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Eleni Stecopoulos: “Somatics” Questionnaire

By Thom Donovan

For the last installment of the “somatics” questionnaire at Harriet this month (see the first one here, with Rob Halpern), I asked poet-scholar Eleni Stecopoulos to chime in about her own experience of the term somatics.

Stecopoulos’s first full-length book, Armies of Compassion, which came out last year on Palm Press, offers a fierce, yet elegiac, exploration of US political discourse during the “W” years, mediated by the writer’s robust cross-disciplinary research across the fields of medical humanities, ethnopoetics, philology, and performance studies (about which you can read more here and here).

Stecopoulos is also the curator of an important event series regarding what she calls the “poetics of healing,” which took place in 2008-2010 at the San Francisco State University Poetry Center. The Poetics of Healing event series, which she discusses below, included presentations by Raul Zurita and his translator William Rowe; Alphonso Lingis; physician and poet David Watts; poet and disability activist Amber DiPietra; sound healer Silvia Nakkach; professor of international studies, historian, and ecologist Mutombo M’Panya; poet-designer Robert Kocik;  Bhanu Kapil; poet Beth Murray; Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus; and artist Sadie Wilcox.

Highlights from the colloquium (cited at SFSU’s online calendar) include the following:

  • Psychologist Eric Greenleaf presented “Balinese Healing of the Visible and Invisible Worlds,” showing original films of Ayurvedic healing with interior mantram, trance healing in ancestors’ voices, and community trance ritual.
  • Poet and builder Robert Kocik presented plans for a “Prosodic Building” based on the ancient Greek Asklepion or dream-healing clinic, an architectural space that would function as healthcare.
  • Anthropologist, linguist, and diviner Dennis Tedlock performed Mayan incantations used to treat illness.
  • Anthropologist and diviner Barbara Tedlock gave a reading of her initiation into Quiché Mayan shamanism and spoke about facilitating the integration of indigenous modalities into medical schools.
  • Historian and emergency medicine physician John Tercier presented scholarship on the Royal Humane Society and 18th century poems of instruction for resuscitation.
  • Professor of international studies, historian, and ecologist Mutombo M’Panya spoke about pain and exile, and sang a song from his home village in Zaire.
  • Composer and sound therapist Silvia Nakkach led us in singing healing melodies (ragas).
  • In Listening to Listening, a colloquium co-sponsored by the UCSF School of Medicine, a group of poets and physicians talked about the parallels between their work, meditating on the act of listening across poetic composition, the taking of medical histories, diagnosis, poetry therapy, and the teaching of medical humanities to foster what Guy Micco, director of the Joint Medical Program at UC Berkeley and UCSF, calls the “empathic imagination.”
  • The Chilean poet Raúl Zurita and translator William Rowe gave bilingual readings from Zurita’s INRI, which “responds to the need to find a language for an event that was kept hidden and excluded from official records in Chile: the fact that the bodies of the disappeared were thrown out of helicopters into the mouths of volcanoes and into the sea.”
  • Psychiatrist Nuri Gené-Cos presented cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in refugees and survivors of state violence, and spoke about the use of drawing, fragrance, and poetry in her practice.

The following is the first of three responses Stecopoulos generated to three questions I posed to her. The remaining responses will be posted at Wild Horses Of Fire weblog in upcoming weeks.

1. What, if anything, does the term “somatics” mean to you, and how might you relate it to your work as a poet and scholar? How specifically does somatics intersect with your work around what you have termed the “poetics of healing”?

I don’t use the term “somatics” per se, but I have been writing about my understanding of somatic intelligence, gnosis, and poiesis for about 10 years. Even “somatic” carries with it a host of connotations I feel obliged to address. For many, of course, the word “somatic” is most familiar in the context of “psychosomatic,” where it’s the suspect part of that presumed transfer into physical symptoms which medicine regards as pathological. So psychiatrists talk about somatization and somatoform disorder as types of conversion—as if mind and body were separate entities. But what is pathological can be recuperated as intelligence and health; a diagnostic label can instead point to conscious practice. Recently the choreographer, movement researcher and Feldenkrais practitioner Margit Galanter, whose practice is called Physical Intelligence, directed me to the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. For Bainbridge Cohen, somatization means something very different: “I use this word…to engage the kinesthetic experience directly…[t]hrough somatization the body cells are informing the brain as well as the brain informing the cells…When the body is experienced from within, the body and mind are not separated but are experienced as a whole” (An Introduction to Body-Mind Centering).

