Embodiment and Technology: Towards a Utopian Dialectic


Belinda Haikes



This essay examines the Utopian quest for technological embodiment. Through an examination of the interactive and embodied work of David Rokeby A Very Nervous System and Steve Mann's Wearable Computer this essay posits that the dialectical approach of Rokeby and Mann create an Utopian balance, that seeks to move beyond the anxiety of new media and to position our culture to examine the space between the ultimate dialectics, that of man and the machine.



Caroline Jones in her book Sensorium positions the concept of the embodiment of the self in technology as a critical debate over the understanding of 'sensorium', of which term she used for the title of a curated art exhibition at MIT. Importantly, Jones writes that the term 'sensorium'...

"connotes ancient (and often theological) debates about mind and body, word and flesh, human and artificial, noumenal and phenomenal knowledge." (1)

For Jones, the term 'sensorium' becomes an understanding of embodied experience through technology that defines the human technological experience in stark dialectics. This impulse to define embodied experience through dialectics, although problematic, does frame the term and its definition at precisely a moment in history when it is necessary to achieve a balance in the understanding of technologically embodied experience. The dialectic approach, human and artificial, mind and body, belies a tenuous balance that is utopian in its peace. It is a peace that tells us the extension of man into and through technology no longer belies the 1980's polemics of the 'meat machine' as Jones writes (2). Additionally, the paranoid delusions of the obsolesce of the human form is no longer the assumed outcome of embodiment of human form. This important development in human embodiment in and with technology signals a shift from polarizing and often hysterical stances and reexamines the relationship of the body in and with technology. Human obsolesce and the idea of that our 'meat machines' are no longer a prescient idea thus have become a hackneyed argument.


Meat Machines

Mark Hansen in his New Philosophy for New Media examines the idea of human obsolesces and it's champion, Kittler. Here Hansen writes,

"For Kittler, the digital revolution marks an endgame in the long-standing war of technology and art; with digitization, the perceptual-aesthetic dimension of media becomes mere eyewash, a hangover of a bygone human epoch."(3) Hansen's reading of Kittler reminds us of the problems inherent in trading with polemics and theorizing an endgame. The hysteria of the obsolesce of the human form then becomes an anxiety through the embodiment of technology. The development of the embodiment of the human form with and in technology can be traced by two important artists whose work forms opposing strategies of embodiment that also effectively exemplify the shift in our understanding of embodiment from hysteria to utopian peace. First, Steve Mann's Wearable Computers examine the role of technology on the body and with the body, while David Rokeby's A Very Nervous System examines the embodiment of the human form through the technological system. These two examples create a dialectic approach to the human and technological embodiment, Mann with technology on the body, and Rokeby with the body in technology. However, by taking a seemingly dialectic approach to embodiment in the visual arts, much like Jones, the complicated peace that is now prevalent in artistic practice that incorporates technology through embodiment becomes apparent and the obsolesce of the human form becomes a non issue in relation to embodiment of the human in technology.



Fig. 1: Mann, Steve. Evolution of Steve Mann's "Wearable Computers" invention. http://wearcam.org (accessed November 14, 2009)

Steve Mann, a tenured professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto is credited with creating the Wearable Computer beginning wit his experiments in the 1970's as a teenager (4). Tracing his development in Wearable Computers addresses not only the technological progress in wearable computer design, but also the philosophical implications of embodiment of the human form with technology.

