Embodiment: The flesh and bones of my body

First of all I want to discuss the concepts of embodiment and disembodiment. More specific, I am interested in the possibilities of the transfer between the real (perceived) body and the virtual body.

By Carolien Hermans

“The body is our general medium for having a world. Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times, elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their literal to a figurative meaning, it manifests through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits [sic] such as dancing”
Merleau Ponty, 1962

In this paper I would like to discuss the issue of embodiment, in relation to traditional mind-body dualities and more important the work of Merleau Ponty. My fascination of the human body derives first of all from the fact that I am a dancer, and like everyone else a mover, and with this in mind I can, easily and without any mental implications, draw the conclusion that “I am my body.”

*An imporant first note needs to be added: the reader should incorporate and digest this written material in a bodily way!

Everything that will be said here, is related to dance, choreography and new media. First of all I want to discuss the concepts of embodiment and disembodiment. More specific, I am interested in the possibilities of the transfer between the real (perceived) body and the virtual body. Leaving the traditional stage behind and entering the electronic stage of new technologies, I would like to dicuss the concept of virtual bodies. Moreover I will focus on the possibilities to extend the real body with prosthetic devices like virtual bodies, interfaces and objects. I wil argue that prothestic devices stretch the boundaries of the body. They create a continuity beyond the limits of the skin. Prothestic devices can be seen as external information systems which log into the hardware of the body.

For a good understanding of the body, I want to start with the way I perceive my body and the world around me, in accordance with the Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). First of all embodiment refers to the actual shape and innate capacities of the human body – that it has arms and legs, a certain size, certain abilities.

“In so far as I have hands, feet, a body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent upon my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way which I do not choose. These intentions are general… they originate from other than myself, and I am not surprised to find them in all psycho-physical subjects organized as I am”.

Although maybe surprising, it took some while for philosophers and cognitive scientists to acknowledge the importance of the body. The denigration of the body governed most metaphysical thought, and perhaps even most philosophical thought, until at least Nietzsche (Reynolds, 2002).

More recently one can see an explicit and nearly universal rejection of Cartesian dualism. Yet it seems that Cartesianism is not that easy to escape (Gallagher, 1995): even at this point there are many cognitive scientists which reduce mental events to brain processes, and replacing intentional explanations with neurophysiological accounts. In such a view, the body is reduced to a mental process.

A good example of this disembodiment is the image of the brain in the vat (Dennett xxx; see Gallagher, 1995).

A disembodied brain, sustained in a chemical bath, seems perfectly capable of experience and cognition as long as the correct information inputs are provided. On this view, neither body nor environment are required; or at most, only a phantom body in a virtual environment, constituted in neural connections, is needed for experience to remain close to human experience. Let’s take a step in the 20th postmodern century. Instead of the image of the brain in the vat, we can use the following image of a disembodied body: the digital body in a digital space.

The same question, as centuries ago, is committed for trial again. After all this time we have to look Descartes in the eye again. Many technology-theories will celebrate the final and total disembodiment of the virtual body. From their point of view new technology is ultimately liberating because in cyberspace you can leave your age, sex and race behind and interact in a disembodied space. New technology has created the ultimate, invisible body: the anti-gravitational body, the multi-layered, the vanishing, the inside-out bodies.

I will question this thought. Is it possible to forget the physical, materialized body when we fly in digitalized space? My biggest problem is the underlying assumption of many of the technology-theories, namely the assumption of disembodiment. I reject any claim that makes a distinction between disembodiment and embodiment. Simply because “I am my body”.

Any distinction would necessary lead to the conclusion that I can also have a non-body. But the omnipresence of the body , in terms of Merleau-Ponty, excludes any pure non-physical state. This is a crucial step. As long as one makes a distinction between disembodiment and embodiment, even when they are intimately related and connected, one falls in the trap of body-mind duality.

I support the view that cognition depends on experience that is informed by a body with various perceptual and motor capacities (Gallagher, 1995). In this notion, the concept of “flesh” becomes relevant. Merleau-Ponty uses the word’flesh’, as the domain in which experiences exist. Experiences are the mode of functioning by which we, inevitably, participate in the flesh.

