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The Field Of Somatics

Since 1970 the words “soma” and “somatic” have taken on a larger meaning and the archaic word “somatology” has re-entered the English language with renewed vigor. The innovator of these terms describes the emerging conception of the life sciences that has given birth to the somatic domain: “The house that Darwin built.”

Charles Darwin built a great mansion: There were countless rooms, studios, salons, corridors and grand halls; and the towering entry doors were thrown open to the world, inviting all to enter. Curiously, however, even though the invitation remained open for one hundred years, no one took up residence.

The edifice built by Darwin was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, completed in 1872. It had been erected on the foundations of On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), but despite its immensely inviting prospect, the great house was viewed as a Victorian curiosity-indeed fascinating, but suitable only for occasional visits.

The work of 1872 was in advance of its time, not only for theoretical reasons but, more practically, for the lack of sufficient observations, experiments and scientific tools to flesh out that theory. It required a century of research in genetics, cystology, biochemistry, biophysics, anthropology, ethology, neurophysiology, ecology, cybernetics, psychology and much more to make the house that Darwin built livable, usable and tolerable. That century of work and anticipation is now coming to fruition and, despite some needs for repair and redesign, Darwin's invitation can now be accepted.

The Darwinian invitation was to explore the field of somatics, to construct a science of life that is founded on the model of life itself, to discover how the functions and structures of all living beings have emerged in this universe with a meaningful order that is their own and which cannot be reduced to lesser components. It was the invitation to use the sciences of the inert, the constant and the predictable to establish a life science of the active, the changing and the unpredictable. The Darwinian goal was a science of living bodies with a theoretical foundation which, without compromising them, synthesized the established sciences into a general science of life.

During the last half century we have witnessed a steady acceleration in the regrouping and synthesis of the research sciences. The tendency toward greater specialization and subdivision of research has, surprisingly, often broadened research fields rather than narrowed them. Research in biological functions, for example, broke through into chemistry and synthesized into biochemistry. Research in linguistics has reached out to mathematical logic and psychology to form psycholinguistics. Research into cell functions joined with physics to become biophysics.

This continuing emergence of multidisciplinary sciences is the clear sign of a growing sophistication and recognition of the interdependence of different methodologies and points of view. This contemporary synthesis of sciences is also a strong argument that the major discoveries of contemporary science will continue to rest in the hands of those who can employ many different models and methods to explore the same common field.

The field par excellence for this multidisciplinary sophistication to explore is that of the life sciences. This is so because the study of living organisms is an area so complex and so theoretically vague that no particular scientific model has yet been able to prevail within it. A science of life has, for a century, hung above us as a tantalizing invitation which, when reached for, has always retreated into a baffling tangle of theoretical, philosophical and metaphysical uncertainties-uncertainties that have haunted science since its Renaissance origins. In both science and philosophy it is one's theoretical model which allows one either to see with clarity or, instead, prevents the envisionment of a common field. And in the life sciences the theoretical limitation that has blocked such a common vision is something aggravatingly familiar: it is the unresolved metaphysical dualism which has been stuck in the craw of Western philosophy and science from its very origins. And that dualism is the fallacious and unresolvable separation of living organisms into mind and body, spirit and flesh.

We should not be surprised that the century-long refusal of Darwin's invitation finds its roots in the same religious and metaphysical prejudices that were inflamed by the theory of evolution itself. the notion that life had its own internal laws and its own integral imperatives was what was, finally, “anti-religious.” The idea that living forms were not reducible to a causal force more substantive, clear and final than life itself is what was seen as dangerously wrong, if not actually frightening. And this religious prejudice against the integrity of evolving life forms has been a theoretical tangle for scientists as well as theologians. And the tangle is most obvious: if we attempt to envision the field of life as an integral whole, we immediately encounter our prejudice that life cannot be a whole because spirit and flesh are the unresolvable components of life itself. Finally, one is forced, to choose one component and deny the other.

I am suggesting that the life sciences have been caught up within a problem that, finally, is neither philosophical nor scientific but has been political. Whether one took the spiritualist route or the materialist route, both directions involved a choice of one horn of the mind-body dilemma and ended in an exaggerated reductionism which avoided dealing with the complex whole of life forms. I am also saying that our theoretical ability to envision the whole field of life has come about only to the degree that we have finally grown beyond the religious and metaphysical prejudices that have plagued the Darwinian viewpoint since its inception.

