MUSING | A Pause to Consider Body Memory


“Perhaps the body has its own memory system, like the invisible meridian lines those Chinese acupuncturists always talk about. Perhaps the body is unforgiving, perhaps every cell, every muscle and fragment of bone remembers each and every assault and attack. Maybe the pain of memory is encoded into our bone marrow and each remembered grievance swims in our bloodstream like a hard, black pebble.” -Thrity Umrigar, The Space Between Us

In my recent musing on the acknowledgment of time (available here), it became evident that the body is critical to the confirmation of its existence and our understanding of it as a philosophical query. And further, our perception and acknowledgment of time is intrinsically attached to our memories – whether they are remembered, recollected, or reminded is inconsequential, it is that they exist and how they impact our existence that matters (see also my musing on memory by clicking here). Admittedly, I am obsessed with the body as a, or rather the, most poignant starting point in both my philosophical research and my artistic practice; it is but a short distance that I am moving to looking closely at how trauma, and more specifically, on how illness affects not only our bodies but also our memories (and successively our perception of time). It is within this research that a concept that couples both the physical and the psychological continues to emerge: body memory; and I find it compulsory to pause for a moment to more thoughtfully explore this notion. To consider that our memories may be imprinted onto, or rather into, our physical selves is broader than one might think; as, upon further consideration, it swells to also envelope into habitual body memory and perceptions of the momentary body. In an attempt to decipher this specific mode of memory, I will reflect on the views of Aristotle, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Edward S. Casey in both separate and parallel exchanges.

Aristotle describes body memory as “dispositional memory [affection]” which is an ability that lasts over a period of time, which belongs to a man whether awake or asleep. Aristotle would address this type of memory as an affection and it doesn’t count as true memory until a small interval has passed. This affection would turn out to be a sort of imprint stamped into a bodily organ.[1] To consider that memories may exist beyond our cerebral capacities is a provocative idea, that they may not only exist, but thrive whether we are conscious or not within our physical selves greatly propels the importance of memory to our very being. But, are these memories dichotomous? Are they the memories of both our physical and psychological experiences?

Casey expands the line of reasoning past where Aristotle halts, completely cementing the need and importance of body memory. “It is often in the suspension of just such a basic and taken-for-granted operation that we are reminded of how pivotal and presupposed body memory is in our lives...the absence of body memory would amount to the devastation of memory altogether.”[2] “If the body is indeed ‘the natural subject of perception’ and the ‘point of view on points of view,’ body memory is in turn the natural center of any sensitive account of remembering.”[3]

In contrast to the “momentary body” which is described as the lived body as it operates to meet the particular demands of a given moment; let us also look at the “habitual body” which serves to guarantee the actions of the momentary body – allowing for all bodily actions (whether innovative or routine, adaptive or maladaptive) to gain momentum and pattern of deployment. It determines how we are in the world. Merleau-Ponty provides some clarity as he wrote: “that the body is seen to comprise ‘like two distinct layers’, the ‘habitual body’ and the ‘present body.’ The former signifies the body as it has been lived in the past, in virtue of which it has acquired certain habitual ways of relating to the world. The ‘habitual body’ already projects a habitual setting around itself, thereby giving a general structure to the subject’s situation. This setting allows the body to ‘expect’ all that it will encounter and thus be considered an ‘anonymous’, more ’pre-personal’ global intentionality. As such, it draws together a comprehensive past, which it puts at the disposal of each new present, thereby already laying down the general form of a future it anticipates.”

Habitual body memory clearly involves the past embodied in actions, and no matter how they may vary in detail and/or frequency, “such memories are continuously at work in our experience and are constitutive of its very fabric.”[4] Encouragingly, if we are to follow Merleau-Ponty’s argument; then, these specific body memories also serve as a protective and hopeful guardian. He surmised, “… Subsequently, thanks to the ‘habitual body’, subjects may remain indefinitely open to a future that has in fact been ruled out by an injury.”[5]

