Somatic body practices and critical social theory

While somatic education is connected to psychoanalysis through disciplines such as body psychotherapy, it is much more closely connected to pragmatist philosophy. This limits how far it can draw on European critical social theory for wider critical implications. Psychoanalysis gains its critical function through the concepts of repression and sublimation. In this, it relies on a ‘hydraulic’ model of psychic energy. Feldenkrais rejects such a conception and insists that the system does not allow for a conception in terms of energy, but only in terms of action and tension. There is no energy to be expelled. Rather, there is only tension and the release from tension.

This creates a problem in so far as Feldenkrais and somatic education in general seeks to acquire political and philosophical significance, in that it moves towards the pragmatist conception of action that has not generates the critical edge of Marxism and psychoanalysis. Marxist and social theoretical analysis of capitalism draw heavily on the notions of economic oppression and sexual repression in the production of the historical forms of capitalism and repressive forms of bourgeois liberation and individualism. Marcuse fundamental contention is that Western art provides the main means of reconciling the bourgeois concepts of individual liberation with the unfreedom and repression that is the reality of the capitalist system of production and distribution.

The Marxist credentials of critical theory are much stronger than those of pragmatism, it seems. So the question is then how can somatic education draw on the psychoanalytic model for its critical edge when it rejects what apparently is its critical tenet, namely, the conception of sexuality in terms of psychic energy, and its insistence on the centrality of sexuality. Somatic education does not seem to focus on sexuality over and above other forms of expertise. Yet the Reichian model of sex economy at least claims to offer the possibility of a historical analysis of patriarchy, repression, and therefore a historical analysis of the sources of capitalism and its forms of sexual repression, in the history of patriarchy in general, as the history of sexual repression within the family. Alternatively, it offers, in Marcuse, the possibility of an analysis of the contradictions and psychological basis of the maintenance of capitalist forms of domination in Western forms of art that enable the reconciliation of the bourgeois values of liberation and the repressive realities of capitalist modes of production.

The question then is whether these putative gains can be retained or reconstructed within a psychological model that dispenses with the energy metaphor in favour of a tension-reduction model of the psychosomatic system. Certainly Feldenkrais as well as the other somatic educators seek to cover the ground that has been traditionally claimed by psychoanalysis, including neurosis and sexuality. But it seems at least on the surface that neither pragmatism nor somatic education necessitate the viewing of sexuality and sexual repression as a central function. Nonetheless, it does seem that the Reichian move from the orthodox Freudian model of the psychic system towards one in terms of the body or soma does move in the direction of the somatic education model, the question then being whether it is necessary to retain the hydraulic/energy metaphor in order to retain the insights and in particular the critical edge of psychoanalysis.

Well, one response that does seem to invite itself is that in fact critical theory does need to broaden its concept of psychic energy such that it generalizes being genital sexuality, as is clear in the case of Marcuse, so as to account for the significance of art in the maintenance of the capitalist forms of repression and domination. Here it is the desexualisation, or desensualisation, of the body, that is, removing bodily or sensual pleasure as a precondition of happiness, and its replacement with a disembodied or non-embodied forms of happiness that are found in the cognitive-aesthetic relation to art, providing the individual with momentary and transient bouts of liberation and happiness within an unhappy reality, that forms the central historical mechanism for reconciling the ideals of liberation with a repressive reality. The question then is whether the hydraulic model with its energy metaphor does not become redundant and unnecessary, that is, whether it is possible to make that argument without the conceptual baggage of psychoanalysism, that is, whether the tension-release model might not do just as well.

There are really two connected claims being made by critical theory, namely, the insistence on the quantitative model of sexuality, and the insistence on the centrality of sexuality in social repression. These seem to be connected in some way. But fundamentally sexual energy becomes generalized as being psychic energy in general. Culture provides for the sublimated means of releasing this sexual energy, but in the end it is simple genital sexuality that provides the ultimate means of sexual gratification and release of the dammed up psychic energy. Pragmatism, and even somatic education, accepts the centrality of sexuality in a certain sense which at least superficially seems weaker, in the sense that sexual differentiation is quite fundamental to the human species and a basic instinct.

