The Society of the Absent Presence
Dec 03 2020 — Mar 07 202?

The Embodied Manifesto

We Feel, Therefore We Know.

The Society of the Absent Presence has formed to recognise and unveil the body as the controversial producer of knowledge that it is, and always has been. The absent presence of our fields.

Cultural studies and the humanities at large remain stuck in relic of mind-body dualism. Though the body has been here all along – moving through time and space/s, acting, inscribing and being inscribed upon, writing, breathing, digesting, sensing – Cartesian dualism still reigns large with its ever-present: I think, therefore I am.

Where is the body in these bodies of work? Past, present, and future. Despite plenty of important progress made by those in body, feminist, queer, and disability studies over the past 50 years, the body has remained an absent presence in cultural and social theories, which predominantly continue to consider culture only from the neck-up.

“The mind is the location of thought and the body the location of a fixed set of physiological processes. But of course that is not all there is to say.” – Lisa Blackwell

The mind, the mind, the mind, the mind... We are tired of the unwavering sovereignty of cogito and minimal regard of and for the body. Do we really believe only the mind provides possibility for the processes that allow us to think, argue, reflect, reason, deliberate, question and write it all out?  


These supposedly ‘cognitive’ processes of thinking are conventionally referred to as those that arise from the mind’s capacity to engage in undertakings that are discrete from those located within the body, those principally viewed as involuntary and un-factual.

This foundational dualism, this separation of mind and body; “the idea that the mind is subject to voluntary control, usually characterized as will, and the body is subject to laws which govern and regulate processes which do not require conscious effort or attention...”1 This distinction between what is taken to be involuntary (and therefore fixed), and what is taken to be voluntary (and therefore subject to change) produces the mind and body as distinct entities. A distinction we pose as holding back the development of the transdisciplinary venture, and thus makes it a central project for the transdisciplinary venture.

We ask:
  • Is knowing and imagining solely a cognitive process?
  • Is imagination and knowledge only a possibility of the mind?
  • Can we not imagine and think through the body, with the body, too?

After all, does all conscious thought not stem from a sensory basis? The brain itself would be nothing without the nervous system – which is distributed throughout the entire body.  


Culture is about sense-making. Although the sense in sense-making could naturally point towards a more sensient body, it remains largely linked to interpretation, to judgement and ultimately to the work of thought. We are back with ‘culture from the neck up.’ Why such resistance to thinking through the body?

The insidiousness of dualism remains stuck as rather difficult to think against. ‘Mind over matter,’ they say, they say. So where does that leave us when taking to consider how many great philosophers who located thought within the mind and distinct from the body, suffered from bodily maladies and diseases which helped to produce an ongoing, omnipotent fantasy that the body could be overcome or even dispensed with?

‘…Philosophy has established itself on a profound somatophobia.’ – Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies (1994)


These ‘thinkers,’ whom always elevating the mind and thinking to that which is superior, did so in relation to a conception of the body that stays with tendencies towards the body’s formulation as a physico-chemical adjunct to thought – and so (inadvertently) continue to pave the way for the move... the move away, the move towards, the move beyond:

The move beyond thinking of bodies as mere substances, as specially separate kinds of thing or entities, as involuntary containers of experience – the move to “explore bodies as sites of potentiality, process and practice.”2


Embodied knowing is our earliest and most primitive means of experiencing the world. Unlimited to the Western Way, in cultures around the world, as infants we learn first through our bodies.

       As adults we dance, we suffer, we feel pain, we rejoice, we age, we bear child, we break down...

All as embodied persons.
As embodied persons, we require recognition that a person is only able to exist and to know anything as a result of being embodied.

‘The body, or the embodiment, of the subject is to be understood as neither a biological or a sociological category, but rather as a point of overlapping between the physical, the symbolic, and the sociological.’
– Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects (1994)

Embodiment acknowledges the subject’s existence precisely at this overlap between the physical and cultural. Here we may look to Merleau-Ponty's term, ‘body-subject’, to convey the ‘inherent capacity of the body to direct behaviours of the person intelligently, and thus function as a special kind of subject that expresses itself in a pre-conscious way.’3 This capacity is borne of the body's relational existence.

