Archives for posts with tag: ‘reading’ the body

I found jotting down 10 things I know about phenomenology a helpful exercise for consolidating and summarizing knowledge of a central approach in embodiment research. Over the last few weeks, I have repeatedly come across the term ‘Somaesthetics’ in relation to embodiment and have done some preliminary reading on the term. In an effort to make sense of the fledgling understanding I’ve gained, I decided to try the ’10 things I know’ approach again. Without looking at books, notes or papers, I scribbled down the following:

1. Somaesthetics is an emerging discipline primarily proposed by Richard Shusterman, who argues for it to sit within Philosophy, and more specifically the philosophical sub-discipline of Aesthetics.

2. Somaesthetics as a discipline foregrounds the role of bodily experience in aesthetic appreciation. Shusterman argues that it will offer a more substantial and systematic framework for research on the body.

3. Somaesthetics comprises three branches: Analytic somaesthetics; Pragmatic somaesthetics; Practical somaesthetics

Somaesthetics Diagram

4. Analytic somaesthetics comprises interpretive studies of bodily practice. These occur on a theoretical level and would include research linking the body and bodily practices with the organization of society and the individual psyche. Shusterman argues that the work of Foucault, Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty would all constitute analytic somaesthetics.

5. Pragmatic somaesthetics comprises bodies of thought that suggest ways of training or harnessing bodily experience. Practices such as Tai Chi and the Alexander Technique are accompanied by ideas and theories of the body and these would belong to this branch of pragmatic somaesthetics.

6. Practical somaesthetics consists of the practice itself – the Tai Chi, or the yoga, or the Alexander Technique. It is not entirely clear which bodily practices Shusterman chooses to accept within practical somaesthetics. He seems to place less value on athletics or football, and much more on solitary practices that reference bodily understanding more explicitly.

7. In foregrounding the body in aesthetic experience, Shusterman argues that a distinction needs to be drawn between representational foregrounding and experiential foregrounding. In the former, the body is seen and treated as an external object. In the latter, the body is a fundamental part or vehicle of lived experience.

8. Critiques of somaesthetics include the linking of the discipline to normative approaches to the body. Somaesthetics places a value on the physical cultivation of the body and this is reminiscent of doctrines that treat the body as an object to be molded into a form that conforms to the social ideal.

9. Shusterman’s response to this critique rests on the distinction he makes between representational and experiential foregrounding of the body. Thus, he argues that cultivating the body as it is experienced (rather than as it is represented) does not relate to social norms, but rather to the improvement of individual perception and action.

10. Shusterman advocates that there is a role for somaesthetics in education since it enables us to ‘feel better’ in both senses of the phrase. Cultivating bodily practices heightens our sensations and perceptions of the world around us; they also encourage us to be more in control and more caring of the self.

The combination of theoretical and practical approaches to the body certainly makes the discipline of somaesthetics an interesting prospect, but I am left with questions about the possibility and worth of trying to merge these perspectives. Shusterman’s framework makes such a sharp and convincing distinction between analytic, pragmatic and practical somaesthetics, that it isn’t clear how it draws these together at all. How are Foucault’s theories of the body related to the theory or practice of yoga? How can somaesthetics help us to access this relationship? Is this a relationship that should exist given how different the objectives related to each project are? Certainly, I believe that theorists of the body can learn much from bodily practices and practitioners who work with the body, but what is the benefit of binding them together in a single discipline?

Shusterman, R. (2008) Body consciousness: A philosophy of mindfulness and somaesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shusterman, R. (2006) Thinking through the body, educating for the humanities: A plea for somaesthetics. The journal of aesthetic education, 40(1), 1-21.

By Mona Sakr

Some thoughts about the role of gaze in students’ historical inquiry a digitally augmented local site of interest

I’m currently analyzing data from a project looking at students’ exploration of a digitally augmented local site of interest. The students used iPads to engage with the WW2 history of the local common and the experiences of people in the area during the war. One of our research focuses is how being in situ can facilitate students’ inquiry about the past. How do students use both the physical and the digital environments to support their learning and interactions?

In coming to a multimodal analysis of students’ embodied experiences of time and place, I suspected that movement would be important to students’ inquiry. I had hypothesized that movement would enable them to make links between different areas on the common. However, what I hadn’t  previously thought much about was the way that gaze would also be an essential tool in enabling inquiry about the past.

