How To Be An Object

Realism is doing well these days, and so it should be. Yet in the clamor to establish all objects on an equal footing, it seems timely to ask whether human beings have been accorded their place in reality along with everything else. Has speculative realism developed a theory that takes the human seriously, not as a subject but as an object among others?

The purpose of this post is to introduce to object-oriented ontology a philosophy that explicitly treats the body as an object: the Alexander Technique. I do not pretend to be fluent in OOO. I have read most of Meillassoux’s work extant in translation, Harman’s Towards Speculative Realism and the blogs of Levi Bryant and Tim Morton with some regularity, but I am admittedly a self-taught philosopher without affiliation. Nor am I an accredited Alexander practitioner. My knowledge in this domain comes from the lessons I have received, the literature I have read and the personal use I have made of them. From what I have gleaned, however, there is enough in common between Harman’s approach and the Alexander Technique to warrant a proffering at least, and maybe more than that.

I have called Alexander Technique a philosophy, even though it is typically defined as a kinesthetic procedure. This is not a slip. In the first part of the 20th century, F.M. Alexander developed his procedure out of a rigorous empiricism, but he also wrote about its implications for rationalism, developed a theory of evolution and history, and gained the concerted admiration of the pragmatist John Dewey in the process. I will not claim that Alexander was a pragmatist, but rather a speculative realist before his time. In this sense, I am forcing Alexander, much as Harman forces Heidegger, to yield a hitherto unnoticed set of implications.

The genesis of the technique is well-known. A professional dramatist, Alexander began to suffer from hoarseness when reciting on stage, to the point where he could no longer ply his trade. All medical advice failed to reverse his condition until finally he decided that it must be something he was doing while onstage that triggered his hoarseness. In the manner of the great positivists or the desert fathers, he then proceeded to spend years in a front of a set of mirrors in order to find out what he was doing to destroy his voice.

In the parlance of OOO, Alexander encountered a broken tool, which in this case was ready to hand as his body. The interesting thing is that he did discover what he, and by his account everyone else, was doing. The difference between deleterious and what I propose to call euphoric movements (retaining the sense of the term as “good bearing”) was the relation between the head and the neck. Subsequent scientific studies have since confirmed the importance of this relation to kinesthetics, not only in humans but in mammals as well.

What Alexander developed from this discovery was a set of directions that explicitly describe the body as an object while removing any mention of a subject. It is primarily for this reason that I place Alexander among the speculative realists. Dewey claimed Alexander as pragmatist, but Alexander’s own ontology is remarkably flat, in the very literal way that it places all objects on an equal footing.

Another signature characteristic of Alexander’s approach is that there are no metaphors at work. The student becomes as closely as involved as possible in the tool-being of the body. A first lesson might begin by isolating a kinesthetic end of the simplest sort (say, standing up from a chair), after which the teacher instructs the student not to try to carry out this end. In Alexandrian terms, this suspension or subtraction of intent is called inhibition.

When the instruction is then given silently by the student “Let the head move up and forward,” and the teacher’s hands guide the student’s head forward and up, the student will tend to stand with a marked decrease in self-defeating movements. A typical account from the student will include a fear of not being able to stand without falling (the necessary consistency of the world between past and future having been internally disrupted) and a subsequent sense of lightness and surprise in being able to stand so easily.

Notice several points here. First, as mentioned, the relation between the head and the neck, which Alexander called the primary control, lacks a subject. It is concerned entirely with a relation between objects. Alexander invariably objectified the body, referring to its parts with the definite article: “the head, the neck,” never “your head, your neck.” Second, these parts are engaged in a means without an end. Alexander distinguished sharply between end-gaining and the means-whereby (final and efficient causes), and mounted a sustained critique of the telic as such.

From what I have said so far, Alexander Technique may appear to follow the usual human-centered bias. But on close inspection the emphasis has changed. The primary control brings to the attention a relation between two objects. In this, anthropocentrism seems to reign as merrily as ever. However, the relation between the body (the head, the shoulders) and the external world (the chair, the floor) has been unyoked from its habitual correlation. True, the chair will be seen to exist beyond my understanding of it, thus preserving the human-world divide, but so will the legs that lift up from it, the shoulders that swing forward, the feet that press more firmly into the floor… The directions convert what is normally considered the province of the human (my legs, my shoulders, etc.) into a set of objects, and moreover, a set of objects that interact with other objects without the interference of thought.

