Physiological memory

“The physiological memory is different from other knowledge and is far more stable.” (Abe, quoted in Shields 1996: 72)

One of the many difficulties of working through translations is that to translate, as Heidegger has said, is always already to interpret. What is even more difficult is when there is no ‘original’ to which one might compare the translation, as is the case with the quote above, which comes from something Nancy Shields heard Abe say during a rehearsal. What, then, is a “physiological” memory? In describing his theatre, Abe has used the term seiriteki 生理的 in several instances, in contrast to shinriteki 心理的 (such as in Abe 1979, 26), terms that translate respectively into English as “physiological” and “psychological.” In Shields’s quote, Abe is talking about how for example when your body learns how to ride a bike it never forgets, something like muscle memory. So, physiological memory is none other than a memory that is remembered through the body––a physical memory. We remember how to ride a bike without having to think about it, involuntarily. Is it not also true that intensely good or bad memories can cause visceral bodily reactions, cringing, sweating, tensing, and otherwise “expressing” some kind of recollection? And vice versa, can’t a smell or a taste bring something to mind that we had long forgotten?

Physical memories are somewhat like Proust’s “involuntary memories” maybe, ones that speak through smells, sounds, movements and other impressions made upon the body. These memories bring back the past for Proust in a far more vivid sense that his “voluntary” (i.e., conscious) memories do. The most ubiquitous example is of course the scent of madeleines dipped in tea, which provides the physiological impetus for Proust whole recherche of lost time.

The well-known ‘madeleine’ scene from Proust’s Recherche, illustrated by Stephane Heuet in her graphic novel adaptation . . . “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin” (Proust 2003: 60).


Proust’s novel begins in bed, in the space between dreaming and waking.

For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly and I did not have time to tell myself: “I’m falling asleep.” (Proust 2006: 1)

Abe’s somnambulist theatre was analogous to a sort of bodily dream, a dream-state that was decidedly counter-psychoanalytic in its insistence upon physiological ‘motivating forces’:

One further characteristic of dreams is that the motive force which spins out images has a much stronger physiological source than is commonly thought. It is probably quite rare for a psychological stimulus received during one’s waking time to become the source for a dream. On the other hand, it’s probably quite common for some such meaningless, purely physiological stimulus as the pressure of the sleeves of the pyjamas that cover the body, or the strain of the bladder, or some unaccustomed sound, to cause a dream, and give it its plot and direction. No matter how incoherent the dream, its potential to be experienced as reality is due to its images being backed up by something physiological. (Iles 2000: 158)

Physiological sensations enable access to a reality beyond reality, a dreamlike reality “which can only be touched through the dream” (158). Hence the rigorous physical training that Abe’s actors underwent to deprogram and “neutralize” their bodies, to render them expressive. Abe’s studio’s method trained actors to unleash the original expressivity of their bodies: to unlearn the repetitive patterns through which they conventionally experience their bodies in order to establish a physiological relationship to their surroundings that is ‘nyūtoraru’, a terms Shields translates as “neutral position,” and which Abe says “is nothing other than being in a deep state of connection with the surroundings” (Iles 2000: 169). This process of being “neutral” involved a heightened state of concentration on the body and its environment in which preconceived patterns of bodily movement and conventional responses to stimuli would be deconstructed, thereby allowing the actor to connect fluidly and intimately with their immediate surroundings and respond to them spontaneously, “through [their] own experiential actuality” as Timothy Iles puts it (2000: 179), rather than within a pre-patterned experiential framework.

Actors training in the Abe Kōbō Studio, 1973 (Image Source: Abe Kōbō no Gekijō, 1979)

