Affect, Anzieu, Vacumn and Breath

Of late I have begun practising mindfulness meditation. This is far from my first dalliance with meditation, it and I have definitely had an on/off affair for quite some time. This time I am being encouraged to do it for my own mental well being so I’m hoping that provides sufficient incentive to stick with the habit this time. My guided meditation this time around is provided by Jon Kabat Zinn, and the person who recommended it informed me about how mindfulness is a secularlisiation of buddhist and other meditative practices. That in itself is a very interesting and thought provoking topic for me and one for another post.

However my last experience with the methods of mindfulness or noticing were actually indebted to the Embodiment and Experience module which I took during my masters (conveyned by Lisa Blackman). As part of the assessment of that module we had to keep an embodied diary, designed to keep us attentive to the intelligence that we possess which is not so exclusively cognitive. Alas due to the academic mania which I let consume me last year I had let most of my hobbies (yoga and drumming) and natural embodied outlets slip. So in lieu of that I took the opportunity to do something I’d always wanted to: begin an initiation in Chaos Magick. Again the full details of that are a blog post for another day I reckon. But one of the elements I worked into my daily practice was a constant use of the fourfold breath.

At the time I was wrestling with how to determine affect’s role as an inducer of fixity, a counter move against some of the rhetoric within the affective turn which positions it as a free wheeling agent of change which always escapes our cognitive realisation of the world. And so my musings took on a rather wild trajectory. I was especially mindful of the embodied feelings that attend the fourfold breath and the subsequent states of mind that it induced. I then noted that a focus on the breath is a constant part of meditation, yoga, etc. And as I had assisted Graham Harwood on his Coal Fired Computers project (with it’s centre piece of blackened lungs) I somehow made the following leap(s):

That breathing exercises let you control the state of mind via controlling a part of the body (insofar as breath control lets you oxygenate the brain and reduce the amount of CO2 flowing through it this is not in doubt). Furthermore, before my reading embargo I was reading Julian Jaynes ‘Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’. There is an interesting reference to how all the states of the body can actually be gauged by the breath {Mario Ponzo, La misura del decorso di processi psichici esequita per mezzo delle grafiche del respiro, Archives Italiennes de Psicologia 1/1920-1921, S. 114-238}. This ratifies the dominating influence of breath for me.

This level of control over the body was interesting to me giving the reading I was pursuing, mostly centred upon Patricia Clough’s reading of Luciana Parisi and Tiazi Terranova’s Heat-Death Emergence And Control In Genetic Engineering And Artificial Life. In their model, ‘the body’ was refigured in the transition from Foucault’s disciplinary societies from a closed system to a dissipative system under the more Deleuzean Socieities of Control.

For me I was struck how the actual mechanism of breathing, of exercising control over YOUR body and subsequently your state of mind ultimately operates by a vacumn: your muscles contract, creating a vacumn in your ribcage which lets you inhale. Somehow these thoughts, very loosely related though they were, stuck in my mind and I have struggled to shirk the feeling that vacumn is somehow important.

When at STRP Festival earlier this year I was fortunate enough to take in  a retrospective of Lawrence Malstaff’s work. Some of his work fits quite nicely with the importance of attending to embodied sensation but the most striking work on display was undoubtedly Shrink, for visitors to the festival could shrink wrap them selves, in other words, they could be vacumn packed. And many reported how pleasant it felt. And that has lead me to think of Anzieu’s Ego Skin;

The skin is permeable and impermeable. It is superficial and profound. It is truthful and deceptive…It separates and unites the various senses. In all these dimensions that I have incompletely listed, it has the status of an intermediary, an in-between, a transitional thing’

How important is containment to us? I am most taken by the skin ego as a means of understanding how the need for containment is primal and crucial to us (even though if one follows Buddhist teachings or the Deleuzean ethos dominating the affective turn one must concede that permeability rather than containment is the typifying feature of our existence). The skin ego can be seen as providing continuity, protection, a sense of individuality. Furthermore I think it provides an important counterpoint to the urge to wish to see mind as externalised and extended as per extended cognition hypotheses. I have no problem with the elements of Extended Cognition that permit us to concede cognition to systems other than our nervous system assemblage, but equally I feel that the model should not be celebrated without taking due consideration of the human (perhaps all species feel it) need to feel bounded within a coherent ‘I’ container.

That’s why it was interesting to see ‘Shrink’ being such a focal point at STRP festival, a festival positively engaged with exploring cloud computing and cloud consciousness, through the speakers invited to its conference and also through it’s dual exposition features, the E-Sphere card and the Acclair Neurocapital EEG Evaluator (I wrote a concise summary of the story over at PSFK , you should check out their website here). I felt the bodily importance of containment was sitting alongside the new media metaphors of extended cognition. It’s an interesting tension, and as I mentioned not one that necessitates both categories being mutually exclusive of the other.

It also got me thinking of media art works which have explored the importance of embodied registers on experience. When Lisa Baldini and I undertook our research into Contemplative Computing we were conscious that the rising and falling of our rib cage could be another area to measure meditation via a strictly embodied metric. However our focus was upon vibrations so we kept our attention upon the larynx. However this interesting USB hack, which charges a USB based on the expansion and contraction of your ribcage, in addition to all the aforementioned musings, got me thinking about this and breath driven interfaces to computing. While the concept is very interesting for me, more so now than ever, a part of me also feels it would be difficult to top the wonderful phenomenological exploration of breath developed by Char Davies in her Osmosé and Ephemere work

~ by Stephen Fortune on May 23, 2011.

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