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The Very Nervous System, Embodied Consciousness and the Self

As an afterthought to the last meeting, I introduce some theoretical positions on embodiment and the self that made me reconsider the function of the interface in The Very Nervous System. I suggest that Rokeby’s digital translator reveals the visual and verbal bias in various Western notions of embodied consciousness and their concomitant focus on deliberate and meaningful practices of identity formation. I start with some citations and ideas that inform my argument:

“It is crucial to reassert the old Lacanian lesson of the mirror phase: I constitute myself as Ego only by recognizing myself in the mirror image.” (Žižek 1999: 315)

“We grasp external space through our bodily situation. A ‘corporeal or postural schema’ gives us at every moment a global, practical, and implicit notion of the relation between body and things, of our hold of them. […] For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions. Even our most secret affective moments, those most deeply tied to the humoral infrastructure, help to shape our perception of things.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 5)

“Our sense of what is real begins with and depends crucially upon our bodies, especially our sensorimotor apparatus, which enables us to perceive, move, and manipulate, and the detailed structures of our brains, which have been shaped by both evolution and experience.” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 17)

The development of the body image and its significance for identity formation have been prominently discussed in psychoanalysis. According to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, the infant perceives its body as fragmented and fused with the maternal organism until it recognizes its own image in the mirror. The specular image conveys the imaginary idea of the child’s discrete and unified existence: “The mirror stage […] manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality” (Lacan 2001: 1288; emphasis in the original). The mirror stage marks the emergence of the self or the “Ideal-I” (1286) and is succeeded by the symbolic order of language, that is, the child’s ability to use the corresponding pronoun when referring to itself.

Drawing on psychoanalysis, Merleau-Ponty redefines the subject’s approach to space, self and other relations (O’Neill 1982, 1986). He points out that the body image informs us “how our body is positioned in space relative to the people, objects and environment around us” and “provides us with a reliable sense […] of what our corporeal possibilities are at any given point in time” (Weiss 1999: 9, 17). The corporeal schema becomes the basic foundation of self and spatial perception and helps the subject to plan and coordinate bodily movements.

The general correlation between embodiment and cognition has been further analyzed in cognitive linguistics. According to the embodied cognition thesis, human thought and imagination are based on sensory experience. Cognitive linguists presume that human embodiment prescribes the nature and range of concepts that can be represented in the mind. Mark Johnson defines these concepts or “image schemas” as recurrent patterns which “emerge as meaningful structures […] chiefly at the level of our bodily movements through space, our manipulation of objects, and our perceptual interactions” (1987: 29). The infant’s experience of “walking from one place to another” or “throwing a baseball to your sister,” for example, gives rise to the from-to schema. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that such image schemas serve as an unconscious experiential basis for primary conceptual metaphors. These metaphors are produced when a schematic representation emerging from concrete experience is projected onto an abstract domain. The abstract domain of time, for example, is often encoded in terms of motion, as in “the deadline is fast approaching.”

Based on this cryptic and eclectic theoretical framework, I suggest to read The Very Nervous System as a “transforming mirror” (Rokeby 1996) that involves the musical (dis-)placement of the self shifting its focus from deliberate (or ‘meaningful’) to affective aspects of embodied consciousness. Across psychoanalysis, phenomenology and cognitive linguistics, theories about embodiment and the self tend to privilege visual-spatial and verbal representations over musical ‘translations’ of corporeal movements and the self. Perhaps unsurprisingly so, since musical Lautbilder (‘sound-images’) seem to be of a different order than their visual and verbal counterparts. In contrast to the latter, ‘pure’ or instrumental music has often been considered to lack obvious semantic content. At the same time, philosophers have stressed music’s apparent ability to express and trigger emotions (Davies 1994). They argue that music’s expressiveness derives from its resemblance to the dynamic characteristics of emotional experience. The phenomenology of emotions includes such aspects as “gait, attitude, air, carriage, posture, and comportment” (Davies 2006: 182).

In this context, Rokeby’s argument about the “expressive power of the interface” (1996) acquires a whole new meaning. The interface of The Very Nervous System seems to register and express not the deliberate but the affective dimensions (or the how rather than the what) of the participants’ gestures:

“People entered the installation, and set about verifying the predictability of the system. They made a gesture, as a question to the space, and mentally noted the sound that that gesture had made. They repeated the gesture once or twice, again as a question, and got the same result. The third repetition seemed to satisfy the participants that the system was in fact interactive. The way they held their body and the look on their face changed. They made the gesture again, this time as a command to the system, not a question. The physical dynamics of the command gesture was significantly different from the previous, more tentative questioning gestures, and the system responded with a different sound.” (emphasis added)

In doing so, the digital interface of The Very Nervous System finds new ways of interpreting the embodied self that point to the relative absence of affective ‘content’ in its ocularcentric or logocentric representation.

Works Cited

Davies, Stephen. “Artistic Expression and the Hard Case of Pure Music.” Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Ed. Matthew Kieran. Malden: Blackwell, 2006. 179-91.

Davies, Stephen. Musical Meaning and Expression, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Experience of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Trans. Alan Sheridan. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Gen. ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1285-90.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: BasicBooks, 1999.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception, and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics. Ed. James M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

O’Neill, John. “Embodiment and Child Development: A Phenomenological Approach.” The Sociology of Childhood: Essential Readings. Ed. Chris Jenks. London: Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd., 1982. 76-86.

O’Neill, John. “The Specular Body: Merleau-Ponty and Lacan on Infant Self and Other.” Synthese 66.2 (1986): 201-17.

Rokeby, David. Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media. 1996. 10 Nov. 09 <http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/mirrors.html&gt;.

Weiss, Gail. Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality. London: Routledge, 1999.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Of Cells and Selves.” The Žižek Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. London: Blackwell, 1999. 302-20.

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