Body Conscious: On Somaesthetics

By Janet SarbanesAugust 16, 2013

Body Conscious: On Somaesthetics

Thinking Through the Body by Richard Shusterman

THE PROJECT OF RICHARD SHUSTERMAN’s philosophical work on the body is an ambitious one: to take philosophy “in a pragmatic meliorist direction,” as he puts it in Thinking Through the Body, “reviving the ancient idea of philosophy as an embodied way of life rather than a mere discursive field of abstract theory.” Over the course of several books and many articles, he has developed an approach called “somaesthetics,” a term of his own coinage that captures his treatment of the lived body (or soma) as “a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aesthesis) and creative self-fashioning.” He further distinguishes between three branches of somaesthetics: analytic somaesthetics, which includes philosophy relating to the mind-body connection and the genealogical, sociological, and cultural analyses of somatic issues found in feminist and critical theory; pragmatic somaesthetics, which encompasses methodologies for improving our experience and use of our bodies (e.g. diets, grooming, decoration, dance, yoga, massage, aerobics, bodybuilding, calisthenics, martial and erotic arts, and disciplines like the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method); and practical somaesthetics: the concrete activity of somatic training. An embodied philosophy, he argues in his earlier Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics (2008), would draw on all three branches in order to effect a “transformative cultivation of the self.”

In Body Consciousness, Shusterman took to task a number of thinkers for devaluing somatic self-consciousness even as they “champion the body’s essential role in experience and cognition.” Take, for instance, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty: while counterposing bodily intentionality to the de-corporealized notion of the subject upheld by transcendental philosophy, Merleau-Ponty also insists that it is primary and unreflective, the “background” to consciousness’s foreground. Feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir, for her part, urges women to pay less attention to their bodies — not more — so as to achieve the transcendence denied us by patriarchal objectification. Though Michel Foucault readily engages with bodily techniques as well as analytics, Shusterman thinks he places too much importance on limit-experiences such as sado-masochistic sex and drugs, ignoring the quieter but arguably no less intense pleasures of, say, yoga or Zen meditation.

Rather than actually delving into analytic somaesthetics, Body Consciousness polemically emphasizes what Shusterman believes to be missing from these and other thinkers’ practices. The polemic is most convincing, however, when he analyzes a philosopher who conforms most clearly to his own practice: the pragmatist John Dewey. A chapter relating Dewey’s philosophy of body and mind to his experiences as a disciple of the Alexander Technique makes a compelling case for the integration of analytic, pragmatic, and practical somaesthetics in Dewey’s life and life’s work. Shusterman discusses, for example, the challenge that habit poses in both Dewey and Alexander’s work to exclusively mental formulations of free will, as well as the possibilities for transformation by somatic discipline (in the case of Alexander, by postural amelioriation):

It is therefore wrong, Dewey argued, to oppose habit to reason and conscious control.  The real opposition is between "routine," unintelligent habit and "intelligent or artistic habit" that is "fused with thought and feeling," between blind, fixed habit and "flexible, sensitive habit."

Whether every philosopher of the body would improve his or her arguments by becoming a practitioner of somatic training is an open question (Shusterman himself is a devotee of the Feldenkrais Method), but Shusterman convincingly argues that Dewey’s engagement with the Alexander Technique led the pragmatist philosopher to a more nuanced understanding of the essential union of body and mind.

Shusterman’s most recent book, a collection of 14 essays entitled Thinking Through the Body: Essays in Somaesthetics, represents a broadening rather than a deepening of the ideas presented in Body Consciousness, further exploring the “field for collaborative, interdisciplinary and transcultural inquiry” that somaesthetics opens up. It takes on a variety of topics, ranging from Edmund Burke’s physiological theory of the sublime to muscle memory to photography to the ars erotica of Asia.

Shusterman’s insights in the realms of philosophy and aesthetics are cogent and interesting, but he doesn’t limit himself to the canon. In his essay on muscle memory, he takes more of a therapeutic turn, focusing on how training in somatic awareness can ameliorate the “somaesthetic pathologies of everyday life.” In Thinking Through the Body, it is his essays on art and culture that hold out the most promise for somaesthetics. They focus not so much on aesthetic judgment and the experience of receiving art (as Shusterman did in his influential book Pragmatist Aesthetics) as on aesthetic practice and the experience of making art. His accounts of various aesthetic practices that perform the careful attention to both discourse and experience with which he seeks to infuse the philosophy of the lived body suggest that this –– rather than philosophy itself –– offers a compelling new lens with which to explore alternate approaches to thinking through embodiment. 

