The overall conditions of the experiment
The participants were very motivated to participate in the experience and struggled to maintain concentration and to find pertinent answers to the facilitator’s questions. This fact informed the arrangement in two ways. On the one hand, the participants wanted to contribute to accomplishing the experiment, and sometimes used the vocabulary of the facilitator to describe their experiences as they aimed at reaching the goals. On the other hand, the goals, which they knew beforehand, pre-programmed them to some extent, and their reactions and answers frequently anticipated the results. As I was reading their responses I recalled what Bruno Latour once observed about the paradoxes of psychological testing: those being tested tend to be too obedient, and not to be inclined to say “no” (Latour 2000, 115–116). In this important respect they are different from non-human research objects, which do not hesitate to respond by means of muteness or disobedience. Despite the willingness of the participants to contribute to the research, or because of it, their auto-reflection also included critical reactions to the test situation, concerning the disturbing factors, for example.
The design of my research arrangement could probably be criticised from many perspectives. For instance, the selection of the test subjects, their number, the way they were introduced to the tasks, the way the interviews were organised, might require a rethink. The experiment was accomplished in a collegial setting and according to collegial terms. Two of the participants had some previous experience of embodied techniques whereas the third one did not. All of them were more or less informed about artistic research. The differences in capacity and background showed in their responses but, for the sake of anonymity, I could not take that into account in my commentary. From another perspective, this implies that the mindset of the participants was quite close to the mindset of the potential readers of this exposition.
The experiment was designed to take place in the context of the Venice Research Pavilion. The circumstances strongly informed the execution of the test, including the challenging weather conditions, the transitions, and occasional disturbances in the surroundings. On the other hand, the context provided me with a unique opportunity to accomplish this first version of this particular research arrangement and exposition. Now that it has been documented and articulated, it is repeatable, and the future development of the whole arrangement is possible, as is a reassessment of its outcomes.
One of the participants in interview session 2 suggested that the experiment could have taken place in a more “organic” and continuous way, with more respect and support for the concentration and the experience of the participants. If what we did had been a performance, that certainly would have happened. However, given that my explicit aim was to study the synthetic power of the corporeal imagination, the breaks during the course of the experiment, as well its quasi-scientific appearance, belonged to its overall design. For this same reason a tick was a particularly appropriate research object in that, as a harmful insect, it could hardly arouse the sympathy of the participants spontaneously. These deliberately prosaic factors allowed them to retain a simultaneous analytical and critical distance from what they were doing and what I wanted to study.
The research arrangement constituted a medium in which it was possible to study embodied experience by performative means. The way the medium was constructed constituted, in this case, was an essential part of the research outcome, and the responses of the interviewees cannot be fully separated from it. I am inclined to think that this is a typical feature of artistic research and we just have to get used to it, both as researchers and as peers.
After these elaborations, I will now consider what kind of evidence the experiment produced concerning my two research hypotheses, starting with the second one.
If the corporeal score the practising person follows is designed well enough, the corporeal imagination seems to be capable of assimilating very heterogeneous experiences (both spatially and temporally dispersed and produced by different techniques), and of constructing from them a sensible whole. The clearer the suggested model is, the easier is its corporeal reproduction. Undoubtedly, the same kind of process is ongoing and effective outside of performative and/or research contexts. In this respect, our bodies work like an actor´s body, which constructs its stage character out of bits and pieces of rememorized/ imagined/restored human behaviour. In this case, the model was a non-human creature, a tick, but at least for these participants that did not create an insurmountable problem. They were capable of 1) creating for themselves a virtual tick body out of the given elements; 2) reflecting on their experience as it was taking place; 3) coming back to it afterwards and completing the experience through retrospective rememorizing.
The experience changed the participants´ imagined body, or “body image”, informing their way of sensing and their way of orienting themselves. They lost neither (at least not entirely) their physiological and senso-motoric “body schema” (Cf. Gallagher 1986) nor their I-consciousness as performers, and this made it possible to maintain a certain corporeal double-consciousness. To some extent they felt as if they had a tick body, while retaining control of their human body. Each of these bodies had its own way of cognising, and the embodiments could take place in parallel, which is how we avoided falling back on the classic mind-body split. The outcome was unusual, and maybe even uncanny, but the non-human lifeworld of the tick provided the participants with a satisfying explanation and a plausible interpretation. Their focus during the variations, as well as in interview session 1, was phenomenologically on the experiences as they appeared to the one who was reflecting on them. There was no regard for their possible sources beyond that situation – whether they be phylogenetic (related to the evolution of the human species) or ontogenetic (related to the evolution of the individual), psychoanalytical or psychological, for instance. The existence of the latter factors was noted in interview session 2, but these possible empirical explanations did not compromise or diminish the meaning of the experiences themselves. It is plausible to expect that, just as in the case of the actor´s bodily practice, the corporeal imagination does not make a difference at this point: the body is inclined to use all kinds of impressions and affects uncritically in order to reach the desired goal.
