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The notion of soma has long been considered to describe the material and physical side of animate beings, designating the dead or living body in opposition to the spirit and mind. Besides describing the whole body or mass of an animate object, it is further applied to describe the cell body of a neuron and the name of a Hindu deity, among others.
In Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World (1932), the narcotic dispensed by the state that produces hallucinations and euphoria to control and stabilise the population is called by this name. It seems that the drug, that is to be swallowed but can also be pumped into the air as a vapour, was named after the Vedic ritual drink soma, drawing from Huxley’s interest in Indian mysticism. Used to create a mass of obedient, socially, and individually “stable” people, Huxley describes the effect of soma as follows: “Swallowed half an hour before closing time, that second dose of soma had raised a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.” (Huxley, 1953) In this way, Huxley describes soma as the wall or barrier between the self and the world, instead of a membrane, which creates an interesting paradox and closeness of the expression of a body or mass and the feeling of being a body or mass.
Concepts like soma open a dichotomy between the material and the seemingly immaterial and propose stability by creating a clear-cut distinction. However, such distinction becomes blurred within states of dizziness that entangle the inside and the outside, the physical and the mental, the material and the immaterial. Thus, questions of rethinking the terms soma and animacy gain relevance and urgency. Dizziness propels us into a state of being a body, experiencing uncertainty and loss of control and agency. At the same time, having a body is a prerequisite for the experience of dizziness – without a body, no experience of dizziness, as dizziness happens within the body and to the body. Besides, a state of dizziness may come with a heightened awareness of one’s body within the realisation of an increasing loss of control. Losing control means a loss of relation of the self to the surroundings.
For his concept, theory, and practice of somaesthetics, contemporary philosopher Richard Shusterman has proposed a redefinition to understanding soma as the “lived, sentient, purposive body rather than merely the physical body encompassing both subjective intentionality and material objectivity in the world.” (Shusterman, 2011) Somaesthetics remind us of the difference in experience and perception when it comes to having a body and being a body, emphasising the body as the ‘lived here’, the locus of our sensations, as the embodiment and situatedness of our experience, complicating the categorisation of what may be thought of in terms of material (body) and immaterial (mind, thought, feelings). In the sense of material objectivity in the world, having a body speaks to the conscious reflection and careful analysis of our and others’ perception of corporeal expression. In the sense of subjective intentionality, as providing the potential of our diving into and surrendering to experience, being a body points to how Shusterman presents the body as a “silent, structuring, concealed background” (Shusterman, 2012) against which our experiencing unfolds. The body, he continues, is the locus where individuals can lose themselves “in some pleasure or pain.” With him and after Huxley, we need to acknowledge that via our body we are able to connect with the surrounding world as much as our experiencing body can detach us from the world, which, in turn, can be manipulated by ourselves and other agents, as described by Huxley.
Moshe Feldenkrais, too, doubts the categorisation into material and immaterial, when he states that “the structure of the nervous system is such that it is hard to imagine purely sensory or motor or vegetative impulses. The most abstract thought has emotional-vegetative and sensory-motor components. Abstract thinking is possible only in conjunction with a special configuration or pattern or state of the body. (Feldenkrais, 2005)” Moreover, he connects the cognitive and physiological with the emotional, as he asserts: “[…] every pattern of impulses reaching the central nervous system from the viscera, muscles, and soma in general is associated with an emotional state. The muscular contraction, being voluntarily controllable, creates a feeling of power and of control over sensations and emotions. This is in fact so. To every emotional state corresponds a personal conditioned pattern of muscular contradiction without which it has no existence. (Huxley, 1953, p.66.)” When having the urge to laugh, cry, or panic, for instance, these conditioned patterns come into play, and our ability to control our muscles equals our ability to keep our composure. In this manner, our muscular control manages our emotions and cognitive functions. Nevertheless, this complex system of relations between the visceral, emotional, and cognitive moves and is moved by all the factors it comprises. Psychoanalysis regards the repressed memory of trauma becoming somatised (enacted on the body and in bodily symptoms) when a later event catalyses the earlier memory traces. Here feelings related to a traumatic event are seen to find their expression in and on the body, and in how a person shapes their physical environment, with a propensity towards specific elements, or displaying distress when it comes to others. In this way, animate and inanimate elements stimulate certain emotional, physiological, and cognitive processes.
Animacy is here understood as the distinction between the animate and inanimate world and the inherent hierarchisation through social and language processes.(1) After Hito Steyerl, however, things may act as they were animate, whereas animate beings may feel and act as mere objects in a state of suspension and dizziness, describing such an incident when writing about pilots in descend:
Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people. Traditional modes of seeing and feeling are shattered. Any sense of balance is disrupted. Perspectives are twisted and multiplied. New types of visuality arise. (Steyerl, 2011)
The feeling of being detached or suspended from the world creates a propensity and desire to re-connect to the world, to understand the ongoing turmoil or changes and/or to assert and validate oneself in this precarious situation; thus, trying to find a way to relate and get in touch, which happens via conscious and/or unconscious expressions of the body.
Building on the concept of somaesthetics and combining it with the ongoing research on dizziness, we ponder the impact of the liminal state of dizziness on our individual and collective somata and animacy, considering the potential for novel perspectives that may come with it. How may such a better understanding of this state change our narratives, and what resources are there to find ways of coming to terms with collective states of dizziness?
(1) “Animacy stems from the Latin anima, breath, soul, and the Proto-Indo-European root ane- means “to breathe;” also, the term animal is derived from it. Animacy plays a role in various creation myths, exemplified by Prometheus bringing the animacy of fire to the clay men that inhabited the Ancient Greek earth. Also interesting in this context is the notion of anima mundi, describing a “spiritual essence, distinct from matter and supposed in the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato to be diffused throughout the universe, organizing and acting through the whole of it," 1670s, Medieval Latin, literally "soul of the world;" […].“ https://www.etymonline.com/word/anima%20mundi?ref=etymonline_crossreference, accessed on 07.10.2021.
Moshe, Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation and Learning, Berkeley: Frog Books, 2005, p. 36.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 1953, p. 66.
Richard Shusterman, “Soma, self, and society: Somaesthetics as pragmatist meliorism”, Metaphilosophy, 42, 2011, p. 314-327, here 314. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9973.2011.01687.x
Shusterman, Richard, Thinking Through the Body: Essays in Somaesthetics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 48.
Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” e-flux, no. 24, April 2011, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/24/67860/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/, accessed on 07.10.2021.