1.1 Lived Experience: Bodies and Life


I initiate this inquiry into the relationship between lived experience and artistic creativity by examining the work of key phenomenological theorists. I begin with phenomenology because of its “attempt to describe the basic structures of human experience and understanding from a first person point of view” (Carman 1945/2012, p. viii). In particular I examine the work of Merleau-Ponty who asserts that the body “is not like some inert thing, it itself sketches out the movement of existence” (1945/2012, p. 86) and is of central concern because “the body is our general means of having a world” (1945/2012, p.147). As Elizabeth Grosz (1994) notes, despite the range of disciplinary activity surrounding the body, we have still not found adequate ways to reconcile the fact that bodies can never be wholly reducible to a thing; nor can they rise completely above the status of thing. As performance practitioner Susan Kozel says, “bodies are more than just meat; they are sources of intelligence, compassion, and extraordinary creativity” (2007, p. xvi). At a fundamental level “sensory organs and motor organs are in fact co-ordinated with each other” (Bergson 1911/2005, p. 326).

The inability to linguistically reconcile the physical and intellectual modes of lived experience results in persistent mind/body binary concepts about bodies that remain somewhat at odds with human experience. Gallagher and Zahavi note that mind/body binary concepts arise because, when considering the nature of lived experience, it is not clear whether the “thing under study” is “material or immaterial” (2012, p. 7). Neither the seemingly material body nor the seemingly immaterial mind can, therefore, be relinquished.

The problem, according to Husserl, is that the experiencer is both “causal” and “conditional”, and always in relationship with other and the world (1952/1989, p. 167). The transformation from causal to conditional, which Husserl calls the “turning point”, is problematic because it lies hidden from the experiencer (p. 168). Merleau-Ponty later takes up this idea and attempts to reconcile the conundrum of the “turning point” by devoting a whole chapter to what he calls “the intertwining – the chiasm”(1964/1968, p. 130). He explains that this “crisscrossing” only happens because we can feel ourselves from within and from without; “my hand while it is felt from within is also accessible from without” (p. 133). Merleau-Ponty is therefore concerned with what he calls the “unity of the senses with intelligence” (1945/2012, p. 137).

Many artistic practitioners have found the phenomenological method useful for exploring this unity of the senses with intelligence. For example, Kozel notes, “as a method, phenomenology involves a return to lived experience, a listening to the senses and insights that arrive obliquely, unbidden, in the midst of movement experiments or quite simply in the midst of life” (2007, p. xvi). Kozel’s project is particularly concerned with addressing the relationship between bodies and digital technologies, and questioning the binaries that exist “between human and computer” (2007, p. xvii).

Grosz argues that phenomenology is not adequate for an inquiry into the fundamental structure of bodies because phenomenology assumes “the functional or experiencing body as a given rather than as the effect of processes of continual creation, movement, or individuation” (2011, p. 28). She suggests that, “new terms and different conceptual frameworks need to be devised if bodies are to be talked about “outside or in excess of binary pairs” (1994, p. 24). She claims that without “some reflection on the most general and abstract conditions of corporeality and materiality, and the forces that weigh on our bodies and their products” we cannot reformulate the “questions of subjectivity, inter-subjectivity, identity, the body and materiality” (2005, p. 114). Grosz turns to the work of Charles Darwin (1859) and various other Twentieth Century philosophers who have expanded upon Darwin’s ideas to help reformulate these questions.

According to Grosz, the philosophical implications of Darwin’s work have still not had their full impact on our understandings of corporeality and materiality. Darwin’s “concept of life as dynamic, collective, change” is, according to Grosz, an, as yet, undervalued “gift to the humanities and social science” (2005, p. 36). Darwin transforms life from a static quality into a dynamic process. There is a deeper ontology at play in his work that transforms lived experience into an open-ended process that is affected by the immersive and durational conditions of life. As such, lived experience becomes a radically different proposition.