There are a couple of issues that arise for psychoanalysis: the question of accounting for the neuroses; and the attempt to explain neuroses in terms of the need to repress sexuality in civilized society. In this respect somatic education, and Feldenkrais in particular, seek to provide a developmental model, suggesting that failure of development, which we may view in terms of the failure to acquire competence or expertise in some critical domain of life, leads to regression or immaturity. On the other hand, there is the question whether the quantitative model of sexuality really makes that much difference, or whether in fact the two models are incommensurate. Both seek to account for sexual dysfunction within the current social context. What the psychoanalytic model seems to offer is a broader philosophical framework which places sexuality at the centre as an explanatory construct. Somatic education on the other hand tends to emphasise movement in general, rather than specifically sexuality, as the domain of inquiry and improvement. Still, Feldenkrais seeks to draw conceptual connections between somatic education and psychoanalysis, so lets look at that.

Reconciling somatic education and psychoanalysis

A good amount of Feldenkrais’s writing seems to be concerned as much about somatic practice as with reconciliation with psychoanalytic and critical thought. Wilhelm Reich and the body psychotherapy paradigm would be figure in this respect. Somatic education points to the idea that the body psychotherapy model can be adopted with all of its critical substance but without the dubious science (esp., the psychic energy metaphor). The strategy seems to be to take the pragmatist psychological model and to develop it (esp. the tension-release metaphor) as an alternative basis for the somatic reconception of psychoanalysis. What psychoanalysis and critical social theory gains is a more scientifically respectable basis in pragmatist behaviourism, and what somatic education and pragmatism gains is the resources of critical theory. The question is whether this can succeeds, that is, whether Feldenkrais’ attempt at downplaying the differences are in fact convincing.

There seems to be at least two critical elements that need addressing. The first is the practice side of psychoanalysis that deals with neuroses. On this side somatic education needs to show how it deals with the problem of neurosis, and the proposal is to look at this in terms of development and regression. The second is the theoretical side of psychoanalysis, which gives it its critical edge. On this side psychoanalysis posits civilization as emerging out of the repression of natural impulses, in particular, the repression of sexuality. Now, here we need to look at the theoretical side of orthodox psychoanalytic theory against the background of interpretive social psychology or Volkerpsychologie of Wilhelm Wundt. Freud sees psychoanalysis as essentially social psychology, that is, as interpretive. His emphasis on sexuality is drawn from his psychoanalytic practice and generalized in terms of an interpretation of art and literature. In this he moves in the direction of anthropology.

On the other side of the divide we have people like the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who sees social structures in essentially functional terms. Dewey’s paper on anthropology reflects this and draws further implications for the processes of education. The tone of these writings is that the survival of the group demands the reproduction of certain predispositions and in particular certain forms of expertise that ensure the preservation and survival of the group. Malinowski makes a strong distinction between the religious or sacred and the non-religious or profane social function. In matters of expertise the native is pragmatic and exercises quasi-scientific modes of reasoning. It is possible to clearly distinguish the spiritual domain and the pragmatic domain. In the latter the native needs to exercise practical reasoning and ensure the reproduction of expertise, something that would not presumably be compatible with the sacred domain which demands unquestioning commitment to the group.

Feldenkrais perhaps is equivocal in his approbation of social criticism on the sort of grounds that we might find in say Marcuse. If we for example take Marcuse’s strategy for explaining the psychological basis of capitalism in terms of bourgeois aesthetics, the theme is that the psychological basis of capitalism is illusory inner liberation without real outer freedom. Marcuse develops the Marxist interpretation of Hegel in terms of the idea that outer freedom demands that the inner impulse is reflected in social institutions, whereas liberalism provides for inner liberation through bourgeois forms of cultural production within the context of the chaos of the marketplace which destroys the human ecology and the possibility of guarantees of outward bodily satisfaction. Real bodily consummations are vitiated by the tyranny of the marketplace that opposes the interests of the individual to those of the market place and of the requirements of mass consumption, that is, to the need of the market to sustain overconsumption. The market has no interest in the attainment of bodily satisfaction and the destruction of striving, but rather the opposite, its interest is in sustaining social mobility and the creation of artificial needs. It is only in the sphere of high art that the individual achieves immediate yet momentary satisfaction, or at least its promise.

