Constellation Session #1: The Meaning of the BodyPosted: October 16, 2015
Today I enjoyed my first Constellation lecture; 4 hours, because I arrived an hour late (I am really struggling with Constellation this year and it’s only just been the first class). The subject being ‘The meaning of the body’, I would love to say I was eager to begin but instead my defeatist, pessimistic side was rearing it’s ugly head and I was just feeling fed up and ready to go home and crawl into bed, and the terrible first impression I gave didn’t help. So I sat down, awaiting the fate that was the next 4 hours in a stuffy lecture room trying to comprehend the philosophical questions and explanations that were being launched at me.
When I walked in the class had gone for a break and I had the chance to sit down, compose myself and try to grasp a bit of what had been spoken about in the first section. I overheard Martyn (the lecturer) say “Every progression is a regression”, which is something I immediately rejected, instinctively offended by the word, and absolute, ‘every’ and naively thinking that progression, in the scientific sense which it was meant, did not necessarily mean replacing and discarding another concept or practice. But Martyn went on to address his comment in a more general way, expressing that all new developed opinions and views mean we lose some of the old ones, and that advancement is improvement on an existing thing, making that thing ‘outdated’ and no longer needed. And as much as I hate to accept absolutes (there’s ALWAYS an exception, ooh another paradox) I did find this concept interesting as it’s something I have never really noticed or considered before and it proved to be a nice introduction to the ‘shenanigans’ ahead. (This blog is so informal, I will get better.)
To begin with, after doodling for a bit and trying and failing to listen to what was being said or pick up on what the lecture was actually about (I heard the word “ideals” being thrown around a lot, that’s as close as I got), I was presented with an extract from the book ‘What Kinds of Body are there?’ by Mark Johnson, which turned out to be surprisingly engaging, after the first twelve attempts at reading it, and also apparently at 6:00am when I really should be sleeping before work instead of reading academic texts and pondering over the different elements of the body. The text was about the different meanings of the word ‘body’; beginning with the typical “organized collection of skin, bones, blood, organs, nerves, and fluids, made up of various chemicals, all interacting together” that science has told us is all there is, telling us that all feeling and emotion can be explained by a selection of chemicals produced and released to create a physical reaction. Something that came up was the idea that scientists can explain what love is purely by pointing out the changes that occur in the brain in certain situations, and as much as my logical side entirely agrees with this, I suppose a part of all of us hopes, correctly some might say, that there is a lot more to it that that.
That was what the text was about; arguing that there are lots of different, invisible (for want of a better word) dimensions of the body, all interlaced to create an entire phenomenological (new favourite word) being. Beginning with the body as biological organ, we looked into how it can “percieve, move, respond to and transform its environment.” (Johnson. M.); A physical organ that makes possible the thought patterns, feelings and emotions that enable how we attach meaning to things and understand the world. None of these processes would be possible without a physical form to enable them. There are things that could be argued to just take place in our brain, implying that the body is merely a vessel to enable the brain to function, however this would not explain subconscious reactions to our environment; things like bodily posture (both in terms of universal awareness and individual conditioning), meaning, “reference and truth”.
We then went on to realise the body in an ecological sense; where Johnson explains that we should not see the body as separate from our environment, that there are bonds between who we are and the reality that we live in that cannot be separated or reduced to being purely outside of ourselves, as if we are somehow shielded to our environment. He says “we must think of organism (or body) and environment as we think of mind and body, as aspects of one continuous process” and “any boundaries we chose to mark between them are merely artifacts of our interest and forms of inquiry.” Then there is the phenomenological body, explained as “our body as we live it and experience it. This is the feeling of being in the world as a living organism, through self awareness, of bodily feeling and orientation as well as internal emotion. Another part is the social body, this is the notion that we are only who we are as a product of our social interactions; shaping us to conform or react to our experiences within society. Last is the cultural body, the idea of the body in regards to culture, and the section which I personally find most interesting. The body is shaped by the environment and cultures that it is surrounded with, whether that be because of race, gender, social class etc. For example, a body in certain African tribes will be scarred for rituals, their necks ‘stretched’ with wooden disks (although I learnt that this tradition actually pushes the shoulders and rib cage downwards, causing a more compressed torso rather than stretching the neck upwards, thank you National Geographic Youtube Channel…). If a body is part of the female gender, it might have been criticised for being weak and therefor cause a rise in women athletes, to combat this notion. Without bodies to interact and practice them, cultures wouldn’t exist; There always needs to be people and bodies to carry on traditions and physically engage in the activities, rituals and actions that hold a culture together.
