1 In this article I suggest that such a conception of move ment and its attendant practices have had the unintended effect of removing the medium of bodily movement itselffrom serious consideration as a compo nent of social action. This has compromised anthropological inquiry by distorting our understanding of ways of knowing and being that do not evince the kinds of philosophical and religious biases against the body that can be found throughout the history of Western philosophy and within social theory.

    Freund (1988) and Turner (1984) suggest that the curiously disembodied view of human beings that has permeated the social sciences until recently stems in part from a revolt against a biological imperialism which, as feminist critiques have shown, was not without its political uses as a means to justify sexist and racist assumptions about ‘human nature’ (Birke 1986). Such a stance was also part of the effort to establish an autonomous social scientific discourse. Ironi cally, acceptance of the deeper philosophical assumption of a mind-body dualism was shared with biological determinism: social science assigned mind priority over body and severed it from its embodied form, while biologism assigned priority to the organism (Freund 1988: 839). Perhaps it is now the case that we arc about to enter a ‘paradigm of embodi ment’ (Csordas 1990). Recently, there has been a virtual explosion of literature on ‘the body’, much of it stimulated by the work of Foucault2, although in anthropology this explosion also represents renewed interest in a long-standing, if relatively minor, anthropological tradition. 3 This attention is part of a radical reconstruction of classical precepts about the nature and role of person and agency and the dualistic thinking that has not only separated body from mind, but also created oppositions between subjective and objective, mental and material-behavioural, thinking and feeling, rational and emotional, and verbal and nonverbal.

    Recent interest in the body has centred primarily on the physical body as cultural construct: on its regulation and restraint, as metaphor and machine, represented by such topics as the medical body, the sexual body, the civilized body, the decorated body, the political body and the body as social text. This focus should come as no surprise, perhaps, given a virtual cult of the body in contemporary Western societies, with fetishes ranging from fitness to fat con trol, and from politically correct body types (Pollitt 1982) to political dissidents’ use of fashion as a non-vocal rhetoric (O’Neill 1972). These varied explorations all seek an adequate account of the embodiment of persons and should be fruitful for anthropology because, at the very least, they draw attention to the ethnocentricity that has until recently permeated our spoken-language-ccntred approaches to systems of meaning. 5 However, in these developments there remains one major lacuna: the human body as a moving agent in a spatially organized world of meanings. While Turner (1984) has brought to our attention the long-standing absence of the body in social theory and its submerged, furtive history in the West, those who specialize in the anthropology of human movement note that in Turner’s book, as with those of Armstrong, Foucault, Freund, Hudson, Martin and others, ‘the body’, albeit a social and cultural one rather than a biological or mechanistic entity, nevertheless remains a static object. Absent, on the whole, are accounts of persons enacting the body, that is, using physical actions in the agcntive produc tion of meaning; actions that may be either out of awareness through habit, or highly deliberate choreographies.

    6 It seems important that wc attempt to con nect these interesting discussions to the moving body – to the person as physical actor in the social world – so that an anthropology or sociology of the body develops which truly transcends Cartesian limitations rather than simply re states, however interestingly, some of the results. It is precisely here that theoretical choices play a crucial role, so I shall first set forth certain fundamental theoretical assumptions in order to clarify the meaning and rationale of the perspective that follows. Specifically, this will reveal how the intention to make the actions of a moving agent central to a definition of embodiment (and therefore to social action) has meant choosing the new realist philosophy of science espoused by ????? over the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Only when grounded in Hand’s notion of causal powers do Mcrlcau-Ponty’s suggestions for embodiment remain fruitful. If Bourdieu can be considered the heir of Merleau-Ponty’s position, and his work an attempt to go beyond it, it is not clear that he has been successful. Bourdieu’s (1977) notions of‘habitus’ and ‘hexis’ have been important sensitiz ing constructs because they draw attention to the role of bodily practices and spatial organization in social action.

    Problematic, however, is a residual Cartesianism that keeps any involvement with thought and language separate from ‘bodily praxis’. In addition, the false nominalization of ‘the habitus’ sets up a Durkheimian region of social causation that violates the logic of causal powers, because it separates the power from the particular and allows causal power to be located separately either inside (e. g. ‘the unconscious’) or outside, in a mysterious social realm separate from the action of people (see Harrc & Madden 1975; ????? 1984).

    Giddens’s (1984: xxii) tripartite division into ‘discursive consciousness’, ‘practical consciousness’ and ‘unconscious’ remains problematic for similar reasons (sec Farncll 1994<a). Ryle’s (1949) distinction between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’ avoids this kind of mcntalist rheto ric when referring to those aspects that are out of focal awareness through habit, and to skills that are not normally put into words. Polanyi (1958) calls this ‘tacit knowledge’. We can go further in this direction than Bourdieu or Giddens by clarifying the exact nature and role of agency in the production of action and by developing systematic strategies for the inclusion of body move ment into definitions of what counts as social action.

    Harry’s perspective, in achieving the former, has allowed Williams to achieve the latter. In this area, as elsewhere in social theory, investigators have been searching for a cogent alternative to the pendulum that has been swinging between Cartesian intellectualism and phenomenological existentialism for several dec ades. Descartes’s position was that the whole nature of the body consists of it being an ‘extended thing’ and that there is absolutely nothing in common between thought and extension (1986: 93). 7 Stemming from this radical sepa ration of mind (as rational, non-material [i. e. occult]) from body (as irrational, mechanical, sensate matter) are objectivist views of human movement as ‘be haviours’, or as ‘raw’ physical data of some kind, the result of biologically triggered impulses, survivals from an animal past, perhaps.

