Digital embodiment: Constructing and deconstructing the body [Part 1]

[Notes and resources from my recent talk at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, as part of their Embodied Intelligence workshop series]

In graduate school, as part of a Feminist Pedagogies course, I read a book that radically shaped my perspective on education. The Teacher’s Body, edited by Holmes & Freedman, introduced teachers’ reflections on their bodies–and their students’ bodies–in the classroom. Each chapter brings depth to the notion that our bodies push against the mind-body dualism of education. In The Teacher’s Body, Richard Radtke, a marine biologist and professor, shared his experiences of being a quadriplegic teacher and researcher.  Radtke’s physical challenges, the result of advanced multiple sclerosis brought on by a short-lived college football career, impacted not so much his ability or drive to take on adventurous research and teaching opportunities, but the willingness of his university, colleagues, funders, and students to support those adventures. Radtke talks about how technology became a way to overcome some of his physical challenges, giving him reach, voice, and access he did not always have in physical settings.

His chapter is moving—I recommend that you read it—but it is the last line of his chapter that has stayed with me all these years since grad school. Radtke writes:

“My body teaches so much.”

I became interested in embodiment, not only because of my interest in issues of social justice in education andwhat true liberatory education looks like, but also because my career took a digital turn in grad school, and the notion of embodiment became a bit of a puzzle. How do we deal with embodiment when teaching and learning becomes digital, becomes hybrid?

Before I go any further, I want to do some definitional work. I want to define how I’m using the term embodiment. Embodiment does not just mean having a body. Embodiment involves the loads of meaning attached to our bodies and the ways in which our bodies are at the center of our experiences and therefore our existence. Its the social, political, and cultural attachments, so to speak, of the body and how those are experienced by a bodied human. Some of this involves our identity and how we perform it; some of it is what identity and performances people attach to our bodies. Embodiment is also about how we know things, believe things, and feel things through the “lens” of our bodies.

Embodiment’s key premise is that the body is not neutral. With bodies comes social and cultural constructs that impact every part of our lives. As Csordas notes (1999, 143): “If embodiment is an existential condition in which the body is the subjective source or inter-subjective ground of experience, then studies under the rubric of embodiment are not about the body per se. Instead they are about culture and experience insofar as these can be understood from the standpoint of bodily being-in-the-world.” Bodily being-in-the-world.

Embodiment, at least in the context of today’s talk, is about how the body maps onto frameworks of meaning. And people’s lived experiences based on their bodies, what’s mapped onto their bodies, what their bodies experience.

“Our bodies, ourselves,” as Donna Haraway said in her Cyborg Manifesto, “bodies are maps of power and identity.”

Side note: I was asked later about the Cyborg Manifesto and what it means. Haraway’s piece is a rejection of the “goddess” mentality of feminism and an exploration of our representation as “cyborgs.” To Haraway, “cyborg” breaks down biological determinism of our bodies, and blurs the lines between human-machine and physical-nonphysical. My underwhelming description of Haraway’s piece does not do it justice. Just go read it.

There is a misconception that, when we “go digital,” the body becomes irrelevant. You could even read that into Radtke’s story a bit. His paralyzed body was no longer held back by physical limitations; with technology, he seemed to overcome, be freed from, his body. And yet, the ways and reasons he used the digital were 100% shaped by his physical form; as his digital experiences were shaped by his physical form. It’s true that there is a collapse of multiple channels bodied input and output when we go online (e.g., nonverbal communication is changed, collapsed), although that is changing as technologies become more sophisticated. For example, for now at least, nonverbal communication is pretty flat in digital spaces—that’s why we often use emojis.

At the same time we must recognize that, rather than being totally erased, the body and its loads of meanings are transformed in digital spaces. In our recent book chapter (free PDF of the chapter available on the website), Jen Ross and I cite “the ‘incorporeal fallacy’ (Land, 2004, p. 532) that has permeated notions of cyberspace since its inception, fostering beliefs that the body is left behind when we go online. However, in both literal and metaphorical ways, digital embodiment transforms rather than erases (Bell, 2002).”  Mark Graham wrote: “Imagining the internet as a distinct, immaterial, ethereal alternate dimension ultimately makes it more challenging to think through the contingent and grounded ways in which we consume, enact, communicate and create through the internet.”

Digital embodiment is the extension of our selves and bodies with technology. It’s how technology intersects with our physical/cultural/social embodiment (and it’s even more, which I’ll get into in future posts). “Embodiment involves the immersion of bodies and emotions in digital spaces as well as the ways in which bodies and emotions are represented in and shaped by digital spaces” (Wohlwend & Lewis, 2011).

Let’s walk through some of the explicit and implicit ways embodiment is conceptualized in digital spaces.

Explicit embodiment has really grown in the last decade, as our ability to simulate and stimulate the physical via technology has grown. We now have gaming experiences that blur the line between physical and digital (Dance, dance revolution is a fun example; also, games that involve Microsoft Kinect; kinesthetic game controls). Virtual Reality is booming right now, at least if you believe the recent holiday commercials. Other examples: haptic feedback (e.g., the digital creates physical responses & vice-versa); tangible user interfaces (user interface in which a person interacts with digital information through the physical environment–earliest example is a mouse; now we see gesture based computing; table top computing). And we’re moving toward full whole-body immersion — the virtual creating “full surrogacy” for the body. Certainly in these most explicit cases, where interactions between physical and digital embodiment seem clear, we should be asking about how embodiment works across both. There have been many articles recently about VR perpetuating sexism. The same social, cultural, and political prejudices map onto virtual bodies…maybe in even more problematic ways.

Implicit digital embodiment occurs when the body is mediated or represented or reconfigured in digital ways. Wearables create a new and different relationship between the digital and the physical, documenting and representing embodied data in new ways. Social media, like Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, include performative acts of embodiment (posting carefully curated and filtered photos) as well as embodying through the framework of a “profile.” Amber Case gives us the term templated self to highlight the ways in which agency around our embodiment is taken away through the template provided by web-based tools, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Digital embodiment can be even more deeply implicit. We use the term skeumorphism to indicate the ways digital tools mimic physical attributes and experiences, even though that mimicry serves no functional purpose (e.g., our Zoom videoconferencing tool imposes a doorbell sound when someone logs in to the virtual meeting room). What represents your physical senses (eyesight, hearing, touch) in digital spaces? What shapes your physical senses (eyesight, hearing, touch) in digital spaces? Algorithms? User Experience design? What about your data? How does your data embody you in digital spaces? We’ll return to this a bit later in the talk.

As we get further down the rabbit hole, we start to ask ourselves where does the physical body end and where does technology begin? There’s not a crystal clear distinction. I remember when people who got pacemakers would talk about being part-robot. Now a parent can have an app on their phone that tells them when their child, who has Type 1 diabetes and wears an internal insulin device, needs a snack because their blood sugar is too low. These blurry lines are becoming even blurrier.

Everything is inherently hybrid. We are hybrid. Our relationships are hybrid. Our embodiment is hybrid. And, if we fail to engage in conversations about digital embodiment, we run the risk of mind/body dualism continuing to perpetuate embodied social practices that hurt, ignore, denigrate, deny, or abuse certain people.

In the next post, I’ll look at embodiment in education and a scary “story” of digital redlining. Later, I’ll share some of the work we’re doing around embodiment with our remote/distance collaboration and some emerging/evolving thoughts spurred by the Education’s Futures and Fractures conference I attended today.

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