Figure and Ground: The body as a locus of narrative and knowing.
This paper will investigate the way bodies and language are intertwined, examining how illness or trauma require us to speak from the body in different terms from those of orthodox academic research or Cartesian epistemologies. The paper will look at ways in which the body, particularly in illness, may be a site of transformation and a means for re-conceptualising epistemology and narrative. My doctoral practice, which is represented by the artists’ book South, is committed to an investigation of alternative forms of knowing that are grounded in material practices, such as the generation of meaning through tactile experiences.
Readers of South are invited to construct their own narrative interpretations through touch, sound and movement, to locate themselves within and through the environment. The fictional protagonist of my work is an embryologist called Ivan Dâr. Ivan Dâr experiences a ‘mental breakdown’ in which he loses the ability to differentiate himself from his wider environment. The paper will demonstrate how my work makes an explicit connection between subjectivity, epistemology and location, citing Grosz (1994) and Haraway (1991) as key theorists on the role of both embodied and environmentally situated knowledge production, but also describing the specific practices I have developed and through which I have generated alternative forms of knowing and narrative within the South system.
The paper will connect the centrality of corporeal and located knowledge production to the notion of site-specificity in the South project.
‘The ill body’s articulation in stories is a personal task, but the stories told by the ill are also social’ (Frank, 1997: 3).
Those of you who are expecting to read a scientific treatise should already be dismayed by the subjective slant of my writing. Others may be wondering what on earth I am doing using such resources – as the phobia, the displacement, my years of being mute. Are these theoretical assets?
My goal may once have been to make you all say a resounding communal ‘yes’ following a meticulous submission to the elegance of my logic. But there is no longer an ‘I’ to either persuade or be persuaded.
In fact, If I am supposed to be writing an autobiography there is a fundamental flaw in the contract which my publishers have hitherto not noticed - there is no real ‘I’ to autobiographize. Although it is true I use this solitary symmetrical construction on a habitual basis. This ‘I’ of which there is no solid empirical evidence represents a vast number of un-useful habits – such as the continuous construction of injurious symbols, phobias and fears.
Taking a small stroll through Borough Market not far from where I was born and brought up, will expose a cornucopia of such anxieties, the fear of not having material things and sensuous experiences, to name just two. You may retrace these steps yourself; beginning perhaps by the ship of avaricious cruelty we currently call the Golden Hind. A boat that represents every malignancy you can care to name. Start here, at this mendacious centre piece of Thames-side reverie. Through larceny and brute self-serving this vessel has triggered chains of greed that bring us, for example, the ostrich salami, the Kenyan Kum Quat, not to mention new world pineapples. Here we may test not only our personal degrees of freedom – our slavery to the senses, but those of geo-political proportions, how sites and selves and senses form a complex political ecology in which we are all deeply embedded.
Taken from South, a psychometric text adventure, an artists’ book that, along with a software interface, is the result of my doctoral practice over the last three years.
Among other things the book features fictional narratives about and ‘by’ a reclusive computer scientist called Ivan Dâr. His experiences of mutism and a condition called legendary psychasthenia are at the centre of these narratives. This paper will demonstrate how these narratives connect to my research as an artist-programmer, and how the body in illness can have profound implications for our understanding of language, logic and our relationship to the notion of ‘the site’.
According to the sociologist Arthur W. Frank, the Greek prophet Tiresias was granted narrative powers by dint of his blindness. But is this a humanist interpretation (replete with all the abstract and rationalist positionings the term might imply) or is Tiresias’s story an opportunity for what Michel Foucault might have called a ‘bio-political’ exegesis, in which we see political power impacting on every facet of human life, including our bodies? Frank’s stated goal was to ‘shift the dominant conception of illness away from passivity – the ill person as “victim of” disease and then recipient of care - toward activity. The ill person who turns illness into story transforms fate into experience” he writes (Frank, 1997: xi).
Though Frank’s telling may be humanist in part, his theme of the body ‘as the ground of stories’ (xi) is larger than a humanist positioning might entail. The body in illness becomes not only as Frank puts it, ‘a witness to the conditions that rob others of their voices’ but an opportunity to re-conceptualise the body as a site of epistemological agency, to re-conceptualise our sense of our being in the world, and to integrate the body into new epistemologies and methodological approaches.
The body in my own doctoral work has been both the material and agent for a series of epistemological investigations. These investigations are offered throughout ‘South, a psychometric text adventure’, which is both an artists’ book and a software package that works dynamically with the book and its readers.