I think it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to really move beyond the Cartesian legacy if you’ve been raised with a Western worldview. It’s engrained in our language, or lack of it, as Margit reminded me. “When I say me, I am using a designated label for what is mainly a psychological, cognitive complex. We don’t even have a word in our language for the equivalent body, or soma, identity (Francisco Varela, “The Body’s Self”). Of course, even invoking “the body” is evidence of the rift—even considering the body as something discrete, an object of study that could be set apart from other bodies or sentient beings or ancestors or cosmos. Jean-Luc Nancy writes that the Western quest for embodiment only “expel[s] the thing we desired…That’s why the body, bodily, never happens, least of all when it’s named and convoked. For us, the body is always sacrificed: eucharist” (Corpus). What enables contemplation for Nancy inherently renders the object exterior to “me.”

In The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Shigehisa Kuriyama writes of how the ancient Greeks strove to isolate an organ or aspect of the body as a thing, apart from condition or quality or expression, whereas the Chinese had no such concern. Qualities and organs defined each other; there were no “parts” apart from condition. The Chinese discovered meridians and invented acupuncture. The Greeks invented anatomy. They began with some of the same knowledge: pernicious influences that enter through channels, the need to purge and balance, taking pulses, a visceral system in harmony or disharmony. And yet they went in such different directions: the Chinese, it seems, comfortable with opacity. The Greeks yearning to know…where “knowing” becomes all too congruent with distinguishing, discerning, isolating, and possessing.

It’s all psychosomatic. And somatopsychic. I don’t think you really escape your formation; you can only become aware of it and move towards some other understanding/practice that is remedial. I remember this New York Times article which opens with an anecdote about a medical conference on the ways those in “developing” countries somatize their depression in stomachaches, dizziness, and other mysterious physical symptoms: “Toward the end of the meeting, a doctor from India stood to speak. ‘Distinguished colleagues,’ he said, ‘have you ever considered the possibility that it is not that we in the third world somaticize depression, but rather that you in the developed world psychologize it?’” (“Mending of Hearts and Minds,” NYT 5/21/02). In the West the body is othered, but also in the sense of being displaced onto “the other,” whose labor disburdens or delivers the colonizer of his body. (And at the same time this other gets mystified as a healer who can resurrect the absent body. Think of Artaud among the Tarahumaras.)

That there are very different understandings of “somatization” and “somatic[s]” afloat, the instability here, itself embodies the divide. I remember the poet (and medical sociologist) Demosthenes Agrafiotis used the Greek word somatopoiesis to translate “embodiment” in a poem of mine, but added that it also carries the connotation of somatization. Even in translation, you can’t escape the pathology. But soma as a Greek word has been in my ear my whole life, and it carries a potency and warmth that “body” does not for me. And this is despite the fact that English is my first language. (So why this should be the case—the paradoxical way that the mother’s/ancestral tongue feels more natural or intimate than the native language—is itself an example of somatic knowing, which can’t be extricated from an imagination of cultural identity.)

When I was doing research in holistic medicine for my dissertation, concepts I had previously studied in books became embodied for me. It wasn’t some intellectual discovery but a yoga therapy session that convinced me I understood Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. My understanding came through movement, through putting my body in a certain position to exaggerate the impediment I felt. And it was experiential research that radically altered how I could practice scholarship. I felt acutely disembodied in graduate school. The ejection of knowing through the body, the ejection of emotion as feminine and hysterical appalled me and made me literally sick. I decided I would not edit out my somatic conditions, but instead consider them valid as research, ways of reading. And I wrote a poetics of criticism that took formal lessons from the principles and techniques of healing systems like homeopathy and acupuncture—a dissertation based in somatics, you might say.

Bodyworkers and naturopaths and integrative physicians gave me new (and sometimes very old) ways of reading. If one of the truisms of postmodern poetics is to valorize the “materiality” of language, my encounters with medicine gave me an opportunity to test this empirically. I persistently encountered an understanding of language not as discourse or communication but as energetic force, and a belief that the material word had visceral effect on bodies. And I was struck by how diagnosis and treatment would often engage the healer’s own body. Barbara Tedlock and Dennis Tedlock, anthropologists who are initiated diviners in the K’iche’ Mayan tradition, speak of how the hands of a healer put out as much energy as the brain, and hold all the intelligence of the brain. The K’iche’ diviner must read the signs in his or her own body, the “speaking of the blood” caused by “lightning” which moves in the blood and muscles, and translate this information in order to diagnose the patient (personal interview; also see B. Tedlock’s Time and the Highland Maya). So here it’s the healer’s body that initiates the interpretive work, the healer’s body that must be read (and not only the patient’s).

