Disembodiment and Cyberspace: A Phenomenological Approach
이 글은 VR/ cyberspace를 퐁티의 phenomenology로 해석한다. 아무리 cyberspace라고 해도 이것은 disembodiment가 아니고 embodiment라고 주장한다.
기본적으로 퐁티의 현상학은 카르테시안 관점에서의 몸-머리 이분법에 도전한다. 무엇보다도 신체를 가장 우위에 놓는다.
Be it in terms of romanticism or rationalism, to Coyne, digital narrative is but a reiteration of Enlightenment philosophy and a refurbishment of its epistemology: community building, proximity, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, subjectivity , utopia and what is of most interest to us at this instance, conceptual disembodiment (transcendence of body limitations through electronic prosthesis)… Descartes forcefully separated between mind and body and thereby articulated a Cartesian dualism that has long provided a pivotal feature for the hegemony of Western culture.
ndeed, this very attitude of inflation towards the mind and deflation towards the body has long set the stage for the ‘transcendental’ ideals in an attempt to articulate the order of ‘empirical’ world beyond its particularities and peculiarities, or to use phenomenological terms, beyond its ‘immanence’ (Husserl, 1990: XVII), driving the Western culture to its quest of disembodiment. .. and ratifying the need of disembodied experience, yet, dialectically espousing a synthesis of mind and body where the latter became the obedient rather than the ‘prison’ of the former… This transcendental idealism becomes the legacy of the androcentric, white, Christian, heterosexual culture (Seidler, 1998: 20), where reason and rationality are regarded as the source of the taken-for-granted masculine superiority.
It is from the soil of Merleau-Ponty’s (1962) phenomenological sancta that new attempts emerged, attempts to reconcile the division between the body and self, and recover the embodied subjectivity through a re-evaluation of perception that goes beyond the duality of the Cartesian metaphysics. In so doing, Merleau-Ponty (1962: 90-96) provides a psychological dimension for ‘being’ a body in the world, making the embodied experiential stand in for the disembodied transcendental. In a way that is contrary to Descartes’ abstract cogitatio, perception plays a fundamental role in Merleau-Ponty’s work for it challengingly overrides the entire concept of consciousness, a notion that is crucial not only to the Cartesian epistemology but also to the Husserlian phenomenology. Perception in Merleau-Ponty’s terms is a ‘system’ of meanings by which the phenomenological process of recognising and ‘sensing’ objects takes place, and it is through the medium of the body that we get to ‘experience’ and ‘perceive’ the world: ‘Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 203). As such and insofar as we understand and perceive the world via our body, perception can only be embodied, hence, the production of knowledge, whether subjective or objective, can only exist within a corporeal reality that is itself embedded within an implosion of specific contexts and situations.
According to Merleau-Ponty (1962: 298), to be a subject of perception is to have a world; in other words, to be a body is to have a space where the materiality of this body can be endowed and where its existential potentiality of movements and hence actions can be exercised. As such, neither experience nor knowledge can be perceived as being ‘out there’ but rather, as emerging out of the inextricability of the body and its spatiality:
Indeed, it is this intertwined and inseparable relationship between body and space that brings about the myriad of sensory experiences which contributes to the significance of body movements and thus the meaningfulness of personal actions.
the body is the medium par excellence for being-in-the-word – and becoming-in-the world too- as such, by no means can it be a deniable, dispensable or disposable ‘object’. Thus, Merleau-Ponty’s teleology is all about existential politics, which clearly seek to re-establish the fundamental union between the self and the world, redirecting our attention to the fact that this union is but embodied, and hinting to the notion that identity by virtue of the latter is a cognitive accumulation of phenomenological bodily experiences.
Following on from here, one might assert that to have an identity is to be able to existentially putting claim to have a ‘presence’ in the world albeit when the functionality of the ‘sum’ of body parts is reduced to nothing as in modernist terms, the ‘whole’ may still be eligible to claim some kind of presence within the spatiality it –actively or not- occupies1 , and let me go to the extent to crudely but not essentialistly suggest that to have an identity is to have a body, for whether it is at the level of immanent embodiment or transcendental disembodiment, the body is yet the point of departure from itself, the point of return to itself and most ostensibly, the point of being in itself.
