Posture, Or the Calculus of Standing With the World

My ridiculous posture reveals — betrays — my stance towards the world. For such is posture: it is an ethics, a world view.

A certain man, when younger, is uncomfortable in his skin. He's angry — at his parents for what he considers their cruelty, his teachers for their demanding incompetence, at the whole freakin' world for everything from the drinking age to the insane distribution of federal tax monies (it's rare to be able to use the plural of money; I seize every opportunity). It's as if there's a conspiracy that runs from his DNA, which gave him this absurd nose and even more absurd body, all the way through the federal government which forces him to register for the draft so he can pay for his education, a state sanctioned extortion. So when he walks around, he walks with a furrowed brow, a craning neck, slumped shoulders, and a will to whine — a posture of cowering poised to lash out.

Decades later, he sees the world a bit differently. There's incompetence, sure, and plenty of violence in and out of households. The government's distribution of monies hasn't changed one iota from Nixon to Trump. It may be a conspiracy, he now believes, but it's a conspiracy of dunces. And so rather than a furrowed brow and slumped shoulders, he now walks with greater ease. Sure, his shoulders are not a dancer's. But they are not slumped in rejection; they're slouched with world weary sloth.

A world view is a posture and a posture, a world view.  To exist in the world is to stand towards other things — people, cars and phones, traffic, towards work and romance, men and women and kids, towards trees, bees, birds, and dogs, towards death. I flinch when a mosquito buzzes my ear; I lean in when talking to this person in this mood, lean back when talking to this other person in this other mood. At a Pixies show, I stand like this; at a Lil Uzi Vert show, I might stand like that. And in all circumstances, I am navigating and negotiating this body of mine — this skinny, perpetually hunched, and decaying bag of blood and organs.

Which is to say, posture marks this complex intersection of the material and conceptual worlds, a juncture of our body, the bodies of those around us, the ideas we have in our head, and what we believe it means to be a person in the world. Posture is not fixed in place. Nor is it totally fluid. We are always shifting how we stand based on any number of factors — perhaps an infinite number of factors — from the crick in a knee to the fact that in 1945 we completely destroyed a city with one bomb. (Look at art, read books, listen to music pre- and post-bomb; there is a conspicuous difference, a new limit term to reckon which creates different ways of standing in the world. Would Burroughs' cut ups be possible before the bomb?).

There is such an obvious correlation between mood and physical stance. When I feel shitty, I feel shit upon. And so I duck my head, scowl, respond with a too-ready nay. You can see it by the way I walk or enter a room — a little reticent, a little tense, ready to strike. Other times, when feeling content and calm, I walk with sense of the magnanimous, enter the social with a hearty openness. I literally and metaphorically hold myself differently.

Posture is a stance that comes from that impossible calculus of body, breeding, one's conception of the world, and one's place in said world. Surely, a 19 year old African-American man and I have different postures in different neighborhoods as our bodies mean different things depending on the context. The gazes and economies in which we participate shape how we hold ourselves. Women know this well: a certain posture at a certain time can be the difference between life and death (and any number of other exchanges from the awkward and uncomfortable to the romantic and erotic).

Our very way of holding ourselves, of comporting ourselves, is inflected by those around us — say, a big dog or a hunky guy — as well as by our perception of what's around us but not visible. We believe the world is such-and-such a place based on information that's not present, namely, the "news" and things you've been taught in school and at home. Posture is an ethical stance, a way of standing towards others. 

Sometimes, the correlation between posture and circumstance is obvious: it's raining so I bend my neck and duck my head. Most of the time, the correlation is nebulous: I think this neighborhood is "unsafe" because I heard a story about it once when I was a kid — so when I walk there, I am heads down but alert (because that's my conception of being "safe"). Or I think the world is vicious and cruel due to reading a certain paper-qua-snuff film every morning and so I carry myself with knowing anger everywhere I g (see the Facebook feeds of all-too-familiar piety and angst).

Bands are a great way to think about posture. Every band performs — puts on, lives in, and enacts — a world view. Take the Sex Pistols and the Grateful Dead. These two postures, like all postures, exceed physicality. To stand towards the world in such a manner is to assume the world is such a place which demands that they stand this way.

I saw Poi Dog Pondering at the TLA in Philly in 1990. This is not irrelevant. 

What's so complex about all this is that there are so many ways of standing towards the world. Some people really go all in one way or another. Think of punks and Deadheads. They really double down on one posture! Me, I get the Sex Pistols' anger. I also dig the Dead's noodling, Poi Dog Pondering's fruity fun, My Bloody Valentine's morose ambience. I get The Smiths dramatic plaintive; Die Antwoord's playful obscenity; Jethro Tull's agricultural Renaissance prog rock. I get early Dylan; I get rock Dylan; I get Christian Dylan which makes many I know recoil. A posture, then, of postures.

Comedians, too. In fact, comedians might be better in that it's just one body with a distinct physical posture we get to focus on. Think of Chris Rock, his pacing, his delivery, the way he stops to smile that mischievous smile. Now think of Louis CK's slumped shtick. Then Steven Wrights surreal deadpan absurdity. Then Larry David's broad gesturing self-deprecation, George Carlin's slumped curmudgeon, Dave Chappelle's hunched laughing with you.

