Most of the times when we speak about a body, we refer to the human body, an organic, material entity. It also refers sometimes to a collection of things or people. To embody means to put an idea or spirit into a body, to give a form to principles, thoughts and impressions in art, actions, words and, more generally, in signifiers of any kind. Therefore, the embodiment of an abstract idea is the incarnation, the concrete form of this idea.
Theories of embodiment have been accompanying human beings along history for a long time. The very first hints emerge from Plato’s The Republic (c. 380 BC), where the immateriality of the mind is discussed as separate from the body – thus separate from reality and from mortality. This idea took over also due to Christian metaphysics’ placing the souls on a higher level than the body. Philosopher René Descartes (1641) added that the body is a mere assertion of the mind, initiating the dominant strand of thought that puts the body in a limited and not relevant position. Even though persisting with the division between mind and body, John Locke, David Hume and Kant started reconsidering the role of the body in the experience of the world. In The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant explicitly argued that knowledge begins only in experience and that the ability to think of a human being is activated through the interaction with external objects, which affect the senses. With a great leap in time, we find phenomenologists from the 20th century – among which I mention Jacques Lacan and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – who put the body back in place in the world as the main perceptive subject, as they established that the only way for the mind to acquire ideas is through the body.
Nowadays, the latest technological developments are altering the way we perceive the human body in the world and, now that our identities are ‘overlayered’ and ‘spread all over the internet’, scholars have started thinking of the body as inseparable from media. In his Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan asserted that media act as extensions of the human senses (3) and claims that every technological advancement is an extension of the body’s abilities to perceive (123-4). If the expansion of the senses might cause a displacement of ourselves, phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty proposes our body be a point (0,0) in a Cartesian graph. In this way, our senses, however extended, may perceive the surrounding world at a higher and more distant magnitude with the removal of our grounding within them (178). By these detachable organs, our senses exceed our physical bodies but, at the same time, the reception of the stimuli received from the detached organs still happens in the physical body, which results to be the ground zero of experience.
As stated by Anna Munster in her Materializing New Media, the virtual promised “to leave the body and its ‘meat’ behind”, because of the spread imagery where minds, data, wires join in an ecstatic fusion across the infinite matrix of cyberspace (86). Similarly, Virtual Reality seemed to be enlarging the gaps that separate its own times and spaces from the coordinate of the material world, the same coordinates that bodies need in order to live experiences. It has received much of its criticism from the claim that it can disconnect consciousness and perception from their living human matter. Notwithstanding, as acknowledged by Anna Munster, virtuality does not transcend or go beyond the realm of the corporal experience (88) nor it does exist exclusively in its relation with the actual. In fact, by dislocating habitual bodily reactions between looking and self-perception, the virtual corporal experience poses the potential for embodied distribution as a necessary condition of experience in VR (90). As Janet Murray in her Hamlet on the Holodeck pointed out, it is the relation between a virtually perceived and felt body and an actually lived body (=embodiment) that hypnotizes the user and makes the virtual something more than a window out of the real. If it is true that the real is a reaction to the virtual forces from which it generates, the virtual has the potential to transform the real.
Bodies are the main access key to experiences in Virtual Reality. The once hegemonic and apparently irreplaceable sense of sight is not enough anymore: in order to be able to enter Virtual Reality, our cognitive capabilities must be embodied in our physical, organic matter. Embodied cognition acknowledges that the mind and the body are agents working together to make meaning.
Since the actual is a particular response to a set of virtual forces rather than the realization of a possibility (Paul Lévy 1998, 171), Virtual Reality has the potential to radically transform habits, shapes and existence of the animate bodies we carry also in the real, actualised version of the world.
Lévy, Pierre. Becoming Virtual: Reality in the digital age. Translated by Robert Bononno. Plenum Trade: New York, 1998.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind,” The Primacy of perception. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, IL, 1964. Ch.5, pp.159-190.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the extensions of man. The MIT Press: Cambridge, 1994.
Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of Narrative in Cyberspace. MIT Press: Cambridge, 1997.
Munster, Anna. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics, University Press of New England: Hanover and London, 2006.
“Body”, “Embodiment”, Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford. 2003
“Embodiment,” “Phenomenology,” Merleau-Ponty, Descartes. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, University Press: New York, NY Oxford. 1995