This month BODY LANGUAGE welcomes Suzanne Kelly, writing her first guest post for Girl w/Pen!, as she takes to heart the literal matter of body language.
Suzanne teaches in the Womenâ€™s Studies Program at SUNY New Paltz.
A few weeks ago, scanning The New York Times for something weighty, I fell upon feminist science writer Natalie Angierâ€™s thoughtful retelling of a new study in the burgeoning field of embodied cognition. The study revealed how our ability to process information is not a function of the brain alone, but of languageâ€™s perpetual play with and through our bodies as a whole. Angier explained how when study participants were asked to think of a past event, for example, they consistently â€œleaned slightly backward,â€ and when they were asked to envision what was to come, â€œthey listed to the foreâ€¦ â€subliminally act[ing] out metaphors in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.â€
That â€œthe body embodies abstractions the best way it knows how: physically,â€ as Angier put it, that it literally â€œtakes language to heart,â€ comes as no surprise to me. When Iâ€™m writing and it seems as if the words wonâ€™t budge, Iâ€™m also often crumpled up at my desk â€“ legs tucked under, torso rounded. If I stretch, realign, and maybe go for a run, the flow usually returns. When my ideas are at their stickiest so too, it seems, is my body.
That our thoughts, however intangible, are more than the sum of what goes on inside our skulls is also hardly a revelation to those of us who have long positioned the bodyâ€™s knowledge at the heart of feminist theory and practice. Still, studies like this (and brilliant writers like Angier who are skilled at bringing their importance to light) always give me hope, especially when theyâ€™re given voice by the mainstream media. Might this be a sign of a new legitimacy of the body, one from which feminism could no doubt benefit?
I have written elsewhere about the value of â€œthe sensuous classroom,â€ of education that takes seriously the presence of the body. If our â€œbodies embody abstractionsâ€¦physically,â€ as this study suggests, what do we learn, not only from our own bodies, but from being in and around the bodies of others? In thinking about the transmission of ideas and the potential for changing consciousness, what is lost, for instance, in teaching Womenâ€™s Studies classes on-line, engaged in conversations about bodies, while removed from each otherâ€™s? How do we significantly combat unattainable body images, or think seriously about questions of disability, when our bodies are not part of the venue?
These same questions hold for our activism, as well. Would consciousness raising groups have proved as powerful had they happened on cell phones? What did those womenâ€™s bodies communicate to one another that gave them the courage to leave unhappy marriages, end the cycle of violence, and love other women? That enabled them to fight for legal abortion, childcare, and better wages?
Because body centered issues remain central, if not heightened, feminist concerns today â€“ from the image of the female body, to eating disorders and the foods around which they revolve, to abortion and contraception, to health and its care, to intimate partner violence, rape and sexual assault, and, of course, to sex itself â€“ it seems more vital now than ever for us to place our bodies front and center, to give them substance in our conversations as well as in our collective actions.
Of course, as we speed toward a near-virtual future and as our physical distance from each other exponentially grows, it becomes more of a challenge to find ways to speak, to share, to formulate conversation, to engage thought and transform it into action â€“ in the flesh. But we can do better.
No doubt, our bodies know it.