O, the ways we come to consider the world so as to hold ourselves this way or that! It's staggering! The very way I stand in the world, stand towards myself and others, is informed and inflected by how I imagine a world I don't see but have to believe exists.

For me, maturity means recognizing the factors that have informed, and continue to inform, my posture — and then adjusting accordingly. I thought the world was like this. But it's not! I thought this is what I was in the world. But it's not! I'm this other thing entirely! Which shifts how I stand. Wisdom means reckoning the way I hold myself in the world in every sense, physically and metaphysically. One might say that it's matter of aligning one's bodily stance with one's world view. Alignment, in this sense, is not as much a matter of spine, hips, and head but of ethics, gait, and world view.

What, then, of yoga? Yoga, we might believe, is all about posture, the asanas. In yoga, you mindfully — which is a funny word to use as many yogis I know speak of being free of the mind, but that's for another time — so, in yoga, you consciously try on different postures, even absurd postures, postures you'd never, ever find yourself in. Many no doubt do this because it helps their body, a kind of physical therapy — this pose for a bad hip, this other for a funky back.

But what interests me about yoga is that it doesn't address a body out of context. On the contrary, it is always a question of the body in the world — albeit a world with an infinite horizon. That is to say, whereas my understanding of Pilates is that it addresses the posture of the body free of any conception of the world, a body qua body — whatever that is — yoga is distinctly about one's posture as a living, breathing cosmic being. If Pilates imagines alignment beginning at the feet and ending at the head, yoga imagines alignment beginning at the earth and ending at the infinite cosmic horizon — and the body is just an inflection of that flowing line. Which is to say, yoga addresses one's posture towards the universe. Which, one believes, inflects posture towards other people. (Although this is not yoga's explicit concern and a point in which it seems more or less indifferent: for all the people practicing yoga in the world, there are still so many assholes. This is not the fault of yoga. I'm just pointing out that yoga is not interested in a social body but in a cosmic body.)

And so it has you try on all these different postures. Ok, so now pretend you're a corpse. Now, a baby. Now stand on your head. Then slowly go backwards until you're in some kind of bridge. All of this, mind you, not just to stretch the back, hips, or hamstrings but to see how you feel. Because how you stand in the world is how you stand in the world. How do you go when your foot is behind your head? How do you go, how does the world go, when you're supine?

Yoga, it seems to me, recontextualizes physical posture by having you address a different horizon. Rather than assuming your same old posture of you watching TV, working at the computer, talking to your lover, boss, mother, yoga has you assume all kinds of poses as you address the cosmos. Its primacy focus is not how you go in the social. Rather, it teaches you different postures of standing towards the universe which might have you stand in and towards the social differently.

This is all to say that we don't just stand in the world. We comport ourselves. Our posture is always already a movement, a mode of address, an ethics, a self-relation, a way to engage the world.


Mark Crawford said...

In 2014, when I was knocking on doors during the Scottish independence referendum, I proposed a theory to my comrades that was somewhat influenced by my reading of Wilhelm Reich - it seemed to me that those least likely to be open to the promise of radical political change were literally physically stiffer than those who were able to embrace openness. Some people were literally too uptight to be persuaded. A couple of such people even told me they agreed with everything I said, yet there was something inside them that would not allow them to fully embrace the radical step of forming a new body politic. A difficult problem to overcome.

dg said...


Nope. It's your anti- labour/work/body prejudice beautifully rationalized. What's fascinating is that I had the same prejudice--against myself. For decades. It took me the longest time to understand why I love dance and find theatre/drama (cubicle narrative) insulting.

People who use their body in contemporary narrative are simple-minded, violent, hillbilly/chavs (yeehaw!) who just won't listen, and need to be cared for, pets.

Show me a dancer, worker who doesn't have firm, upright, solid, posture. It is impossible to live in our world any other way.

It's perfectly understandable that a few generations of screen-based hominids will come to see themselves as the ideal. Golf and tennis become Olympian feats; wrestling's out in 2020, replaced by java coding and latte milk art.

There are, of course, many ways to stand in the world. (Life is an infinite, borderless orb of potential combinations; why bother with immune systems; I'm open to anything!) But there are few that allow you to bring food back to the tribe, carry a child in utero, or hold another dancer over your head. The disintegrating infrastructure in our urban spaces goes hand-in-hand with our contempt for real work (proper posture).

Daniel Coffeen said...

Mark: I love this. To me, it's part of phenomenology: the world reveals itself. Thanks for reading and piping in.

DG: Forget the semiotics of reading posture for a moment. Whether this or that posture means this or that attitude is a complex question of economies — historical, local, cultural, gender, financial. I am interested in the figure of posture.

I feel like your critique is that I made no mention of labor. Which is a good point. But that, still, is not my main interest — labor would be a variable within the calculus of a posture; it wouldn't efface posture as constitutive of a way of going in the world.