Jeff Longland

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Posts Tagged ‘merleau ponty

(Virtually) Being-with

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Yet another in an apparent series of philosophy posts…   While digging up my last post, I came across the following paper that I wrote around the same time.   In a lot of ways, these papers are the fondest memories of my degree.  I spent countless evenings and nights trying to get my head around Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.  These papers were some of my first opportunities in higher education to write about edtech.  I can’t thank people like Helen Fielding and Tracy Isaacs enough for providing flexibility in their courses.  Without a doubt, I am forever changed by their courses.

What follows is a paper about Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and Heidegger’s Being and Time.  Again, the tone isn’t the greatest and I may not give the best account of either author.  But I’ve been thinking about this paper as we’re implementing our new LMS.  A colleague commented today that she is still discovering and settling into the new product.  I immediately thought about the process of ‘taking up’ a virtual space.  This paper certainly needs work – it just…  kinda ends.  I’ve long intended to re-work it, expand it….  but I don’t know when or if that will ever happen.  So I’m going to share it as-is.  My readership is limited, so what do I care?


In this paper I will argue that being-with in the virtual world is not distinct from being-with in the physical world – there is simply being-with.  Central to such a claim are synchronous communications tools that allow distant physical bodies to join in meaningfully near communities.  I will argue that synchronous communication tools are necessary for individuals to fully present themselves in the virtual place.  I will discuss how we are able to to take up the new level of the virtual place.  I will then discuss how this type of tool is incorporated into one’s bodily space and how it may appear to be disembodying.  Finally, I will discuss how synchronous communication tools creates a new mode of being-with.

Merleau-Ponty’s work on orientation to space is helpful in understanding our being in the virtual world.  He argues that being in the world is a prerequisite for our orientation to space.  It is from our experience of the world that we receive an orientation.  There is a primordial spatial level that originates from our hold on the world, “… a communication with the world more ancient than thought” (PP 296).  Merleau-Ponty describes an experiment conducted by Wertheimer in which a subject sees a room through a mirror at a 45-degree angle.  The result is that the room is seen ‘slantwise’.  When the subject enters Wertheimer’s experiment, the room is canted and seems uninhabitable.  The subject does not share it with the man who walks through it.  If the subject does not glance away from the mirror to re-anchor to his initial level, the room reflected in the mirror will summon within the subject a virtual body capable of inhabiting it.

The subject’s body is geared to the world and takes up the new spatial level within the ‘slanted’ room.  The subject no longer has the feeling of being in the actual room within his actual body.  He inhabits the room within a virtual body that is geared to being in the world reflected in the canted mirror.  Orientation is determined not by the body as it is in objective space, but by a “… system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done” (PP 291).  The body can take up the level of the slanted room because it is presented with potential actions: walking, opening a cupboard, sitting down, etc.  As Merleau-Ponty would say, “being is synonymous with being situated” (PP 294).  Being endows space with meaning at every instant.  The subject transposes his ways of being in the physical world into the virtual world.  His ways of moving and doing things are transposed from one level to the next.  Merleau-Ponty explains, “the possession of a body implies the ability to change levels and to ‘understand’ space, just as the possession of a voice implies the ability to change key” (PP 293).

When we look into the screens of our computer or mobile devices, we are experiencing a virtual world much like Wertheimer’s subject experiences the slanted room through the mirror.  As the subject takes up a new spatial level to inhabit the space; we also take up a new spatial level to inhabit the virtual world.  Our being in the virtual world summons virtual bodies that are capable of inhabiting virtual places.  While virtual worlds like Second Life provide a good framework in which to discuss our virtual being, I’d like to consider how we take up synchronous communication tools that are as much place as they are tool.  Every other week, I meet in a synchronous virtual place with a community of individuals who administer and support learning management systems.  For nearly three years we have gathered regularly in this place.  On average, there are approximately thirty-five participants that are scattered across North America (with occasional visitors from Australia, South Africa, or the United Kingdom).  It is beyond our means and simply impractical to meet face-to-face with the regularity that we can meet virtually.

Upon entering the virtual place, community members may find themselves out of sorts – the place seems uninhabitable at first.  Our initial meetings were filled with ‘dead air’ although the technology indicated that there were two dozen people ‘in the room’.  Conversations were fractured and sometimes nearly meaningless.  One could almost feel the distance, as if the conversations were occurring between two tin cans attached with a piece of string.  I recall wondering whether we should even bother holding the meetings.  I wondered whether the others were there and whether I was present to them?  The question, ‘can you hear me?’ was often heard on the calls – and it is still heard today when new members take up the place.  These early experiences give me an understanding as to why some feel that technology mediated communication is a disembodied experience.  The transposition of our ways of being into the virtual place did not occur for some time – myself included.  The move into this new level does not occur as quickly as it does for the subject in Wertheimer’s slanted room.

