SOMATIC WRITING: A BREATH or BATTERY-FUELED LIFE?
Repetition is the only form of permanence that Nature can achieve.
Our work now is to embody intelligence.
Yoga (“to yoke, or join”): the art of union, not the fetish of fragmentation, between breath and movement. A commitment to living with grace and intention, embodied living and writing, is a way of life not often found, or made possible, in late capitalist literary publishing, shaped by standards—and the pace—of biomechanical reproduction and a compulsion toward self-marketing and social media blitzes, emphasizing Fordist production models of competition and swift delivery to the market, speed and easy digestibility over organicity, and the immediacy of easily doffed (i.e. tweeted, yelped, blogged) aesthetic objects over poems, stories, novels, and cultural commentary requiring time, research, and reflection and editing. Just as cars, and bodies, can be fueled by different energy sources (food, ethanol, diesel), eating low on the food chain, practicing breathwork and yoga, and other forms of movement and cardiovascular activity make capital’s mechanical body dance, reviving Whitman’s “body electric,” Derrida’s “the animal that therefore I am.”
The discourse of what constitutes not the body politic or the individual body but the evolving taxonomy of species has been illuminated by Donna Haraway’s cyborg politics, as evolved over the last three decades, arguing for the work of resistance (“oppositional consciousness”) not just in politics, but against essentialist ideologies held by anthropologists and primatologists regarding species conditioning, instinct, and co-adaptation and interaction, impacting so-called known quanta in fields of technoscience, biology, gender studies, Continental philosophy, feminist and Marxist theory, structuralism, semiotics, science fiction, and popular culture. Foucault’s writings on docile and condemned bodies are also based on species philosophy (“biopower”): call into question the fluid definitions of belonging, boundaries, transgression, and organicity, yet Foucault also charts a sinister relationship between the “anatomical atlas” of the body and its policing, surveillance, and discipline by the state (and/or fetishization and entertainment-value): “Sovereignty is exercised within the borders of a territory, discipline is exercised on the bodies of individuals, and security is exercised over a whole population.” This power is transmitted through, as Marx knew well, ideology, keeping us in unconscious thrall as spectators to the virtual, rather than participants in the real (From Capital: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es”: they do not know it, but they are doing it.)
How can the body begin to write its own narratives out of these inherited scripts and oppressive guardianships, censoring forms of representation and expression not serving despotic or corporate ends? Somatic writing is an integrative turn toward Derridean citationality and bodily (in)scription: in the words of Thom Donovan, somatic poetics (a term borrowed from 1970s contemporary dance culture alluding to movement-based techniques based on the body’s intelligence, en processus) refers to the body or text’s form, as foregrounded by its putative “interior” or content, as a topos (literal site and subject matter) for the poem. Language, in somatic writing, is a site whereof the “body” (the text’s fissures) becomes seen: “body between non-site and site, a kind of shuddering caesura, a Shabbat or intervention into what is sensed.” Writing derived from the somatic body (its noises, rhythms, and cries) is linked to the exigencies of matter and the temporal moment, in acknowledgement of, and as a way to cordon off a space for the other, audience, and the articulation of the historical body or polis, as it was, for example, for Aimé Césaire, Artonin Artaud, and, among contemporary writers, Christine Wertheim, Dara Weir, and Ordelia Prado.
The pulsional lyric body (or state, according to Susan Stewart in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, of lyric possession), is a vexed site not just aesthetically or linguistically, but politically and economically: somatic writing sensitizes the reader, writes Donovan, to the silencing of an exploited, stateless, non-“normative,” detained, pharmaceutically-addled, armored, injured, monstrous, queer, tortured body, attempting to rearticulate itself in language, while under either constant surveillance, or threat of harm. The undoing of the body, and language, is the elliptical subject many contemporary texts (Anne Carson’s Decreation; Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain).
Contemporary practitioners of somatic writing (CA Conrad, Bhanu Kapil, Daria Fain, CA Conrad, and Brenda Iijima, Juliana Spahr, and Craig Santos Perez) offer hybrid texts speaking to the body in a collectivist as well as individual and intimate sense, in writings on aesthetic capital, post-colonial subjectivies, border crossings and violations (the skin of a bounded territory, text, or self), and the body as receptacle rather than “mind” as an authoring and discriminating force, rifting, through intertexts on the automatic writing practices of the French surrealists.
