Part I: Unlearning the Names of Things: Leri on Irwin

Nancy Galeota-Wozny

I had the opportunity to communicate with Dennis Leri via email and watch the video of his recent two-week workshop on the art and poetry of Awareness Through Movement. Leri, philosopher-poet of our culture, consistently voices the importance and significance of ATM as a vital component to the Feldenkrais Method. He argues against the idea that FI is the "jewel" of the method as he reminds us that the actual body of Moshe’s work is found in the thousands of documented ATM lessons. This workshop places ATM front and center in our thinking or as Leri describes it as "an all out ATM intensive but not in the "doing" category as much as in the tinkering with the heart, soul and poetry of the things." In his Mental Furniture series Leri brought various philosophers, scientists and artists to our attention that serve to place The Feldenkrais Method in a historical context. During this workshop Leri identifies visual artist Robert Irwin and poet Robert Duncan as parallel thinkers. Prior to the workshop participants were to have read Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the seminal West Coast artist Robert Irwin by Lawrence Weschler. Irwin traversed the ground between abstract expressionism to work that challenged the very nature of perception. Abandoning the ‘art" object as we know it, Irwin went on to investigate new aesthetic territory based on his own rigorous study of philosophical concepts of perception. Weschler describes him as "an artist who one day got so hooked on his own curiosity he decided to live it."

NGW: Irwin’s life, work, and process are rich in relevance to our own work.

He gives form to the often-elusive mental or cognitive aspects of our work. How does Irwin’s inquiry shed some light on the ‘how" and "what" we do? Irwin uses the term "sense threshold" in describing his later installation work. What value can the concept of a "sense threshold" have for us? Can you discuss your intention in bringing Irwin in as a focal point of learning in your recent workshop?

DL: Someone wrote recently in another context that the truth of the Feldenkrais Method is the student's experience. In fact, I quite disagree. Both trainees and graduates need to know how the Feldenkrais Method gives rise to the kinds of experience that it does. Knowing "how" leads to understanding "what" it is that we do. The import of a profound experience resulting from an ATM or FI lesson turns against the student if clarity regarding means does not follow. In bringing in Irwin I was hoping to link our work to the work of artists who deal with perceptual and cognitive processes as processes in ways that appeal to our sense of wonder and beauty. Philosophy and science find their way into both Irwin's art and ATM lessons via their edginess and rigor.

The common understanding of a percept is that it is a mental impression of an object, real or imagined, gained through the senses. The dynamics of perception ordinarily delineate patterns in a field of perceived foreground and an apperceived background. However, to understand how patterns emerge, what they are, and how to change them requires the proper tools and the diligence of a Moshe Feldenkrais or a Robert Irwin. In the notion of "sense thresholds" we have the Archimedean lever we need. Let's begin with the Fechner-Weber principle from my Mental Furniture article, "WEBER-FECHNER PRINCIPLE: An approximate psychological law relating the degree of response or sensation of a sense organ and the intensity of the stimulus. The law asserts that equal increments of sensation are associated with equal increments of the logarithm of the stimulus, or that the just noticeable difference in any sensation results from a change in the stimulus which bears a constant ratio to the value of the stimulus." By way of example, lighting a candle in broad daylight at noon produces no consciously noticeable difference in brightness. Differences become apparent at midnight. intensities are physically measurable quantities while the differences between them, being ratios of quantities, are something metaphysical. I can't understate how important this is when it comes to consider the consequences for understanding how an ATM effects its changes. To say one color is darker, or one pressure heavier, is not to indicate another intensity but is to make a judgement that relates the two. Such judgements are inextricably entangled with the workings of our body. Differences are not sensations but fundamental judgements yoked to the contiguous perturbations that created them. Perturbations arising external or internal to our selves are not sensations in the traditional sense. What we call sensations are our reactions or resistances to perturbations plus their significance to us. A sensation necessitates via the attention a relation of some differential of intensity with an inference, that is, a guess at its significance to us at some level. To shift or alter our ability to consciously distinguish differences connotes an ability to change our organismic minds at a fundamental level. But it gets even more interesting.

In the last century, Charles Sanders Peirce, America's greatest philosopher, confirmed Fechner's work when he asked subjects to compare and judge the greater or lesser of two pressures and they did so within the range predicted by Fechner. But Peirce went further: in carefully controlled experiments dealing with pressure on the skin, when the just noticeable differences became indistinguishable he asked the subjects to guess which was greater or lesser. Just guess. His subjects guessed correctly way more accurately than chance! Peirce demonstrated that well below the threshold of conscious difference we are still able to distinguish difference. He also found that the ability to discern conscious and non-conscious differences could be refined. We must be careful how we interpret those experiments. Peirce did not prove there is such a thing as intuition that would conclude some knowledge of a pre-existing reality. Rather, he demonstrated kinds of inferencing, not entirely conscious or logical in the formal sense of that word, are implicated in sensing and in critical and a-critical reasoning. Reasoning to Peirce includes thinking but is not reducible to thinking. Peirce's notion of reasoning shows up in every level of our being and is part of our evolutionary biology. Biological individuation necessitates the capacity to sense not things but bands of intensities that come to categorically construct tokens of things. As such, much more goes into the specification of a sense impression than either the mapping of an external world or direct perception.

