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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Bodies of breath, bodies of knowledge, and bodies of culture

Towards the end of his lecture on ‘techniques of the body’, delivered to a meeting of the Société Française de Psychologie in 1934, the sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss discussed the methods of breathing practiced by Daoist priests and Yogic mystics. Far from being instinctive, these techniques require a lengthy apprenticeship, exemplifying how the development of people’s physical abilities involves an interweaving of social and psychological processes within the biological foundations of human being. The consequences of such techniques of breathing, moreover, can be profound. Promoting positive flows of energy within the body, they help harmonise individuals with the world around them, and can even facilitate a means of communication with the divine. Lest anyone think that this example is irrelevant to daily life in the contemporary West, these Eastern methods of breathing (alongside their associated disciplines of movement such as Tai Chi Chuan) have been used in hospitals and prisons as a method of lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety, and helping physical and psychological stability. Breathing does not just keep us alive, it is also fundamental to how we relate to our environment.

Mauss’s lecture, published the year following its delivery in the Journal de Psychologie Normal et Patholigique, remains a key resource for anyone interested in how individuals acquire knowledge. In contrast to conventional Western philosophical conceptions of a ‘brain-bound mind’ trapped within the confines of an irrational body, our knowledge of the world is intimately related to how we are able to unfold our senses and movements onto the environment. It follows that learning occurs not only as a result of our capacity to manipulate abstract symbols via thought, but also through constant transactions with our environment; taking our surroundings into our bodies through breath, sight, hearing, etc., while also acting upon and indeed transforming it through our actions.

If methods of breathing can facilitate transcendent experiences for the select few, the widespread practical importance of other body techniques are such that they can even become matters of life and death. The British tourist Tony Callaghan, who in 2015 found himself caught up in a terrorist attack in Tunisia, illustrates this in the case of hearing. Having served in the armed forces, he alerted those around him at the hotel pool in Sousse, Tunisia to the significance of what they had just heard: “I know the sound of gunfire. I shouted to everyone, ‘This isn’t a firework display, you need to get yourself to safety, now.'” What seemed like the casual sound of entertainment to those without a military sensibility prompted an adrenaline-rushed sense of urgency to the one individual present whose aural training taught him to recognize (distinctive types of) gunfire.

Breathing does not just keep us alive, it is also fundamental to how we relate to our environment. Image: ‘Pose’. Public domain via Pixabay.

The teaching and learning of particular bodily and sensory techniques can, indeed, be analysed as key to the transmission of all secular and religious cultures. Mauss’s recognition that nations and peoples often have their own techniques of walking, eating, squatting, dressing, etc., can be extended to suggest that social, occupational and faith-based groups each possess specific ‘body pedagogics’ that, if they are to survive, need to be passed on to each new generation. Such processes of physical learning, and their intimate relationship to how people come to know and act on the world, have become an increasing focus of academic research in recent years.

This research traverses radically different cultures – from the lofty heights of spirituality to the grass-filled planes of cattle breeding – but converges in recognising the significance of our physical education in the broadest sense of this term. The process of transmitting knowledge about prize-winning cattle can start young, for example, with the children of breeders often presented with toy cows that replicate aesthetic norms. Becoming a judge of prize breeds takes a considerable apprenticeship that involves training the eye in what to look for in terms of the size, texture and proportion of key body parts. Elsewhere, contrasting forms of visual training are just as prominent among groups as diverse as Siberian Yukaghir elk hunters, professional boxers, and medics who translate the blobs, shadows and lighter areas of CAT scans into diagnoses of tumours, injuries or other abnormalities.

These may be just a small selection of the body pedagogics characteristic of contrasting occupational cultures, but they serve to illustrate the embodied basis on which commonalities and solidarities can be forged between people. Body pedagogics build capabilities, habits and specific ways of interpreting and acting in the world that shape people’s experience, knowledge and beliefs. While they can form the basis of an esprit de corps within particular cultures, they can also stimulate differences, oppositions and even violent conflicts between groups. In this respect, returning to the example of religion with which I started, it is important to consider the importance of fundamentally different body pedagogics to some of the major military and terrorist conflicts that face us today. This should, I suggest, provide food for thought for those who believe that dialogue alone can form a basis for agreement with groups intent on imposing their faith on others.

Featured image credit: ‘Woman doing Yoga’. Public domain via Pixabay.

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