<<

. 19
( 41 .)



>>

meliorative methods of experiential somaesthetics that enhance our abil-
ities to know, inhabit, and even to some extent modify the qualitative
experience and proprioceptive signals of advanced age.
Before pursuing this point, note how the value of representational
somaesthetics is likewise implied in Beauvoir™s claim that old age is essen-
tially de¬ned by the gaze of the external observer. Since such observers
do not determine our age by reading our birth certi¬cates but by judging
our appearance, if we do not look like old men and women in decline,
then we will not be treated as such. Hence, by working to keep our bodily
appearance different from that of aged decrepitude, we can better and
longer avoid that discriminatory label and the social subjugation it tends
to bring.
Body Consciousness
104

Millions of men and women (from diverse ethnicities, cultures, and
classes) clearly appreciate this logic, devoting enormous time and
expense to cosmetic treatments and other methods designed to make
them look younger than their chronological age (if not also their physio-
logical and performative age). Should we simply condemn them for sell-
ing out to society™s concern for surface appearances? This facile response
unfairly ignores the fact that some surface appearances (including those
of old age) are richly freighted with deep meanings that signi¬cantly
shape social reality; they cannot properly be ignored but need to be
negotiated or deployed to sustain an individual™s social power. A business
executive whose success requires projecting strength, dynamism, energy,
and future promise cannot maintain that image (and consequently his
position) if he looks too old and weak. So he preserves his social author-
ity by working on a more youthful, dynamic appearance, which, without
lying about his age, refutes the presumption that advanced age entails
physical feebleness. Such personal efforts can have more than personal
effects. If more elderly people successfully projected an image of prime-
of-life vigor and ¬tness, then the automatic association of old age with
unattractive decrepitude would be undermined, and with it much of old
age™s social stigma that contributes to its disempowerment.
This does not mean that seventy-year-olds should try to look seventeen
or even thirty-seven. The ridiculous futility of such attempts in no way
negates the value of representational somaesthetics for empowering the
aged. On the contrary, it shows that somaesthetic attention is needed
to develop new images of vigorous and able-bodied good looks that are
appropriate for seniors, while also exploring the best methods to real-
ize them in practice. With stereotypes of beauty con¬ned to the forms
it takes in one™s teens through forties, there is no apparent option for
an attractive elderly appearance whose power and dignity can serve the
social authority of seniors. As millions of baby boomers approach old age,
reluctant to relinquish their self-image of energetic dynamism spawned
by the dominant youth culture that formed their psyches, there is increas-
ingly urgent interest in ¬nding such models of attractively healthful aging.
While Beauvoir recognizes that women™s sense of power has been boosted
by “a new aesthetics” of somatic appearance that transformed the estab-
lished stereotype of soft, passive, female ¬‚esh into a new bodily image that
is “muscular, supple, strong [and] . . . bound to suggest transcendence”
and activity (SS, 262), she fails to make a parallel argument for the trans-
formative value of a new empowering somaesthetics of aging.
Methods for improving bodily appearance often overlap with disci-
plines aimed at enhancing strength, health, and performance. Although
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 105

bodybuilding, for example, may focus primarily on external looks, its
techniques and bene¬ts extend into the strength training of performa-
tive somaesthetics, whose goal is not the mere image of functional potency
and healthy vigor but their lived reality and utilization in actual practice.
Most dieters are primarily concerned with a more attractively slender
appearance, but their weight loss, exercise, and more wholesome eating
habits typically result in better health, greater energy, and consequently
improved performance. Because our culture prizes functionality, perfor-
mative power is essential to sustaining the personal effectiveness needed
for full social recognition, which the aged, in their ineffectual feebleness,
are so often denied.
Alert to this fundamental insight, Beauvoir astutely identi¬es and
refutes a pervasively in¬‚uential philosophical argument for shrugging
off the problem of old-age weakness by construing its somatic enfeeble-
ment as instead a blessing in disguise. Ever since Plato af¬rmed that
old age relieves us from unruly passions fueled by youthful bodily vigor,
philosophers have often argued that bodily weakness or af¬‚iction pro-
motes the strength of the soul, by encouraging us to focus on this higher
part of us. Beauvoir vehemently contests this claim as wishful “nonsense”
that is “indecent” in its refusal to confront the genuine experience and
conditions of old age (CA, 316).
Though age brings decline in the sexual glands and consequent reduc-
tion of genital function, Beauvoir offers ample evidence that the elderly
are not released from sexual desire and other passions (CA, 317“352).
Because sexual desire and activity are not con¬ned to genital behavior,
they can continue well into old age. The libido, moreover, is not a merely
physical drive but “psychosomatic” and shaped by one™s sociocultural
context (CA, 317, 323). Nonetheless, it thrives on physical health (as also
mental energy ultimately does). Since sexuality forms an important part
of our sense of self, the loss of libido through aging™s somatic weakness
“is a mutilation that brings other mutilations with it: sexuality, vitality,
and activity are indissolubly linked” (CA, 350). Yet, Beauvoir does not
draw the conclusion that the elderly should systematically work on their
¬tness in order to heighten the energy resources needed to nurture a
stronger libido and the performative power to exercise it rewardingly in
erotic contact, whose active pleasures, in turn, reinforce a person™s sense
of dynamic, energetic well-being.26

