Researching the body

A 3 minute intro to trans-disciplinary research into embodiment from MODE (I’m hoping to get to some of their fantastic training events soon):


Authors: Carey Jewitt & Sara Price

The mode seminar on embodiment and digital technologies (03.04.14) drew an interesting interdisciplinary group together. The word cloud made from the three key words that each of the participants used to introduce themselves shows something of this mix.

word cloud embodiment

As one of the participants commented, embodiment draws together people from across a wide range of disciplines – at this particular event from sociology, art, performance, psychology, media and communication studies, literacy and education studies, human computer interaction, design, and architecture.

We explored what is meant by embodiment (embodied cognition), drawing on some theoretical ideas around the body being the ‘hub of all meaning making’ (Merleau Ponty, 1945), highlighting cognition as enacted (through sensori-motor/ action); embedded (through beingness in the environment and social and cultural contexts); and extended (through notions of offloading cognition/ manipulation/ transformation; and finally the idea of an ‘amalgamated mind’ (Rowland, 2010), where…

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transitional thoughts + genealogies


As I write this I’m sitting on a metal bench on a snowy West Yorkshire station platform. I have a bit too much baggage, too many books. Recently most of my weekends have been spent on trains, dashing from here to there, caught up between work and the various places that may or may not be home.

Today I’m trying to read Lisa Blackman’s Immaterial Bodies so that I can finish an article I’m working on and publishpublishpublish my way into a more permanent academic career. I flip back to the first few pages. Since finishing my PhD I’ve taken to reading authors’ acknowledgements and admonishing myself for the hash that I made of it in my thesis (mainly because there were far, far more people deserving heart-felt ‘thank you’s than I managed to name there). As I read I’m struck by something Blackman writes:

The inter-disciplinarity that was characteristic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is one that I carry through today such that my own disciplinary location is far from settled. However, I have found an intellectual home at Goldsmiths, University of London in the Department of Media and Communications since 1994 . . .

This has a certain resonance for me, mainly because, like Blackman’s, my research does not fit into one easily-labelled discipline. I am far from settled in art as well as in life. In my viva the examiners asked me where I would shelve my thesis if I worked in a university library. I responded to their question with jokes about how I do work in a university library and I wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial sharp stick an argument that I would like to see it in the 780s (780.1?), even if some scholars might argue it doesn’t quite belong there. But this masks a sense that this is in fact a deeper concern for me. Like Blackman, I think I am the kind of scholar who will find an intellectual home in a particular department or research group rather than in any one subject as a whole.

Later in the book Blackman considers the idea of intellectual genealogies, and I’m reminded that sometimes it’s important to remember where I come from as well as where I’d like to be going. Thinking through answers to the question ‘where do I come from?’ is perhaps another way of thinking about home. Put like that, a sort of disciplinary family tree, then I am perhaps more aligned to musicology than a simple description of some of my current work might reveal. Though it’s also hard to forget that somewhere in my scholarly-DNA I’ve inherited more than a few attributes from my inter-disciplinary beginning at Dartington College of Arts.

DCA has gone, merged, changed. I’m still looking for home.  I hope I will find a similarly stimulating and creative intellectual home elsewhere, but I still feel the gentle tug of the tide in South Devon. No doubt like many aspiring academics, I’ve been wondering if there‘s a way I can have both. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started to think more about how home and my desire for an academic job intersect, to consider whether I’d be willing to live and work anywhere for the elusive full-time contract. Increasingly the answer is, ‘no’.  Don’t get me wrong; I’d love an academic job, but it has to be the right one.

Until now I was too willing to write off the alternatives because of the widely-held attitude that anything less than a full-time lectureship or research fellowship is a failure, something that marks out a lesser mind. Of course, financial considerations have to be taken into account too, and I’m no supporter of the way the system seems to be shifting towards contingent labour (an excess of short-term, part-time, or even zero hours contracts can’t be good for either academic staff or their students). My career-making, I suspect, will be magpie-like; some leaves from here, twigs from there. I’ll do my best to steal the opportunities that will make it sparkle. Perhaps it’s worth moving back to a geographical home, too. Maybe my nesting would be better-served by the metaphor of putting down roots and then branching out.


Recently there’s been a flurry of news coverage of the premiere of Anna Meredith’s HandsFree, a 20×12 Cultural Olympiad commission. Written for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the piece requires the players to put down their instruments and produce sounds by stamping, clapping and beatboxing. 

Meredith is by no means the first musician to draw on body percussion, though hers is the first piece I’ve come across that requires a whole orchestra (please leave a comment below if you know of any other ‘orchestral’ body percussion pieces!). Body percussion has formed part of the sound world across a range of musical styles, from the pop-infused work of Bobby McFerrin to the more noticeably avant garde. My favourite example is Vinko Globokar’s Corporel:

Sound can be produced by stamping the feet, patting or slapping the thighs, chest or buttocks, clicking the fingers or clapping the hands. Different parts of the body produce different sounds, and different techniques can be used to modify the sounds produced.  The sounds produced by striking the body are sometimes supplemented by vocal clicks and pops.

But what prompts this musical self-flagellation? A desire to explore a timbral palette beyond what might be offered by orchestral instruments surely plays a part, as does the inherently performative nature of this method of sound production. For me, these works offer an interesting take on the body-as-instrument. They play out a complicated relationship between different ways of thinking about the body and/as self. On one hand (no pun intended) they show the body-as-mind, the instigator whose choreography brings sound the music to life. On the other hand the body is treated as inert flesh, little more than meat that can be slapped and hit. The body becomes a resonator box, at once a sounding force and a hollow space that provides a home for the soul or self.

Interactive Instruments and Embodied Learning Experiences

Rostratt: The Mobile Room, Interactive Environments and Music Sharing.

Just before Christmas I received a newsletter from MEDEA (a centre for collaborative media at Malmo University) about a project being carried out in a pre-school. Researchers are designing various interactive technologies to allow the children to explore the corporeal experience of sound and music-making. The games and instruments being developed include a visualisation tool that allows participants to see the correlation between vocal qualities and the amount of air in the lungs (I’m a bit sceptical about role of, and need for, visualisation in this one) and ‘The Insect Instrument’ for ‘singing and composing quiet sounds’. The project is still at the pilot stage at the moment, but I’m looking forward to hearing more about its findings as the research develops.

You can read more about the project by clicking on the orange subtitle at the top of this article, or by visiting The Right to your Voice: New Musical Instruments, Environments and Creativity.