Cornell University Press Authors' blogs

Lockdown: The Centrality of Movement in Our Lives

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Movement is central to our lives, as our recent experiences of COVID-19 lockdown so vividly demonstrate. Be it marathons run on balconies, ballet performances staged in dancers’ kitchens, the simple pleasures many of us have experienced by walking down our neighborhood streets, or even just wheeling the garbage bins up the driveway, if nothing else, the lockdown has been a testimony to the vital importance of movement for our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Lockdown has been a testimony to the vital importance of movement for our physical, emotional and mental well-being.

As the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka noted, movement is fundamental to our being-in-the-world, underpinning how we see and therefore comprehend, objects and spaces. And as I explore in my book, Traversing: Embodied Lifeworlds in the Czech Republic, movement molds how we consciously and unconsciously come to know and identify ourselves and the world in which we live. It undergirds how we both communicate and collectively create emotions, as well as how we conceive and enact small acts of freedom.

The ethnographic analyses of movement I undertake in Traversing draws on Patočka’s work, as well as the writings of his precursor, teacher, and some time philosophical rival, Martin Heidegger. While Heidegger highlighted how our understanding of what it means to be human must consider our bodily being-in-the-world, Patočka insisted on the importance of our ability to move, both as independent agents and inter-relational beings. I use their insights to examine our ways of seeing, experiencing, and moving through the world and the kinds of persons we become through them, a process I refer to as traversing.

I use their insights to examine our ways of seeing, experiencing, and moving through the world and the kinds of persons we become through them, a process I refer to as traversing.

Traversing encompasses the social, cultural, and political dimensions of a variety of kinds of movement: how we move through time and space, be it by walking along city streets, gliding across the dance floor, or clicking our way across digital landscapes; how we move towards and away from one another, as erotic partners, family members, or fearful, ethnic “others”; and how we move towards ourselves and the earth we live upon, through activities as mundane, and simultaneously potentially transcendent, as exploring a forest or hosting a garden party.

Grounded in an ethnographic examination of Czech lifeways, Traversing explores how movement is not only fundamental to our basic, daily activities (i.e. getting up to cross the room or tracking an image with our eyes), but is a core facet of how we constitute history, ethnicity, politics, religious identity, gender and sexuality, and family life. For example, for many residents of Prague strolling down the street reverberates with recognition of oneself as part of an imagined nation of Czechs who have, since the Middle Ages, walked across the same cobblestones, admiring the same vistas. This kind of walking is an act of tethering, of getting to know the ground beneath one’s feet and in doing so, recognizing how it anchors one to a particular space and time, interlinking a moment in the life of a city with a moment in one’s lifespan.

COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns, social distancing, international border closures, and quarantine regulations are reshaping how we think about public and private spaces, proximity, and touch.

COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns, social distancing, international border closures, and quarantine regulations are reshaping how we think about public and private spaces, proximity, and touch. Now, perhaps more than ever, there is a need to understand how we experience our bodily being-in-the-world, including the dynamism inherent in how we constitute our identities, interpersonal relations, and senses of belonging and disconnect.


Susanna Trnka is an associate professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland. Her research focuses on embodiment, identity, and the politics of health. She is the author or editor of nine books including: One Blue Child: Asthma, Responsibility, and the Politics of Global Health; Competing Responsibilities: The Politics and Ethics of Contemporary Life; and State of Suffering: Political Violence and Community Survival in Fiji.

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