Body is defined most commonly in terms of the human body, the material frame of man, viewed as an organic entity. Though it sometimes refers only to the main portion of an animal or unit, it may also refer to a series of organized units, a collective whole, of things or persons.  Within science it refers to any substance, simple or compound, solid, liquid or gaseous.  Within Christian texts the body is understood as the sacrament, the metaphorical body of Christ.  To Embody is to put into a body an idea or spirit, to give a concrete form to or to express (principles, thoughts, or intentions) within art, action, word combinations, or institutions. Thus, an embodiment of an idea or principle is its physical form, realization or expression, or the incarnation of that idea.

Media theorists discuss the body primarily as the site of the senses, (see senses) however Descartes began his discussion of the body as an assertion from the mind.  The Cartesian man establishes his existence and the limits of his physical being through the existence and limits of his senses.  “I think therefore I am” most simply articulates the self identifying the senses of the self, to the self’s body.  Lacan complicates this understanding of the body, though, with his discussion of the “mirror stage” of child psychological development.  Lacan theorizes that man, sensing himself from within his own body, is only able to conceive of his body as an accumulation of pieces–or other bodies.  This accumulation is only truly composed, when the whole is viewed in reflection, at a distance, alone.  For Lacan, bodily integrity or wholeness is only achieved with the assistance of an ‘other’ seemingly detached object–the mirror.  This differs from Descartes because the Cartesian man is an accumulation of parts sensed simultaneously as one whole body, whereas the Lacanian subject can not conceive of the whole body until the entire entity is visualized–a primitive media interaction.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty engages these conflicting arguments, claiming that while the Lacanian man feels disembodied by this distanced image of his whole, the Cartesian man feels comfortable with his self-sensed self, and identifies the image as a model of himself, rather than his detached self. (173)

In Lacan’s model, selfhood may only be understood with the assistance of an outside object–i.e. one mirror.  Lacan reflects on the destabilizing effect this discovery can have–realizing that identity is only definable with the aid of an outside object.  This is the beginning of the new thoughts on embodiment.

Philosophers rethought Descartes earlier mediation of the body and the mind, relating the two at varying degrees of interdependence, or of insurmountable burden.  Foucault summarized the debate of the inherent relationship, in the question, “is the body the prison of the mind, or the mind the prison for the body?”  Foucault rethinks both the Cartesian man and the Lacanian subject because now the body’s focus is not how or where to define itself, but rather how to rid itself of its own confinement–i.e. the mortality of the body and the social constraints of the mind.

Marshall McLuhan rethinks these debates when he asserts that media act as extensions of the human senses.(3)  McLuhan establishes every technological advancement as an extension of the body’s senses. Clothing is an extension of our skin, housing is a collective skin, and cities create technological organisms from these collective membranes. (McLuhan, 123-4)

McLuhan’s definition of media as bodily extensions establishes the possibility for further bodily alienation.  As media build upon each other, telescoping further and further from our human skin, the limits of our body become less and less definable.  For McLuhan, the Lacanian mirror is not simply an object to reference the dislocation of self, but rather it is a media tool which acts as an extension of self–like a physical prosthesis–through which self embodies or becomes the media tools.  This experience is apparent within the film, eXistenZ .  The film establishes a series of layered hyper-realities for the players of a virtual reality game. [see Reality, Hyperreality , (2)] In order to enter each new layer of the game the players must “plug in” to the game, allowing it to directly enter their nervous system (sensory center) in order to leave their physical body behind.  At each plug-in layer they experience a new persona, and a “sense” of their body embodying a computer-generated reality, while their physical body remains at rest.  They are willfully disembodied from their physical reality.  Each plug-in is reminiscent of hitting play on a VCR, or turning the power on a television remote, or reading the first line of a novel.

