13. Celeste Snowber, Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body

by breavman99

embodied inquiry

One of the things I’m interested in exploring is embodied knowledge—that is, knowledge that is produced by the senses and held by the body. Maybe the embodied quality of that knowledge is only metaphorical; maybe that knowledge is actually in the brain and not in the body. I don’t know. That’s one of my questions. Anyone who has learned to ride a bicycle, though, has had an experience of embodied knowledge. Otherwise, the hard-won combination of motor skills and balance and forward movement involved in cycling wouldn’t come together, and that ability would be forgotten—something that never happens, we’re told: “It’s just like riding a bike!” is a cliché, perhaps, but it’s also true. 

I’ve had what I think are experiences of embodied knowledge through walking, although I don’t know much about the process of embodiment and don’t have a language with which to speak of it. That’s why I added Celeste Snowber’s Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body to my reading list. I had hoped that Snowber, a professor of arts education at the University of British Columbia, might offer a systematic approach to thinking about embodied knowledge. I’m planning to read some phenomenology as a way of approaching this topic, but I thought that this short book might be a better place to start. However, I was disappointed: the book is idiosyncratic, poetic, autobiographical, and meditative—more of a New Age self-help guide than a cogent theorization of embodied inquiry or embodied knowledge. That’s fine, if that’s what you’re looking for; unfortunately, it’s not what I need right now. 

“In this book, I invite you to see the body as a place of inquiry, a place of learning, understanding and perceiving,” Snowber writes in the book’s preface (xiii). Her approach, she suggests, has been developed by reading broadly in a variety of fields, “including poetics, curriculum studies, phenomenology, arts-based research, deep ecology, feminist studies, and of course, from the experience of daily life,” and this book is intended to be a companion “to the vast scholarly work done in embodied ways of knowing and inquiry” (xiv). I was hoping that this book would make more references to that “vast scholarly work,” but it doesn’t. Instead, Snowber describes her book as inspirational, as “[a] map to your own pilgrimage back to befriending your body” (xvi). I don’t need inspiration or to befriend my body, however; I need a theoretical language I can use to think about the relationship between embodiment and knowledge.

The first chapter is written from the perspective of the reader’s body. “My sentences are formed with the grammar of the gut,” Snowber writes. “This is a grammar that is often left at the doors when policies are being made or enacted. Though this is perhaps where I am most needed” (4). Unfortunately, the phrase “the grammar of the gut” reminds me of the current occupant of the White House, who relies on his faulty intuition, his “gut,” on important issues, like climate change, rather than conferring with people who know what they are talking about and making policy decisions based on evidence. The body needs to move, to play, to connect “to the magic of the life force through the magic of the body” (6), to be befriended. “[T]he deeper truth is that you were all born with the knowledge that you are bodies, not just have bodies,” Snowber writes, but “you soon learned from your culture and teachers that bodily knowledge was not valued as much as head knowledge” (7). That might be true, but claims like “the mind ceases productivity in response to the body being cramped” (7) are offered without evidence here, as aphorisms or self-evident truths, and that kind of writing isn’t helpful for me in this project.

Snowber argues that solitude is an important aspect of embodied inquiry. Her example of solitude is her daily practice of walking alone near the Pacific Ocean. On those walks, she attends to the land—the hills she climbs or descends, the native flora (19)—but I found myself wondering whether she might not be able to give similar attention to the land by walking with others. She takes her students out on silent group walks, for example (20-21). Snowber suggests that solitary physical activity spurs one’s creativity, and offers her daily walks as an example of “a practice where physicality and mindfulness meet” (17). However, she is not only interested in making time to be alone, “but the way in which one inhabits time” (20). That’s an interesting turn of phrase, but I don’t understand what it means, and it isn’t explained. However, someone looking for such explanations—someone like me, that is—is looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place: Snowber writes, “This book is not a fancy methodology, but an invocation to bring aspects to our lives which will infuse our vocation, creativity, research, skills that can bring restoration and inspiration” (22). In other words, don’t look for anything as clear-cut as a methodology here. When I got to that sentence, I should’ve stopped reading, because a methodology is pretty close to what I was hoping to find here.

The word “invocation” suggests Snowber’s interest in the connections between spirituality, sensuality, and the sacred. “Embodied ways of inquiry are an invitation to dwell more richly in the territory of the sensual life, where all of life is both sensual and sacred,” she writes (27). “Feeling the wind on the face, the blood of life running through our cells, the ecstasy of a bending tree, the freshness of water on flesh, the colour of an apricot, or the joy of jumping are all forms of sensuous knowledge,” she continues (27). All of us have experienced those things—at least, I hope we have; on my most recent long walk, I had similar sensual experiences. How do those experiences generate knowledge, however, and where is that knowledge kept? This book cannot answer those questions; that’s not its purpose.

In her chapter on writing, Snowber thinks about breathing and writing, walking and writing, grief and writing, and movement and writing (44-48). She considers writing from places of fragility or vulnerability (50-51). “Writing from the body gives you the opportunity to honour each subtle and bold sensation of life; to respond to the world and ourselves,” she writes. “Therefore everything is material for writing and listening to our lives and the grammar of our own lived experience” (51). I’m not sure those musings are helpful for me. What is helpful, however, is her reference to Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Of course, I thought when I saw his name—I should be reading that book, not this one. Of course, I could add Csikszentmihályi’s work to my reading list, couldn’t I?

Snowber writes about listening, but in a metaphorical way: “The entire body hears,” she claims (55). “This listening isn’t just between ourselves and our bodies, but it is body to body, earth to earth, earth to body, and to what is beyond” (58). Clearly she isn’t talking about a literal form of listening, but rather listening as connection between ourselves, our environment, and something beyond the physical. In her chapter on the body and paradox, she suggests that our limitations—injuries, for example—are places of generativity, of creativity (65). “Instead of being perplexed by the paradox of the body, perhaps it is time to praise it,” she suggests (71). However, I really don’t know what to make of statements like this one: “Our bodies are the earth. The earth is our body. In my practice of walking, dancing and writing in connection to the landscape and seascape I keep living these words” (77). Yes, we are not separate from the natural world, although our culture and economy do their best to assert such a separation. But how do creative or embodied practices help us to live that truth? Isn’t there a difference between being and knowing, between ontology and epistemology, that is being elided here?

Asking such questions about this book, though, is like breaking a butterfly on a wheel: Embodied Inquiry isn’t intended to answer those kinds of questions—in fact, I would argue that it deliberately refuses to engage with them. It is a personal and eccentric book, and although I’m sure many people have gotten a great deal out of it, it’s not what I need right now. Clearly I need to do more research into embodied knowledge, or whatever term the library’s databases use to categorize that field of inquiry. After all, Snowber says that the scholarship in this area is vast; I need to dig into it, but in a much more careful way. Going by the use of the word “embodied” in a book’s title isn’t good enough. That much I’ve learned.

Work Cited

Snowber, Celeste. Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living and Being through the Body. Sense, 2016.