In this first text, the idea being argued against is that the body can be reduced down to just a physcial sense, to just a collection of bones and nerves and muscle, that everything can be explained simply by chemical reactions. Instead the writer is suggesting a whole collection of dimensions of the body that we need to consider. The main “take home message” (a horrible term but one used a lot a lot in this lecture) is that “The human body has all five of the dimensions outlined above, and it cannot be reduced to any one (or two or three) of them.”
After reading and analising this text and grabbing a quick coffee to raise my caffeine levels and hopefully take in a bit more useful information, I was given another: ‘Language of Vision’ written by Ellen Upton and J. Abbot Miller. The text is about the theory of graphic design and the aim of this exercise was to apply some of what we read in the first text to our subject and practice. Something that is written about in the text is the difference between modern design theory and historical, cultural theory that is less prominent in the design world as maybe it should be. It explains, quite interestingly, that perception is more of a surface reaction, based on “universality over cultural difference”, playing on people’s initial judgement rather than consideration, based on cultural background and personal differences. Perception is how people see things, an almost primal, instinctive reaction to something, perception is thought to override cultural and historical barriers. Interpretation on the other hand changes over space and time, depending on cultural background, and the things that differentiate us as people. The text says that modern design relies more on perception, “drawing over writing”, whereas historical theory uses interpretation more by using specific, time and space relative symbols, styles and formats. This part was really interesting to learn about, despite being tired and hyped up on caffeine, as it gave me an insight into design theory that I hadn’t considered before and allowed me to relate to my practice to Constellation.
While reading this text I learnt about Arnheim and his Mexican design piece. He explains that the symbol cannot be understood without the caption as the sombrero alone is not an accurate representation. For it to be recognised there would have to be more stereotypes relating to the “visual concept” of the Mexican: “A big mustache, a bright poncho, leather boots.” The intended message was that the way we see things is based on purely visual perceptions, however this perception is filtered by culture. He explains that understanding is assembled out of visual perceptions, with linguistics existing only to fill in the gaps, and that concepts of objects are influenced by the views and interpretations of its audience, achieved by experience, education and the media. Arnheim also introduced the idea of objects in an environment being seen as ‘stable’, however, taken out of this environment, their stability is questioned. He also explains that basic modern design heavily relies on interpretation, with designers taking complex, familiar scenes, photographs and type and transforming them into abstract, simple designs that rely on people to be aware of the implications. This is done for the aesthetic value; to make them visually appealing to the audience, who then has to relate the images to their personal conditioning and experiences and not how they would immediately perceive it.
This text and the argument behind it was more difficult to understand that the first due to the fact that it doesn’t have a point of view as such, it is purely explanatory and doesn’t communicate the main message until the very last sentence (“A design theory oriented toward cultural interpretation rather than universal perception would consciously address the conventional, historically changing aspect of words and images in design problems), unlike the texts for the other practices which explained the focus at the very beginning. I did enjoy reading about the differences between perception and interpretation though, and will consider my design technique based on this new information in future.
Now it’s time for another mind blowing Constellation class so I should probably be going. I apologise for basically quoting the entirety of the texts in this post, I just find the content fascinating and didn’t feel as though my writing would do it justice. It might not look like it but I did take a lot from this lesson and, other than the stupidly long bike ride over there, I am looking forward to uni this afternoon.
Until next time.