Moshe in ATM says that at some point in our human evolution a simple turn in one or another direction became a "turn to the left" or a "turn to right." With schemas of directional reference came also the bewildering phenomena of an "internal" and an "external" world. That is, the human world arrived with orientational distinctions predicated upon subsuming a sequence of motor acts and sensations into left, right, front, back, above and below plus the strange abstractions designating inner and outer. Since a sensation and the motor act generating them is a complex thing in itself, it's mind boggling to contemplate their organization into reference systems like left, right or further into 6 o'clock, 9 o'clock. Yet, the incredible elegance of an ATM or work of art allows us to unlearn our way back to the acts of drawing the most basic distinctions. We go "back" not to stay but to "return" more fully human. "Function" and "intention," integral to our work of unlearning and learning, are tools fashioned by us through constraining and situating distinctions at many levels at once.

NGW: In order to arrive at the work that asked the most interesting questions, Irwin went through what looks like a subtractive process. How does this idea resonate with ATM? Irwin also talks about setting up a situation where we "perceive ourselves perceiving." Can you talk about these ideas in relationship to ATM?

DL: How to situate Irwin's "subtractive process?" Irwin, in the beginning of his art career, was just another talented draftsman. I mean, he can draw, he can entertain, but he's not an artist. Like any of us he can do what it takes to sneak by. He forms his art out of what is fashionable or marketable. His concern is with "objects" and artifacts. But soon enough he sees the piece of art created in his studio will not "work" in the gallery. He becomes aware of background or context. First, he changes the gallery to resemble the conditions of his studio. Later, he designs and creates his works of art for the local, proximate constraints of the gallery. Finally, he works not with the objects or even the contexts but rather with the whole nature of perception sans an object of perception. Like in an ATM, Irwin at first worked within the constraints imposed upon him. Later he brought the constraints under his control by shifting his focus from content to content/context and then to content/context/perceptual process. Irwin read the European phenomenological philosophers, Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. They became his comrades in the quest to get to the core of perception. Phenomenology, simply and non-technically stated, invites us think of our self as being in the World and as the World being within our self. If you hang out with that idea, play with it some, it will lead you to Interesting places. Technically, Husserl sought "a return to the things themselves" through what's called the Phenomenological Reduction. Appearances grasped in their immediacy and with no regard to whether or not they "Real" become the basis for inquiry. "Presence" without cultural biases or judgments are the aim. Operationally, one "brackets," that is excludes, subtracts or otherwise suspends one's personal and cultural conditioning. That's the first step. The second step brackets the subject, the cultural ego or I. Cleansed of the taint of the contingent, culture and history one could arrive at the "Transcendental Ego," that something according to Husserl that is essential to us and that is not our history. Merleau-Ponty reversed the direction of inquiry when he brought the sticky question of embodiment into the mix. Relying on many of the same sources as Moshe, Merleau-Ponty brought attention to the fact that "the" body is not like other objects in the world. It is always "some-body." First, many strata of history determine some-body: biology, psychology, gender, class, language, culture and the times in which one lives. Unlike a mathematical theorem, the living flesh can't be clearly known. This is so because it is both the source or origin of cognition and perception and a perceived "thing." You can't see your own face directly, rather, you see yourself reflected in the faces of others. We are beings in a world of other beings and that fact is prior to our perception of things. We can walk around an object but not our embodied self. So, getting back to Irwin, in his "reduction" he aims to inhabit perception. Rather than eliminating contingent "data," his art, his practice of the phenomenology of perception, brings contingency in with all it's dynamic play, fluidness and fleetingness. Irwin had what the Phenomenologists really lacked: a practice. He had less and less need for external standards to evaluate his works and more and more relied on each work's own internal self-consistent logic or aesthetic. He was no slave to the fascism of fashion. When he gave up on the art object he was motivated to create situations where perception "of" is shifted into perceiving as acting.

We can see perhaps that ATM, by shifting us way from goals or images of achievement, brings us into perceiving the perceiver. ATM sets up conditions and constraints that can simultaneously demonstrate to us the limits of our habits and make available to us the means to alter them. So, rather than purging ourselves of our habits, we bring into play the processes that created them. Any moment in a lesson where we relate unrelated aspects of ourselves "subtracts" the hold habit has on us. The mechanisms that disallow awareness are subtracted or diminished. Each lesson has the potential to alter the means of perception, our selves and to alter the object of perception, our selves. To understand how a lesson alters us requires, if we are not to be superficial or unreflective, a very steady and sober use of our attention and our critical faculties. But it's worth it. It was for Moshe and it is for Irwin and it is for us.

Page contents ©1999 Nancy Galeota-Wozny