Vertiginous Movement Writing Privates/Groups Classes About

Into the Body

October 25, 2021

In the best dreams I would never dream of flying. There was only ever a controlled descent. It was always as if I were falling and, from inside of my body, I knew that I had control, like I could slow my fall. But the sensation went beyond this: no description can serve what I felt, corporeally, in the dreams.

In the worst dreams—which I later discovered were night terrors, my body freezing up in a catatonic sleepwalking state, muttering nonsense while my eyes hung open—there was only an indefinite sensation of oppression. Something insurmountable. Something that I could feel but couldn't see. When I would wake I could only arrive at the blank image of an endless series of numbers swirling around in a mute void. But this wasn't a description of the terror, this was only an inarticulate metaphor trying to carry the experience, something I could say out loud.

The best and the worst dreams delivered an impossible, overwhelming embodied sensation. Experiences that could not be communicated in any descriptive capacity—not because I lacked vocab, but because the experience of the sensations went beyond language. At, or beyond, the limit.

When I started writing it was an attempt to carry the energy that I felt coursing through my body into something that was outside of me: translation, or transposition. Narrative felt easiest but I mostly stuck with tableau rather than anything prolonged. Not even short stories, but moments, maybe scenes. At first the influences were obvious, albeit slightly precocious for my age. Eventually I worked through the influences and began to be more concerned with what the writing could do rather than what it could say.

This led to an engagement with experimental literature and a prolonged investigation into the avant-gardes of the 20th century. I decided that writing could do everything that all of the other arts could do, in many different ways.

After spending time exploring what writing could do, I realized that I could use writing to investigate certain impulses related to that energy that was coursing through my body. Whether these impulses were inherent (nature) or from cultural influences (nurture) is irrelevant because they became incorporated into my sense of self. But—maybe it's because of the dreams that I had as a kid. Maybe it's because when I was alone in my room I would extend my arms out straight and shut my eyes, spinning in place for minutes at a time, unaware that Mevlevi Sufis developed an entire theological technology that overlapped with the purely experiential bliss of a six year old. Maybe it's because when I was on the High School swim team the coach asked me what my favorite part of being a diver was and I couldn't come up with any other answer than "the time spent in the air between jumping off the board and arriving in the water." Or maybe it wasn't any of this.

The impulse, at its core, was an impulse to go beyond. To experience a sensation that I couldn't describe with language. The inherent irony of wanting to explore something beyond the capacity of semantic representation using semantic representation didn't matter. Something about the pursuit became exactly what made the most sense to me. (Long after I had declared my allegiance to his thought, I discovered that Georges Bataille, in his investigations into "non-knowledge," faced a similar pursuit.)

I understood that using writing to try to describe impossible states wouldn't accomplish what I was after, so I started writing work that would introduce narrative encounters with impossible states for the reader to investigate. Any sort of postured diegetic psychology was never as important to me as the immediate event and encounter. I was using narrative to hunt the impossible, the void. I discovered that using extra-diegetic elements (unrelated photographs, white space, unsuspected line breaks, design elements) could impact the experience of the reader while they read the narratives of encounter. This multi-pronged "attack" would, I hoped, open up an experiential space: the reading experience would not be one of empathy mediated by the characters in the fictional world, but rather it would allow the reader an experience of their own.

As a case study in media where this precise technique worked, I considered the trifecta of "fringe" genre cinema: jump scares in horror films (often there is no character that experiences the shock, just you as the viewer); the encouragement to "participate in onanistic carnality" from pornography; experimental films that used the haptic effects of flickering light and the way we experience the persistence of vision to offer an erratic cinema experience located within the perceptual apparatus—all cinematic machinations that insisted upon affect rather than empathy.

Without offering specifics, the above lays my own writing practice bare. Experimentalism, the avant-gardes, all have been sources to excavate in order to fill a tool box, to develop techniques to create work that helps communicate the energy of these impossible experiences. Of course, this hasn't ended: I continue to work with text in this vein, though in my tinkering & refining of methods I have narrowed in, pulled back, worked to remove all that which stands in the way. This via negativa, of course, was the first step in processing a movement away from the text and into my body.