Craft and the writing life, as described in books such as Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey and Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, is indeed a dance, between inspiration, absorption, and composition, and solitude and community (writing groups, academia, and residences) in what Sarah Kendizor calls a “post-employment economy”: “If you are 35 or younger . . . you live in the post-employment economy, where corporations have decided not to pay people. Profits are still high. The money is still there. But not for you. You will work without a raise, benefits, or job security.” Higher education, says Kendizor (an activist for higher ed reform and unionization), is merely a symptom of a broader economic disease (privatization): “As universities boast record endowments and spend millions on lavish infrastructure, administrators justify poor treatment of faculty by noting that said faculty: 1) "choose" to work for poverty wages, and 2) picked specialisations that give them limited "market value" - ignoring, of course, that almost no one is valued in this market, save those who are reaping its greatest profits.”
While virtual isolation is partially a function of not just technocracy but the labor market and corporatization of academe (most core English Departments have shrunken in size, to accommodate a teeming pool of adjuncts and lecturers, and, often, a visiting or part-time professor will be the only person representing her genre, in a college town far from an urban epicenter) it’s important to think about how the once state-sponsored and now privatized media conglomerates, and governmentally-funded genetic engineering research extends to the disembodiments of electronic and digital literature, as well as contemporary poetry and theory.
Increasingly because of labor demands within the workforce and particularly within academia (4/4 teaching loads for adjuncts, lecturers, and non-tenure track professors) combined with a multitude of other departmental responsibilities, and the constant pressure to remain visible, develop media platforms (blogging, blurbs, twitter accounts, and the like), engage in social media, US writers are increasingly finding time to write or read, a coup of Herculean proportions. Even when one has time, the physical alienations of online networking (confronting the Baudrillardian screen), web research, flarf-based writing, and cyber-based archival networks (Oulipo, UbuWeb, and Penn Sound), make connecting with organic form (or meter, for neo-formalists) seem naïve.
The commercialization of yoga in the West runs a parallel track to the institutionalization of creative writing in the US. Hatha and other popular forms of yoga have been adapted, on a large scale, to Western culture: the yogic practice often stripped of the philosophic or moral component (i.e. B.K.S. Iyengar’s writings, or the swamis who created the eight-fold path) in power yoga classes, often held for 60 rather than 90 minutes, in nationally franchised and commercially successful studios such as CorePower and YogaWorks (CorePower has grown from one studio at 13th and Grant in Denver in 2002 to an 800-employee company with nearly $40 million in revenues using a variety of financing strategies). Given the attendance of yoga studios and classes, by Westerners hungry for, or only with time for, yoga “lite,” yoga ultimately becomes a relationship between the teacher and the student, the asanas and herself, based on an acceptance of mental and physical limitations, progress, and practice of tapas, namas and suturas, on and off the mat.
I’ve had to physically adjust my practice based on limitations due to injury (listening to my body, as encouraged, while not falling prey to the opposite extreme of letting my body’s whims structure my life: as Plato said, the mind should be the body’s charioteer), as well as philosophically. I find the suspension of judgment (of self, other, and environment) encouraged in yoga, to be inimical to my field of work, as well as somewhat dangerous, especially for women, already subject to countless societal, media, and advertising pressures and lures. In hypnotic or meditative states, or in the Westernized “yogi” lifestyle of non-judgment, a lack of criticality can result if one values, as I did for years, flexibility over strength of purpose or singularity of vision.
There are no shortage of contemporary texts on yoga’s Westernization (Yoga in the Modern World by Mark Singleton; American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West by Phillip Goldberg; and First There Is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance by Elizabeth Kadetsky), and, while smaller in number, texts about the yoking of writing and yoga (Stanley Plumley’s essay on his Quaker upbringing, writing, and yoga practice How We Live Our Yoga: Teachers and Practitioners on How Yoga Enriches, Surprises, and Heals Us), all of which address the issue of being “converted” to yoga, or developing a regular yoga practice, from a variety of different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives on fitness, health, and spirituality.
Recently completing a 200-hour Core Power yoga teacher training, I’ve begun thinking seriously about the lineage, and future, of somatic writing, and reflecting on the false antimony between disembodied writing (critical theory) and writing, as Natalie Goldberg winningly phrased “down the bones.” Yoga has affected not only my own writing process, pace, and form, but my “dristi”: my gaze point (how I see, and what I chose to focus on, in the world). Sitting through lectures on prenatal adjustments, Vedic philosophy, anatomical structures of the spine, hips, legs, and arms, and chakra imbalances, during training, I began to make connections between the power to focus and direct one’s dristi in yoga with the panopticon “male gaze” in cinematic theory, in which a woman is the object rather than the subject of perception. According to Laura Mulvey, the woman is the passive recipient of a man’s penetrating stare, “marked” socially by either invisibility (not being seen or acknowledged) or as a sex object, as a form of policing and objectification.
