VR is a literal enactment of Cartesian ontology, cocooning a person as an isolated subject within a field of sensations and claiming that everything is there, presented to the subject.
Richard Coyne
The possession of a body in space, itself part of the space to be apprehended, and that body capable of self-motion in counterplay with other bodies, is the precondition for a vision of the world.
Hans Jonas
Tree Pond, from Osmose (1995)
FIGURE 2.1 Char Davies, Osmose (1995), virtual reality environment. (Courtesy of the artist.)
[Digital frame captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performace of immersive virtual environment Osmose (1995).]

You are floating inside an abstract lattice not unlike the skeletal wireframe models familiar from three-dimensional graphics. You have no visible body at all in the space in front of you, but hear a soundscape of human voices swirling around you as you navigate forward and backward by leaning your body accordingly. Soon the Cartesian gridlines melt away as a forest clearing centering around a great old oak tree appears. Everything in your visual field seems to be constructed of light: branches, trunks, leaves shimmer with a strange luminescence, while in the distance there appears a river of dancing lights. Leaning your body forward, you move toward the boundary of the clearing and pass into another forest zone. You are now enfolded in a play of light and shadow, as leaves phase imperceptibly into darkened blotches and then phase back again, in what seems like a rhythmic perpetuity. Exhaling deeply causes you to sink down through the soil as you follow a stream of tiny lights illuminating the roots of the oak tree.

Soon you sink into an underworld of glowing red rocks that form a deep, luminous cavern beneath the earth. Exhaling again, you sink still further, encountering scrolling walls of green alphanumeric characters that (you will later learn) reproduce the 20,000 some lines of code upon which the world you are in is built. Longing for the vivid images above, you take in a deep breath and hold it, waiting to ascend. After passing once again through the clearing, you enter another world of text, encountering quotations from philosophical and literary sources that seem to bear directly on your experience. "By changing space, by leaving the space of one's usual sensibilities," one passage informs you, "one enters into communications with a space that is psychically innovating ... we do not change place, we change our Nature."[i]

The attention you have been lending to your breathing makes you feel angelic and fleshy: while you float dreamlike, unencumbered by the drag of gravity, your actions are syncopated with your breathing in a way that makes your bodily presence palpable, insistent. Meanwhile, you find yourself floating back down to the clearing, no longer driven to explore, but meditative, content simply to float wherever your bodily leaning and breathing patterns will take you. Now acclimated to the new sensorimotor demands of this interactional domain, you can effortlessly explore the different spaces contained in this world, choosing to follow the river of lights as if swept along by a swarm of fireflies or, alternately, to step into the big oak tree and see its blood-red sap coursing around you or, again, to dive into a pool of shimmering water and let yourself sink into its engulfing embrace.

Yet just at that point when you begin to see the fuzzy pixelated organic forms around you morph into a field of resonant luminosity, you are suddenly thrust outside the world, looking upon what now appears as a gray, bean-shaped blob floating against an empty background. When you realize that you cannot return, you are flooded with a combination of resignation and melancholy which soon gives way to a sense of awe, to a wonder that you have somehow lived the immaterial.

If your experience is anything like that of the many thousands of other "immersants," you will feel that you have lived through something vastly different from what normal life brings and also quite different from what other forms of "virtual reality" afford or, at least, what you imagined them to afford. Here you have lived in harmony with a virtual lifeworld and have felt the dissolution of the hard boundary of the skin that, in ordinary experience and most certainly in most forms of virtual experience, so insistently prevents fluid interchange with the surrounding space. You have let your visual faculty become subordinate as you gained confidence in maneuvering with body movement and breathing. Perhaps most strikingly, you have let the experience of spatial navigation penetrate into your body via the immediately felt physiological modifications produced by the inhalation and exhalation that triggered your vertical movement as well as the bodily leaning that triggered your horizontal movement.'[ii]

As several commentators have pointed out, the work just described— Char Davies' Osmose (1995)—is highly atypical for what currently goes under the rubric "virtual reality art."[iii] Davies' work eschews many of the familiar trappings of computer-based worlds, virtual reality, and game environments, including the primacy normally accorded to detached vision, the use of a joystick or other manipulate navigational tool, the orientation toward a goal, and the hard-edged simulation of a perspectival space. What results is a tactile aesthetics that, as Jennifer Fisher puts it, strives to "deepen the sense of subjective embodiment" by foregrounding the function of bodily modes of experience. "At a time when much VR technology effects a visual dominance and corporeal abstraction," Fisher continues, Davies' solicitation of tactility "both implicates and creates an 'embodied' spectator."[1]

Davies' Osmose is, in the words of another commentator, "the first major immersive VR environment to 'resist' simulation of perspectival space and to attempt to heal the rift between vision and body inherent in conventional virtual reality."[2] Davies herself is credited, by no less an authority than (VMRL inventor) Mark Pesce, with "redefining] our place in cyberspace and mak[ing] the virtual world seem more human than our own."[3] Davies likens her work's difference from more traditional VR environments to the difference between illustration and evocation: "When art evokes," she says, "it's drawing on the experiences of the user. It becomes interactive on a much more subtle level. To me, Osmose looks at immersive space as a place where we can explore what it means to be embodied conscious beings."[4]

My aim in this chapter is to draw out further what makes Davies' art atypical, if not in fact unique, for work that invests in the concrete technology of virtual reality as a means of constituting (one kind of) body-in-code. By purposely deploying low resolution in the HMD, Davies' work actively counters the conventional VR emphasis on vision: indeed, as we shall see, her work compels the viewer-participant to reconfigure her sensory economy, such that (at the very least) vision becomes thoroughly permeated by tactility and proprioception. In the process, Davies successfully deploys the virtual reality interface toward an end—contemplative engagement—that moves it away from the instrumentalism associated with it (and for good reason, as we have seen) by prescient skeptics like Myron Krueger. Indeed, if Davies thus goes as far as possible, within the VR interface, in rendering irrelevant those elements that make it cumbersome and artificial, that is because she deploys VR toward an end that is thoroughly noninstrumental, meaning that it entirely eschews the interface with the physical world seemingly constitutive of today's mixed reality aesthetic. Yet, if Davies' work nonetheless supports the maxim that all VR is mixed reality, that is because it exposes the underlying constitution of the experience of the virtual in embodiment and, more specifically, in proprioception and tactility.

Davies' explicit desire to create an interface to the immaterial can be understood as a fulfillment of a hypothesis: to wit, that disenabling sensory stimulation from a richly material environment would lay bare the embodied processing that serves to confer reality on experience. In a recent commentary, Davies stresses the "hands-free and hands-off" emphasis of her work in a way that perfectly illustrates this retooling of the VR interface into a kind of laboratory for exploring embodiment: in perfect resonance with the movement from actual tactile experience to the embodied technicity of primordial tactility, Davies describes her aim to be that of catalyzing "the interior kinesthetic and proprioceptive experience of being a lived body in space, of self-movement through space, of being enveloped by space" (email to author). She further emphasizes her deliberate choice "not to involve haptic perception," meaning "hands-on or literal touching, skin to skin, surface to surface," so that she could catalyze an experience akin to the interlacing described by Merleau-Ponty—the interlacing "of one's own bodily surface with the visible surfaces of the other(s) ... even though in a virtual environment these are immaterial." As a laboratory for testing the capacity of embodiment to generate reality, Davies' work thus restores virtuality as a dimension of embodied life, as a technicity within the living rather than a (mere) technical artifact that affects life from the outside.

For this reason, Davies' Osmose furnishes an exemplary instance of one kind of "body-in-code": an experience of embodiment that is specifically engineered to breathe life into the immaterial. As she puts it, her environments are designed to foreground the kinesthetic and proprioceptive dimensions of bodily self-movement "in order to enable a fuller (more real) experience of the virtual realm, doing so in such a way that they temporarily deautomate habitual perception and facilitate a 'seeing freshly.'" Osmose creates a body-in-code by harnessing embodied life in the service of conferring reality on the immaterial.

To explore Char Davies' work as a catalyst for the constitution of (one kind of) body-in-code, I shall undertake two relatively autonomous explorations, each of which will make a claim for the centrality of tactility in perception generally and for its specific function within the virtual reality interface. In a first section, I shall build up to an examination of how Davies' work deploys the role of tactility and proprioception in a way that effectively counters the overemphasis on vision on the part of scientists and artists working in virtual reality. Of particular interest will be the resonance between this deployment and philosophical and especially scientific work that supports our preceding claims concerning the emergence of vision from touch. This resonance will serve to underwrite a neo-Bergsonist claim that virtual reality realizes an aesthetic function insofar as it couples new immaterial domains of perception with the "reality"-conferring experience of touch (or what Bergson calls "affection"). [5] In this way, Davies' work simply makes explicit something that forms a crucial dimension in every successful VR simulation: the role played by proprioception and tactility in generating what seems to be an exclusively visual—that is, virtual—simulation.

