Hayles, N. Katherine. “Embodied Virtuality: Or How to Put Bodies Back into the Picture.”
In Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments. Ed. M. A. Moser and D. MacLeod.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996, 1-28.
annotation by Jessica Santone (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

In her essay, “Embodied Virtuality,” N. Katherine Hayles uses examples of virtual reality artwork to refute the claim that cyberspace is a disembodied medium. Hayles begins by questioning the desire to see cyberspace as disembodied. She locates the center of the problem in two different conceptions of subjectivity – one that links the subject to the mind, the other that links the subject to the body. Hayles sees these two modes as essentially “masculine” and “feminine,” respectively. She argues that, as Nancy Stepan has suggested, the binary construction of masculine/feminine persists through discourse in the new domain of cyberspace. Here, the binary becomes mind/body and, in the discursive exchange between these terms, the “stigmatized terms (body, organism, female)” fade. For Hayles, cyberspace discourse and technology coalesce in the concept of virtuality, which she defines as “the perception that material structures are interpenetrated with informational patterns.”

Hayles uses semiotics as a tool to transcend the persistent duality she sees erasing the body from cyberspace discourse. As an alternative to the construction of cyberspace as disembodied, Hayles posits that cyberspace is a medium where materiality and information intersect. Within this locus, presence, absence, pattern, and randomness give way to mutation, hyperreality, replication, and disruption. These characteristics create a schema through which we can view the interaction of the body with cyberspace. At the intersection of the semiotic square, which Hayles has constructed to explain her schema, lays the figure of the posthuman.

Two examples of virtual reality artworks illustrate the author’s claim that virtuality is the intersection of materiality and information. Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland’s Placeholder challenges the relationship between the viewer and his or her environment by creating dynamic virtual spaces with which viewers can interact. According to Hayles, “the person who experiences this simulation is a techno-bio-subject whose body has been resurfaced and reconfigured by its interface with technology.” Somewhat differently, Catherine Richards’ Spectral Bodies manipulates the sensation of proprioception – the sensory system that gives us the impression that we are within our bodies – to alter the viewer’s awareness of bodily boundaries. In both examples, the form of virtual reality effectively reinscribes the body in cyberspace, if only illusorily.
N. Katherine Hayles argument succinctly situates the relationship between discourse and practice in the making and erasing of virtual bodies. Though she provides a workable structure for thinking through the synthesis of materiality and information in virtuality, Hayles does not clarify the nature of the “body” that exists virtually. She conflates the terms posthuman and cyborg in her description of the virtual body. Furthermore, although able to locate the body in virtual reality performances, Hayles gives no attention to other ways that the body is virtually present or absent in cyberspace interactions.

Nevertheless, this article is extremely useful for the discipline of media studies. It accomplishes some groundwork necessary for specifying the nature of the virtual body. More importantly, Hayles’ schema for computing the relationship between materiality and information offers interesting insight on the ways we define new media technologies. Hayles analysis asks us to consider the simultaneity of materiality and information and the kinds of variations and syntheses that might result from such an instance.