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Somatic Ethics


The concern by human-beings with their own embodied somatic selves as the ground for amelioration and improvement – physically, mentally, morally, and emotionally – has been termed a “Somatic Ethic.” British sociologist and social theorist Nikolas Rose – who coined the term Somatic Ethics – has noted that, “the question of the good life—bios—has become intrinsically a matter of the vital processes of our animal life— zoë.” [1] Contemporary ethics has become somatic, both because of its concern with biological life; and also, because our forms of knowledge are increasingly informed by biology, perhaps most significantly neuroscience. The force of bio-politics shaping our present world is evidenced starkly in terms of the present Covid-19 pandemic. Governmental responses to the pandemic in terms of biological surveillance and reliance on novel mRNA vaccines demonstrates a rapidly accelerated bio-molecularization of individual lives; an unrelenting process of decomposing human vitality into isolatable commodifiable components. (This social bio-political process is incontrovertible, irrespective of the individual risk-benefit calculus of vaccination.) In this Blog post I wish to posit an alternative understanding of Somatic Ethics – one which also touches upon the relation between human condition and its underlying biological vitality, but which comes out of my perspective of Somatic Practices.


What is Somatics?

The term “Somatics” was coined by Thomas Hanna, a philosopher and one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ early students in the United States. Somatics is derived from the Greek work soma, and refers to the first-person experience of the lived body. Hanna wrote that, “A soma is any individual embodiment of a process, which endures and adapts through time, and it remains a soma as long as it lives. The moment it dies it ceases to be a soma and becomes a body.” [2, p. 31] Somatics as a field of practice relates to the work that pioneering individuals were doing bringing awareness to the process of living inside the human body. [3] Philosopher of Somatics, Don Hanlon Johnson, has described how Somatics dates back to the Gymnastik movement developed and moved between Northern Europe and the Eastern seaboard of the United States during the mid and late nineteenth-century. [4] Early Somatic pioneers included for example, Elsa Gindler, Charlotte Selver, F.M. Alexander, Mabel Todd, Gerda Alexander, Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, and Irmgard Bartenieff. Second generation somatic practitioners include for example, Anna Halperin, Emilie Conrad (Continuum), Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (Body-Mind Centering), and Sondra Fraleigh (East West Somatics). Contemporary historian of Somatics, Martha Eddy has emphasized the global influences on the development of the second generation of somatics, tracing in particular the Asian influence on Bonnie Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering, and the African influence on Emilie Conrad’s practice of Continuum. [5] Characteristic of first- and second- generation somatic pioneers was a unifying vision of the inseparable chiasm between body and spirit. This Somatics perspective provides a means of contesting and countering the dehumanizing forces that render human experience into materialistic components. I argue here that this unifying vision of Somatics provides an invaluable resource for moral reflection on our vital selves.


East West Somatics

I first encountered the word Somatics when I participated in a two-week East West Somatics workshop with Sondra Fraleigh in Brockport, upstate New York in 2006 – a gift to myself for completing my doctoral studies program at The University of Chicago. During the workshop I was swept away by learning for the first time that without any formal training I too could exhilarate in movement and dance. I was in wonder at the subtlety of somatic touch in eliciting deep, inner and inter-personal information – a sense that I never encountered in my years of medical training in South Africa. It is this sense of wonder at the gift of embodied life that differentiates between Somatic Ethics in terms of reflecting on the body as a commodity and as a source of infinite possibility for personal and social transformation.


Somatic Practices

Somatic practices bring awareness to otherwise taken-for granted embodied activities, such as moving, breathing, sensing, seeing and hearing. Martha Eddy, has emphasized how Somatic movement processes involve intentionally engaging in conscious movement. She notes that, “The purpose is to amplify awareness of oneself through awakening the kinesthetic sense... Somatic exploration of physical habits and patterns of behavior require noticing these moving elements of the body whether moving through space or in “stillness.” For instance, the breath and blood are always moving through the body, and it is possible to feel these rhythms and pulsations.” [3, p.14]


Somatic movement practices also help to integrate cortical brain function with deep brain structures, such as the limbic, basal ganglia, cerebellum and midbrain. These feedforward and feedback processes helps to bring automatic elements of movement to greater explicit awareness. Somatic practices also link up cognitive rationality with embodied tacit or pre-reflective cognitive processes. The potential for somatic movement practices to bring unconscious elements into conscious awareness helps explain why somatic practices provide powerful modalities assisting individuals to break free from habitual patterns of behavior, expand the capacity for free choice and provides a largely unacknowledged resource for ethical reflection.