My doctoral work operates within the interdisciplinary areas of fiction and intra-activity, subjectivity and agency. It supports the case for epistemological fluidity, and emphasises that such volatility does not emanate from post-modern philosophy alone but from the body itself. These ideas are also investigated via my fictional stories about Ivan Dâr, whose extreme experiences of, on the one hand, mind-body separation – the idea that the universe contains two fundamental types of entity: mental and physical, in which immaterial minds are housed in physical bodies, and on the other the opposite of substance dualism, a sense of external space invading and annihilating his subjective boundaries.
My doctoral work has aimed to place location, sensation and tactile response at the forefront of the site-oriented experience it offers to readers. Spatial fragmentation and psychic disorientation are also part of my site-specific narrative works, in which readers can find narrative threads through tactile experiences or lose themselves and find the work collapsing around them. The South project is committed to an investigation of alternative forms of knowing that are grounded in material practices, such as the generation of meaning through tactile experiences. Readers are invited to construct their own narrative interpretations through touch, sound and movement, to locate themselves within and through the environment.
Within the complex formation represented by the South project, embodiment, contingency and site specificity are linked. The knowledge generated by the reader in engaging with the South algorithms is not separable from the processes that form that knowledge. Hence, the emphasis on re-formulating radically different experiences dependent on local and subjective conditions. The South book and its readers, like the volatile content of the Thames itself are inherently unstable and localised, at least in my conception of them. The interdependency of each algorithm, and its direct relationship to the subjective state of readers, enables the book to also at times deliberately limit the mobility of users, emphasising the idealisations as much as the realities at play in this work.
In conjunction with the South software and egg, the book takes on an even greater degree of contingency, issuing instructions that have been generated in response to economic and meteorological events as well as my own subjective changes. It is significant that in this largely mutable configuration it is the overtly fictional content, the stories I have written about Ivan Dâr and his subjective dis-integration that retain the greatest degree of stability. Ambiguity, tension and mystery, if they exist at all, emanate from the experiences readers generate for themselves in the materiality of their research into the site and their own subjectivity and embodiment. As Grosz states in (1994), eschewing disembodied, computational models of cognition represents an opportunity to ‘displace the centrality of the mind, the psyche, interior or consciousness (and even the unconscious) in conceptions of the subject through a reconfiguration of the body’ (Grosz, 1994: v ii). But, in reconfiguring the body we might also seize an opportunity to reconfigure the inter-subjective and technological boundaries between bodies and computers. This is a theme that is also raised by Donna Haraway who identifies the seemingly contradictory requirements of a so-called successor science, a science defined by Sandra Harding (1993) as a project that will address the systemic short comings identified in particular by feminist epistemologists and scientists, failings which Haraway defines as the ‘hierarchical positivist orderings of what can count as knowledge’. (Haraway, 1991: 188).
Haraway frames this successor science as owning a ‘radical multiplicity of local knowledges’ (187). Such a multiplicity enables a new form of objectivity that can accommodate post-modern insights into knowledge production, particularly post-modernism’s emphasis upon power relations, and its attack upon the implicitly universalising, overarching and grand narratives of humanism.
My thesis presents the case for works that are subjectively and environmentally situated, arguing that intra-active, as opposed to interactive works can enliven digital literature and artists’ books. Intra-activity posits a situated and dynamic form of inter (or intra) action that unfolds between or rather within the moment of connection between a range of actors, or agents, both human and non-human. It does not pre-suppose fixed meanings or a priori separations between subjects or objects. (see Barad 2007).
Intra-activity necessitates a re-framing of epistemological processes within both the sciences and the arts. My thesis also reflexively explores the situated and non-neutral nature of my research, placing it within a social-historical context. Not in the service of indulgent self-reference, but to underscore the presence of a subjective position with the research process, and the value of examining that position through all aspects of research and practice, The South book and project assumes that not only its author but also its readers are intricate, intelligent and often inconsistent. The current form of the South book assumes a broad readership, ranging from people who are interested in London, walking and psycho-geography to those who are curious about what a location can tell them about themselves. Other readers may come to the book through their interest in game forms such as ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books and text adventures. All readers will find themselves required to engage in a series of psychometric (or psychologically evaluative) processes woven in and around the South Bank.
