Sunday, May 9, 2010

Self As Medium

It is interesting how issues concerning embodied perception and materiality paradoxically increase in importance as media objects become increasingly virtual and bodiless. Case in point, the contentious claims within Mark B.N. Hansen’s book, which for me recalled the work of other media theorists attempting to explain our interactions with new media forms as being tied intrinsically to the self – or ‘body’ – as a kind of indeterminate experiential device.

In New Philosophy for New Media, Hansen argues that digital media present a new form of engagement with imagery by shifting the viewer's primary experience of visual perception from optics to "affectivity," or felt responses, located specifically within the body.[i] I appreciate that his work is a radical departure from the common (dismissive) assumption that digital media lack "humanness" or fixed authenticity because of their disembodied nature as fluid sets of data. The book's analysis of an admittedly limited selection of new media artworks provides excellent illustration of his thesis.

Yet I came away from Hansen’s book with similar questions as I had after reading Guiliana Bruno’s Atlas of Emotion, which argues that cinematic space enables haptic ‘traveling’ experiences in which we navigate through complex emotional/psychological terrain.[ii] While both present interesting arguments, they dilute their applicability by using the concepts of "body" and "affectivity" in generalized, homogenous terms. In placing aesthetic experience of the digital realm inside 'the body,' Hansen does not specify where in the body these perceptions occur other than that they are simply not (only) visual. The artworks he profiles offer examples of aural, tactile, and physiological responses (e.g., sense of balance/horizon), but he does not acknowledge the diversity of potential corporeal responses within those broad categories except to say that our elicited responses can be heterogenous. More often, Hansen presents ‘affectivity’ as a given absolute that is inevitable and has no varying degrees. As in: You see a digital image, but it’s the affectivity within your Body that frames it.

Is this reading too simplistic? N. Katherine Hayles, by contrast, offers more specificity – or at least acknowledges the potential diversity of human affective response. In her book, How We Became Posthuman, she explores the history of cybernetic thought using examples from popular fiction and literature to augment her critique of the much-exalted concept of disembodied information. Distinguishing between ‘the body’ as a Platonic idealized form and ‘embodiment’ as a catch-all term for culturally constructed practices enacted on the individual level, Hayles points out that most theorists focus on the ideal/body concept because it is easier to abstract than individual instantiations of embodiment.[iii]

Hansen’s work addresses important questions at this moment in history. I just wonder if his follow-up work (or that of other theorists) will offer more specifics concerning the exact nature and quality of aesthetic experience beyond the idealized ‘sense of self’ that seems to have more in common with new-age pop psychology than with rigorous philosophical inquiry.


[i] Hansen, Mark B.N. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2004.

[ii] Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion. New York: Verso, 2002.

[iii] Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. pps. 195-199.

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