Agency and Embodiment

If you’ve been following this blog over the last few months, you may justly be wondering if there is any unifying thread to what I post. The answer is: sort of. Clearly the vast majority involves “technology” in the broadest sense, but I would say that there are a few more specific unifying threads (in my mind at least). One of those threads will (hopefully) tie together the posts on embodiment, place, and the worlds’ fairs. How neatly I’m able to tie that thread remains to be seen.

My reading of Carrie Noland’s Agency and Embodiment contributes to this particular thread and I’ll be posting a few excerpts with minimal comment in the coming days (tumblr style). In this post, I’m picking out some portions from the Introduction that will give you a feel for her project and the approach she takes to it. I’m particularly sympathetic to the manner in which she forges a third way through certain perennially intractable oppositions.

One last note before the excerpts. There is also significant rhetorical variety among the sources that I cite on this blog. They range from straightforward, clear journalistic prose to more obscure, academic theoretical writing. Noland’s text veers toward the latter, but for someone dealing with theory in the French phenomenological tradition, she writes with surprising clarity. That said, this will not be everyone’s cup of tea, of course.

Here’s Noland’s statement of her thesis:

“If bodily motility is, as Henri Bergson once claimed, the single most important filtering device in the subject’s negotiations with the external world, then a theory of agency that places movement center stage is essential to understanding how human beings are embodied within — and impress themselves on — their worlds.

The hypothesis I advance in this book is that kinesthetic experience, produced by acts of embodied gesturing, places pressure on the conditioning a body receives, encouraging variations in performance that account for larger innovations in cultural practice that cannot otherwise be explained.”

She adds:

“In these pages I will speak of ‘variations in performance’ and not only instances of ‘resistance,’ in order to avoid the agonistic overtones of Michel Foucault’s highly influential but largely binary account of power, which reduces the field of cultural practices to techniques of ‘strict subjection.'”

In other words, the experience of having, or perhaps better, being a body creates the conditions for the possibility of agency within the fields that operate to constrain and form our subjectivity.

More from Noland:

“Kinesthetic sensations are a particular kind of affect belonging both to the body that precedes our subjectivity (narrowly construed) and the contingent, cumulative subjectivity our body allows us to build over time. Because these sensations are also preserved as memories, they help constitute the ’embodied history of the subject,’ a history stored in gestural ‘I can’s’ that determines in large part how that embodiment will continue to unfold. Kinesthesia allows us to correct recursively, refine, and experiment with the practices we have learned. The knowledge obtained through kinesthesia is thus constitutive of — not tangential to — the process of individuation.”

Technology Use and the Body

Here is David Nye again, this time on the embodied character of our tool use and of our knowledge of technology:

“Tools are known through the body at least as much as they are understood through the mind. The proper use of kitchen utensils and other tools is handed down primarily through direct observation and imitation of others using them. Technologies are not just objects but also the skills needed to use them. Daily life is saturated with tacit knowledge of tools and machines. Coat hangers, water wheels, and baseball bats are solid and tangible, and we know them through physical experiences of texture, pressure, sight, smell, and sound during use more than through verbal descriptions. The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context. It can be a basis for verifiable statements about its size, shape, and uses, including its incorporation into literature and art. Based on such observations, one can construct a chronology of when it was invented, manufactured, and marketed, and of how people incorporated it into a particular time and place. But ‘reading’ the axe yields a different kind of knowledge than using it.”

This is a remarkably rich passage and not only because of its allusion to baseball. It makes an important point that tends to get lost in much of our talk about technology: technology use is an embodied practice. This point gets lost, in part, because the word technology, more often than not, brings to mind digital information technologies, and the rhetoric surrounding the use of these technologies evokes vague notions of participation in some sort of ethereal nexus of symbolic exchange.

On the one hand, we tend to forget about our more prosaic technologies — cars, refrigerators, eye glasses, drills, etc. — that are still very much a part of our lives, and, on the other, we forget that even our supposedly immaterial technologies have a very material base. We are not, as of yet, telepathically interacting the Internet after all. Having recently switched from a PC to a Mac, whenever I have occasion to use a PC again I am reminded of the embodied nature of our computer use. My fingers now want to make certain gestures or reach for certain keys on a PC that only work on the Mac. Or consider the proficient texters (or are they text messengers) who are able to key their messages without so much as glancing at their phones. Their fingers know where the keys are.

