Somatic Modes of Attention: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “Somatic Modes of Attention,” which was published in the May 1993 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Interview with Thomas Csordas

Editors: Please provide a description of what affect means to you. Is it distinct from "emotion"? If so, how?

Thomas Csordas: It has traditionally been the case in anthropology that affect and emotion are synonyms. As far as my reading goes, I think this is the case in much of the literature on the anthropology of emotion. If one were to say that affect refers more to feeling and sensibility while emotion refers more to the meaning and positive or negative valence of a situation, it would seem only to set one on the path to separating this domain of experience into spheres associated with body and mind – a path, if I may say so, toward a slippery slope of dualism.

E: What is affect’s relationship to language, where language is broadly understood as a formal configuration of relationships of difference that cannot reducible to spoken words (i.e., "language" in the conventional sense of oral communication)?

TC: It's interesting first of all that the question is posed in terms of language that is not reducible to spoken words, whereas from a stance toward affect as a function of embodiment one would prefer to emphasize spoken words that are not reducible to language as a formal (Saussurian) system. If language is understood first of all as an expression of, in Merleau-Ponty's term, our "sonorous being," then it's already invested with affect. Language as a formal system can be abstracted form spoken language by linguistics from language as spoken, just as emotional meaning can be abstracted form spoken language by psychoanalysis.

E: How is the notion of affect helpful or relevant to your work? Would you categorize your work as "affect studies"? If so, can this category be rigorously distinguished from others “kinds” of anthropology?

TC: My impression is that affect studies originates outside anthropology and with little interaction with the anthropology of emotion. My suspicion is that it may appeal to anthropologists who still bear a lingering aversion to “the psychological” as reductionistic or inaccessible rather than as adding a dimension of experiential immediacy and intersubjectivity to analyses of culture and power. My concern is that the "affect" of affect studies may be understood primarily as a product or consequence of social forces rather than as a phenomenon of intentionality and existence. If, for example, affect is defined primarily as intensity (see Massumi) it appears as inherently impersonal, a function of automatons rather than people.

E: Does attention to affect change the field for potential political action? Is it related to older concepts like "ideology" or "structures of feeling"?

TC: The first step toward understanding the political relevance of affect is to recognize that it is not just a locus of subjectivity but a feature of intersubjectivity. From there it’s a short step to power, persuasion, and politics.

E: What methodological advice do you have for anthropologists in the field who are researching affect? How might they approach fieldwork? What specific techniques might they find useful?

TC: The most basic thing to attend to is tone of voice (see Jenkins on expressed emotion). Second is ethos: the emotional tone of interactive situations, ranging from casual dyadic interactions to complex ritual scenarios. Third is your own gut feelings ranging from anxiety to elation – ethnography itself includes a somatic mode of attention. Fourth, remember the words of William Blake: Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps… Exuberance is Beauty.

E: What has inspired your work, and in what ways might it contribute to a more thorough understanding of affect?

TC: My work has been inspired by the urge to understand the conditions of possibility for transformation, change, and healing in human existence, and by the recognition of imagination as the most fundamental human capacity. Even though I don't make much explicit use of affect as a concept, I have to conclude that these concerns are what led the curators of this collection to include my article, and I'm gratified to have my article recognized in this way.

E: From your perspective, what is the relationship between affect, as you understand it, and embodiment? How does the concept of affect contribute to embodiment as a methodological field?

TC: Recently I attended a lecture in cognitive science on how people orient themselves in the physical landscape. A brilliant piece of work, but when in the post-lecture question session the speaker was asked how affect might play into his analysis, he acted as if he was unfamiliar with the term, and in trying to formulate a response resorted to the word "affection." It was quite striking that at this late date there is still such a gulf between cognition and affect, thought and emotion, where emotion and affect are still implicitly part of an unthinking body and where ironically there is an attempt underway to develop an approach to "embodied cognition." I began thinking about embodiment through a reading of Merleau-Ponty on perception, moving from perception to attention in an intersubjective and intercorporeal milieu constituted in religious terms and at least in part defined by, indeed permeated with, affect. In my own current way of thinking, affect fits into embodiment as a methodological field as one among ten components of corporeality. These include bodily form, sensory experience, movement or motility, orientation, capacity, gender, metabolism/physiology, copresence, temporality, and affect.

E: Has your conceptualization of embodiment shifted since you wrote the article? How so?

TC: I wrote "Somatic Modes of Attention" at the same time as "Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology." In fact, they were originally a single manuscript much too long to publish, and it made sense for somatic modes of attention to be treated separately as another concrete example of how to work in the paradigm of embodiment (and by the way, by paradigm I mean a methodological stance, not a Kuhnian paradigm in any grand sense). At that time I defined embodiment as an indeterminate methodological field, but without elaborating in any detail how that field is constituted. Recently I've felt an obligation to do so, and the first step in this direction is my piece "Embodiment: Agency, Sexual Difference, and Illness" (in Frances E. Mascia-Lees, ed. Companion to the Anthropology of the Body/Embodiment, 2011). I define three dimensions of the field, including structures of agency in the relation between our bodies and the world, sexual difference, and components of corporeality. In the book I'm working on I go on to identify the threshold between embodiment as a methodological field and two overlapping methodological fields, namely animality and materiality. The other shift in my thinking since then has been from using ethnographic material on religious experience to formulate an understanding of embodiment toward using embodiment to formulate a cultural phenomenological understanding of religious experience. That line of thinking is developed in my article "Asymptote of the Ineffable: Embodiment, Alterity, and the Theory of Religion" Current Anthropology 45(2004): 163-85.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

What is the difference between embodiment and textuality?

How does Csordas extend Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological methodology?

Why is there an place for a paradigm of embodiment in anthropological theory?

How does the the concept of "somatic modes of attention" fill this opening?

What does "indeterminacy" mean in this article, and what does the concept have to do with anthropological analysis?

Why did Csordas choose to explore an embodiment framework through healing? Could he have analyzed other ethnographic settings to make his argument?

If you were to analyze the article’s ethnographic data through a textual framework instead of an embodiment framework, what questions would you ask? How might your conclusions differ?

How does Csordas draw on his own fieldwork experiences to illustrate the ambiguity of analytic concepts?

What other sorts of ethnographic evidence does Csordas use, and why?

Compare and contrast Merleau-Ponty’s and Bourdieu’s approaches to the body.

Are you convinced by Csordas’ argument? What potential pitfalls do you see in an embodiment framework?

Further Readings

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. R. Nice, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Jackson, Michael. Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Mauss, Marcel. "Les Techniques du Corps," in Sociologie et Anthropologie. Paris: Presses Universitares de France, 1950.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. J. Edie, ed. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

---. Phenomenology of Perception. C. Smith, trans. London: Routledge, 1962.

Ots, Thomas. "Phenomenology of the Body: The Subect-Object Problem in Psychosomatic Medicine and the Role of Traditional Medical Systems." In Anthropologies of Medicine: A Colloquium of West European and North American Perspectives. B. Pflederer and G. Bibeau, eds. Wiesbade: Wieweg, 1990.

Turner, Bryan. The Body and Society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.