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CMC Magazine: December 1998 http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1998/dec/lauria.html


A Qualitative Journey into Questions of Virtuality

Book Review: The Virtual Embodied: Presence|Practice|Technology
Edited by John Wood
Routledge, 1998
$25 (US)
ISBN 0-415-16026-X
225 pages, indexed

Reviewed by Angela E. Lauria

Marshall McLuhan said "People don't actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath." If that's the case, then some might liken the experience of reading The Virtual Embodied to being thrown into a cold shower. Edited by John Wood, a professor at the University of London's Goldsmiths College, this collection of writings uses "the metaphor of embodiment to explore the ways in which we notice the world, acquire knowledge, make informed decisions, and act out our perceived roles in society" (p.1). For those who still feel quantitative analysis is essential to establishing the validity of ideas, this book will leave you cold: it's not for you. The methods of exploration here are entirely qualitative. Yet while the work falls more in the realm of the human sciences than more traditional CMC writing, the issues raised in the book are clearly of interest to many who study CMC.


The true strength of this work lies in the process through which it came to be. In a rare showing of academic camaraderie, the books' contributors gathered over the course of two or three years to practice Aristotle's rules of rhetoric -- each author expressing the ideas of his argument orally and without notes.



The topics and the success of the contributions vary to extremes. They are held together loosely by examining Western cultural ideas of human nature in a globalized technocentric world. Viewing the concept of embodiment through this lens works particularly well because of the paradox of cyberspace. The Internet is a medium which at once demands a holistic manifestation by the user while simultaneously serving as an effective escape from physical presence. In editing this book, Wood's goal was to present 'technologies-truths' of the 'mind-body-presence' in 'space-time'. Indeed, this volume speaks to those issues and goes beyond by questioning society's most basic cultural assumptions.

As in any volume of collected articles, the goal of consistent quality of the work is difficult to achieve. Wood circumvents this problem by pulling together such a broad spectrum of styles that comparison is unfeasible. What is comparable, though, is the level of readability and usefulness of the ideas within each contribution. However, here, the book falls victim to its own cleverness.

The collection, in addition to several scholarly essays, includes submissions as varied and untraditional as a cyberhostess marketing proposal; a list of loosely connected ideas on gardening and virtual images; parodies of mass email jokes; a play about the validity of the human sciences; a linguistic snapshot of the Hubble telescope's ability to 'see' and a truly bizarre, sometimes stream-of-conscious look at a photo taken after a fire in a German airport.

The book purports to offer these different approaches as a way of having "fun" with the topic. Without a doubt, there were instances where I did have a good time and even laughed while reading this book. At times, though, I was frustrated by my inability to have fun with certain articles because I lacked the background knowledge to enjoy them. For instance, I am neither a gardener nor a dancer or artist so the pieces in The Virtual Embodied that seemed to speak directly to people versed in those fields were difficult to read and in some respects an exercise in futility. Others, however, such as the article on Buddhist perspective of virtual reality, spoke specifically to interests I have and were therefore highly enjoyable.



In addition to changes in our concepts of space, time and truth, one of the recurring themes at the core of this collection is a high regard for nature and the environment. The green position is explored most fully by examining shifts in the locality of human actions.


In short, I am hard pressed to imagine a reader who would be interested in all of the contributions in this book. Yet in terms of content, I suspect most readers will find only one or two pieces in the collection useful and/or entertaining.

The true strength of this work lies in the process through which it came to be. In a rare showing of academic camaraderie, the books' contributors gathered over the course of two or three years to practice Aristotle's rules of rhetoric -- each author expressing the ideas of his argument orally and without notes. Through process of sharing, an unusually deep understanding of each others' work clearly emerged. Those connections are what bring the brightest illuminations to the text. In several places, in fact, works within the volume are cross-referenced, which facilitates experiencing the book as a whole instead of a series of unrelated works. It also enables the work to crystallize better than any other collection I have been exposed to.