In a second section, I shall widen the divide separating a tactile aesthetic from a visual one by returning to the topic of the body image. Specifically, I shall enlist Davies' work in a continuing critique of the reduction of bodily experience—here, paradigmatically, of the body's fluid interface with space—to the body image. Insofar as it opens a non-representational and nonvisual affective and proprioceptive experience of the body, Davies' work once again brings to material fruition research in science and philosophy—in this case, by illustrating concretely how the living body exceeds the boundaries of the skin and encompasses parts of the environment.

For this reason, I argue that Davies' work expands the concept of "worldskin" in a way that addresses the complexity of our embodied experience of coupling to the contemporary technosphere. Specifically, her work deploys the confusion of self and space constitutive of the condition of "psychasthenia" in a way that counters its contemporary cultural currency as a simulational or image-based "disorder" [iv]; accordingly, in Osmose, this confusion becomes the catalyst for a reworking of the correlation between bodily and environmental space—a reworking that teaches us how to orient ourselves without needing to see ourselves (or to let the gaze of the other see us) as a point in space. Far from illustrating a confusion of the organism with the representations that surround it, the process triggered by Davies' work spurs a fluid, ongoing, and active interchange with the environment that has the effect of "transcending" the limited (representational) function of the "body schema" (its reduction to the body image). In this way, Davies' work concretely embodies the capacity of technics to facilitate an experience of the "indivision" of the flesh that Merleau-Ponty discovers at the heart of Being and that our previous discussion has now associated with the "originary" technicity (the écart) of primordial tactility.


The rhetoric associated with virtual reality clearly conveys its privileging of the visual register of perception. More than a mere bias of a popular culture that constantly barrages us with the promise of perfect simulation and the lure of disembodied existence, this privileging informs the research aims of scientists interested in virtual reality technology. "The screen is the window through which one sees a virtual world," says VR pioneer Ivan Sutherland. "The challenge is to make that world look real."[6] Researcher Frank Biocca concurs, noting that "the long-term developmental goal of the technology is nothing short of an attempt... to fool eye and mind into seeing ... worlds that are not and never can be." Our aim, Biocca continues, is to transform "[a]n array of light on a visual display [into] a lush landscape in the mind of the viewer."[7]

This privilege accorded the visual has so thoroughly seeped into the practical design of virtual environments (VEs) by scientists, artists, and game designers that it might be said to dictate a kind of de facto standard: hard-edged objects and shapes, distinct spatial demarcations (e.g., into rooms or subworlds), vivid, surreal image quality, and perhaps most centrally, the deployment of a familiar infrastructural Cartesian grid. Conjure up your mental image of virtual reality. What does it present if not some version of this visually optimized, sanitized space? Having by now been streamed and restreamed through all available cultural channels (movies being, perhaps, the most effective one), this standard picture has become so ubiquitous that most of us would not even think of questioning it.

However, rather than stemming from some necessity inherent in the technological interface or even in the makeup of our perceptual apparatus, this visual bias is, in fact, a complex artifact related to the motivating desires and scientific backgrounds of VR developers (largely male engineers) and, more generally, to the pervasive ocularcentrism of Western culture. In a recent study of space, identity, and embodiment in virtual reality, Ken Hillis has criticized the ocularcentrism characteristic of VR research by exposing the false promise of a multisensory interface with informational worlds. As he sees it, this rhetoric masks an underlying investment in the function of vision:

Suggestions that VR's real promise is a corroboration among the senses fail to consider the disjuncture between subordination and corroboration. Subordination to the visual really points to the coordination (and domination) by the visual of our other bodily faculties and senses. VR privileges sight, and other senses play a subordinate role to it. (Hillis, xxii, emphasis added)

To a great extent this claim is borne out by the fact that all branches of VR research currently employ some kind of HMD as a means of empowering vision.

Hillis traces this overvaluation of the visual on the part of VR researchers to the seminal influence of the work of perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson. Throughout his career, Gibson sought to theorize the way we directly perceive aspects of the world by picking up information from what he calls the ambient light.[8] As Jeremy Campbell explains:

Gibson held that all the information needed for perception ... is present in the structure of the light as it is reflected from objects and events in space. The objects and events give the light its specific organization as it reaches the eye. An observer is immersed, drenched in this information, and the perceptual system of the brain is attuned to pick up certain aspects of it, either by means of innate neural circuits or by the fine discrimination which comes with experience.[9]

As Hillis sees it, this notion of direct perception, together with the correlative notion that there are perceptual invariants immediately observable in the visual field, explains Gibsons impact among the VR research community.[v] Researchers saw in Gibson's work a mechanism for transferring perceptual experience characteristic of "real-world" perception to new, artificial environments: if real-world perceptual experience was grounded in biologically innate capacities to see perceptual invariants in the ambient light, all that would be necessary to carry perception into artificial environments would be to reproduce such perceptual invariants in the virtual domain. [vi]

One important facet of the complex influence of Gibson's work on VR research concerns Gibson's early theory of "texture-gradient mapping" which, Hillis suggests, furnished a model for the mapping of "perceptual invariance" onto virtual environments (Hillis, 15; see also 125). According to Gibson, we directly perceive distance insofar as we detect the differences in texture gradient of objects located at different distances from us. Thus, we recognize the distance of an object from its texture relative to other objects within our visual field: the finer the texture is, the closer it is to us; the denser the texture is, the more distant it is. The important point here is that texture gradient does not define a cue that our brains employ in processing what we have seen, but is a spatial property of the environment itself. Once again, Campbell explains why:

For Gibson, invariants in the structure of light reaching the eye correspond to the stable features of the real world: the surfaces and edges of objects, ... the texture of the ground that grows more dense with distance. In spite of the fact that the image of an object on the retina may shrink in size as it recedes, the image is invariant with respect to the texture of its surroundings. (205)

No less than the privileging of hard-edged surfaces and objects, the liberal deployment of textural surfaces in VEs testifies to the effort to capitalize on Gibson's theory; indeed, both cases betray the same underlying logic: that building such visual invariants into artificial environments will function to attract the attention of our evolutionarily-attuned brains.

In his criticism of this strategy, Hillis accuses VR researchers of, in effect, misapplying Gibson's theory. Although innate perceptual invariants like texture gradients function, within Gibson's theory, as enabling constraints on how we perceive the environment, carried over into VEs they become the mechanism for an unhindered and limitless potential for visual interface with any environment imaginable (and, no doubt, many not yet imaginable). It is as if the simple presence of icons or representations of perceptual invariants (hard edges, texture gradients) within an environment were enough to transform it into a world not simply visually apprehensible to us, but rather one in which we can feel at home. What such logic ignores is the deep correlation of our visual system with other, nonvisual perceptual systems—a correlation that is, incidentally, foregrounded at each stage of Gibson's career. [vii]

If perceptual invariants do in fact exist and if they serve to inform us about the world, they do so only in conjunction with the panoply of perceptual processes constitutive of the kinds of beings we are. This means that the appropriation of Gibson does not pay sufficient heed to the evolutionary basis of his theory. Thus, although VR technology might well "permit users to see like birds" (or like anything whatsoever), a VE constructed on the basis of perceptual invariants "may confuse users precisely because they have not been 'hardwired' by evolution to fly likebirds" (130). In sum: whereas Gibson's theory of perception (including the role played by perceptual invariants) is a holist one that encompasses (and is constrained by) the range of perceptual processes constitutive of our evolutionarily robust embodied being, its deployment in VE design is piecemeal and premised on an unthematized, and I think, wholly implausible, hope that vision can by itself reconstitute the richness of human perceptual function.

Another way to make this same objection is to focus somewhat differently on the concrete material difficulties involved in creating successful—that is, compelling—virtual environments. As Wann and Rushton point out, the limitless potential of the imagination to construct rich virtual environments is contravened by the reality of storage and computational limitations. The Gibson-inspired researchers believe they can "solve" these difficulties through texture-gradient mapping; by building in "objective" elements that simply transcribe perceptually invariant elements of the "real" world into VEs, they think they can mobilize, through visual stimulation alone, the perceptual modalities for which we have been evolutionarily hardwired. [viii]

In their interpretation of the storage and computational limitations necessarily encountered in designing VEs, Wann and Rushton outline a very different position. For them, the existence of such limitations immediately introduces a wedge or gap between "real-world" perception and perception in virtual environments that bears directly on the misapplication of Gibson just discussed. For these researchers, the presupposition that perception (including visual perception) involves the full panoply of perceptual systems—the presupposition informing Gibson's theory—simply cannot be carried over to perception in VEs. As a consequence, whereas perception in "natural settings" can be said to be "veridical" (i.e., indicative of properties of the environment), the principle informing the creation of virtual environments is, of necessity, "deception." Wann and Rushton explain:

It is technically impossible to present an observer with a VE that has coherence across the perceptual domains (e.g., for vision and vestibular stimulation) ... [Consequently,] the emphasis has to be on presenting visual displays that are salient enough to induce the required percept and to establish what other sensory conditions may be necessary to maintain that illusion.[10]

What Wann and Rushton foreground here is the necessity, in creating compelling VEs, to rely on the embodied subject's response to the stimuli presented as what generates the effect of "reality." Some degree of corroboration among different sensory registers is always involved in perception; however, within VEs, this corroboration plays an especially important function insofar as it constitutes the primary vehicle for overcoming effects of storage and computational limitations— effects that threaten to compromise the desired sense of immersion.