In terms of “the flesh” we are able to have direct, immediate contact with others and the world. This is the immediate contact of seer and seen, who both are made of the same stuff, i.e., flesh. My body is not able to forget it’s flesh.

Although not always consciously, my body is always present and is involved in every action I undertake. Even when I dream, invent or imagine things. Notice that my imagined bodily appearance can take a completely different appearance then my “real”or materialised body. Imagining to be somewhere or to be someone else, doesn’t mean that I leave my own, materialised body behind and escape via the back of my head, since this imagination is located in and originating from my body.

I cannot leave my “real” body behind because I am always with my body. I am my body.

For a good understanding of the physicality of our perceptive nature, I need to introduce the concepts of body schema and body image. A body schema works on a subconscious level. It registers shape and posture of the body (without coming into awareness). It makes a record of the momentary relative disposition of one’s own body parts. For example, when someone is walking on a street, the body schemas register the shifts in body weight, the swinging arms with opposite leg movements, the rotations in the hip etc.

Walking is a trained and automatic movement (one does not have to think to put the right leg in front of the left leg) and this body information will only come into awareness, for example, when someone stumbles. In that case, bodily information comes into awareness, by means of the body image. The body image is a conscious experience of the body at a particular time:it is the knowledge of one’s own specific appearance and the human body in general. The body image is also involved with emotional attitudes towards one’s own body (for a deeper explanation of body image and body scheme, see the paper Body and Self).

“Movements of the body are developed almost without conscious effort, in most cases. There seems to be a sort of intelligence of the body: a new dance is learned without analysing the sequence of movements. Children learn dances very easily and well… This is also the reason why habits can be formed: the body seems to have understood and retained the new meaning”. (Barral 137)

According to Merleau-Ponty it is precisely through the body that we have access to the world. There is a strong interconnection between action and perception. Embodiment plays a central role in structuring experience, cognition, and action. It is the prenoetic function of the body schemas (Merleau-Ponty, 1962) which makes perception possible. Body schemas contain the possibility of actions that we have not actually undertaken: the floor affords walking, the chair affords sitting, and so forth, only in conjunction with the possibilities of particular postural models (Gallagher, 1995).

This means that there can only be a digital or virtual body as long as there is a real, materialised body. I question the idea that we can leave the body via the virtual and we can enter mind space (as has been suggested in Connecting Bodies Symposium, 1996) since the body is omnipresent and we can not deny it’s presence. Instead the virtual body is an extension of the real, materialised body and can be seen as a prothestic device.

Let’s examine the nature of a prothestic device a little bit closer. For centuries technology has been extending the range of our senses. The telescopic discoveries led to a revolutionary shift in our worldview. Spectroscopy uncovered the structure of DNA. In the 20th century, prosthetic devices are a part of our daily life. Although most sense-extending instruments cannot be said to be a part of us, others have come to seem more intimately connected (More, 1995). Glasses and contact lenses extend the range of one’s eyes. Contact lenses, sitting closely on the eyeball, feel almost as much part of us as do our natural corneas. Technology now provides many new prosthetic tools for extending our perception: virtual reality is one of them.

According to Gallagher (1995) prosthetic devices can be absorbed in the body schema. Just as a hammer in the carpenter’s hand is incorporated into his body schema, any virtual body part or interface (keyboard, mouse, joystick) can become part of the body schema in a temporary or longlasting way.

Example1: The driving of a car

We are intimately aware of how a particular car’s gearshift needs to be treated, its ability to turn, accelerate, brake etc, and importantly, also of the dimensions of the vehicle. When we reflect on our own parking, it is remarkable that there are so few little bumps considering how many times we are actually forced to come very close. The car is absorbed into our body schema with almost the same precision that we have regarding our own spatiality. It becomes an “area of sensitivity” which extends “the scope and active radius of the touch” (Merleau-Ponty, PP 143) and rather than thinking about the car, it is more accurate to suggest that we think from the point of view of the car, and consequently also perceive our environment in a different way”. (see Reynolds, 2002)

This is a strong example, especially when we compare this with the personal, virtual experiences of Susan Kozel (1994). In the interactive dance performance Telematic Dreaming, an intimate virtual bedroom was created for interaction between visitors and performer (Suzan Kozel). Real-time communication with the visitors took place by the use of a technology called telepresence. Using video projectors and monitors people in two separate rooms were drawn together. The body image of Kozel was projected onto the bed in the room which was open to visitors, where they had the option to join her. The bed became the virtual performance space.

