Soma: an anarchist experiment
Why do we usually share only ideas, theory and words at academic meetings? I dare say it might be because we still rely on a traditional division of mind and body. Unfortunately, sitting down and talking require the use of the senses of distance – looking and talking/hearing – we don’t need proximity or contact to participate in a debate or panel. And ironically, we need to feel physically uncomfortable to remember we are a body. Or do something pleasurable.
“Soma – an anarchist therapy” has to be introduced with a taster workshop, otherwise it would be paradoxical. Were we just to talk about Soma, we would know its history, concepts and methodology, but we would be rationalising and missing the opportunity for an experience-based experiment.
To try translating that experiment in text needs to start with the word: soma comes from the Greek and it means the totality of being in the widest and most complete sense – the body and its extensions, relationships, ideals, dreams, fears – but above all, the body as the source of desire and pain, and adventures through the dynamic between risk and safety. There is no hierarchical separation of mind, body, soul, emotion, feeling, whatever: soma is antonymous to psych in the sense that soma is material, touchable, visible and alive!
Soma sessions were born out of research into unblocking actors’ creativity. Through playful activities, children’s games and drama exercises, participants are challenged to experiment with their bodies, and to develop skills to create a non-hierarchical group dynamic. The games raise different issues that trigger observation of how we respond to situations involving trust, responsibility, sharing, collaboration, confidence, conflict, care, etc.
Soma encourages body experiences that will lead the group to interact, to deal with impasse, to create alternatives when crossing differences, most of the time without any verbal communication. The surprise factor is essential to the methodology. Here is a short description, without all the details, of the workshop done at the conference.
The pendulum exercise is a sequence of movements and games embodying a personal search for body balance, and investigating issues of risk, pleasure, safety, trust, confidence, fear; all of which can arise when we research the limits of body locomotion in space. First, participants are invited to discover the maximum locomotion they are able to achieve, without losing their balance, without losing an erect body position. This body movement in the erect position is the maximum point of freedom in the space of our body, without walking and without losing balance. To enlarge these limits, for our bigger freedom and pleasure, you must take risks. We can only take this risk, we can only enlarge our freedom, if we look for association with other people, who will help us do this while also assuring mutual safety. The session continues, expanding the numbers of participants involved in the movements, with more possibilities of body locomotion in space. In all these phases, the participants are challenged to work in self-organisation, taking responsibility for the safety and risk-taking of everybody, making clear that is the association/collaboration that brings more freedom and pleasure.
When Roberto Freire created ‘Soma – an anarchist therapy’ in Brazil, in the 70’s, he was looking for therapeutic methodologies that could help people emotionally who were fighting against the military dictatorship. He didn’t rely on his studies in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, but looked at more political engaged works in psychology.
Drawing on the research of Wilhelm Reich about body and emotions, anti-psychiatry’s focus on communication, the Gestalt approach to self-regulation, and the Brazilian art form of Capoeira Angola, Soma has about 30 sessions, with games, sound and movement exercises to help salvage spontaneity, playfulness, communication, creativity, and awareness of anarchist organization where no one is boss.After the games, we talk about perceptions, feelings, memories or rationalisations; all the emotions lived during the time playing together are the material to work with. Either you can talk about yourself or someone else. We don’t have the intention of finding a ‘truth’ about group participants, but the talk part helps to build a group dynamic based on sincerity, on the communication of perceptions, avoiding interpretation and looking to describe physically these emotions. Roberto Freire says that in the talk part we need to ask more ‘how’ than ‘why’. The ‘how’ helps individualising and it can reveal the originality of each person’s responses. The ‘why’, through interpretation, brings generalisation based in models, standards and stereotypes. This openness is based in anarchist principles of respect for difference and solidarity: whereas the ‘why’ of traditional psychology defines, classifies and judges. Soma seeks for a group dynamic that will encourage a learning process about the politics of everyday life, to observe how micro-social powers work and their effects on human behaviour. But the politics of everyday life does not happen only with arguments, discussions and critiques in the search for a rational idea about life and relationships. We are concerned with the politics of the body, to break down cultural prejudices against the forgotten body.
The process seeks to make the personal political by observing behaviour in the daily life of individuals. Capitalist values such as private property, competition, profit and exploitation are much more than matters of the market and ideology. It is impossible to deny the influence of these values in vital areas of social relations, where feelings (jealousy, possessiveness, insecurity) and situations (competition, betrayal and lies) seem to reproduce on the micro-social level, the authoritarianism of states and corporations. The political starts in the personal, and this is where the mechanisms that maintain social order are born.
Soma is inspired by anarchism and psychology, two wide fields of subjects separated by a sea of ideas. Linking these, Roberto Freire dared to dream of a utopian bridge between them, and the possibility of fighting against domination with more than words and rationality. The politics of everyday life begins with our private matters; when our feelings and emotions come together with our beliefs and ideology, we raise awareness and bring out the physical reality of our bodies educated in the capitalist culture of fear and security.
Neurosis, paranoia, anxiety, or depression; everything becomes a symptom for the prescriptions of pills, and recipes in self-help books. The speed that ‘scientific’ truths change place confuses anyone that relies only on cartographies such as psychology, neurophysiology, cognition, hormones, genetics. What we believe today as a fact, using science to explain feelings and emotions, might be in doubt tomorrow, but this doesn’t matter to the consumers of therapy. They carry on believing in the authority of the therapist with scientific knowledge, which is another product of the neurosis of capitalism.
