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Lawrence E. Smith
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One expects, of writers of the stature of Mr. Shusterman, both knowledge and understanding of the subjects on which they discourse. What a disappointment to discover that Mr. Shusterman, in Body Consciousness, gives considerable space to a subject about which he demonstrates both lack of meaningful experience, and a poor reading of the texts from which he draws his knowledge. I refer to the Alexander Technique, to which several pages of this book are devoted (within the chapter on John Dewey), mostly, it seems, to show off Mr. Shusterman's preferred somatic domain, the Feldenkrais Method, a method in which he trained as a practitioner. Without even mentioning the fact that Moshe Feldenkrais was a student of the Alexander Technique, both before and long after he developed his own method, Mr. Shusterman often unfavorably compares the Alexander Technique to the Feldenkrais method, even criticizing Alexander's failure to permit a proper study of his method (which was probably motivated not, as Mr. Shusterman implies, by any doubt about his method, but more by the difficulty of finding a sufficient number of practitioner participants for the study, as, unfortunately, Alexander considered himself the only true teacher of his method).
The decision to include, in this brief overview of Alexander's practical work, a quotation that has been removed from most editions of one of his books, in which Alexander expresses his racist views (quite common in his day), clearly demonstrates Shusterman's hidden agenda, which is attacking Alexander, rather than presenting a knowledgeable assessment of his work. We get nothing of the personal about Feldenkrais, who had quite a reputation of his own for unpleasantness, and who used Alexander's work as a foundation for his own. By the way, Alexander also considered Germans racially inferior to the British (take that, master race!).
About Alexander's work, Mr. Shusterman notes, critically, that: "The Alexander Technique is especially focused on upright posture...". Since pretty much everything we do, except for sleep, involves "upright posture", how is that a negative? It is true that, in the Alexander Technique, one does not spend a great deal of time rolling around on the floor, or touching one's head to one's knee, but instead one deals with the self in everyday life and action - alert and upright.
He further writes: "His `primary control' of keeping the head `forward and up'[...]", and later, "[...] reliance on one central position of head and neck [..]". Note that it is Shusterman, never Alexander, who applies words denoting fixity, such as "keeping" and "position", in describing the "primary control", exposing his faulty understanding of what Alexander wrote and taught. Nowhere does Alexander ever write of "keeping" or "holding" the head-neck relationship - on the contrary, he repeats (ad nauseum, in fact) that it is necessary to allow or permit freedom, so that the head is permitted space and movement in its relationship to the rest of the body. Alexander stresses throughout all his writing, as he did in his work, that one simply wants to inhibit habitual fixity, especially in what we now refer to as the neck reflexes. Contrary to Mr. Shusterman's contention that the Alexander Technique focuses on the "primary control" to the detriment of other systems, such as the sensory, Alexander, and teachers trained by him work on global consciousness of the self. Frank Pierce Jones, who Mr. Shusterman quotes, even defined the Alexander Technique as a method for combining proprioception and exteroception into a unified field of perception. (Mr. Jones, by the way, is best known for his published research on the Alexander Technique, which includes publication in journals on psychology and physiology. He was a student and friend of John Dewey and Alexander) If Mr. Shusterman had taken the time to have more than a couple of lessons in the Alexander Technique with a properly trained teacher, he would have difficulty sustaining his misconceptions about the "primary control", a term which many in the Alexander world no longer even use, preferring terminology from contemporary science (tonic neck reflexes, vestibulo-nuchal reflexes). It is hardly Alexander's fault that the bulk of his research was undertaken before the discovery of the reflexes his technique works with. (Nikolas Tinbergen gave his Nobel Prize acceptance speech about Alexander and his application of the scientific method to the study of the self.)
Again, if Mr. Shusterman had truly read his sources, he would have found a very clear explanation in Frank Peirce Jones' work Freedom to Change of how increased awareness of reactions in the neck region can be used to alert one to postural sets that lead to inefficient movement. Today's researchers in neuro-physiology, particularly Alain Berthoz, recognize the Head-Neck Sensory Motor System (Alexander's primary control, and the title of a book edited by Mr. Berthoz), as the center of postural response and change. Any attempt to alter the motor aspects of postural adaptation must begin with the neck region, as such change spreads from this region outwards. Research post-Alexander supports his observations in this regard.