In the case of telepresence, the virtual/digital body can be seen as the extension of the real, materialized body. The virtual body(-parts) are incorporated in the body schema. Just as a the car is absorbed into the body schema of the car-driver, the virtual bodypart has become an area of sensitivity. With this virtual bodypart you can touch and be touched in a mutual, corresponding way.

This again refers to Merleau-Ponty: for him the human body can alternate the role of “touching” and “being touching”:

“If I touch with my left hand my right hand while it touches an object, the right hand object is not the right hand touching: the first is an intertwining of bones, muscles and flesh bearing down on a point in space, the second traverses space as a rocket in order to discover the exterior object in its place” (PP 92)

Merlau-Ponty calls this the “reversibility” of the body, its capacity to be both sentient and sensible.

Let’s translate this to new media. Telematic Dreaming is an example of an intimate virtual play between touching and being touched. Although physically placed in another room, Kozel’s body was virtually projected in a bedroom open to visitors. With her projected image Kozel could touch the visitor and the visitor in return could touch this projected image. This could become very intimate.

At one time a visitor elbowed Kozel hard in the stomach. Kozel: “Someone elbowed me hard in the stomach and I doubled over, wondering why since I didn’t actually feel it. But I felt something and she physically doubled over”(p.2).

It is certainly possible that you can feel a hit. And I consider it more then a mental hit.Imagine yourself in a virtual world and you have to defeat the enemy. Your enemy is fast in his movements but you are faster. Suddenly he kicks you in the stomach (your virtual stomach) and you feel a very strong and real sensation. In this paper I try to argue that this is not only a mental pain, but the body really feels the kick: little nerve shocks, a contraction of the muscles, a higher heartbeat. These physical sensations are really present and not merely the result of a mental construct. Simply because “I am my body” and every sensation has a physical origin. The virtual body is in this case the extension of the real body: in VR the virtual body becomes the scope and active radius of the touch. We think and perceive from the point of view of the virtual body.

Studies of phantom-limb phenomena offer some evidence for this claim.”Phantom limb refers to an experience not infrequently reported by amputees. The patient with a phantom continues to experience the limb, and even to incorporate it into the movements of his body.

For instance, when a man with an amputated leg stumbled, he felt himself extend his missing phantom leg, as it were, to save him from falling (Kinsbourne, 1995, p.216)”. This cannot be explained by physiological factors. The phantom which was once a real body part has now become an invisible, but still present body part. The phantom limb is not consciously registered in the body-image: when the man stumbled and fell, he suddenly and painfully comes to the conclusion, that the leg is no longer there. However, the phantom-limb is still incorporated in the subconscious body schema. In the phantom-limb phenomena the visible and invisible body parts meet each other in a curious and rare way.

Although phantoms are usually considered as pathological, Ramachandran and Hirstein (1997)showed that it is relatively easy to generate such “illusions”in otherwise normal individuals. Ramachandran and Hirstein describe the “phantom nose”: “The subject sits in a chair blindfolded, with an accomplice sitting in front of him, facing the same direction. The experimenter takes “the subject’s left fingers and uses it to tap and stroke the nose of the accomplice repeatedly and randomly, while at the same time, using his right hand, he taps and strokes the subject’s nose in precisely the same manner, and in perfect synchrony” (p. 1855, 1998). After a few seconds, 12 out of the 18 subjects feel that their noses have either been dislocated, or have been stretched out several feet forwards. This demonstrates the plasticity of the body image and body schema. Similar research findings have been found by Lackner 1988 and Botvinik & Cohen, 1998.

