The Somatic Revolution

In the previous two blogs I have been contrasting body language and body movement.  Body language tends to isolate still poses and particular gestures from the stream of ongoing bodily action and read fixed meanings into these snapshots.  In so doing, the process of change, which is the essence of movement, disappears, as does the broader context of sequential actions. Body language treatises tend to present a stilted and mechanistic view of movement behavior.  Perhaps this is why much of the study of body language promises to improve an individual’s ability to manage his/her image and manipulate others.

The study of body movement, on the other hand, is much more difficult.  This is because movement is dynamic, changeable, and ephemeral – thus infinitely harder to pin down.  In addition, appreciating movement as a process of change necessitates altering certain habits of the mind.  It requires not only perceiving the beginning and ending positions of an action, but also all the bits in between.  It demands a shifting of focus from what is done to how it is done.  But in so doing, to quote Bergson, “What was immobile and frozen in our perception is warmed and set in motion…. We are more fully alive.”

Increasingly, body language, with its mechanistic view of human behavior, is out.  Body movement is in.  This can be seen, for example, in the rising popularity of various somatic practices.  The term “somatics” was coined by the American philosopher Thomas Hanna.  He defined the term as follows:

“Somatics is the field which studies the soma:  namely the body as perceived from within by first-person perception.  When a human being is observed from the outside – i.e., from the third-person viewpoint – the phenomenon of a human body is perceived.  But, when this same human being is observed from the first person viewpoint of his own proprioceptive senses, a categorically different phenomenon is perceived:  the human soma.”

Hanna understood that this shift in perception is revolutionary.   As I note in Meaning in Motion, the somatic perspective contrasts long-standing scientific views and medical practices that have tended to objectify the body and nullify personal agency.  Somatic practices approach the body from a different angle, acknowledging the intrinsically subjective aspects of corporeal experience and viewing the individual, not as an object to be acted upon, but as an active agent.