A significant part of my practice has involved the construction of evaluative processes and procedures, both in analogue and digitally mediated forms. I have also researched the historical context of such evaluations and critical approaches to the notion of personality assessment. The analysis of psychometric tests relates closely to my research into the notion of the subject. The notion of psychometric evaluations has its roots in the evaluation of intelligence (associated in particular with the nineteenth century eugenicist Sir Francis Galton) but later also evolved into the investigation and evaluation of ideas around personality traits or the notion of psychological types, such as ‘extroverts’ and ‘introverts’. My own interest in Psychometric tests stems from my childhood exposure to many forms of psychometric test designed by my Grandfather, who was an educational psychologist involved professionally (and ambivalently) in the psychometric evaluation of children. The procedures he designed were often tested on myself and my siblings and had the quality, at least in my own mind, of games, a connotation that I have clearly not abandoned over the years. The South software and book frames subjective evaluation as a form of mutable, multi-linear surveillance, fiction and performance, in the sense that readers are invited to physically act out the construction of different identities. This engagement with subjective evaluation is also intimately connected, within my work, to the notion of the site.
South proposes a mutable form of both subjectivity and site specificity. The site in South is formulated by specific situations and corporeal sensations, the book therefore emphasises both situated and embodied interaction. Many of the evaluative procedures involve the senses, and indeed the progression of the evaluations through the five senses is part of the underlying narrative of the assessment process. The emphasis upon sensory and embodied interaction in both the South book and software also enforces the central notion that the technology we use does not exist in isolation from the cultural or physical spaces in which we live and work. The question of what constitutes knowledge or intelligence in these tests is also challenged (it is also an important question in the context of claims about intelligence and computing), what, the book asks, do we mean by intelligence? Are there other types of intelligence or knowledge that computers and conventional research processes can deploy, such as:
• Embodied knowledge
• Tacit knowledge
• Situated knowledge
The processes presented in the South book and software are designed to facilitate an exploration of these questions within and through the South Bank location. My own subjectivity is also posited as a site or meta-location, resonating throughout every aspect of the South project. The book and software therefore aims to understand individual subjects and sites, but in order to work with these concepts I have had to investigate what the notion of a subject and subjective experience means. My research, (including lived experience) suggests that the notion of both the subjective and the subject is politically fraught and philosophically unstable; as such it is highly conducive to a critical artwork that capitalizes on instability and contingency. The dynamic, mutable and networked nature of the subject framed by my research is highly suited to a computational form, and can, I suggest, support a meaningful use of computational strengths in relation to artists’ books, augmenting them with dynamic qualities that one could argue analogue books do not (literally) have. The notion of the site is also posited as a similarly complex configuration.
Treacherous Blue Books: South stories.
It was clear that crossing the forest had cost each of us the power of speech (Calvino, 1977: 4)
Woven into the algorithmic procedures embedded in the South book are a series of fictional narratives, these narratives and meta-narratives enjoy varying degrees of convergence with reader experiences and with the narratives readers themselves enact through their exploration of and response to the South Bank. The protagonist of my own fictions is a character called Ivan Dâr; his story articulates questions of authenticity, separability, normalcy and ‘natural’ language. These questions are embedded within my own cultural and socio-historical background. My grandmother, who was profoundly deaf did not learn sign language but instead attempted to lip-read (with, as I remember it, little success). This may be viewed within a wider historical context in which ‘oralism’ (the use of spoken language) was emphasised over the use of sign-languages, not least for it normalising significance in relation to the majority hearing community. In Van Cleve (1999) Anne T. Quartararo’s chapter on deaf identity and French republicanism succinctly expresses the relationship between language and ‘civilisation’, and the motivation for making the deaf speak like the hearing as opposed to using manual sign languages:
The goal was to make deaf people more “human”, or, like the rustic peasant forced to learn correct French, make deaf people more “civilized” through the use of the ”spoken” word
(Quartararo in Van Cleve, 1999: 45).
In 1880 the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf was held in Milan. The congress infamously ruled that oral education should prevail over sign language. This resulted in the widespread promotion of oralism (including lip-reading) over manual languages, arguably motivated by a strong desire to make deaf people appear ‘normal’. While I do not wish to portray my grandmother as a victim of these policies, I think it is arguable that the normalising sensibility underpinning these rulings did have an agential role in her ability to communicate and by extension to many wider aspects of her life.