Wann and Rushton's position thus defines an approach to virtual reality at odds with the Gibson-inspired position just discussed. For them, what is crucial is not simulating a visually "realistic" environment in purely visual terms, but rather designing an environment capable of inducing a compelling sensorimotor correlation in the participant. As Held and Durlach point out in their discussion of telepresence, such a position stems from a conviction that the "best general-purpose system known to us (as engineers) is us (as operators)."[11] Such a view finds corroboration in no less an authority on artificial reality than artist and engineer Myron Krueger, who (as we have seen) has long held that "the ultimate interface would be the human body and human senses."[12]

All of these views advance a functional understanding of what makes VEs compelling. According to such an understanding, their purpose is "to augment the sensorimotor system of the human operator" (Held and Durlach, 234). Thus, rather than being defined strictly or even primarily by their "incorporation" of objectively "realistic" elements like perceptual invariants, VEs should be valued for their capacity to stimulate sensorimotor processes responsible for producing effects of "realism" or of presence.[ix] Held and Durlach make this point explicitly and in terms immediately relevant to design implementation:

The most crucial factor in creating high telepresence is, perhaps, high correlation between (1) the movements of the operator sensed directly via the internal proprioceptive/kinesthetic senses of the operator and (2) the actions of the slave robot sensed via the sensors on the slave robot and the displays in the teleoperator station. (237)

Beyond simply specifying the means to mobilize the human body as the interface, such functional correlation emphasizes the active contribution made by proprioception and internal kinesthetic sense in creating the effect of presence.

In this respect, Held and Durlach introduce a fundamentally different understanding of telepresence than that proposed by the Gibson-inspired position. For the latter, as Hillis explains, the simulation of the hand's presence in the VE via the data glove "allows users to manipulate virtual objects" in a way that draws upon "Gibson's belief that we grab on to our world and make it part of our 'direct' experience" (15). This virtual extension of our hand stimulates the mapping of the virtual world onto internal human perception-structuring processes. The resulting experience of presence (or telepresence)—"experience of presence in an environment by means of a communications medium"—is, not surprisingly, informational at its core. [x,13] Like the "information pickup" involved in the visual experience of perceptual invariants, the virtual extension of perceptual mapping facilitated by the data glove simply opens the body to the reception of information emanating from a new, virtual environment.[xi] For Held and Durlach, by contrast, the telepresent hand would be less a hinge for mapping the information from a visually disclosed environment onto internal perception-structuring processes than one element in a necessarily broader sensorimotor cousensory proximitypling of the operator's body with the VE.

Beyond its consequences for concrete issues of VE design, the contrast of these two fundamentally divergent approaches illustrates the deep connection linking the privileged role of vision with the desire to explain "reality" in terms of information (or, more precisely, informational exchange between system and environment). In both caseS, what is left out is the grounding role played by the body and by experiential modalities—tactility, proprioception, internal kinesthesia—proper to it. No less a visionary than Jaron Lanier (who coined the term "virtual reality") has diagnosed this double-barreled reduction as a form of "information disease." Encouraged by technology,

People think of themselves as information entities that aren't real experiencers, and ... gradually lose a sense of validity for everyday experiences ... Technology has been so overwhelmingly successful that it serves for many people as the most creative metaphor for what they are. And so,... they lose the internal perspective, and tend to substitute an external perspective. With that goes the essentiality of life.[14]

Both of these postulates—the priority of vision and the informational perspective—are contested in another domain of inquiry that will return us to our original question concerning the uniqueness of Char Davies' deployment of virtual reality toward the noninstrumental constitution of a body-in-code. In his brilliant exploration of the phenomenology of the different senses, philosopher Hans Jonas underscores the necessary correlation among the senses— particularly between vision and touch— in the generation of perception. Ostensibly intended as a discussion of the "nobility of sight," Jonas's essay ("The Nobility of Sight") actually seeks to dethrone sight, or at least to delimit its specific privilege:

Sight, in addition to furnishing the analogues for the intellectual upperstructure, has tended to serve as the model of perception in general and thus as the measure of the other senses. But it is in fact a very special sense. It is incomplete by itself; it requires the complement of other senses and functions for its cognitive office; its highest virtues are also its essential insufficiencies.[15]

In accord with this basic position, Jonas' demonstration pursues two main tasks: 1) to explain how, and at what cost, sight acquires its "nobility"; and 2) to embed sight within a larger sense ecology in which the role of other sensory modalities, and especially touch, is shown to be fundamental.

Schematically put, the privilege of sight stems from its role as the sense, par excellence, of "the simultaneous or the coordinated, and thereby of the extensive" (136). Unlike hearing and touch, which are both proximate senses that build up their manifolds in time, sight presents us with an "instantaneous survey of the whole field of possible encounters" (145). What is more, because of this unique capacity, sight is characterized by two additional factors that inform its alleged "nobility": the "neutralization of the causality of sense-affection" and " distance in the spatial and mental senses" (136). In sum, then, sight achieves its "nobility" because of its detachment from the domain of affective causality and sensory proximity.[xii]Put another way

This detachment accounts for a certain gain—namely, the concept of objectivity—"of the thing as it is in itself as distinct from the thing as it affects me," and with it, the "whole idea of theoria and theoretical truth." Yet it also involves a necessary loss: "the elimination of the causal connection from the visual account" (147). Despite the pretensions of sight to autonomy, this elimination introduces a certain insufficiency that requires supplementation from other sensory registers. In a way that effectively suppresses the "very feature which makes these higher developments (i.e., the concept of objectivity and theory) possible," this elimination fundamentally saps visual objects of any "force-experience" that could account for their interconnection with one another and with the observer:

The pure form-presentation which vision affords does not betray its causal genesis, and it suppresses with it every causal aspect in its objects because their self-containedness vis-à-vis the observer becomes at the same time a mutual self-containedness among themselves. No force-experience, no character of impulse and transitive causality, enter into the nature of image, and thus any edifice of concepts built on that evidence must show the gap in the interconnection of objects which Hume noted (147, emphasis added).

When he criticizes Hume and Kant for, effectively, "forgetting the body" (28), Jonas forcefully underscores the fact that this limitation of sight is not some voluntary whim, but rather a constitutive dimension of sight as a sensory modality: "The character generally suppressed [in accounts of perception] is force which, being not a 'datum' but an 'actum,' cannot be 'seen,' i.e., objectified, but only experienced from within when exerted or suffered" (31). The mistake of Hume and Kant (and the many philosophers and nonphilosophers alike who follow their lead) is to maintain belief in an objective autonomy of sight unsupported by the "lowlier" sensory modalities.

In this respect, Jonas's analysis helps clarify why the position of Gibson-inspired VR researchers is philosophically untenable: because it neglects the integral nature of sense, any purely visual account of perception must necessarily fail. Correlatively, his account elucidates the underlying logic informing the alternate approach pursued by researchers like Wann, Rushton, Held, and Durlach, and deployed concretely by Char Davies. For all of these individuals, the force-experience involved in tactility and proprioception furnishes the "reality-generating" element of perception. This is precisely Jonas' point when, contrasting it with touch, he declares sight to be the "least realistic" of the senses:

Reality is primarily evidenced in resistance which is an ingredient in touch-experience. For physical contact is more than geometrical contiguity: it involves impact. In other words, touch is the sense, and the only sense, in which the perception of quality is normally blended with the experience of force, which being reciprocal does not let the subject be passive; thus touch is the sense in which the original encounter with reality as reality takes place. Touch brings the reality of its object within the experience of sense in virtue of that by which it exceeds mere sense, viz., the force-component in its original makeup. The percipient on his part can magnify this component by his voluntary counteraction against the affecting object. For this reason touch is the true test of reality. (147-148)

On this version of the priority of double sensation, success in generating compelling virtual experience is gained not by simulating visual images but by stimulating tactile, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic sensations. Because of its epoch&e of external force, virtual reality forms something of a laboratory to test the reality-conferring function performed by tactility. Perception of a VE (here no different in kind from perception of a "real" environment, only purified of its material basis) is less an affair of informational pickup than one of channeling external through internal reality: "external reality is disclosed in the same act and as one with the disclosure of my own reality—which occurs in self-action: in feeling my own reality by some sort of effort I make, I feel the reality of the world" (148, emphasis added).