Ramachandran and Hirstein (1997) found that it is even possible to incorporate objects such as tables or shoes in the body schema. In this research project the subject’s right hand is placed below a table surfac so that he cannot see it. The experimenter then randomly strokes and taps the subject’s right hand (under the table) and simultaneously strokes a shoe placed on the table in perfect synchrony. 50% of the subjects feel as if the sensations derive from the shoe (instead of the hidden hand). The shoe has become part of the body schema. How real is this sensation?

To check this out, Ramachandran et al. (1998) waited for the moment that the subject starts to project his sensations on the shoe and then the experimenter simply hits the shoe with a giant rubber hammer. The subjects not only wince visible but they also show a strong increase in skin conductance.But how can a shoe, a phantom limb or an electronic device become a part of one’s body? If I look to myself, I perceive my own boundaries very clearly. The left arm is mine, but the handbag isn’t. The right feet is mine, but the shoe isn’t. The thing is that we have a one-to-one relation with our body. We cannot see our bodies in the same way as we see other bodies, since we experience our bodies from inside. I will call this a sense of ownership. ” When I feel an ache in my ankle, the ankle that feels hurt to me, does not feel like an ankle belonging to some body or other. Rather, the ankle feels to me to be part of my body”(Martin, p.269).

Perceptual experiences must be grounded in MY body. In the case of phantom limbs and other prosthetic devices, one must wonder how they are related to the owned body. This invites the following hypothesis: in order to feel and perceive prosthetic devices from the inside, these devices must fall within one of the boundaries of my body. The devices must be enclosed in the body.

Consider again phantom-limb sensation. When an amputee feels a pain three inches below the knee, that location may well fall outside the actual limits of the body. Is this a real sensation or an illusory experience?? The distinction is crucial: if the pain from a phantom limb is considered to be illusory, then this pain is an imagined, mental pain. If the pain from the phantom limb is a real sensation, then it is seen as a bodily, materialized pain.

Is virtual reality an hallucination?

According to Ramachandran, subjects can have real, bodily experiences deriving from external objects like a shoe. In the latter case, the shoe must be absorbed into the body schema. It is no longer an external object but it has become a part of the body. Prosthetic devices stretch the boundaries of the body. Phantom limb sensations are therefore real-limb sensations. They create a continuity beyond the limits of the skin. Experiences of the body are a matter of perceiving those body parts with which one has an informational link. Prosthetic devices log into the nervous system of the body: the external informations systems are absorbed into the body schemas.

A beautiful example of such prosthetic device is found in the film eXistenZ by David Cronenburg. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the role of Alegra, a game designer for Antenna Research. She has developed an entirely new game system: eXistenZ. This game is downloaded in the body of the game player. The interface is no longer a keyboard or joystick but a game pod: made from flesh, skin and synthetic DNA. The electronic computer has been replaced by a bio-electronic game pod full of flesh, veins and blood.

Somewhere in the movie Alegra smiles and says: “It is all flesh and bone”.The game pod takes the body as the source of energy. Every game player has to fit a bio-port: a port-plug which is shooted in the lower back/spine. It is through the bio-port that eXistenZ is downloaded into your body. An umbilical cord attaches the game-pod to the bio-port. Alegra comments: “The game pod ports into you, you are the power source, your body, your energy, your nerve system. If you get tired, the game won’t run properly”.

So finally, the electronic hardware has become flesh again!

Now remember what Merleau-Ponty meant with the word ’flesh’. Flesh is the domain in which experiences exist. Experiences are the mode of functioning by which we, inevitably, participate in the flesh. In terms of “the flesh” we are able to have direct, immediate contact with others and the world.The game-pod which plugs into your body, is a beautiful metaphor for the way the virtual and non-virtual body are connected. Through the flesh, we have immediate contact with the virtual world. It is not a mind space, it is a bodily space in which sensations are received and transmitted by the neuromuscular bodily system. It is a complete physical experience. It is embodiment in it’s true sense: since the game-pod has become a real, materialised extension of the body.

I speak of a beautiful metaphor because it is an idealized version of the way our computer-system works. The game-pod is completely incorporated in the body since it has immediately access to the body energy and nerve system.