These sorts of observations resonate with the work of philosopher Hubert Dreyfus on knowledge and skill acquisition. You can read a very brief overview of Dreyfus’ position in this recent post on the body and online education. Simply put, Dreyfus, not unlike Merleau-Ponty, argues for the irreducibly embodied nature of our knowing and being in the world. Much of what we know, we know more with our bodies than with our minds. Or, perhaps better put, our mind’s engagement with reality is unavoidably embodied.

Likewise, our engagement with technology is unavoidably embodied and we would do well to focus our analysis of technology on the body as the intersection of our minds, our tools, and the world. The use a technology may ultimately have more in common with learning a skill, than with acquiring knowledge.  There is, as Nye points out, some value in “reading” our tools is if they were a text, but a deeper understanding, at least a different sort of understanding can only be had by the use of the technology under consideration.

Embodied Art

Annie Dillard on the embodied nature of art:

“The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature. In working-class France, when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, ‘It is only the trade entering his body.’ The art must enter the body, too. A painter cannot use paint like glue or screws to fasten down the world. The tubes of paint are like fingers; they work only if, inside the painter, the neural pathways are wide and clear to the brain. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, part of the brain changes physical shape to accommodate and fit paint.

You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of a paintbox. Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox, he said, is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint.”

“It is only the trade entering his body.” Love that.

From The Writing Life.

From Novice to Expert: The Body’s Role in the Acquisition of Knowledge

Hubert Dreyfus, following Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, considers the body an indispensable component of knowledge acquisition. For Dreyfus, and those who place a similar emphasis on embodiment, human beings are not merely minds who process information. We are embodied minds who learn and experience reality by processing more than just discreet bits of data which can be formalized and verbalized. Much of what we know, in their view, cannot, in fact, be verbalized or formalized. Instead, this sort of knowledge is carried in the body in the form of habit or pre-rational understanding that yields intuitive comprehension and action. In light of this view of knowledge, Dreyfus is skeptical of online learning because of the manner in which it appears to abstract the body from the experience of learning.

Dreyfus expressed his concerns with online eduction in his 2001 book, On the Internet. He begins by noting the enthusiasm with which some educators were then touting the potential of the Internet to transform education. He cites, for example, Reed Hundt, one time dean at Yale University who believed that “the new Internet system of education” had the potential to “bring down” the older, traditional model of education.

Hundt, to be clear, was cheery about this possibility. Dreyfus notes that some educators were much less sanguine about the potential of the Internet, but in his estimation neither side offered anything by way of an argument for their position. To fill this gap, Dreyfus articulates a theory of skill and knowledge acquisition in which the body plays a central role. By implication, if Dreyfus’ theory holds, then online education would appear to be an inadequate environment for education.

In Dreyfus’ view, a learner proceeds through the following stages of skills acquisition: novice, advanced beginner, competence, proficiency, expertise, and practical wisdom. As he considers each of these stages, Dreyfus provides three variations of skill acquisition: a motor skill, an intellectual skill, and “what takes place in the lecture hall.”

The running example in the first two variations are, respectively, learning to drive and learning to play chess. It is in these first two variations that the strength of his exposition is most evident, but I’ll use the third variation to briefly describe Dreyfus’ model. Here then are the stages of knowledge acquisition briefly explained.

Novice: At this stage context independent information about the domain is communicated along with basic rules that the learner can recognize without yet possessing the skill in question.

Advanced beginner: Context comes into play at this stage as learners, through experience with the material, are led to recognize context dependent meaning of the information and rules that they learned as novices.

Competence: As students learn more about the material they may be overwhelmed by the amount of relevant information and aspects of a situation that they are now able to discern. Achieving competence depends on developing the ability to make decisions about what is most important or relevant to a particular situation or problem. At this point, since the volume of potentially relevant information is so large, a learner must begin to intuitively discern rather than consciously process all of the possibilities. Additionally, at this stage Dreyfus also notes that a certain emotional response, either the despair of failure or the exhilaration of success, will significantly influence whether or not the learner continues on to the later stages.