The Transformative Power of Somatics

I have argued elsewhere that Somatics is a radical practice. [7] Somatics is radical in its simplicity, allowing individuals to sense their breathing, movement and core sense of self. Somatics is radical in terms of equipping individuals with skills for inner sensation of self and in relation with environment and thereby shifting the center of authority away from external institutions and bodies of knowledge to the individuals themselves. Somatics is radical in providing a means for individuals to form social bonds with others across age, gender, and race, through non-threatening, supportive touch and deep listening. Somatics is radical in transforming set norms or habits in the body of individuals, and thereby it has the largely untapped potential to transform the social body politic itself.


The radical transformative power of somatics derives from a practitioner’s ability to touch the deep recesses of precognitive cellular states of being— so-called “hyletic data” emerging from the embodied self. These hyletic data may include sensations, affect, kinesthesia, perception, and any other sensuous data about the self, emerging at the margins of consciousness and brought to conscious attention through phenomenological reflection or introspection. [7] Phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty has noted that our fundamental historicity is tied to the “sedimentation of perception in our bodies.” [8] Conversely, the unpacking of this sedimentation through somatics is tied to the loosening of these historical forms of meaning bestowal, or institutionality. [9]


While the conception of Somatic Ethics articulated in this blog challenges an ethical framework based on commodification of the body; instead, I propose that ethical reflection on our human vitality is informed through first-person experience of Somatic practices. The question of what this alternative Somatic Ethics might consist of needs necessarily to remain open-ended and pluralistic in light of the fluidity of Somatic experiences and variety of Somatic practices. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions of ways in which Somatics can provide a resource for ethical reflection:


· By helping people to clarify their core intentions and values.

· By providing a means to reconfigure or at least contextualize personal beliefs in relation with individual body posture.

· As an aid to determine what are real, sustainable goods in relation with our ecological environment.

· By providing a means of deep listening, non-violent communication, giving voice to others, especially previously marginalized voices.

· By helping individuals and groups reconfigure institutional structures.


Afterword

I have argued for a different conception of Somatic Ethics, one that is deeply embedded in Somatic awareness. This approach contests the conception of Somatic Ethics as a means to refashion our human selves by the instrumentalization of our biological foundations in favor of accessing our Somatic awareness for ethical reflection via actual Somatic movement, education and wellness practices.


Experiencing Somatic practices is especially invaluable during this Covid-19 pandemic, equipping individuals with embodiment skills to increase physical resilience, wellbeing, and social connection – besides the ethical importance of helping individuals become in touch with our core somatic selves confronted with the ethical, social and health dilemmas forced upon each one of us at different stages of the pandemic.


Finally, the ethical approach outlined here does not delegitimate the use of technological means for self-improvement via bio-hacking technologies. Indeed, a key aspect of the SomaticWell therapeutic approach is the application of Neurofeedback technologies designed to enhance Neuroplasticity. However, the SomaticWell therapeutic approach is distinguished by integrating these technological applications together with Somatic movement and awareness practices. Developing therapeutic programs informed by Somatic understanding provides a modest means of trying to ensure that these bio-technologies enhance our human vitality, while respecting the inalienable unity of body and spirit.


References:

1. Rose, Nikolas. 2007. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 83.

2. Hanna, Thomas. 1976. “The Field of Somatics,” Somatics: Magaine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, 1:1, pp. 30-34.

3. Eddy, Martha. 2017. Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action. Bristol, UK/Chicago, USA: Intellect.

4. Hanlon Johnson, Dan. 1994. Body, Spirit and Democracy. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, Somatic Resources.

5. Eddy, Martha. 2002. “Somatic Practices and Dance: Global Influences.” Dance Research Journal, 34, No. 2, pp. 46-62.

6. Braude, Hillel. 2015. “Radical Somatics.” In Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and Touch, Edited by Sondra Fraleigh. Indiana University Press: 124-134.

7. Hyletic data is a phenomenological term coined by Edmund Husserl. See, for example, Edmund Husserl, The Phenomenology of Intentional Time Consciousness, trans. J. Churchill (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), 44.

8. Merleau-Ponty quoted by Bettina Bergo, “Radical Passivity in Levinas and Merleau- Ponty (Lectures 1954),” in Radical Passivity, ed. Benda Hofmeyer, 31–55 (Dordrecht, Germany: Springer, 2009).

9. Bettina Bergo, “Radical Passivity in Levinas and Merleau Ponty (Lectures 1954),” in Radical Passivity, ed. Benda Hofmeyer, 31–55 (Dordrecht, Germany: Springer, 2009). “Radical Passivity in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty.” As Bergo notes, institutionality is a term used by Merleau-Ponty to refer to Husserl’s intentional foundation.

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