Using this dynamic concept of life, originating from Darwin, Grosz questions the experiencing body as a fundamental organising structure. In doing so, she pulls into focus what she refers to as the “unity of life” (2011, p.33). This unity, according to Grosz, is not about genetic affiliations or taxonomies, but is about the idea that all of life is “equally pushed” in its origin as a process that emerges from the “prebiotic soup” of chemical elements: that these elements are unified by temporal or evolutionary drives to differentiate and capitalize on material conditions (p. 33). She synthesises this position as follows:

Although Darwin does not say so, it is clear in the writings of Nietzsche and Bergson and, through them, Deleuze, who elaborate a new kind of philosophy in his wake, that life must be understood as the ongoing tendency to actualize the virtual, to make tendencies and potentialities real, to explore organs and activities so as to facilitate and maximise the actions they make possible. The living body is itself the ongoing provocation for inventive practice, for inventing and elaborating widely varying practices, for using organs and activities in unexpected and potentially expansive ways, for making art out of the body’s capacities and actions. (p. 20)

Darwin’s conception of life is “profoundly different from that of his predecessors and contemporaries” because he takes account of its fundamental self-organising structure (Grosz 2005, p. 37). This structure is open, and actively generates and sustains change. In this ontology, life no longer has static qualities or disembodied essences but is a generative force that capitalises on its material conditions by becoming “more rather than less complex” (p. 37). The defining features of Darwinian life are divergent, variable, and open to accident, chance, and the unexpected.

In this ontology, binary concepts take a subordinate role to “the unity of the impulse which, passing through generations, links individuals with individuals, species with species, and makes of the whole series of the living one single immense wave flowing over matter” (Bergson 1911/2005, p. 272). Life for Bergson, and Darwin before, is thus a dynamic process that is both adaptive and generative. Both theorists share an understanding of how life cannot be likened to a machine, as is the “standpoint of science” (Bergson 1911/2005, p. 104). Life for these theorists is not the sum of its component parts but is more like a process of “organising work” or a “sum of obstacles avoided” (Bergson 1911/2005, p. 104). Grosz points out “life is, for Bergson, an extension and elaboration of matter through attenuating divergence or difference” (2011, p. 30).

Grosz thus positions what she calls the “living body” as an “ongoing provocation for inventive practice” (2011, p. 20). As such, she goes on to also question binary concepts about life and matter (2011, p. 30). Grosz summarises Bergson’s position on life and matter as follows:

Mind and matter, rather than binary terms, are different degrees of duration, different tensions, modes of relaxation or contraction, neither opposed nor continuous, but different nuances, different actualizations of one and the same, ever-differing duration that equally touches and transforms the material and the living world. Matter and life are thus not opposites, binary pairs (plus or minus vital force), as many of Bergson’s readers have assumed in labelling him a dualist, but intimately implicated in each other, different degrees of one and the same force. Life is matter extended into the virtual; matter is life compressed into dormancy…. Life and matter cannot, in this tradition, be understood as binary opposites; rather they are divergent tendencies, two different directions or trajectories inherent in a single whole, matter as undivided, matter as it includes its “others” – life, ideality, connectivity, temporality. (2011, p. 32)

This ontology has radical implications for the extent to which we try to conceptualise human artistic creativity from a purely subjective position. If, as Grosz suggests, life “touches and transforms the material and the living world” and if life is “for making art out of the body’s capacities and actions”, then life might be conceptualised as a fundamentally creative process (2011, p. 32). Decentring the authority of the subject raises questions about the extent to which a first-person study, such as this one, can fully realise the ontological implications. However, for my part, recognising how evolutionary forces such as duration, difference, adaptation and generation play a formative role in life provides an alternative approach to artistic creativity that has yielded some useful insights for creative practice. I also note that recognising life as the fundamental organising structure does not dispense with the need for binary concepts. It simply places binaries in a secondary position, and in doing so, creates an alternative conceptual framework for understanding how the primary forces of life might act upon processes of human artistic creativity.

