Beyond Descartes: Walking Through Jute Stalks to Embodied Knowledge

by Aina Yasué 

Have you ever found yourself overthinking things? Or perhaps you spend more time contemplating than moving? Growing up, I devoted most of my time to dancing. My activities in the day explored what exercises strengthen or relax certain muscles, or what speed and direction of movement portrayed a specific emotion. To better understand my world, I moved. These days, however, I seem to spend more time thinking. “But isn’t that normal?” you might ask. Maybe, but it isn’t the only way to make sense of the world.

The tendency to think more than to move or experience may be partly explained by the history of Western epistemology. The Cartesian quote, “I think, therefore I am” rings bells for many. But what are the implications of mind-centric epistemologies on how we approach meaning? How has it been resisted? This article is a first attempt to grapple with these complex questions through an installation by artist Thao Nguyen Phan. I will reflect on how art, such as Phan’s work evoking history through the sensory body, can challenge the mind-body split and build connection across cultural difference. To begin, however, we need a little context on the mind-body divide in Western philosophy, prevalent to this day in academia.

The Cartesian legacy: dehumanizing communities and ways of knowing

The singular focus on using the mind to perceive the world around us stems from the European Enlightenment era and philosophers such as René Descartes. In Cartesian philosophy, the intellect is considered to be the sole means of accurately comprehending the world, with the body relegated to a secondary role:

Bodies themselves are not properly perceived by the sense nor by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone; and since they are not perceived because they are seen and touched, but only because they are understood [or rightly comprehended by thought], I readily discover that there is nothing more easily or clearly apprehended than my own mind (Descartes 1999: 87).

Descartes’ wording choices such as “rightly comprehended” or “properly perceived”, emphasise the importance of measurable accuracy. Accuracy is attributed to the mind – the body is deemed valueless in the production of meaning. In effect, only what the mind deems true is seen as being valid, regardless of context. This leads to a universalisation of meaning, “as if [the mind] operated in a realm free of bodily constraints and governed only by its own logical rules” (Johnson 2013: xxi). Meaning is disassociated from the body as well as from any particular sense of place. Furthermore, the value of meaning comes from its supposed ability to be standardized and applicable across contexts. It is important to point this out: that ways of knowing that might seem “normal” and therefore “neutral” are also rooted in a particular place, time, and, keeping in mind Descartes is also a human, a body. In Western cultures today, the value placed on mind-generated accuracy and its universality has led to the dehumanization of cultures and communities that do not share these values.

Body-centered ways of knowing can be explained as the “local know-how that circulates on the ground within a community of memory and practice” (Conquergood 2002: 146). It is knowledge and meaning that is expressed through the body. For instance, embodied knowledge can be as simple as a specific maneuver one does to get on their bike without snagging their jeans in the morning. It could also be sensing sadness and injustice through communal singing by enslaved peoples in the 1800s U.S., of which “every tone was a testimony against slavery” (Conquergood 2002: 149). In the North American Indigenous context, it can also be the movements passed down generations that signify familial history that connects one to ancestry (Shea Murphy 2013: 185). All of these knowledges are embodied. They can also be considered not universal but situated. Embodied knowledge acknowledges physical limits; the body does not float around, transcending context. Moreover, embodied knowledge encompasses the organs and processes of thinking; it is not a simple binary of mind versus body as the Cartesian epistemology implies. Meaning is specific to the context and changes depending on the who, what, why, where, when, and how.

No Jute Cloth for the Bones

In my work, “No Jute Cloth for the Bones, bodies interact with the jute in order to create sound, and this sound is somehow for me the lullaby for the lost life in the famine, but the audience does not have to know all of these things. They can just enjoy and experience the environment (Thao Nguyen Phan, ‘Tate’ 2022).                              

The importance of situated knowledge has been argued for in the abstract ways of knowing that permeate academia. Donna Haraway explains her position thus:

I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims (Donna Haraway 1991: 165).

Thao Nguyen Phan. Photograph: Benjakon. Source: theguardian.com

For Haraway, knowledge claims that assert a singular, transcendent, and universal application cannot be considered rational. Particularity and embodied experience, she explains, must form the basis of knowledge-production.

In 2022 Thao Nguyen Phan, a multi-media artist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, presented No Jute Cloth for the Bones as part of an exhibition of her work at Tate St. Ives in Cornwall. In this installation, numerous jute stalks are suspended in the air for the body to interact with. Phan explains that one interpretation of the rustling sounds of the stalks relates to the violent and political history of the famine in Vietnam in the 1940s, a catastrophe that is estimated to have taken up to two million lives (Dũng 1995: 576). The forced diversion of land from food crops such as rice to industrial crops, including jute, has been cited as a key contributing factorto the magnitude of the famine (Gunn 2014: 215; Dũng 1995: 589, 593).

