Or: The sound of a pounding heart is so much more intense when you’re underwater.
Deep ocean-coloured symbols amalgamated with smoothly textured sheets of paper. Can you imagine the experiences of these flowing bodies of ink, only moments ago leaking through the soft wavy surface, finding their way along the veins of absorbent skeins of cellulose fibers, becoming some thing new together?
It might be challenging to think of bodies as fluid beings. We tend to refer to our physical appearances as solid entities, as neatly organised organisms that define our unique identities. Surely there is something comforting about the idea of the body as a ‘whole’. A fixed form suggests order and control, whereas a shapeshifting liquid substance can seem elusive and could easily slip right through your fingers. But this longing for comfort doesn’t come without a cost. New Materialist, Queer Feminist and writer of the marvelous book Bodies of water Astrida Neimanis is determined to expose how the ways we know the world directly relate to how we act in the world. And explores how a different point of view might bring about new ways of caring for Gaia.1 She/they points out accurately the effort that is involved in altering this ‘modern’ idea of the body: “To rethink embodiment as watery stirs up considerable trouble for dominant Western and humanist understandings of embodiment, where bodies are figured as discrete and coherent individual subjects, and as fundamentally autonomous”.2
Although our skins seem to be convenient and closed-off carrier bags3 for our bodily matter, they are nothing less than ambiguous gateways between what we consider ourselves and the world. They are membranes that protect the body’s other tissues and organs. They allow us to absorb and excrete moisture from and into the environment. The congealed layer of matter we experience as our shell, our shelter, our cover, our casing, is essentially in direct contact with our surroundings. Slowly but steadily, the meshwork that is our skin arranges a constant stream of water between inside and outside and abrogates the barrier in doing so. To illustrate this, Neimadis proposes to think of water as a connective element that binds together all various forms of life on Earth. A suggestion that invites to wonder how we can not only think, but truly encounter this shared wateriness in a sensory way.
Now what if we were to link a concept like solidarity – as the ultimate practice of interconnectedness – to this idea? Psychologists claim that, in order to alter the way we act, imagining how we would approach a particular change of direction is already more than half the job. After that, it is ‘just’ a matter of doing. Bearing this in mind, while drawing on New Materialist ideas on acknowledging the agency of materials, would we be able to explore the watery character of solidarity? What would help us to get a better sense of it and subsequently practice it more generously?
Let us start by trying to imagine the ‘solid’ in solidarity as tangible liquid matter. What substance would it be made of? Would it feel warm or cold? Stingingly icy, like drops of rain on a naked forehead? Prickly like salty sea water or brine? Could we distinguish a structure? Would it be clear, or rather a sandy textured murky mud? And what kind of density would it have?
Solidarity, deriving from the Latin word ‘sol’, for sun, could firstly evoke thoughts of light and warmth. It could bring about associations with a soothing blanket of sunshine on a summer day, a ray of iridescent light showing herself from behind a snowy mountain or the scorching heat of that same blazing yellow sphere on dry desert sand. On the other hand, the word refers to ‘solus’, which relates to sole, alone, only, single, forsaken. And ‘solidus’, meaning firm, whole, undivided, entire, made of one and the same stuff. One might argue that most things that come to mind hold a certain kind of stillness or slow-paced steadiness. Images of solitary boulders, slowly moving in a once vivid Ice Age, might appear. And chances are the lyrics of a certain song by Ashford & Simpson, about two souls melting together over time, spring to mind.
The idea of solidarity embodied as an ever flowing and transforming material that moves through and along our human and non-human bodies, can still feel somewhat or even beyond abstract. Bodily water becomes quite tangible when linking it to phenomena like perspiration, the production of saliva or bath water wrinkling up your skin. But the idea of being physically connected to a slowly melting glacier or an evaporating distant river can, literally and metaphorically, feel far away.
Going back to the linguistic origin of the term, it is worth mentioning that the connection to the sun might remind us of the unprecedented speed of light as well. When applying a similar kind of speed to this thought experiment of connecting solidarity to water, could it be that the key to getting closer – to deeply engage with water as an inseparable partner in a collective moving forward in time – is actually to turn up the speed; to envision the ongoing transience of ourselves and/in water in ‘fast forward’? When we think of all bodies of Earthly water as one big accelerated wave; rapidly rushing, sloshing, splashing and soaking through the skins of our material beings, not a lukewarm but a hot and steamy mess, could we then finally feel as whole together in the way our ‘own’ bodies can feel familiarly solid and whole?
To actively take part in a swirling reciprocal flow of abundant generosity, it is undeniably vital to recognise our skins for the membranes that they are, the porous double-faced fabric that nourishes our inside and our outside, connecting instead of dividing the two. Solidarity in this scenario, would take the role of the soft but solid lubricant that enables us to sense our way with and through one another. And solidity, in preference to being defined as a hard clump of singular matter, will have to make place for a meaning that implies an open structured and accumulating wholeness. If we are to vigorously stir up the standing waters, we will have to see our bodies not as closed-off entities, but rather as humid flocculations vividly floating around in time and space, as temporary assemblages of matter with the potential to connect not only to the closest entities in our environment, but to all, to every one and thing.
1 Lovelock, J. (2016). Gaia. Oxford University Press.
2 Neimanis, A. (2017). Bodies of water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. Bloomsbury. (p.2)
3 Le Guin, U. (2019). The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota Books.
Suzanne Dikker (NL) is a clothing and textile designer, art educator and MA student at ArtEZ University. She is specialized in traditional crafts, including weaving, felting and plant-based dyeing of fabrics. In recent years her work has been on show at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Nieuwe Instituut and De Wasserij in Rotterdam. Dikker considers it her mission to share her passion for, and extensive knowledge of, tactile making techniques with others and in this way stimulate the collective sensory and ecological consciousness. www.suzannedikker.com