Spatz, Ben. “Embodiment as First Affordance: Tinkering, Tuning, and Tracking”

Spatz, Ben. “Embodiment as First Affordance: Tinkering, Tuning, Tracking.” Performance Philosophy, vol. 2, no. 2, 2017, pp. 257-71, doi: ISSN 2057-7176. Accessed 6 Feb. 2017.

To remember:

  • Thomas Csordas wrote … ‘consistent methodological perspective that encourages reanalyses of existing data and suggests new questions for empirical research’ (1990, 5) (257).

  • Summarizing Marcel Mauss, Csordas indicates the centrality of embodiment as a zone of mediation or junction between various dichotomies and material distinctions (257)

  • our understanding of embodiment—which like that of Csordas is most often based on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology—fails to adequately develop themes of difference, materiality, epistemology, and practice, tending instead towards a more general or unitary understanding of embodiment (258).

  • I question the extent to which realist thinkers have emphasized practices in which materials outside the body are central over those in which embodiment itself is the primary medium of practice (258).

  • The body itself is the first affordance and the site at which questions of realism and objectivity are first encountered and resolved in practice. I illustrate this point by considering how three modes of material engagement—tinkering, tuning, and tracking—manifest in embodied practices ranging from dance and sport to those of everyday life (258).

  • Two types of encounter with the emergent granularity of the material world have been seen in recent critical and philosophical writing as privileged sites for the investigation of ontological realism: artisan craft and scientific experiment (258).

  • What unites the two domains is the dynamic process of material engagement through which the fine-grained texture of reality emerges. This kind of continuous grappling or negotiation with ever-unfolding layers of detail is equally far from pure mentality or cognition as it is from the play of immaterial signs (259).

  • the world ‘talks back’ to us (Sennett 2009, 272) most articulately not when we step away from it to contemplate its totality but when we dive into it to accomplish a specific material task … This kind of realism has no truck with the long-standing mind/body ‘problem’ that still seems to bother philosophers of cognition (Lakoff and Johnson 1999). That apparent problem only arises if one starts with a disembodied, language-based mind and then asks how to bridge the gap between this mind and reality (259)

  • Theorists of skilled practice articulate realism in terms of dynamic relations rather than static beings: as a ‘coupling of perception and action’ (Ingold 2011, 58); a ‘dialectic between resistance and accommodation’ (Pickering 1995, 22); or an ‘intimate, fluid join between problem solving and problem finding’ (Sennett 2009, 33). Such approaches are quite different from those armchair philosophies that attempt to theorize the real in general, often by rendering invisible their debt to the emergent and relational ontologies of practice (259)

  • All of the dynamic interplays just mentioned [above] are incarnated in practices that rely upon a clear physical distinction between human agent and nonhuman material substrate … A significant territory of ontological experimentation is in this way bypassed: that of embodiment itself as the primary site of any encounter with reality (259).

  • Laurent Thévenot even goes so far as to define realism as ‘the relation between human agency and material environment’ (in Schatzki et al. 2001, 58). I read this as a welcome ontological reframing of James Gibson’s notion of ‘affordances’, those possibilities that a given physical environment ‘offers’, ‘provides’, or ‘furnishes’ to an ‘animal’ that lives within it (1979, 127) (259).

  • Rarely has the kind of analysis outlined above been applied to the first and most essential material factor in human being: embodiment itself. Yet before wood, glass, metal, or any other external material substrate, embodiment itself is the first affordance (260).

  • The negotiated relationship between organism and environment is an extension of a relationship that develops internally within an organism and which may later be articulated in terms of mind and body, will and habit, or knowledge and practice (260).

  • Why do thinkers like Thévenot render the body invisible with phrases like ‘human agency and material environment’, which skip over the essential channel of human materiality through which agency and environment interact? (260)

  • Even when thinkers attempt to ground mind and cognition in materiality by calling them ‘embodied’, their account of embodiment as a largely ‘postural and static’ phenomenon is ‘emaciated’ in comparison with the actual complexity of any ‘animate organism’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2015, 28). Sara Ahmed has done important work to challenge the assumed uniformity of the embodied mind by pointing to ways in which the ‘repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken’, gradually leads to the development of ‘a specific “take” on the world, a set of views and viewing points, as well as a route through the contours of the world, which gives our world its own contours’ (2006, 16–17) (260).

