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moderate use by “the reasoning, trained adult,” Alexander contends they
are far too dangerous for educating children, since they speak most pow-
erfully to the most primitive, savage parts of us. “Now music and dancing
are, as every one knows, excitements which make a stronger emotional

34 In contrast to comparable somatic disciplines such as Feldenkrais Method and Bioen-
ergetics, the Alexander Technique concentrates on exercises of ascent and positions of
verticality. Though many Alexander practitioners today work on people by having them
lie on a table (a position that usefully avoids certain problems of ordinary gravitational
pressure and accustomed habits of posture, movement, and thought), purist versions of
the Technique eschew the use of prone positions, which were shunned by F. M. Alexander
and his brother A.R. For they thought such positions were not very conducive to height-
ened awareness, control, and rationality, instead suggesting the unconscious surrender
of hypnosis and psychoanalysis. In Alexander™s somatics of verticality and ascent, a car-
dinal sin is “pulling down,” and the Technique™s signature exercise is to have the pupil
effortlessly raise herself to standing from an erect sitting position in a chair by concentrat-
ing her consciousness on the somatic “means whereby.” When performed correctly, this
exercise (sometimes described as having “thought [one™s] way out of the chair”) gives a
sense of effortlessly transcending the lowering forces of gravity by exercising the rational,
elevating powers of mind. See Jones, Body Awareness in Action, 6“8, 71, 76; and my com-
parative analysis of the Alexander, Feldenkrais, and Bioenergetic methods in Performing
Live (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), ch. 8.
Body Consciousness

appeal to the primitive than to the more highly evolved races. No drunken
man in our civilisation ever reaches the stage of anaesthesia and complete
loss of self-control attained by the savage under the in¬‚uence of these two
stimuli” (ibid.).35 If these remarks sound like lofty rationalism masking
a repressive, irrational racism, Alexander is also ready to lift the mask
and more explicitly assert: “The controlling and guiding forces in sav-
age four-footed animals and in the savage black races are practically the
same; . . . the mental progress of these races has not kept pace with their
physical evolution.” Such preposterous claims are offered as evidence
that evolutionary progress in mental, social, and cultural matters cannot
be achieved if we simply rely on “subconscious guidance and control”
(MSI, 72).
Here again Dewey disappointingly fails to distance himself from
Alexander™s excessive claims.36 In his introduction to the book that con-
tains these claims Dewey basically af¬rms Alexander™s educational cri-
tique that free emotional self-expression is a danger as damaging as the
rigid “inculcation of ¬xed rules” (MSI, 144). What education instead
requires, Dewey concludes, is neither repressive “control by external
authority” nor “control by emotional gusts,” but instead “control by intel-
ligence” (MW11:352), a more subtle, supple version of Alexander™s idea
of control “dictated by reason” (MSI, 135“136). Those “interested in
educational reform,” Dewey insists, should “remember that freedom of
physical action and free expression of emotion are means, not ends, and
that as means they are justi¬ed only in so far as they are used as conditions
for developing power of intelligence” (MW11:352).37

35 Alexander later claims, “The lower the stage of evolution, within certain limits, the greater

the appeal of music and dancing”(MSI, 165).
36 Dewey clearly did not share Alexander™s radical racism. His political engagement as one
of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
in 1909, showed an admirable commitment to African Americans. But he did not give
race much philosophical attention, apart from an essay “Racial Prejudice and Friction”
(MW13:242“254). Some of Dewey™s writings display a sharp division between the mind
of civilized and “savage peoples” that today might be regarded as racist, even though
he attributed the difference not to native gifts but to the “backward institutions” of so-
called savage society (MW9:41). A case for aspects of racism in Dewey is brought by
Shannon Sullivan, “Re(construction) Zone,” in Dewey™s Wake: Un¬nished Work of Pragmatic
Reconstruction” ed. William Gavin (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), 109“127.
37 Perhaps motives of friendship and gratitude swayed Dewey from criticizing Alexander™s

one-sided emphasis on inhibitive, re¬‚ective, rational body consciousness, but it would
anyway have resonated strongly with Dewey™s personal tendency to strictly control his
passions. It is noteworthy that Dewey wrote this particular critique of freely expressed
“physical action” and “emotional gusts” at the very time he was struggling to keep in
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 211

