Searching for Sensational Living

Image of an abstract painting representing fragments of experience
Image Credit: Title: Fragments of Experience, Creator: Johnstone, William, University of Edinburgh Collections Catalogue No. 0016120

In this post, Josephine Foucher Co-Editor of Teaching Matters and a PhD student in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Science describes how to repair the Cartesian split and regain a sensational life in the midst of a global pandemic…

When thinking about this month’s theme on mental health and new learning environments, I was inspired by Sarah Ahmed’s concept of feminism being sensational in her book Living a feminist life:

Feminism is sensational. Something is sensational when it provokes excitement and interest. Feminism is sensational in this sense; what is provocative about feminism is what makes feminism a set of arguments that is hard to deliver. We learn about the feminist cause by the bother feminism causes; by how feminism comes up in public culture as a site of disturbance.

And then she goes on to specify:

 A sensation is often understood by what it is not: a sensation is not an organized or intentional response to something. And that is why sensation matters: you are left with an impression that is not clear or distinct. A sensation is often felt by the skin. The word sensational relates both to the faculty of sensation and to the arousal of strong curiosity, interest, or excitement. If a sensation is how a body is in contact with a world, then something becomes sensational when contact becomes even more intense. (p.21-22)

Reading this definition of sensation was a waking up moment for me, because it described a “faculty” that has been missing from my everyday life. Living, learning and working digitally and remotely has shifted the ways my body takes up space and how I tune into it.

Thanks to Ahmed’s words, I was able to grasp why my day-to-day feels different now than it did “before”. Before March 2020, I lived in a more embodied way. My days were more sensational. They were marked by small, redundant, and non-eventful things but that gave deep meaning to my existence, nurtured my curiosity and excitement. In the morning, I would physically leave the comfort of my home to go out into the world, dressing to confront Edinburgh’s capricious weather and walk or cycle to work or the library, appreciating this transition to prepare for the day. Throughout the day, my senses and skin were alive. From my heart palpating as I stepped into a meeting at the IAD, feeling the blood pump through my cheeks during conversations, and relishing in that small feeling of accomplishment afterwards, enlivened by the ideas, thoughts, and projects in progress. Or when reading about a new concept when doing my literature review and sensing the excitement as someone’s words have suddenly enabled an intuition to come to life linguistically, entering the realm of the communicable. Sitting on the fifth floor of the Main library, I remember sharing a moment of hushed complicity as my table neighbour and I coincidently stretched and yawned at the same time, and exchanged an empathetic smile. These moments are infinite, but what I’m trying to get at is that I was more aware of my body. My skin was constantly ‘activated’ by the world around me.

The global pandemic has disrupted our way of inhabiting the world and of moving through it. In an era of physical distancing, our bodies have become something dangerous, to be feared, to shield and protect with masks and gloves. Sometime I catch myself holding my breath when I cross someone a bit too closely in the street to make sure we don’t potentially “infect” each other. As Ahmed reminds, the skin is our body’s layer that is in contact with world, but working from home and constantly in front of a screen, has made that boundary between the inner and outer worlds, blurry. The skin becomes obsolete.

In this era of anti-viral, sanitised living, how do we reconnect the mind and body? How do we nurture curiosity and excitement when our bodies are less prone to surprise, discomfort, or unexpected encounters? Which makes me wonder, how can we develop agency and care for others when it has become difficult to situate ourselves in our own bodies?

The good news is that this sensational life is still here and attainable, it might just be about giving our bodies the space and attention they need. Sensational living is enabling this boundary between our inner and outer worlds to regain its impressionable, reactive and yet sturdy quality.

A couple weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of the podcast ‘On being’ with the journalist and naturalist, Michael McCarthy, who talked about his love for nature and our inherent need, as animals, to interact with and be surrounded by the natural world. During the conversation, he meditates on the distinction between joy and pleasure. Joy, he explains, is associated with an “outwardness” in the sense that it leaves body. It has an external dimension; it is a feeling of going “towards”. For example, we might feel joy when spending time with loved ones, watching the sunset, or going cold-water swimming. It has an embracing and muscular quality. On the other hand, pleasure is internal. We get pleasure from enjoying a delicious meal or sipping a glass of fine wine, it provides more instant, individual gratification.

Conjuring joy might not be the easiest thing to do these days as turmoil and catastrophe fill our newsfeeds daily. Nonetheless, I find it comforting to be reminded by Ahmed and McCarthy that it all begins in the body. Living, working, teaching and learning from a place of joy might be the most radical thing we can do right now.

I understand it as a practice of leaning into any sensation that might arise and remembering to pause. Noticing how I might be able to move “outwardly” and towards others from that very sensation. For example, we have gotten in a habit with friends, colleagues and family to exchange the music we listen to. Sometimes, sharing a song might be the most transparent way to express how we’re doing. Or I’ve been trying to sit with the discomfort and nervousness before an online interview with a research participant, feeling my legs twitch a bit and my palms getting sweaty, and speak from that very position, from that sensation, which has enabled more honest and compassionate conversations to emerge. Noticing the sensations in my body and listening to them, gives me grounding to be able to move from a caring place toward others. It is difficult to take someone in our joyous embrace if we do not have a solid refuge for ourselves in the first place.

Conjuring joy might be about reinstalling this boundary between our inner and outer worlds; remembering that every encounter between those worlds happens in the body, and that these encounters have an infinite potential to be unique, exciting, inspiring and curious.

Joséphine Foucher

Joséphine is doing a PhD in Sociology at The University of Edinburgh. Her research looks at the intersection between art and politics. She works with Joe Arton as the Teaching Matters Co-Editor and Student Engagement Officer.

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