Understanding Embodiment in the Age of Virtuality

Do I have a body? Or am I a body? Questions like these have dominated the philosophical tradition. Influenced by the work of Aristotle, the body was conceived as subordinate to the mind. The analytic distinction between matter and form has become a site for critique in the information age. Digitalization and virtuality have both morphed and complicated the line between psychology and biology. Technologies are no longer perceived as extensions of the Enlightened rational mind separate from the body, but as media that merge body and subjectivity. This shift in how we conceive embodied humans, interacting with material and immaterial conditions of virtuality, is of cultural and epistemological significance because it re-embodies our conception of the human. Rather than replicating the Enlightened myths of disembodiment, we need to understand why we constructed these dualist frames in the first place. An understanding that delineates the physiological and cultural constructiveness of vision could contribute to re-imagining the relations between body, subjectivity and environment. This article draws on Katherine Hayles’s ‘How We Became Posthuman’ to stress the need to transform dualistic frames of embodiment. From my point of view, Hayles’s work provides a historical frame through which we can reconceptualize the complex interplay between experience of embodiment and constructions of the body. I will argue that Hayles’s pragmatic frame calls for an ontological alignment to understand the interconnectivity in-between body and embodiment.


Body & Embodiment: Matter & Form

The erasure of embodiment is the quality of both the liberal human subject and the cybernetic posthuman, as Katherine Hayles states (Hayles, 1999). Her work concentrates on the history of disembodiment (i.e., the idea that we know the world because we’re separate from it) and is an ambitious effort to explore the opposite possibility (i.e., the idea that we know the world because we’re connected to it). By turning the rules of liberal humanism back on itself, Hayles strives to dissolve the disembodiment-embodiment divide.

Two concepts need to be clarified in order to understand Hayles’s conceptualization of the disembodiment-embodiment divide: the body and the experience of embodiment. For Hayles, the body is a cultural construction that is always relative to a set of criteria. She states,


“The body, like the VR body-suit, creates mediated perceptions; both operate through structural couplings with the environment. In this account we can see the thread of disembodiment getting entangled with the thread of reflexivity, creating a view of the subject that sees human embodiment as one option among many, neither more nor less artificial than the VR prostheses that extend perception into simulated worlds.” (Hayles, 1994: 466)


As the analogy of the body with the VR body-suit exemplifies, the body is a generalized construct that can morph qua form in the age of virtuality. Hayles thus stresses how information technologies construct narratives of abstract bodies. Embodiment, on the other hand, is correlated to particular contexts.


“In contrast to the body, embodiment is contextual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology and culture, which together compose enactment. Embodiment never coincides exactly with ‘the body’, however an idealized form that gestures toward a Platonic reality, embodiment is the specific instantiation generated from the noise of difference.” (Hayles, 1999: 196)


Although Hayles stresses the need to interpret body and embodiment as recursive processes that are in a constant state of becoming, she does seem to reconstruct rather than bury the dualist divide. For Hayles, the body is an abstract concept that is constantly culturally constructed and generalized (i.e., the body isn’t connected to the particularities of an individual body). To rephrase, the human is seen from the ‘outside’. Hayles’s notion of embodiment reverses this perspective of the human. Embodiment is culturally and physiology constructed but not as a whole, for it emerges out of the interplay between incorporation and inscription. That is to say, embodiment conceptualizes the human from the ‘inside’. The analytical distinction between body-embodiment and inside-outside cannot escape the dichotomy of matter versus form nor describe embodied actuality. It undermines connectivity and noise as constructive processes in the lines in-between body, subjectivity and environment.


Reality or Unmediated Flux?

