Somaesthetics and Literary Criticism

Robert W. Jones II


As literary scholars we are often bending and stretching our frame of reference looking for a new lens with which to examine texts to provide fresh insight and unique views. We beg, borrow and steal ideas from across the academy in order to give ourselves the best available set of tools for our research. In that tradition, this article will examine the burgeoning field of somaesthetics, developed by Richard Shusterman, as a possible way to inform our current views of how the body-mind and literature interact. My primary research consists of an intellectual history of William S. Burroughs and the examination of his writings and artistic experiments as a philosophy. In so doing I plot the course of his interests in the work of Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Korzybski, and W. Grey Walter

While each of these authors come from vastly different intellectual backgrounds (psychology for Reich, semantics for Korzybski, and cybernetics and neuroscience for Walter) each has a very compelling view on the role of the body with relation to their discipline. Having been somewhat familiar with Richard Shusterman’s research I decided that somaesthetics could have great value when applied to the work of William S. Burroughs and other writers and thinkers whose work demonstrates an interest in the role of the body. One of the aims of somaesthetics is to examine the body’s role in the aesthetic experience, or as Shusterman puts it: 'Somaesthetics is devoted to the critical, ameliorative study of one's experience and use of one's body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning' (Shusterman, 1997:  34). To that end, this article series employs Shusterman’s theory to examine the work of William S. Burroughs, an author whose work represents an excellent proving ground for a theory that is concerned with the body as a coequal partner with the mind creating aistheisis and setting the stage for transcendence.


Bodies in Urban Spaces

Somaesthetics: resituating the body and bodily experience within pragmatist philosophy 

[Image by Robert Harwig under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Three disciplines – Pragmatist philosophy, Feldenkrais method, and Zen meditation – influenced Shusterman's thoughts on the body's role in aesthetic perception and in removing the conditioning that society inflicts on us through our bodies. In addition, Shusterman conceives somaesthetics as having three broad, complimentary, and overlapping subdivisions. The first, ‘analytic somaesthetics’ examines theories from a broad swathe of continental, feminist, and other post-World War II philosophical currents. This shows 'how the body is both shaped by power and employed as an instrument to maintain it' and 'examines traditional topics in philosophy of mind, ontology, and epistemology that relate to the mind-body issue and the role of somatic factors in consciousness' (Shusterman, 2008: 23). These concerns link closely with Burroughs' project of using the body – in its capacity as subject – as the locus of change and transformation in the individual.

The second category of Shusterman's theory is ‘pragmatic somaesthetics.’ The pragmatic aspect naturally has a philosophical kinship with the early twentieth-century philosophy of American Pragmatism and functions under many of the dictates of pragmatism. To that end pragmatic somaesthetics engages in 'proposing specific methods of somatic improvement and engaging in their comparative critique' (Shusterman, 2008: 24). While it presupposes an 'analytic dimension,' pragmatic somaesthetics is interested in 'transcending it not only by evaluation but also by meliorative efforts to change certain facts by remaking the body and society' (Shusterman, 2008:  24). Shusterman argues that this kind of creative self-fashioning (to use a Foucauldian term) has been around for much of human history. He notes that 'a variety of pragmatic methods have been designed to improve our experience and use of our body'; of special note he points out 'body piercing and scarification' as well as 'yoga…martial and erotic arts, and modern psychosomatic disciplines such as the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method' as some prominent examples (Shusterman, 2008: 24). Regarding an examination of Burroughs and his relationship to the body-mind-language issue and his conceptualization of the body in his work, it is clear that a philosophical approach that is interested in methods that will 'change certain facts by remaking the body and society' is useful in its consideration (Shusterman, 2008: 24). The pragmatic dimension of somaesthetics is designed to point out the body's dual role in image creation: that is to say, that the body as 'external representation is inescapably dominated and deployed by society's corrupt masters of the image (advertising and propaganda),' and yet it is also through bodily centered practices that one can hope to achieve transcendence, such as in 'First-Cups' dated September 1959 (published in Minutes to Go, Beach Books, 1968), where the epigraph states: 'A collage from The Paris Herald Tribune, The London Observer, The London Daily Mail, Life Magazine advertisements' (6). Burroughs often deliberately cut-up and folded in texts from advertisements as a way of showing the underlying messages of control that are aimed at subjugating the body.



Can William S. Burroughs' techniques of collage and cut-up texts help us rethink bodily-centred practices?

[Image by Henrik Chulu under a CC BY license]


The third category ‘practical somaesthetics’ is not concerned with 'producing texts, not even texts that offer pragmatic methods of somatic care; it is instead about actually pursuing such care through intelligently disciplined practice' (Shusterman, 2008: 29). In this way, practical somaesthetics is not dissimilar to Burroughs’ own somatic project. Burroughs was concerned with the practical application of the knowledge he gained through using his body as a laboratory for his ideas. It is also clear that he was concerned with producing texts to serve numerous purposes, among them to expose control mechanisms; enlighten his audience; and map out a way of conduct. Clearly, for my examination of Burroughs I must give equal weight to the analytic and pragmatic components due to the fact that in truly understanding Burroughs' philosophical project we must be willing to consider the totality of his somatic practices. While this article is not intended to lay out a Burroughsian plan for transcendence it seeks to evaluate his work through specific theoretical constructs. However, much like Michel Foucault, we can examine the ways in which Burroughs uses the body in his own life and his related literary works to investigate certain extreme body practices. When we consider that Shusterman's own experience as a Feldenkrais instructor informs his somaesthetic project, we can utilize his description of its aims and benefits primarily in that they seek to 'improve the acuity, health and control of our senses … while also freeing us from bodily habits and defects that impair sensory performance' (Shusterman, 2000: 268). It is the liberation from certain socially inscribed bodily habits that is the aim of not only Shusterman's somaesthetics but also Foucault and Burroughs, who both become experiencers as well as observers. In a sentence that I feel would not be out of place in either Burroughs or Foucault's work Shusterman notes: 'knowledge of the world is improved not by denying our bodily senses but by perfecting them' (Shusterman, 2000: 268). Burroughs, through his cut-up projects and bodily-centered language and imagery guides his reader to a place where his senses are heightened and honed in an effort to reveal the control mechanisms that surround us.