In a different, though not unconnected form, my paternal grandfather also experienced constraints upon his language. Although he was born and brought up in South Wales (like my grandmother, in the early twentieth century), he was not allowed to speak Welsh. This fact exists within the wider historical context of Welsh language suppression which reached its apotheosis in the so-called ‘Welsh-not’. The Welsh-Not was a wooden block that children were forced to wear as a punishment if they were caught speaking Welsh at school. The denigration of the Welsh language was supported by the infamous ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’ (Brad y Llyfrau Gleision), an influential report into the state of education in Wales commissioned in 1846 and presented in 1847. The report enforced a notion of Welsh culture as inferior and the speaking of Welsh as educationally and socially detrimental. In my grandfather’s case it was his own Welsh mother who enforced the prohibition, based on the idea that the Welsh language was ‘common’ and a language for peasants, an idea that had been widely reinforced and apparently absorbed by many Welsh people as a result of the 1847 report. In light of the fact that some of my Grandfather’s relatives on the Island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) were reputedly monoglot Welsh speakers, the prohibition could be interpreted as effectively severing him from those family relationships.
Above, the ‘Welsh Not’, worn as a punishment by Welsh children if they spoke Welsh
at school. The Welsh Not illustrated above can be purchased as a gift from the site
welshhistorystories .com, adding, one might argue, another layer to the wider
narrative of the Welsh language.
The fictional protagonist of South, Ivan Dâr, experiences a breakdown in which he can longer speak, this echoes the fact that, in addition to the restrictions imposed upon my grandfather’s childhood mode of speech, in the early 1930s in London my Grandfather experienced a twelve month psychosomatic ‘breakdown’ in which he could also not speak at all. This inability to speak is framed within my re-telling as a silent articulation of some of the tensions inherent in the hierarchies of value faced by migrant and colonised communities in relation to their ‘mother tongue’, even (perhaps especially) if their own mothers collude in its suppression. Ivan Dâr experiences an even more bewildering lack of groundedness, loosely based on a condition known as ‘legendary psychasthenia’, in which people cannot locate themselves, or differentiate themselves in relation to the wider world, which one might conceptualize as the environment beyond the boundaries of their own skin. Roger Caillois in 1935 described this condition as one in which space becomes an annihilating agency acting against subjects:
Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis. It ends by replacing them. Then 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. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is "the convulsive possession." All these expressions shed light on a single process: depersonalization by assimilation to space, i.e., what mimicry achieves morphologically in certain animal species
Figure and ground
The closest we can get to a view without perspective is the fragmentation of so-called legendary psychasthenia, as Grosz writes in (1994), it is a view that can form no perspective and cannot locate itself in time or space. Grosz emphasises the notion of body image as intrinsic to our ability to create a ‘distinction between the figure and the ground, or between central and peripheral actions. Relative to its environment, the body separates the subject’s body from a background of forces’ (Grosz 1994:83). By stating this, Grosz is challenging Cartesian mind-body dualisms and placing the body at the centre of epistemological processes. But Grosz is keen to deny holism or transcendental notions of mind-body unity. Her approach is more complex, alluding to mind-body processes as a form of interconstitutional entanglement, a mobius strip of ‘inscriptions and transformations’ (vii). Elizabeth Grosz’s work on the body reconceptualizes subjectivity and provides a framework for explaining subjectivity through corporeality rather than through binary notions of the conscious versus the unconscious. Likewise Grosz does not construe mind and body as opposites, but as two parts of a whole.