Why do we construct and preserve dichotomies such as mind versus body and disembodiment versus embodiment rather than acknowledging disorganization, noise and uncontrollability as recursive dynamics in conceptual systems? According to Hayles, the error of dualistic thinking has permeated scientific philosophy for over three hundred years to maintain consistency (Hayles, 1995). Consistency is the quality to create order out of chaos. It is the culturally constructed generalization which virtues robustness, contingency and continuity. Consistency can therefore be understood as a set of techniques/rules/axioms used to discover order and neutralize differences in reality. Hayles traces part of this historical tradition in the age of virtuality back to cybernetics. Cybernetics made an angel of control by conceptualizing the human as disembodied subject: humans are information patterns erased from flesh (Hayles, 1999). She states that cybernetics perceived virtuality as matter; virtuality as information that neutralizes differences and particularities. Rather than dissecting the complex interplay between the material and the immaterial, cybernetics concealed the constructiveness of reality by privileging consistency over flexibility. To reveal this constructiveness and avoid the risk of interpreting reality as a closed system, Hayles coins the term unmediated flux. Unmediated flux is a continuum that exists prior to perception, although it’s confined by the nature of the unmediated flux itself. It is a system that distributes subjectivity across matter and form, allowing humans to interact at the crossings of the perceptual apparatus and the unmediated flux. Though the term doesn’t bury the disembodiment-embodiment divide entirely, it does constitute a meaningful correlation between matter and form in terms of their organization. Hayles’s unmediated flux transcends dichotomies imprisoned by second-order cybernetic concepts, such as recursivity and autopoietic systems, by unbolting (super)organizations, silence and control of conceptual systems (see Maturana & Varela, 1980). The term preserves the correlation between matter (i.e., the body) and form (i.e., perception), and captures embodied actuality as conceptual system for understanding embodiment.


Inscription & Incorporation

Despite the fact that the concept unmediated flux delineates the openness and recursive dynamics in the organization and structure of conceptual systems, it does not fully bury the disembodiment-embodiment divide. To move out of narratives of disembodiment characterized by abstraction and generalization, Hayles relates the interplay of body and embodiment with the dynamic of inscription and incorporation. Inscription is ‘normalized and abstract, in the sense that it usually considered as a system of signs operating independently of any particular manifestation’ (Hayles, 1999: 198). It is the conceptual abstraction of reality prior to perception that interprets humans as culturally constructed generalizations. Unlike inscription, incorporation is the practice which cannot be separated from its embodied entity. It is culturally and physiologically constructed out of contextual particularities. Inscription and incorporation are two sides of the same coin. That is to say, both concepts are distributed across the interplay of body and embodiment (see Hayles, 1997). Whereas inscription is closely related to the concept of the body, incorporation is related to embodiment. Both concepts are open dynamics in the construction of ‘being a body’ (Hayles, 1999: 4).

The analytical distinction between inscription and incorporation could be a meaningful tool for understanding the crossing of materiality and immateriality in the age of virtuality, but does it also dissolve the matter-form divide? Does it provide an open framework that preserves the rhizomatic dynamics of becoming an embodied subject? Analogous to Hayles’s distinction between body and embodiment, the notions of inscription and incorporation cannot escape dualism. The inscription-incorporation distinction constructs an autopoietic frame of reality rather than a complex connective frame of the unmediated flux. It revives the second-order cybernetic position of Maturana and Varela that no meaningful correlation exists between inside (i.e., embodiment relates to the body) and outside (i.e., the body relates to information). In other words, the human can be understood as a open-closed system of biological realism versus constructed subjectivity.





Virtualities are cultural and physiological constructions that are constantly transforming conceptual systems through persuasive consistencies. Although Hayles does historicize and dissect our current understanding of embodiment in the age of virtuality, her soft ontological approach fails to escape dualism. We should therefore be cautious of adopting Hayles’s concepts when trying to understand embodiment in the age of virtuality. To solve this dualism, I propose an ontological alignment. Ontological alignment can be understood as a ‘tool’ to embrace apparent ontological differences by the process of determining correspondences between concepts. In the case of understanding embodiment in the age of virtuality, we need to align disorganization, noise and uncontrollability with (super)organization, silence and control. To change society we need to avoid constructing yet another conceptual regime of consistency, and try to envision concepts as nodes floating in-between frames.




Hayles, N.K. (1994). ‘Boundary Disputes: Homeostasis, Reflexivity, and the Foundation of Cybernetics’, Configurations 2(3), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press & the Society for Literature and Science, p. 441-467.

Hayles, N.K. & N. Luhmann (1995). ‘Theory of a Different Order: A Conversation with Katherine Hayles and Niklas Luhmann’, Cultural Critique, No. 31, Part II (Autumn, 1995), p. 7-36.

Hayles, N.K. (1997). ‘The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crash’, Configurations 5(2), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press & the Society for Literature and Science, p. 241-266.

Hayles, N.K. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maturana, H. R. and Varela, F. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel.



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