Was Körper können

Text by Su Jin Kim

What is a body?

– The definition of the body [= corps, Körper]

As  a lexical-semantic definition, a body signifies the whole forming the shape of a person or animal.[1] And  it refers to its activities and status, as well. The American biochemist and the Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, Bruce Alberts,  writes in his book that body means the entire structure of a human- and animal organism. According to physics a body is considered as an object.[2]

The human body includes the entire structure of a human being and comprises many body parts, which is composed of various types of cells, the fundamental unit of life. The human body consists of many interacting systems, such as the nervous, the musculoskeletal, the respiratory, the digestive, the integumentary, the reproductive, the immune and the lymphatic system, and so on. Each system contributes to the maintenance of homeostasis, of itself, other systems, and the entire body. Systems do not work in isolation, and the well-being of the person depends upon the well-being of all the interacting body systems.

In modern times, it came with a big influence on views of the body of a mind-bodyDescartes dualism.[3]  Modern science and philosophy begins from here. According to western philosophy, science is seen as the object and the body and mind are completely unrelated in physical mechanisms. In addition, the philosophy seeks the essence of the mental in rationality and intellect, and repudiate a deep emotional sense or instinct related in the physical body. Here comes into existence of modern rationalism. Gradually, however, the reflection is taking place about the view of the body. Nietzsche consistently critiqued the Western conception of the „rational subject” (the modern rationalism) which portrays reason or mind as a „higher“ faculty governing the body. “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”[4]

Why do we move?

From the birth onwards, we have a natural urge to move. quote-the-body-says-what-words-cannot-martha-graham-74403The movement is a primal form of human communication.[5]  Before we learn how to think and how to speak, we discover the world through several movement stages, step by step: breathing, frowning, crawling, rolling, sitting, grabbing, climbing, standing and so on. According to circumstances, we consciously use sign language, but our body says unconsciously what we do not want more often. For example, when we yawn, what does the body say? What does that mean? Necessity and causality motivates all action; for instance, the smack of the insects on our leg. Isn’t it the most clear and honest sign, what a body does?

Erin Manning refers in her interview with Arno Böhler that her approach to the question “Do we know what a body can do?” has been to move toward the prelinguistic and asks how movement activates a body in a process of becoming. She calls this bodying. [6]  And in this process of moving, then thought which can be contained by language is also generated. It is understood that movement is the necessity of thought. It allows and opens the felt expression of thought in the moving.[7]


 Do we know what a body does?

Spinoza’s question „Do we know what a body can do?“ has been a key question for the past decade.[8] A body shares not only with other human bodies, but with innumerous non-human bodies as well. We know neither where the world begins, nor where body ends. What is real, what we know is relation. A body is always more than human.[9]

‘’We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.’’                                                                                – Baruch de Spinoza

What a body does is moving. A body is movement. PS in EKEBY 07ddA body is always in moving. A body is changing in relationship between time and space which includes the diversity of society, historical change and cultural background. It is the making-felt of a changing relation. Erin Manning mentioned, what a body does always has a place and a time.[10] And she claims in her book ‚Politics of touch(2006)‘ that the body does not even move into space and time, but it creates space and time.[11] It means, space and time even doesn’t exist, before a body moves: expression of moving bodies, movement. And what a body can do is to store its own experience. A body is historical. It remembers own culture, atmosphere and reflects the essence of life. Then, what is a moving body? The movement doesn’t follow thoughts. It is not any transformation or reaction of thinking. While body is moving, it thinks the movements. Thinking is not a previous action or independent layer from the movement. Thinking is engaged in an invention through the movement.

– What does a human body do?

A human body thinks in the moving; Thinking of body(Körperdenken). A body conducts its work by itself. A body does things for itself. The body knows, what it experienced already from the relationship between time and space and what it has to do. Thought in the moving is the activation of a differential.[12] How does movement activates a body in a process of becoming? And how does a body individuate in time and space? Our bodies are made to move and need to move daily. PS in EKEBY 07dddThe shape-shifting allows us to experience more than the human horizon, so to speak, thinking in the moving ecologically. Thinking in the moving creates the diversity of form. And the movement activates a modality of thought. Think in the moving is the activation and the invention of the differential. It is a changing relationscape. Body is more associated in social environment than form and it becomes in relation to a changing environment. What it does in this relation is what it is, for example, microgestures are ‚in act‘ of doing. It is ecological that what a body does becomes in relation to a changing environment, and what it does in that relation is what it is.[13] Erin Manning remains, that the surface of the body is a thinking, feeling surface which is a gestural, linguistic, sensing skin. And bodies are forming and deforming through division and sharing of communities, of communal and uncommon exchange.