Anarchism must not continue to be ignored as a collective practice if we want to break down the absolute power of science. Experiment is not an exclusive right of whoever can control variables, but a metaphor for life. Giving up the pretension of prescription, of establishing a general formula to be applied across the board, expressions of laboratory, experiment and science can gain other meanings and follow other paths. When Soma expresses its political interests, it escapes traditional therapeutic methodologies.
What constitutes someone’s behaviour, character, emotions? The traditional division of Cartesian heritage points to an inside, psychological subject that is beforehand of any material reality. Or to an outside, culture shaping, formatting and defining all nuances of an individual that is almost a blank canvas awaiting the social painting. These are some beliefs moving psychology as modern science and they justify therapeutic techniques and methodologies. But even using different approaches, when reduced to the psychological or to sociological, therapies keep moving in the direction of all their binds with concepts like health, illness, treatments, medicines and healing.
To avoid these conceptual networks, an anarchist therapy needs to use theories as maps, to build methodologies affording instruments, to point to effects which produce results, to confront those who determine objectivity as scientific proofs with certificates, numbers and graphs. We need theoretical tools to blow up the walls of arrogant scientific knowledge, as David Graeber has put it in his writings about anarchism and anthropology.
If in the modern laboratory theories sustain hypothesis, in anarchist research fields they are more indications about how to find paths, avoid abysms, take short cuts, how to stop and enjoy the view. In a Soma group, we take the risks of missing the point. It means looking more to the process than to the results. An experience is a life experiment when it creates new possibilities: one more step, and we are not in the same place anymore.
The big trap in modern science is reductionism: rational explanations that always leave out something of the process. What would happen if we start daring to stop looking for definitive answers? We could have more descriptions about possible interactions, to open questions, not just point out responses, like some contemporary approaches to talking about the body. For Bruno Latour, for example, to have a body is to learn to be affected, to learn how to make more ‘articulations’.
The body is the inevitability of human beings; it is built, but not just by determination and definition. It has biological influences, but not like a gene travestied of destiny; it receives cultural education, but not like a moral standard frozen in time and space. When the body is in articulation, it is in transformation. The more articulations we make, the more we are affected, the more we become sensitive to difference, and the more we can refine our senses to perceive, opening possibilities of new engagements, affects and effects.
In a society where the body has become another commodity, another product to be consumed, a rebel body needs to articulate differences to challenge paralysing definitions. When we perceive more contrasts, we make more mediation, and more articulations; we give voice to the body to express doubts; questions, where often one prays for certainty. Soma doesn’t try to define one’s body, the process attempts to keep one’s soma moving.
Another useful study of the body and its articulations, in this case, skills, is the work of Tim Ingold. Ingold imagines “right from the start”, the practitioner of a task in her or his environment, in an active engagement with it which he calls ‘dwelling’. Skills only exist and appear in relationship with either something or someone, in our multiple interactions with and possibilities in the environment. This relational approach breaks from the idea that skills are something one owns, confined inside oneself, and isolated from life experience. The world is a space for experimentation, with our dwelling creating an environment to develop skills, and make possible livelihoods. And only in relationships, can we apply now what was just potentiality before.
Soma groups are a space for experiences of what was previously only potentiality, where the body games create an environment which affords development of relational skills, if we follow Ingold’s approach. These relational skills produce new ways to perceive and relate, skills to facilitate consensus, to create new forms of non-hierarchical sociability. But these skills are not properties of the participants, they happen in the involvement with the group dynamic.
This process creates an environment in which the consensus decision making process starts in each participant’s body, mind, emotions and feelings. Such approach breaks with the traditional rational way to develop skills, where the mind is split from the body, the individual removed from its surroundings. Consensus and autonomy are ethical proposals to live with less hierarchy in a group, and they require learning other skills than the ones developed by authoritarian societies. Soma challenges participants to reinvent relationships, creating new forms of socialization and activism.
These are the reasons why I have been doing “Soma – an anarchist experiment”. Changing therapy into experiment, I have turned the sessions away from an emphasis on neurosis (we have something wrong) towards the gaining of skills (we can learn something new). Soma seeks to inspire skills to build horizontal relationships, skills that can transform the way we perceive the world, re-building the body, its dwelling and livelihood. When we give up imperatives of ‘Truth’, ethics comes close to aesthetics, and science flirts with the arts. Soma can be approached both as a live art form and as activism, envisaging a radical participatory, collaborative practice, where one can live singular experiences. With this experimental format, Soma could be a form of political engaged live art that aims to challenge the authoritarian or submissive behaviour that we discover in our daily lives. It encourages perception and awareness of how this behaviour reproduces authoritarian systems, and aims to extend this awareness to other areas of our lives, to resist and to react against hierarchy and social injustice.
Like activism, its practice involves liveness and encourages new ways of working. Like live art, its practice involves a heightened awareness of the body and its response to certain stimuli. Its practice uses the body as a material to build an event, an action, an intervention in the normal world of everyday life. In this sense, Soma would be a kind of training in rebelliousness, proposing an experience that encourages participants to develop trust in their own voice, to develop awareness of their behaviour in a group, to develop trust in others, to breakdown prejudice and barriers, to become articulate about the process of becoming within the group. It can show ways in which honest communication can thrive between participants and enable more anarchism. Play is a way to rediscover the body, just as collaboration helps to rediscover relationships.
 Roberto Freire is a Brazilian writer with more than 30 books published. His novels, essays and therapy books all express an anarchist approach mixed with the politics of everyday life, believing that pleasure, love, desire and optimism are the most important things to being an activist.
 “Fragments of an anarchist anthropology” – Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004.rf
 “The perception of the environment – essays about livelihood, dwelling and skills” – Routledge 2000.