Archives for the month of: September, 2013

By Mona Sakr

Getting to grips with the philosophical approach of phenomenology

When you work with/in embodiment, you come across so many concepts that feel almost impossible to get a true grip on. Beautiful ideas, like phenomenology, roam free and can be intimidating as a result. In my role at MODE, I am currently contributing towards a glossary of terms that are used in embodiment research. It’s a fantastic way of working out what’s really important when you’re first engaging with a new concept or approach. After writing the first draft of the glossary entry for ‘Phenomenology’, I decided to test myself. Without looking at a single book, paper or webpage, what could I say that I knew about phenomenology? The result was the following:

10 things I know about phenomenology

  1. Phenomenology is the study of lived experience.
  2. The founder of phenomenology was the German philosopher Husserl, who lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century.
  3. Heidegger, Husserl’s student, was fundamental in developing the field of existential phenomenology.
  4. In 1927, Heidegger wrote Being and Time, a central text in phenomenology.
  5. In Being and Time Heidegger made the distinction between tools that are ‘present-at-hand’ and ‘ready-to-hand’. Tools that are ‘ready-to-hand’ can be used without thinking, without awareness. Although familiarity usually leads to tools becoming ‘ready-to-hand’, our awareness of them may be drawn back to them if they suddenly stop working (Heidegger uses the example of the pen that breaks while you are writing).
  6. In 1945, Merleau-Ponty wrote a book called Phenomenology of Perception. It is another central text in phenomenology.
  7. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty presents the body as the hub of all meaning-making. Physical touch represents a ‘chiasm’ (a crossing-over) between subjectivity and objectivity. Bodies are both capable of touching and are tangible.
  8. Dreyfus (1992) built on Heidegger’s ideas towards technology use in his critiques of artificial intelligence. He has argued that AI algorithms and devices only make sense through the implicit and tacit knowledge that a user brings to them. Studying interactions with technology are therefore as much about studying the user as they are about studying the object.
  9. How do you collect data as a phenomenologist? Phenomenologists typically access lived experience through interviews and participant reflections (either written or oral). An interview approach called Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is one example of a methodological framework that uses phenomenology as its starting point.
  10. Phenomenological enquiries are likely to foreground the lived experience through four ‘lifeworld existentials’ (Veletsianos and Miller, 2008): body, time, space, relations with others.

At the end of this exercise, the questions I’m left asking are:

What are the glaring gaps in my breakdown of phenomenology?

Is this a positive exercise or does it lead to the reduction of ideas?

What concepts/approaches in embodiment would I struggle to do this exercise for?

By Mona Sakr

A discussion of the term ‘intercorporeality’ and its relevance to embodiment in digital environments.

 The term ‘intercorporeality’ simultaneously foregrounds the social nature of the body and the bodily nature of social relationships. As a concept, it emphasizes the role of social interactions in the construction and behaviours of the body: ‘the experience of being embodied is never a private affair, but is always mediated by our continual interactions with other human and nonhuman bodies’ (Weiss, 1999, p. 5). At the same time, it suggests that our existence in relation to others – our intersubjectivity – is something tangible and bodily (Csordas, 2008).

 Intercorporeality is a relevant concept for understanding embodied experiences in digital environments because as Kim (2001) suggests, digital environments open up new opportunities for intercorporeal practices. Through bodies, we can share and extend our ‘bodily experiences’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

Consider the following examples:

  • Through a webcam, I can see into locations that go beyond those that immediately surround me in physical space,
  • Through social media, I can extend my grip on others and touch the lives of others though they are not physically close to me (see Springgay, 2005),
  • Through my phone, I can audio record others’ voices and hear again the past and the interactions it comprised.

The words ‘see’, ‘touch’ and ‘hear’ demonstrate the extent to which social interactions are bodily. The examples above suggest that digital environments can impact on the body’s perceptions and sensations and this will, in turn, affect the way we interact with others – our intercorporeal practices.

Csordas, T. J. (2008) Intersubjectivity and intercorporeality. Subjectivity, 22(1), 110-121.

Kim, J. (2001) Phenomenology of digital-being. Human studies, 24(1-2), 87-111.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Springgay, S. (2005) Thinking through bodies: Bodied encounters and the process of meaning making in an e-mail generated art project. Studies in Art Education, 47 (1), 34-50.

Weiss, G. (1999) Body images: Embodiment as intercorporeality. New York: Routledge.

By Mona Sakr

Exploring the usefulness of the ‘body-thing dialogue’ metaphor for understanding embodied interaction in digital environments

In 2006, Larssen, Robertson & Edwards presented the paper ‘How it feels, not just how it looks: When bodies interact with technology’ at the Australian Computer-Human Interaction conference (OZCHI). In this paper, they suggest that  the embodied nature of interactions with technology can be accessed by thinking about each interaction as a body-thing dialogue. The body-thing dialogue is the bodily interaction that occurs between an individual and an artifact. The body-thing dialogue happens through the mode of movement and makes possible the potential for action that forms the basis of the interaction. Through this metaphor, Larssen et al. hoped to shift the focus towards the bodily nature of interactions with technologies – the extent to which these experiences are physically felt.

I would argue that the body-thing dialogue is a useful metaphor in some ways and a misleading one in other ways.

It is useful because it draws attention to the distinct and temporal nature of each embodied interaction:

  • Every dialogue we engage in is different. Similarly, in human-computer interaction each interaction with technology unfolds in a specific way and in a particular context. Flow diagrams based on a non-existent ‘typical’ user do not help us to access the nature of embodied interaction.
  • Every dialogue unfolds over time and can radically change from moment to moment. Similarly, each embodied interaction takes place over time and is historical – each aspect of the interaction happens in relation to the aspects that have preceded it.

But the metaphor of the body-thing dialogue is also a misleading way to think about embodied interactions in digital environments:

  • Movement is a different mode to speech, with different opportunities and constraints. Is it right to apply the notion of ‘dialogue’ in the context of movement?
  • Can we apply the term ‘dialogue’ to make sense of the way movements unfold between ‘a body’ and ‘a thing’? Certainly, the movements of the body and the movements of an object are not equivalents in the way that the speech of two human participants is.
  • Larssen et al. suggest that the body-thing dialogue is a useful way of looking at ‘how we use our proprioceptive sense and motor skills when incorporating a tool in our bodily space so that it becomes an extension of our bodies’ (p. 2). The notion of dialogue takes us away, however, from the concept of incorporation. In a dialogue, there is self and other – the object responds to us, rather than becoming an extension of us.

So what alternative metaphors or conceptual tools enable us to think about embodied interaction in digital environments? I have yet to come across a theory that helps to frame interactions with artefacts so that the focus is on the body and felt experience, but does not trip into the pitfalls outlined above. We need to conceptualise interactions as physical couplings without using metaphors that draw on other modes of communication.

Larssen, A. T., Robertson, T., & Edwards, J. (2006, November). How it feels, not just how it looks: when bodies interact with technology. In Proceedings of the 18th Australia conference on Computer-Human Interaction: Design: Activities, Artefacts and Environments (pp. 329-332). ACM.