Research on gaze has tended to position it as either an indicator of attention (as in psychological research) or as a key instrument in social interaction (as in sociology and conversation analysis). But in our project on students’ inquiry on the Common, gaze acted as a thinking tool. In particular, the movement of their gaze back and forth between the digital environment of the iPad and the physical environment of the local common enabled them to engage simultaneously with the past and the present, comparing these points in time.

Gaze as a thinking tool 1

Gaze as a thinking tool 2

In an illustrative clip (picture above), two students are discussing how they think they would have felt if they had had to live in a deep shelter under the common during WW2. They talk about what they would have missed and constantly their gaze moves between the image of the shelter on the iPad screen and the physical environment that surrounds them – an environment that they describe as ‘free’. Gaze enables them to regularly re-engage with the present day environment so that they can work through abstract ideas or associations they have about the space.

To see more about this project, watch our video about embodied experiences of Clapham Common and students’ historical inquiry.

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.

An update on a current research project looking at body and space in the context of mobile technologies

By Mona Sakr

Mobile technologies have particular features that are likely to change individuals’ embodied experiences of places. Here at MODE, we’re conducting a research project to look at the influence of mobile technologies on young students’ navigation and exploration of a local site of interest and its cultural history.

We have designed a digital environment on the iPad for 10-11 year olds that allows them to explore the WW2 history of Clapham Common. The modified Evernote app, which you can see in the figure below, encourages individuals to move around the common while accessing visual, written and audio information about the history of the common. Users are also encouraged to upload their own photos and audio recordings about their experience of the common.

App environment for exploring Clapham Common

App environment for exploring Clapham Common

Our research questions probe the possibility that particular features of mobile technologies change the way individuals experience a place. In particular, we are interested in how these features change what the body is doing (the embodied experience of the place) and how this in turn affects the overall experience.

A mad flurry of data collection has happened over the past  fortnight. Working with 60 students at a primary school in Clapham, we collected a range of video data on their experiences of the common while using the mobile digital environment on the iPad. This data included researcher-generated video, headcam video and bodycam video. The video was supplemented with GPS trackings, and the photos and audio recordings that the students created while exploring the Common in pairs.

Researcher-generated video

Researcher-generated video

Headcam video

Headcam video

Before and after the experience, the students recorded their thoughts and feelings about the common via a series of classroom activities, including map-making and recounting the route they had taken on a mapped floor.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll begin to get to grips with all the data we’ve collected. As well as engaging with the research questions about embodied experiences, we are trying to determine how different forms of digital data can enable us to engage with embodiment and embodied experiences of place on an empirical level.  


By Mona Sakr

Antle, Corness & Droumeva (2009) consider the importance of embodied metaphors in user interface design.

An embodied metaphor links elements of an embodied schema to an abstract concept. For example, we use verticality to talk about hierarchy (‘going up the career ladder’) and proximity to talk about relationships (‘they’re so close!’).

How can these types of metaphor aid the development of intuitive interfaces i.e. interfaces that offer immediate success and do what you expect them to. Antle et al. predicted that interaction in a digital environment was better supported when the body was used to control output, rather than a particular input device, and when the the link between whole-body movement and output relies on typical embodied metaphors.

To explore this, they looked at adults in an auditory environment in which whole body movements could be used to control pitch and volume. Rather than tell participants what types of movement would control sound, they observed how long participants took to determine the link between input and output. When this was done quickly, they recognised the interaction as ‘intuitive’. As predicted, common embodied metaphors (e.g. volume being related to up/down movements) helped participants to interact with the digital environment in a more intuitive way.

In conclusion, the researchers suggested that this highlighted the importance of ‘leveraging embodied metaphors in design’ (p. 252).

Antle, A. N., Corness, G., & Droumeva, M. (2009). Human-computer-intuition? Exploring the cognitive basis for intuition in embodied interaction. International Journal of Arts and Technology, 2(3), 235-254.

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

Embodiment isn’t just about recognising the importance of the body. It highlights the need to ‘read’ bodily actions and make sense of the semiotic work that these actions are doing. In a current project, I am attempting to make sense of the work done by different hand actions in the context of scientific inquiry. Is it possible to map hand actions to stages in scientific inquiry?