Happily, the advances of the sciences during the past century and the multidisciplinary sophistication of the past decades have allied with broad cultural changes to spur this growth beyond the prejudicial barriers of a time past. Steadily, the working distinction between function and structure has supplanted the dualism of mind and body. Function and structure are correlative terms that do not exclude one another but suggest two different observational stances toward 'the same living phenomena: the functions of organisms involve movement and change through time; the structures of organisms are the observable forms that are stable and fixed in space. But the complementarity of function and structure lies in the fact that both are shifting, never final events. Living functions are never random change, nor are living structures ever static. Indeed, the more we observe living bodies, the less do they appear to be “bodies” at all in the substantial sense in which we have traditionally conceived of bodies.

The structure of a living body is not in the least a structure in the sense that this paper, this piece of metal or this atom is a stable structure. To the contrary, living structure is an artifact of its own integral functions--a whole which carries with it its own laws and imperatives that are as primeval and enduring as Darwin saw them to be.

Living organisms defy being described as “bodies.” They have a moving order and lawfulness of their own which violates the stable concept of “body.” Living organisms are somas: that is, they are an integral and ordered process of embodied elements which cannot be separated either from their evolved past or their adaptive future. A soma is any individual embodiment of a process which endures and adapts through time, and it remains a soma as long as it lives. The moment that it dies it ceases to be a soma and becomes a body. A soma--namely, any organism of any species--is an embodiment of functions that is constantly in the process of depletion and destruction and replenishment and reconstruction. And it is this soma, as ancient as it is novel, as much a functional entity as it is a structural entity, that is emerging as the central focus of the life sciences. At the center of the field of somatics is the soma--an integral and individual process which governs its own existence as long as it has existence.

Not surprisingly, the way of transcending the “either-or” is the “both-and” and our growth beyond the “either-or” of mind-body has been our growing acceptance of the living ambiguity of the soma, which is always integral-in-changing as its structure adapts through time. At the heart of Darwin's discovery is the living, celllike soma, which is the individual exemplar of the singular event of life--life that has evolved unbroken since its first cellular formation.

It is because life has continued unbroken through its evolving branches, that somas are unique events: they bear within them their entire history of millions of years in precisely the same ambiguous way that a new leaf bears within it the whole integrity of the tree. Each soma is a process in time, yet its ambiguous secret is that its life is the same stable, still enduring succession of layers and branches that root backward into the origins of life. Like a leaf, the soma is always in time and process, and like the trunk and roots, life is supportively prior to somatic time and is as utterly present and unchanged as it is the utterly ancient progenitor of change.

The more we observe living bodies, the less do they appear to be “bodies” at all in the substantial sense in which we have traditionally conceived of bodies.

That the science of ecology was so long in being established is testimony to the difficulty we have had in tolerating the ambiguity of somatic process. The total and inescapable interdependence of all somatic process is the ecological recognition that life is the support of life, that there is no way of breaking any of the individual chains of life, support without endangering the whole process itself. One hundred years ago ecology was a poetic and prophetic vision, but not a scientific theorem. One hundred years psychosomatic medicine and hypnotherapy were spiritualistic quackery but not medical practice. A century ago voluntary control of internal states and simple biofeedback were hysterical phenomena and not clinical procedures.

It was only the gradual acceptance of Darwin's somatic vision of continual genetic mutation that made possible the extraordinary discoveries of the ethologists such as Lorenz and Tinbergen, of structuralists such as L6vi-Strauss and Lucan, of holistic anthropologists such as Birdwhistell and Polhemus, of the linguistics of Noam Chomsky.

It is this same acceptance of the “both-and” ambiguity of somatic process that allowed the gap between psychology and physiology, psychiatry and physical medicine to close up through the extraordinary therapeutical work of Wilhelm Reich, Raknes, Feldenkrais and Lowen. In the work of these men the interdynamics of function and structure are seen as a single, integrated process, whereby functional operations create structural changes and vice versa.

It is the discovery of the functional-structural integrity 'of the somatic field that allowed Western scientists and scholars to make the belated discovery that the Asian martial arts and bodily disciplines of judo, aikido, t'ai chi, karate, yoga and tantra were predicated solidly on a somatic theory and not upon a religious pretense.

The discovery of the soma, of the field of somatics and the life science envisioned by Darwin has taken a painfully long time, but a two thousand year old culture cannot be sifted through and clarified easily or quickly. To hold tightly to the usable achievements of the past and to discard the unusable illusions is a trial of the heart as well as the head, and hearts are much more tenacious than heads. But the sifting and clarification or our presuppositions has now achieved a stage where new theoretical and scientific initiatives can be aggressively and confidently pursued.