Proficiency: The proficient learner, reinforced by positive emotional experiences, will internalize knowledge gained from extensive experience with problems in the domain of learning and will intuitively recognize the salient features of any new problem and see, without consciously processing a wide array of rules and maxims, what needs to be solved.

Expertise: In Dreyfus’ own words, “The expert not only sees what needs to be achieved; thanks to his vast repertoire of situational discriminations, he also sees immediately how to achieve his goal.”

Practical wisdom: Finally, the learner will have not only mastered a skill so as to intuitively solve problems, they will also learn “the general ability to do the appropriate thing, at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way.”This essentially entails a culturally aware and sensitive manner of being an expert.

Dreyfus does not argue that online learning is without value. Online learning may get us as far as the first two stages; but not, in his view, much farther than that. Beyond the first couple of stages of knowledge/skill acquisition, embodiment is indispensable:

“Distance learning enthusiasts … need to realize that only emotional, involved, embodied human beings can become proficient and expert and only they can become masters. So, while they are teaching specific skills teachers must also be incarnating and encouraging involvement. Moreover, learning through apprenticeship requires the presence of experts, and picking up the style of life that we share with others in our culture requires begin in the presence of our elders.”

It is always worth asking what view of knowledge or what philosophy of education is assumed when we engage in discussions and debates about pedagogy, on- or offline. It seems to me that the most optimistic visions for online learning attain a certain plausibility only on the assumption of a rather narrow view of what knowledge or an education entails. Sometimes this is the best that can be hoped for and we should not besmirch online learning’s ability to bring some education to those whose only other option would be no education at all; again context and situation matter. But strictly online education hardly represents an ideal — unless we already assume that knowledge and learning amount to the mere aggregation of discreet bits of data.

Technology, Habit, and Being in the World

Thinking about the social and personal consequences of technology often leads to a debate between those who believe technologies are more or less neutral and those who believe technologies exert some kind of formative influence over human actions. The latter view I’ve taken to calling technological voluntarism, and the former is typically identified as some variety of technological determinism. On the one hand, it seems obvious that choices are being made by those who use technology, and those choices could reasonably be made to the contrary. On the other hand, an influence is felt, at the individual and societal level, which cannot easily be discussed without assigning, at least rhetorically, some causal power to technology. If it is difficult to argue that technology wholly determines our situation, it would also be difficult to argue that technology does not at all condition our situation. The challenge is to characterize the nature of this non-determinative, yet formative influence.

Here is one approach to this discussion that I would like to commend: evolving mutual reciprocity. The emergence and adoption of technology are a function of human agency, the ability to choose how technology is to be used, but human agency is itself conditioned by our prior use of technology. This approach grants primacy neither to the tool nor to the act of choosing. Our choosing is always already conditioned by our tools, and this conditioning is always already a consequence of our choices. But in order to advance this argument it’s necessary to conceptualize the manner in which this reciprocal state of affairs is actualized. To do this I’m going to borrow from an Aristotelian account of moral formation with particular emphasis on the embodied, and thus pre-cognitive, dimension of human action.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, choice is the foundation of the moral life: “Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but the excellences [or, virtues] are choices or involve choices.” Choices, however, eventually become habits, and habits dispose us to choose in certain ways and not others. Notice the reciprocity between doing and being in Aristotle’s account of courage: “by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.” Act bravely to become brave that you may act bravely. Aristotle illustrates his point by comparing the cultivation of virtue to the cultivation of skill at playing the lyre or the work of building. Skill at living well is acquired analogously to these other practical skills — it is acquired by embodied practice. So, Aristotle explains,

by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence we become brave or cowardly…. Thus, in one word, states arise out of like activities.  This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states correspond to the difference between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

There are two directions in which we can apply this insight to the question of technology and human agency. First, it suggests that the choices we make with our tools are initially experienced as choices, but in time take on the force of habits. These habits, if sufficiently ingrained, then act as would virtues or vices in Arsitotle’s schema, i.e., they condition subsequent choices. If we’re inattentive to the force of habituated action, we may be unable to fully account for the influence of technology, individually or socially.

