Toward a Dynamic Concept of Embodiment

Various philosophical positions have interpreted the perceptual relations between bodies, minds and technologies. While representative realism holds that there is a world external to the mind that we do not and cannot perceive, phenomenal realism embraces the physical as the subjective reflection phenomena. Although both disciplines appear in a variety of forms, they mutually institute the dominant Cartesian dualistic tradition of the West. They restrict us from conceptualizing mind, body and technology relations as qualitative and intransitive and cling to arbitrary dichotomies in order to make sense of the world. To challenge these models, Mark Hansen proposes a ‘new philosophy’ to displace the empirical-transcendental divide (i.e., being versus becoming, mind versus body et cetera). In this article I will examine the ideas of Mark Hansen, focusing particularly on his understanding of perception as embodied experience. I will then argue that Hansen’s work could be read as a supplement to Katherine Hayles’s posthumanism, and propose a coalescent framework.

 

 

Body as Affective Medium

 

“Body, in short, has become the crucial mediator between information and form (image).” (Hansen, 2001: 78)

 

Hansen’s work concentrates on the role of embodiment in the age of virtuality. He criticizes reductionist discourses for describing bodily life. Formulating a positive framework for embracing the materiality of both technology and the body is the Ariadne’s thread throughout his works. ‘Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing’ (2000), ‘Seeing with the Body: The Digital Image in Postphotography’ (2001), ‘New Philosophy of New Media’ (2004) and ‘Media Theory’ (2006), for example, all demonstrate how confused epistemology generates confused conceptions of the technological. Rather than recapitulating the epistemological debate of mind versus body, Hansen conceptualizes how technology alters the ‘nature’ of sensory experience. For Hansen, technology changes our perception because it reconfigures our senses. This reconfiguration of the senses alters the structure and organization of experience and affects ‘what it means to live as an embodied human agent’ (Hansen, 2001). Perception can thus be understood as an embodied experience in which technology modifies the senses prior to conscious perception. Hansen interprets technologies not as being concrete artefacts, but rather as rhizomatic environments which form matter and life itself. This ecological approach breaks with representationalism and phenomenology by freeing perception from its materiality and situating the virtual in bodily environments. That is to say, the human organic body acts and co-evolves with the inorganic technological.

Inspired by Henri-Louis ‘there is no perception without affect’ Bergson, Hansen demonstrates how technology cybernetically transforms embodied experience by framing affectivity (Bergson, 1896: 6).

 

“Affectivity, in short, names the body’s agency over itself: the capacity of a sensitive element to isolate itself and to act on the whole body as a force, or rather to catalyze body’s action on itself.” (Hansen, 2004: 226)

 

According to Hansen, affectivity is neither form nor matter, but rather an open virtual perspective that is functionally limited by (and internal to) the body. It is the ‘conduit between machines and human’ that moulds the embodied basis of perception (Hansen, 2004: 157). This body-centered understanding enables Hansen to rethink embodied cognition and perception as filtering modalities; the body acts as filter to frame images. By refusing vision-centered models of perception (i.e., cognitive/computational/biological models that describe the visual system as the accumulation of various physiological components), he expands human perception and agency beyond the physiological constraints of the organic human body. Perception is continuously becoming, which enables us to rethink embodiment in the age of virtuality. Although Hansen’s ‘new media theory/philosophy’ shifts the epistemological debate of form versus matter, his Bergsonist conceptualization of affectivity faces the difficulty of vehemence. While technology is able to transform human experience, affectivity is conceived as being determinately related to technology. The relations of technology and affectivity is described as being immediate rather than being in a state of becoming in-between form and matter. Although this conception breaks with Cartesian dualism, it holds the assumption that the infrastructure of technology and affectivity is a derivative entropy without resistance. For example, it doesn’t address how embodiment relates to inorganic and non-human organic entities, or to what extend embodiment and affectivity as bodily (and phenomenological) modalities are ‘human’. We need to address these intersecting experiences to understand how they affect the dance of life.