  • The body, philosophers seem to think, is a poor starting place from which to grasp the emergent diversity and multivocality of the material world (260).

  • The apparent commonality of embodiment, when contrasted with the kaleidoscopic variety afforded by the subatomic bestiary or the liquid flows of craftwork, tempts thinkers of realism to skip over the body as an essential site for understanding the real. But this gets embodiment wrong. In fact, our relationships with our bodies—more accurately, with ourselves as bodies—is characterized by exactly the same kind of fine-grained engagement and dynamic interplay with materiality as artisanal and technoscientific practices (261).

  • I take embodiment to be the zone of ontological engagement in which the dynamic interplays mentioned above—between perception and action, resistance and accommodation, and problem- solving and problem-finding—occur in the absence of any clear physical distinction between agent and substrate … In fact, both sides of each equation also exist in fluid and indiscernible mixture within human embodiment itself (261).

  • the affordance of embodiment is logically prior to that of any external physical environment, not because embodiment is synonymous with perception—it is not—but because it is the first site at which the dialogue between agency and materiality takes place … the concept of embodiment as first affordance still has important ethical and political work to do (261).

  • Karin Knorr Cetina described scientific laboratory work as a kind of ‘tinkering’ … Its goal is not the production of propositional truths or facts but successful interaction with material reality (261).

  • Andrew Pickering proposed a shift from ‘tinkering’ to ‘tuning’. Whereas the former ‘immediately invokes the otherness’ of the materials encountered by the scientist, the latter suggests a kind of mutual resonance between them (1995, 14n22). For Pickering, the scientist does not so much tinker with materials as tune them, or perhaps attune to them—more like a musician than a mechanic (262).

  • To track the melting or combustion point required in the production of a particular weapon, De Landa writes, involves a ‘sensual interplay with metals’ in which the artisan/inventor works with care to ‘follow the accidents and local vagaries of a given piece of material’ (30) (262).

  • I apply them each [tinkering, tuning, tracking] in turn to practices that are specifically embodied—in the sense defined above—rather than technological; that is, situations in which tinkering, tuning, and tracking take place not between a human agent and a material substrate but within human embodiment itself (262).

  • Tinkering suggests a process of combining and recombining bits and pieces almost at random in order to see what works (262).

  • The outcomes of such tinkering acts are rarely measurable in quantitative terms. Because the smaller elements are taken for granted rather than being broken down or opened up, tinkering is primarily a matter of composition (262).

  • For the professional actor or dancer, embodiment is the central material tool or instrument of craft. But even for untrained performers in everyday life, embodiment is the site of an encounter with material reality that exceeds consciousness and will. The tinkered body reacts, sometimes in unexpected ways, and this feeds back into the tinkering process.9 The same phenomena that arise when interacting with external substances characterize skilled and mundane interaction with the materiality of embodiment (263).

  • tuning suggests a qualitatively different, but no less materially grained, mode of engagement with embodiment … The harmonic relationship of tuned voices produces an alignment that is more mathematically precise and more sensually resonant. One feels it viscerally when voices slide in and out of tune. The out- of-tune voice is perceptually jarring … one can be ‘out of tune’ but not ‘out of tinker’ because tinkering has no clear state of success (263).

  • Tuning, as in the search for a radio station amidst bands of static, affords multiple possible successful realizations. There is not just one harmony or state of attunement to be found but a number of possible harmonies, even though most randomly selected simultaneous pitches will be disharmonic. While tinkering evokes the randomness of explorative practice, tuning suggests the search for one of several possible states of resonance. Our third term, tracking, promises in contrast a singular goal to be seized; the hunt for a particular desired outcome. In processes of tracking, the desired state is out of reach, out of reach, out of reach, and then suddenly within our grasp (264).

  • In everyday life, we track embodied possibilities when we wait for the right moment to ask a question, search for the right person with whom to collaborate, call forth the courage to undertake a difficult action, or direct intimate gestures of touch and sensation to provoke orgasm in our own body or another (264).

  • they are concrete ways of grappling with, getting a grip upon, and coming to know the materiality of human embodiment through processes of direct and detailed material negotiation (264).

  • [the infant’s] first and most immediate encounter with the practical truth of ontological realism comes in and as embodiment itself (265).

