Overview: Embodiment refers to the sense of being inscribed or enacted in some sort of physical form, and technological advances enable more people to inscribe themselves through a digital body.
Keywords: Embodiment, body, identity, agency, performance, ecologies, artificial intelligence, archives, techne, pedagogy , digital body, multimodal, online harassment Historical Roots Embodiment is defined as the sense of being inscribed or enacted in some sort of physical form—one that is “contextual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, which together compose enactment” (Hayles 196). The term embodiment is rooted in a variety of other disciplines where a need for the concept took shape: computer science, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, etc. Those interested in embodiment in digital rhetorics are often interested in mapping out how we compose ourselves within digital spaces and how others might influence that composition. Embodiment relates to identities—how we construct them and how others might inscribe boundaries for and upon them—and Agency in these spaces. Embodiment is intimately connected with the body, and it has become difficult to separate the two concepts in their abstraction—one instance might refer to the physical body but another, the social body or writing bodies. Because the terms are so abstract, scholars tend to lack consensus in their definitions, and their scope tends to be very broad.
Theoretical Grounding Scholars often discuss how we construct our own identities or “write the self” in online spaces and how others might attempt to influence this construction (Rhodes & Alexander, Fancher, Van Doorn, Wysocki). Rhodes and Alexander offer a central tenant to this idea, arguing that “The life of the body should not be forgotten.” We write our experiences onto both our physical and digital body. Within this view, there exists a connection between body and mind in digital environments that serve as complex ecologies where multiple layers of performance and identity interplay. This is complicated by the diverse terrains of the digital environments with which we interact. Fancher examines an artificial intelligence program, Eugene Goostman, and finds that in association with the intelligence test it was attempting to pass, the program attempted to perform characteristics associated with whiteness and masculinity (5). Van Doorn displaces the boundaries between bodies, culture, and technology through his research in embodiment in digital environments. He finds the three intersects through digital artifacts that are performative of both gender and sexuality and inscribes them into digital archives (542). Wysocki looks at the interplay between texts and pictures, specifically in comic books and graphic novels, and knowledge of their histories and constructions of identities related to race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability (41). Wysocki also serves as an editor for a collection, composing (media) = composing (embodiment), that synthesizes how the field of Digital Rhetoric has come to understand embodiment. Alexander and Rhodes view identity performance and construction in the context of "techne" that work "both spatially and temporally to enact a confrontation and a reversal—a confrontation with digital spaces... that seek to lay down tracks for us to travel on, to narrate our stories in particular and predetermined ways; and a reversal of those tracks." Nakamura introduces the idea of "identity tourism" as a type of performativity, but one where individuals perform a race other than their own (714). She finds this often results in performing stereotypical tropes similar to the artificial intelligence in Fancher's study. Relevant researchers and theorists of Digital Rhetorics are not necessarily based in the field itself. For example, many scholars draw from both N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway (who are primarily associated with feminist scholarship) in their understanding of the body and its performative nature. Anne Frances Wysocki introduces us to the idea that we are influenced by histories of both words and pictures when determining our available means in writing the body in places like comic books and graphic novels. Similarly, Nakamura informs the conversation about race in digital spaces, while Dolmage informs our understanding of (dis)ability. Dolmage calls for the field of rhetoric and composition to enact pedagogies that are effective for all bodies rather than only the normative (110).
Praxis and Implications In online spaces, it is important to remember that there is a body connected to the composed forms we encounter and that these spaces are not void of that corporeal connection. Earlier in its formation, many scholars within the digital rhetorics field aligned with a Habermasian view of public space in that everyone can enter with a sense of equality where differences are “bracketed” out. However, many scholars have come to realize that this stance neglects the embodied experiences individuals bring to these spaces. Increasingly, the discussion of embodiment is crucial as it has implications for how individuals construct identities and how others might impact those constructions. Dieterle argues that researchers should use a feminist lens in order to conduct ethical research, but hers one of very few pieces that address the conversation of ethicality. There are also many implications for the connection between embodiment and the body in digital rhetorics and composition pedagogy; recently, scholars have found that the experiences of a digital body can have a direct, even harmful, effect on the physical body (Gruwell). Ethical instructors must then educate students on these implications if they desire to enforce multimodal composition in their classroom. Examining embodiment allows us to get a closer look at the intersections between body and technology and how they complicate our perceptions of identity. As technological advances enable more people to inscribe themselves through a digital body, researches have drawn our attention to the effects the digital body can have on the physical and psychological body. Gruwell and Lunceford both examine how the physical and digital body are linked and how the performance of one may impact the other—leading to implications for pedagogical practice. Lunceford argues that “Ideas belong to human beings who have bodies” (147). Gruwell finds that online harassment is at an all-time high within digital spaces and may contribute to silencing voices within the spaces even if an individual is not directly targeted. She also finds that performances of digital bodies can have a physical and harmful effect on the physical body. Kalin and Frith broaden the concept of digital bodies, arguing that wearable technologies, like cell phones, allow humans to construct “hybrid memory palaces” where they construct their own world through which they travel and exist (229).
Predictions As new media continue to develop, the field of Digital Rhetorics will likely shift focus as well. In response, scholars seem to be taking a step back from digital spaces and questioning what exactly qualifies as “virtual.” They are examining the connection between the virtual and material in everyday spaces and how race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability influence the embodied and performative experiences that take place. The field as a whole will continue to reconstruct, deconstruct, and unconstruct the intersection between race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability and how they are performed. Although the previous sections only highlighted some of the dominant conversations happening in the field right now, new ones continue to form and may carry on for some time as they attempt to determine the ethical implications of researching embodiment in digital spaces.
Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. Techne: Queer Meditations on Writing the Self, Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2015.
Dieterle, Brandy. “Adopting Critical Ethical Practices in Research on Gender and Embodiment.” Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, 2017, www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/2017/12/17/adopting-critical-ethical-practices-in-research-on-gender-and-embodiment/
Dolmage, Jay. "Writing against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn." Composing (media)=Composing (embodiment), edited by Kristin Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki, Utah State UP, 2012, pp. 110-126.
Fancher, Patricia. “Composing Artificial Intelligence: Performing Whiteness and Masculinity.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 6, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-8.
Gruwell, Leigh. “Writing against Harassment: Public Writing Pedagogy and Online Hate.” Composition Forum, vol. 36, Summer 2017. Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." The Cybercultures Reader, edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, Routledge, 2000, pp. 291-324.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Kalin, Jason and Jordan Frith. “Wearing the City: Memory P(a)laces, Smartphones and the Rhetorical Invention of Embodied Space.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 2016, pp. 222-235
Lunceford, Brett. “Where Is the Body in Digital Rhetoric?” Theorizing Digital Rhetoric, edited by Aaron Hess and Amber Davisson, Routledge, 2018, pp. 140-152.
Nakamura, Lisa. "Race in/for Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet." The Cybercultures Reader, edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, Routledge, 2000, pp. 712-720.
Van Doorn, Niels. “Digital Spaces, Material Traces: How Matter Comes to Matter in Online Performances of Gender, Sexuality and Embodiment.” Media, Culture, & Society, vol. 33, no. 4, 2011, pp. 531-547.
Wysocki, Anne Frances. “Drawn Together: Possibilities for Bodies in Words and Pictures.” Composing (media)=Composing (embodiment), edited by Kristin Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki, Utah State UP, 2012, pp. 25-42.