Grosz believes Darwin left philosophy with questions that need to be addressed about “the immersion of consciousness in life, and the immersion of life in time and materiality” (2005, p. 116) that others, such as Bergson and Merleau-Ponty, have since taken up. She claims that, “to focus on the subject at the cost of focusing on the forces that make up the world is to lose the capacity to see beyond the subject, to engage with the world, to make the real” (2011, p. 84). For Grosz, this is a process of “eschewing recognition altogether” because, as she says, “I am not what others see in me, but what I do, what I make. I become according to what I do, not who I am” (p. 85).  For Bergson “reality is movement” and “what is real is the continual change of form: form is only a snapshot view of a transition” (1911/2005, p. 328).

I note, however, that choosing to focus on transitions and deliberately avoiding binary concepts is a difficult task. Even when artist-researchers do try to avoid mind/body binaries to describe the lived experience of artistic creativity, there is still a subtle schism in their conceptualisations. For example, Warbuton, in his work on the phenomenology of dance, augments the usual mind/body binary by saying dance “engages all aspects of the brain, body, and mind” (2011, p. 67). However, his list implies that the brain, body, and mind are somehow separate even though his intention is to communicate the opposite.

When the brain is singled out in this way, there is a subtle privileging of it as an independent site responsible for, or at least initiating, sensing, perceiving, moving, and sounding. What happens, for instance, if we experiment with making the heart, the bones, or the lungs responsible for sensing, perceiving, moving, and sounding? If we are truly concerned with recognising the multifarious sensations and perceptions of the body, then should not the list also include heart, lungs, skin, and other such itemised physical attributes? I recognise that embracing multiplicity in this way potentially creates a linguistic conundrum because, if we are to always list the component parts, the list then becomes unwieldy and absurdly long. My main point here, however, is about how we might enact multiplicities and truly eschew binary concepts. What happens if we avoid binary concepts by consciously attempting to access experience differently? Can this lead to new terms and more expansive frameworks for understanding the fundamental structures of lived experience?

To date, the search for language to describe lived experience outside and in excess of common binaries remains problematic. The term ‘mind’ is problematic because it is so often reduced to the cognitive activities of the brain, and the term ‘body’ is problematic because it is so contested and is often reduced to an object for the enactment of mind. In her seminal work, Volatile Bodies (1994), Grosz analyses the heterogeneity of the term body and how it has been variously conceptualised and binarised in Western discourses. In this comprehensive volume Grosz (1994) describes the ways in which the body has been variously explored as object, vessel, conduit; studied from social, political, gendered, biological, and historical perspectives; psychoanalytically investigated from the inside out, and socio-culturally investigated from the outside in; and theorised as passive, active, inscribed, nurtured, natured, and as non-objectified fields, intensities and flows.

Some philosophers have addressed the linguistic mind/body conundrum by using combinatory terms that include both concepts. For example, in his posthumously published work, The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty presents what he calls the “sensible sentient”(1964/1968, p. 137) to signify the intertwining nature of human lived experience. Deleuze and Guattari develop complex conjunctions about fundamental structures by focusing on a two-sided thing that faces both the “machinic assemblage” (attributable to a subject), and the Artaudian term “body without organs” (attributable to that which disassembles the intensities of matter) (1987/1988, p.4).

Body-centred practitioners, on whom I focus in this project, tend to use combinatory terms to signify a non-binary position on the body. For example, Alexander (1923/2004, p. 11) uses the term “psycho-physical” to describe the inseparability of mind and body, Bainbridge Cohen (2012, p. 1) coins the hyphened phrase “body-mind” to signify how “the mind is expressed through the body in movement”, and Gendlin (1981a, p. 10) uses the term “felt sense” to signify a kind of “bodily awareness…a body-sense of meaning” which the experiencer can attune to and learn to more readily access through a process he devised called ‘Focusing’.  Focusing explores an introspective way of being that pays patient attention to the vague and visceral felt senses of the body until meaning unfolds and can be articulated.