The stress on "effort" in this last line is significant insofar as it introduces the fundamental role played by voluntary self-movement in the ecology of perception. Although Jonas does lend a certain privilege to touch over sight (though certainly not to the point of suggesting a simple elimination of sight in favor of touch), this privilege stems not so much from touch as a specific sense as it does from its implicit conjunction with movement.[xiii] Put another way, Jonas' sense ecology involves a certain elevation of touch from a mere sense modality into a cross-modal synthesizing function. The commonplace account of perception as a conjunction of sight and touch is incomplete, Jonas remarks, "so long as 'touch' in this combination is taken as just another sense, only qualitatively different from sight, hearing, and smell." However, if we include in our understanding of touch the "fact of its being an activity involving motion," we add the complement of action to its "receptivity," thus elevating it, as it were, into a "spatial organizer" of the different sense species, "the synthesizer of the several senses toward one common objectivity" (153). The "reality-conferring" effect of touch—of what we might better call tactility—stems from this elevated function; specifically, it results from the "toucher's" newfound capacity to give form to perceptual experience:

The tactile situation moves to a higher level when the sentient body itself becomes the voluntary agent of that movement which is required for the acquisition of this serial sequence of impression. Then touch passes over from suffering to acting: its progress comes under the control of the percipient, and it may be continued and varied with a view to fuller information. Thus mere touch-impression changes into the act of feeling. There is a basic difference between simply having a tactile encounter and feeling another body. ... The motor element introduces an essentially new quality into the picture: its active employment discloses spatial characteristics in the touch-object which were no inherent part of the elementary tactile qualities. Through the kinesthetic accompaniment of voluntary motion the whole perception is raised to a higher order: the touch qualities become arranged in a spatial scheme, they fall into the pattern of surface, and become elements of form. (139-141)

Jonas' account of the spatializing power of the sensory body not only resonates with our previous exploration of Merleau-Ponty's concept of the phenomenal body, but also emphasizes the crucial shift from the empirical deployment of touch to its infraempirical basis in primordial tactility (what we earlier called infratactility). Once again, it is the incipient split between embodiment and technicity that creates the internal distance generative of double sensation.

Jonas' emphasis on the shift to self-movement within the process of sensation also resonates with the position of Held and Durlach discussed previously; indeed, it might be said to find empirical verification in Held's earlier experimentation with active and passive perception in kittens. [xiv] Once again, Jonas' theory furnishes a philosophical explanation for the crucial role of voluntary action in the development of normal sensorimotor coordination; such action, his analysis suggests, gives a spatial form to otherwise disparate perceptual data, thus making them consonant with a body's feeling of the reality of the world. Because of its account of the spatializing power, Jonas' work proves valuable for understanding how VEs function. Eschewing the purely theoretical understanding of perceptual situations that forms the starting point for most virtual reality projects, his account emphasizes how felt experience emerges from an internal action of the body, a self-movement of sensation that precedes, at least logically, the division of the separate senses.

Jonas brings home the extent of this difference by contrasting embodied perception with an imaginary case of a "winged seed sailing on the wind" that would perceive "a kaleidoscopic change with a definite but meaningless pattern" (155). [xv] What is lacking in this imaginary case is the recursive correlation between self-moving animal and environment central to embodied perception. Insofar as the animal "changes its place by an exchange of mechanical action with the resisting medium," the two evolve in tandem; moreover, the "muscular effort required means that the relative motion is more than a shift of mutual geometrical position: through an interplay of force the geometrical becomes a dynamical situation" (155). Embodied perception here occurs through a mapping of space into the body, through a conversion of an external, geometrical space into an internal, dynamic space. That is why proprioception "becomes a guide for the organism in the successive construction of spatial distance and direction out of the phases of the motion it actually performs" (155).

On Jonas' account, then, VEs generate an effect of presence or "reality" because they correlate a "virtual" perceptual stimulus with a "real" motor response (although one directed inward, toward the dynamics of proprioceptive space). The priority Jonas thereby lends to proprioceptively guided self-movement serves to correlate Henri Bergson's defense of affection with the tactile basis of vision. According to Bergson,

The necessity of affection follows from the very existence of perception. Perception, understood as we understand it, measures our possible action upon things, and thereby, inversely, the possible action of things upon us. ... our perception of an object distinct from our body, separated from our body by an interval, never expresses anything but a virtual action. But the more distance decreases between this object and our body, ... the more does virtual action tend to pass into real action. Suppose the distance reduced to zero, that is to say that the object to be perceived coincides with our body, that is to say again, that our body is the object to be perceived. Then it is no longer virtual action, but real action, that this specialized perception will express, and this is exactly what affection is. Our sensations are, then, to our perceptions that which the real action of our body is to its possible, or virtual, action. (Bergson, 57)

What Jonas's analysis adds to this account is an explicit privileging of the tactile. Whereas Bergson deploys the irreducibility of affection as a means to differentiate virtual and real action (vision and touch), Jonas shows that every perceptual experience (vision included) must lead back to an action of the body on itself (self-movement). On his account, infratactility—the body's action on itself—makes the virtual actual. With its forceful emphasis on the tactile basis for all perceptual experience, Jonas' work (here in full resonance with the later Merleau-Ponty) thus clarifies how the reality-generating potential (or virtuality) of embodied self-movement can be lent to the most schematic artificial environments.

We can now specify precisely what constitutes the uniqueness of Char Davies' deployment of virtual reality technology to create a body-in-code. Osmose and her more recent Ephémère are designed expressly to catalyze a shift, as well as to compel self-reflexive recognition of the shift, from a predominately visual sensory interface to a predominately bodily or affective interface.[xvi] The characteristics we earlier singled out in differentiating her work from most other artistic and scientific engagements with VR technology can now be seen to reflect a deeper, properly philosophical dimension of her project. Thus, the diaphanous surfaces, the solicitation of bodily motion and breathing, and the non-goal-oriented nature of the environments do not just form the elements of an alternative approach to three-dimensional design. More centrally, they testify to a more fundamental shift in perceptual sensibility away from the entire Cartesian worldview so central to the development of three-dimensional computer graphics.

Davies characterizes this philosophical dimension as an experience of "being" rather than of "doing" [xvii] and correlates it with her well-documented immersion in scuba diving, the proximate inspiration for the breathing and motion interface as well as the diaphanous, shimmering surfaces. Yet, despite the Heideggerian rhetoric of withdrawal, the origin of Davies' quest to escape Cartesianism can be found, not insignificantly, in a more mundane, if not exactly everyday, personal experience: her early experimentation with her own extreme myopic vision as a source or catalyst for artistic creativity. She recounts,

In this unmediated, unfocused mode of perception, I discovered an alternative (non-Cartesian) spatiality whereby "objects" had disappeared; where all semblance of solidity, surface, edges and distinctions between things—i.e., the usual perceptual cues by which we visually objectify the world—had dissolved. These were replaced by a sense of enveloping space in which there were no sharply defined objects in empty space, but rather an ambiguous intermingling of varying luminosities and hues, a totally enveloping and sensuous spatiality. (Davies and O'Donaghue, 1)

Davies' virtual environments might be understood as efforts to bring this private experience and, most centrally, its creative or catalytic dimension—namely, the eclipse of visual mastery of external space—into the public domain. In this respect, Osmose and Ephémère constitute environments that manifestly do not aim to simulate "real-world" perception (as Gibson-inspired VEs do), but rather to utilize the virtual domain as a medium for sharing what must be considered a liminal form of experience. The statement Davies furnishes to accompany the exhibition of both works at the SFMOMA show, 01010101, makes this difference altogether patent: "I imagine virtual space as a philosophical yet participatory medium, a visual/aural spatiotemporal arena wherein mental models or abstract constructs can be given virtual embodiment in three dimensions and then be kinesthetically explored by others through full body immersion and interaction, even while such constructs retain their immateriality."[16]

Moreover, because the environments involve the direct placement of the "immersant" into an atypical, indeed anti-"realistic," environment, the role of tactility or self-movement as the "reality"-generating sense becomes especially pronounced. Here, the primacy that Jonas lends touch as a sense-synthesizer helps explain why maneuvering through Osmose using bodily movements and breathing seems, in the words of one immersant, "so uncannily 'real"' (Wettheim, 2). Indeed, whatever effect of presence the installations produce must stem not from a withdrawal from the activity of movement and the contact with "force-experience," as Davies' occasional Heideggerian rhetoric might suggest, but rather from a heightening of self-movement and of the proprioceptive and internal kinesthetic senses of the "immersant," a restoration of the primitive anchoring of sense in protosensory tactility. Again, Davies' statement serves to clarify her intentions:

My interest lies in going beyond VR's conventions of photorealism and joystick interfaces which situate the user as a probing hand (with gun) and disembodied eye among passive hard-edged objects in empty space. By working with the participant's breath as primary interface (enabling them to "float"), and using semitransparency as a means of evoking cognitive ambiguity, I have sought to reaffirm the role of the subjectively lived body within the virtual realm and deeply engage the participant's sensory imagination. (Davies, Artist's Statement)

In sum, rather than being about the realist simulation of an external environment, Davies' works are about experiential possibilities that explicitly foreground the kinesthetic and proprioceptive dimensions of bodily self-movement, the way in which self-movement or infratactility serves to confer (sensory) reality on perceptual experience. "It is my hope that the paradoxical qualities of bodily immersion in virtual space might lead to an experience of being-in-the-world freshly," concludes Davies (2001). In the succinct phrasing of Mark Pesce: "What you encounter in Osmose is yourself" (Pesce, cited in Davis, "Osmose," 4).


