Netting the Body, seminar


Netting the Bodyby Diana Saco

Guest Presentation to the Seminar on
Approaches to Knowledge and Truth: Ways of Knowing
DSSC 8111

University of Minnesota
May 5, 2000


In 2000, I was invited back to the University of Minnesota as a guest presenter for a graduate seminar on “Ways of Knowing the Body.” The talk was based on arguments I made in my book about how the Internet invites us to embody technology and project virtual bodies.

My audience was a group of young, smart graduate students who by that time had already been using emails for awhile, listservers, Usenet, and the nascent World Wide Web. I don’t remember the discussion being very spirited. In fact, I had the distinct impression that I wasn’t saying anything new to them. I found the experience humbling.

Or maybe it wasn’t that the ideas I was presenting to them were ones they had already considered, but rather that they didn’t want to have to think about what they were doing when they went online. They just wanted to get on with it. And since I’ve spent so many of the years following the publication of my book just getting on with it without wanting to think very hard about political ramifications, I can’t say I blame them.

The following is a rough sketch of what I discussed. Maybe the ideas will already be familiar to you and will generate no more than a shrug. But if you haven’t thought about these issues very much, maybe the following will provoke you to wonder about your body, about how you take it online or ignore it when you’re online, and whether and how you think about other bodies when you go online. –DS (June 2011)


Why “Netting the Body”?

A Distinction: The Body and Embodiment

Embodiment differs from the concept of the body in that the body is always normative relative to some set of criteria . . . [It is] a normalized construct . . . In contrast to the body, embodiment is contextual, enwebbed [sic] within the specifics of place, time, physiology and culture that together comprise enactment. Embodiment never coincides exactly with ‘the body’, however that normalized concept is understood. Whereas the body is an idealized form that gestures toward a Platonic reality, embodiment is the specific instantiation generated from the noise of difference. Relative to the body, embodiment is other and elsewhere, at once excessive and deficient in its infinite variations, particularities, and abnormalities”

(N. Katherine Hayles. “The Materiality of Informatics.” Configurations 1(1): 147-170.1992: 153-154).


An Interface: [City of Bits] 3. Cyborg Citizens

Click here.


Bodies in Space

Netting the Body, therefore, is about Ways of Knowing “the Body”/bodies as both object and subject of knowledge — as effects of a combination of inscribing and incorporating practices at the interface between physical space and cyberspace.


Digitally Writing the Body

The Net is a virtual repository for electronic texts about “the body.”

Google Search: “the body”

The Net, however, is also more than this. Digital technologies and computer-mediated communication also help create new ways of knowing the body.

William Gibson and The National Library of Medicine: The Body as Meat

“For Case,
who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace,
it was the Fall.
In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot,
the elite stance involved a certain

Thorax cryosection from the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project



for the flesh.

The   body   was   meat.

Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.”

(William Gibson.
Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books. 1984, p. 6)


“the end game of


in work and war
is to make the others’ terror


for us”

(James Der Derian. “Lenin’s War, Baudrillard’s Games.” In Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology,eds. Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey, 267-276. Seattle, WA: Bay Press. 1994: 268.)


Embodying the Technology

The first electronic computer — the ENIAC — was an enormous mainframe filled with tens of thousands of vacuum tubes and occupying a room measuring 1500 sq. ft. The development of transitors and microprocessors helped miniaturize the electronic components needed for computing. Fifty years after the development of the ENIAC, researchers at University of Pennsylvania commemorated the anniversary by reproducing the computational power of the ENIAC on a chip less than 40 sq. mm. in size.

This miniaturization enabled the development of personal computers, sized in relation, first, to regions near the individual body — i.e., desktops — and then to regions on the individual body — i.e., the laptop and the hand-held computer.

The content has been primarily audio-visual in nature, but researchers are developing new ways of incorporating the sense of touch, moving from a WYSIWYG interface (“What You See Is What You Get”) to a WYSIWYF interface (“What You See Is What You Feel”).

Human-Machine Interface Lab
What Is…haptics (a definition)

The next generation of computers will occupy spaces inside the individual body.

Chemical Computers

UCLA, Hewlett-Packard Report on Chemical Computers
Hewlett-Packard Labs Worldwide – News

Cybernetic Implants and Intelligent Buildings

BBC News | Sci/Tech | Technology gets under the skin
Kevin Warwick Watch (no longer available: updated in May 2011 to Project Cyborg summary in Wikipedia entry for Kevin Warwick)


Leaving the Body Behind?

Digital technologies both inscribe the Body and incorporate bodies. The idea that the body is “left behind” is a liberal conceit.

The Pained Body

Carpal Tunnel Facts

The Orgasmic Body

Coming Apart at the Seams: Sex, Text and the Virtual Body
Alt.Sex Newsgroups listing:

Sample listing of some newsgroups available at the time of this download (May 2000).


. . .  the physical body,

does it [computer networking] help the person ultimately who lives in the physical body?  We have to live in a physical body, so we live in a society in which power works through physical bodies.  We can’t get away from that.  Politics works through physical bodies.  And everything that we do in our daily lives works through a physical body.

Does this enhance that?  Not yet.  Will it enhance it in the future?  Maybe.  If people can figure out how to make those connections, if people can figure out how to take the things that they learned in the virtual community and in virtual spaces and with virtual systems (which is a whole other order of things) and take that out of there;
drag it out of the virtual space through the interface, into face to face daily life,

grounded in a biological body

that gets sick, that gets AIDS, that dies, that gets hit by cars, that ultimately is the body that makes love, that ultimately, if you’re a woman, is the body that reproduces, that produces the new life; all of those things are grounded, they have to be grounded in a physical body — so far.  And so it all ultimately comes back to the physical body and how the things that we see happening, and these endless ramifications of virtual communities, ultimately come back, to help, to assist, to aid, to increase the potential of, to make better the physical body.

That’s the question, we don’t know yet.  But we can hope, and we can try to move people gently, we can nudge people toward the idea that ultimately

you have to come out of cyberspace……..

(Sandy Stone, in Leeson, Lynn Hershman. 1996. “Sandy Stone Interview.” Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, ed. Lynn Hershman Leeson, 105-115. Seattle, WA: Bay Press. Transcribed from QuickTime video on accompanying CDROM. Text on p. 114.)




The National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project
The Visible Human Project – Visible Gallery
The Visible Human Project – Color Cryosections

“Not Just Any Cadaver Would Suffice”

Exploratorium: Visible Human Project
University Hospital Eppendorf – Institute of Medical Informatics
The Virtual Mummy



© 2000-2011 by Diana Saco. Created May 4, 2000. Updated contacts March 9, 2007.

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