In his essay on “Photography as a Performative Process,” for instance, Shusterman focuses on the process whereby photographic portraits are made, which includes “sensory, semantic and affective qualities that have aesthetic import.” He is interested in “the action and thought of both the photographer and the subject,” particularly as manifested through the pose. Here he draws on his firsthand experience posing for the Parisian artist Yann Toma. If he continues in this vein, Shusterman may find fertile territory for somaesthetic exploration in conceptual art practice, where the relation between thought and action is so articulated.

Shusterman’s embrace of aesthetic practice as an antidote to philosophy’s shortcomings is reminiscent of the “aesthetics of existence” Michel Foucault developed late in his career, which took as its inspiration “the elaboration of one’s own life as a personal work of art” that formed the center of moral experience in antiquity. And indeed, though Shusterman faults Foucault, in Body Consciousness, for his “limiting fixations on sexuality, transgression and sexual intensity” and in Thinking Through the Body for misinterpreting the Chinese ars erotica, Shusterman ends the latter book on a thoroughly Foucauldian note, with essays on the “art of living” and “somatic style.” He prefers to situate his own aesthetics of existence in the context of Emerson’s idea of “an aesthetically noble art of living” and Zen meditation rather than Greek philosophy, but the impetus is the same.

One benefit of this shift in Shusterman’s focus is that his somaesthetics begins to shed the meliorist casing it has inherited from pragmatist philosophy. As he explains early on in the book:

one crucial feature of pragmatist philosophy is to draw practical and ethical conclusions from its theories of mind and action and also to assess in part the value of those theories in terms of their contribution not only to a better understanding of our world (and of ourselves) but also to the more successful pursuit of our practical and ethical lives. Grounded in pragmatism, somaesthetics shares these aims of integrating theory and practice. 

But should somaesthetics be grounded in pragmatism? Does it have to be? Shusterman makes short work of Kantian aesthetics in the first few pages of the book, decrying Kant’s “opposition of the aesthetic to the practical.” He similarly dispenses with Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s definition of aesthetics in terms of its “transgression of the borders of the distinctly knowable.” However, the value of somaesthetics would seem to reside precisely in its emphasis on self-cultivation as a process of experimentation, as opposed to melioration, which implies that we already know what is to be made better and how to make it so.   

Indeed, a compelling argument could be made that somaesthetics doesn’t need to be grounded in philosophy at all. Most immediately, this would obviate the need Shusterman seems to feel to respond to his fellow philosophers’ accusations of hedonism and philistinism, which he feels keenly. His turn to somaesthetics, he maintains, has caused his image to evolve from that of “a mainstream Oxford-trained analytic aesthetician into a limit-defying provocateur, who had to be kept at some distance from the inner circles of power within the aesthetic establishment however much it still accorded [his] work a respectful hearing.” But maybe what Shusterman is doing now is not philosophy, and maybe that’s okay. 

Here Shusterman may have something to learn from feminist thinkers of the body. It should be noted that, while he willingly acknowledges feminism’s contribution to theories of embodiment, Shusterman’s actual engagement with feminist thought is quite limited: De Beauvoir makes for an easy straw-woman in Body Consciousness; the wonderful feminist phenomenologist Iris Young merits just a few paragraphs; Judith Butler and Susan Bordo are mentioned only in passing. Elizabeth Grosz does not seem to have made it onto his radar at all, despite her own thorough investigation of somatophobia in philosophy. What Shusterman can learn from the feminist project has to do with letting go of the desire for philosophical legitimation, and just getting on with the business of thinking. The philosophical “error” Shusterman seeks to repair with somaesthetics — the schism between mind and matter that precludes a profound understanding of the lived body — is in fact foundational to philosophy, a decisional structure that cannot be thought through within philosophy. While Shusterman acknowledges that somaesthetics should be envisioned as an interdisciplinary field, it is perhaps more productive to think of it as transdisciplinary, i.e. as a field in which disciplines, and the hierarchies among them, are truly undone. Then aesthetic practice might be understood as a form of thought rather than as its alternative or instantiation, and the somatic awareness that aesthetic practice –– be it art-making or the art of living — employs in the act of creation might endow the term somaesthetics with both the specificity and the reach he so labors to establish.


Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collection Army of One.

LARB Contributor

Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collection Army of One. She presently serves as Chair of the CalArts MFA Creative Writing Program and on the board of Les Figues Press.


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