‘Reading’ parts of the body requires classification systems – systems that will make sense of all of the types of movement that can be performed. Hands might be used to move objects, to ‘know’ the texture or weight of objects, to gesture at objects present, or to gesture about objects absent. Systems designed to classify these types of hand action are a starting point for making sense of embodied forms of interaction.

One such system – based very much on function rather than form – is presented by Streeck (2009) in Gesturecraft. Streeck presents 6 categories of hand action, or, as he calls them, ‘gesture ecologies’. What do you think of the distinctions he draws?

1. Making sense of the world at hand (moving and touching objects)

2. Disclosing the world within sight (drawing attention to a shared visual focus e.g. through pointing)

3. Depiction (gestures used to represent content)

4. Thinking by hand (gesture that facilitates thought e.g. grasping at the air when you are trying hard to describe something)

5. Displaying communicative action (showing or foreshadowing aspects of the communicative act)

6. Ordering and mediating transactions (regulating the input of other participants; managing your interaction in an exchange)

But there are problems with classification systems that work purely on function, just as there are problems with those that relate purely to form. If we classify movements and actions only on the basis of function, how do we go about making the classification? It becomes an activity that relies entirely on ‘reading’ the surrounding context – you don’t end up ‘reading’ the body at all. For example, in order to know whether someone is currently ‘thinking by hand’, I would need to know what’s going on in their mind.

On the other hand, systems based only on form (e.g. those that distinguish pointing from grasping) are only helpful when making sense of the body’s semiotic work if you assume that the work of the body is inflexible – that form maps neatly, one-to-one, onto function. We know that isn’t the case… we know that pointing isn’t always about establishing a shared reference point, and we know that establishing a shared reference point isn’t always done through pointing.

What you need is a system that takes both form and function into account, one that encourages the user to think about the surrounding context – the ‘multimodal ensemble of activity’ (Goodwin, 2001) – but at the same time enables some insights to be made on the basis of the body itself.

Streeck, J. (2009) Gesturecraft: The manu-facture of meaning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Comapny. 

By Mona Sakr

Title: “Stories and embodied memories in dementia”

Speaker: Lars-Christer Hyden, Linköping University, Sweden

Today’s seminar at the London Knowledge Lab (offered by MODE in conjunction with NOVELLA) was a fascinating insight into the role of the body in the articulation of memories by individuals suffering from dementia. The seminar considered video analysis of interviews as a way of re-thinking our conceptualisations of memory and memory loss, and the importance of the body in storing, retrieving and communication memories.

Lars-Christer Hyden is a professor of Social Psychology at Linköping University in Sweden and director of the Centre for Dementia Research (CEDER). His research focuses on communication and narrative in the context of dementia. He is currently conducting studies into the experience of dementia among couples and the various semiotic tools that are used in storytelling by individuals with dementia.

Hyden’s work uses the notion of embodiment in two ways. Firstly, he draws attention to the communicative body. He argues that there is a need to explore how the body is used as a semiotic tool in the construction of narrative, particularly when language is negatively affected by dementia. Secondly, through the concept of embodied cognition, he suggests that we can begin to question traditional models of memory that highlight abstract and analytical cognition as opposed to embodied experience. Recent research has demonstrated the extent to which memories are based on sensory experience rather than abstract events.

In the seminar, we looked at a short video clip from an interview with a woman who has dementia. By focusing on gaze, gesture and language, Hyden demonstrated the extent to which language and gesture had different semiotic functions in this context. While language is analytical, gestures are syncretic i.e. they are conducted and interpreted as complete ‘wholes’ of communication. As a result, gestures were used to facilitate communication when the language necessary to communicate a particular idea wasn’t available.

Taking this idea further, Hyden argued that depending on the semiotic tools we use to share memories with others, the nature of memory changes. When we expect memories to be communicated via language, they become analytical and disembodied entities. By focusing on the role of the body in communicating memories, we are focusing on the embodied experiences that are the basis of memory formation and thereby re-thinking the construct of memory.

Hyden’s conclusions were followed by a range of observations and questions from the audience. To mention one example – an audience member drew attention to suggestions that language use itself becomes more syncretic as dementia progresses. These findings would support the importance of gesture as a tool to convey ‘wholes’ of experience, but it also suggests that within modes, different types of semiotic work can be achieved. Language is not necessarily analytical, and perhaps gesture is not necessarily syncretic.

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)

boat race 1

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?