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  • Reflecting on Words and Letters from the Perspective of Embodiment, with Commentary on Essays by Daphne Lei, Susan Phillips, and Sohini Ray
  • Deidre Sklar


A dance ethnographer inevitably raises her hand to speak up for movement as the mediating factor in the relationship between writing and embodiment. Human movement creates inscriptions, whether with stone tools, pens and pencils, linotype machines, or computers. Orthographic systems travel through our bodies not only as symbols but as physical impulses like muscle contractions and extensions, creating complex movements and kinesthetic sensations. While European and American philosophers have long been concerned with the visual perception of movement, they have largely ignored awareness of movement sensation, or kinesthesia, as an epistemological mode. Omitted from the sensorium, [End Page 155] kinesthesia is nonetheless a primary means by which we know, engage with, and make sense of the world. My discussion of orthography and embodiment builds upon this premise to suggest ways that language implicates kinesthesia, thereby troubling the notion of a disconnect between disembodied sign and sensate body.

I take as point of departure Elliot R. Wolfson's exegesis of kabbala in terms of " textual embodiment," originally presented along with several of this volume's essays at a University of California Humanities Research Institute seminar on "Gesture and Inscription" in 2002.1 This will launch my consideration of the essays by Daphne Lei, Susan Phillips and Sohini Ray in this volume. According to Wolfson, in kabbalah, "The three books by which God created the world allude to the congruence of thought, speech and writing" (2005:204). Whereas for God, words, whether thought, spoken, or written, "constitute the very essence of things they name, whence derives the creative potency of language," for humans, "words at best are 'signs' or 'symbols' that point to the things they name but not to their essence" (204). Thus Wolfson considers that in kabbala, humans are distinguished from God on the basis of the conventionality of language. Humans do not create the world in their use of language; they reiterate, by convention, what has already been created.

Where do we humans get the idea that God has the capacity, in converging a sound, a mark, and a thought, to create the phenomenon to which that convergence refers, except that we, too, can sample this experience? I suggest that, in terms of human capacity, what is being brought out here is the difference between the conventional, iterative, and automatic use of language and an awareness, while speaking or writing, that we are bringing to life—at least in somato-mental consciousness—the thought represented by the sounding and marking of speech and orthography. It is not just that in internally hearing or picturing the combination of sound or letter symbols that constitute words we conjure up and imbue with vitality a somato-mental experience of a thought, though that in itself is wondrous; we also bring to life the full and changing load of associations that accumulate in the confluence of symbolic sound, mark, and thought. In short, we evoke a world. To be aware of this peira, or sampling, of the creativity inherent in language is to be aware of a miracle inherent in our natures, an "I can," to use Merleau-Ponty's term, of being human. In kabbalah, God creates the world through the confluence of sound (speech), image (writing) and thought; phenomenologically, we humans have the capacity to [End Page 156] realize, indeed, repeat, that creative act by piercing through the conventionality of language to an awareness of the multi-sensory and world-building miraculousness of the language process itself.

We know from recent studies in child development that we are born with the capacity for what child psychologist Daniel Stern calls "amodal perception" (1985:51), the ability to translate information between sensory modalities. Infants can recognize visually an object they previously knew only through touch, translate sound intensities (loudness) to visual intensities (brightness) and temporal patterns (beat, rhythm, duration) between visual and auditory modes. Infants do this before they can recognize or identify objects, including themselves as objects, or "selves." The capacity for amodal recognition of qualities precedes language. Philosopher Mark Johnson (1987) argues that we form pre...


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