Wood splits the selections into five parts. In the first, "Embodied Knowledge and Virtual Space" three relatively cogent arguments lay out the foundation for the book. The next, "Nature and Virtue," addresses ethics for the 21st Century. "Embodying Truth," the third section, offers three very different looks at how we find truth and where it is situated. These are anchored by Lisa M. Blackman's "Culture, Technology and Subjectivity: an ethical analysis," which provides an excellent assessment of freedom's role in the positioning of truth. In the fourth section entitled `When Becoming Meets Becoming', the contributions are based on art forms with selections about gardening, music, dance and rave culture. The final section `Between Saying and Showing', rounds out the collection with some humorous, creative and off-beat accounts of the embodiment of virtuality.

Each part of the book is threaded through the prior sections, creating a tightly-woven patchwork of seemingly disconnected ideas.

In addition to changes in our concepts of space, time and truth, one of the recurring themes at the core of this collection is a high regard for nature and the environment. The green position is explored most fully by examining shifts in the locality of human actions. In his introduction, Wood explains, " It is possible that this crucial shift in perspective has helped to diminish our regard for the environment. By believing reality to be `out there' and ideas to be `in here,' we distance ourselves from nature, philosophically and spiritually, and this continues to invite dangerous consequences in environmentalist terms." (p. 4)

Unconventional approaches are not only common in this book, they are quintessential to the spirit of the writing. The collaborators take us on some unexpected journeys but ultimately arrive (usually) at the same destinations. This sense of unity would not be surprising from a collection of essays based on a more narrowly-defined subject or the writings of one or two specific thinkers. Instead, the contributors to this book developed theories in a distinct range of areas and yet, in many cases, the ideas come together quite well. Sometimes, though, the connections between pieces were forced. Such is the case with Peter Cresswell's offering about a linear perspective drawing system and Olu Taiwo's piece about curved perceptions on music and dance -- two interesting, but just off-topic, offerings.


In general, the book is steadfast in its refusal to suggest neither a technophobic nor technophilic view. It offers, instead, another option where both the positive and negative attributes of technology can co-exist.



The biggest contribution from interdisciplinary articles like those offered by Cresswell and Taiwo lies simply in their mere inclusion. Wood makes a point of including alternative strategies to indicate a re-worked aesthetic for embodying knowledge. It is only through examples like these that we can begin to construct a more functional idea of cultural studies.

The strongest contributions to this volume are more traditional in style. Blackman's ''Culture, Technology and Subjectivity ''examines "how particular notions of freedom and autonomy have come to define virtual space, and what relation those meanings attached to new technologies circulating within popular culture can tell us about the way we conceive of ourselves and the world in which we live" (p. 132). She steers us on this journey with a clarity that is exceptional, especially when we consider the lack of perspective available on CMC issues. Her metaphor of virtual space as a looking-glass rather than as a mirror is helpful to understanding the idea that virtual reality will serve us best when it is not subject to dichotomous Western ideas.

Andy Goffey makes effective use of Spinoza's 'Ethics in suggesting a monistic view of CMC and Damien Keown invites readers who are not familiar with Eastern religions to open their minds to the Buddhist Perspective of virtual reality in his excellent contribution, ''Embodying Virtue''. John Monk's ''The Digital Unconscious'' offers a sometimes-shocking account of how the individual unconscious is no longer tucked away in a corner of our minds, but rather it is absorbed by the web of online technology that tracks and stores our interests, identities and credit card numbers.

In general, the book is steadfast in its refusal to suggest neither a technophobic nor technophilic view. It offers, instead, another option where both the positive and negative attributes of technology can co-exist. The collection's strength is in bringing together research from diverse disciplines, allowing for deeper investigation of the concept of the embodiment of human thought under the umbrella of new technologies. The work in this book is best suited to professors and graduate students interested in the human sciences/cultural studies approach to CMC. Many of the ideas presented are of potentially great value to creative thinkers prepared to unlock the mysteries of this approach.

lala@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu Angela E. Lauria (lala@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu) is a graduate student in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington DC.

Copyright (c) 1998 by Angela E. Lauria. All Rights Reserved.

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