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On Balance

Sat, September 2, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, 3, Fairfax A

Abstract

The English language contains many sensory and postural terms that are simultaneously physical and moral; one can be upright, strong, or a slouch. The physical version of most of these states can be read immediately in the body. Yet senses like balance and kinesthesia are, in the words of Oliver Sacks, hidden. The lack visible sense organs and manage inward self-regulation. These senses often go unnoticed except through their lack. Indeed, physical therapists in the United States are apt to talk about strengthening “balancing muscles,” as though balance is a function of strength, rather than equilibrium. Yet balance is not purely a physical phenomenon. It is also a moral and cultural category connected to well-being and harmony. Anthropologists have shown that balance can be bodily, moral, and social all at once. This paper builds on an ethnographic study of dressage and equine-assisted physical therapy, both worlds in which balance is a vital physical requirement, to show how North Americans have lost balance; that is, how physical balance has become detached from moral and psychological balance. Part of a larger project on sensory ways of knowing in human-animal interactions, this paper explores balance as a moral and physical category for riders and horses.

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