From the very beginning I have referred to “corporeal imagination” as if there were a common agreement on what it means and how it works. This is not, of course, the case, and the whole study could be seen as an attempt to shed light on that peculiar capacity of which we humans seem to be beholders. But are we the only ones? That is the question that the experiment now lays bare.
The synthetic propensity of the corporeal imagination is, of course, an integral aspect of the whole phenomenon and relates essentially to what in it is “imaginary” and what is “corporeal”, and what keeps those aspects together. At this stage of the research, this seemingly philosophical problem turns out to be closely connected to my initial question concerning the “surrounding” aspect of the non-human animal´s lifeworld.
I did not ask the participants about this directly during the interviews, hoping that the material would reveal something afterwards. What it did reveal, and what seems quite evident to me now, is that the surrounding feeling is less dependent on direct sensorial perception than on the sense of having and being a body, whether that body be human or not, and depending on its relation to its external world. From the phenomenological point of view, this is not, of course, big news. The key thesis of Merleau-Ponty´s Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) is that the Heideggerian In-der-Welt-Sein, “being-in-the-world” should be conceived of in terms of corporeal existence. Only a body can have an experience of being surrounded and being-a-body always implies and opens around itself a certain space of tactility and encountering. Can a tick also have a body, then? And how can we know?
Even if a tick has only three senses, and if these senses are restricted and sensible only to certain sensory effects, it is nevertheless capable of orienting itself and creating purposeful and complex behaviour, which simultaneously requires mastery and control of the whole organism. The limited number of sensorial channels does not narrow the creature´s experience of itself as a systemic whole with interrelated internal and external aspects and intentions. I would claim that the tick feels it. But if it can do that, the very feel is already a corporeal phenomenon, where being and having merge or alternate. It cannot be derived from sensorial perceptions, it is not their sum nor their mere compound: it results from an experiential synthetic function that we humans are used to calling “imaginary”. If a tick feels itself, it has to have a body and, therefore, also a certain feel of its surroundings or vice-versa: if a tick has a feel of its surroundings (of its “Um-“) then it also has to have a certain kind of experience of its corporality. Insofar as this feel cannot be reduced to the mere “carriers of meaning” identified by Uexküll, it implies that a tick imagines. It imagines its body and, as I am now tempted to propose, that is why we can imagine it as well.
The human imagination concerning corporeality is much more complex, but it is not made of different stuff than that of a tick. This conclusion is plausible, not only because there are embodied practices that speak for it, but also because we can barely prove the contrary. The evidence I am leaning on here is phenomenological rather than empirical, concerning the very way things can and do appear to us and to each other in general. The outcome of the experiment is not, therefore, that we can feel like a tick, but that we can understand that there are alternative and parallel modes of corporeality that are, so to say, co-original and therefore also in potential contact with each other. I can feel like feeling like a tick (cf. Nagel 1974), because what I share with that animal is the process of corporeal imagination thanks to which both of us have a certain kind of body. Imagination is embodied from the very start and until the end. Insofar as a body is a virtual and imaginary construct, it is born not only as something mutable and therefore non-identifiable and inappropriable, but also as something shareable. This does not undo the otherness of the other but, on the contrary, it makes it encounterable.
Even though my research arrangement may have been deficient in many ways, it nevertheless seems to have been sufficient for directing attention to how it is possible to create interfaces between human and nonhuman entities and how these interfaces work. The tick body the experiment produced on the phenomenotechnical level belongs neither to us as human animals nor to the tick as a non-human animal. Instead, it constitutes a virtual interface or medium through which human animals can share something of the corporality of their non-human fellow beings, despite their radical otherness. Insofar as this para-, quasi- or post-artistic construct is still a body, it adds to previous understanding concerning the logic of embodiment, whether that be phenomenological, psychological or aesthetic. Most obviously, it liberates human corporality of its all-too-human framing. The ambiguity and undecidability that characterise embodied states and operations are but the other side of their interconnectedness, the way they take place between the bodies and serve as a basis for their mutual encountering and communication.
Latour, Bruno. 2000. “When Things Strike Back: A Possible Contribution of “Science Studies” to the Social Sciences.” British Journal of Sociology, 51(1), 107–123.
Gallagher, Shaun. 1986. ”Body Image and Body Schema. A Conceptual Clarification”. The Journal of Mind and Behaviour. Autumn 1986, Volume 7, Number 4. 541-554.
Nagel, Thomas. 1974. ”What is it like to be a Bat?”. Philosophical Review. LXXXIII (4), Oct 1974: 435–450.
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