 

 

 

Bodily Images & Embodied Experience

 

“Beyond simply defending the sensorimotor body, our effort to redeem Bergson’s embodied conception of the center of indetermination will ultimately require us to reverse the entire trajectory of Deleuze’s study, to move not from the body to frame, but from the frame (back) to the body […] This change in the status of the frame correlates directly with the so-called digital revolution.” (Hansen, 2004: 8 )

 

In ‘Seeing with the Body: The Digital Image in Postphotography’ Hansen discusses new media art to interrogate our understanding of the world, and our concept of the body and the image in particular (Hansen, 2001). Hansen’s Bergsonist reconfiguration of perception and cognition calls for ‘new’ hermeutics that promises to displace the perceptual regime of machinic vision by reembodying perception. He states,

 

“[W]e can no longer consider the body to be a correlate of the material flux, and its constitutive sensorimotor interval can no longer define the image as the basic unit of matter. Rather, precisely because it is heterogeneous to the flux of information, the body and its sensorimotor interval can only be supplement to this flux – something introduced into it or imposed on it from the outside, from elsewhere.” (Hansen, 2001: 78)

 

The digital image is thus a reaction to the bodily mediation of digital information and human embodiment. To stress the need to shift from vision-centered (i.e., machinic vision) to body-centered models of perception, Hansen draws on Paul Virilio’s ‘vision machine’[1]. Akin to Virilio, Hansen asserts that new media art imagine perception and the technical image as embodied experiences. New media artists (i.e., Rogala, Waliczky and Shaw) reconfigure embodied experiences by augmenting affectivity. They celebrate the relation between body and technology without returning to the paranoid myth of disembodiment. By playing with perspectives, virtual infinitude and the mutual synthesis of the virtual and the actual, new media artists elucidate a body-centered model of perception. They present ‘perception as embodied prosthesis’ by merging mind (i.e., affectivity) and (in)organic body (i.e., matter) (Hansen, 2001).

lovehatepunchConsider, for example, Stella Boess and Stefan Gross’s – winners of the Frist Philips Artificial Light Art Prize 2008 – “Love Hate Punch” [see fig. 1]. This interactive punching bag responds to the visitor’s physical anger. The visitor’s finds the bag in a ‘passive’ red-glowing state, but when he/she starts punching the bag it changes from red, via yellow, to a greenish-white radiance. Love Hate Punch not only reacts to the place of impact (i.e., where you hit the bag, you’ll see flashes of white light), but also to the amount and repetition of hits (i.e., with more hits, the bag as a whole will gradually change colour). The changes in the bag’s colour seem to suggest that the punching bag itself shares your rage. That is to say, when interacting with the Love Hate Punch it becomes a quasi-other to which one relates[2]. Neither the viewer’s body nor mind is locked in the confined biological body, but converge with the static inorganic body of Love Hate Punch. This breakdown demonstrates Hansen’s ‘media as environment’; Love Hate Punch gives form to the embodied mind by becoming a medium of virtualization in the unhabitable space of the digital (Hansen, 2006). It conduits perception and the image ‘not as technical extensions beyond the body-brain, but as an embodied prosthesis, a catalyst for bodily self-transformation’ (Hansen, 2001: 77). The visitor’s body, in short, has become a medium for imagining the digital flux of our contemporary media ecology.

 

 

Folding Embodied Experiences

 

“In this poshuman perceptual regime, the selection of information is no longer performed exclusively or even primarily by the human component (the body-brain as a center of indetermination) […] A splitting of perception is simply the necessary consequence of the vast difference between the computer and human embodiment […] As the pretext for an alternative investment of the embodied basis in human visual perception, this splitting is fundamental for any aesthetic redemption of the automation of sight.” (Hansen, 2001: 60)

 

Hansen’s philosophical engagement with embodiment, follows Katherine Hayles’ critical perspective in ‘How We Became Posthuman’. His exploration of the concept of affect as bodily modality in various cultural sites enables Hansen to rethink embodiment in the age of posthumanism. Rather than parsing the body in molar and/or posthuman properties, Hansen frees the human body from being an artefact and reconceptualizes it as technogenesic environment (i.e., humans participate and co-evolve with technology). Like Hayles, Hansen underscores the need to interpret bodily perception and computer vision as mutually engaged. Hayles’s ‘OREO structure of computer mediation’ is used to demonstrate that embodied experience isn’t restricted to automated or machinic vision, but that the body frames perception through bodily affection.