„The body is not  passive simply  to deliver the message of the society, but it is active to represent their messages. ‚Delivery‘ is to instruct what is not belong to myself, but ‚Expression‘ is belong to myself, and it is about representing their essence. Thus, expression of the body is the expression of presence form. The body represents something.“                                                                                                 Foucault, Michel

What a body does is embodiment of materialization. This enables to understand the other context of transindividual bodying.
It makes our worlds accessible to difference. It provides us to become aware of other relations and fields. Manning says, through this experience, like a transdisciplinary perspective, it’s possible to create in the interval of making and thinking. This has made it easier not only to overcome the closed-mindedness of disciplinary boundaries but also to develop techniques that assist her in both becoming more rigorous as a philosopher and to have a more sustained practice as an artist.[14]

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment[15] distinguishes between the objective body,which is the body regarded as a physiological entity, and the phenomenal body, which is not just some body, some particular physiological entity, but my (or your) body as I (or you) experience it.

An example: MOVE: Movement in Embodied Adaptive Architecture

What is the difference between a dancing body and a non-dancing body?

Dancing body has form and movement from training, practice, cultural and social background and experience. It creates aesthetic form and movement. What kind of body movement is accessible to you? To do a certain movement, what do you need? Everybody has a different capacity and ability. So it’s very individual. An artistic body is more sensible. They recalibrate an oversensing body. An oversensing body cannot differentiate easily between an environmental experience and an individualizing experience. An artistic body is more acutely in the world than a learned/schooled body. It’s much less tactful, limited to a body. So it escapes from the topological tendency in designed relationships.[16]

„I am not interested in how they move, but in what moves them.“ – Pina Bausch

It remains that thinking doesn’t guide our bodies. Bodies are moving in relation with time and space, and they co-organize themselves with each other. It changes how bodies move. Relational time-space, provisional embodiments are inventions, in which  the body senses in layers, in textures, in rhythms and juxtapositions that defy strict organization into a semiotic system.[17] An invention can only ever be a work in progress. A body moves and thought follows. There is no body that exists before it moves. This means that bodies must always move and are unstable. And while bodies are moving, they individuate in response to a reaching toward and they reach toward as a response to their individuation. They are, however, still not something completed but they are one with the potential of movement. To become is to move toward something that is not yet. This shift continues from their potential movement. Reaching towards the world creates bodies in relation of timed spaces and spaced times. Through this process these relations become embodied and bodies incorporate by becoming more than themselves.[18] Bodies engage symbiotically, incorporeally, virtually, always becoming more than they are actual. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes, as a movement reaching toward, a gesture evokes an instance in which nothing is absolutely maintained. And gesture allows the emergence of the being in a medium of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them(2000, 58).[19] A gesture explores the medium as a means not of transforming potentiality into actuality, but as a way of eclipsing actuality by placing the emphasis on the movement itself, on the exchange.[20]

“The body is our general medium for having a world.”
“We know not through our intellect but through our experience.”  Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty claims in his Phenomenology of Perception, „It is not the eye which sees but the body as a receptive totality.”[21]  Those ‚Moments’ offer a design tool for analyzing and planning according to body movements.[22] Movements in space and time, generate landscapes of action. It creates different dynamic, regardless it moves slow or fast. Although it is moving too slow, there are so many things happening at the same time; for instance, breath, feeling and internal energy, etc. In this sense, as Manning says, the question of „what the body is“ can shift to „what can a body do.“ The body in relation to the senses is to encourage a thinking of the body in movement and to engage with the possibility that bodies are not limited to their forms or structures.[23]

„I would rather operate within a Spinozist frame, where there is an emphasis on rest in movement and movement in rest. I think that there is a lot of doing in the non-doing and a lot of non-doing in the doing. We need to keep that complexity there, focusing more on the subtleties of the in-act of autistic perception, an in-act that cannot be reduced so easily to form and category.“ – Erin Manning[24]

 What can’t a body do?

adfA body cannot stay how it is. It’s changing always, continuously. Bodies don’t stand still. The body is not a simple material but it’s an embodiment of materialization and it transforms it. Manning says, the body is to pause at the concept of skin. This allows us to place at the fore one of the body’s organs without falling into the trap of re-instantiating the body as organization. In other words, skin extends beyond the „body proper“ giving us pause. Resting at the edge of our skins we cannot help but wonder what holds us together.[25]
A body can go just forward and further, not reverse or backward. It can’t return by tracing back to time. It means, it is not possible to play with time. A body cannot be in between the space, in other words it’s not possible to be more than in one space or place.