In the natural sciences, the biological sciences, the social sciences, the behavioral sciences, and the theoretical sciences an unplanned event of enormous importance has been taking place. As these disciplines have traded off with each other and synthesized, scientists have steadily backed away from their special fields to obtain a broader perspective, and in so backing away, they have gradually backed toward one another, converging toward a common point: the house that Darwin built.

The enormous significance of this discovery of the somatic field is that it involves a common reconciliation of the sciences with life. Because life was ambiguous and mysterious, it had been scientifically questionable -one was forced to research areas that were other than and less than life itself. But to accept and work with the given ambiguities and polarities of somatic process is to establish a science that is life-affirming. It is to reconcile the unforgivable schism between the mental and physical, psychological and physiological, the psychiatric realms of medicine and the physical realms of medicine. Scientific recognition of a common somatic field, in being lifeaffirming, is life-enhancing: it portends a new theory of medicine even as it points directly to a new theory of education, learning and human change.

The human implications of somatic science are that the distinction between intellectual education, moral education and physical education is invalid. Each is part of the same holistic process. And in recognizing this, we recognize equally that the field of medicine may evolve toward becoming a large part of the general field of holistic education. This would be an expanded field of medicine which would include the prevention of disease- “physical” and “mental--the management of living process and the enhancement of individual life.

The field of somatics is far from being synthesized, but we can henceforth declare the field, itself, to be established. And even though the cartography is uncertain and uncharted, some of the basic features of this field are already clear * What is exceedingly clear is that the field of life is, by definition, ambiguous and thatched with polarities. The goal of somatic science can never be total prediction and control--somatic process is always just beyond prediction and control; instead, the goal is an ever revised understanding of somatic process and an ever modified set of guides for its enhancement and fulfillment. This is to say that somatic science is just as adaptive and mutational as is life itself.

As the life-denying separation of “mind” from “body” fades into the background, the practical, holistic distinction between function and structure has come to the fore. This is a tolerable ambiguity that is just as practical and just as scientifically unresolvable as the distinction between energy and mass: it is not a question of resolving a conceptual polarity but of thoughtfully understanding a phenomenon that is factually ambiguous and has its own laws of interchange, even if these laws are always in a process of mutating. The factual polarities of somatic process are the basic features of the field and provide the first elements of its cartography.

There are, then, certain basic assumptions of somatic science. The first of these that we might mention is holism: bodily structure and living function are polar aspects of the same living beings. All somas are holistic processes of structure and function, the exact nexus of which is neither more nor less clear than the nexus and interchange of matter and energy--It is a graduated, shaded difference that seems always beyond our threshold of conscious recognition.

There is a second basic somatic assumption which involves another factual polarity: all somas simultaneously tend toward homeostasis and balance while tending toward change and imbalance. This is the paradoxical feature of all individuated life. It is as lawful and predictable that an organism must change and adapt as it is for it to resist change and hold in stasis. And it is certain that life occurs, not despite these contradictory tendencies, but rather because of them. Here again, the secret of somatic process is an ongoing and unresolvable ambiguity.

The human implications of somatic science are that the distinction between intellectual education, moral education and physical education is invalid.

A third somatic assumption concerns somatic rhythm: all somatic process takes place in rhythmic, cyclical patterns of alternating internal movement. Diastole/ systole, expansion/contraction, parasympathetic/sympathetic, extensor/flexor, turning outward/turning inward, wakefullness/dormancy are the alternating cycles of organic life. This on/off polarity is the living rhythmicity of the soma's integral movements.

The fourth somatic assumption concerns somatic ecology: the soma tends toward autonomy and independence of its environment while tending toward appetite for and dependence upon its environment- social as well as physical. The functions and structures of opening and closing create the apertures of interchange with the environment. These variable apertures are properties of all somas in their ambiguous status of identifying with themselves and identifying with their social and physical milieu.

A fifth somatic assumption is that all somas grow: somatic process entails a continual learning, i.e., a ceaseless differentiation of function and structure. Living organisms survive only by differentiating and choosing between options, but this process is possible only because somas can integrate and unify any difference within an ongoing commonality. A soma's analytical functions would mean dispersal and disintegration were it not for its synthetic functions which guarantee its unity. Analytical and synthetic functions are as essential to an amoeba as they are to a logician; they are the somatic techniques of adaptive behavior.

A fifth somatic assumption is of the intentionality of all somas: somas mobilize themselves holistically in order to act within the environment and in order to react from the environment. The wondrous ability of somas to coordinate all of their “parts” in forming a single, whole action or reaction is a fundamental feature of somatic process. Somas endure and survive because they intend to endure and survive; they intend the growth, differentiation and integration of their own process. It is not only the human creature who can be described as “for-itself”: all living creatures are constituted as for-themselves. This is the guarantee of their organic integrity and futurity: to say that somas intend themselves is to say that they intend their process.