    8 The Cartesian perspective privileges mind as agency to the exclusion of the body, but the agent is in fact powered from nowhere because mind is an occult non-materiality; as Ryle (1949) put it, we are left with a ghost in a machine. In opposition to Descartes, though he was equally reductionist, Merleau Ponty (1962) swung the pendulum as far as possible in the other direction and attempted to reclaim the body within a phenomenological existentialism grounded in the subjective experience of the ‘lived body’. Unfortunately, in stead of successfully transcending Descartes’s mind/body dualism, he posited instead a ‘bodily intcntionality’ that relocated an equally ambiguous notion of agency in the body. Although this was an important and sensitizing corrective at the time, it must now be seen as transitional. Merleau-Ponty was correct to reject the Humean model of causality and substance, but the substance-less qualities model he offered instead fails to provide an adequate substitute.

    As Varela has shown (and see also Grene 1985), such a conception cannot offer a definitive solution to the problem of the disembodied actor in the behavioural sciences. The proper location of causation and agency, and a genuine concep tion of the person are required. As Varela puts it:The reversal of the centre of privilege in Cartesian dualism is ultimately rooted in the tacitacceptance of the conceptual incompatibility of causation and agency prescribed by theHumean tradition. After all.

    if mind is a ghost in the machinery of the body, moving or not,the body is the only ‘reality’ for the location of causation and agency. But if the body asmachine, the objective body, is rejected as such because of its deterministic status, then thebody as ‘lived’, the subjective body must, it is thought, be accepted as the only alternative. Somehow then, as a Jamesian act of faith, it is viewed as nondetermimstic as long as it is‘lived’. And so the subjective body is mistakenly viewed as the only proper location foragency (Virela 1992: 7).

    Varela’s analysis articulates several conceptual errors found in recent attempts to return to the work of Mcrlcau Ponty in order to find ways to transcend the  As mentioned above, resort to ‘the body’ as lived, experienced, or intentional does not transcend Cartesianism because agency remains a ghost. It has simply been relocated from being in the mind to being in the body11 and we are left with what Hamlyn has been tempted to call a ‘solipsism with a body’ (1987: 328). 12 The new realist philosophy of science argues instead for a definition of agency that properly connects it to a conception of substance that is compatible with causation (as causal power, not the Humean variety). Without causation there can be no agency, and for causation to be possible there must be sub stance for its grounding.

    A new conception of substance has been articulated that is neither the materialist nor the phcnomenalist version, hut a dynamic one: an immaterialist model of substance as a structure of powers and capaci ties in which, in our case, the natural powers for agency grounded in the unique structure of the human organism make possible the realization of per sonal powers that arc grounded in, and thus arc afforded by, social life. Causal powers thus belong to the embodied person, not to a pre-cultural or a-cultural biological organism, and the Cartesian material/immaterial dichotomy under lying the body/mind duality becomes obsolete. The key is the primacy of the person, gesture (including vocal gestures), and social action, not the primacy of the body, experience and individual perception. 13 Since powers are grounded in social life, the biological organism, in becoming a person empowered for agency, is thus transformed into the body viewed as a bio-cultural entity. Em bodiment, the cultural fact of the body, is therefore the result of the social construction and empowerment of the person. 14 The new realist position thus neither loses nor obscures substance and cause, and so recovers person and genuine authorship.

    The person is a substantial being who is causally empowered to author dialogues with other authors. Such a conception of substance and cause is important to an anthropology of physi cal being and of human movement: this transcendence of the Cartesian material/non material dichotomy forges a view of human beings as embodied because they are personal agents in the utilization of action signs and words. In order to avoid the current theoretical stalemate summarized in, it is useful to reinterpret Merlcau-Ponty in terms of the new realist perspective. 15  Merlcau-Ponty’s major shift was to take the Cartesian T think’ and convert it into ‘I can’. If left there, however, we would only have the aforementioned opposition between the intellectualist and the phenomenological perspectives (current terminology would label these as the objectivist and subjectivist posi tions respectively). Merleau-Ponty’s ‘I can’ is itself ambiguous but need not be interpreted in such a way that we are left with an opposition.

    ‘I think versus I can’ (according to Merleau-Ponty) is actually ‘I think versus I feel, experience, sense’. If, however, ‘I can’ is interpreted according to the new realist perspective as indicating our natural capacities and powers for all kinds of action (thinking, feeling, talking and enacting the body) it remains useful. Clearly, Merleau Ponty reduced this general power of‘I can’ to one specific power of feeling as experience. Figure 3 summarizes several ideas around this theme. We now have three perspectives, rather than an opposition between a fallacy and its correc tive. A person can think objectively and talk about her own or anyone else’s body; a person can feel and talk of her bodily experiences; and a person can enact the body (i.

    e. , move) and thus ‘vilk’jrom her body. The point is that none of these positions removes the moving body from the person as agent: bodies do not move and minds do not think – people do. My approach takes as its point of departure an interpretation of the Mcrlcau-Pontian ‘I can’ as ‘I can act’. In this way, instead of a stand-off between two opposing perspectives – in which one is labelled a fallacy and the other the only alternative – we now have three genuine agcntive alternatives, different kinds of linguistic practices with their appropriate rhetoric and purposes.

    The ‘I can’ is not in opposition to ‘I think’ but an indicator of our natural capacity to be socially, personally, and physically empowered through membership in a culture to engage in all kinds of semiotic practices.

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    Ethno-Graphics and the Moving Body Essay. (2017, Oct 12). Retrieved from

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