Whether or not these Deweyan claims support Alexander™s objections
to dance and music as free emotional self-expression, they certainly sug-
gest a disturbingly sharp (un-Deweyan) contrast between means and
ends that subordinates physical action and emotion as mere means jus-
ti¬able only by their subservience to more rational ends of developing
greater intelligence. No wonder Deweyan pragmatism was often attacked
(most notably by Randolph Bourne and Lewis Mumford) for being too
instrumentally rationalistic and unfriendly to art™s imaginative emotional
expression. This critique eventually spurred Dewey to respond with his
masterpiece Art as Experience, in which he insists that the mere fact that
something serves as means does not entail that it cannot be enjoyed as an
end. The same meal that functions as a means of nourishment, the same
poem that aims to evoke love or patriotism, can also be appreciated as an
end of aesthetic enjoyment. Emotional expression and unimpeded action
can likewise be enjoyed and valued for their own sake and not merely as
means to develop intelligence, though any such valuation must always
face the test of future consequences to determine whether its values are
lastingly valuable and not just ¬‚eetingly valued.
Fortunately, Dewey elsewhere af¬rms that the ¬‚ourishing of conduct
and thought requires the multiple resources of spontaneous feelings and
unre¬‚ective habits, not just re¬‚ective conscious control. Our unthinking
instincts, feelings, and habits cannot, on the whole, be unserviceable for
coping with our needs and environment, because they are largely prod-
ucts of those demands and conditions, whether deriving from genetically
generated tendencies honed by evolutionary selection or through unre-
¬‚ectively acquired habit based on the experience of our environment.
Since habits incorporate our environments they cannot be radically out
of touch with them. But, as Alexander astutely argues, in today™s increas-
ingly complex and quickly changing world, environments are altered (or
simply switched through travel) at rates far too rapid for effective unre-
¬‚ective readjustment of habit. Moreover, since different environments

check his own passionate bodily desires for the young Polish writer Anzia Yezierska, who
sought and courted him, inspiring an outburst of poetry wherein he sadly described him-
self as a “choked up fountain.” See the poem “Two Weeks” in The Poems of John Dewey,
ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977), 16. Else-
where in this poem about his relationship with Yezierska, Dewey expresses his bodily
desire and its repression by his “cold heart” and “clear head”: “I see your body™s breath-
ing/The curving of your breast/And hear the warm thoughts seething./ . . . While I am
within this wonder/I am overcome as by thunder/Of my blood that surges/ . . . Renounce,
renounce;/The horizon is too far to reach./All things must be given up./Driest the lips,
when most full the cup” (15“16).
Body Consciousness

breed different and often con¬‚icting habits, conscious control through
somatic re¬‚ection will sometimes be necessary to adjust and coordinate
these con¬‚icts. Finally, the natural ¬t of human habits, feelings, and envi-
ronment is only a rough and general one. In most individuals, there
are habits and associated feelings (especially those formed through envi-
ronments, tasks, and experiences that are stressful and problematic)
that involve disharmonies, distortions, and maladjustments and that con-
sistently hinder performance and impair our self-use, corrupting even
our perceptual faculties so that “sensory appreciation is confused, per-
verted and falsi¬ed” (LW1:228) or (as Alexander puts it) “debauched”
(MSI, 22).
Here then is the core practical dilemma of body consciousness: We must
rely on unre¬‚ective feelings and habits “ because we can™t re¬‚ect on every-
thing and because such unre¬‚ective feelings and habits always ground
our very efforts of re¬‚ection. But we also cannot entirely rely on them
and the judgments they generate, because some of them are considerably
¬‚awed and inaccurate. Moreover, how can we discern their ¬‚aws and inad-
equacy when they are concealed by their unre¬‚ective, immediate, habit-
ual status; and how can we correct them when our conscious, re¬‚ective
efforts of correction spontaneously rely on the same inaccurate, habitual
mechanisms of perception and action that we are trying to correct?

Provisional Conclusions
There is no apparent answer that neatly resolves these issues, nor an
honest and elegant way to sidestep them, so we must resort to pragmatic
and piecemeal strategies. The most sensible practical attitude toward our
habits and sensory feelings is (to borrow an old Hebrew maxim) “respect
and suspect.” We rely on them until they prove problematic in experi-
ence “ whether through failures in performance, errors in judgment,
feelings of confusion, physical discomfort and pain, or through the dia-
logical experience of hearing from others that one is doing something
awkward, peculiar, or detrimental. At that point, we should examine more
closely our unre¬‚ective behavior. But to discern exactly which habits are
misguiding us, which precise dimension of a habit needs correction, and
which sort of correction is called for requires rigorous practical work in
critical somaesthetic self-consciousness. In such work, established disci-
plines of systematic somatic re¬‚ection are most helpful.
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 213

Every method has its limitations, so given the diversity of human needs,
problems, aims, contexts, and temperaments, it would be foolish to advo-
cate one method as always superior or always helpful. Our toolbox of
somatic disciplines must be pluralistic. Trained teachers of these meth-
ods clearly play an indispensable role, because, besides their professional
skills, they have a critical distance (both literally and ¬guratively) from
the subject™s habit that allows them to see it more clearly and recognize
alternative ways of performing the same bodily act. Though Alexander
displayed his singular genius in teaching himself, even he required mir-
rors. To learn improved self-use typically requires the help of others.
There is also a larger lesson to be learned here “ the self™s essential
dependence on environmental others. Alexander™s perfectionist rhetoric
about “Man™s Supreme Inheritance” of “reasoning intelligence” suggests an
extremely proud and narrow individualism fueled by a haughtily hubristic
humanist faith. The advocacy of conscious control of the self to achieve
total mastery of every bodily function so as to “rise above the powers of
all disease and physical disabilities” and ensure not only “physical perfec-
tion” but also “the complete control of our own potentialities” implies
that the individual™s “reasoning, deliberate consciousness” can establish
itself as the all-powerful, fully autonomous, self-suf¬cient master of body,
mind, and behavior (MSI, x, 11, 236). Concomitant with celebrating the
individual™s autonomous power there is blame for the individual who
fails to realize this potential of “perfect health, physical and mental”: that
person “should realise the responsibility is his and his alone. He must
be made aware that such defects arise from his own fault, and are the
outcome of his ignorance or wilful neglect” (MSI, 155, 188).38
Despite our evolutionary progress of rational transcendence (includ-
ing the technological advancements that some regard as rendering us
posthuman cyborgs), we still essentially and dependently belong to a
much wider natural and social world that continues to shape the indi-
viduals we are (including our reasoning consciousness) in ways beyond
the control of our will and consciousness. As oxygen is necessary for the
functioning of consciousness in the brain, so the practices, norms, and
language of society are necessary materials for our processes of reasoning

