Embodiment (and the Arts)

In one of our meetings today, my advisor was trying to explain to me what ’embodied interaction’ means. I think it is a very interesting way of viewing people, interaction and the world around us in general.

From what I understood (and hopefully rightly so), basically the whole idea of embodiment is that we, as human beings, live in tangible forms called bodies. We need to use our limbs and other bodily features like the eyes, head, and mouth to interact, communicate and carry out tasks. And this inevitably shapes how we interact with, understand and make sense of a host of different things (objects, people, machines, the environment, society at large). We cannot (as of now at least) communicate directly through the mind and through consciousness. If we could do that, our interaction with the world would probably has been tremendously different. A more direct connection and line of understanding I would assume. Designers whose job is to figure out the mental/conceptual model of users would lose their job. But then I may be wrong too, and maybe we’ll never get to know that for sure.

Embodiment also brings attention not only to the fact that we live in bodies, but also the fact that at any point, the bodies exist in a certain place at a certain time, and not in a vacuum. This is important because any external factors present in our surroundings (again, including other people, objects, states, sounds, etc) influence or change the way we interact and create meanings. The outside world is a very complex one, which renders interactions opaque to clear interpretation and understanding.

We thus have to understand at least two external layers before we can understand the interaction in its fullest form (what is its true purpose, its intended meaning, its real potential): the external body and the external world. This leads to embodied interaction being a very broad topic, presenting diverse and interesting research questions. I think much HCI research in this is directed at how to adapt or improve our interactions with the various parties through the use of technologies, given embodiment and all that it entails. These research (and I may be wrong here) seem to consider embodiment as a positive thing. It is I agree a positive thing that creates a whole new level of meaning and experience for us. But even while agreeing that it is a positive thing, I have to say that the whole concept brings to me a certain sadness. The reason is that it makes you realize that despite embodiment, in the end we are all inevitably alone. Each of our minds are separate entities, with no hope of ever connecting. For example we can never ever be sure that the other person in front of us has understood exactly (and I mean, exactly) what you meant, even though he may explain it back to you again in his/her own words. Being embodied beings sure help us to bridge this gap by allowing for gestures, words, manipulation of objects, movement, eye gaze, touch, etc. But still, whatever the number of gestures you do, however you touch, whatever the amount or kind of words you say, the mind, which includes ideas, thoughts, emotions, feelings, is a lone ranger. I think this idea has been recognized in some branch of psychology before but I’m not sure which one or where. I’ll dig it up and post back again.

Ok, enough with the depressing stuff. I have enough depressing thoughts these days to lament further on that. Another thing which I realized following the discussion with my advisor is that embodiment is actually very related to what I want to research on, that is the performing arts. In fact, if I may say so, performing arts is all about embodiment. It’s about how to use the body to communicate, to express your mind, to interact. Yes I know, this is a pretty obvious statement and has surely been acknowledged in all arts research (performing arts research, the relatively few that exist, not necessarily visual arts). And I guess I have known this all along too but though I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, the extent to which embodied interaction and performing arts are intricately meshed together has only just hit me. Maybe I’m just dumb or something “-_-. In any case, I’m hoping to be able to get started reading a book called ‘Bodies in code’ by Mark Hansen and another one called ‘Telematic embrace’ by Roy Ascott soon. I trust that they will shine light on my embroiled and confused thoughts.

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