Mr. S. is also critical of Alexander's notion of faulty sensory awareness. While it is true that his writing is often poor and, in this case, even misleading, anyone who has experienced Alexander's method may understand what he meant. Today, we would express faulty kinesthesia differently, as result of top-down sensory perception. In other words, what we see is not what the eye takes in, but it is a combination of sensory input and experience. This is true of all sensory experience. Without top-down sensory processing, the world is just an indecipherable maze of sound and light waves and electrical impulses. Alexander is simply trying to get us to question our sensory conclusions, because they are often mistaken, as an anorexic that sees a heavy person in the mirror is not exhibiting an eye problem, or, in a different way, someone who cannot hear pitch is not necessarily someone with a hearing problem - it is more a matter of how experience colors perception in a top-down manner. Here is Daniel Levitin on the subject in "This is Your Brain on Music":
"Low-level processing in your brain sees blobs of ink on this page, and perhaps even allows you to put those blobs together and recognize a basic form in your visual vocabulary, such as the letter A. But it is high-level processing that puts together three letters to let you read the word ART and to generate a mental image of what the word means."
One must remember that Alexander wrote to take possession of his work, as others who had experienced it were beginning to claim aspects of it as their discoveries, and that his actual work went far beyond what is contained in his writing. It is not a method that addresses movement, as are methods such as that of Mr. Feldenkrais, but is instead a method that addresses postural constants, and, due to the hierarchical nature of postural reflexes, this work requires a very developed awareness of reactions, especially in the sub-occipital region, where postural change is first seen in the musculature. For that reason, teachers trained in the Alexander Technique, at least those certified by STAT, AmSTAT and CanSTAT, undergo a minimum of 1600 hours training (more than double that of Feldenkrais training), often considerably more.
Further, to assert that Alexander did not consider the importance of sensory input to postural adaptation is absurd. Anyone who has had a lesson with a competent teacher of the A.T. will have been driected to keep the eyes focused, to maintain an outward gaze, to sense the pressure of the feet against the floor (something one cannot do rolling around on a mat), to un-clutch and open the hands, etc.
This is not the first time Shusterman has demonstrated a poor comprehension of somatics and the Alexander Technique, as his earlier paper, "Somasthetics" and an earlier book, Performing Live, are filled with similar errors (Performing Live has comments on Alexander's inhibition that are risible. Mr. Shusterman confounds the term inhibition, as it is used in physiology and in the Alexander Technique, with the same term as it is used in pop-psychology. He attributes some kind of negative connotation to the term as Alexander used it, as though there were some kind of suppression of impulse involved. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as in physiology, inhibition is the partner and counterpart to excitation -- when one muscle group is excited, that is, its fibers contracted, an opposing group is inhibited, or allowed to lengthen. There is constant muscle tone in all muscles, and it becomes possible for that muscle tone to become imbalanced and inappropriate. Excessive muscle tone can be clearly noted at the beginning of any action, when a postural set begins in the neck region, leading to an overall increase in muscle tone. At this point, to inhibit the immediate reaction to a stimulus means to consciously order inhibition, much as one might do in a yoga posture when a stretched muscle is sensed and released. Rather than having a negative effect on spontaneity, as Mr. S. implies, this release from old, established habitual reaction, frees one to be present for what is happening now). In approaching his current work, I had expectations that he might have deepened his understanding of the subject of somatics in general, and of the Alexander Technique, in particular. Silly me - perhaps Mr. Shusterman is just an academic repeatedly rehashing his earlier work. Or perhaps he is one of those that we in the Alexander Technique consider resistant to teaching. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt, and go with the latter.
Understanding of the Alexander Technique is helpful in understanding Dewey's ideas on habit. He studied with Alexander for 35 years and wrote (as Mr. Shusterman notes) introductions to two of Alexander's books. If you wish to read about the Alexander Technique, Frank Pierce Jones' Freedom to Change is a good place to start.