The conception of freedom in Feldenkrais is primarly based in the notion of the soma, movement, and the anti-gravity righting mechanisms. It is articulated in terms of spontaneity and choice of action. It is based around the notions of posture and motion or movement. Spontaneous movement is defined in terms of freedom from compulsion, and compulsion is associated with the notions of culture and society. So Feldenkrais seems to imply a kind of foundationalism in that he invokes the notion that there is a basic system that provides from free action and free choice, and that freedom here implies freedom from social compulsion. Social compulsion is associated with anxiety, and hence with the fear of falling. Freedom and spontaneity are further associated with achievement, which is exemplified in the arts.

The question then is whether there is any relation between the two frameworks for thinking about art and cultural mediation in relation to freedom and spontaneity. There are parallels, points of contact, and some overlapping areas of concern, but there remains the question as to the motivation behind Feldenkrais’s interest in psychoanalysis and issues of freedom. On the surface at least he seems to be grounded firmly within the framework of pragmatist empiricism. So the question is whether there is any interest in Marxist social criticism, or whether there are other reasons for reconstructing the relation with psychoanalysis. Certainly the concern with the issues of freedom form a significant point of contact. But the critical theory’s concern with freedom concerns primarily the historical analysis of the processes whereby a society built around the overt ideals of freedom and happiness leads to an actual unfreedom and unhappiness due to the enslavement by market forces, and the concern here is the role that art and cultural production plays in the creation of the contradictions of capitalist society. There is the question therefore whether somatic education is critical and therefore revolutionary or not, and whet this is Feldenkrais’s concern at all.

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Feldenkrais wants to see somatic education as continuous with psychoanalysis, as providing a further elaboration of that, rather than viewing it as a competing alternative paradigm. This may help its Marxist and critical credentials as a revolutionary technique. Viewed in this way somatic education provides a further elaboration of the psychoanalysis rather than a complete paradigm shift. If that is the case then, in so far as psychoanalysis is viewed at the level of theory as revolutionary and critical, then presumably somatic education must also accept this burden. The means of achieving this reconciliation is in terms of the notions of growth, development, and of regression due to failure of development. Neurosis is identified in terms of anxiety, growth and development are idenfied with art and spontaneity. The question then is whether this succeeds in connecting the two traditions. At least we can say that in so far as the Reichian body armouring and repression are critical concepts, the somatic education in terms of tension and anxiety ought to be able to inherit this theoretical function, so that tension can be associated with repression and oppression. I would further suggest that this can be elaborated in terms of the concept of a ‘politics of uncertainty’.

7 thoughts on “Somatic body practices and critical social theory”

  1. Your writing is really interesting. I am reading a lot of it. You have a lucidity with contrasting ideas from a continuum of paradigms. I am curious about your background. Clearly, academic. I am seeking better academic understanding of somatic perspectives. I have practiced a number of somatic, well, practices. I googled Feldenkrais vs. Alexander and I got your work.

    1. Hi, thanks. I have a phd in philosophy. I’ve been reading G. H. Mead and then also Marcuse and I find somatics to fit in with that. Mead seems to be a natural place to look for a philosophical framework for thinking about somatics.

  2. Hi!

    I just found your blog – it’s very interesting and I’ll be following it. I’m trying to find a way to connect somatic practices and creative and critical writing (etc… if you happen to know any good references about this theme, I’ll be happy to hear!) so your ideas have value for me.

    Some thoughts about the relation between psychoanalysis and somatic practices (let’s see if they have any value here…). If we look at the broader picture of somatic practices, we see that they have longer history than Freudian psychoanalysis (for example Leo Kofler, b. 1830, studied breathing) – Feldenkreis is of course very important, but not among the first ones to develop these methods and ideas. Maybe the more sophisticated theoretical models that interpret the somatic practices and their relation to social and psychic fields are a bit younger, but anyway the cultural change of perspective to include Soma in the conscious experience of human life has it’s roots deeper than in the early 20th century. So I wonder if somatic practices could be related to these broader social questions in any other way, more based on their own roots. (I don’t have any suggestions right away.)