The Embodied Manifesto challenges the dominant ideology that privileges rationality as the primary way of knowing. 

We, the Society of the Absent Presence,
critique assumptions about the body as problematic, controversial and taboo, offering counter-narratives that reclaim the body as a way of knowing. 

Embodied processes such as theatre, dance, free movement and LARP, can serve as methods of research, decolonization, and reveal corporeal knowledges. Practices of embodiment crack open and surface hidden ways of knowing, when words may be inadequate or even non-existent. These knowledges have always been held by the body, which all these traditions – sociology, philosophy, critical theory, cultural studies, to name but a few – have treated as an absent presence.

But, the body is and always has been here. Inscribed upon, acted through. Discourses are written in flesh. Flesh is discourse. Which flesh is yours? Which is the Others’? Which is ours?


Embodied inquiry furthers phenomenological understanding. The field of somatics has given voice to the body as experienced from the first-person perspective – a knowing that is factual. Not the third-person perspective of medicine, which sees a body and says ‘Hi’ to a patient. The soma speaks. It senses in non-language, as well as in non-sense (which is not nonsense, though nonsense can also be useful). The soma can give us a-sense…

‘I never encountered another person without a body, or knowledge existing without an embodied knower.’
– Jane Flax, Disputed Subjects (1993)

‘Everything that I have done myself required a body, from speaking and thinking and working to eating and sleeping and dancing.’
– Nettleton & Watson, The Body in Everyday Life (1998)

To read, speak, think, and write about the body are ways of understanding ‘the body.’ These acts of engaging with the body simultaneously make sense of and produce the lived bodies of ourselves and others. Words become flesh, flesh becomes meaning.

Historically, socio-politically, and culturally this somatic-semio-tic process has taken various shapes, and might be in radical transformation at this very moment of an unprecedented global public health crisis. The body thus becomes an especially important theme as its defining discourses, knowledges, and experiential dimensions are newly negotiated.

In this era, when breakdowns, cuts, seizures, and failures of bodily routines and desires become a collective experience, we can gain important insights from theories of the body, which have challenged the cultural paradigms of the hitherto individualized othered non-normative, aberrant, ill, disabled, black, pregnant, or aged bodies.4 

‘When we write or read we take up particular bodily orientations; posture, musculature, breathing, and certain habits or dispositions. We do not simply think, but relate to the keyboard or book through particular bodily dispositions and practices. These might appear to be automatic or involuntary, but, nevertheless, the body is never simply left behind within academic study. Indeed, it is made to relate to itself and others in particular ways through the manner in which it is situated within space (the library or lecture theatre for example), or time (where the body’s cyclical rhythms for sleep, food and so forth may be ignored and overridden).’ – Lisa Blackman, The Body (2008)


As we have already seen, the very concept of dualism depends upon a notion of separation. Separation assumes clear boundaries between entities; the biological and the social, for example. These are taken for granted to exist, with their comings together and interactions as some mere peripheral fashion. ‘Separation assumes that it is relatively easy, if you have the expertise or knowledge, to designate what is biological and what is social, what is human and what is non-human, what is voluntary and what is involuntary.’5 

To this, we say NO. We provoke UN-SEPERATION. We provoke the dance, acknowledge the entanglements, give weight to all those blurrings and latent knowledges that lay there, in the in-betweens.


My Body is a Producer of Knowledge.
My Body is a Site of Discourse/s.
My Body is a Research Instrument.
My Body is not an Object on the Side-Line.

I feel, therefore I know.

1. Blackman, Lisa. The Body: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2020.
2. Ibid.
3. Butler, Ruth and Parr, Hester (Ed). Mind and body spaces: geographies of illness, impairment and disability. London: Routledge, 1999.
4. MA Trans. Body Politics Reader: Introduction. ZHdK, 2020.
5. Blackman, Lisa. The Body: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2020.

➙ Knowledge Controversy! The Mind-Body Problem

Image: via Omotesando