These five somatic assumptions are neither exhaustive of the somatic field nor even exclusive of each other. They are complimentary and overlapping polarities which make up the warp and woof of somas and their process. But together, these assumptions delineate the field of the life sciences precisely to the degree that they describe the general features of the unique center and focus of the life sciences: the individual somas that are the unique exemplars of life.

There is an enormous range to the somatic field; the directions of research are as varied as are the directions and interests of the varied sciences which enter into this field. As somatic research grows and enriches our understanding of the process of individuated life, we will come nearer to achieving what I believe to be the central challenge of the field of somatics: namely, the formation of a somatology. As I understand it, a somatology would be an anatomy of somatic process, whereby the functional/structural process of life is described from its core features out to its peripheral features, Even as gross anatomy describes the central and peripheral features of the bodily structures, a somatology would describe the consistent and ancient life functions implied by the consistent structures of living bodies.

Once having transcended the mindbody prejudice, we can more easily appreciate that if an orderly anatomy of somatic structures has been possible, then it is equally possible to establish an orderly anatomy of somatic functions that will further clarify why somatic structures have evolved in the way that they have. I place the emphasis here upon an orderly description of living functions for a basic biological reason: the evolved bodily structures of the millions of living species are enormously varied, but the functions which these varied bodily structures perform are, hypothetically, very few. The bodily structures which allow an animal to reach out and seize an object are, for example, immensely varied, but the function of reaching out and seizing is the same somatic function. The task of a somatology is to delineate this body of functions in an orderly fashion that is consistently reflective of the life process itself. Once established, a somatology can clarify that which psychology and physiology have reached for and aspired to but will not achieve as long as they remain thatched with mind-body distinctions which prevent these sciences from grasping the holistic ambiguity of somas and their living process.

I should emphasize another matter: by “soma” I mean any living being, plant or animal. This was Darwin's view of the matter, and we can do no less than to accept the full challenge of describing the general functions of all life forms. Some of the greatest delights of Charles Darwin were his discoveries of presumably “animal” functions in plant life. Even though the structures of plant life obscure the general somatic functions native to all living forms, I believe with Darwin that the same functions are nevertheless operative, even if muted-or, as Bergson puts it, “torpid.”

This is to say that there are two major divisions of somatology: general somatology and species-specific somatology, the most interesting aspect of the latter being the somatology of ourselves, the human species. Whereas species somatology must limit itself to a study of the functions-structures of a specific species, the statements made by a general somatology must be the case for all life forms -that is, for life itself.

I have set for myself the task of eventually delineating the elements of a general somatology and the specific elements of a human somatology. Although the full task is yet to be achieved, I want for the moment to venture a few provisional observations in the area of general somatology. In this way the reader can at least have a foretaste of how somatology fits into the general field of somatics.

If an orderly anatomy of somatic structures has been possible, then it is equally possible to establish an orderly anatomy of somaticfunctions.I want, then, to conclude by presenting what I term the six primordial somatic functions. Bear in mind that these are provisional statements and may be modified within the full elaboration of a general somatology. Please also bear in mind that even though these six primordial functions are listed serially, none takes precedence over the other: they the equal and simultaneous constituents of the soma:

I. Timing

The Timing function is the way in which the soma coordinates its process. The soma is neither a “thing” nor a “body” but a holistic process, and because it cannot move, adapt and change without the whole of its structure moving, adapting and changing, the whole process must be coordinated in series, in order that it may intend any action or reaction. Note that I do not say that the soma acts in time or that the soma is time. Rather, the soma Times itself. Timing is the holistic function of an integrated process, whereas “time” is an abstract concept. Whether there is such a thing as “time” is here indifferent. That there is Timing is a fact of somatic functioning: Timing is the coordinating function of holistic change.

Protozoa Time themselves, metazoa Time themselves and human somas Time themselves. Timing is the primordial somatic function that is expressed structurally in all neural systems. The central neural function of Timing is displayed in all somas, even if the structural patterns of a neural system are not apparent. For example, an amoeba Times itself in the holistic coordination of its movements, just as do primates: the neural function is obvious, even though the neural structure is not. Timing is the primordial somatic function that evolves with the somatic structures which we call nervous systems.

II. Standing

The Standing function is the active way in which the soma individuates itself against the field of universal gravitation. In Standing the soma distinguishes itself from all that is not itself. The Standing function creates the direction of “up”: the direction of “up” means to Stand, i.e., there is the spatial direction of “up” only because the soma Stands. Standing is, then, a positive somatic function, as is the direction of moving upward. Moreover, Standing is creative of the ventral-dorsal structure of somas.