Although maybe not so fleshy, interfaces like joysticks, mouse, keyboard or head-mounted display (HMD), can be considered as prosthetic devices which can be incorporated into our body schema.

These prosthetic devices can be attached to more then one body. In many games it is possible to have multi-players. This means more users can plug in the same computer or computer-network. In this way the users can form a team or users can play against each other (e.g. a car-race where every user has its own car or a police-team where every user is part of the team). In the movie eXistenZ there is also a moment when Alegra and Ted Pikul are plugged together in the same game-pod. Alegra is afraid that her game-pod is contaminated and since the game pods contains the only, original version of eXistenZ, she needs to check this out with the aid of a so-called “friendly” person.

In this case I speak of a shared interface. Experiences can be shared with other individuals. Merleau-Ponty points to this when he makes the difference between the toucher and the touched. A similar idea can be found in William James (1912), a radical empiricist. He gives the following example:

“If our hands can touch and find each other real, then they may also share a world that is in between them…. your hand lays hold of one end of a rope and my hand lays hold of the other end. We pull against each other. Can our two hands be mutual objects in this experience, and the rope not be mutual also? What is true of the rope is true of any other percept. Your objects are over and over again the same as mine”(1890).

Again: If our hands can touch and find each other real, they can also a share a world which is in between us. If two computer-users are plugged in the same computer-work, they can share a virtual world which can become mutual physical and real. The users can share experiences in an embodied way. If two computer-users are plugged in the same computer-work, they can share a virtual world which can become mutual physical and real.

I have argued that a non-physical state of the human body is a denial of the importance of the body for perception and cognition. Perception and action are directly related to the body schemas.

Virtual Technology claims the redundancy of the physical body: in virtual space one could leave one’s own body behind and take on a second-order or virtual body (see also Schuppli , 1997). That one enters cyberspace only as a disembodied mind, an existence without physicality is an ultimate denial of the body. I reject the idea that the body can be left behind. A non-bodily mind which travels in cyberspace, is about the same as the brain-in-the-vat. In this view neither body nor environment are required, only a phantom body in a virtual environment.

First of all, the omnipresence and permanence of the material body, makes a non-physical state impossible. A person can only exist in cyberspace because it is anchored in a physical, real body. The real body creates the possibilities for traveling in cyberspace.Second of all, embodiment plays a crucial role in structuring experience, cognition and action. The importance of body schemas for our perceptual consciousness should not be underestimated. Experiences are mediated by body schema’s: these body schemas are more then neurophysiological occurrences or consciously controlled representations. “Rather, they reflect a practical attunement of the body to its environment which is both physical and social, and which is perceived in the context of personal meanings and dispositions (Gallagher, 1995)”.Sensory experiences depend on body schemas, on the shape and posture of the body.

The body’s perceptual attunement cannot be reduced to neurophysiology or cognition.

Cultural, personal and social experiences derive from the body. Any experience, also a virtual experience, is an embodied experience. Sensations are embedded in the body, in the skin and flesh. Third of all, our body schemas can incorporate interfaces, mechanical devices and objects (like the hammer) so that it becomes an extension of the physical body. I call this prosthetic devices. This prosthetic device becomes an “area of sensitivity” which extends “the scope and active radius of the touch”.Finally, the concept of embodiment encloses thoughts, idea’s, concepts, explanations, feelings.

The human body is a self-organized, informational system in a non-linear and discontinuous way. Embodied cognition is the result of the interaction between different independent agents within several informational systems. Human cognitive structures are emerged from bodily processes. Bodily action, perception and cognition are closely interwoven. These informational systems are dynamique, unstable and transitory (Ramachandran, 1998).

In this sense, embodiment is not a fixed construct but a dynamique, fluid and energetic system. Several independent informational systems are interconnected to take care for an embodied perception. Bodily experiences are multi-layered, non-logical and non-linear. Virtual body extensions, like computer interfaces, create continuity beyond the skin and flesh: the kinesthetic, proprioceptive and sensory informationchannels of the virtual limbs will lead to complex and organic experiences. A fluid and organic interaction is going on between the virtual body and real body.



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