To some extent, this seems to have derived from the angura (underground) theatre movement’s emphasis on the physical. Its general tenets were the reduction of the role of the author and the text, and an emphasis on the physicality of bodies and their movement (more on Angura trends can be found in Rolf 1992). But Abe’s influence was perhaps more so derived from shingeki director Senda Koreya’s own actor training methodologies, published in 1955 as The Modern Actor’s Craft (Kindai haiyū jutsu). Timothy Iles tells us that “Senda places emphasis on the foundations of acting, which he sees as lying within the techniques of expressive gestures.” His method, a “detailed and categorical physical process” (Iles 2000: 155-6), consisted of concrete physiological exercises. However, where Senda also employed “techniques of psychological expression” intended to “liberate” the actor’s emotions, so the actor could “show his feelings freely and easily, according to his intentions” (Senda 1955: 99-101), Abe distanced himself entirely from concepts of interiority, placing all expressive substance upon the actor’s material surface/mask (kamen 仮面). For Abe, the performance of the actor does not originate in the actor’s interior self, but exists without opposite in the performance of the physical body as mask, the body’s “expressive surfaces” (taihyōmen 体表面) (Abe 1979: 26). In Abe’s theoretical writings on his theatre, which have been compiled in the volume Abe Kōbō gekijō: shichinen no ayumi (Abe Kōbō’s Theatre: Seven Years of Progress, 1979), he writes:

Neutrality [in other words, his ‘neutral position’ technique] is never in contradiction with the mask … Neutrality aims not at grasping the role (or the situation) psychologically but at understanding it physiologically. A psychological creation of the role joins the mask to the actor’s self. The mask loses its powers of flight, and the role becomes just like make-up on the actor’s personality. When it comes time to create a role, psychology after all functions centripetally. The Neutral condition is a method whereby the actor can extricate himself from that centripetal force. The body which has become neutral is never contrary to the mask. (quoted in Iles 2000: 172)

An important point to be made is that a body that is never contrary to the mask is a body that blurs the distinctions between essential and artificial, physical and expressive. The body isn’t just dead matter, but an expressive surface whose gestures and movements are coded with meaning, as we see also in Japan’s traditional dance and theatre.


Zeami’s theory of Noh performance similarly asserts the physiological foundation of acting: the child (always a male child) begins by learning dance and song before anything else. Acting itself for Zeami “consists of the movements of an actor’s body. If an actor moves his body, responding with his mind to the words and lines of a play . . . he will come to act naturally” (frm. Zeami’s Fūshi-Kaden, quoted in Sekine 1985: 88).

Indeed, in Japanese theatre traditions of Noh and Kabuki it is physiological phenomena,  movement and body language, that form the expressive fabric of theatre. The concepts of the “essential” and “natural” are foreign to this type of theatre. This is especially well illustrated in the way gender is performed in Japanese theatre: gender is created through masks and bodily movements, rather than emerging out of some essential inner nature — various bodily movements, positions, gestures, as well as makeup and masks, constitute what it is to be a man/woman (which led to the curious situation in the 20th century where “biologically female” female actors, previously barred from theatre, were often rebuked for not knowing how to play a woman on the stage as well as “performatively female” male actors).

So, it is important to distinguish here between a “biological” body and a “performative” body — a so-called essential physiognomy determining gender (or ethnicity and so on) versus a theatrical physiognomy that is determined by performance. Perhaps this is indeed the defining feature of the theatrical: to be able to create (symbolically) a particular essence through bodily expression.


Abe Kōbō. 1979. Abe Kōbō no Gekijō : Nananen no Ayumi, eds. Kōbō Abe, Abe Kōbō Sutajio. Tokyo: Abe Kōbō Sutajio.

Heuet, Stephane and Marcel Proust. 2001. Remembrance of Things Past [Graphic Novel]. Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing.

Iles, Timothy. 2000. Abe kôbô: An Exploration of his Prose, Drama and Theatre. Fucecchio (Firenze), Italy: European Press Academic Publishing.

Proust, Marcel. 2003. In Search of Lost Time. ed. D. J. Enright. Trans. Moncrieff, C.K. Scott and Terence Kilmartin. Vol. I-VI. New York: Modern Library.

Rolf, Robert T. 1992. Tokyo Theatre 1990. Asian Theatre Journal 9 (1) (Spring, 1992): 85-111.

Sekine, Masaru. 1985. Ze-ami and his Theories of Noh Drama. Gerrards Cross: Smythe.

Senda, Koreya. 1955. Kindai haiyūjutsu [Modern Acting Techniques]. Vol. 1. Tokyo: Hayakawa shobō.

Shields, Nancy. 1996. Fake Fish. New York: Weatherhill.

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