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
- Phenomenology is the study of lived experience.
- The founder of phenomenology was the German philosopher Husserl, who lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century.
- Heidegger, Husserl’s student, was fundamental in developing the field of existential phenomenology.
- In 1927, Heidegger wrote Being and Time, a central text in phenomenology.
- 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).
- In 1945, Merleau-Ponty wrote a book called Phenomenology of Perception. It is another central text in phenomenology.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
By Mona Sakr
A few days ago, I talked about Streeck’s taxonomy of gesture in Gesturecraft. It’s now time to share the taxonomy of hand action we’ve developed at the lab in response to a study of the hands in scientific inquiry. This taxonomy relates particularly to scientific inquiry contexts (though it may be useful for looking at hand action in other forums of experience) and is based on ‘reading’ both the form and function of hand actions. It’s inspired by literature in the field and video analysis of students involved in inquiry learning about the behaviour of light.
1. Ergotic movements
Ergotic movements are those that change the surrounding environment . Such movements may involve changing the position of an object, or attempting to change its physical properties. In the context of scientific inquiry, ergotic movements are necessary in order to facilitate observations of particular phenomena.
2. Epistemic movements
Epistemic movements are those that enable an individual to know more about the physical properties of an object. While ergotic movements are designed to change the surrounding environment, epistemic movements enable better perception of the surrounding environment e.g. through feeling the texture of an object.
3. Deictic gesture
Deictic gestures are used to point to or physically highlight objects or areas in the physical world. They may be used to draw attention to a representational field or a particular aspect within a field.
4. Re-enactment gestures
While deictic gestures draw attention to particular parts of the environment, re-enactment gestures focus on descriptive processes and so have an added temporal dimension of expression. Through using re-enactment gestures processes that are otherwise too fast to be visible can be slowed down.
5. Ideational gestures
While all of the actions described above relate to physical phenomena that are present, ideational gestures can be used to indicate content that is not present in any respect, like abstract ideas or previous experiences. In the context of scientific inquiry, students may wish to invoke previously learned knowledge in order to make sense of what is currently occurring. Gesture may be helpful in this because it constitutes a way of representing absent knowledge.
By Mona Sakr
‘Just as others have argued that it is through our ways of seeing the world that we become viewing subjects (see Crang, 1997), it is through our bodies that we become doing subjects.’ (p. 261)
Jaworski, A. & Thurlow, C. (2011) Gesture and movement in tourist spaces. In C. Jewitt (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 253 – 263.
By Mona Sakr
In my last post, I talked about the link between bodies and ‘self’ and I suggested three ways of thinking about this relationship:
PERFORMANCE (bodies perform the ‘self’)
MOMENTS (bodily moments make up the ‘self’)
MEDIATION (experience is mediated by the body)
Watching the boat race this weekend, they seemed like a good way of making sense of the part that bodies played in this spectacle, and a starting point for further questions about the body…
PERFORMANCE: In sports, we use every trick we have to create the conditions for our success. Part of this is using our bodies to perform to others. We use our bodies to perform competence, to perform victory. Before the boat race began, the competitors inhabited their bodies in particular ways. They sat up straight, they looked straight ahead, they embodied the role of fierce and focused competitor. In moments of physical exhaustion, the performance crumbled… At the finish line, the individual in ‘stroke’ position in the Oxford boat, collapsed backwards and was dribbling. It took him a few minutes to regain composure and embody the role of victor. When can we perform and when can we not? What role do the moments of non-performance play in the making of ‘self’?
MOMENTS: I can’t say for sure, but I would guess that the individuals taking part in the boat race will remember it for a long time to come. What will they remember? Will they remember the physical exhaustion and exhilaration? They might well talk about these aspects of the experience, but is it possible to remember bodily experience? Try remembering what it’s like to feel cold when you’re hot, or what it’s like to feel nervous when you’re relaxed. What is the relationship between body and memory?
MEDIATION: Not everyone can participate in the boat race. Not everyone has a body that fits the bill. Only the men’s boat race is televised. Bodies allow us to own certain experiences and not others, so can they be conceptualised as currency?
By Mona Sakr
Yesterday, MODE hosted a training day on embodiment in digital environments. The day was brimming with ideas, approaches and contexts. They all stemmed however, from the central concept that the body plays an essential role in human experience – so essential that theoretical divides between mind and body are difficult, if not impossible, to make.
Digital environments highlight the need to prioritise the body and help to explain why embodiment as a framework has become increasingly popular over the last twenty years. But these environments also call into question the very idea of the body (ie. what we mean by ‘body’) and its role in learning and experience. They enable us to grapple in new ways with old ideas about embodiment, and at the same time they demand that we ask new questions about embodiment as a concept and theory.
New and old questions about embodiment were explored through a wide range of research contexts as represented by the day’s speakers and in the mini-workshops:
- Caroline Pelletier questioned what it means to represent the body realistically in the context of surgical simulation, and the different genres of representation that can be invoked in such environments.
- Carey Jewitt and Sara Price looked at the positioning of the body in children’s scientific inquiry using tangible technologies. Using multimodal analysis, they demonstrated the importance of the body for setting the rhythm and pace of social interaction and learning.
- Anton Franks and Andrew Burns introduced the concepts of frame, affect, action, role and voice in analysing the computer games that young people construct.
- Niall Winters introduced the possibility that individuals’ tactical spatial practices are changed through their use of mobile technologies. Participants in the seminar had hands-on experience of how this might happen by exploring the area surrounding the London Knowledge Lab while using apps that encourage users to engage with space differently.