Both authors reject representationalism and post-structuralism and plea for a positive discourse of embodiment. Both provide a pragmatic frame of bodily life that describes nature, humans and technology as continuous modulations within an immediate ecology. However, whereas Hayles sought to trace and date the erasure of embodiment back to both the liberal human subject and the cybernetic ‘paradigm’, Hansen sought to develop a post-modern phenomenology which emphasizes the role and infrastructure in the co-evolutionary affective, proprioceptive and tactile properties in embodied experience. Hansen’s study builds and extends posthuman issues of embodiment, agency and digitality by exploring cognitive studies of literature. His work could therefore be considered as supplementary to Hayles’s posthumanism. For example, Hansen’s Husserlian phenomenological model is able to solve Hayles’s inscription-incorporation divide by freeing materiality from being embedded in discourse and interpreting (in)organic bodies as environments for life (see Understanding Embodiment in the Age of Virtuality). By coupling the human and the technical through affectivity, Hansen delineates the corporeity of inscription thereby short-circuiting Cartesian dualism. Although his radical formulation of how being becomes and becoming is provides a non-binary model of embodied cognition, the emphasis on affectivity might cause theoretical difficulties. The concept of affectivity as a priori basis for perception and cognition implies that affectivity could be regarded as the ‘measure’ for human life. In other words, affectivity could be read as the ontological structure of embodied experience. It entails a tendency towards wholeness prior to human perception that differentiates the organism from inorganic life. Affectivity therefore isn’t conceived as being in a state of becoming in-between organic and inorganic entities. To overcome this difficulty, Hansen needs reconceptualize affectivity and how it relates to (in)organic life. 

 

Conclusion

The work of Hansen suggests that the concept of embodied experience emerges out of the cybernetic process between the human and the technical. Because technologies reconfigure our sensory experience prior to conscious perception and transform what it means to live as embodied human agent, the technical is bound to the affectivity of the body. Although Hansen is supplementary to Hayles’s posthumanism and forms a basis of imagining a non-post-structuralist and non-representationalist theory of new media, his concept of affectivity doesn’t promises to displace the inorganic-organic life divide. To circumvent this theoretical difficulty, we need to reconceptualize affectivity as creative (in)organic folds of becoming.

 

 

Bibliography

Bergson, H. (1896). MATIÈRE ET MÉMOIRE. Trans. Matter and Memory by N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer. New York: Zone Books: 1991.

Hansen, M.B.N. (2000). Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hansen, M. B. N. (2001). ‘Seeing with the Body: The Digital Image in Postphotography’, Diacritics, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 2001, p. 54-82.

Hansen, M.B.N (2004). New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hansen, M.B.N. (2006). ‘Media Theory’. Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 23, No. 2-3, p. 297-306.

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

Ihde, D. (1993). Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Virilio, P. (1994). ‘The Vision Machine’. Transl. J. Rose. London: British Film Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n9cubitt


[1] Virilio depends upon a belief in the wholeness of perception independent of cognition. For him, perception is mediation: vision machines are products of ‘sightless vision’ that ‘is itself merely the reproduction of an intense blindness’ (Virilio, 1994).

[2] Love Hate Punch plays with Don Ihde’s ‘alterity relations’: ‘[T]echnology ‘as’ other to which I relate’ (Ihde, 1993). These relations occur when interacting with technology as if it were another living being.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Toward a Dynamic Concept of Embodiment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s