26 Beauvoirfails to recognize the role of somatic vigor and energy when she argues that
manual workers remain sexually active far longer than “brain workers.” This claim (which
seems contestable and which she does not support with empirical data) she explains as
Body Consciousness
106

Beyond the realm of sexual experience, it is equally clear that bodily
in¬rmity does not liberate the mind but instead burdens consciousness
with incessant worries relating to ailments and pain, while depleting the
energy needed for sustained or effortful thinking. As Rousseau once put
it, “the weaker the body, the more it commands” the soul.27 “The old
man™s tragedy,” writes Beauvoir, “is that often he is no longer capable of
what he desires. He forms a project, and then just when it is to be carried
out his body fails him” (CA, 315). While emphasizing how the somatic
weaknesses of old age incapacitate performance and thus diminish self-
con¬dence and social standing, Beauvoir notes that aging athletes can
often nonetheless succeed in “compensating for [their] lost powers to a
very considerable age,” because of their previously acquired “technical
experience” and “precise knowledge of their own bodies.” They thus can
“keep their form” and the social respect such ability commands (CA, 31).
But she never seems to realize that systematic training (in both performa-
tive and experiential techniques) could improve the somatic functioning
of the general elderly population, even though this remedy clearly follows
from the causes she gives for decline in old age.
If loss of social status and self-worth results from diminished functional-
ity through de¬cient strength, health, and energy, then these losses can be
deferred and mitigated through methods that develop somatic skill and
vigor. Pain and suffering from age-related illnesses, many of which can be
prevented through improved somatic ¬tness, should likewise inspire the
study of health-promoting disciplines of somatic self-care. In the same way,
skills of experiential somaesthetics can address the self-alienation gener-
ated from the inability to accurately feel and effectively inhabit one™s
aging body. If the aged have lost their zest for activity because of insuf¬-
cient strength and energy for successfully performing their projects, then
their plight can be countered by somatic methods to sustain and even
build strength and energy. The stale sadness of old age, Beauvoir asserts,
is not because of the weight of our memories, but “because our vision is
no longer given life by fresh projects” that stimulate activity and interest
but reciprocally require it. “The old man™s want of curiosity and his lack of
interest are aggravated by his biological condition,” she admits. “Paying

resulting from manual workers being simpler in their desires and “less dominated by
erotic myths” that demand a beautiful sexual object (CA, 323). A more convincing and
direct explanation would be that manual workers, by leading a more physically active life,
have more capacity and inclination for physical expression and performance, including
that of sex.
27 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. A. Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 54.
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 107

attention to the world tires him. Often he no longer has the strength to
assert even those values which gave his life a meaning” (CA, 451, 453).
Yet, Beauvoir fails to advocate a systematic training of the body to main-
tain the biological vigor and strength needed for pursuing projects that
invest one™s life with interest, meaning, and value. Though conceding that
“Psychologically, old athletes™ perseverance [in sport] has a tonic effect”
and may also help their somatic functioning, she emphasizes sport™s phys-
iological dangers and ineffectiveness for preserving the health of the
elderly. “For two-thirds of them sport is dangerous after sixty . . . [and]
does not delay the ageing of the organs” (CA, 314“315).
Today™s science of aging provides a welcome revision of Beauvoir™s views
on these matters, and increasingly more seniors thus recognize that vigor-
ous exercise is not just reserved for an elite group of former athletes but
constitutes a crucial means for all sorts of older people to improve their
functioning and health. Exercise not only delays age-related weakening
of the body but can sometimes even reverse such weakening. Aging of
the skeletal system, expressed in the frequently hunched and crooked
¬gures of the elderly, is primarily the result of “the loss of calcium from
bone” and is “more severe in older women than in men.” Though the
actual cause of this loss “is not known, and there are no certain methods
of preventing it . . . , numerous studies have shown that exercising regu-
larly can signi¬cantly reduce the rate of calcium loss.”28 Studies clearly
show that a systematic program of exercise is “the best defense against
muscle atrophy” and can “actually increase the strength of the muscles “
even in persons in theirs 70s,” while also apparently improving “the gen-
eral metabolic activity of exercised muscle cells” and “the ability of nerves
to stimulate muscle ¬bers.”29 The major cardiovascular problems of old
age include a decrease of heart rate, stroke volume, and maximal oxygen
consumption (all associated with weakened left-ventricular functioning),
together with high blood pressure (due to decreased elasticity and inter-
nal diameter of the arteries). Numerous studies demonstrate that these
declines can be mitigated through programmatic regimes of vigorous
exercise and (for blood pressure) also of diet. Some ¬ndings indicate
that “individuals as old as 70 years can increase their maximum oxygen
consumption by following an endurance exercise training program, and