In the afterword of my 2020 volume Prelude to Transgression, I make note of the fact that the texts collected in the volume were written in a transitional period between my explicit "narrative[s] of void hunt" and something more sparse and paired down, more direct. I wrote, "[these works] directly preceded my desire, as a writer, to fully transcend the page and move towards a corporeal impossibility." At the time of writing this was as far as I'd gotten in being able to articulate what it was that I was trying to do. I perhaps could not be more specific because I hadn't yet found the path I am now following. I had inklings, but I was still feeling things out.

Later in the same afterword I write that I arrived at "a point where I no longer just wanted to write about levitating, I wanted my physical body to levitate." Ending the editorial note, "[t]he text has never been an end-point, it has always just been process […]" Re-reading this now, these two quotations highlight the primary elements of my practice.

In what I am pursuing now, there is both continuity and discontinuity with the work that came beforehand.

To be brief:

As I have explicated above, the process of writing, for me, was an experiment in hunting the void, in communicating the impossible, in arriving at an experience beyond language. In the more narrative work I was interested in creating a space of impossibility and leading the reader into that space. In the sparser work I was aiming to lead both myself as writer and the other as reader into a space of impossible experience: a simultaneous "journey" into the void.

The "break" from my former practice came when I began to realize that the impossible experience that I so desperately craved was an embodied experience, not a purely intellectual one. I would speak to the fact that I wanted sensation, but was in the habit of neglecting my own corporeality, my own vessel of sensation. I realized that if I wanted this level of intensity, if I wanted to touch the impossible, if I truly desired an embodied limit state, I had to come back into my own body and figure out how to work with it.

And thus the process of working with my body began. There is, at this point, much to say, much to define, much to articulate: more than I can fit into a body of text setting out to obliquely map a trajectory, to give shape to a formless limit-experience. So, there will be more writing of course, as perhaps the writing that makes the most sense now is different from the writing that came before: writing that points to a process of moving towards experience rather than attempting to create an experience in itself. Am I done with the latter? By no means. While I have spoken of having to pare everything down and remove the excess, I will continue to insist that there must also always sit some capacity to open textual exploration to up new routes.

There are specific exercises, practices, and ideas that have been important. My intention is to, in my own writing, trace them, to keep track of what does and doesn't work, and I hope to one day have the fortitude to disperse these techniques. But I need to spend more time with them, figuring out, again, what to keep, what to discard. There are always more experiments to be done.

One of the things that I can speak to, urgently, is the fact that spending so much time on my own body has articulated my attention to the phenomenological reality (or possibility) of what others write about corporeal experience: there is a realm of writing that loves to talk about the body in a way that it is transparently obvious the author has not interacted with the world using their body in any sustained non-passive capacity. There is no judgement attached to this accusation, as in many ways I was guilty of this for years and had no issue with it: the work I was doing still felt vital to what I was after. But I am never satisfied in one place for long, I always have to go farther.

And this is what I set out to do.

The trajectory of my recent years of work has been following a route that will lead to having the capacity to go farther with my body. Perhaps the primary reason I have taken to identifying myself as an acrobat is due to Eugenio Barba's comment that "the Greek term for 'acrobatics' literally means 'to walk on the extremities.'" Language is great because of how weak it is in its indeterminacy. The definition of extremity is, according to Merriam-Webster, "the farthest point or limit of something." The medical definition adds specificity: "1 : the farthest or most remote part, section, or point. 2 : a limb of the body[,] especially: a human hand or foot." I've not been able to trace the root of Barba's proclamation, but perhaps it's because I don't want to find the source elaborating one way over the other. Acrobatics, to me, is a way of moving at the limits. Moving in a sense of a biomechanical process, but also in terms of progress. To go beyond the limits, there must be progress, one must be pushing to go farther.

The continuity of my practice lies in the fact that I have continued to consider my "experimental acrobatics" not as the absolute end point, but as part of the process. In the same way my inherent interest is in the realm of experiences that surpass the capacities of language, these same impossible, ecstatic experiences sit beyond completion. An end point is a limit, and the point is to surpass all limits.

I speak it like a mantra: I don't ever want to feel like I have to stop moving.

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Mike Kitchell, 2020-2022