The irony of the film is delivered at the end, when we (the viewer) discover that the film’s ‘real’ action only exists or grounds itself, when the characters choose to enter another reality–at the moment of plugging in.  Since the movie begins at the second plugging-in without referencing the first, Cronenberg suspends all reality to imply that no reality is grounded.   In other words, the viewer’s act of playing the film, was the first “plug in” to an alternate reality.  The film engages the disembodiment that media offers and threatens us.  The viewer embodies media, because media becomes an escape from the body through its prosthetic extensions. (McLuhan, 319)

McLuhan suggests both the re-fragmentation of the self through extension into media realities, and the re-unification of humanity through media’s overlapping extensions. (347)  Merleau-Ponty suggests an alternative model.  Though “our instruments have become detachable organs,” this need not displace ourselves.  As with the proposed Cartesian view of the Lacanian mirror stage, these detached senses need not create a sense of disembodiment.  Our physical body may be seen as a point (0,0) within a graph, and our senses, however extended, may perceive the surrounding world at a higher and more distant magnitude with removing our grounding within them. (Merleau-Ponty, 178)  With these detachable organs, our senses are no longer limited to our physical bodies.  Consequently, we can no longer define our bodies as the embodiment of our senses, nor define our bodies’ limits, within the confines (or lack of confines) of our senses.   Yet this limitless sensory system should not create a loss of bodily placement, as our bodies remain as the receptor to the wide variety of stimuli–our ground zero.

While McLuhan sees media as an object, which we may embody by flipping a power switch on and off, or plugging ourselves in and out. As is apparent in eXistenZ, these media extend our senses, but allow us to leave the game.  Where McLuhan sees the transition from embodying media object to embodying our limited bodies, as a clear break, Cronenberg illustrates the complications in returning to our own zero, or grounding within our real bodies.  Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the importance of an internal third ear or third eye (see Ear and Eye and Mind) in creating this grounding.  For Merleau-Ponty our body is unique as a medium, in that it both sees and is seen; our bodies are sensory objects and objects to be sensed.  Consequently our senses are self-conscious.  We can sense ourselves sensing, and therefore gain perspective on our own point of view. (see Perspective) This “third eye” acts as intermediary in determining the relevance and reality of our senses, creating the proper calibration for our sensory information. (169)  Cronenberg’s eXistenZ may demonstrate how the advancement of media technology complicates the calibration of our senses, back to true reality.

Slavoj Zizek argues that recalibration to a pure reality is impossible.  Though man controls the speed of, and input into computers and other media, this control does not protect us from the sensory transformations media cause us.  Media offer a perceptual disjunction of senses similar to anorexia nervosa or schizophrenia, where the patient’s view of his own embodiment becomes skewed from his bodily reality.  Our human tendency to anthropomorphize media objects, along with the intimacy allowed by many media, allows us little perspective on the machines as machines.  Zizek argues that the greatest difficulty in detaching from the media, or flipping the switch back to pure reality, is the media’s semblance to our own senses.  Once familiar with the general workings of the media, we are only able to perceive our own senses with respect to their mechanical extensions, even if we are able to sense without the media.  Though our skills at math and grammar are not necessarily hindered by repeated use of a computer, our understanding of how we do calculations and editing, continues to be in terms of the computer’s computational and editorial programs.  We view the brain as a “flesh computer, but never the computer as an imitation of man.”  While we plug out, and seize to embody the media objects, the never seize to embody us–we continue to think of ourselves manifesting their actions or extensions of our own senses.

Maggie Hansen
Winter 2003


Lacan, Jacques. 1977. “The Mirror Stage As Formative of the Function of the I As Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the extensions of man. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1994.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind,” The Primacy of perception. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964. Chapt.5, pp.159-190.

Zizek, Slavoj. “From virtual reality to the virtualization of reality,” Electronic culture: technology and visual representation. New York: Aperture, 1996. pp.290-295.

“Body”, “Embodiment.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford. 2003

“Embodiment,” “Phenomenology,” Merleau-Ponty, Descartes. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1995