Frank makes the connection between modernist medicine and colonisation, stating that colonization was central to the achievement of modernist medicine, in which the ”sick person” emerges ‘as a recognisable social type in the early eighteenth century. The condition necessary for the emergence of this type was that “the diversity of suffering be reduced to a unifying general view, which is precisely that of clinical medicine” (Frank, 1997:11). This reduction can be connected to the top-down, disembodied and propositionally based structures that have dominated computation. However, it would be naive to present an alternative conception of the relationship of the body to the mind as a straightforward opposition to rationalism or positive science, or as Grosz warns us not to replace one orthodoxy with another, such as those of holism or transcendentalism. In the case of the sick body Frank writes “Bodily systems are the infolding of cultural traumas into the body. As these bodies continue to live and to create history, these symptoms outfold into the social space of that history’ (Frank, 1997: 28). The contingency of the body in illness is connected to the contingency that underpins all knowing and all being – the ‘burping, spitting, defecating’ body of Kristeva’s abjection. Likewise the stigma of illness is linked by Goffman, Parsons and Frank to the kind of contingency sickness manifests. But Frank complicates this role of illness by stating that the ‘doing-something’ of proclaiming and narratavising is a form of meta-control (32) over illness. In the face of such complexity it is necessary for the readers of South to test the limits and distributions of these notions experientially and subjectively
In offering such experiential investigations the South book attempts to reconstruct some of the infoldings and assimilations to space I have discussed, both in its structures and in the exercises readers are invited to take part in. Ivan Dâr, the central character of South is framed as a man literally in search of himself, struggling with both ‘breaking the boundary of his own skin’ (as Callois puts it) and of physically locating himself. The paradoxical and borderless Klein bottle, (illustrated) is an apt representation of the condition Callois describes, and which Ivan Dâr endures, ‘a space where things cannot be put’, because he has no location in space. At times the book deliberately aims to bewilder or undermine its own readers, hinting at the possibility of space as an annihilating agency working against them, generating a hostile space by means of its aesthetic strategies and by asking readers to undertake paradoxical or impossible tasks, lying to them, issuing contradictory instructions or leaving exasperating lose ends. Ivan Dâr’s fictions return to the theme of his so called sickness and the strategies he devises to still operate within the city despite his phobias and disintegrating boundaries:
Read from the South book, Cartographies of ConstraintMy parents always criticised me for my fear of bridges, which I now know is called ‘gephyrophobia’. We lived so close to Waterloo Bridge my parents were exasperated by the limitations my phobia created, by what they characterised as my ‘scenes’ and ‘tantrums’ every time we crossed to the North. I didn’t want to be criticised for my fear of bridges. I wanted them to accommodate it, but this was not possible. My father would carry me across the bridge screaming. My mother would stride across it, leaving me to choose between the twin horrors of bridge crossing or maternal abandonment. At about the age of five I began to devise strategies that would nowadays be characterised as tantamount to neurotic compulsions, but which at the time I found absorbing and satisfactorily distracting.
Before I go on I should say that I realise now my fear of bridges really stands in the place of a much more primal fear: the fear caused by the breakdown of any distinction between subject and object, of any distinction between ourselves and the world of dead material objects….
I began to impose a range of restrictions and complex procedures upon myself, like an inverted version of the Bridges of Göttingen problem. I challenged myself to move through London with the maximum amount of riverine proximity without actually crossing any bridges. …my permutations and schedules of algorithms somehow mitigated my fear. In this way I gradually also eroded my desire for parental praise. My parents had no appreciation for my search algorithms so instead I sought praise from myself and lived in fear of my own disapproval. I was like a rat who had built a maze for himself from which I desperately needed to escape, by exhausting all sets of heuristic combinations….
This paper has aimed to elucidate how illness can ‘involve a restructuring of consciousness and perceptual experience leading to a profound alteration of how one exists in and experiences the world’ (Gallagher, 2005: 59), but it has also touched upon the notion that the body is epistemically embedded both with other bodies and with the outer world, such that, to quote Merleau-Ponty the body ‘is the source of spatiality’ (59). This remains a radical notion and is in direct conflict with the still prevalent Cartesian approach of the ‘brain in the vat’ propounded by Daniel C. Dennet (2010) and Hans Moravec (1990) (among others), An approach that is predicated on a mind-body split and the belief that the body is not epistemically implicated beyond the transmittal of raw data to the brain.
The insights gained from experiences of illness and also those that are supported by recent developments in neuroscience, have profound implications not only for human-computer-interactions and the logical frameworks of computation, but the logic of all knowledge generation and the multiplicity of our artistic practices. As Shaun Gallagher writes ’language transcends embodiment at the same time that it depends on it’ (Gallagher, 2005:127). But it is also inter-subjective, forming a logic which Merleau-Ponty describes as ‘shared by the body and the world’ (141). We are epistemically embedded with our environments in a dynamic process of continuous co-becoming from which the mind and the body, and hence our being in the world, cannot be separated.
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Dare, Eleanor (2010) South, A psychometric Text Adventure, Lulu.
 Miwon Kwon’s (2002) ideas about site specificity and identity have been particularly useful in supporting my interpretation of sites and subjectivities as relational and non-linear.
 Tacit knowledge is summed up by the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi in his statement "We know more than we can tell." (Polyani, 2009: 4)Tacit knowledge implies a multi-layered background of subjective and unformalised skills and knowledge, including cultural and embodied forms of knowing.