Nonetheless, it might be objected that such assertions are valid only insofar as they are uttered vis-à-vis the physicality of the tangible world where the rule is: one body, one identity, whereas the impalpability of cyberspace may lay claims to a disembodied transcendence where experience is no longer a matter of sensory phenomena à la Merleau-Ponty but rather a diffusion of information that is based on a pure mental capacity to ‘live’ before even ‘perceive’ that experience. This, in turn, smashes the links between space and body and foregrounds virtuality instead of materiality. However, and as I shall attempt to demonstrate, even within the virtuality of cyberspace, the construction of identity, subjectivity and self is not entirely devoid of bodily perceptions, but initially takes off at a socio-cultural ontogenesis, travelling through a realm of simulation and eventually lands on a runway of what we could call a pseudo-disembodiment or a pseudo-hypercogitatio, ‘pseudo’ because –consciously or not- the user’s presence in cyberspace first and foremost derives its functionality and directionality from a concoction of both, sensory and mental data, and as such, the belief in the possibility of a neo-Cartesian split through cyberspace is but a naïve delusion or to put it in Baudrillard’s (1983: 26) terms, a banal strategy of ‘deterrence’.
So no longer does the body occupy the status of the compelling ‘container’; instead, a new relation of body to identity is being laid down, that of which reassigns a new state of ‘being’.
In such framework, a phenomenological shift occurs: the subject behind the computer screen is reincarnated -or rather disincarnated into ahypercogitatio that progressively abandons the body to freely float between the inner world and the outer world.
cyberspace can only be seen as what Gibson (cited in Robins, 2000: 77) calls a ‘consensual hallucination’, which merely offers the delusive impression of transcendence and omnipotence, wrapped up in euphoric utopia and craving desires for a better world, a world where the unconscious (dream) may become conscious (reality) through the wizardry of new technologies.
Put simply, are we really disembodied in cyberspace or do we faithfully carry our old baggage with us on our virtual journey?
As such, Robins reaffirms that what new technology –and precisely cyberspace- does, by removing physical cues, is generating possibilities for hallucination that simply creates illusionary visions of heterogeneity vis-à-vis identities and subjectivities. This hallucination in effect, almost by nature and definition, hardly offers a ‘concrete’ ground for radical and progressive social change as one is too engrossed within the psychological borderline2 of waking and dreaming through technology to such an extent that one can no longer take up any viable political action.
Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the position of things becomes possible. This means that instead of imagining it as a sort of ether in which all things float, or conceiving it abstractedly as a characteristic that they have in common, we must think of it as the universal power enabling them to be connected.
Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 243
Inseparably bound up with perceptual virtuality, the phenomenal body becomes imperative to trigger the access to cyberspace and the realisation of the technologically mediated experience. This experience is facilitated through the malleability and extendibility inherent within the very nature of the corporeal schema by which the body is able to morph itself and integrate a multitude of external instruments to continuously reconfigure its state of being-in-the world. This is further elucidated by Merleau-Ponty’s (1962: 142-143) belief that the body is not restricted by its tangible boundaries where sensorial phenomena occur i.e. the skin, but may extend itself by rendering external objects as internal and projecting a body-image that is in continuous flux to incorporate new instruments:
In light of the technological rhetoric, new technology is suggested to be partly the ‘instrument’ by which we may override our bodily limitations and reach the transcendental moment. Yet, this instrument is but an extension of the body itself and as such, its raison d’être can only be realised through an embodied experience. In cyberspace, this embodiment is, in fact, an ad-hoc occurrence i.e. a spontaneous prerequisite for communicating in it and interacting with its interface, which is by no means a pure mental construct but a myriad of sensory dialogues (seeing, hearing, feeling, etc). As such and insofar as the body is the basis for our interactions and perceptions, virtual space can only be seen as a symbiotic synthesis of technology and corporeal phenomena.
Therefore, virtual tools cease to be external objects and become part of our phenomenological corporality, just as the blind man’s stick becomes an extension of his sensorial activity. Consequently, the construction of self in cyberspace follows an alternative mode of ‘embodiment’, a physical virtuality per se, within which a unity of disunity emerges, a synergy so to speak (this synergy is not akin to Kant’s transcendental synthesis): the mind and body become one in order to pursue a unified goal, and if either is missing, the result is the non-existence of the experience. So however we might say it, in cyberspace one is, in effect, embodied in one’s disembodiment. The body in this context is no longer seen as the obsolete object or the inert container of the mind, but an integral entity, which is reassigned with an indispensable role, that of the medium. Furthermore, the body is no longer seen as the basic tool for using technological apparatuses (typing on the keyboard, seeing the screen, hearing through headphones, etc), but the very parameter for constructing cyberidentities and performing instances of gender bending and identity play, discourses of which have saturated cyberculture.
it is the body that bears the scars and reveals the marks of our being-in-the-world, it is the body that takes us to places where we may find or loose ourselves, and it is the body that carries our memory and with it our identities.