Theorising Practice II: Habitus/Hexis
One of the consequences of the mind (theory)-body(practice) divide in contemporary approaches to magic (and more widely, spiritual development in general) is the notion that the spiritual/magical is set apart from the material/everyday world. There is a pervasive belief that materiality (and the concerns that relate to it) is a burden to be overcome; that development requires that the concerns of the body be transcended. This kind of discourse tends to privilege abstracted knowledge over bodied experience. Yet all practices (including those understood as inwardly turning, such as meditation or visualisation) involve our bodies.
In reflecting on the primacy of practice as bodied experience I want to highlight one of the “thinking tools” of Pierre Bourdieu – Habitus and the related idea of Hexis.
Bourdieu’s approach to practice (see Outline of a Theory of Practice) is that not all learning is explicit and gained through discourse, but is often tacit and embodied. He also stresses that actions are often “unconscious” improvisations (“jamming”) and not merely related to consciously following rules. Further, such improvisations take place during activities without being “thought-through”. This capacity to improvise is the product of the social learning process in which the “game rules” of society are internalised and practiced (through activities and active self-making). According to Bourdieu. although learning takes place via the home and in school, it is the habituation – the repeated and affirmed performance of particular repertoires (including cognitive, affective and bodily) that form the unconscious dispositions of habitus. Socially competent performances thus become a matter of routine – we can act without being able to explain exactly what we are doing.
Habitus for Bourdieu, is a set of dispositions which incline agents to act in certain ways. Dispositions generate practices, perceptions and attitudes which are ‘regular’ without being consciously coordinated or governed by any conscious “rule”. Habitus predisposes members of a society to interact in ways consistent with the social norms of their group. It is the social, cultural and physical environment that we, as social beings inhabit, through which we know ourselves and through which others identify us. These dispositions include postures, speech styles, ways of eating, moving, conceptions of private space, predispositions towards particular ways of thinking and feeling – they are habits of orienting one’s physical & psychological selfhood to the world. Bourdieu holds that these dispositions are preconscious and so not readily amenable to conscious reflection and modification – we perform them without conscious reflection because they are “obvious” and commonsensical, and as it were, we have ‘forgotten’ that we have learned them. For Bourdieu, the body itself is the “site of incorporated history”.
“Bodily hexis is political mythology realised, embodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking and thereby of feeling and thinking.” Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice
Bodily hexis is the expression of all the factors which make up one’s habitus – embodied in our physical being. It is in bodily hexis that the personal combines with the social.The body is a mnemonic device upon which and in, the very basics of culture are imprinted and enacted. For Bourdieu, the way that we relate to our bodies reveals the “deepest dispositions of the habitus”. One of Bourdieu’s examples of hexis is how the politics of gender are revealed through ways of walking, sitting or even standing still:
If all societies … set such store on the seemingly most insignificant details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners, the reason is that, treating the body as a memory, they entrust to it in abbreviated and practical, i.e. mnemonic, form the fundamental principles of the arbitary content of culture. The principles embodied in this way are placed beyond the grasp of consciousness, and hence cannot be touched by voluntary, deliberate transformation, cannot even be made explicit; nothing seems more ineffable, more incommunicable, more intimable,. and therefore more precious, than the values given body, made body by the transsubstantiation achieved by the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy, capable of instilling a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy, through injunctions as insignificant as ‘stand up straight’ or ‘don’t hold your knife in your left hand’. Bourdieu, 1977
Bourdieu was attempting to produce a way of looking at action that overcame the ‘gap’ between individual agency and social structures. There are problems with his theories (which I won’t go into here) but what interests me at the moment is this emphasis on the body as that which acted upon (and used to act with) and as a repository of cultural and symbolic value. The body, for Bourdieu, is a public object (in addition to being experienced privately), formed and known through social practices and discourses.