Falling together at bodily thresholds

This text was published together with a selection of drawings in The Catalogue of Failures: Issue 3 (2023), featuring contributions from 15 international artists and practitioners, including illustration, horticulture, drawing, poetry, painting, collage, performance, research and somatic experience. The project aims to generate conversations about success and failure, accepted norms (and the unacceptable), worthiness, and value.

Falling together at bodily thresholds

I started drawing my body sensations seven years ago. This has supported me to be more curious and open towards my experiences, including troubling ones. Beginning with the phenomenological qualities of a symptom or sensation, I track and develop an experience further through colour, texture, movement and association. Not aiming to correct or reach a definitive understanding, I explore how to enter and make the experiential information more available to myself.

I began this practice at a time when I was struggling to keep up with studies in an arts educational setting. I felt like a failure, unable to perform. The undermining effects of this on my self-image and social interactions were finding expression in unruly psychosomatic states. When I began drawing these, there was some relief in staying with an unwanted experience rather than trying to suppress it. The drawings formed the basis for a performance at the end of my studies.

I’m on Notebook 32 at the moment. As I’ve continued and learned more about engaging with somatic processes, the drawings have evolved in different ways. Sometimes they register sensory responses to events in the world or in my personal life, states of pleasure or pain. Sometimes they record changing phases of a sickness or a persistent chronic symptom over time. They amplify qualities of a sensation, helping me get in touch with emergent forces within the experience. They depict the nature of the body as a shifting interface of relations and interdependencies.

The word symptom derives from the Greek symptoma – a happening, or an accident, or a disease. Its etymological roots can be traced back to the words syn-, ‘together’, and piptein, ‘to fall’. A symptom might then be understood as a falling together, a coinciding of happenings. In a society ordered by forceful demands for productivity, perfection and individualistic ascension – where falling behind is deemed a personal failing – the need to trouble what is actually dis-ordered feels pressing to me.

When befallen with the inability to go along as ‘normal’, what coinciding physical-cultural- ecological conditions are laid bare? Acknowledging the unequal distribution of harms falling together with some bodies more than others, and taking care not to romanticise the challenges of symptomatic bodily experiences, what information do our bodies hold? Could the failures to maintain a sound state in an unsound society reveal thresholds to errant intelligences?

Staying with the trouble of the personal experience

14.03.17, 15.03.17

Daily drawing practice registering body sensations

Extract from thesis I wrote in 2017 entitled “PRACTICING RELATIONALITY: How to put theory into practice through the encounter with process work, practice-led research and an enquiry into feminist epistemologies”:

Donna Haraway asserts that to ‘stay with the trouble’, staying with complexity and difficulty, which can often be disturbing, is necessary in order to develop the ability to respond during these troubling and mixed-up times. Entangled matters are complicated and troubling and take time and practice to understand, especially when fundamentally unentangled conceptualisations of being have become such a habit. When this is the case, the rigour involved in developing capacities for a relational outlook calls for practices with which to embody and experience on a personal level the entanglement of being, so as to explore in further depth the implications and possibilities of an entangled conception of ‘the world’.

The practices within process work constitute an approach deeming ideas of entanglement and interrelation as fundamentally inseparable from the complex, diverse and multi-layered dynamics of being shaping experience. Staying with the personal experience, particularly when tensions arise, is often uncomfortable, unpredictable, confusing and troubling. According to the process work approach, these complex dynamics provide important information on the movement of processes within an individual or a group. These are imperative for developing a multifaceted understanding based on experiencing the interrelation between the personal and the systemic. Such an understanding has the potential to support the development of sustainable relationships and to bring the diversity of modes of being into awareness and dialogue. Bringing this way of thinking into conversation with Haraway, process work practices can be seen as demonstrating and supporting the task of “learning to be truly present” and “making kin lines of inventive connection.”1

Process work is one example of a methodological framework taking on the task of becoming capable in engaging with the affective realm that, according to Gilbert Simondon, mediates between the levels of preindividual and transindividual experience. Taking seriously modes of being long deemed irrelevant and unreliable in Western knowledge-practices, this approach is akin to feminist discourses advocating for embodied strategies expressing the “unity of thinking and being, the indivisible connection of mind and body,” asserting that “all knowledge rests on libidinal, that is to say affective and corporeal grounds.”2 Rosi Braidotti describes this as a project with the philosophical premise of developing a different kind of subjectivity, not one of individualism, but that of the multiple.

Adrienne Rich writes:

“Masculine intellectual systems are inadequate because they lack the wholeness that female consciousness, excluded from contributing to them, could provide. In taking the “otherness” of the “second” sex for granted, these systems are erected on an essential intellectual fault. Truly to liberate women, then, means to change thinking itself: to reintegrate what has been named the unconscious, the subjective, the emotional with the structural, the rational, the intellectual.”3

I would extend this statement to include intersectional knowledge-practices and modes of being that are not only defined by (cis) conceptions of gender, while holding the importance of acknowledging the suppression of women through the historical institutionalisation of sexual difference.

Staying with the trouble of the personal experience and learning to engage with diversity and the unpredictability of process, including conflict, disturbances and emotions, challenges the logic of classical Cartesian thought, founded on the distinction between emotions or ‘un-reason’ and rational judgement. Reinforced by secularity, modern reason has been premised on the rejection of madness, error, dreams and passions, as well as spirituality, constructing a dualistic scheme condemning anyone other than the white European man as signifying the antithesis of philosophical reason, thus legitimating (white) Man’s hierarchical position of dominance. Within this scheme, Braidotti describes Woman as the metaphor for non-order, akin to the image of chaos, which in the patriarchal imaginary embodies the “disquieting possibility of the absence of the law, of its decomposition.” What if it was precisely the ability to engage with chaos, on its own terms, that is needed to develop a relational understanding of being, the capacity for complexity, uncertainty and decomposition?

1Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press, p. 1.
2Braidotti, R. (1991) Patterns of Dissonance: A Study of Women and Contemporary Philosophy, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 165.
3Rich, A. (1986) Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, New York & London: W. W. Norton, p. 81.