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Saturday, December 05, 2020

Body literacy

I recently read a nonpublished account of recovery from surgery, written by a longtime professional dancer and performance artist, and I was struck by the piece's breadth of physical observations.

Certainly, any account of surgery and its effects will involve the physical. But it will not necessarily explore the full space of the physical.

I've read that non-literate people generally have trouble following complex explanations and discussions; you need to have years of reading and writing to develop many aspects of thinking, because literacy gives you tools for interacting deeply and frequently with others' thinking, and with your own. Similarly, I think there is something you might call "body literacy" -- tools for noticing and interacting with body processes, which open up deeper levels of physical understanding.

There are people who have so little connection with their body that they don't notice disease for years; there are even accounts of people giving birth, who didn't realize they were pregnant. (I've never quite believed those -- that just sounds too impossibly alien.)

I struggle with this in terms of my body's reaction, and my mind's reaction, to drugs and medicines: it's often hard for me to tell if I'm experiencing an effect, whereas others immediately notice a difference, and doctors are often surprised that I can't say if a given drug "is working". I know people describe feeling "hangry", and I imagine that I probably shift emotionally when I'm hungry or tired as well; but I can't see it, maybe because I don't have enough experience, enough tools, for mapping out the aspects of body and mind along the way.

For many of us, there is an undiscovered country of body literacy: an unmapped landscape of physical experience. My old friend Ben Spatz works, in part, on the related project of getting physical expression and embodiment to have a place in academic institutional work.

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