It is clear that the proper vehicle for habitual body memories and acts in terms of continuing and general features of the surrounding world is the “customary body:” our lived body that supports our existence and operates to meet all the demands (physical, emotional, or psychological) that we face. The “habitual body” is not altogether that different and is essentially a peripheral layer that we draw upon effortlessly to guarantee the actions of the “momentary body.” Implicitly referring to the sensations attributed to a ghost limb of an amputee or the repetitive remembering of an action (such as typing), both memories are pivotal, radical, and powerful. Casey, quoting Merleau-Ponty agrees: “The habituality enacted in both cases is a ‘power of dilating our being in the world.”[6]

So, then, I can only conclude that regardless of type, body memory is essential to the understanding and perseverance of self as it boldly takes us past mere recollection of the two-dimensional scenes and into the depths where the lived body resides.[7] And, as it appears, where the crux of all our memories reside as well. The obvious question, then, is what (if anything) happens to our experience(s) if our body is marred, transfigured, or depleted? Does it continue to serve as a complete vessel, or do we lose possibilities as we lose organs, functions, or limbs? I eagerly continue my pursuit into the complex philosophical and physical disciplines to find out.

*Author’s note: Artist Alina Szapocznikow was a Polish sculptor who I believe was remarkable in her efforts to re-conceptualize sculpture as an imprint not only of memory but also of the body; and in particular, of her own body. Simultaneously personal and surreal, Szapocznikow’s oeuvre highlights some of the ideas noted above in very interesting ways and this is why I posted several images of her provocative work with this musing. My thoughts should in no way be interpreted as a critique of or description for her work.

If you would like to know more about Szapocznikow, visit: http://culture.pl/en/artist/alina-szapocznikow

Images (from top to bottom): Petit Dessert I (Small Dessert I), 1970–71, colored polyester resin and glass, 3 3/16 x 4 5/16 x 5 1/8 inches, Kravis Collection, © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanisławski/ADAGP, Paris, Photo by Thomas Mueller, courtesy Broadway 1602, New York and Galerie Gisela Capitain GmbH, Cologne; Portret wielokrotny (dwukrotny) (Multiple Portrait [Double]), 1967, Colored polyester resin and granite, 73.7 x 48.3 x 43.2 cm, Collection Sandra and Gerald Fineberg, © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanislawski/ADAGP, Paris, photo by Thomas Mueller, courtesy BROADWAY 1602, New York; Autoportret I (Self-Portrait I), 1966, Marble and polyester resin, 41 x 30 x 20 cm, The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanislawski, © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/Piotr Stanislawski/ADAGP, Paris, Photo © Fabrice Gousset, Paris, courtesy Piotr Stanislawski and Galerie Gisela Capitain GmbH, Cologne; Illuminated Lips, since 1966, dyed polyester, electric light, 28 x 52 cm, Courtesy of Piotr Stanisławski and Galerie Gisela Capitain GmbH, Koln., WIELS

Footnotes:[1] Richard Sorabji, Aristotle on Memory. (Providence: Brown University Press, 1972) De Memoria et Reminiscentia, 2.;[2] Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 147.;[3] Edward S. Casey, 148 and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, 1962), 206.;[4] Edward S. Casey, 149 and 334-335.;[5] Monika Langer, A Guide and commentary on The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Tallahassee: The Florida State University Press, 1989), 32.;[6] Edward S. Casey, 335.;[7] or “the dimension in which things or elements of things envelop each other”, Merleau-Ponty, 264-265.

Bibliography: “Aristotle (3840322 BCE): General Introduction.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. 10 April 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/aristotl.htm#H6>.; Apostle, Hippocrates G. (transl.) Aristotle’s Physics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1969.; Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.; Frampton, Hollis. “Incisions in History, Segments of Eternity.” ArtForum October 1974: 39-50.; Golomb, Jacob. In Search of Authenticity, From Kierkegaard to Camus, Problems of Modern European Thought. London, England: Rutledge, 1995.; Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton, 1934.; Langer, Monika. A guide and commentary on The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Tallahassee, FL: The Florida State University Press, 1989.; Madison, Gary Brent. The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Series in Continental Though: V. 3. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981.; McConkey, Lynn. Truth in Memory. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1998.; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, 1962.; Prior, A.N. “Thank Goodness that’s Over.” Philosophy; The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy No. XXXIV (1959): 12-17.; Reynolds, Jack. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. University of Tasmania. 11 February 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/m/merleau.htm>.; Sorabji, Richard. Aristotle on Memory. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1972.

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