  • It is no paradox that we encounter ontological realism first of all through our own embodiment, for embodiment is in this sense nothing more than the primary affordance: the first site of that negotiation which makes possible all other negotiations and affordances (265).

  • We now have a working definition of embodiment that does not limit it to the biomedical body, the anatomical body, the socially constructed body, the skilled or expert body, or any other particular mapping, but instead leaves it radically open as an epistemic object: Embodiment is first affordance. Embodiment in this sense is a zone of engagement in which the sediment of relatively reliable pathways (technique) interacts with the emergence of fractally complex material potential (265).

  • the emergent complexity of embodiment can be a crucial resource for posthumanist critique, highlighting the difference between humanity and embodiment as possible grounds for action at every scale (266).

  • Our bodies, in other words, are an intermediate zone—a hinge, pivot, or junction—between the ecological and the technological (267).

  • embodiment is not just any affordance but first affordance, the affordance from which it might be possible to reorganize the relationship between technology and ecology (267).

  • If we are to feel more connected to a forest than to a city, more similar to a coral than to a car—if, in other words, we are to become ecologically sane—then we need to recognize these connections as owing to our embodiment. Not ‘the body’ as a known thing, but embodiment as an affordance that is both ecological (because it predates technology and can live without it) and technological (because we reconstruct our embodiment when we construct our machines).15 Embodiment is ecology technologized, but not in a way that renders the distinction irrelevant. Rather, the intersection or junction of technology and ecology in embodiment is the only perspective from which we might be able to develop a more sustainable ecotechnological practice (267).

To consume:

  • Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Chen, Mel Y. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Cetina, Karin Knorr [Karin D. Knorr]. 1979. ‘Tinkering Toward Success: Prelude to a Theory of Scientific Practice’. Theory and Society 8 (3): 347–76.

  • Csordas, Thomas J. 1990. ‘Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology’. Ethos 18 (1): 5–47.

  • Danzico, Matt. 2011. ‘Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in meditation study’. BBC News.

  • De Landa, Manuel. 1991. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books.

  • Deleuze, Gilles. 1993. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Gibson, James J. 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  • Gregg, Melissa and Gregory Seigworth, eds. 201. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Ingold, Tim. 2001. ‘Beyond Art and Technology: The Anthropology of Skill’. In Anthropological Perspectives on Technology, edited by Michael Brian Schiffer, 17–31. Arizona: Amerind Foundation.

  • Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. New York: Routledge.

  • Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

  • More, Max and Natasha Vita-More. 2013. The Transhumanist Reader. Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Orpheus Institute. 2016. ‘Sound Work: Composition as Critical Technical Practice’.

  • Pickering, Andrew. 1995. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Rekret, Paul. 2016. ‘A critique of new materialism: ethics and ontology’. Subjectivity 9 (3): 225–45.

  • Schmalzl, Laura and Catherine E. Kerr. 2016. Neural Mechanisms Underlying Movement-Based Embodied Contemplative Practices. Frontiers Research Topic Ebook. Based_Embodied_Contemplative_Practices/916

  • Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. New York: Penguin Books.

  • Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2009. The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader. Imprint Academic.

  • Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2015. ‘Embodiment on Trial: A Phenomenological Investigation’. Continental Philosophy Review 48: 23–39.

  • Spatz, Ben. 2015. What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Spatz, Ben. 2015. (forthcoming). ‘Colours like Knives: Embodied Research and Phenomenotechnique in Rite of the Butcher’. Contemporary Theatre Review.

  • Thévenot, Laurent. 2001. “Pragmatic regimes governing the engagement with the world.” In The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, eds. Theodore R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny, 64–82. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Tsing, Anna. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  • Welsh, Talia. 2014. “Philosophy as Self-Transformation: Shusterman’s Somaesthetics and Dependent Bodies.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 28 (4): 489–504.

  • Woolford, Alan F., Sally Jane Norman, and Cecile Chevalier. 2010. ‘Crafting a Critical Technical Practice’. Leonardo 43 (2): 202–203.


  • Am still thinking about “embodiment as first” … as framework, maybe? But relational qualities …
  • I really appreciate that Spatz positions embodiment as the point of connecting balance between technologies and ecologies, also as a domain of engagement. His articulation of negotiating posthuman spaces is so in line with the things I have been thinking about. Glad to have found this.
  • What does this mean to the compositionist? The composition instructor?

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