    (And, if my English is not too accurate, it’s just because it’s not my native language)

  3. Hi JJ and thanks for the comment.

    I strongly agree that it is probably important to investigate the historical background to somatics further. It seems fairly obvious to me that somatics has its pre-scientific origins in cultural practices that are investigated anthropologically, and that’s the reason why somatic practices have strong affinity with performance arts, ritual practices, and other meditation and movement practices and martial arts. But I think that the historical background to somatics as a scientific discipline and a philosophical outlook is ripe for research.

    Could you be more specific about what you mean by “these broader questions” and “based on their own roots”. I guess my starting point is psychoanalysis precisely because of the connection that is made to critical social theory and that’s my main interest, but I’d be curious to see alternative perspectives and how that could be developed philosophically.

    As for writing, if we take creative/critical writing to be the outer manifestation of creative/critical thinking, that is, if what you write down are your thoughts, then it seems to me that Dewey is the natural place to go, as he was a big fan of Alexander and sees his own philosophy (including presumably his views on ‘thinking skills’) as reflected in the Alexander Technique. Also, it seems to me that a consequence of Mead’s model of communication as inherently social implies that writing is an outgrowth of speaking, that is, vocal and gestural communication, which is the converse of the model still in vogue in cognitive science which posits “brain-writing” as a primary vehicle of meaning.

  4. Thank you for the reply!

    You are absolutely correct that “the historical background to somatics as a scientific discipline and a philosophical outlook is ripe for research.” – and I’m glad you are looking into it!

    You asked: “Could you be more specific about what you mean by “these broader questions” and “based on their own roots””. My question is that did the different somatic practices from 19th century onward have implicit or explicit theories about how bodily being is connected to social change, modernization, class, revolution, war and other themes like that – and, if there were this kind of theories, what could be their significance to thinking about social change today. Something like that. I don’t know enough about this yet to say anything more.

    Going to have a look on Mead and Dewey, thanks for suggesting!

    Another interesting questions -maybe not in your focus of attention right now, but anyway – is the possible influence of western somatic practices on modern yoga, see for example




  5. Nice reading…. I think there needs to be some further digging in relation to the Feldenkrais Method.
    it is surely based on a mixed bag of intentions and frameworks… and yet, feldenkrais again and again contends that he is not interested in flexible bodies, but flexible brains, that a key concern is a different kind of thinking that is able to self-critique the given . There is a lovely quote from systems theorist Katzir, in conversation with Feldenkrais, which illuminates some broader, political concerns:
    Katzir talks about Feldenkrais concerns with ‘a de-conditioning, the liberation, in which we develop a self-active part which liberates the individual from his subjective enslavement’. (Katzir in Moshe Feldenkrais The Embodied Wisdom, 2010:173)

    best Thomas

    1. Hi Thomas,
      I recently read about ‘flexible brain’ in a book by Eric Franklin “Inner Focus, Outer Strength”. While I was writing these posts I was grappling with reconciling various claims of (a) dance/movement (contact improv, BMC, etc.); (b) somatic practices like FM and Hanna Somatics; and (c) energetic practices like body psychotherapy. I’m finding that Franklin finds a nice balance in his approach. I have been applying this in 5Rhythms classes where I do some contacting, and I’m finding that Franklin’s approach to working with the body using mental imagery, and his general attitude, works for me. One thing I like is that his style is not so goddamn serious, and that his approach seems very ‘process oriented’ without being preachy. He doesn’t seem to focus so much on ‘energy’, but in the 5Rhythms classes it is clear to me that people are so stressed out these days that they need some sort of an outlet. I’m still finding Feldenkrais’s claims of personal liberation in an highly stressed, high competition affluent society, as least in countries like Australia or the US, to be somewhat solipsistic. My brain is much more flexible when I can actually think and sleep. So I’m not sure that the enslavement is so subjective. The dominant discourses of contemporary society are enslaving. Is discourse subjective? I think Foucault et al would disagree with that. Liberating the body is one part of the equation. Liberating the mind through regaining control of language and political action is the other.

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