Mark Hansen’s “Bodies in Code” continued

Here, I will continue my reading and notes from the introductory chapter of Hansen’s Bodies in Code.  Throughout the introduction, Hansen turns to the work of Myron Krueger, a pioneer in mixed reality thinking.  Krueger, says Hansen, looks at the interface of human and computer to argue that the body is the mediator between the computer and the world. In order to receive natural information, we must extend ourselves into the “third” dimension of the world, which may be referring to the mixed reality realm:

[…] “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 […] 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 (4-5).

Hansen takes the traditional view of virtual reality, that is, the desire for an unmediated convergence with the natural world. He believes that this type of full immersion is a functionalist “fantasy” that perpetuates the dualism of real vs. virtual (or digital vs. analog). The mixed reality paradigm opens up the possibility for a third realm that can only be accessed through a redefined embodiment using multiple senses.

The body forms an ultimate background, an absolute here, in relation to which all perceptual experience must be oriented. That is why virtual reality comprises something of a reality test for the body; as philosopher Alain Millon points out, ‘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).

Here, Hansen is possibly talking about virtual reality apparatuses that make the wearer very conscious of the fact that they are physically attached to a mechanism that allows them to enter into the virtual realm. He does not specify what the “constraining apparatuses” are and could possibly mean this figuratively, but I believe he could be referring to the privileging of visual senses as a way of entering virtual reality.

Together, these two corollaries – 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 (5).

Hansen argues that all reality is mixed reality, since there are two corollaries that are part of the functionalist understanding of embodiment. In my last post, I mentioned that Hansen does not explain what he means by the bodily “function.” In reading further I can deduce that this function is referring to the role of self-movement as the bodily, or tactile face of perception. Hansen does not clearly explain what he means by the “actualization” of the ontological access, but it appears that he is connecting it with multi-sensory perception.

[…] the analog creates reality out of the fusion or mixing of realms, our of transformation […] ‘If sensation is the analog processing by body-matter of ongoing transformative forces, then foremost among them are forces of appearing as such: of coming into being, registering as becoming. The body, sensor of change, is a transducer of the virtual.”

The above quote is Brian Massumi, who looks at the analog conditions of virtual reality in anticipation of the contemporary shift to mixed reality. Hansen agrees with Massumi about the priority or superiority of the analog over digital phenomena. The term “transducer” is unclear, as it generally refers to a device that converts one form of energy into another. Perhaps Hansen is using it to argue that the body is that device that, when sensing the slip into the virtual realm, can move its physicality and embodiment from the physical into the virtual?

Massumi states: ‘The sight-confining helmets of early virtual reality systems have given way to immersive and interactive environments capable of addressing other-than-visual senses’ (8).

Hansen does not like to privilege visual perception as a gateway into the virtual realm, simply because it arrests the body and limits the immersive experience. Ken Hillis is another theorist who talks about how newer virtual technology is more immersive than older visual technology, because we no longer have to rely on an apparatus/helmet hooking us up to the virtual world and mediating our experience purely through our vision. He does not provide examples of virtual vs. visual technologies, but he claims that this newer technology offers more real sensations because it radically shrinks, if not eliminates the distance between the user’s eyes and the screen to less than an inch, as one’s head is thrust into the perceptual field of vision.

Today’s exemplary mixed reality situations […] all have as their condition the abandonment of the dream of total immersion, i.e. the representationalist form of verisimilitude. Thus, they literally beg the question of their possibility: what makes the passage from one realm to another so seamless, so unnoticeable, so believable? The answer, as we have seen, is the capacity of our embodied form of life to create reality through motor activity (8).

Hansen’s “abandonment” of total immersion is something that he talks about in earlier pages of the introduction, when he says that the “first generation” model of VR has no purchase in our modern world. That model is/was all about disembodied hyperreality, that is, the consciousness’ inability to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality. Hansen is not interested in that type of VR, simply because he is moving towards a third dimension of overlapping virtual/physical reality.