My dristi, in classes where there is a mirror, is usually off-center, from my own image (my face or a body part), as the equivalent of a line of vision not redoubled, nor met, in the mirror. I control where my gaze lands, and for how long I spend in a pose, as well as whether I choose (the ultimate challenge in a balancing posture) to close my eyes during an asana. Either way, finding the dristi (as a metaphor for third-eye, or higher perception, rather than Darwinian competition for survival) is about finding a neutral projection in the distance, not to judge or interpret the object, per se, but as a resting point for the eye, through which to focus the mind.
Yogis “articulate” the spine, in the same way that modernist poets and writers attempt to express the ineffable, or the tragi-comic failure to communicate through verbal signifiers, in the work of, say, Samuel Beckett, or Hemingway: a literal disarticulation of the subject-object-verb English sentence, as indexical to the disappearance of the linguistic subject, playing to the literal dismemberment of language (instituted by the twisted tautologies and of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons) and as metonym for a vanished subject, or evacuated subjectivity, with élan.
If the original function of language was communication (the art of, as John Updike said, making signals through the glass), or, in times of cultural or personal exigency, witnessing to the unspeakable (self-consciousness, love, history, war), much post-language writing addresses the failure inherent to all communication. Poetic language, for Vanessa Place, traffics in total contingency: its indeterminancy is its semiotic glory and its semantic failure. “Failure to communicate, which is the fundamental condition of language itself, and the place where the categorical imperative—act as if communication is possible, and communication is possible—serves as maxim for most standard poetics and traditional criticism. Taking Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson as emblematic of this kind of exegesis, this kind of failure may lead to greater success, as the inability to convey something creates the space to convey schools of somethings,” says Place.
The late German choreographer Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal epitomizes the Dadaist desire to make art of life, or to blur the lines of representation-as-life and art as the will-to-representation. Her troupes consisted of dancers of all ages, races, and backgrounds, and enacted, in natural and outdoor settings, performance-spectacles of passion, loss, love, longing, and repetition compulsion from collective and personal memories, as the remembered body’s rehearsal of acquired norms and search, through physical expression, for a jouissance of the self and other, in time.
Like all associative chains, the metaphors are endless between writing and bodywork—as Kathy Acker, in her essay on bodybuilding, “The Language of the Body” puts it, the repetitions of body building (controlled intensity, breaking down isolated muscle groups in order to rebuild them) are akin to meditation and creation, and, as such, are an exercise, initially, in destruction and failure. “If I work the same muscle mass to the point it can no longer move, I must move it through failure . . . body growth and shaping occurs in the face of the material, of the body’s inexorable movement toward its final failure, toward death,” Acker notes, asking “Is the equation between destruction and growth also a formula for art?”
In a moralistic reading of Kafka’s class-based “Metaphorphosis” (if reading magical realism as sutured to allegory), one becomes an ethical subject to avoid the karmic retribution of being reincarnated as an insect, and is punished, bureaucratically, by refusing to become a machine. To follow this logic, the only way to transcend the cycle of rebirth or wage labor is to a. become enlightened, as a bodhisattva or Buddha, and choose to return to the lives of sentient creatures, out of compassion or b. escape the class war through escape from the proletarian class. As I relate the theme of cyclicity (of class, having obtained aesthetic but not financial capital, and under the duress of significant financial and ontological debt) to my own life, I’m reminded we need constant surprises—that novelty must be integrated, along with routine, for the body and mind to stay engaged, or, in performance sports, for muscles to rebuild, or in order to break through group-think, trauma (repetition compulsion), and tradition, to agitate for change. To surrender the equation of existence with cerebration (cognito ergo sum) is notanti-intellectual, but a celebration of the body’s intelligence (collectivist and individual): the pleasures and pains of not just having (as a prosthetic limb we exercise, feed, and, at best tolerate) but living in, a perceptive, sensory body. In this spirit, we can better protect ourselves from toxic messages encouraging extremes of disembodiment, fad diets, and self-abuse (false consciousness and its willed opiates transmitted through the media, the war machine, and familial, cultural or performative scripts), and return to a balance between, as William Blake posited, innocence and experience, information (memes, social praxis) and knowledge (savoir).
 Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.
 Foucault, Michel and Graham Burchell (Trans). Security, Territory, Population. Picador (New York, 2009), 1977-78.
 Thom Donovan, “Somatic Poetics,” Jacket2 (October 18, 2011).
 Sarah Kendizor, “Surviving the post-employment economy,” Aljazeera (November 3, 2013).
 Vanessa Place, Lana Turner Journal Online, Issue 3.
Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid and Boston Review, her translations in Asymptote, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, and elsewhere. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, and contributing reviewer to Jacket2, she lives in Chicago.