A Multidisciplinary Approach to Embodiment
Nancy K. Dess
It is dangerous to show man [sic, hereafter for he/his/him] too clearly how much he resembles the beast without at the same time showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to allow him too clear a vision of his greatness without his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very profitable to show him both
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1669)
In this passage, Pascal builds on René Descartes’ distinction between the material body and the immaterial mind: The body debases humans by connecting them to the beast; the mind ele-vates humans by separating them from the beast. Yet Pascal warns against what can be termed hegemonic human exceptionalism – a dominant discourse that perpetuates fascination with the human mind and its presumed specialness. That exceptionalist spotlight banishes to darkness other animals and human creatureliness.
A Multidisciplinary Approach to Embodiment rejects Pascal’s view that humans are debased by similarities to other animals or made great by differences from them, but it embraces his warn-ing about ignorance of human creatureliness. Collectively, the es-says articulate a vision of humans as fully embodied creatures on a richly populated planet derived from stardust. In so doing, they aim to transform how readers think and feel about being human, alive, and earthly.
Why heed advice from hundreds of years ago? Body troubles sur-vived the 17th century. In Denial of Death (1973), anthropologist Ernest Becker described how humans everywhere cope with the body’s troublingly temporary nature by denying mortality in cre-ative ways. Two 20th-century intellectual movements can be read as death-denying or, at least, as side-stepping the deep implications of embodiment:
• A central trope in the Cognitive Revolution was the human mind as information processor. Whereas ancient Egyptian morticians preserved most of the body while discarding the brain, cognitive scientists revered the brain as the hardware for a computer-like mind and discarded the rest of the body as an inert input/output device.
• Postmodernism brought forward the idea that through human meaning making, the body comes into being as a symbol or po-sition in decentralized webs of norms and power. Inquiry into human bodies in terms of other-than-discursive processes was irrelevant, if not prohibited on grounds that it “biologized” or “naturalized” humans.
For all these movements accomplished, neither unsettled venera-tion of the human mind. Other animals remained in shadow and the human body remained ethereal, more an avatar than a large, bipedal animal who, in addition to deciding, remembering, and making meaning, also breathes, bleeds, bellows, and births babies.
Today, Cartesian mind/body dualism still leaks out in phrases such as “mind/body relationship” and “mind over matter.” Uttering “humans and animal” telegraphs that humans are not animals, and referring to persons as “animals” usually aims to insult and “dehu-manize.” These taken-for-granted meanings expose the thinking hu-man as an implicit norm from which fully embodied animals deviate.
In academe, dualism lingers in the “nature/nurture” dichotomy and its kin (“biological/social,” “innate/learned”) despite con-sensus that they are profoundly flawed. They reinforce and are reinforced by scholarly fragmentation. Humanities carry on in de-partments, buildings, and conferences separate from sciences. “So-cial” sciences are separated from “natural” sciences as if sociality is not natural, and “life” sciences are separated from “physical” sciences as if living things are not physical. Moreover, scientific disciplines comprise a status hierarchy, with disciplines focused on the inanimate – the “hard sciences” – at the top and status declin-ing as demographic diversity and concern with complex sociality rise. Scholarship transcending these sociostructural boundaries remains rare.
Change is afoot. Thinkers across the scholarly landscape are engaging embodiment in fresh ways. The new approaches depart from both reductionistic views of the body and human-centric men-talism. Bodies are being viewed as at once universal and varied, solid and permeable, stable and mutable, eternal and ephemeral. An overarching principle is that the living human body has been and continues to be shaped and deployed through recursive inter-actions within and between bodies, embedded in dynamic inter-secting ecologies.
This emerging view infuses the following collection of essays by an international constellation of scholars in anthropology, biology, cognitive science, communication, education, gender studies, ge-ology, kinesiology, performing arts, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology. Humans receive more attention than other animals, but not as a distraction from debasement or annihilation. Here, the focus draws purposeful attention to one kind of animal – our kind – living among others, with myriad lenses aimed at levels of organization from subcellular to cosmic and on time scales from deep time to momentary.
The exploration herein begins with an Introduction that lays out the justification for an approach to embodiment of unprecedented scope. The ensuing essays are organized around five themes: Being, Engaging, Coordinating, (Re)Locating, and Healing. Each essay be-gins with a concise statement that orients readers to the thesis and concludes with a short list of resources (For Sources and Further Reading) containing source materials, technical details, and sup-porting evidence that supplement the text, along with more food for thought. The Epilogue conjures the future by tracing the trajec-tory from modern cognitivism through the emergence of embodied cognition enthusiasms to a conceptualization of embodiment that charts for the scholarly community a rich, integrative path forward.
This book invites readers to expand their understanding and experience of embodiment. It also reveals academic disciplines as seemingly disparate as psychology, physics, and performing arts to be interconnected via hubs and bridges, not contained within siloes. By literally “fleshing out” humans for tomorrow’s scholars, this book plants seeds for a transdisciplinary metatheory of human being – and for the nimble, diverse, just academy needed to fulfill its promise.
|September 18, 2022
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