In her 1992 book Megalopolis, Celeste Olalquiaga correlates experience in our contemporary technosphere with the psychological and ethological condition of psychasthenia:

Defined as a disturbance in the relation between self and surrounding territory, psychasthenia is a state in which the space defined by the coordinates of the organism's own body is confused with represented space. Incapable of demarcating the limits of its own body, lost in the immense area that circumscribes it, the psychasthenic organism proceeds to abandon its own identity to embrace the space beyond. It does so by camouflaging itself into the milieu.... Psychasthenia helps describe contemporary experience and account for its uneasiness. Urban culture resembles this mimetic condition when it enables a ubiquitous feeling of being in all places while not really being anywhere. Architectural transparency, for example, transforms shopping malls into a continuous window display where the homogeneity of store windows, stairs, elevators, and water fountains causes a perceptual loss, and shoppers are left wandering around in a maze.... Dislocated by this ongoing trompe l'oeil, the body seeks concreteness in the consumption of food and goods, saturating its senses to the maximum.[17]

With certain adjustments, this account of psychasthenia as a mimetic condition for contemporary perception could perfectly well describe the experience of virtual reality, which also, as we have seen, functions via a dissolution of boundaries between self and environment. Davies has likened the intended experience of her environments to the condition of psychasthenia, noting that she has "deliberately sought to facilitate [the] intermingling, [the] dissolution, of the hard boundaries of the skin ... through the use of semitransparency, by allowing the immersant to effectively see-through, and even more importantly, self-move-through the surfaces of various visual elements" (email). To the extent that this experience is engineered to effect a "dissolution of boundaries, the confusion between inside and out, self and space," we can say that Davies' aim is (at least in part) to generate psychasthenia.

It is crucial, however, that we not overlook the marked differences between Davies' phenomenological embrace of psychasthenia and Olalquiaga's depiction of it as an image-based pathology. Olalquiaga views psychasthenia as the disempowering (because disembodying) result of our contemporary technosphere; Davies seeks to catalyze an experience of psychasthenia as a means to disrupt the Cartesian worldview and to reestablish the embodied basis of all perception, vision included. To appreciate how such a catalysis lies at the heart of Davies' work, we must dissociate psychasthenia from the narrow representationalist understanding of it that Olalquiaga and, following in her wake, Elizabeth Grosz, endorse. Indeed, insofar as it provides an alternative to Olalquiaga's reductive conception of psychasthenia as an image-based condition, Davies' work serves to question the basis of efforts by feminist theorists like Grosz and (as we have seen) Gail Weiss to route the correlation of embodiment and technics through the image. As we shall see, it does so in the interest of another, vastly different feminist engagement with virtual reality.

At issue here is the status of psychasthenia itself. Does it operate through disembodiment—that is, through a dissolution of the self into the image? Or does it produce a more complex interlacing of the body and the environment that, in some sense, reflects the technical conditions for life in our world today? For Olalquiaga, as I have already implied, the former is the case. That is why, despite her recognition that psychasthenia involves a recursive correlation between organism and environment, she effectively narrows the register of this correlation to the domain of representation. It is also why her account perfectly instances the privileging of the visual we have just analyzed. Like virtual perception in the hands of the Gibson-inspired VR researchers, Olalquiaga reduces the entire spatial problematic of psychasthenia to a narrowly representationalist framework. On her account, psychasthenia is a disorder that takes place exclusively in the visual register, through an inability to preserve a distinct body representation (a body-image) in the face of the proliferation of representations in the environment.

Grosz's account of psychasthenia likewise hypostatizes the domain of vision and the problematic of representation. Thus, she contends that mimicry, the paradigmatic instance of self-environment dissolution (and the topic of Roger Caillois' 1934 paper on psychasthenia), "is not a consequence of space but rather of the representation of space." Psychasthenia, she continues, "is a response to the lure posed by space for subjectivity. The subject can take up a position only by being able to situate its body in a position in space, ... a point from which vision emanates" (190-192). [xviii] Thus, in psychasthenia, "the primacy of the subject's own perspective is replaced by the gaze of another for whom the subject is merely a point in space, not the focal point organizing space" (193).

Like Olalquiaga, Grosz sees in psychasthenia a perfect figure for the contemporary technologized lifeworld or, to cite her more descriptive terminology, for the "deceptive simulations" of cyberspace. Insofar as it names a disturbance in the subjects capacity to differentiate itself representationally from its environment, psychasthenia marks a danger of contemporary culture—one that, for Grosz at least, has profound implications for the way in which gender has been written out of considerations of contemporary technological culture and, specifically, of virtual reality.

If psychasthenia is a danger in this sense (a danger endemic to our technoculture that is differentially experienced by differently gendered subjects), the reason is that it compromises the function of the body image as a mediator between self and world, body and environment, subject and space. Unable to represent one's position in space, and thus one's being, the psychasthenic subject suffers a kind of visual objectification: it becomes a mere point in a space projected by another.

Less obvious than the gender politics underwriting this understanding, however, is the prosthetic model of technics that lies behind it. For Grosz, as for Gail Weiss following in her wake, the body image functions to couple the subject and its biosocial environment and thus forms the proximate agent of any prosthetic modification of the human body. It is the condition of the subject's capacity not only to adapt to but also to become integrated with various objects, instruments, tools, and machines. It is the condition of the body's inherent openness and pliability to and in its social context.... It is the condition that enables us to acquire and use prosthetic devices (glasses, contact lenses, artificial limbs, surgical implants) in place of our sense organs.[18]

By insisting on the primacy of the body-image in mediating the interchange between subject and environment, Grosz ends up advancing a very conservative view of prosthetics: effectively, technological enhancements like virtual reality goggles (not to mention those she enumerates in the passage cited previously) can only have an impact on experience insofar as they are mediated by the body image. There is, for Grosz, no question that technological prosthetics might actually modify the way in which the senses work and, subsequently, the way in which the body experiences sensation; rather, as she puts it, prosthetic devices function "in place of our sense organs" as the vehicle of a substitute set of data for the body-image to compute.

Grosz's model thus remains incapable of accounting for any but the most straightforward deployments of VR technology (i.e., those in which the "coordinates" of the body-image are in no way disturbed). Likening the "deceptive simulation" of cyberspace to the "dysfunctional breakdown" of psychosis, Grosz positions psychasthenia as a purely negative condition, one that can only demarcate the limits of bodily experience rather than opening up its potential technical transformation. In sum: by narrowing the impact of VR experience to the way in which it confounds the body-image, Grosz effectively ensures its reduction to the status of disembodied simulation.

We have already had a chance to criticize this model of technics for what we might in fact call its superficiality—that is, its incapacity (or refusal) to reckon with the more primordial correlation of embodiment and technicity that we explored at length in Chapter 1. In our present context, we can add a more specific objection against its subordination of bodily action—of dynamic self-movement—to representation. By positioning the body image as the necessary link between inside and outside, Grosz invests it as the medium for the body to experience itself either "naturally" or as prosthetically extended. As the "link between our biological and cultural existences, between our 'inner' psyche and our 'external' body," the body image is taken to form the condition not only for the body's self-representation but also for its "capacity for undertaking voluntary action" (187).

As the basis for this model of technics, the body image thus becomes the condition of possibility for the prosthetic extension of the body, as well as for the experience of the biological body: "If it exists at all," Grosz notes, "the biological body exists for the subject only through the mediation of a series of images or representations of the body and its capacities for movement and action" (186). Given our earlier excavation of the "originary" transduction of embodiment and technicity, however, such an understanding would appear to produce a double reduction of biological embodiment and of technical embodiment. To the extent that these two poles of embodiment can only be articulated externally— through the mediation of the image and the medium of representation, they are effectively deprived of their anchoring in primordial tactility. In sum: rather than seeing psychasthenia as an expression of the "originary" condition for dynamic bodily self-movement in the concrete form of today's technics, Grosz can only understand it to mark a failure in the representational meshing of subject and body that, on her account, forms the condition for bodily activity.

Insofar as they explicitly capitalize on the decoupling of vision from dynamic self-movement that occurs in psychasthenia, Char Davies' virtual environments proffer a very different understanding of the psychasthenic condition of contemporary technoculture. For the same reason, they sketch out a vastly divergent feminist intervention into the domain of virtual reality, one that, to the extent it celebrates the dissolution of the schematic differentiation of body and world together with the resulting "indivision" of the flesh, would seem to have far more resonance with the work of Irigaray than with that of Grosz. [xix]

Given our extended analysis in Chapter 1, it should come as little surprise that the crux of this understanding centers on the inadequacy of the body image as a basis for intercorporeity and, ultimately, for thinking the technical conditions for the indivision of the flesh as it constitutes the real condition for experience in our world today. Insofar as they aim to reverse the reduction of the body to the image—that is, to reassert the role of dynamic self-movement beneath any experience of the image, Davies' environments thus draw on another dimension of psychasthenia: namely, the way in which it facilitates a tactile experience of the body's interpenetration with the environment.