28 Alexander Spence, Biology of Human Aging, 2nd ed. (New York: Prentice Hall, 1994), 57.
“One study showed that 45 minutes of moderate weight-bearing exercise three times a
week greatly slows the loss of calcium in older women and, if continued for a year, can
reverse the demineralization that has occurred.” (ibid., 63)
29 Ibid., 71“72.
Body Consciousness
108

the intensity of training necessary to achieve this improvement is lower
than is necessary in younger persons.”30
Performative somaesthetics is not limited to vigorous exercise and
strength training. Subtle somaesthetic methods requiring no sweat-
producing effort can often remedy age-related functional disabilities that
burden the elderly with pain, incapacity, and a sense of powerlessness,
thus hampering their pursuit of projects to enrich their lives with greater
meaning, action, and value. Let me provide an example from my work
as a Feldenkrais practitioner. An elderly man over eighty years old came
to me for help because of soreness in the knees that made it painful and
dif¬cult for him to stand up from sitting. He was particularly frustrated
and depressed by the way this problem inhibited his normally dynamic
and energetic behavior, such that every frequent impulse to get up to do
something “ even simply to get a drink of water or a book to read “ had to
be reconsidered for its cost of pain. The pills and injections that doctors
prescribed for him were of no help, and he was advised that he would
just have to bear the pain as the price of his longevity. When I examined
the way he stood up from his chair, I noticed he used the same basic
mechanics that most of us use when we are young and strong: raising
ourselves straight up vertically by pressing our feet hard into the ground
and pushing through our knees. This involves considerable effort and
pressure on the knee joints, which can easily cause pain when the joints
are injured or simply weak and old.
However, one can also learn to rise from a sitting position by bringing
one™s head, shoulders, arms, and torso to the fore and letting these upper
body parts sink, provisionally, forward and toward the ground. This shift-
ing of upper-body weight (since the body is anatomically top heavy) will
pull the lower body and legs easily up to standing without requiring us
to push through the knees. After a couple of lessons my octogenarian
was able to master this new way of standing up so that he could habituate
it into daily life. The knee problem disappeared. His greater power of
standing was not due to increased muscular strength or effort. It came
from the force of gravity, working through the now less skeletally sup-
ported upper body. Enhanced performative agency is here achieved not


30 Ibid., 122. See also A. A. Ehsani et al., “Exercise Training Improves Left Ventricular Systolic

Function in Older Men,” Circulation, 83, no. 1 (1991): 96“103; and P. A. Beere et al,
“Aerobic Exercise Training Can Reverse Age-Related Peripheral Circulatory Changes in
Healthy Older Men,” Circulation, 100, no. 10 (1999), 1085“1094.
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation 109

by building the body™s autonomous power but by learning a more intel-
ligent method of utilizing the larger powers of nature that intersect and
inhabit the individual whose body and self are always more than one™s
own.
To master this method of standing up, the octogenarian had to learn
greater proprioceptive awareness of the positions of his head, limbs, and
torso and acquire a more conscious sense of balance with his upper-body
weight unsupported and his head much closer to the ¬‚oor, a position that
initially can feel frighteningly like falling. This need of heightened expe-
riential awareness for improving motor skills exempli¬es the interactive
overlap of performative and experiential somaesthetics. As the weight
lifter needs to discern experientially the pain that builds muscle from
the pain that signals damage, so the elderly exerciser needs to develop a
better experiential sense of her bodily self to avoid injury caused by over-
straining or misusing herself in exercise. Improving one™s inner somatic
self-awareness through somaesthetic training thus crucially combines the
famous philosophical demand to “know yourself ” with a second Delphic
maxim “nothing too much” that insists on discerning due measure.
One of the root problems of old age, claims Beauvoir, is our funda-
mental experiential inability to feel it properly in our own terms from
the inside, so that it “takes us by surprise” as a condition imposed on us
“from the outside” through the objectifying judgment of others: “our pri-
vate, inward experience does not tell us [we are aging or] . . . show us the
decline of age” (CA, 284). Hence, the awkward confusion and discour-
aging alienation of old age, in which one feels it must be some “Other
within us who is old,” not one™s own inner being or true self (CA, 288).
But if we skillfully apply certain techniques of experiential somaesthetics
that heighten somatic awareness (such as body-scanning meditation or
the Feldenkrais Method), we can become more pro¬cient in identify-
ing and diagnosing our bodily feelings and thus better able to perceive
and monitor the somatic transformations of aging from the inside. We
could then more comfortably inhabit our age without feeling it an unwel-
come, undecipherable foreign identity imposed on us from others; even
unwanted limitations are easier to handle if they are they are perceived
as part of us rather than in¬‚icted from without.
Sharper somaesthetic awareness also improves our powers to distin-
guish between the changes of mere decline induced by advancing age
and those caused by actual disease or dysfunction that may (or may

<<

. 19
( 41 .)



>>