The second direction follows  Aristotle’s own examples and emphasizes the embodied dimension of habituated action. Lived experience consists of a circuit comprising mind, body, tools, and world.  This circuit of perception and action typically runs so smoothly through these nodes that it may hardly be noticed at all. In fact, the tendency would be to lose sight of how deeply integrated into the experience of reality tools have become and how these tools mediate reality. To put it in a slightly different way, tools become the interface through which reality is accessed.  (Putting it this way also illustrates how tools provide the metaphors by which reality is interpreted.) Katherine Hayles drew attention to this circuit when, discussing the significance of embodiment, she wrote,

When changes in [embodied] practices take place, they are often linked with new technologies that affect how people use their bodies and experience space and time.  Formed by technology at the same time that it creates technology, embodiment mediates between technology and discourse by creating new experiential frameworks that serve as boundary markers for the creation of corresponding discursive systems.

New technologies, in other words, produce novel ways of using and experiencing bodies in the world.  With our bodies we make our tools and our tools then shape how we understand and experience our bodies.

This often unnoticed circuit through which we experience the world is sometimes disrupted by some error in the code of digital devices or breakdown of machinery. We typically take these sorts of disruptions as annoyances of varying degrees; but because tools are an unnoticed link in the circuit encompassing world, body, and mind, disruptions emanating from the tools also elicit flashes of illumination by breaking habituated patterns of thought and action. Let’s call this the Empty Milk Jug Effect. When you pick up an empty milk jug that you think is full, you’re caught off guard; you experience a palpable rupture between unconscious, embodied judgments and the feedback flowing back through the embodied instantiation of those judgments. Likewise, the malfunction of our tools may elicit similar instances of startled realization with regard to the countless pre-cognitive and habituated dispositions and assumptions that facilitate our experience. Thus Hayles again:

. . . unpredictable breaks occur that disrupt the smooth functioning of thought, action, and result, making us abruptly aware that our agency is increasingly enmeshed within complex networks extending beyond our ken and operating through codes that are, for the most part, invisible and inaccessible.

While not referencing Aristotle, Hayles also employs the language of habit. She writes, for example, of bodily practices which have sedimented

“into habitual actions and movements, sinking below conscious awareness.   At this level they achieve an inertia that can prove surprisingly resistant to conscious intentions to modify or change them. By their nature, habits do not occupy conscious thought; they are done more or less automatically, as if the knowledge of how to perform the actions resided in ones’ fingers or physical mobility rather than in one’s mind.”

An example: I recently switched to a MacBook Pro after years of using a variety of PCs. After a couple of weeks of using my new Mac I had become fairly well accustomed to the interface. When I went back to my PC to access some old files, I found myself making Apple gestures on the PC trackpad that I knew, had you asked me, would not work on the PC. But my fingers had already learned certain habits and sought to apply them. That is a seemingly insignificant illustration, but consider the implications if similar patterns of habituated expectation and action were consistently realized throughout the whole range of our technologically mediated experiences. I imagine, for example, that if we were to perform a careful case study of the embodied habits that have accumulated around our use of cell phones, we would come away with a string of other, more significant, examples of our technologically conditioned habits of being in the world and with others.

Returning to the question of human agency and technology equipped with the categories of habit and embodiment, a mediating position that transcends the impasse between voluntarism and determinism emerges. Technology does not achieve its influence apart from the countless choices to use technology in this way or that, and those choices to use technology are never free of the earlier habits acquired by the use of technology.

Technologies do not change the character of their age merely by their appearance, they do so through the use to which they are put by individuals whose perceptions, assumptions, and sensibilities are thereby re-ordered and re-calibrated. When this use becomes habitual, the new perceptions, assumptions, and sensibilities achieve a taken-for-granted status and become, as it were, a second nature. This technologically induced “second-nature” then becomes the ground for the subsequent inter-play between human agents and new technologies.

If we’re mindful of the manner in which technology exerts its influence, we may have a chance to address whatever we take to be the less desirable consequences of technology, at least on a personal level. We do well to remember Aristotle’s counsel: those who would transform their character by “taking refuge in theory” are like “patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do.” If character is formed, at least in part, by technological habits, then the use of technology must be calibrated by practices and counter-practices that will yield virtue. Merely thinking about how we would like to change won’t get us very far at all.