The case of the ‘disappearing body’: habitus shift and bodily practice

In Shawn Lindsay’s 1996 article ‘Hand Drumming: An Essay in Practical Knowledge’, the author describes his (her?) process of learning drumming in preparation for doing anthropological fieldwork.  Drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, Lindsay explores the idea of ‘practice as a mode of bodily understanding’, prefiguring a recent resurgence of interest in habit as social and embodied practice (see Body and Society journal’s recent special issue on habit) by exploring repetition and habit in learning a musical skill.

The main contention Lindsay raises is that ‘the habitus must be envisaged as possessing the capacity for generating practices which are not in themselves “inherent in the particular conditions of its production” (Bourdieu:1990, 55) but are actually transformative of those conditions'(p200).  (A nice link with our ‘discourses of transformation’ discussion last month – see previous blog post).  Lindsay notes that learning a new skill – in this case drumming – ‘presents a threat to the habitus in that it entails a reworking and a revitalising of the body’s corporeal schema (Merleau-Ponty 1962:142)’ (p202).  In his drumming practice, the learning of a complex rhythm brought about a ‘habitus shift’ which altered his perception of the timing of this particular beat from hearing 6/8 time to hearing hemiola time, i.e. two against three.  This shift occurred while drumming with his teacher and another student, in a circle, and to his surprise, it was accompanied by a visualisation of the construction of the rhythm between the three drummers, in the form of a floating triangle.

Our discussion in our September meeting circled around this idea of whether bodily practice can transform habitus.  This idea of transformation focused on the shift that Lindsay describes between the moment of not being able to do something and then being able to do it; and also around the embodied capacity which Lindsay describes acquiring, that of a particular kind of active relaxation.  He describes how ‘an essential element of feeling a rhythm is being able to relax your entire body’ which doesn’t mean ‘a lack of energy’ (p208), but ‘cultivating a body that is actively, habitually relaxed.  Achieving a state of habitual relaxation constitutes a rearrangement of the habitus’, as this experience can be taken into other areas of one’s life (p209).

We had some questions around whether this shift does indeed constitute a moment of potential rupture in the habitus, with concomitant generative capabilities, or whether it is just a moment of a new, more energetic reproduction of the habitus.  If there is indeed a transformation, what kinds of newness take place?  And do we have any control over this transformation?  Certain disciplines such as learning a musical practice, or engaging in still and silent listening, can facilitate new experiences, or the kind of shift that Lindsay describes, but what then does this shifting enable?  My own critique was that before learning a new practice from a different culture, it is necessary to possess a habitus wherein the learning of new skills from other cultures is something that is possible and imaginable for you – something which as Skeggs (2003) notes, can be read as an attribute of a middle class self, drawing on a history of appropriating the culture of others.

Despite one very avid defender of the concept of habitus in the group, as well as various newly-minted Bourdieusians, I was not convinced by this idea of the habitus shift through bodily practice, even though I found it hugely exciting to think about as a possibility.  This is partly because it encourages (and draws on) an even looser conceptualisation of the habitus which is already a somewhat blurry concept.  But despite this, what Lindsay describes is interesting in its own right in relation to embodied practice and affective transmission (see Blackman:2012).  Lindsay describes the ‘disappearance of the body in drumming’ (p202) ‘in reaching out to grasp a rhythm not of its own making […] my body had become invisible to me […] It surpassed itself, becoming for a moment ‘co-extensive with the world’ (Sartre: 1956, 420)’ (p201).  We were all fascinated by this account of the ‘disappearing body’ and its implications for ideas of craftsmanship as well as music pedagogies.  There emerged through this ‘disappearing body’ a different mode of sociality which was in itself generative, regardless of whether it might allow lasting transformation of ‘structuring structures’.  And is it really true that if you persist at drumming, ‘the body’s awkward parts will soon disappear’?  I live in hope.

The article ends with a call for ethnographers to learn the basic skills ‘required to engage in new patterns of living’ such as how to use ‘the hoe, the drum, the hatchet, the water jar’ (p211).  This is one place where ethnomusicologists have the upper hand, as learning the musical practice of our research sites is one of the key unifying elements of the discipline.   But as was noted in our discussion, how to write about this practice – particularly how to describe the experience of ‘flow’ or the ‘disappearing body’ – is something we all grapple with, and this article provided a fascinating example of capturing embodied musical experience in prose.


Blackman, L., 2012. Immaterial bodies: affect, embodiment, mediation, Theory, culture & society. SAGE, London.

Lindsay, S. (1996) ‘Hand Drumming: An Essay in Practical Knowledge’ in M. Jackson (ed.) Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press); 196-212

Skeggs, B., 2003. Class, self, culture, 1st ed. Routledge.


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3 responses to “The case of the ‘disappearing body’: habitus shift and bodily practice

  1. Exciting material here–look forward to further discussions. Can you specify the reference to “Blackman: 2012” in the second to the last paragraph? I’d love to check that one out. Cheers, Tamara

  2. Oops, sorry, lackadaisical referencing. I’ve added it in now.

  3. Apologies if this already came up in discussion, but if not, I wanted to add that I’d recommend the book, “Bourdieu in Algeria” by Goodman and Silverstein. As many of you know, Bourdieu largely developed “habitus” while in Algeria working with the Kabylie population. This book is a much-needed critique on whether the theory indeed came out of “practice” and includes some needed critique of “habitus.” best, tamara

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