With its picture of an originarily technical organismic perspective, this paradigm effectively repudiates all externalist accounts of the body […] it thus offers an affirmative model of bodily agency that conceives of the embodied organism’s constitutive coupling with the social (9).

Hansen does not explain what he means by “externalist” in this sense, but it is here that he begins to talk about how mixed reality comes from the original coupling of the human and the technical.  By this, he means the condition of the “real” in the physical world that humans automatically experience, joining with the virtual that they once only experienced through visual perception.

 […] the conceptualization of the virtual body is a directly political issue, one that will determine not only the image also a degree of agency our culture is willing to accord the body. By postulating an opposition between ‘the cyberbody of cyberculture’ and the ‘virtual body of computer modelization,’ the body is ‘supposedly liberated from spatiotemporal constraints’ and the body ‘immersed in these limits’ (14).

When the body enters a space of mixed reality, the body can then exist in more than one place simultaneously. This notion of virtual reality as opening up the body’s ability to act out multiple aspects of the self is something that Ken Hillis picks up on as well. He argues that virtual reality offers access to a space appreciated by people manifesting multiple personalities, and who are responding to cultural demands that fracture identities.  Virtual reality supports the fragmentation of identity, and supports the space of performance for multiple components of the self. In my earlier reading of Hassan, I came across a similar idea of the posthuman convergence of the mind with the “one” and the “many” – that is, the mind’s ability to break free of constraints and to strive for a unified mind made up of multiple aspects.


I’m going to be reading more Hansen, as this introduction poses many questions and merely scratches the surface of his theories. Some more passages to think about:

Alain Millon poses this question: ‘Is the virtual body simply a body without a corporeal envelop, a body without weakness, a body of pleasure without desire, in the end, a body without life? Isn’t it rather a body in power?’ […] The body, he writes, ‘forms an obstacle and a resistance to all forms of transparence’ and is living only ‘when it is opaque, complex, confused, flexible, and in perpetual mutation[…] If there is a need for a liberation of the body, it is uniquely to affirm a more powerful interior life, all the while continuing to understand that the body remains…a presence’ (14).

The analysis of the virtual body thus constructs an ‘object that is a dense and opaque body, a body that has its limits and its weaknesses, an intimate body and one that especially refuses transparence and total clarity’ (15).

Far from being a more ‘instrument’ of the first ‘medium’ […], the body is a primordial and active source of resistance […] the body possesses a flexibility that belies any effort, such as that of cybercultural criticism, to reduce it to a passive surface for social signification. The body is, affirms Millon, ‘an entity that becomes a person, a creative subject, a being or an individual” (15).

“Such technical mediation of the body schema (of the scope of body-environment coupling) comprises what I propose to call a ‘body-in-code.’ By this I do not mean a purely informational body or a digital disembodiment of the everyday object. I mean a body submitted to and constituted by an unavoidable and empowering technical deterritorialization—a body whose embodiment is realized, and can only be realized, in conjunction with technics” (20)

This last passage is one that interests me a lot, since it seems that Hansen’s body-in-code refers to the convergence of the body image and the body schema. From what I have read in Shaun Gallagher’s How the Body Shapes the Mind, a body image is any knowledge that informs us about our own interactions with the environment, and consists of a system of perceptions and beliefs pertaining to one’s own body. A body schema is our unconscious body awareness that functions without any perceptual monitoring. For example, while walking we don’t have to think about putting one foot in front of another. I am interested in how Hansen develops his “body-in-code” using the deterritorialization that occurs when the body schema and the body image cross over one another, and what disembodiment occurs. More on this later.

Works Cited:

Gallagher, Shaun. How the Body Shapes the Mind.

Hansen, Mark. “Introduction: From the Image to the Power of Imaging: Virtual Reality and the Originary Specularity of Embodiment.” Bodies in Code. 1-23.

Hassan, Ihab. “Prometheus as Performer: Toward a Posthuman Culture?” Performance in Postmodern Culture. 201-17.

Hillis, Ken. “Identity, Embodiment and Place: VR as Postmodern Technology.” Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality. 164-199.



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