What else?

– Let’s think more! “What can a body do???“

  1. What could be a Utopian body? What does a Utopian body mean?
  2. What about the relationship between the body and digitalization?

An example: Christine Sun Kim performing at What Can A Body Do? at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery

An interview with Erin Manning about WHAT CAN THE BODY DO?
 -Conversation recorded with Erin Manning in New York on January 19, 2014.

from ARCHIPELAGO_The Runambulist Magazine’s Podcast


About Erin Manning

Erin Manning holds a University Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada). She is also the director of the SenseLab, a laboratory that explores the intersections between art practice and philosophy through the matrix of the sensing body in movement. In her art practice she works between painting, dance, fabric and sculpture. Current iterations of her artwork explore emergent collectivities through participatory textiles. Her project Stitching Time has been presented at the 2012 Sydney Biennale and The Knots of Time opened the new Flax Museum in Kortrijk, Belgium in 2014. Her writing addresses movement, art, experience and the political through the prism of process philosophy, with recent work developing a notion of autistic perception and the more-than human. [26]

Publications include Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2007) and Ephemeral Territories:  Representing Nation, Home and Identity in Canada (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003). Her forthcoming manuscript, Always More Than One: Individuation’s Dance was published by Duke University Press in 2012 as will her forthcoming co-written manuscript (with Brian Massumi), Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (Minnesota UP).


[1] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/body
[2] Bruce Alberts, Cell Movements and the Shaping of the Vertebrate Body.In.: Fourth edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell. Published by Garland Science, 2002.
[3] Robert Audi, Cartesian science and dualism. In.:The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition General Editor, 1999. S. 226-227
[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
[5] Website „Dancing dances´´ http://www.dancingdances.com/les/39
[6] Arno Böhler, Krassimira Kruschkova, Susanne Valerie (Hg.). Do we know what a body can do?#1. Interview from Arno Böhler and Erin Manning: In.: Wissen wir, was Körper vermag?. 2014. s. 11
[7]Do we know what a body can do?#1. s. 14
[8] Do we know what a body can do?#1. Interview from Arno Böhler and Erin Manning: In: Wissen wir, was Körper vermag? S. 11
[9] Do we know what a body can do?#1. s. 13
[10] Do we know what a body can do?#1. s. 12
[11] Erin Manning. Politics of touch: sense, movement, sovereignity. 2006. S. xiii
[12] Do we know what a body can do?#1. S. 11
[13] Do we know what a body can do?#1. S. 12
[14] Do we know what a body can do?#1. S. 20
[15] Robert Audi. Embodiment. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Second Edition General Editor: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999. S. 258
[16] What can the body do? Conversation recorded with Erin Manning in New York on January 19, 2014.
[17] Erin Manning. S. xiv
[18] Erin Manning. S. xx
[19] Giorgio Agamben.: In.: Philosophy and the Return of Violence: Studies from this Widening Gyre. Published by Nathan Eckstrand, Christopher Yates. 2011. S. 132
[20] Erin Manning. S. 8
[21] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In.: The Architecture of Claude Parent and Paul Virilio. 1996. In.: Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers. Edited by Felicity Colman, 2014. S. 209
[22] Reference. B.A. Project ‘MOMENTS’ from TAU Architecture school. The body analogy and an animated body. 2011. http://eytanmann.tumblr.com/post/40936679545/moments-ba-project-tau-architecture-school
[23] Erin Manning. S. xv
[24] Do we know what a body can do?#1. S. 21
[25] Erin Manning. S. 111
[26] About Erin Manning. http://erinmovement.com/


Böhler, Arno, & Manning, Erin. Do we know what a body can do? #1. Interview.. In: A. Böhler, K. Kruschkova, & S. Valerie(Hrsg.), Wissen wir, was ein Körper vermag?: Rhizomatische Körper in Religion, Kunst, Philosophie. Bielefeld Transcript. 2014. S. 11-21
Manning, Erin. Politics of Touch: sense, movement, sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press. 2006. S. xiii-xxiii, 1-8, 134-161
Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Second Edition General Editor: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 1999.

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