I am a reluctant academic. The intellectual games of linguistic reasoning don’t excite me, even as I am forced to learn the rules of the game to critique it. So, it is hardly surprising that my interests gravitate towards theories of embodied cognition that have been arguing for the rightful place of the body as constitutive in meaning-making rather than being subservient to the mysterious workings of the brain. As it turns out, this also becomes an important ecological argument, in terms of valuing sensory encounters (with)in the environment. Legitimising and valuing body-based interactions paves way for a fuller experience, the beginning of kinship through acknowledging the intertwining of our senses, sensibilities with the environment.
“Slowly, the weight of the bag begins to bite into my shoulder blades. My feet are closely mapping the contours of the ground, and even the slightest incline sends a shiver down my thighs. The varying textures of the ground allow me to move forward or send me slipping down a few steps back. I am no longer walking on the ground, as much as I am walking with it. The occasional streams provide respite to the burning feet, yet the stones along the water are treacherous. Stepping on them is an act of faith. I am learning the language of stones, asking them to be kind.”
Our cities are designed for disembodied interactions. The abstraction is necessary for the psychic numbing because if we were to hear the “the rustle of corn leaves while opening a box of breakfast cereal”(Kimmerer, 2012) we would also hear the scream of the animals dying in the forests burnt for palm oil. Once a relationship is established, one can’t be indifferent to the other’s fate. So, we live in the paradox of an increasingly networked world, and diminished capacities to sense the interdependencies. We are under the “Spell of Discursive” as described by philosopher Heesoon Bai; We mistake the map for the world and are continuing to build technology that can sustain the illusion forever. Rebecca Solnit (2001) comments on our collective atrophy of senses using the example of transport- “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.” In a world choking with automobiles, even the simple act of walking can be a radical protest against the designed sensory impairment.
“The cold moss soothes the fingers bruised through grasping of the sharp rock faces. Breath comes in abrupt gasps as the slopes become steeper. Protruding roots and branches lend a helping hand. The afternoon sun makes its presence known through rivulets of sweat flowing down my face. I realise they are following the contours of my body, just as I am following the ridges of a dry stream up the hill. The water sculpts my body, and I follow its path. The sight no longer reigns supreme, I need to feel my way up, groping for footholds. I reach a ledge and lie down for a while. My ears touch the ground, and I listen…”
The increasing confines of artificial comforts require that even more be taken from somewhere else. The sensuality that rests on the reciprocity of love and care instead turns into a brutal lust for materials. Beings turn into commodities, relationships turn into transactions. Education legitimises the enterprise, by valuing supposedly intellectual pursuits over sensory experiences. Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2018) argues that the “promise of education lies in the capacity to respond and to be responded to: without such ‘response-ability’, as we might call it, education would be impossible.” Yet, the schooling continues. How else would one learn to live in abstractions? We were not born this way.
“Time is inconsequential in the forest. Enchanted by the glossy back of a beetle pushing a ball of dirt uphill, I can empathise with its efforts as I carry my load along. Ants form a busy line. The leaf litter now seems animate as myriad insects form an underground orchestra. Every footstep of mine adds a beat to their song. I am no longer a witness. Through attending to my participation, I am re(member)ing and acknowledging my ancient kinship. Reaching the summit of the hill, my legs quiver with effort, but a sense of satisfaction flows through my body. I didn’t make the journey; the journey made me.”
In age pervaded by ever-increasing alienation, perhaps the first step needs to be a literal one. Step outside, and let the body attend to the world. Ingold writes, “ if education is about caring for the world we live in, and for its multiple human and non-human inhabitants, then it is not so much about understanding them as it is about restoring them to presence, so that we can attend and respond to what they have to say.” I feel we have a long dialogue pending.