In Mark Hansen’s Bodies in Code, all reality is “mixed reality,” which assumes that just as the body is still the primary access to the “real” world, it is also used to access the virtual. The role of the body, argues Hansen, is based in the sensation, ability and perception of tactility and visual perception. According to Hansen, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh, with its indifference between body and world, requires a theory of the technicity of the human. The human is a being distributed into sensory interfaces with the world, and is characterized by embodiment and the technics within embodied life. When I speak of embodiment, I am referring to the idea of entering a space of virtuality and losing one’s body as it re-materializes into the virtual reality. In Bodies in Code, Hansen turns this idea on its head by suggesting the existence of “mixed reality,” a paradigm that posits that virtual reality is not an exclusively technical/digital ecosystem due to the functioning of the body that enacts upon it.
The (near) future of television will witness a triumphant conquest of virtual reality, a realm of experience that […]we will consider different from normal perceptual reality (1). Hansen’s take on virtual reality posits it as a new fluid realm of three-dimensional space that the body can exist in without the user experiencing disembodiment. It is different from “normal” perceptual reality because once a body is placed within a digital realm, it must be reconstituted to fit within three-dimensional space, as we have long been accustomed to orienting ourselves in two-dimensions. He elaborates on this in the following passage:
[…] only in the past half century has scientific and artistic attention focused on the total simulation of perceptual reality, on the projection of images in three dimensions […] Central in this reimagining of VR as a mixed reality stage is a certain specification of the virtual […] the virtual now denotes a ‘space full of information ‘that be ‘activated, revealed, reorganized and recombined, added to and transformed as the user navigates…real space’ (2).
Hansen’s “mixed reality” is only made possible through a three-dimensional platform such as virtual reality, which represents a fluid space that combines real and virtual space when the body enters into it. Here, he is suggesting that the virtual becomes a space of information once the user enters into it, which implies that he is viewing the virtual as equivalent to real space.
Fleischmann and Strauss speak of ‘turning the theory on its head that man is losing his body to technology’ […] ‘the interactive media are supporting the multisensory mechanisms of the body and are thus extending man’s space for play and action’ (3).
Hansen’s “multisensory mechanism” could be any digital or virtual reality platform that allows the body to engage with the new space using a multitude of tactile senses simultaneously. Most importantly, Hansen is challenging the idea of seeing the body’s participation in digital culture and technology as the “end of humanism,” which is something that Robert Pepperrell discusses in The Posthuman Condition.
For Pepperrell, Wolfe, as well as Badmington, posthumanism, or the continuing transformation of man as a technical being, is not the end of a “man-centered” universe – it simply demonstrates a shift away from how man has been defined thus far. Man is not losing his body to technology, he is continuing to evolve with it and to find ways of extending, not giving up, his body in virtual space. While many early critics of digital life such as Howard Rheingold have seen virtual reality as a kind of transcendence of the body’s corporeality, Hansen grounds the body and its interface into both the real and the virtual world as he rejects the theory of disembodiment: […] the ‘first generation’ model of VR as a disembodied hyperspace free of all material constraints simply no longer has any purchase in our world (4).
When the body enters a space of mixed reality, or even cross reality, the body then exist in more than one place simultaneously. Again, the idea of man losing his body to technology and of disembodiment by way of virtual reality must be re-examined because Hansen’s fluid, three-dimensional realm can allow man to redefine space through interaction and agency.
[…] what is truly novel and promising about contemporary consumer electronics is not the possibility they open for creating ever more immersive illusory spaces, but rather the expanded scope they accord embodied human agency (3).
I am curious to know what Hansen means when he differentiates between immersion and embodied space. When we talk about immersion within a virtual game space, for example, we can look to Janet Murray’s definition of immersion as a metaphor analogous to a body submerged into water, an experience of being surrounded by a simulated, completely other reality. Hansen is creating a divide between “illusory” space and “perceptual” reality, which makes me wonder whether he is arguing that the body somehow loses its agency when immersed in a simulated reality in virtual space, because it is an illusion of transportation and not grounded in the reality of the senses.
What I can gather from this argument is that agency is what creates a sense of realism, rather than immersion. In other words, we do not need greater verisimilitude and advanced simulations, since what makes virtual reality feel more real is the level of agency it affords.
[…] today’s microcomputing revolution thus serve less to revitalize the dream of perfect simulation than to underwrite a more expansive and fluid functional interpretation of physical and virtual spaces (3).
Hansen is making a distinction between perfect simulation, as in a completely natural transition into a virtual world without disembodiment and without the awareness of entering that new space, and what he calls a functional interpretation, which is a bit unclear, as he does not explain what function it is serving.
[…] the development of three-dimensional simulations puts us in touch with our most primitive perceptual capacities […] the human interface is evolving toward more natural information […] Three-dimensional is what we evolved to understand. It is more primitive, not more advanced (3). Hansen believes that embodiment in virtual reality should now be seen as a way to absorb information, and by “natural” information he is talking about how three-dimensional perception allows one a more naturalistic way of moving about. Three-dimensional interfaces may be more advanced than two-dimensional in terms of technological development, but they are really a return to one’s bodily function and experience in the real, unmediated world. He elaborates further on this here:
Bluntly put, the new mixed reality paradigm foregrounds the constitutive or ontological role of the body in giving birth to the world […] virtual reality serves to highlight the body’s function as, to quote phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, […] the ‘vehicle of being in the world’ (5).
Hansen proposes that vision marks an expansion of exteriorization, as the human is operating with both the tactile and the visual. Vision and touch are, as Merleau-Ponty states, the foundation of intercorporeality: the body in the world.
All this in the first 5 pages of the book! Here are some other passages that I’ll elaborate on next week as I delve into more of the introduction:
[…] “natural three dimension” denotes a more immersive, data-rich visual simulation. In contrast, for Krueger, “natural information” means information produced through an extension of our natural – that is, embodied, perceptuomotor – interface with the world (4).
The mixed reality environments now ubiquitous in our world do require a nonencumbered interface (4).
[…] virtual reality from its proto-origin as the representationalist fantasy par excellence: namely, a desire for complete convergence with natural perception […] the functional homology linking virtual reality technologies with natural perception supports a prosthetics that functions to expand the scope of natural perception, to tap the technics at its core (4).
[…] rather than conceiving the virtual as a total technical simulacrum and as the opening of a fully immersive, self-contained fantasy world, the mixed reality paradigm treats it as simply one more realm among other than can be accessed through embodied perception or enaction (5).
The body forms an ultimate background, an absolute here, in relation to which all perceptual experience must be oriented […] it ‘puts into place constraining apparatuses that allow us to better understand the limits and the weaknesses [but also the powers] of the body’ (5).
[…] the primacy of the body as ontological access to the world and the role of tactility in the actualization of such access – effect a passage from the axiom that has been my focus thus far (all virtual reality is mixed reality) to the more general axiom that all reality is mixed reality (6).
Hansen, Mark. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. New York and London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty.. “The Spatiality of One’s own Body and Motility.” The Phenomenology of Perception. 112-170.
Robert Pepperell. “What is Posthumanism?” The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness Beyond the Brain. 155-172.