So, what are we to call this thing that we experience, this living thing that involves moving, sounding, sensing, perceiving, acting, and creating? What are we to call this thing that is activated by both human subjective/inter-subjective experience and the constitutional immersive conditions of life? The answer lies somewhere in the middle of psychic and physicalist terms. To account for the human I simply use the term lived experience so that I avoid even the subtle binary inherent in the terms such as living body and experiencing body. To account for the constitutional conditions of life, I use the term ‘other’, as Grosz does, to signify evolutionary conditions whereby, as Grosz notes:

The subjective, the inter-subjective, the human must be positioned in a context in which the subhuman, the extra-human, and the nonhuman play a formative but not a determining role, in which the human in its diverse forms and corporealities emerges from and functions within natural, technological, and social orders in which it finds itself placed as event and advent rather than as agent. (2005, p. 128)

I also use the term ‘world’, as Grosz does, to explore how being uses the world to live in, and how the resistance of the world to immediate desires creates a temporal waiting that generates problems and creates things that act as temporary solutions. I note that desire is not linked to a fantasy that strives for an impossible or unattainable object, such as an unaffordable diamond ring, but desire is linked, in the Deleuzian sense, to what it produces, what it connects with in relationship to other human or non-human bodies/things/energies.

Like Grosz, I position Merleau-Ponty’s writing within a lineage that includes Darwin and Bergson rather than the common lineage of phenomenological thinkers, “from Hegel through Husserl to Heidegger, Satre, and de Beauviour” (Grosz 2005, p. 115). This repositioning of Merleau-Ponty’s work within this lineage is helpful for my research because it focuses attention on the fundamental structures of human creativity. It provides an alternative framework for understanding the lived experience of artistic creativity that resonates with my own and other artists’ experiences as will be reported in Chapters Four and Five.

Following Grosz, I “reflect on the most general and abstract conditions of corporeality and materiality, and the forces that weigh on our bodies and their products” to “see what has commonly remained invisible or unseen in our everyday…habits and assumptions” (2005, p. 114). Grosz suggests returning, as Merleau-Ponty did, to the “question of ‘wild Being’, to the question of the substance of the world, to the relations between mind and matter, the living and the natural, and the centrality of perception to conceptualising their interface” (2005, p. 114). I raise ontological questions about the invisible mind/body, subject/object binary habits and assumptions that are commonly associated with the lived experience of artistic creativity and include a consideration of non-human affective forces in the process of making meaning of experience.

Following Grosz again, I turn to the work of Bergson and Merleau-Ponty because the two philosophers share a commitment to an immersive ontology where active becoming continually drives the development of things beyond their given properties. This ontology holds steady the position that “life is emergent, developed from below, from particular organizations of matter, not a mystical force, a kind of modern “soul” that animates life from above” (Grosz 2005, p. 116). I am guided by the following position that Grosz takes on ontology:

As Bergson makes clear, and Merleau-Ponty affirms, it is the resistance of the world to the immediacy of human wishes, its capacity to make us wait, that makes us produce and invent, that makes us human, conscious beings. It is because we cannot but be beings who deal with and through matter, objects, things that we invent imagine, and use the world to live in. (2005, p. 128)

I am drawn to Bergson’s concept of life because it encapsulates the generative fundamental structures of creative activity in the world. This Bergsonian concept allows the many difficulties associated with mind/body, subject/object binary concepts to “vanish” and “gives us more power to act and to live” (1911/2005, p. 295). In this world-view, “humanity no longer seems isolated in the nature that it dominates” because “all the living hold together, and yield to the same tremendous push” (p. 295). This idea resonates strongly with the ways in which artists live in the world. For example, performance artist Gómez-Peña, says that “performance is an ontological attitude to the whole universe” (2004, XX Time and Space). Musician Louis Armstrong puts it simply as, “what we play is life” (Armstrong cited in Cameron 1992, p. 3).

Merleau-Ponty’s concept of wild Being shares many attributes of Bergsonian life. For this reason, it is worth considering this concept in more detail. Grosz wonders whether Merleau-Ponty is actually reformulating “what Bergson understands as creative evolution” (2005, p. 127) in developing the concept of wild Being. I am drawn to wild Being as a related but different concept to Bergsonian life because it adds another qualitative dimension that, for me, is more closely aligned with the lived experience of artistic creativity. The next section explores this concept in the light of my question about the relationship between lived experience and artistic creativity.


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