#6: What use is a body?
What use is a body? Particularly in the shadow of the current pandemic, we are learning how many of our jobs can be done from home, which means we don’t even need our bodies to carry us from place to place. Other jobs are increasingly being taken over by machines, from the physical labor of building and manufacturing to the mental labor of calculating and organizing.
Bodies weigh us down and they are, frankly, badly designed. People with chronic illness or body dysphoria understand the fragility and poor packaging of the human body, and I think we’re all realizing how susceptible we are as we watch the world grind to a halt because of a virus. So why not scrap the whole thing? One idea people are starting to talk about is uploading our consciousnesses directly into the cloud.
Getting rid of our bodies would allow more mobile freedom as well as freedom from all the inconveniences of life―getting tired, hungry, cold, bruising your knees, getting a crick in your neck, suffering from allergies. If we have the chance to improve life in this way, should we take it?
I hesitate to say no, unequivocally. For a lot of people, the body is a burden. Congenitally disabled people, injured people, people whose sex doesn’t match their gender could certainly experience greater possibilities than they could with their current bodies. But at the same time, I have to believe that a body isn’t just a circumstantial glitch in our evolutionary process. The body has meaning, and through its meaning it has power.
When I first moved to Japan I didn’t speak any Japanese. People in Japan, like people anywhere, make initial judgments based on appearance. We learn to correct those judgments as we get to know a person, but so much of that getting to know you depends on language. I had no way to communicate in words who I was to anyone. At that time, my body was my first line of communication with the world. I started to pay more attention to how I dressed, how I did my makeup, how I carried myself. It was through physicality that I could communicate parts of my personality, that I could make myself known. Even when I wasn’t speaking, I was talking about myself through my body.
This is the most basic power the body has. The power to create and express an identity. But it’s not just another type of ID card. The body has greater expressive power, which was something I didn’t learn about until a couple of years ago.
My main thing is studying the art of corporeal mime, which is a kind of physical theater. Before I took my first mime class, I was using the body as a sign for “Kate”. But in mime class I learned how the body could be something greater. I often, when practicing mime, have the feeling of being taken outside of myself, which is paradoxical because never in my life did I feel as grounded in my own body and as connected with myself as I did when I started mime.
The body is a body until it’s not―until it’s something greater. For me, there is no greater joy than simply moving. Where words can fail and become murky, can carry too much historical and emotional baggage, the body is pure thought and feeling.
What is it about the body that can give us that feeling of home? Especially for ex-pats, home can be a tricky thing. I haven’t lived in America for almost six years now, and almost all of my most important things and people are in Japan. At the same time, I can’t consider myself Japanese. I can’t vote here, although I pay taxes. I don’t own a house, but some of the people I love best live here and leaving would feel like leaving family. When I travel, I am considered an American, but only with valid paperwork. Without valid paperwork (a situation I recently was in; too long to get into here) I am nobody.
The only thing that’s really mine, that I have any control over, is my body. And when I control my body―consciously, with intentionality―then I feel like myself. I know my own body better than I know anything. I know its quirks and oddities, its tendencies and strengths. And I know how it feels to move it―liberating and joyful.
There is one particular piece from the mime repertoire that I like to practice when I need grounding. I have practiced it in a little park in New York, in a theatre in Wisconsin, on top of a mountain in Nara, in our Osaka studio, on a riverside, in a disused corner of an office building. I have practiced it with joy, in times of desperate anxiety, and nothing-y times when I felt unconnected from the things that are important to me. Every time I move through the piece, whether it’s all the way through or stopping and starting to work on little bits, I feel lighter and better and bigger than myself. I feel like a lost letter that’s finally made its way to its destination.
You don’t have to do mime (but you should! You might like it.) But any body has a transformative power living inside it. We need our bodies. These imperfect, clunky, fragile things that we absentmindedly carry around like a piece of luggage. Regardless of its weaknesses, your body is all yours. And you can choose to ignore it as much as possible and let it serve a basic utilitarian function. Or you can choose to consciously inhabit it and let it sing with an electricity only you can know.
Try it: put your hand out. Stretch out the fingers as much as you can. Curl them in like a little shell. Wiggle them around and let them lead you somewhere. Feel how it pulls the rest of your along. Where can your body take you from here?