Mann, a self-described cyborg, incorporates a specific ideology into the embodiment of the Wearable Computer. The physical manifestations of his 'cyborg' form have become on a visual level increasingly smaller and thus less invasive to the body. As can be ascertained from figure one above, in the 1980, the form of the computer attachment is all encompassing. The technology extends from his body creating an anxious parody of the human senses, one eye completely encased with a box and insect like antenna. However, by the late 1990's the extension through computer augmentation has become discrete, we can no longer identify explicitly what is machine. This tracing of the apparatus articulates the dwindling anxiety and hysteria of the obsolesce of the meat machine for the latest incarnation of Steve Mann reminds the viewer that in the end it is the privilege of the meat machine to use the technology and that progress of humans will not to allow the human form to be visually or metaphoric subsumed by the machine. Furthermore, for Mann an important element of his 'cyborg" self is the implications of the individual to technology and technology's ability to subvert systems of viewership. Mann's term for his apparatus and how it functions, sousveillance, redefines relationships of viewership, and of the embodiment of the viewer with technology (5). Sousveillance then is anti- surveillance, and an ideology of the body extended through technology which records and thus becomes a part of the technology through the recording. The technology is not only guided by the body, and controlled by the body, but it records as the body sees and the body moves in space. Here the technology is controlled by the body. It is also through the technological subservience to the body that the technology has a context embedded into the body. By wearing computer recording devices and extended technology, Mann in essence has subverted the system of surveillance and by extension the relationship of the body to technology. No longer is the anxiety inherent in the external technological system of surveillance system, the Closed Circuit Television System, so ubiquitous in our society, the pinnacle of watching and of disembodiment. Instead, through Wearable Computers the outside external surveillance has become meshed with the human form and embodied in the body, and thus has become a site of control of technology for and with the human form. In effect, the body and the technology merge into a slippery third space that depends upon one another for physical and philosophical context. By this I mean that wearable technology extends the boundaries of the technological into the human form, and the human form into the technological creating a co- dependency that questions the boundaries of each, the complicacy of each to the other and our relationships to technology. By positioning the body and technology in an interdependent relationship, Mann's Wearable Computer questions the implications of the eventual obsolesce of the human form, as well as the philosophical implications of how technology is mediated by the body. Mann's model of the technologically extended human embraces a utopian ideal, the body becomes a mode of hope within technology though not only the tracings of progress, but also the apparatus' ability to redefine relationships of surveillance in favor of the individual over the system. Mann's work also exemplifies the issue inherent in the idea of embodied experience.


Human as Media

For Carolyn Jones the aesthetics of the embodied experience have become the prescient issue in embodiment and technology within the visual arts. And as such, the questions of embodied experience, and its relationship to art, has become one of critical assessment of both the mediated technology employed and its aesthetic implications. This change can be mapped through embodied experience that questions the relationship of the body and machine or if you will, the sensorium of that experience. The aesthetic implications of technology and the work of art contextualize the questions inherent in how technology is mediated through the body.

The embodiment of the human form in relation to technology is prescient to understanding of the mediation of extended work of art. McLuhan famously tells us that the body is extended by technology and that mediation occurs in the extended media, but for Mark Hansen in his New Philosophy for New Media, the body is the location of mediation. Hansen draws on the philosophy of embodiment posited by Henri Bergson in the text Matter and Memory. Hansen tells us that rather than understanding the perception of the image as an "aggregate of images that comprises the universe as a whole," Bergson’s solution is... "to reconfigure perception as a dimunition or subtraction from the universe of image."(6). In a sense, we are not extending the body, as McLuhan would have us understand, but rather we are using the body as a filtering device, the body then becomes a place of mediation and a media. By subtracting the information, filtering it through the body we are in effect using the body as an extension of the media process. For Hansen, our bodies function as media. The idea of our body as a media system is dependent upon an understanding of haptic vision. For Hansen, haptic vision is what occupies an other space, one where:

... what is "seen" is movement extracted from its actual terms. This is an impossible "vision," a seeing with the body...(7)

Thus, haptic vision is central to how the body has come to be a mediation technology. Haptic vision in a sense allows the body to merge senses and see through feeling and this ideology then questions not only how the body functions when embodied in technology, but also problematizes the dialectical approach to understanding embodiment. If the very senses in which we experience and the forms that that sensory experience take are no longer isolated within individual sense, then the body becomes a site of mediation because sensory input is commingled and cannot be separated outside the body for mediation. The idea of understanding embodiment thus merits a reformulation of the idea of embodiment itself. Additionally, haptic vision with its converging of senses, the seeing with the body, repositions the body in relation to technology. And it is in Rokeby's A Very Nervous System that one sees this repositioning of the body and mediation through the disembodiment of the human form in relation to the technology.


Figure 2, 3: Rokeby, David. Screen shot of video of A Very Nervous System, 1991. http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/vns.html
(accessed November 29, 2009)

David Rokeby started A Very Nervous System in 1982 and has created 3 versions of the piece in the ensuing years.8 Rokeby describes his groundbreaking work as;

A computer observes physical gestures through a video camera and translates them into an improvised music directly related to the qualities of the movements themselves. This occurs entirely in real-time (9).

Here, the artistic strategy inverts the paradigm that Mann uses. Rokeby's real time interactive work puts the body into the technology rather than putting the technology onto the body. This strategy effectively creates a sense of disembodiment for the human form, as there is no physical contact with the technology, no tactile presence of the 'extended' human form. Rather, the viewer/performer is seemingly disembodied from the technology and can only orchestrate the technology's function through an abstracted spatial movement. Rokeby uses video to identify in real time the performer's physical movements that is then manipulated through the video, the computer's eye, into a complicated system of technology to create a distorted form of music. The effect for the viewer watching a performance of this work is quite startling. The movements of the performer, depending on the performer, can have an aesthetic value in and of themselves. However, it is the relationship of the performer to the technology that affirms the disembodiment of this piece. The performer in space is not connected to the computer, there are not puppet strings or technological appendices, and rather the performer moves in an isolated space, disembodied from the computer. Rokeby says of this piece that:

Because the computer is purely logical, the language of interaction should strive to be intuitive. Because the computer removes you from your body, the body should be strongly engaged. Because the computer's activity takes place on the tiny playing fields of integrated circuits, the encounter with the computer should take place in human-scaled physical space. Because the computer is objective and disinterested, the experience should be intimate (10).