As hands, elbows, and feet, reach out to touch and move the suspended jute stalks, they produce rustling sounds. This “lullaby”, as Phan describes it, provides embodied access to collective trauma and historical meaning. However, Phan notes that the experience does not necessitate knowledge of the history of the famine. It is sufficient for the artist that the audience simply hear the sounds, feel the jute, and “experience the environment”. Phan’s jute stalks evoke a particular and embodied history as a situated knowledge, which counters the abstraction of objectivism. Furthermore, it is a working model of how to explore multiplicity, rather than singularity, in how humans make sense of the world.

There are numerous artists who have explored the sensory body as a focal point of their works. For example, Brazilian artist Lygia Clark created objects and installations that worked to heighten body sensations, such as masks designed to heighten the senses (‘Art as Mediator’). Interestingly Clark’s interest in the body was sparked by a personal need to rehabilitate an arm injury sustained in a car accident, pointing to the creative possibilities that come from limitations of the human body. Another well-known example is Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit. Grapefruit houses directions for the reader to get up and do certain activities. In other words, the meaning of each activity (or ”Grapefruit”) comes from the bodily actions one does by following the directions: “A performing ‘self’ walks along the street, it goes through the city, it hits its head against the wall. . . it stands in a room, behind a person, or it acts alone” (Ono 2008: 152). Various actions then provide a means for the reader to turn inward “towards an artistic consciousness” (Ono 2008: 152). In both examples, like Phan’s ‘No Jute Cloth for the Bones’, the body is integral to the meaning-production of the art piece.

“No Jute Cloth for the Bones”, installation by Thao Nguyen Phan at Hugo Boss Asia Art Award Finalist exhibition, Rockbund museum, Shanghai China 2019. Source: vimeo.com

Embodiment Within Academia

In the field of cognitive sciences and philosophy, Mark Johnson has argued for the integral role our bodies have in our ability to reason. Johnson’s theory of the “image schema” is complex, but I believe the essence can be grasped in this succinct quote:

Our reality is shaped by the patterns of our bodily movement, the contours of our spatial and temporal orientation, and the forms of our interaction with objects. It is never merely a matter of abstract conceptualizations and propositional judgements (Johnson 2013: xix).

Here, I find the use of the term “contour” interesting as it specifically outlines the physical location and space our bodies take up. In other words, the source of meaning we create is imagined as not limitless and abstract but located. Meaning is tethered to our bodies and the places our bodies move through. It is the body’s own contours, for instance, which No Jute for the Bones relies on to impart meaning. Overlooking embodied knowledge means perpetuating the hierarchy of knowledges that figures the body as inferior to the mind. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggests that “to ‘overthink’ is to refute the embodied self”, directly challenging Descartes’ perspective of reason as disembodied and thus universal: “I think, therefore I am not”. What gets squeezed out by this epistemic,” Conquergood states, “is the whole realm of complex, finely nuanced meaning that is embodied, tacit, intoned, gestured, improvised, coexperienced, covert – and all the more deeply meaningful because of its refusal to be spelled out” (Conquergood 2002: 146). The situated and place-based embodied ways of knowing may be partial, but according to these scholars, it mitigates the risk of falling into the trap of universalism. This resonates with Phan’s own statement that it is not important for the audience to have intellectual (perhaps ‘overthought’) knowledge of the 1940s famine in order to have knowledge imparted through her installation. Phan’s work highlights how some experiences do not always need to be accessible to all in the Cartesian sense, and perhaps do not need to be.

Building knowledge across difference

Over-valuing transcendence and accuracy can lead to the dangerous practice of speaking on behalf of others (Haraway 1991: 191). Perhaps another reason as to why Phan does not make imparted intellectual knowledge a part of No Jute Cloth for the Bones. Understanding does not have to be, and indeed cannot always be, complete. On her website, Phan acknowledges that “the lullaby does not seek closure, rather the point is to sense the loss of lives due to the famine, and the relationship between life and death, which are irreconcilable” (‘Thao Nguyen Phan’). Here, Phan keeps the interpretation of the meaning participants create through her installation open-ended. Meaning is fluid, heterogenous, and sometimes dissonant. For Phan, complete and objective claims are not the pre-requisite for meaningful connection. As Haraway notes:

The topography of subjectivity is multidimensional; so, therefore, is vision. The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another (my emphasis, Haraway 1991: 193).

