Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 3, 2000
John Wood, ed. The Virtual Embodied: Presence/Practice/Technology Routledge, 1998. 226 pp.; 21 b/w ills. Paper $24.99 (041516026X)

John Wood’s edited book is an engaging volume that links theoretical and artistic explorations of information technology. Although the two are currently not as complementary as I would desire, the book suggests the great potential for such collaborations. The five sections of the book contain high-caliber work covering a sweeping range of topics, including virtual reality, knowledge production, ethics, and performance art. The first two sections of the book are theoretical. The other three sections describing artistic projects are strong in their own right, but do not sufficiently complement the theoretical chapters.

The main impetus for the book lies in the collaborators’ concern for issues related to information technology and “Nature.” The theoretical chapters lead to a Spinozian ethical articulation of nature, in an embodied and holistic sense. This book goes far beyond a superficial critique of the Cartesian dualisms that predominate in modernist discourse on technology, instead developing a substantial analysis of the Platonic ideals of mimesis and repetition that permeate modern aesthetics. In contrast, cyberspace and virtual realities (such as digital chat rooms and interactive computer environments), the authors argue, are based upon a post-structuralist concept of embodied experience.

This book originated in a conference “Embodied Knowledge and Virtual Space,” held at Goldsmiths College, University of London in 1995, and developed through the meetings and discussions that followed. The post-conference discussions and editing appear to have been very important to the development of this book. Woodˇs preface anchors the rest of the book, shedding light on the philosophical, ethical, and artistic motivations that some chapters go on to develop in great depth. However, neither Wood’s framework nor the theoretical sections amply prepare the reader for the artistic explorations, both textual and photographic, which depart from the linear structure that the theoretical chapters observe. The radical shift in perspective leads to an invigorating juxtaposition of theory and art that emboldens the reader to engage in her/his own explorations of the “Virtual Embodied.” I only wish that the artistically orientated chapters would reference the theoretical chapters in a more explicit form. The marked divergence between theory and art unfortunately leaves much of the consideration of embodiment to the reader’s imagination.

The five sections of the book, “Embodied Knowledge and Virtual Space,” "Nature and Virtue, “Embodying Truth,” “When Becoming meets Becoming,” and “Between Saying and Showing,” are extremely varied. The first section is the most philosophical of the three, developing the themes of mimesis, repetition, and embodiment from John Wood’s preface. I especially enjoyed Victor Seidler’s chapter on the section’s topic, “Embodied Knowledge and Virtual Space.” Seidler clearly lays out the limitations of Cartesian approaches to understanding virtual space as disconnected from our own identity and knowledge of the world. Instead, he develops a notion of embodied knowledge that articulates virtual space as a space for learning more about our ourselves. This chapter is exemplary for its clear writing style and well-thought ideas representing the book’s overall arguments. John Monk continues Seidler’s probing of the question of identity in virtual space and turns the emphasis to performative aspects in the creation of a “digital unconscious.” Max Velmans brings this section to a close by presenting his work on a phenomenological model of reflexive cognition. This chapter is a valuable summary of an approach that lies close to Sherry Turkle’s better-known work on cyber-identity.

The second section, titled “Nature and Virtue,” also begins with a decidedly philosophical turn in Andy Goffey’s examination of Spinoza’s ethics and perspective on nature. Goffey clearly outlines the ways in which Spinoza departs from Descartes’ emphasis on the subject and the necessity of subjugating the body through the mind. For Spinoza, humans are caught up in a never-ending web of relations, connected to everything in nature. Ethics are our experience of nature; mathematics can describe nature, although it can never give us the essence of things. Virtue is not the correspondence between morality and the web of nature, but an ongoing reflection on our embodied presence in the flux between virtual realities and the physical environment. Damien Keown takes up these issues from a Buddhist perspective. His focus is on virtual reality, specifically the relationship between the self and the external world and meditation as a technique for creating virtual reality. In examining these issues, Keown takes a clear stand: reality is to be preferred to appearances. The dangers of virtual reality, he believes, call for serious engagement with its potential abuse. A chapter by John Wood concludes this section by proposing what he calls “convivial technologies”; he asks us, for example, to imagine wristwatches that would not keep linear clock time, but rather would support an asymmetrical, emotional time that would account for the experienced “lived time” of the wearer. This watch would measure a romantic moment as much longer than the wait to board a plane.

Section three turns to issues of representation and becomes more visual in orientation. Gustav Metzger raises the point in his brief chapter that the images produced by the Hubble telescope (and by extension all remote sensing devices) are the icons of belief and domination; in other words, they are essentially an artist’s articulation of Foucault’s concept of power. Peter Cresswell discusses problems inherent in plane projection and presents a three-dimensional, radial perspective that, through a special stereographic viewer, would permit the observer to see all possible points in a space defined by a cone between infinity and the eye. Cresswell maintains that radial perspective is superior to plane projection, which is geometrically accurate only at the center of the image. Another call for a change in perspective occurs in the final chapter, where Lisa Blackman presents thought—provoking arguments for considering technology as a discursive and signifying practice that transforms subjectivity. Hoping to move beyond the limits of a Cartesian perspective, Blackman calls for a looking-glass perspective that embeds the human subject in virtual reality rather than one that places the subject in the center of a mirrored reality.

Section four contains three chapters that radically depart from the previous sections and invoke concepts and ideals to guide the aesthetic development of virtual reality. Robert Wells explores the historical, material aspects of the landscape garden in contrast to virtual “gardens.” His “Muddy Path Manifesto” calls for rooting the social construction of Nature in embodied actions and observations. Olu Taiwo deploys rhythm to develop a circular rather than linear form that involves a group of people, in order to break down the subject/object dichotomy. Maria Pini ends this section with an exploration of the culture of ravers.

The last section, titled “Between Saying and Showing” begins with an examination of the role of imagery in representing events. For Claudia Wegener, footsteps in soot left after a disastrous fire in a German airport show the emptiness of photographic revelation. Following Barthes, she asserts that the photograph reveals itself and takes on meaning only through discourse. Margot Butler follows with a stimulating chapter that examines the question of how knowledge is embodied through figuration, and advocates turning the book (in a general sense) into a performative artistic device for questioning the reader’s experiences. The last two chapters engage ethical issues through gender and post-colonial politics.

In spite of its varied contents, The Virtual Embodied presents a valuable juxtapostition of speculative texts, written from different perspectives, and artwork that radically engages the reader. One hopes that this book will inspire many more such collaborations.

Francis Harvey
University of Kentucky.