I argue that the delay in the taking up of the level of the virtual place is simply the time that it takes to incorporate the technology into our bodily space.  The mirror through which the subject lives in the slanted world is a mediated experience.  Albeit a simple form of mediation, the mirror is a technology as much as the synchronous communication tool. Given the simple mediation of the mirror, the subject can quickly take up the level reflected in the mirror.  Another example is that of the blind man whose “… stick has ceased to be an object for him, and is no longer perceived for itself; its point has become an area of sensitivity, extending the scope and active radius of touch, and providing a parallel to sight” (PP 165).  Eventually the stick is ‘well in hand’ for the blind man and he is orientated.  Synchronous communication tools are more complex than a mirror or stick.  Layers of technology underlie the communication tools themselves: computers, microphones, webcams, networks, servers, and software to name a few.  Each of the these technologies are in turn constituted by other technologies, much like Russian Dolls.  It does not seem unreasonable that incorporating such a complex tool into our body might require many hours of experience.  I think this is a plausible explanation for the slow take-up of levels mediated through technology.

Being in the virtual world brought improvements with each meeting.  Through the experience of the virtual place, people slowly summoned their virtual bodies capable of inhabiting the place.  We began to move into the new level and transpose our ways of being into it.  The space presents potential actions.  I can project my presence and gestures through a webcam to be seen by others through their display devices.  I can speak through my microphone and be heard by others through their headphones.  I can share an application that is running on my computer such that it can be seen as if everyone were sitting beside me.  I can ‘whisper’ to others through the text chat while someone else is speaking.  I can ‘clap’ and ‘laugh’.  I can signal that I’m ‘confused’ or ‘surprised’.  I don’t even need to be at my computer to attend – I can take up the virtual place through my mobile phone from wherever I happen to be in the physical world.  There is a richness and spontaneity in our virtual place that parallels that of the physical world.  There is ebb and flow just like a face-to-face meeting – sometimes there isn’t much to discuss, or people aren’t in the mood to talk, or key contributors can’t attend.  While we may start with an agenda, a spontaneous out-pouring of comments or questions may lead us down a tangent much like a face-to-face meeting.

It is important to note that the potential actions of the virtual place pale in comparison to the physical world.  Our virtual place is focused on achieving a goal that cannot be accomplished by the body’s natural means: gathering as a community regardless of geographical proximity.  Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that “sometimes … the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world” (PP 169).  The virtual place allows our community to gather from anywhere.  The person in Halifax, Nova Scotia feels as close as the person in Chico, California when we are in the virtual place.  It is the home of our community.  To take up the virtual place is to re-anchor ourselves in the community.  With my physical body sitting in my chair with a coffee at hand, I take up my virtual body as I enter the virtual place.  As I put on my headphones and plug in my webcam, I might as well be walking around the corner to the local pub.  Although we’re physically far, we’re virtually near.

Synchronous communication technologies provide new ways to be with others.  Martin Heidegger argues that as humans, our very nature is to experience the world with others in a complex web of social relations.  Much like Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger is concerned with how the world is revealed to us through our experience of it.  He refers to our Being as Dasein, literally translated, ‘Being-there’, but more practically as ‘Being-in-the-world’.  We come to know ourselves and the world through our everyday experiences in the world.  To fully explain Dasein is beyond the scope of this paper, if not my understanding of Being and Time.  I want to focus on a component of Dasein that Heidegger terms ‘being-with’.  Heidegger says, “the world of Dasein is a with-world.  Being-in is being-with others” (pg 112 [118]).  The world is full of people and if I am in my world, then that world is something that I experience with others:  “the world is always already the one that I share with the others” (pg 112 [118]).  But being-with is much more than just our relations with others and the world.  Being-with is a primordial readiness for interacting with others.  “Being-with existentiaily determines Dasein even when an other is not factically present and perceived” (pg 113 [120]).  Even if I were living in a post-apocalyptic world as the sole survivor, being-with would remain a component of Dasein.

I posit that our being-with in the virtual world is not distinct from being-with in the physical world, rather, they are one and the same – there is simply being-with.  As we incorporate synchronous communication tools into our bodily space and take up the level of the virtual place, we are taking up a new mode of being-with.  When we meet at the virtual place, we are anchored in the physical world and we extend ourselves into the virtual.  This new mode of being-with is elusive in that it is neither here, there, nor anywhere.  It is above us and around us at all times.  We have fashioned a tool to experience the world with others, whether in the apartment below us or on the other side of the world.  Our presence is no longer limited to those in geographical proximity.  Far from being disembodied, I believe we have vastly extended our abilities to be with others in the world.  Prior to the establishment of our virtual place, we only knew each other as names on mailing lists and discussion boards.  Our community largely existed as individuals or small groups, stranded on islands, throwing messages-in-bottles into the virtual ether.  Asynchronous tools like mailing lists provided a means of communicating, but it certainly felt like being stranded on an island.

Being-with-others in our virtual place has created a diverse and rich community of practice that the pre-existing asynchronous tools simply couldn’t provide.  Our virtual place is akin to a pub in that it draws people into arguments, discussions, and relationships.  A pub can move from the level of drinking establishment to social establishment.  When regulars enter, the meaningful feature isn’t the alcohol – rather, it’s noticing who’s behind the bar today.  Is anyone playing darts?  Who else is here with me?  Even if you entered the pub and it was empty, you would “… feel the close presence of others through a veil of anonymity” (PP 405).  I typically arrive at our virtual meeting place early and as such I’m usually the first one there.  Even there by myself, the place has meaning.  I find myself thinking of the people I admire, funny moments, people I haven’t ‘seen’ recently, and the stories I’ll share that week.  When I enter the virtual place, I may be alone at a screen, even alone in the place, but the sediment of others is everywhere.


Written by jlongland

January 17, 2012 at 10:00 pm