Wednesday, June 20, 2012

pleasure, motion, rightness

I’ve been on two bike rides today. The first was on an errand: we went to the pet store to buy some anti-anxiety drops for Arthur. The second was a junket, up to and through the campus, into the environs thereof, and back down home, much of it at high speed. It feels good to fly. Why? Glad you asked!

Another example of the phenomenon of pleasure in moving comes from dance. Much of dance involves moving in a way that “feels right,” that gives one a sense of bodily pleasure. What type of pleasure is this? One aspect of a dancer’s pleasure in movement seems to be shared with the athlete, for dancers enjoy that simple ineffable pleasure of movement as well. But professional dancers also seem to enjoy a more cognitively enriched pleasure, a pleasure that arguably could be classified as aesthetic. Perhaps athletes have a similar experience… (Cole and Montero, “Affective Proprioception,” Janus Head, 9:2, p. 303)

Undoubtedly there is a “right” feeling to hauling ass on my bike. (A student once commented on seeing me cycling to school: “You ride so fast!” I said, yes, I do everything with maximum possible intensity — which is more or less true.) Their connection of dancing to athletic movement makes a great deal of sense to me — playing guitar fluidly and harmoniously feels good physically and proprioceptively in the same ways as riding very fast or cooking when I have the moves. I see no reason to interpret this experience as necessarily aesthetic. I don’t dance, but I can relate: when I’m playing well, I feel as if my hands move beautifully. And yes, those movements have an additional cognitive dimension when it’s a series of movements I know produce something beautiful. But for me, the affective core of this experience is erotic, rather than aesthetic. My food, and sometimes my guitar playing, is gorgeous, I won’t be falsely modest. The pleasure of the movement is more visceral — which is not the right word. They awaken and open my erotically, fulfill and perpetuate a desire, to do it all again (I know we should).

One significant aspect of this experience is the feeling of effortlessness, of the body moving almost on its own without any need of conscious direction. When absorbed in movement there may even be what might be described as a loss of self, a feeling that, at least as a locus of thought, one hardly exists at all. And of course the best performances are those where one is not thinking about the steps at all but is rather fully immersed in the experience of moving itself. (Cole and Montero, 304)
There’s a phenomenological technique called “free imaginative variation,” the purpose of which is to help identify the essential core of some experienced object. One way to do this is to consider how adding to or subtracting from the object would alter its being perceived and meant as the object it is. If Cole and Montero had been better phenomenologists, they would have noticed that the feeling of effortlessness is not an essential characteristic. On the contrary, it is sometimes the very feeling of effort that gives us pleasure. Now, as to the movement overtaking us and needing no conscious directing, they could be on to something.

When I’m on my game, cooking, I bound around the kitchen, merrily swearing at my food, stirring four pots without a thought of the spoon, the room, the place, the time — and my mind is in a creative space, in the spice rack, in the garden, in the spinach, even. Beyond even immersion in the experience of moving, the moving carries itself out through me. It is no longer my own moving, that is, I am no longer moving myself, but the movement is moving me. Sometimes the movement demands more effort than I think I can give, and somehow do. And meanwhile, I’m cussing out the basil.

So, does the body “disappear” in these experiences, as Gallagher and Leder have suggested? Here, Cole and Montero miss Gallagher’s point. It’s not that the body fails to be present, it’s that it fails to be present in an objective way. It is no longer “the body,” but has become the movements themselves. 


Robert Kirkman said...

One thing missing from this discussion of dance is the experience of dancing with other people . . . a phenomenologist could make a meal (in a manner of speaking) of hand touching hand, eye meeting eye.

At the highest levels of some forms of social dance - at a really good contra dance, for example, with a floor full of experienced dancers - there's a kind of immersion in the movement of the whole set. People retain individual identity, but they move together in an extraordinary way, and boundaries can begin to erode . . .

Doc Nagel said...

Yes, absolutely - this is why Merleau-Ponty's hand-touching-hand example is so disappointing. At the first Back to the Things Themselves conference, we had a session on embodiment during which we danced. Tony Steinbock led that with, I think, Elizabeth Benke. I danced with Klaus Held, but then Tony cut in. Sigh! Doomed to be a wallflower!

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

I always thought Gallagher's point was "The watermelon is no more."

Doc Nagel said...

You can't dance with a watermelon. However, if an obscure Steve Martin TV special from the 1970s is to be trusted, you can roast it over a campfire.