Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)
Deflating The ‘Transcendence Of The Body’ Metaphor
(Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India).
A Review of: Mark Hansen. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.
Early critics on digital life (Rheingold 1991; Turkle, 1995) projected the virtual as a transcendence of the corporeal-material. Artists like Stelarc see technology as helping overcome the limitations of the body (hence Stelarc: “the body is obsolete”). The body is the original whose abilities and functions are enhanced through the addition of a prosthesis: technology. Digital art and new media work at this interface of the body and new forms of imaging, perceiving and representing the body.
Mark Hansen’s book is based on the assumption that all reality is “mixed reality”, that just as the body is still the primary access to the “real” world, it is also the access to the virtual. This irreducible role of the body, argues Hansen, is fore-grounded in the sensation, ability and perception of touch or tactility.
Hansen’s thesis is that all bodies are bodies-in-code. By “body-in-code” he means “a body whose embodiment is realized, and can only be realized, in conjunction with technics”. Bodies are subject to a technical deterritorialization here (20).
Our perception of our own bodies, as seen in the work of Hawkinson (1991), is mediated by technology that in turn emphasizes imaging as possessing an “organismic dimension” (13). Hansen turns to the work of Myron Krueger as a pioneer in mixed reality thinking. Krueger, says Hansen, looks at the interface of human and computer, but where the emphasis is on the ways in which the human bodies react with and to computers. The body is the mediator between the computer and the world. Later, examining the virtual reality arts of Simon Penny, Hansen is able to demonstrate how, in virtuality reality environs, “whatever experience one has of one’s body proper… emerges through the representative function of the data of body movement, the way these data… represent one’s body” (48).
Turning to questions of exteriority, Hansen proposes that vision marks an expansion of exteriorization, and the human is split between the tactile and the visual. Vision and touch are, Hansen proposes via Merleau-Ponty, the foundation of intercorporeity: the body in the world. Artworks like Worldskin play with the potential of this idea where the interior of the body and the exterior merge, or, as Hansen puts it, “the contemporary (technical) dissolution of the divide between interiority and exteriorization, the flesh of my body and the flesh of the world” (91).
Turning to the work of Char Davies (especially her famous Osmose, 1995), Hansen argues that the virtual reality environments she creates underscore embodiment rather than transcend it. The body is what enables one to gain the full experience of the virtual. It probes the confusion of self and space (psychasthenia) so that we understand bodies better. The body in VR constructs the experiential environment.
Hansen’s interest in race studies also hinges on an examination of the body since racism is based on embodiment (black or brown bodies). In the work of Keith Piper [the black man’s body in virtual environments] calls into question the primacy of the image itself. Racialization here is concrete actualization of the “the contemporary bankruptcy of the image” (157). By working at the gap between the image and the body, Piper’s work, suggests Hansen, also opens up potentiality where the singular is located within the collective, of sharing. “Collectivity”, writes Hansen, “comprises the opportunity for the subject to coincide with itself” (171).
Addressing questions of space, Hansen looks at what he terms “wearable space” when embodied affectivity becomes the “operator of spacing” (175) in the architectural work of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio (2003). Working with water, vapor and other “liquid” environments, Blur alters our sensory experience of space. Hansen studies the prosthetic extension of the body’s interface with the environment (technics, but also, as he had proposed early, deterritorialization) and the affection of space as a medium of sensation. This is what he terms “wearable space”. The work of architect Peter Eisenman (which Hansen studies as an instance of “wearable space”), brings together “site, space and body in the production of wearable space” (209). It is the bodily experience – affect – that constitutes architecture’s interiority, writes Hansen.
In Mark Danielewski’s experimental novel House of Leaves Hansen sees language and the novel’s body rendered shifting, excessive but also reader-specific. The multiple media forms employed by the novel, argues Hansen corresponds (and responds) to the actualization of the text by a specific reader (224). The labyrinths, the obstructions, the traps merge and mix filmic, textual (as in written/printed) and cartographic realities for the reader.
Hansen’s is a dense book. Deeply philosophical and rooted (detractors might say mired), in psychoanalysis and cognitive theories, Bodies in Code is not an easy read. But that, I would argue, is the necessity of the project he embarks on, and he has developed the narrative for his purpose. The strength of the book is Hansen’s meticulous explication of the various art projects. By grounding his thesis in a reading of art he is all the more convincing.
Hansen’s is a welcome deflation of the “transcendence-of-the-body” metaphor in hagiographies of cyber cultures and digital worlds. By foregrounding the body and the body’s interface with the world (either real or virtual, or both), Hansen makes an important theoretico-political point: reality is the embodied experience of time and space. The return to affect by Hansen (coterminous, one notes, with similar moves in critics like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) as a primary philosophical and theoretical paradigm is also a crucial move, for it retrieves experience and emotive-psychological response as agency in our interface with the world. Bodies in Code is a book that will especially appeal to students of new media and cultural studies.
Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio (2003) The Eyebeam Museum of New Media. University of Michigan.
Tim Hawkinson (1991) Blindspot.
Even Kosofsky Sedgwick (2003). Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Howard Rheingold (1991). Virtual Reality. New York: Touchstone.
Sherry Turkle (1995). Life on Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York, Simon and Schuster.