Additionally, we must consider the links between the evolution of Burroughs' thoughts on the body-mind problem and the roots of somaesthetics. As noted earlier, somaesthetics is informed by Shusterman's training in and practice of the Feldenkrais Method. This somatic system was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais and put forth in his first publication Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation and Learning (1949). One of the major points of connection between Burroughs' somatic philosophy and Shusterman's somaesthetics is the relation or familiarity of Moshé Feldenkrais with the work of Korzybski. In an interview with Edward Rosenfeld (1973) that focused primarily on awareness and consciousness he notes:

Cold and warm are not opposite. Cold is just a little less warm than warm, and that there is less  mobility of atoms and electrons when it is cold. This is not an opposition. Korzybski has already pointed out that this is infantile thinking. This comes from that structure of ours which demands simple opposition (194).

This minor, almost casual, reference to Korzybski is important in that it indicates that Feldenkrais was incredibly familiar with Korzybski. This familiarity comes both from the fact that Feldenkrais effortlessly moves from a question about consciousness into the realm of semantics and he felt that his interviewer would have known who Korzybski was and have a familiarity with his semantic theories on language and thought control that are largely based on opposition to the '"is" of identity' which in Korzybski’s general semantics leads to 'false evaluation' (Korzybski 374). In addition, Feldenkrais does in these brief few sentences distill some of the key points of Korzybski's theory as it relates to his arguments that Aristotelian views of language structures are fundamentally incomplete. More importantly, however, is how this can be linked to both Korzybski's view of the body and of certain somatic practices.


Beat Generation

The experimental writing of Beat Generation authors Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg lend themselves to a somaesthetic literary criticism, which addresses the body in perception, aesthetic experience, and transcendence 

[Image by Pamela Vieyra under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


It is no surprise that Burroughs would find common philosophical and linguistic ground with Alfred Korzybski. Burroughs took a course in general semantics from Korzybski while he was living in Chicago. Korzybski's attack on conventional thinking (mostly described as Aristotelian) would have certainly appealed to Burroughs' own sense that modern Western society was based on a series of debilitating ideas and his notion that language itself could be a hindrance to a persons ability to live a full and authentic life. However, I will contend that it was also Korzybski's focus on the body as key in how an individual processes information that informed Burroughs' work. Burroughs notes that Korzybski stated: 'you think as much with your big toe as with your mind' (Morgan 357). Burroughs built much of his writing on the idea that in order to communicate totally with the reader one must figure out ways to make language have an equal (or greater) impact on the body as on the mind. Korzybski's theories gave voice to these ideas.

The role of the body in literature is not new nor is an examination of how the body-mind continuum functions in relation to aesthetic experience. However, with respect to Shusterman’s research on somaesthetics we have a finely honed tool with which to investigate this key relationship. Further, somaesthetics provides key background information on the philosophical debates over the importance of the body in perception, aesthetic experience, and transcendence. In addition, somaesthetics provides an established framework for working in a cross-disciplinary fashion. By this I mean that Shusterman’s explorations and writing, while firmly grounded in philosophy, have been applied (by himself and others) to music, architecture, dance, neuroscience and psychology. This demonstrates that good sound theoretical approaches can and should have resonance beyond their native academic territory. My next Alluvium article will bring somaesthetics into conversation with selections from William S. Burroughs’ post-Naked Lunch period as well as with the the thinkers who most directly influenced Burroughs’ views.


CITATION: Robert W. Jones II, "Somaesthetics and Literary Criticism," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2013): n. pag. Web. 25 March 2013,


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info] Robert W. Jones II is a third year PhD student at the University of Leicester. He has written book reviews for the Journal of American Studies and is an occasional contributor to The Poetry Show on KUSP NPR Santa Cruz. [/author_info] [/author]



Works Cited:

Beiles, Sinclair Simon Maurice, et al. Minutes to Go (San Francisco: Beach Books; distributed by City Lights Books).

Feldenkrais, Moshé, and Elizabeth Beringer. Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshé Feldenkrais (San Diego, CA: Somatic Resources, 2010).

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity; an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (Lakeville, Conn.: International Non-Aristotelian Library Pub. Co.; distributed by Institute of General Semantics, 1958).

Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (London: Pimlico, 1991).

Shusterman, R. "Somaesthetics and the Body/Media Issue." Body & Society 3 (3) (1997): 33-50,

Shusterman, Richard. Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008).

Shusterman, Richard. Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).



Please feel free to comment on this article.

One Reply to “Somaesthetics and Literary Criticism”

  1. Sorry I took so long to get to this Rob. I had not encountered Shusterman before. It made me think about Burroughs and cut up techniques more. It occurs to me that one of the educational/disciplinary methods used in the nineteenth century with children( to shape body and mind) was scrapbooking. It resembled cut up in interesting ways. Morally “improving” texts and poetry were often placed alongside adverts and things of interest. There was a focus on the materiality of texts and the act of creation. This seems like a precedent for Somaesthetics and other forms of embodied criticism.

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