I like “somatics” as a way of articulating a field of inquiry and knowledge, akin to, say, linguistics, physics, economics. (See, for instance, translator Michael B. Smith’s rendering Certeau’s la mystique as “mystics” in The Mystic Fable.) The body is so devalued, feminized, and denigrated in the West (as the burden of women, people of color, the colonized) that it’s quite radical to suggest the knowledge we acquire through movement and pain and hands-on healing has equal value to these disciplines. Somatics, then, might be useful because it posits the body’s knowledge as a legitimate field—because it validates and formalizes embodied inquiry and research in the physical/visceral/musculoskeletal/nervous/energetic/interdependent (for all of these are to me “somatic.”)

Recently the poet Patrick Durgin asked, “Is ‘somatics’ the new voice?” I thought this was a very interesting question because it raises the implication that poet-critics who invoke the term may be turning to the body for the same reasons that voice gets valorized—for uniqueness, authenticity, immediacy—the metaphysics of presence. But for me, the answer is “no.” Because my sense of somatics ultimately leads me away from the individual body and toward the interdependence we learn from disability culture, the microcosm and macrocosm we learn from Chinese medicine, where the individual body is always porous to the whole, toward environmental medicine where the highly sensitive prefigure the condition of the oikos—as I once heard Mei-mei Berssenbrugge say, “we’re not the aberration but the vanguard.”

I don’t look to the somatic for authenticity, but rather native estrangement. In a Poetics of Healing colloquium I curated with physicians and poets on the subject of listening, the medical historian and emergency medicine physician John Tercier said something that has stayed with me: “Poetry is language made strange, language that draws attention to itself. In illness the body is made strange. One of the things that privileges poetry [as therapeutic] is that there’s a certain relationship between the body made strange and language made strange.” But also I would say that in illness the body recognizes itself as strange. And in healing as well. One’s body becomes other, in the sense of care—you have to care for yourself as an other, or allow yourself to be cared for, which is also a kind of care. It’s the way that “therapy” derives from therapeutes, the attendant, the one who waits on you, serves you, treats you in the drudgery and abjection that sickness brings—treats you without any certitude, without knowing whether you will be cured. Lately I think it’s precisely in this labor—this experiment in the dark, this art of composition in real time—that the poetics of healing lies.

Trapped on a burning ship, with no aid but his body’s training in when to breathe, where to shift weight, how to move in a way that doesn’t cause further harm, Michel Serres remembers: “These are things I know about the body. This is no fable. No-one sees dancing shadows on the walls of a cave when a fire is burning inside” (The Five Senses). The body’s knowledge is real and when we acknowledge it and believe in its reality, we can no longer be duped by the attempts of our intellectual legacy to disembody us. A dual disembodiment: an inert body that’s exchangeable, a standardized entity who is no one—and yet also unique, a singular possession alienable from the whole.

We don’t have qi or prana in the West. We have an immune system, or at best, we have psychoneuroimmunology. If we’re heterodox we speak of energy or maybe subtle body or breath or spirit. We end up using “energy” or “information” and there’s a politics to this. (It can’t be coincidental that “energy” is our trope du jour in this age of blood for oil, from the sense of individual vitality to the appropriation and depletion of others’ resources.) Other cultures have fully developed philosophies that understand the connections of the whole or the way. But in the West we’re always struggling with the split that’s engraved in our worldview, and our dearth of language reflects this.

For me, soma opens up this energy, life force, poetic agency—an agency of no subject and without object. And maybe then this redresses the false universalism and standardization of “the” body. For body to have agency, to be recognized as intelligence, to be identified as “me,” it may have to be called the body, at least heuristically. Just as we have to say somatics. So we can take seriously the mind of the body. Yet maybe it’s through care, through the therapeutic, that we don’t actually need to make this body me, but can remediate the objectification through an ethics of the other. Maybe serving others remakes agency—agency not in service of the subject.

And this intelligence isn’t verbal—soma is not a voice, or maybe I mean that it doesn’t do what it does through speech. And yet it may be that poetry is the modality which can articulate this “non-verbal” intelligence, or at least that’s my hope for it. I think this is one of the things that’s so brilliant about Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s work.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 29th, 2011 by Thom Donovan.