Our bodies, themselves
Living in flesh in the digital age
A few months ago I was waiting for a bus in the rain, looking around for once instead of down at a little screen. I’d decided to leave my phone in my bag instead of fiddling with it constantly, as I do when I’m tired. The bus stop had one of those annoying convex benches designed to make life more difficult for people who’d like to have a nap. It was cold and dirty anyway, so I stood, I stood and looked around.
Behind me there was a computer store, and the computer store had a bright screen running ads for new products. One was a scale on with a little handle attached, and if you pulled up the handle while standing on the scale, it would tell you your heart rate and who knows what else. I couldn’t tell, because the next ad flashed on, this time for an Apple watch. The watch could tell you how you were sleeping and how much you’d walked and your heart rate and your temperature.
I should be used to this by now. I should be used to people posting the number of steps they took that day on social media, or friends sharing sleep data from their watches. I’ve always wondered about the privacy implications, but I know that’s unreasonable — that phone I was struggling not to look at probably tracks me just as carefully as any of these other devices. And it’s probably boring to say anymore how far the neoliberal, post-industrialist project of making people into machines has come, how thoroughly we have been convinced that it’s our duty to keep self-optimizing and self-improving and self-disciplining, at all moments, right to our dying day. (Jürgen Martschukat has written about this in his book, The Age of Fitness.)
I’m tired of even thinking these things, to be honest. They seem like threadbare thoughts, even if I suspect they’re true. What I was thinking about instead was how weird it is to need the help of a machine to know, say, how well we slept or whether we moved around enough that day. Don’t we, well, already know? Are our own sensations about our bodies not legitimate unless they have numbers attached, ideally arranged into a little graph? Or do we sometimes forget how to feel our bodies at all?
I recently reviewed Alice Robb’s Don’t Think, Dear, a book that’s mostly about the psychological burdens of ballet training. But Robb also argues for ballet’s strengths — for example, that it teaches dancers to be acutely aware of their own bodies, what they feel like, where they are in space. This, she claims, is even more precious now, when so many of us are practically disembodied by the time we spend in front of screens. It is, in fact, hard to feel our own bodies. If anything, many of us spend our lives training ourselves not to feel them: not to respect our own fatigue, our pain or hunger or need to drink water or to relieve ourselves.
Fast forward a few weeks. A large, bright dance studio in another part of the city. My husband bought me an introduction to Lindy Hop workshop for Christmas, something we’ve meant to do for — oh — almost a decade. I’ve been taking dance classes regularly for the past decade, but never partner dances. It seemed too complicated to schedule, to work out the details. Maybe even a bit of a hassle, to have to think about another person as well as my own body in space. But I love swing music and it was a chance to do something together for fun. A lot of people in that room had the same idea, about thirty of us in total, with wildly varying levels of dance experience.
As we learned basic steps and went down the line to practice them with new partners, it struck me: I had not had this much physical contact with strangers in ages. Cologne, sweat, breath — you get it all when dancing with a partner. I remember this kind of classroom dancing being a bit awkward, but after years of a pandemic, it felt almost like a gift. As the hours passed, we began to get into a groove with the music and with each other. But that didn’t take away the attention it took to find the beat, to find one another in the beat, to match the length of my step to my partner’s, to follow his or her cues.
I realised as I danced that as hard as it is to follow my own body, I find it even harder to follow another person’s — to give up intention and control. With some dancers, I closed my eyes, and just let myself be led. It worked. It was the best feeling. It felt like perfect safety.
Lately I look at the way people around me accept technology without question and worry that I’m becoming a reactionary. I don’t want to be that person — the one who grumbles about cell phones in children’s hands and social media and the polished bilge of ChatGPT substituting for the writing people make, writing that’s unexpected and chaotic and brilliant and disappointing. If I felt we could have both — the efficiency of the ever-improving machines and our sweaty, bumbling, warm humanity — I’d celebrate both. But I don’t think that’s what happens in real life. In real life, there’s only so much time, and only so much attention. And only so many values we can claim to hold at once. Something will give.
So here’s what happened in that dance studio. I time traveled. I was a fifteen-year-old girl putting on a knock-off CD of big band music and dancing alone to “In the Mood” in our empty dining room. Just dancing and dancing in the dark until I exhausted myself. I was a seventeen-year-old dragging my friends to the Naval Club of Toronto, where they held swing dances on Fridays. We could get in because they didn’t serve liquor, so there we were, a bunch of teenagers doing the East Coast Swing with naval veterans in their 80s. And you know what? Those old guys were fantastic dancers. They were kind and patient and weren’t in any hurry. I was eighteen years old and in a narrow Montreal bar, watching a couple dance a fast, impressive Lindy Hop, wondering if I could ever learn to do it. I was twenty and taking ballroom dance classes with a guy from my college who asked me to, experiencing that awkwardness of the early steps but also occasional moments in which the waltz still swept me away. I was twenty-three and taking tango argentino at grad school with a friend from my dorm, feeling the warmth of his breath as we paced a circle in the university gym. I was twenty-six, or maybe twenty-seven, with the man who was my boyfriend and is now my husband, in a little studio in Berlin Kreuzberg, counting the beats, counting, counting.
I find it hard to articulate what this meant to me, how strange and wonderful it felt to be drawn into the past, to find out I carried a past within me somewhere beyond conscious recollection, and that it only needed to be activated. The body is already a memory device. The body already keeps count, of more than I know or care to admit. I can remember a dance partner’s breath on my face twenty years ago, but the months of text chats blur together, even if in the moment they gave me a feeling of connection for a while.
I think it’s a lie that a life lived mostly online can substitute for a life lived mostly in physical presence with others, not without enormous costs. I don’t think it’s easy for any given person to tell what, exactly, they have foregone when they spend five hours a week, ten hours a week, fifty hours a week online. I’ve thought this for a long time, and I assumed the cost was in the kinds of relationships we have with others — to what extent we are connected to people, embedded in a community and a place, able to communicate by all the means human beings have, with gesture and facial expression and tone of voice and touch. But now I see that there is another cost, too, and that is a sense of oneself. A sense of one’s body, its health, its energies and its moods, yes. But also the memories that the body holds, if it is allowed to make them at all.
At the London Review of Books, I reviewed Barbara Newman’s fascinating book on the porousness of medieval selves.
My new podcast series with Mary Wellesley, also at the LRB, is now live. So far in Medieval Beginnings, we’ve talked about Beowulf, early English nuns’ letters, Saint Cuthbert, and the Ancrene Wisse, a guide to sitting alone in a room for ever. Episodes of this and other LRB podcasts are here.
At The Walrus, I wrote about why university writing is still worth doing, even the hard parts — like a first draft.
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