Action as Embodied Narrative

Or, The Anthropology and Psychology of Doing Nothing … and Then Doing

Painting, Smoking, Eating. By Philip Guston, 1972. From

In our recursive, never-ending engagement with the world (and thus, with each other … and with ourselves), we humans generally create our own resolve about how that world is supposed to be.

And we do that by convincing ourselves that we can heroically make clear sense of muddled situations.

Should I add another spoonful of sugar to my tea? Or should I turn my concern for health and longevity into fast principle? Should I give into small desires, or should I always moderate? Objectively, reasonable people can provide arguments that on the balance, it’s better to treat yourself, at least once in a while … but maybe, it’s actually better not to, it’s actually better to develop stronger mind-body discipline.

In other words, this is a simple case–as professors so often say, encouraging their students to dare to pose critical questions–of there being “no one right answer.”

To be sure, most of us find that in the real-time emotional experience of moments–those seconds and minutes under which we maintain acute cognitive attention on a given situation–we may strongly resolve to act according to one answer or the other. Making that embodied decision through action makes us feel good.

As the simultaneously inviting and slightly repulsive painting by Philip Guston evokes for me, smoking (or eating in bed, with your cherished work right with you) constitutes a jointly mundane YET heroic embodied narrative. As automatic as it may seem, getting under the covers, arranging a plate full of something good (is that an assortment of brie, camembert and sausage?), and then lighting and taking a drag on the cigarette makes up a pretty decisive series of actions.

And that’s what I mean by an embodied narrative: the subject has done something, rather than allowing himself to vacillate, lingering in indecision about what to do next.

Part of my summer reading has included Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren’s (2010) The Secret World of Doing Nothing, which I have been working through at the same time that I’ve begun reading Daniel Kahneman’s (2011) “cross-over hit” popular book Thinking, Fast and Slow. I have been really surprised by the overlap in concepts and observations. This, despite the obvious methodological difference between the former’s qualitative ethnographic approach and the latter’s more restrictive but highly quantitative and replicable laboratory approach. And despite the important difference in philosophical point of departure, between the former’s grounding in the phenomenology of experience and practice and the latter’s analytical and pragmatic scientific framework. What is most similar in the two books is the following fact:

  • Thought and action are always more complex, cybernetic, and dependent on neuromotor, endocrinological, and cardiovascular interactions throughout the body than we’ve tended to acknowledge in the tradition of modern scientific or Western inquiry.

But there’s also this more specific complementarity between the ideas in the two books:

  • The controlled laboratory studies in psychology and experimental economics that Kahneman and his colleagues spearheaded rigorously document that inevitably emotional, embodied real-time experiences tend to bias human perception, judgment, and decision-making in a wide range of contexts. Yet, the ethnographic observations and interviews carried out by Ehn and Löfgren reveal that–often–when it is usually assumed we’re doing nothing, we are acting or focusing on introspection in creating culturally influenced, simple iconic narratives about our embodied relationship to order, judgment, control, or agency. This may relate to how we tap our feet, hum a song, and sway back and forth in rhythm while waiting in a line. Or how we focus on competing with ourselves to achieve a certain speed or constancy in traveling between points of departure and destination.

Thus, we have an embodied, interconnected potential to be carried away by emotional bias and to engage in auto-conditioning to discipline ourselves and practice judgment and decision-making … at least in a culturally relevant way. (Remarkably, this suggests that Heidegger only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in considering how boredom centrally defines being for humans.)

Let us return to the Guston painting above. The painted image and the evoked actions represented in the image recursively send the message that doing constitutes an embodied narrative of making a decision–to do, rather than remain in indecision–in an uncertain world. And making that decision psychologically likely makes us more relaxed and aware. This is a satisfying middle ground–at least in the context of everyday experience–between alert and anxious, on the one hand, and depressed and withdrawn, on the other.

Because such emotionally satisfying, embodied narratives subtly contribute to the worlds we create and experience, certain actions that are bad for us in the long-term may actually feel necessary to take in the short-term … It’s certainly hard to quit smoking because nicotine chemically keeps bringing one’s cognitive attention back to the desire for more. But it’s more than that. In a wide range of cultural contexts, taking out and lighting the cigarette, inhaling, exhaling, and becoming aware of feeling the change in bodily experience constitute a deceptively simple, yet dramatic embodied narrative of successfully doing … rather than remaining in bored or uncertain indecision. In a complex world, that’s a story with a happy ending. And the iconic semiotic (that is, logical) function of this embodied narrative can lead us toward biased decision-making, discounting accurate information about the long-term grave costs of smoking.

sacred profane iconic narratives


Ehn, B., & Löfgren, O. (2010). The Secret World of Doing Nothing. University of California Press.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.