For this reason, Davies' environments call on us to read Roger Caillois' original description of psychasthenic mimicry against its later appropriation by a certain feminist project. For Caillois, psychasthenia comprises a disturbance first and foremost in embodiment; it marks the organism's inability to live its experience from its (operational) perspective—that is, from some space proper to it:

There can be no doubt that the perception of space is a complex phenomenon: space is indissolubly perceived and represented.... It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific, since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself. One can already recognize the characteristic scientific attitude and, indeed, it is remarkable that represented spaces are just what is multiplied by contemporary science. Finsler's spaces, Fermat's spaces, Riemann-Christoffel's hyperspace, abstract, generalized, open, and closed spaces, spaces dense in themselves, thinned out, and so on. The feeling of personality, considered as the organism's feeling of distinction from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these conditions to be seriously undermined; one then enters into the psychology of psychasthenia. (Caillois) [19]

Linking psychasthenia to the ascent of the scientific world view and the representational ontology that Heidegger has analyzed, for example, in "The Age of the World Picture," Caillois presents it as a shift in the economy of embodiment and representation that comprises any lived experience of space. In the modern world, his argument runs, it has become particularly difficult for the living organism (the human being) to maintain its unique (operational) perspective against the manifold impersonal descriptions of space and the general triumph of the observational perspective they advance.

Thus, despite the centrality he accords representation, Caillois presents a far more complex account of psychasthenia than is recognized by Olalquiaga and Grosz. For him, psychasthenia is, irreducibly, a multisensory existential problematic affecting the organism not at the level of its visually apprehended symbolic significance, but rather at the more primitive level of embodiment where the impact of the representational indifferentiation is actually lived. That is why Caillois concludes his analysis by characterizing insect mimicry as a "sort of instinct of renunciation," an "inertia of the élan vital" (32), and it is also why he can liken it to the Freudian death drive; to the extent that it decouples representation from action, psychasthenic mimicry marks a certain disempowering of the organism.[xx] On Caillois' account, then, the "drama" of psychasthenia is fundamentally a part of a larger existential drama, part of the continually evolving, systemic correlation of the organism with its environment.

It is, however, undeniable that Caillois presents psychasthenia as posing a well-nigh Heideggerian danger; indeed, he positions it as the rigorous consequence of the concrete technical achievement of the "age of the world picture." Far from being a necessary conclusion of his analysis, however, this analysis would appear to stem from his (again, well-nigh Heideggerian) fear of the contamination of thinking by technics. [xxi] He thus betrays his adherence to an ontology of the individual that cannot withstand the revelation, currently being expressed in full force by our digital culture, that the human has always been technical. Rather than allowing for a co-becoming of the individual and space, as contemporary ethology most certainly would and as our introduction of technics into Merleau-Ponty's final work demands, Caillois can only see the "generalization" of space as a threat to the autonomy of the individual. In psychasthenia, as he puts it, space "seems to be a devouring force" (30). Caillois' limitation, in short, is his inability to give up the scientific world view, an inability that prevents him from seeing psychasthenia as a chance for a different conceptualization of the individual in its constitutive correlation with technics. That is why he is compelled, in the end, to thematize psychasthenia as a pathology of the visual register: "the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space" (30).

Despite this limitation, Caillois' account does in fact open the possibility for thinking psychasthenia through contemporary technics or, better, for thinking our technoculture as the catalyst of a positive form of psychasthenia. Indeed, when he characterizes psychasthenia as an organism's active "assimilation to the surroundings," Caillois opens up a very different genealogy of technics than that presented by Grosz (and Weiss). Rather than restricting the impact of contemporary technologies like VR to a prosthetic function (one that, as I have pointed out, effectively reduces VR to the status of disembodied simulation), Caillois' account of psychasthenia opens up the potentiality of technics—a potentiality that has always been part of the human—to modify not only the content of our lived experience but also our mode of living.

One hint of this potential comes by way of Caillois' interpretation of Eugene Minkowski's phenomenological analyses of pathological temporality, where what is at stake is a shift from vision to tactility—that is, from geometrical perception of space to embodied constitution of space through dynamic self-movement:

The magical hold ... of night and obscurity, the fear of the dark, probably also has its roots in the peril in which it puts the opposition between the organism and the milieu. Minkowski's analyses are invaluable here: darkness is not the mere absence of light; there is something positive about it. While light space is eliminated by the materiality of objects, darkness is "filled," it touches the individual directly, envelops him, penetrates him, and even passes through him: hence "the ego is permeable for darkness while it is not so for light" ... Minkowski likewise comes to speak of dark space and almost of a lack of distinction between the milieu and the organism: " Dark space envelops me on all sides and penetrates me much deeper than light space; the distinction between inside and outside and consequently the sense organs as well, insofar as they are designed for external perception, here play only a totally modest role." (30) [xxii]

In endorsing the description of what is, after all, a shift from perception to affection, from vision to tactility, Caillois effectively opens the way for a deployment of psychasthenia beyond the body-image. Indeed, his interpretation of Minkowski underscores the capacity of tactility to operate the psychasthenic indifferentiation as an incorporation of touch, a passage from the domain of exteroception where touch (like vision) operates as an interchange with the environment to the undifferentiated experience of tactility as dynamic self-movement.

In this respect, Caillois's account of psychasthenia makes common cause with our earlier analysis of Merleau-Ponty's final project. Indeed, the displacement of the "body schema" that underwrites Merleau-Ponty's final ontology—its dissolution into the "indivision" of the flesh—parallels the conceptualization of psychasthenia beyond the body-image. It does so to the precise extent that such a conceptualization necessarily displaces vision, as well as the division it supports, in favor of an undifferentiated ontology of dynamic self-movement. In this sense, what is important is what takes the place of the body-image, or more precisely, what can take place once the body-image is dethroned as the mediator of all bodily experience.

On this score, moreover, the conception of psychasthenia as an affirmative activity of the body finds support in recent neuroscientific research. Thus, for example, Antonio Damasio's differentiation between static and "on-line" body images makes salient just how much our experience of our bodies owes to direct real-time monitoring of its continuously changing states.[20] Although it is undeniable (as Damasio admits) that we do experience static images of our bodies, the fact that these provide scant information about our actual embodied states suggests just how much richer the (misnamed) body-image is than a mere representation of the body.

Because it gives a detailed account of spatiality as a constitutive modality of bodily experience (and not simply an effect of representations, even bodily representations), Merleau-Ponty's work helps us to correlate psychasthenia with an ontology of embodiment (of the flesh). In this way, it serves to highlight the insufficiency of the ontology of projection that forms the correlative of Grosz's deployment of the body image as mediator between body and environment and that is derived, as we observed in Chapter 1, from a certain misreading of Freud's claim that the "ego is first and foremost a bodily ego ... the projection of a surface." Eschewing such a projective ontology from the very outset of his development of the "phenomenal body" in the Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty shows himself to be concerned with articulating the specificity of his conception of the body-schema against other, reductive understandings, most notably, the body-image. The body-schema, specifies Merleau-Ponty, is more than simply a "continual translation into visual language of the kinaesthetic and articular impressions of the moment."[21] It is also more than a de facto synthesis of a particular set of bodily components, "a superimposed sketch of the body" (99). Rather, as we have seen, it is a "total awareness of my posture in the intersensory world, a 'form' in the sense used by Gestalt psychology" (100); or, more precisely still "a way of stating that my body is in-the-world," a "third term, always tacitly understood, in the figure-background structure" (101).

Far from being a mediator between the subject and the environment that would condition bodily activity (as it is for Grosz), the body-schema is thus cosubstantial with the activity of the body as a whole and is dynamically constitutive of the spatiality of the world. We might say that the body schema, like touch in the higher office accorded it by Jonas, comprises an infraempirical form: one that is immanent to bodily life without being reducible to its empirical contents and that, as we have seen, intertwines vision and touch in an irreducible cofunctioning that, in and of itself, indicts the more abstract, visual conception of the body-image.

The introduction of the body schema already makes clear the vast divide between Merleau-Ponty's motor-centered understanding of the body and the representationalist conception. Correlative with this divide is a vast difference in the role of space: whereas Grosz's (and Olalquiaga's) understanding of psychasthenia portrayed space as a geometrical, visual domain in which the subject fails to locate itself, for Merleau-Ponty (as we have seen), such a space is abstracted from a more fundamental space: the space constituted by the motor-intentionality of the body.

If, in one sense, this can be taken to mean that the body holds a certain priority over space (at least on the ontology at issue in the Phenomenology), it also means that the body does not stand opposed to space, as Caillois' analysis suggested. Rather, from the beginning in Merleau-Ponty, body and space are dynamically coupled so that changes in bodily motility (e.g., the blind man's stick) necessarily correlate with changes in lived spatiality, the sum of which is expressed in the body schema. With respect to psychasthenia, what Merleau-Ponty's analysis affords, then, is an account capable of explaining how the dissolution of the (representational) boundaries between body and space nonetheless accords with a certain bodily activity that functions to ground the recursive correlation of embodiment and technics within self-movement.

Ultimately, this understanding of the dynamic coupling of body and space undermines the function of the body schema as such, in the sense that it can no longer function to demarcate the body from the environment. That is why, as we have seen, the problematic of the body schema more or less falls away in Merleau-Ponty's final work as his interest shifts from the phenomenological-existential problematic of the body as source of space (and world) to the ontological problematic of the flesh and the body's immanent belonging to the world.