This point cannot be overstated. If I inhibit a kinesthetic command while retaining an internal relation (which is actually a change in relation – “let the head move forward and up” prescribes no destination), I no longer know what the relation of the legs to the floor truly is. Yet there is no doubt that they are interacting. Quantum physics offers no better proof for realism than this. One does not even need to buy an insanely expensive machine to demonstrate it.

The primary control so interpreted thus opens an intriguing path for an object-oriented ethics, insofar as it may begin to address actions and their consequences without instituting a subject-object divide. Insofar as it replaces ek-stasis with euphoria, it may also tell us something about happiness in the bargain.

Third, there is a constant relation available to the tool of the body that can be completely independent of other objects. The Alexander directions can be given whatever one is doing, however one is doing it, in any surroundings whatsoever. This is because the primary control is co-extensive with bodily incarnation. It might even be shown that a comatose person could perform them. In one sense, then, the directions make up an object that does not collide with any other object.

On the other hand, one must admit that this independence is possible rather than given, and that it therefore maintains an elusive position with regards to sufficient reason. If the directions do not collide with anything, they might also vanish on contact with any necessity. Alexander was motivated by the brokenness of his voice, but he did not for all that generate an imperative. This is precisely because the directions prescribe no agency or object of necessity.

The question may thus be posed: How does an entity that does not need to be continue to be? To put it Harman’s terms, if all objects are on equal footing, and anything can be an object, what is the ontological status of a proposition that democratizes all objects — including itself? How can an object exert a superior reason to exist in relation to other objects when that object contradicts any such superiority within itself? (It may be that a proposition is not an object — actual, intentional, real or otherwise — but this prospect seems to present fatal complications for object-oriented philosophy, so I will not take up this alternative here.)

One place to look for an answer is in its survival over generations. The legacy of Alexander’s finding is passed down not only through language but also through the teacher’s physical touch. In place of “touch,” I would prefer to employ the term “contact,” partly because that is a bone of contention in Harman’s work, and partly because its root word “contingere” captures the related concept of contingency.

No sophistry is intended. When the teacher guides the student at the back of the neck, the student’s success will be determined partly by the teacher’s decision to give the directions internally at the same time. Now, if the teacher gives internal instructions that include no reference to a subject, and the relations within the tool-being of the teacher’s body change as a result, and the relations in the student’s body change as well, then what has made contact with the student?

The similarity to Harman’s causation from the interior will be apparent. In this case, I would also argue that whatever it is, the result is “purposefully contingent” — it is constructed from no necessity for being. It is this kind of object that the brokenness of the body/tool/being/object can reveal, one that I have elsewhere called a claim of nothing, but might more aptly be dubbed a flat signifier, or a flat meme. Much more can be said of flat memes than can be condensed here. Let us say at least that such objects pose the general possibility of flatness in their specific appearance.

Of course, the implication is therefore that flat memes, even though they do not collide with other objects on one level, are maximally exposed to distortion on another. The Alexander directions have no need to exist, but Alexander practitioners do have to make a living, and therefore they do tend to insist on the need for the directions to exist, to the detriment of the directions themselves. Thus the community of practitioners is beset by the usual rivalry of claims to authenticity, and to superiority over other kinesthetic procedures, albeit at a far more genteel pitch than in many other professions.

Historically, however, this legacy of contact can be traced back to something truly striking. It can be argued that Alexander Technique can be learned without contact, since Alexander himself had no teacher on whom he could rely. This point leads us to contemplate an object generally held in high regard by the correlationist: Alexander discovered how to free the objects and relations of the body from correlationism by looking in a mirror — not a metaphorical one but an actual, physical glass. It is a break from idealism indeed, and no doubt a clarion divergence from Lacan, when a key to the great outdoors is obtained from a reflection, and of one’s own image at that.

I have not presented a complete speculation on the Alexander Technique, nor have I addressed some of the problems implied by this preliminary sketch. My intention here has merely been to introduce the procedure into the context of object-oriented ontology. Although the reverse has not been my purpose, it may also be encouraging to Alexander practitioners to see their work positioned in a broader philosophical landscape, rather than being consigned to a curious tutorial on posture. I hope this post has contributed to these possibilities.

Happy New Year.