By contrast, Falling is a negative of somatic functioning and a loss of somatic individuating. All Falling is “down” and is the opposite of the individuating position of Standing. Standing up is the individuating somatic function that makes possible individual somatic movement across the plane of universal gravitation.

III. Facing

The Facing function is the active way in which the soma moves across the field of universal gravitation toward its Intention. In Facing the soma heads toward that for which it has appetite. All somas have appetite for something in the world, and they always intend to Face toward the appetitive. The Facing function is creative of the cranial-caudal structure of somas: Facing creates the direction of “forward” and the cranial structure that is the head of the body. Facing is, then, a positive somatic function and is the spatial direction of moving “toward.”

By contrast, Backing is a negative somatic function and a loss of appetitive intention. All Backing is the spatial direction of moving “away from” and flight from the positive appetitive Intention. It is a loss of somatic appetite and movement away from the Intended. The Facing function is the elongating directional function that orients the soma in its movement forward across the plane of universal gravitation.

IV. Maneuvering

The Maneuvering function is the active way in which the soma handles what its appetite Intends. In Maneuvering the soma seizes and possesses that which its appetite Intends. The Maneuvering function is creative of the lateral structure of somas: the soma maneuvers from one side to the other. The soma Faces the world of its intention with different maneuvers and can maneuver with the left side or the right side in coordination. Maneuvering is an action of turning on a vertical axis.

Maneuvering is, then, a positive somatic function of handling the Intended in this way or that, leftly or rightly: both options are positive. By contrast, Forsaking is a negative somatic function and is a dispossession of the Intended. The Maneuvering function is the lateral somatic function whereby the soma passes the Intended toward which it moves across the plane of universal gravitation.

All somas have appetite for something in the world, and they always intend to face toward the appetitive.

Timing, Standing, Facing and Maneuvering are primordial somatic functions in the sense that in order for the soma to be in this universe, it must constitute itself first of all within the four dimensions of time and space: temporality, depth, length and width. In sum, these four dimensions constitute the soma as a functional entity which moves and gyrates across the face of the world-not unlike an atom which, become individuated and self-willed, momentarily defies the universe.

Timing, Standing, Facing and Maneuvering are primordial somatic functions in the sense that in order for the soma to be in this universe, it must constitute itself first of all within the four dimensions of time and space: temporality, depth, length and width. These four functions establish the identity and integral capacities of the soma; they do not, however, establish a functional relationship with the environing world. These ecological functions, by which the soma thatches itself with the world, are Wanting and Intending.

V. Wanting

Wanting is appetite for something in the world. This appetition establishes a commitment to the world that arouses the whole functional soma into a mobilization for exchange with the world. The function of Wanting is simultaneously a lack of something within the integral soma and an impulse toward something beyond the soma, i.e., Wanting is need/desire, and this is its bond with the world, an unstable bond whereby the soma reaches beyond its own integrity to be conditionally integrated with the world. Thus, in Wanting the soma transcends itself into the world.

Wanting is a positive somatic function which constitutes the emotionality of the soma. The neural and visceral structures associated with affect and emotion are expressions of the Wanting function.

VI. Intending

Intending is the particular shape of action which functionally mobilizes the soma to fulfill its appetite within the world. Intending is a process whereby the soma simultaneously fulfills itself and chooses a select part of the world. As with Wanting, this double event of individual fulfillment and trans-individual choice is the soma's Intentional bond with the world.

Intending is a specific somatic strategem for a specific interchange with the world; it is a mobilizing and guiding function which selects and differentiates what in the world can fulfill the soma's Wanting. This function is as coordinated with the world as it is with the other primordial functions. While Timing is a coordinating function, Intending is a specific mobilization of the soma for a temporal process that begins and ends: the soma Intends the closure of its needs through fulfillment.

Intending has its structural expression in the anterior of the soma, i.e., toward its head and face. The centralized structures at the top of the neural system are the cortical supports of the executive, sensory-motor function of Intending.

These six primordial somatic functions constitute a holistic process which constantly overcomes the inertia of the soma's physical components, enabling the soma to stand forth as a whole entity within the environing non-somatic world. In sum, the six primordial functions constitute the soma as a functional-structural entity that moves and gyrates across the face of the world, following its self-chosen paths--not unlike an atom which, having become individuated and self-willed, momentarily defies the universe.

From SOMATICS: Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Volume I, No. 1, Autumn 1976.
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