More important in the present context, however, is the resonance of this final dissolution of the body schema with Caillois' account of psychasthenia: Merleau-Ponty's final work furnishes a conception of the body's spatiality that can account for psychasthenia as an affirmative modality in which the indifferentiation between the body and the environment, the oneness of the flesh, is opened to experience. Indeed, in a much-cited passage from his chapter on "The Chiasm," Merleau-Ponty states:

The body unites us directly with the things through its own ontogenesis, by welding to one another the two outlines of which it is made, its two lips: the sensible mass it is and the mass of the sensible wherein it is born and upon which, as seer, it remains open. It is the body and it alone, because it is a two-dimensional being, that can bring us to the things themselves, which are themselves not flat beings but beings in depth, inaccessible to a subject that would survey them from above, open to him alone that... would coexist with them in the same world.... What we call a visible is ... a quality pregnant with a texture, the surface of a depth, a cross section upon a massive being, a grain or corpuscle borne by a wave of Being. [22]

As immanent to the world, the body is penetrated by the world in a fluid interchange. This interchange, as we have seen, is why Merleau-Ponty's final work is concerned with the problem of thinking the indifferentiation, the indivision, between body and world. Moreover, it perfectly expresses the condition, the indivision, of psychasthenia, as the (no doubt) rhetorical question orienting Merleau-Ponty's entire investigation makes altogether clear: "Where," he asks, "are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh?" (138).

By way of conclusion, let me now suggest in more concrete terms how Char Davies' Osmose and Ephémère function to catalyze an experience of psychasthenia and the oneness of the "flesh." Both environments are designed to effectuate a restoration of the power of embodied agency in the face of the "danger" of technically facilitated psychasthenia. By taking virtual reality as a laboratory for exploring the function of perception in a situation where there simply is no material, external world and hence no demarcation between self and environment, Davies in effect embraces the psychasthenic condition full-on. Thus, in contrast to Grosz (and Weiss), whose work attempts to restore some clear demarcation between body and environment, Davies seeks to catalyze a more primitive, undifferentiated form of self-movement as the activity that confers reality as such. By effectively drawing attention to the fact that all reality is virtual reality, her environments exemplify the way in which virtual reality technologies can support the constitution of a certain body-in-code and thereby participate in the aesthetic—mixed reality—that seemed to announce their obsolescence.

Davies has spoken of a "seminal" adolescent experience in a field that involved her loss of vision. Recalling her "near mystical manifestation of the confusion ... between inside and out, self and space," Davies cites her "desire to communicate that firsthand bodily experience to others" as her driving motivation and also as the reason why the "medium of immersive virtual space has proven more conducive" to her aim than any other medium. Because they deploy technics to effect a dissolution of the discrete boundaries characteristic of the body as a visually dominant agent, Davies' use of transparency, ambiguity, low-resolution imagery, and fog instance the essential technicity of the indivision of the flesh, as it informs Merleau-Ponty's final project. As Davies explains it, the use of immersive virtual reality technology allows her to catalyze a performative experience of the indifferentiation between bodily interiority and spatial exteriority, and thus, in some sense to compel participants to experience technical psychasthenia firsthand:

As an artist, I ... have two choices: I can either unplug and never go near a computer again or I can choose to remain engaged, seeking to subvert the technology from within, using it to communicate an alternative worldview ... My strategy has been to explore how the medium/technology can be used to "deautomatize" perception (via use of semitransparency, seemingly floating through things, etc.) in order that participants may begin to question their own habitual perceptions and assumptions about being in the world, thus facilitating a mental state whereby Cartesian boundaries between mind and body, self and world begin to slip. (Davies and O'Donaghue, 3)

In accord with this aim, as Mark Pesce suggests, Davies manages to design a space "that contained no distinct boundaries between self and world," one that functions by engaging vision and touch as irreducibly interlinked sensory modalities, both centered on the bodily sensation that confers reality on all perception. In what he describes as a "direct assault on two fronts," Pesce contends that Davies' work simultaneously changes "what the eye would see" and "how the participant would move through the world" (Pesce, "Cathedrals," 2). The result is a use of the virtual reality interface to catalyze a profoundly affirmative and empowering experience of psychasthenia. That is why, to cite the experience of one participant, at some point in the immersion, "the border between the interface as a symbolized surface and the surface of the physiological body begins to blur."[23] As the visual (representational) boundaries between body and world dissolve in favor of an affective contact that foregrounds what Jonas called the "force-experience" characteristic of tactility—internal self-movement synchronized with the visual "perception" of the immaterial—what is brought to the fore is an energetic connection of the body with the world, their primordial indivision.

Notes - Chapter 2

1. Fisher, Jennifer. "While it affords diverse modes of engagement," www. immerscence.com/JFisher-Parachute-B.htm, http://immersence.com/publications/1999/1999-JFisher.html 2.
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2. Rajah, Niranjan. Excerpt from "The Representation of a New Cosmology," www.immerscence.com/Nrajah-B.htm., 1.
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3. Pesce, Mark. "Cathedrals of Light," excerpt from The Playful World, www.immerscence.com/Mpesce-PlayfulWorld-B.htm http://immersence.com/publications/2000/2000-MPesce.html (2000), 2.
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4. Davies, Char, as cited in Eric Davis, "Osmose, Wired, 4.08 (August 1996)."
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5. Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York: Zone, 1991).
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6. Sutherland, cited in Hillis, Ken. Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), xxi.
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7. Biocca, Frank. "Virtual Reality Technology: A Tutorial," Journal of Communication 42.4 (Autumn 1992), 27. In this passage, Biocca cites VR researcher Fred Brooks.
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8. Gibson, James J. The Perception of the Visual World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950); The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966); and The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979).
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9. Campbell, Jeremy. Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1982), 203-204. Page numbers will be cited in the text.
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10. Wann, John and Simon Rushton."The Illusion of Self-Motion in Virtual Reality Environments," Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17.2 (1994), 338.
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11. Held, Richard and Nathaniel Durlach. "Telepresence, Time Delay, and Adaptation," in Pictorial Communication in Virtual and Real Environments, ed. S. Ellis (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1991), 235; henceforth cited in the text.
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12. Krueger, Myron. "Artificial Reality: Past and Future," in Virtual Reality: Theory, Practice, and Promise, ed. S. Helsel and J. Paris Roth (Westport, CT: Meckler, 1991), 19.
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13. Steur, Jonathan. "Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepreference," Journal of Communication 42.4 (Autumn 1992), cited in Hillis, 15.
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14. Biocca, Frank and Jaron Lanier, "An Insiders View of the Future of Virtual Reality," Journal of Communication, 42.4 (Autumn 1992), 164.
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15. Jonas, Hans. The Phenomenon of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 135-136; henceforth cited in the text.
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16. Davies, Char. Artist's Statement, 01010101, Whitney Museum 2001, www.whitney.org.
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17. Olalquiaga, Celeste. Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 2.
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18. Grosz, Elizabeth. "Lived Spatiality - Spaces of Corporeal Desire," in Culture Lab, ed. B. Boigon (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993), 187; henceforth cited in the text.
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19. Caillois, Roger. "Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia," tr. J. Shepley, October 31 (Winter 1992), 28; henceforth cited in the text.
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20. Damasio, Antonio. Descartes's Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Avon Hearst, 1995).
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21. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception, trans: C. Smith (London: Routledge, 1962), 99; henceforth cited in the text.
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22. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible, trans. A. Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 136 (translation modified).
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23. O'Donaghue, Karl. "Virtual Ecology." http://immersence.com/publications/1999/1999-KOdonoghue.html www.immerscence.com/ KODonohue-Thought-B.htm, 4.
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Notes - Roman Numerals