Thus, Rokeby's own understanding of the piece positions the work as a Utopian model that examines the idea of embodiment within the technologically extended work of art. He accomplishes this through the strategy of bringing the human back into the computer both spatially through the human scaled physical space and metaphorically in the mimicry of intimacy. Rokeby's strategies of placing the body into a position of that challenges the notions of embodiment, that includes the extension body into the technology and the mediation of our senses through the body. Instead A Very Nervous System through its use of the disembodied body positioned in an interplay with technology as well as its use of the body as catalyst for that technology verifies Hansen's idea of the site of the body as the mediation rather than the technology being the mediator. Interestingly, although the strategy that Rokeby employs for A Very Nervous System, that is the body activating the technology while being disembodied, is diametrically opposed to Steve Man's Wearable Computers where the computer is embedded on the body and the body functions through embodiment, both pieces speak of a utopian ideal of the relation of the body to technology.

Michael Foucault defines Utopia in his short essay, Utopian Body as, ...a place outside all places bit it is a place where I will have a body without a body that will be beautiful, limpid, transparent, luminous, speedy, colossal in its power, infinite in duration. Untethered, invisible, protected-always transfigured. It may well be that the first utopia, the one most deeply rooted in the hearts of men, is precisely the utopia of an incorporeal body.(11)

For Foucault, the utopian body is not only perfect in its form but it is incorporeal, a body without a body. It is a body that cannot exist in the biological realm for the biological real is always present, always meat. It is in effect in the hearts of men, as Foucault would put it to dream of a transfigured Utopia of the body that exists in the space of embodiment and disembodiment. Man alone in his corporeal form cannot be infinite in duration. However, as Steve Mann has shown the strategies of the Wearable Computer through its recording capacities, the body remains indefinitely as ones and zeros. While the nature of disembodiment of Rokeby's A Very Nervous System and its interactivity creates a transfiguring nature to the body, it is not a coincidence that Foucault's utopian model, a body without a body is positioned as a dialectic. Nor is it that Steve Mann and David Rokeby works have opposing strategies that examine the binaries of embodiment and disembodiment. By positioning the extremes the utopian quest in the technologically extended work of art finds a balance that allows the audience to enter. It is in this peace, the Utopian balance, that space of the 'sensorium' can move past the anxiety of new media to embrace the technologically extended work of art and our culture can begin to examine the space between the ultimate dialectics, that of man and the machine.




(1) Jones, Caroline. Introduction to Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. p.2
(2) ibid. p. 5
(3) Hansen, Mark. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. p.71
(4) Mann, Steve. http://wearcam.org (accessed December 5, 2008)
(5) Mann, Steve. http://wearcam.org (accessed December 5, 2008)
(6) Hansen, ibid., p.4
(7) Hansen, ibid., p.228
(8) Media Art Net, David Rokeby. http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/very-nervous-system/ (Accessed December 5, 2008)
(9) Rokeby, David. A Very Nervous System, 1991 http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/vns.html (Accessed December 5, 2008)
(10) Rokeby, David. Video of A Very Nervous System, 1991 http://homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/vns.html (Accessed December 5, 2008)
(11) Foucault, Michael. "Utopian Body". Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. p.229



Foucault, Michael. "Utopian Body". Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006
Jones, Caroline. Introduction to Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006
Hansen, Mark. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006
Rokeby, David. Video of A Very Nervous System, 1991 http:// homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby/vns.html (Accessed December 5, 2008)
Mann, Steve. http://wearcam.org (accessed December 5, 2008)
Media Art Net, David Rokeby. http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/very-nervous-system (Accessed December 5, 2008)




Belinda Haikes is an interdisciplinary artist, and cultural critic. Her artistic practice and scholarship is centered on the poetics of identity construction in the post-human world. Recent exhibitions include the Asian Arts Initiative, Philadelphia, Los Angeles Center for the Digital Art, Village Nomad, France, Digital Fringe, Australia and the Weatherspoon Museum in North Carolina. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Media Art and Text Program at Virginia Commonwealth University and also is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Digital Design at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.











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