A Sense of Balance: Techniques and Technologies of Self-regulation

— Hélène Mialet & Natasha Schüll —

Contact improvisation dance, horse riding, the sense of vertigo that comes over courtroom victims reliving past trauma, bodies in fluctuation in diabetes management, consumers who invite wearable technology to regulate their day-to-day conduct: this panel could have been disjointed and chaotic but was, instead, in “balance,” its five presentations turning on a common pivot as they moved in different directions.

That pivot, the sense of balance itself, was shown operating at multiple registers of human life: postural, moral, affective, metabolic, political. Panelists revealed the workings of balance as a regulator of bodily positioning, emotional stability, daily habits, and relations with others – whether animals, humans, spaces, or machines. The challenge of imbalance played out internally and externally, as physical shocks, kinetic destabilization, temporal disorientation, economic volatility. The theme of this year’s meeting, In(Sensibilities), resonated throughout – as did the climate of uncertainty, violence, asymmetry, and deregulation that characterizes the present historical moment. Justice, beauty, equality, truth: the concept of balance is never far away as we grapple to make sense of this moment. But how, in practice, does balance operate?

To start, Joe Dumit brought us deep into the articulations of flesh and bone that happen through the fascia as it operates to smooth out and make the movement of our bodies possible; and then back out to the art of contact improvisation, through which bodies learn how indispensable falling is to the task of standing, and thereby come to stand – and fall – with grace and trust. Rachel Prentice brought animals into the equation, exploring equestrian dressage as a complex, improvisational attunement that demands equilibrium rather than strength, and that involves a balancing act that is never simply purely physical but also moral and cultural. Next, Kelli Moore showed how the spatial arrangement of domestic violence courtrooms and the display of evidentiary photographs depicting victims’ injuries – often closely cropped and magnified – can disrupt the temporal equilibrium of judicial proceedings (and, perhaps, our conception of justice itself) with a feeling of vertigo. Hélène Mialet followed with a harrowing portrait of the constant imbalance that diabetics experience, caught as they are between extremes of continuously moving blood sugar levels, highs and lows of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia; the body, here, is an ever vigilant system composed of organic senses and digitized sensors that are attuned (or not) to its own fluctuations. Natasha Schüll completed the panel with an account of the discombobulation consumers are liable to feel as they navigate a landscape of choice and risk that makes their emotions tilt and bodies tremble, prompting them to hope – in vain – for digital devices that might serve as thermostats for daily living, relieving them of the confounding task of self-regulation.

At stake in all these papers was the question of control: how much of it do we have – or do we want to have – over our bodies, our emotions, our interactions with others, our systems of social justice, our daily microrhythms? If control can be conceived in another way than rigidity, indifference, mastery, and fear – in a way, that is, that accommodates falling and failing, flexibility and letting go, and acceptance of help from other bodies and systems – than we will have moved the debate a little bit.