Embodiment, culture, childhood

I have been working at my local public library branch for most of this week. I come here every morning and station myself at the corner table in the children’s section. I like working in the children’s section primarily because the tables and chairs are low and more suitable for my height. I also like the colourful surroundings and the frequent breaks, diversions and playfulness that kids bring to my long reading hours. This morning there was a participatory story session for parents and toddlers (many of the “parents” are actually hired nannies).  I sat here listening to them sing the usual repertoire – “Twinkle, twinkle” and other songs – as I tried to focus on my tasks. But I kept wondering how the nannies (all women of colour) related to these Anglo songs.  This library is in East End China Town and has a large collection of material in Mandarin. A lot of the adult users seem to be from Chinese background. Yet, the children’s section is used mostly by white kids and their nannies, and occasionally grandparents and parents. And, of course, myself and an elderly Chinese woman who is studying English and, like me, prefers the low chairs and tables in this section.  Anyway, soon enough, I gave up doing what I was doing and engaged in a peekaboo game with a happy little boy who’d strayed away from the singing group.

I’m paging through the book The Child in the World: Embodiment, Time and Language in Early Childhood, still tracing embodiment. I’m looking at childhood because of its obvious significance in learning not just about the world but the way our body relates to the world. Bold emphasis is mine:

All human beings are embodied, live in places, engage with things, and experience time. On the Other hand, each era or culture takes up embodiment, spatiality, or temporality and shapes or inscribes them in particular way. p 7

[A]n investigation of situated body is always bound to a particular place and time and is permeated with cultural practices… Nevertheless, description and interpretation of particular and situated experiences of embodiment open up a more detailed sense of what it means to be embodied in general. pp 7-8

Paying attention to the chiasmic web of body-space-time in all human experience lays bare the great fullness of the phenomenal realm and can reveal how deeply cultural practices penetrate the structures of children’s [and adults’ by extension] lives. p 7

The depiction of the human body and its surrounding space in artists’ as well as children’s artwork reflects the ways human beings understand and conceptualize their experiences of embodiment and spatiality. Culturally and personally, a change in the representation of body and space also announces a change in how embodiment and spatiality are experienced and understood… The lived body along with the lived dimensions of space, time and coexistance are no longer obvious to the thinking adult mind, but they come to expression in children’s symbolic representations. p 60

Why is the equation of child and primitive so persuasive and pervasive? I suggest that there are two reasons. First, there is something to see in the semblance of children and aboriginal peoples, and second, their differences are covered over b the identification of Western adult rationality with formal operational, logical-scientific thinking… The imperialism that has marked the relationship between Western and non-Western cultures, which defines anything alien as flawed, has its parallels in the imperialism of formal operations which which we measure and repress children’s thinking. p 74

The capacity for imitation, which is not restricted to the human species, is an a priori of embodiments. It cannot be reduced to mental or intellectual phenomena. It indicates the place where body and world entwine and where the basic meaning structure of human existence becomes possible. Things have meaning because their gestures become possibilities for the child’s body and provide new horizons for her being in the world. p 79

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