Bringing the Body [Back] in: Where the Action Really is

By Erika Summers Effler

As I read across the diverse pieces in this essay dialogue, one thing struck me: where are the bodies?  I’ve framed this response as bringing the body “back” in.  I’ve included “back” because I like it as a rhetorical device–especially when it allows for alliteration.  But I”m bracketing “back” because, unlike other things that we are bringing back in–like emotions and grievances–I’m not sure we had the body in the mix to begin with.

Focusing on the relationship between the body and emotion allows us to get at that long-neglected aspect of social movement dynamics–the protest.  Whatever happened to protests?  For the most part we’ve reduced them to things to be counted in newspapers.  In spite of this limited focus on them, anyone who has been to one knows that a high-energy protest can do more than change your mind or your level of commitment, it can change your life.  Some shared sense of ideological commitment or identity may get you to the protest, but once you are, there is plenty of room for political epiphanies–the political equivalent to a religious conversion experience.  However, we know comparatively little about the bodily emotional dynamics associated with these moments when the political act is physically carried out.

Long ago Blumer hinted at a possible role for the body with his discussion of “milling.”  Milling refers to the internal mobility of crowds that heightens some sense of intensity and involvement.  This heightened sense is grounded in the action of milling itself, thus the causes are not rational or ideological reflection.  Indeed, the focus on the milling itself would seem to suggest the importance of bodies and emotion, but Blumer does not go there directly.

I would suggest that what makes milling distinct is that it provides opportunities for continual interfacing between crowd members, which leads to emotional contagion.  How does this interfacing work?  The discovery of mirror neurons, which enable us to directly experience emotional states and other things that we observe happening to others, can be paired with the lifelong work of Paul Ekman. Ekman identifies clear universal indicators of emotional experience in our facial expressions, and mirror neurons explain why those facial expressions are central to emotional contagion: we mimic each other and then feel the same emotions.  By combining the two–universal facial expression and mirror neurons–we can explain how interfacing can lead to emotional contagion.  In this case it is clear that the body and its social propensities are at the heart of how milling affects action.

There is a difference between interaction and interfacing.  According to the interaction ritual tradition, interaction draws on shared symbolic stock to manage interactions where mirror neurons will be activated.  Successful interaction rituals contribute to future symbolic stock that will be used to seek out and frame interactions.  Interfacing, on the other hand, draws on mirror neurons with far less cultural meditation, and the information it does generate is of little use as future symbolic stock for interaction rituals.  This is to say that there is little history or future wrapped up in interfacing, but that does not mean that interfacing cannot be a dominant factor in shaping action.  It merely means that such action would have little in the way of history or expectations to ground it.  Interfacing is much closer to a truly emergent phenomenon grounded in body and environment.

Thinking about bodies reminds me of a project from long ago–video taping the republican national convention protests in Philly in 2000.  Wherever I went, I ran into this particular friend of a friend.  I could tell that he didn’t like my camera.  Not because he thought I was with homeland security or the FBI–he was a say-it-loud-say-it-proud activist who had already done some time as a prisoner of conscience.  No, he did not like running into me and my camera because he knew I wasn’t a documentarian; I was a sociologist who would analyze what he was doing as an object of study.  My presence made him self-conscious, in the moments when it feels good to let loose and merge into the collective singing of songs and chanting of chants.  In short, I was undermining the embodied pleasures of protest.

What are the embodied pleasures of protest?  Bodies sweat, shiver, blister, dehydrate, lose their voice from yelling, and walk seemingly endless miles to and from protests when public transportation is overwhelmed by a successful turnout.  Bodies react viscerally to lines of police officers in riot gear.  Bodies sway involuntarily to the rhythm of a powerful speech, chant, or song.  Bodies feel rushes of adrenaline when the best speaker reaches a fevered pitch.  Bodies register solidarity when they walk, often in time, with a mass of strangers stretching as far as the eye can see.  All of this is to say that bodies feel.  They register feelings and they are the source of emotions.  Emotions are the embodied pleasures of protest.

In spite of the central role of the body in organizing and experiencing emotion, the body is generally ignored in emotions and social movements literature.  For the most part, the emotions and social movements literature has focused on cultural approaches within the broader field of the sociology of emotions.  Strictly cultural approaches give explanatory power to discourses, ideologies, repertoires, frames, and rhetorics.  This is compared to other approaches that include more immediate structural and emotional pulls on bodies as they move through various environments and conditions.  Those who take this strong cultural approach and give primacy to the symbolic suggest that it reveals the most about meaning-making processes.

This strong cultural approach makes little sense to me; visceral and the embodied dynamics are just as crucial for meaning-making as any readily available cultural frame.  J. J. Gibson suggests that meaning happens when aspects of our sensory equipment resonate with something in the environment.  The part of us that senses discourse and abstract symbols is merely one of the many sensory apparatuses that can “resonate.”  Thus it is only one sensory apparatus among many that communicates meaningful information to us about our social and physical positions as we move through environments.

Returning to the role of the body in protest situations, we see that bodies can stoke emotions and ultimately action; alternately, emotions can pull bodies into meaningful–even potentially life threatening–action.  The intensity of emotion can even generate bodily stand-offs between protesters and the machinery of the opposition that could easily, and in fact in the past has easily, demolished those all too human bodies.

When we put our bodies on the line, we are not standing for something; we are standing as something.  Clearly it is the power of emotion, not rational calculation or high-flying ideological commitment, that generates a palpable sense that one is not only a part of something larger, one is something larger.  This growth of the self beyond the immediate physical limits of the body has the power to compel people to put themselves in harm’s way in order to defend this larger thing that they have literally come to embody. I would suggest that without understanding the bodily dynamics of emotion and how they shape the boundaries of identity, we have few tools to explain the willingness to put one’s body in the line of fire.

I think the dynamics that shape the boundaries of the self and the meanings of those boundaries are the sorts of things those interested in emotion should be looking to explain.  I believe that making these sorts of intellectual moves takes us farther from the realm of the symbolic as divorced from the body and closer to the realm of the embodiment of experiences and meanings.  These moves are crucial if we are to make headway into relatively uncharted emotional dynamics that are crucial for protest action. I suggest that although the increasing focus on emotions over the last twenty years would seem to open up opportunities to re-envision the role of the body in protest, in mobilization, and social organization more generally, the narrow use of sociology of emotions literature has contributed to the continued silence around the role of the body in social life. I would argue that we still focus too much attention on emotional content expressed in discourse.  In general, the physical dynamics of emotion are comparatively neglected, in spite of the fact that they are at least as crucial for understanding action, particularly protest participation.

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Filed under Emotion in Motion, Essay Dialogues

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