Perhaps, as Phan and the authors referenced above suggest, only by embracing how little we know, or how our understanding is always incomplete, can we finally start to understand others without speaking on their behalf.

My imagined separation between these two realms is the lived experience of how the mind-body split spills out of the walls of academia and into daily life determining how we move through life. Perhaps I felt that “learning about the world” was most associated with a traditional classroom setting, not with a life dedicated to dance. The possibility of rigorous intellectual learning did not seem to share the same space as equally rigorous dance practice. So, I started moving less and thinking more. But art and dance has broken its way through again, and this article has been a chance to reconsider and physically type out (move through) the ways of knowing that were pushed out of focus.

When I presented this paper at the Language, Culture and Linguistics Department Conference this May, a point was brought up about the specific positionalities and labour of scholars who have written about embodied ways of knowing. I appreciated this point as it brought up the continued hierarchies within academia of whose voices and work is recognized and whose isn’t. With this blog as a starting point, I hope to critically reflect on contextualizing theory itself, crediting the bodies and work of scholars, artists, and activists who make these conversations possible.

Works Cited

‘Art as Mediator | Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’. Accessed 5 May 2023. https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/did-you-know/art-as-mediator.
Conquergood, Dwight. ‘Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.’ TDR (1988-), vol. 46, no. 2, 2002, pp. 145–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1146965. Accessed 5 May 2023.
Descartes, René. ‘Of the Existence of Material Things, and of the Real Distinction between the Mind and Body of Man’. In A Discourse on Method: Meditations and Principles, 117–31. London: Orion Publishing Group, 1999.
Dũng, Bùi Minh. ‘Japan’s Role in the Vietnamese Starvation of 1944–45’. Modern Asian Studies 29, no. 3 (July 1995): 573–618. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X00014001.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association, 1991.
Harrison, Rachel, and Geir Helgesen. ‘Inviting Differences: An Ideal Vision for Area Studies?’ South East Asia Research 27, no. 1 (2 January 2019): 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/0967828X.2019.1591098.
Gunn, Geoffrey C. ‘The Great Vietnamese Famine, 1944-45’. In Rice Wars in Colonial Vietnam; The Great Famine and the Viet Minh Road to Power, 210–39. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Ono, Yōko. Yoko Ono : Between the Sky and My Head. Köln, Manchester: König, Cornerhouse, 2008.
Shea Murphy, Jacqueline. ‘Clearing the Path’. Interventions 15, no. 2 (1 June 2013): 181–94. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2013.798469.
Tate. Thao Nguyen Phan – ‘My Reflections on the History of Vietnam, the Poetry of Daily Life’ | Tate, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5y-uYcBk4k.
Thao Nguyen Phan. ‘No Jute Cloth for the Bones’. Accessed 6 May 2023. http://www.thaonguyenphan.com/no-jute-cloth-for-the-bones.

Further Reading

Garfinkel, Sarah. ‘How the Body and Mind Talk to One Another to Understand the World | Aeon Ideas’. Aeon. Accessed 6 May 2023. https://aeon.co/ideas/how-the-body-and-mind-talk-to-one-another-to-understand-the-world.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind And Its Challenge To Western Thought. Basic Books, 1999.
Letiche, Hugo, Terrence Letiche, and Jean-Luc Moriceau. ‘Liminality Affect and Flesh’. Somatechnics 12, no. 3 (1 December 2022): 140–61. https://doi.org/10.3366/soma.2022.0385.
Ng, Roxanna. “Toward an Embodied Pedagogy: Exploring Health and the Body through Chinese Medicine.” In Indigenous Knowledges in Global Contexts: Multiple Readings of Our World, edited by George J. Sefa Dei, Budd L. Hall, and Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg, 168–183. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
Whang, Oliver. ‘Can Intelligence Be Separated From the Body?’ The New York Times, 11 April 2023, sec. Science. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/11/science/artificial-intelligence-body-robots.html.

Aina Yasué 

Contributor 2023

Grounded in her love for dance, Aina is inspired by interdisciplinary approaches such as Performance Studies and Critical Dance Studies to understand how meaning is created through the body, and how this interrogation can destabilize investments in singular ways of knowing in academia and everyday life. Coming from the unceded, ancestral, and traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples on what is known as ‘Canada’, Aina is currently completing an MA in Cultural Studies at SOAS.

Instagram: @odorit_aina
Email: aina.yasue@gmail.com

SOAS History Blog, Department of History, Religions and Philosophy, SOAS University of London

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