38 Alexander later reaf¬rms this point: “I am prepared to prove that the majority of physical

defects have come about by the action of the patient™s own will operating under the in¬‚u-
ence of erroneous preconceived ideas and consequent delusions, exercised consciously
or more often subconsciously, and that these conditions can be changed by that same
will directed by a right conception implanted by the teacher” (MSI, 216).
Body Consciousness

and evaluation. It is not moral perfectionism but blind arrogance to think
Although touting Alexander™s discovery as the “central control which
conditions all other reactions . . . and enables the individual through his
own coordinated activities to take possession of his own potentialities”
(LW6:319), Dewey™s humanism is generally far removed from Alexander™s
individualist hubris. Indeed Dewey highlights the individual™s fundamen-
tal dependence on larger environmental factors by de¬ning the self in
terms of habits and by insisting that habits must engage and assimilate
the environments in which they function, particularly those environmen-
tal elements that support or enable their functioning (what J. J. Gibson
terms “affordances”). If the self™s action, will, and thinking are governed
by habit, and if habits necessarily incorporate environmental elements,
then the self essentially relies on such environmental elements.
The upshot for somatic philosophy is that one™s body (like one™s mind)
incorporates its surroundings, going, for example, beyond the conven-
tional body boundary of the epidermis to satisfy its most essential needs
of breathing and nutrition. Our bodies (like our thoughts) are thus para-
doxically always more and less than our own. As Dewey pithily puts it,
we “live . . . as much in processes across and ˜through™ skins as in pro-
cesses ˜within™ skins” (LW16:119). The semipermeable boundary of our
skin is a natural somatic symbol for the merely semiautonomous status
of our selfhood. Being constituted by its environmental relations, the
self is ultimately de¬ned by Dewey as “transactional.” He prefered this
term to “interactional,” which he thought implied greater separation
and independence (see LW16:112“115).39 Though such terms as “trans-
actional self” and “transactional body” suffer from unseemly mercantile
associations (reinforcing lamentable stereotypes of pragmatism as avidly
commercialist), they do convey the sense of a dynamic, symbiotic individ-
ual that is essentially engaging with and relating to others and is in turn
essentially reliant on and constituted by such relations.
This vision of the symbiotic body should inspire greater appreciation
for the environmental others (human and nonhuman) that help de¬ne

39 Dewey explains his transactional perspective on man as treating “all of his behavings,
including his most advanced knowings, as activities not of himself alone, nor even as
primarily his, but as processes of the full situation of organism-environnment” (LW16:97).
Shannon Sullivan deftly deploys Dewey™s transactional notion with special attention to
feminist issues in her Living Across and Through Skins: Transactional Bodies, Pragmatism, and
Feminism (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2001), which also includes a chapter
on somaesthetics from a feminist, “transactional” perspective.
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 215

and sustain it. There are also corollaries for somatic self-consciousness.
Re¬‚ective awareness of our bodies can never stop at the skin; we can-
not feel the body alone, apart from its environmental context. So in
developing increased somatic sensitivity for greater somatic control, we
must develop greater sensitivity to the body™s environmental conditions,
relations, and ambient energies. In our bodily actions, we are not self-
suf¬cient agents but stewards and impresarios of larger powers that we
organize to perform our tasks. As Emerson wisely observed, “we do few
things by muscular force, but we place ourselves in such attitudes as to
bring the force of gravity, that is, the weight of the planet, to bear upon
the spade or the axe we wield. In short, . . . we seek not to use our own,
but to bring a quite in¬nite force to bear.”40
Emerson™s point, though eminently American and pragmatic in its
attention to the indispensable value of means and natural instrumentali-
ties, also expresses a crucial insight of the Asian philosophical traditions
that so deeply inspired his spiritual sensibility. The relational self acquires
and deploys its powers only through its enabling relations; in the terms of
classical Chinese thought, the exemplary individual™s virtue, or ren (often
translated as “humanity”), depends on his recognition, integration, and
practice of the wider encompassing Dao.
This relational symbiotic notion of the self inspires a more extensive
notion of somatic meliorism in which we are also charged with caring
for and harmonizing the environmental affordances of our embodied


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