i. This passage is from Gaston Bacheland Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.
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ii. My description of this work borrows liberally from descriptions by Davis and Wettheim Wertheim. See Eric Davis, "Osmose," and Margaret Wertheim, "Out of this World."
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iii. It does, however, have an especially high profile for a virtual reality artwork, having been (together with Davies' later environment, Ephémère) experienced by a total of 35,000 individuals as of the last exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, in 2004. Davies has also informed me that both works, destined to run on Silicon Graphics machines, were reengineered to run on a PC. Email to the author 9/20/05.
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iv. Psychasthenia can be schematically defined as a disturbance in the relation between the self and the surrounding environment. See Roger Caillois, "Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia."
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v. As far as is possible, I try in what follows to refrain from evaluating Gibson's substantive claim regarding perceptual invariants, reserving my commentary to how Gibson's work has been appropriated by VR researchers.
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vi. Rheingold mentions the influence of Gibson on two central pioneers of VR. Scott Fisher and Michael McGreevy. See Rheingold, Virtual Reality, 143-144.
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vii. Though this correlation is especially explicit in Gibson's The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966), where it forms the very topic of investigation, his early work. The Perception of the Visual World (1950), and his final work. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979), include extensive discussions of locomotion and haptic processes. See especially Chapter 13 of the latter work. Page numbers will be cited in the text.
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viii. See Hillis, 125: "Texture gradients are seen as a way to overcome the vast storage and computational difficulties in modeling geometric form in VEs..." In this regard, Hillis mentions the ongoing research project of the Department of Computer Science at UNC Chapel Hill, aptly entitled "Virtual Backdrops: Replacing Geometry with Textures."
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ix. In a related body of research, work on telepresence has linked the richness of tele-embodiment to success at getting technology "to support the body's role in face-to-face interaction." Thus, teleembodiment functions neither via visual simulation nor through illusion, but by the functional duplication of the body's capacities in a variant environment. As John Canny and Eric Paulos note, we can best interact with others at a distance by recreating the affordances of our physical body with telepresence." See Canny and Paulos, "Tele-Embodiment and Shattered Presence: Reconstructing the Body for Online Interaction," 292.
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x. This remains the case despite Steuer's understanding of virtual reality—"defined as a real or simulated environment in which a perceiver experiences telepresence"—as introducing "an alternative view of mediated communication in general," one that breaks with the notion that media are only important as a "conduit." Although Steuer's redefinition of virtual reality effectively breaks with a reductive understanding of it in terms of specific hardware and shifts the focus to the interaction between the mediated environment and the participant, it does not break with the standard notion that what is communicated in the telepresence circuit is information. If it is the case, as Steuer claims, that "[i]nformation is not transmitted from sender to receiver," this does not mean that the informational position is rejected. Indeed, what is experienced in mediated environments as Steuer describes them if not information? See Jonathan Steuer, "Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence."
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xi. Despite Gibson's embrace of an informational understanding of perception, his theory includes elements that could, potentially, serve to complicate such a view. By mentioning Gibson's differentiation of perceptual systems in relation to the variable of "breadth" (which "refers to the number of sensory dimensions simultaneously presented"), Steuer suggests as much:

Breadth is a function of the ability of a communication medium to present information across the senses. J. J. Gibson (1966) defines five distinct perceptual systems: the basic orienting system, which is responsible for maintaining body equilibrium; the auditory system; the haptic, or touch, system; the taste-smell system; and the visual system. Inputs to several of these systems from a single source can be considered informationally equivalent (Gibson 1966). However, the redundancy resulting from simultaneous activation of a number of perceptual systems reduces the number of alterative situations that could induce such a combination of perceptions, and therefore strengthens the perception of a particular environment. (Steuer 1992, 81)

See Steuer, "Defining Virtual Reality," 81. Though Steuer here accepts the informational basis of Gibsons theory, we shall have occasion later not simply to question this, but also to rescue Gibson's intriguing understanding of proprioception from the informational reduction it undergoes in his theory.
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xii. Jones furthermore argues that the privilege placed by Western philosophy on theory is simply a higher order extrapolation of this privileged detachment of sight.
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xiii. Indeed, one might understand Jonas' move here as an effort to merge the generalized function of vision (which must be distinguished from the specific sense modality of sight) with the generalized function of touch. Hints in this direction can be found in his discussion of the "mental side" of touch, which is closely bound up with the generalized function of vision:

There is more than mere coincidence in the fact that in his hand man possesses a tactile organ which can take over some of the distinctive achievements of his eye. There is a mental side to the highest performance of the tactile sense, or rather to the use which is made of its information, that transcends all mere sentience, and it is this mental use which brings touch within the dimension of the achievements of sight. Briefly, it is the image-faculty, in classical terms: imaginatio, phantasia, which makes that use of the data of touch. Only a creature that has a visual faculty characteristic of man can also vicariously "see" by touch.

The level of form-perception at the command of a creature will be essentially the same for both senses, incommensurable as they are in terms of their proper sensible qualities. Blind men can "see" by means of their hands, not because they are devoid of eyes but because they are beings endowed with the general faculty of "vision" and only happen to be deprived of the primary organ of sight. (141-142)

We shall return to this deep correlation of vision and touch later, in relation to the work of Merleau-Ponty. Incidentally, the differentiation of vision from sight bears on the misapplication of Gibson's theory by VR researchers. As Hillis suggests, the latter seek to extend to, in his terms, the necessarily interpretative faculty of vision, what Gibson says about sight. (See Ken Hillis, Digital Sensations, 126-127; 132.) If we restrict Gibson's theoretical claims to the domain of sight (as he suggests we should), what he says about perceptual invariants begins to make more sense and indeed to resonate with Jonas' similarly biologically inflected claim that "only the simultaneity of sight, with its extended present' of enduring objects, allows the distinction between change and the unchanging and therefore between becoming and being" (144-145). Restricted in this way, Gibson's claims, at least potentially, leave room for processes of reception that would involve the "self-movement" of the observer and thus the role of other sensory modalities.
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xiv. Using an apparatus that allowed an active kitten to move about freely while carrying a gondola containing another, passive kitten, Held and Hein demonstrated that active or voluntary movement was central to the development of sensorimotor skills. Thus, the active kittens developed normal sensorimotor coordination, but the passive kittens failed to do so. See Richard Held, "Plasticity in Sensory-Motor Systems.'
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xv. Incidentally, Jonas' imaginary case very nearly approximates the situation of what Bergson, in the first chapter of Matter and Memory, calls "pure perception." Like the winged seed endowed with eyes, pure perception simply registers the flow of images without correlating this flow with any organizational principle (for Bergson, bodily affection and personal memory) that could give it meaning. In Bergson, the notion of pure perception was only a heuristic device to illustrate how the body as a "center of indetermination" is simply one image among others in a universe of images and thus can be deduced from this universe (rather than being posited as something standing over against it, as in idealism and realism). When Deleuze generalizes Bergson's notion as the basis of his understanding of cinema (in the movement-image and the time- image), he makes the error that Jonas is accusing the philosophical tradition of making: lending vision an illegitimate autonomy from the lower sensory modalities of the body. (See Deleuze 1986). I develop a critical account of Deleuze's move in New Philosophy for New Media.
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xvi. Like Osmose, Ephémère utilizes semitransparency and spatial ambiguity and an interface based on breath and balance. However, it moves beyond Osmose by foregrounding the temporality of the experience, rather than its spatiality and simplifying the spatial elements to three principle levels. Here is Davies' description of Ephémère:

In seeking to deal with the ephemerality of life, this work expands the spatiality of Osmose to encompass temporality. While Osmose was based on spatial organization of various worlds, and stasis of most elements within (except flowing particles), Ephémère relies on the emergence and transformation of form, and the ebb and flow of visibility and audibility. Ephémère contains three horizontal levels: landscape, subterranean Earth, and interior body. The landscape is constantly transforming through time. The relationships between the various elements and the participant are more interactive or inter-responsive. In Osmose, interaction was limited to navigation and the resulting ambiguous perceptual readings of gestalt-like compositions were dependent on the changing participant location (with the exception of the fully interactive sound). In Ephémère, gaze has been introduced as a means of interaction: rocks "open" when gazed upon, revealing landscapes which quickly fade, and in the earth, seed sprout if approached slowly with a steady gaze, blooming, then fading back into the earth. I introduced the interior flesh body as the substratum in Ephémère (quite a change from the software code that formed the base of the Osmose world) as a means of reaffirming the poetic correspondence or coequivalence between earth and body.... anecdotal responses from some of the three thousand people who have experienced Ephémère ... suggest that this second work feels much more interactive, and evokes a sensation of being swept up and away, without a secure unchanging place to return to (i.e., the clearing in Osmose), i.e., one has to surrender to the experience. (Karl O'Donaghue and Char Davies, "Interview with Char Davies." 3-4).

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xvii. Davies comments:

I think that by using a fully enveloping virtual environment, one can get closer to recreating the sensation of being ... I release people from these physical constraints and allow them to experience "being" in a slightly different way. It almost refreshes their perception, so they can rediscover what it feels like to be here when they come back out into the world. (Wettheim Wertheim, "Out of this World," 1)

See also Char Davies, Artist's Statement, 01010101.
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xviii. Though it is beyond the aim of the present purpose, the issue of gender in relation to psychasthenia and the lived spatiality of the body would concern the adequacy of representation as a means to account for it. On this score, let me simply note that I have certain reservations concerning Grosz's account of the "constitution of the subject's sexed body through various forces of signification and representation—the meaning the body has for others and for itself, its socioeconomic constitution as a subject, and, above all, the psychical, economic, and libidinal constitution of bodies as sexually differentiated, as sexually specific" (193). As I see it, this account too narrowly circumscribes the domain where sex matters. One would, instead, have to ask how sex enters into the phenomenal experience of lived spatiality as I here reconstruct it.
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xix. In this respect, Davies' environments help demonstrate Irigaray's adherence to the technophobia constitutive of Western philosophy. For a critique of Irigaray along these lines, see Weiss, Chapter 6. The important question to pose here is whether this technophobia is necessary and, given the resonances of our analysis in Chapter 1 with Irigaray's privileging of tactility as primordial, whether there is reason to believe that it is not. The task then would be to specify what a technics of tactile indifferentiation, as this is thought out of the maternal, might look like.
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xx. See also Caillois' footnote where he likens this instinct to the Freudian death drive ("Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia," 32, note 44).
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xxi. For a critique of this technophobia in Heidegger, see Mark Hansen, Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing, Chapter 4, and Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, volume 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Part II.
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xxii. Caillois is here citing Minkowski, "Le temps vecu."
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