domingo, 17 de agosto de 2014

Homo Sedens

by Marcia Tiburi
To treat the act of sitting as if it were culturally relevant might sound like a mere jest. But to take it seriously for a moment, a person who actually asks himself how many hours of our lives we spend sitting down, or how many chairs there are in the world is not going to reach the crux of this unusual question, however many statistically impressive answers he may find. It is a question that causes us to think about the different forms of sedentarism as a feature of our culture. Contrary to nomadism, sedentarism forms part of the history of our civilisation. But more than just a part of our culture, it is an attitude that characterises our present time. Most of our bodily gestures end in a sitting position; we spend many hours a day seated and everything in our lives invites us to sit down. But this pleasant invitation to rest has more complex implications: we sit at home, in the street, in schools, we sit in front of machines and, above all in today's world, we sit in front of computer screens.

In his 2012 book O pensamento sentado, São Paulo PUC professor Norval Baitello Junior wrote about the place of the "seat" in sedentary culture. His critique is directed at a seated way of thinking that - for him - is an accomodated thinking. Taking up the German expression used by Nietzsche to describe "sedentary life"– Sitzfleisch – the author explores the translation of “carne de assento” (sitting flesh) which literally leads to the habitual "bunda" (ass, backside). The word "bunda" has a vast usage in Brazil. However inelegant it may sound, it would not be a mistake to ponder the current relevance of an "assed thinking" - that tired way of thinking which, taken to the extreme, expresses what we commonly understand as the irresponsibility of the asshole (bundão).

The "accomodated" or comfortable character is that of a "settled and predictable discourse" which turns the act of thinking in our age against its very own most intimate nature. The body's "decline in mobility" is - he says - also a decline in thought, whose unpredictability and ability to surprise are diminishing. We are well acquainted with this accomodating comfort. We know that it is necessary for power, for the political and economic system which requires docile bodies and stunted minds comfortably repeating more of the same, in order to keep everything in the same place: seated.

To ponder the leaps in thought of  Baitello's book is a dynamic attitude, as the movement of our bodies would be, restless and prone to walking, jumping, running and leaping. The human being's capacities  –which are related to our entire learning process in life and our need to explore our surroundings– are diminished when everything is reduced to the "seat". Our primate selves resent not being able to move.

A rule of culture

Baitello reminds us that to sit and to sedate both have the same etymological root: sedere.  And so, he comments, we are “Homo sedens”, and the atrophy of our muscles and movements appears as a kind of rule of our culture. When we observe our day-to-day lives, sedentary on all sides in front of computers, television, in our cars, we realise that the physical mobility that should characterise us –and which is still our potential– gives way to the strange, disembodied immobility of the machine. The machines move for us and we become immobile: seated, we wait for the machines which substitute us. In a certain way, we passively participate in an immobile "becoming" which doesn't take us anywhere except where we've previously been placed.

And finally, as we are forced to sit, we experience the homage to discipline and we hold out in the name of making an effort. We praise the individual who is capable of enduring the classroom or the chair in the bureaucratic office. We are victims of what Baitello calls a "perverse conjunction" in which the sedentariness of our bodies is allied to a visual hyperactivity. Anaesthetised in front of machines, we live contrary to our own nomadic capacities.

Perhaps escaping from this world is a desire that is buried by a squashy avalanche that our bodies get used to, out of fear of their own potential. It is important to remember that escape is always an option.

Original in Portuguese: