"Testing the Limits": What Happens When Digital Humanities Meets Alternative Worldviews


"Testing the Limits" reflects upon the implications of a conceptual paradigm shift in theoretical approaches to the use of immersive technologies in a postcolonial, post-positivistic world. This reflection means bringing into proximity alternative explanatory models of "reality"—such as the indigenous philosophy of Leroy Little Bear where it relates to Western science, David Peat's thoughts on quantum theory and his collaboration with Leroy Little Bear, and the theory of synchronicity as developed by Carl G. Jung in collaboration with physicist Wolfgang Pauli—where these models open into alternative worldviews which offer a hypothetical rapprochement in the history of consciousness between science and art. This study, therefore, focuses less on the use of immersive technology in the Humanities than on the instrumentality of theory itself in constructing perceptual models of reality (including scientific and artistic worldviews), especially where it is "virtual" and where it needs to consider diverse philosophies, scientific theories and representations of space/time in relation to subjectivities. To illustrate this claim, the media work by Canadian artist Char Davies will be offered as a case study; Davies has gone on record seeking to subvert the visual aesthetic in VR and 3D computer graphics, which, in striving for "ever great photo realism," serves only to reinforce "the Cartesian divide between dominating subject and passive object." It is relevant in the context of this essay that Char Davies is a software developer and artist whose work is informed not only by her understanding of the history of consciousness in Western metaphysics, but also by her understanding of the relation of such history to quantum theory.


Indigenous philosophy, quantum theory, principle of synchronicity, virtual reality, immersive systems, literary analysis, space, time, artistic worldview, epistemology, ontology, science, art, nineteenth century, psychoanalysis, history of consciousness

How to Cite

Castricano, J. (2011). \"Testing the Limits\": What Happens When Digital Humanities Meets Alternative Worldviews. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, 2(2). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/dscn.81


Download HTML






Over the last few decades, the paradigm of human-computer interaction has evolved from personal computing towards cooperative, interactive, or immersive paradigms. It has been said, however, that although human-computer interactions raise new and diverse questions of consciousness, embodiment, self, and identity, many recent epistemological and ontological claims about digital, simulated, and immersive experiences—especially regarding virtual reality—seem, as Ron Burnett points out, stalled, unable to move beyond either classical behavioural or literary-phenomenological levels of observation (103). This lack of momentum seems to be the case especially where phenomenology—which aims at "the study of consciousness" (Hegel 21) with respect to the perceiving, "incarnated mind" (Merleau-Ponty 3-4)—has been coupled, as if by default, with traditional literary or narrative theory to theorize the social and cultural, philosophical and psychological implications regarding immersive technologies. As such, this default can be seen to privilege Western epistemology to the extent that it results in a theoretical impasse that can be characterized most succinctly by Thomas Laqueur's observation that "systems of knowledge determine what can be thought within them" (13). The restrictive implications of Laqueur's observation can best be seen in light of the fact that although contemporary Human Computer Interaction (HCI) theory seeks to understand through cognitive, phenomenological and semiotic approaches "what it means to interact with new types of technology," the descriptions and depictions of interactive media more often than not are based on a Eurocentric worldview that relies on a Cartesian coordinate system as its experiential substructure. This is to say that each reference line in the system, each axis (x, y, z), meets in a point of origin that, in turn, orients the subject in relation to a cognitive map.

Figure 1: The Cartesian coordinate system

The Cartesian coordinate

What this "orientation" tells us is that models of Western consciousness also rely on a Cartesian coordinate system and, more significantly, that such a system is engaged whenever questions of human knowledge are posed, such as "How do body, mind and world meet?" In other words, a cognitive or perceptual theory of the human-computer interface more often than not owes a debt to the Cartesian coordinate system that likewise informs a commensurate model of space/time in which "space is measured exactly by a series of Cartesian coordinates, making stimuli easy to quantify."[1] That is, perception, cognition and motor control are implicated in a structural concept of space/time which can be quantified in terms of the x, y and z axis. The point, however, is not only that the Cartesian coordinate system allows for quantification of subjective experience, but also that, as a cognitive substructure, the system produces this experience perceptually in the form of dualisms such as the subject-object distinction, which has made its way into HCI theories of perception and cognition.

This essay seeks to challenge the primacy of the underlying structure of traditional HCI theory by bringing into proximity alternatives to the Cartesian space-time paradigm that is implicated in the history and theories of subjective experience. Thus, I will challenge the naturalization of the framework of the Cartesian x, y, z-axes as it underpins theories of the interface. Such challenges to epistemological structures are complicated by the fact that, as Judith Butler would say, it is "the framework" that "persists at a symbolic level that is more difficult to intervene upon" (210, emphasis mine). Although Butler is talking about the framework of sexual difference that sustains the "continuing cultural and political reality of patriarchal domination," her remarks are germane to a discussion of the human-computer interface because they draw attention to the necessity of conceptual shifts in the questions that must be asked of theoretical approaches to the human-computer interface. In the spirit of this conceptual shift, therefore, I argue that if one seeks to challenge a Eurocentric worldview in relation to the human-computer interface one must attend to the epistemological effects of Western concepts of space and time that are encoded within HCI theory, and which serve to sustain it at the symbolic level. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Director of the International Research Institute for Maori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland, makes this point in Decolonizing Methodologies when she says, "Western ideas about time and space are encoded [and privileged] in language, philosophy and science" (50), and, historically, these ideas have "provided ideological justification for exclusionary practices" (54) in relation to alternative worldviews. Indeed, as Smith points out, embedded within these concepts are "systems of classification and representation which lend themselves easily to binary oppositions, dualisms, and hierarchical orderings of the world" (55). The point is that leading HCI theories of perception and cognition, such as Representationalism, continue, as HCI theorist Shaleph O'Neill points out in Interactive Media: The Semiotics of Embodied Perception, to rely on "a Cartesian view of how the mind works" (29); this includes the notion that the success of a virtual environment (VE) is calculated on the extent to which it "seem[s] real"—that is, the extent to which it conforms to a Eurocentric space-time model wherein the distinction between subject and object goes untroubled (29).

With this caveat in mind, it seems imperative in a postcolonial and post-positivistic world to consider the imaginative and symbolic role played by theory and theorizing regarding the social, cultural, political, and even spiritual import of "what can be thought" (Laqueur 13, emphasis mine) when it comes to questions of being, consciousness, otherness, identity and subjectivity in relation to immersive technologies and alternative worldviews. This imperative, of course, draws critical attention to the performative aspects of theory with regards to the ideological sustaining and/or shifting of paradigms in the historical, epistemological and ontological framing of any worldview.

As Christopher Hauke points out, it was Thomas Kuhn's (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) that was instrumental in drawing attention to the relationship between theory and worldview; in this regard, Hauke emphasizes what is at stake in any methodology for interpretation depends upon "the way that [an] experiment is performed and the way that the data is read are all determined by the theory which, itself, is partly founded on observation and partly on imaginative readings" (239, emphasis mine). Hence, in "'Virtual Coordinates': Percepetion-based Localization and Spatial Reasoning in Mobile Robots," by Ulrich Nchmzow et al., we find the claim that "our experiments show that a good correspondence between virtual coordinates and true Cartesian coordinates can be achieved, and that localization and path planning are therefore possible by means of the virtual coordinates associated with perceptual landmarks" (1). The point I want to make is that the mapping of perception and cognition in terms of Cartesian coordinates results in the reification of a certain worldview whose mechanistic tradition extends into contemporary phenomenological and psychological theories of HCI. In this regard, comments made by Ludwig Wittgenstein draw attention to the epistemological hold of the Cartesian worldview, saying that it has "held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably" (Wittgenstein qtd. in Rorty).

To speak further of this inexorability is beyond the scope of this essay, the aim of which is to introduce a new conceptual paradigm with which to evaluate and perhaps decolonize the digital-perceptual interface of immersive technology. A further caveat: I do not mean to suggest in the least that the space-time worldview associated with Cartesian coordinates should or even could be abandoned in favour of any alternatives. Rather, I'm interested in de-centering and thus considering them in relation to alternatives in the sense of being instructively complementary rather than being originary. To do so means to configure theoretical approaches to immersive technology by "testing the limits of perception, body, and thought" (Burnett 104). Testing those limits is at this moment and in this essay speculative and hypothetical because it requires bringing into proximity alternative explanatory models of "reality" and space-time—indigenous philosophy, quantum theory, and the theory of synchronicity as developed by Carl Jung in collaboration with physicist Wolfgang Pauli—where these modalities might intersect, overlap and provide a way around or through the Eurocentric Cartesian divide that continues to inform the all-too-familiar levels of observation not only with respect to the digital-perceptual interface, but also, and more pervasively, to the relationship between epistemology and ontology. Simply put, the first point I'd like to make is that to theorize the interface one must remain mindful of the fact that "it is the theory that suggests the observations, and not the other way around" (Hauke 239). The aim in this inquiry, therefore, is not merely to repudiate the Cartesian determinants of HCI theory but also to consider what might be possible if, in the light of alternatives, such a traditional approach was required, as Jacques Derrida might say, "to stop considering itself as the culture of reference" (282).

Taking steps with which to conceptualize the role of immersive technology in a postcolonial, posthuman world in relation to perception, body and thought initially means, as Burnett suggests, sidestepping certain "narrow binary relationship[s]" (104) which, socially and culturally, are a form of totalization. In this context, such testing requires perceptual shifts with regards to the Eurocentric reader/text or subject/object divide wherein the latter is—broadly speaking—a metaphysical (and ultimately aesthetic, political and technological) distinction based on more than 500 years of Cartesian dualism and woven into social and cultural explanatory models of "reality." As Smith puts it, distinctions such as these are "ways of thinking" and, ideologically, "are generally part of a taken-for-granted view of the world" (50). In other words, these explanatory models are systems of knowledge which, as Derrida has pointed out, are based on classical distinctions between "the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non-being […] in the opposition between what is present and what is not" (11). These pairings are epistemological and ontological and have historically determined the ideological equilibrium between Western metaphysics and the binary logic of Western classical science. By extension these classical distinctions have informed the study of representation, subjectivity, imagination, perception and embodiment and influenced what has been said about immersive technologies. This oppositional pairing with regards to immersive systems is clearly what Avital Ronell has in mind when she says that "VR is philosophically complex […] it is system-dependent on classical tropes of representation, imagination, the sovereign subject, and negated others" and is "dependent on a number of metaphysical cravings" (119, emphasis mine). Ronell's observation draws attention to the fact that Enlightenment thinking goes hand in hand with normative models of subjectivity and both continue to haunt the study of immersive technology and reproduce its oppositional pairings through exclusionary practices.

In the spirit of such claims, I'd like to suggest that in the study of immersive systems, an admixture of indigenous philosophy and quantum theory, where it meets the psychological principle of synchronicity, has the potential to modify HCI theory and thus contribute to poststructuralist and postcolonial critiques of the Enlightenment project of rationality and objectivity that is bound up in the history of Western imperialism.

First Steps: Towards a Multi-Modal Approach

The power of immersive environments—whether produced by film, video or virtual reality (as in an Inuit whalebone house, a Haida Longhouse, a Hindu temple, or the Virtual Harlem project)—lies in the fact that these environments are psychological thresholds that have the potential to encourage new perspectives by allowing for cross-cultural shifts in the understanding of history and consciousness. An article by Grady Semmens tells how in February of 2008, 75-year old Nunavut artist and elder Donald Uluadluak, along with a translator and two other Inuit elders, found himself amazed to be stepping into an ancient whalebone house—structures used 700 years ago in the high Arctic built out of the remains of baleen whales, but abandoned when the climate changed and the range of the bowhead whales grew smaller, forcing people to move south and change their hunting practices. The experience was particularly significant for Mr. Uluadluak and his companions not only because whalebone houses have not been seen for centuries, but also because they realized that being inside the whalebone house in the past meant knowing that one's domestic life was linked to the Inuit or Thule legend about a man living inside a whale. That the experience had both cultural and spiritual significance for the elders can best be appreciated by Mr. Uluadluak's remarks made in Inuktitut that "no one has ever seen these buildings before," and that in entering the structure, "[i]t feels like we're shamans or magicians" and "[i]t brought us back to who we were" (qtd. in Semmens).

Figure 2: Inuit elders (left to right) Louis Angalik, Mark Kalluak and Donald Uluadluak donned stereoscopic glasses to take a tour through the virtual reality whalebone hut created by U of C professors Peter Dawson and Richard Levy. Photo by Ken Bendiktsen.

Inuit elders (left to
                           right) Louis Angalik, Mark Kalluak and Donald Uluadluak donned
                           stereoscopic glasses to take a tour through the virtual reality whalebone
                           hut created by U of C professors Peter Dawson and Richard Levy. Photo by
                           Ken Bendiktsen.

In reflecting upon Mr. Uluadluak's comments one might be tempted to think that the elders had come upon the remains of a whalebone house in proximity to their homes in Arviat on the western shore of Hudson Bay, but this was not the case. Instead, the elders traveled thousands of kilometers—from Arviat to Calgary, Alberta—to don headgear that enabled them to experience the three-dimensional whalebone house as it was created in the CAVE, a virtual-reality room at the University of Calgary. As Semmens of the University of Calgary writes of the event, there "the elders donned stereoscopic glasses, stepped into the cul-de-sac of screens and within seconds were surrounded by a tent of animal skins supported by the arching ribs of a bowhead whale. Inside […] an Inuit family prepares a meal by a fire, traditional tools can be found on the shelves and a lone drum beats […] in the distance." Semmens reports that "creating the whalebone house required years of research" and that the researchers worked from the remains of a Thule village to reconstruct it in virtual reality based on the archaeological and existing cultural information. In fact, "the project required laser scanning the skeleton of a North Atlantic whale" and determined that the layout of the whalebone house "mimicked the living anatomy of the whale, with the entrance through the whale's mouth and living quarters in its belly" (Semmens).

Figure 3: Reconstruction of an ancient Thule culture whalebone hut from Bathurst Island in Canada’s high Arctic was done using maps of the archaeological site and the latest in computer imaging software in the U of C’s Schlumberger iCentre. Photo courtesy of Richard Levy.

Reconstruction of an ancient Thule culture whalebone hut
                           from Bathurst Island in Canada’s high Arctic was done using maps of the
                           archaeological site and the latest in computer imaging software in the U
                           of C’s Schlumberger iCentre. Photo courtesy of Richard
The experience of entering the house was culturally significant and prompted Mark Lalluak, one of the elders and an adviser to the territorial government's Education Department, to say, "All the stories I used to hear when I was young [about the ancient ways of the Inuit people] are coming back to me," and "maybe this legend [of the man living inside a whale] comes from when we lived in these kinds of houses" (qtd. in Semmens).

In addition to the historical and spiritual potential of the elders' experience is the relevance it has to a discussion of new media as a means of engaging in self-reflexive discourses about issues of identity and the use of new media to define cultural spaces. As Chief Robert Louie of the Westbank First Nation said in his welcome remarks to a conference on new media and indigenous culture, "new media has become the contemporary model through which our history, language and culture is communicated" and this work is "important to preserving our culture" (2). In this latter area, there is no doubt that VR has been used in a variety of ways to enable digital "storytelling" or immersive "narratives" in which the participants "enter" a site or an historical place, thus giving new meaning to the idea of the reader/spectator/immersant as a creative part of a cultural text.

In the case of the whalebone house, for example, an employee in the ministry's curriculum and school services division, Nunia Qanatslaq, accompanied the elders and said, "Something like this makes it so much easier to imagine what life was like in the old days than just reading about it in a book." For those interested in literature, story telling, performance and the visual arts, the most compelling dimension of the emerging technology of virtual reality (VR) is the perspective it has opened on representation. In an article by Elaine Moyah, indigenous artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun says that VR enabled him to stage a "cultural exchange" between West Coast Indigenous forms and Western concepts. Approaching VR as an immersive phenomenon, one is invited to rethink the presentation of stories and artistic world-construction that, according to Chief Louie, "impact our communities." But immersive "storytelling" also has its problems.

Although VR has greatly enhanced the study of culture and its representations by enabling participants to "enter" a site or historical place, the analysis of the immersive experience more often than not remains anchored in familiar epistemological waters where Cartesian coordinates define the borders of literary studies, which are then mapped onto the human-computer interface. That is, instead of taking a what Gunther Kress calls a"multi-modal" approach (38), immersive technology is theorized via a linguistic model in which the tendency to privilege literature reveals a certain nostalgia towards the days of print culture, or what Derrida has called "the civilization of the book" (8).[2] In these terms, literary-inflected models regarding digital "storytelling" or digital "narratives" also have the effect of delimiting what might be thought of immersive systems in relation to enduring questions about consciousness, being, and identity, as well as begging the question regarding space and time. Kress addresses the issue this way: "[D]oes it matter if we use linguistic categories to describe visual or three-dimensional texts?" (38). Of course the constituency of the "our," the "us," and the "we" must always be considered, but the point remains that framing immersive systems in literary terms is only part of the story, for as Burnett points out, multi-modal technologies have "already alter[ed] the fabric of research and practice in the sciences, arts, and engineering and challeng[ed] many conventional wisdoms about the seemingly transparent relationships between images and meaning, mind and thought, as well as culture and identity" (Burnett xv, emphasis mine). [3]

To clarify: I am not saying that storytelling or narrative study is "so yesterday" or "so five minutes ago," but instead that the instrumentality of theory must be taken into account with regards to constructing perceptual models of reality if only because these models achieve the what-goes-without-saying status because naturalized. It follows, therefore, that epistemological claims regarding the immersive and "virtual" human-computer interface must be able to account for diversity in languages, myths, beliefs, philosophies, mathematics and science in both spatial and temporal terms. Testing the limits, therefore, means challenging conventional wisdoms about the ideological functioning of Western ideas of subjectivity, time, space and classification in relation to multimodal, pluralistic technologies, for if these spatial and temporal ideas are "encoded in language, philosophy and science," as Smith says, such "classifications [will necessarily] include […] notions as architectural space, physical space, [but also] psychological space, theoretical space and so forth" (50-51). A consideration of space in these terms suggests the possibility of being displaced. This possibility is apparent when Smith points out that even after years of academic study indigenous scholars have a tendency "to write about ourselves as indigenous peoples as if we really were 'out there'" (36). Thus, testing the limits of perception, embodiment and thought in a postcolonial world with regards to immersive systems means radically considering alternatives to certain social, cultural and scientific formulations that have been predicated on a Eurocentric worldview in which hierarchical systems of classification persist.

Back to the Future

In Decolonizing Methodologies Smith points out that "coming to know the past" is part of the process of decolonization since, as she puts it, "to hold alternative histories is to hold alternative knowledges" (34). For purposes of this discussion, "coming to know the past" means taking a brief, historical and, perhaps, eclectic detour into Western technology and science of the nineteenth century with the aim of providing a brief rationale for hypothesizing an admixture of quantum theory, analytical psychology and indigenous philosophy to reflect upon immersive systems.

In the nineteenth century, social and cultural interest in telepathy, the paranormal, hypnosis, and survival after death was paralleled in the reception of new communications technologies such as the telegraph and telephone. These appeared, like other paranormal phenomena, to defy the limitations of time and space and contributed to what Pamela Thurschwell refers to as "wider conceptualizations of the borders of individual consciousness" (2). In this context, it is relevant to point out that Western psychoanalysis also played a part in the conceptualization of "individual consciousness." It is well known that, in spite of Freud's attraction to the "paranormal," he dreaded the confluence of psychoanalysis and parapsychology and repudiated all forms of what he called "mysticism." This was especially true, according to Morris Berman, when it came to his protégé Jung's explorations into alternative worldviews that considered the notion of "participating consciousness" and allowed for "the […] conviction that there is […] Mind behind phenomenal appearances" (75). In "Totem and Taboo," Freud describes such "conviction" as the "magical thinking" behind animism—that is, the "primitive" view that there is no distinction between the animate and the inanimate. History tells us that among other colonial practices this Western psychoanalytic model has had profoundly negative consequences for indigenous populations. In the case of psychoanalysis, women, children and so-called primitive peoples have been clearly suspect. As James Waldram points out, early Europeans "perceived a substantive amount of psychopathology among the aboriginal population" and provided "sensationalist reports" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that usually focused on their "animistic" worldview as evidence of mental "immaturity" (100). In light of the history of such repressions in the name of science, it seems ironic that some streams of Western science have shown themselves to have more in common epistemologically with indigenous philosophy than with the metaphysical dualisms characteristic of the positivism which pathologized indigenous thought and promulgated the subject/object divide as well as "the idea of detached [value-free] observation" in the first place (Hauke 241, emphasis in original). In what follows, I'd like briefly to offer some thoughts toward alternatives to the idea of detached observation and what that might mean for theorizing the human-computer interface.

Interactive Realities

In Western science, the first alternative to Cartesian dualism and the subject/object distinction takes its cue from quantum theory, which posits an inexplicable "interaction" between mind and matter. This stream of quantum theory also suggests the possibility of consciousness as "a primary element of reality" that, as quantum physicists Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne put it, "may have the power to achieve what is both the best-documented and at the same time the spookiest effect of mind on the material world," namely the interaction between consciousness and matter (47). Taking one step further Althusser's view that ideology can be seen as "a 'representation' of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (qtd. in Jameson 51), the question then becomes what such alternative ideologies might hold for understanding the meaning of the terms "imaginary" or "real" in relation to "representation" in immersive technology, especially in regards to the complex interplay among conceptions of space, time and subjectivity as informed by holistic worldviews.[4]

A second alternative, inextricable from the first, also has intellectual, psychological as well as spiritual implications. The principle of synchronicity emerges from the collaborative thinking between Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, and the quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who, like Jung, saw synchronistic events as productive of "meaningful perception" (qtd. in Zabriskie xxxix). Like quantum theory, the principle of synchronicity hypothesizes parallels "between psychic and psychophysical events" to argue "that psychic energy influences living or inert objects in such a way that, as though 'animated' by a psychic content […], they are compelled to represent it somehow or other" (Jung 160). In the context of this discussion, we might ask if such parallels have currency in propositions about the "real" world in relation to psychological experience, then what might they provide with respect to theorizing immersive, virtual worlds since in this context even the statement "I am here" has a catch.[5]

Lastly, but perhaps of greatest import in this discussion, is the collaboration between indigenous philosopher Leroy Little Bear and quantum physicist and Jungian scholar David L. Peat. This pair collaborates for the formation of an epistemological bridge between indigenous and Western sciences. Whereas Little Bear advocates a shift in conceptual paradigms from a Western, binaristic or positivistic paradigm to one that incorporates "the infinite possibilities and interrelationships" of the Blackfoot paradigm's "constant flux" notion (78), his collaborator, Peat, suggests that "quantum theory stresses the irreducible link between observer and observed and the basic holism of all phenomena. So too, Native Science holds that there is no separation between individual and society, between matter and spirit, between each one of us and the whole of nature" (76).

In this context, the work of Little Bear is especially germane to theorizing the admixture of quantum theory, the principle of synchronicity and indigenous philosophy to the study of immersive technology, and to ameliorating the epistemological and ontological effects of classical Western models of consciousness: "in Aboriginal philosophy [… a]ll things are animate" and "interrelationships between all entities are of paramount importance" (77). In quantum theory, physicists David Bohm and B.J. Hiley describe "quantum interconnectedness" through which "one is led to a new notion of unbroken wholeness which denies the classical idea of analyzability of the world" (95-96). What might these claims mean in terms of interactivity with immersive technology if the distinction between subject and object may be interrogated? What does it mean for phenomenology? As Jahn and Dunne point out, "centuries of attention to metaphysics in general […] testify to some […] conviction, even among highly analytical thinkers, that the affairs of the physical world and the affairs of the mind are, at some level, inextricably linked" (722). By theorizing immersive technology in this way one is also invited to rethink artistic and scientific world-construction as well as to decolonize methodologies with regards to indigenous worldviews. One effect of such decolonization might be to obviate the "outside-view predicate" referred to by indigenous scholar D.R. McPherson in reference to the tendency in Eurocentric research to "externalize" indigenous peoples, "leaving them to be studied as objects: studying them from the outside."

Previously I mentioned certain problems associated with theorizing immersive technology through literary or narrative studies and with artistic world-construction based on Cartesian coordinates that are, to recall Ronell, "dependent on classical tropes of representation, imagination, the sovereign subject, and negated others." In these terms, immersive systems reproduce the codes with which they are constructed. In what follows, I would like to indicate what is possible regarding alternative approaches—in theory and in practice—to immersive systems that challenge and transform the all-too-familiar time/space/subject convergences characteristic of Cartesian dualism. That is, I am interested in approaches to and use of immersive technology which are no longer indebted solely to Western literary studies or cognitive psychology, and which no longer rely on the traditional Cartesian metaphysical grid of positivist thought wherein there is no possibility of exchange between the subject and the so-called object. Here I am reminded of the groundbreaking VR work done in the past decade by Canadian artist, programmer, and theorist, Char Davies. Davies uses immersive technology to create spatial paradoxes aimed, she says in an interview with Carol Gigliotti, "at subverting the dominantly visual aesthetic in VR and 3D computer graphics which strives for ever great photo realism [… thereby] reinforcing the Cartesian divide between dominating subject and passive object" (63).[6] In practice and in theory, Davies has sought to overcome the limits of her training as a realist painter by using immersive space technology "to create non-Cartesian space," and thus to enable her audience "to 'cross over' the [predicatability of the] 2D picture plane." In Davies's terms immersive space is used as "a spatio-temporal 'arena'" in which "spatial simultaneity" (qtd in McRobert 17) rather than linear causality works to create "a perceptual ambiguity of figure and ground—dissolving the culturally learned, habitually perceived boundaries between subject and object, inside and out" (qtd in McRobert 63).[7] In Davies's Ephémère, the immersant may find herself implicated in what Davies calls "the under-earth," where she will encounter "inter-responsive 'seeds,'" and if the immersant even "gazes at a seed from a certain distance, it will begin to flicker in acknowledgement that it has 'sensed' her presence, and will consequently begin to germinate." In this somewhat animistic and deconstructive view, "immersive virtual space is thus a philosophical and a participatory medium, a unique convergence in which the immaterial is confused with the bodily-felt, and the imaginary with the strangely real. This paradox is its most singular power" (Davies "Landscape"). In fact, it is this paradox that suggests an affinity with the alternative metaphysics derived from the collaboration between the indigenous philosophy of Little Bear and the quantum theory of Peat as well as with the theory of synchronicity developed by Jung and Pauli, all of which consider the convergence of body/mind in determining epistemology. In this regard, it is telling that the comments of 30,000 immersants in Davies's Osmose have lent themselves, as McRobert claims, to the conclusion that "computer-based immersive art may provide a venue to study esoteric feelings" (132).

In an online article on her work in immersive virtual space, Davies describes the dynamics and the infinite possibilities behind the experience of an "immersant" in her 1995 work Osmose. This description serves as a model, method and theory of immersive systems moving me to consider the relevance and potential of VR to the work of Peat and Little Bear, as well to suggest a reconfiguring of the role of VR in enabling a paradigm shift from a Cartesian worldview to a more holistic one:

Osmose consists of nearly a dozen realms, of forest, pond, subterranean earth and so on, all situated around a central clearing. The spatial structure of the work has a strong vertical axis (rather than the conventional horizontal plane of most VR works)—amplified by the use of breath to buoyantly rise or descend. Vertically, there is a kind of spatial recycling, whereby if the participant ascends to the very heights of the space she will be returned to its depths, and vice versa.

A few moments after her entry, the […] immersant [finds herself] in the middle of a clearing. Gazing all around, she sees, or perhaps first hears, what appears to be a sienna-hued oak tree, near a small pond into which is flowing a stream of light particles, and all around, a circumference of dark forest. The clearing cycles through day and night, its ebb and flow of light and dark accompanied by subtle visual and aural changes.

Figure 4: Char Davies. Tree Pond, Osmose (1995). Digital still image captured during immersive performance of the virtual environment Osmose.

Char Davies. Tree
                                 Pond, Osmose (1995). Digital still image captured during immersive
                                 performance of the virtual environment

The immersant will realize she has entered a non-Cartesian place, […] here, everything is dematerialized and semi-transparent——there are no solid surfaces, no hard-edges, no separate objects in empty space. Instead, the immersant can see through everything——through the body of the tree, the ground, the roots below.

She may choose to drift into the clearing's tree, rising with its streaming particles. Or she can float into its branches, only to find herself passing through a previously invisible leafy canopy and into the interior of a leaf, consisting of brightly blazing lights streaming through green space, accompanied by high-pitched sound. From within the clearing, if the immersant breathes shallowly and leans forward, she can also glide towards the encircling forest. (Davies Osmose)

Figure 5: Char Davies. Vertical Tree, Osmose (1995). Digital still image captured during immersive performance of the virtual environment Osmose.

Char Davies. Vertical Tree, Osmose (1995). Digital still
                                 image captured during immersive performance of the virtual
                                 environment Osmose.

In line with the alternative worldviews already mentioned, Davies's immersive space is both interrelational and paradoxical; the notion of "perceptual ambiguity" contributes to understanding the significance of the use of interpretive models in relation to immersive systems. Using Derrida's terms, one can think of the play of interpretive approaches and their implications in this way: "There are […] two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciperhing a truth or an origin which escapes play […]. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism […]" (292).

Of course it is more complex than this, but I offer an alternative with regards to the issue of interpretation, to imagining and theorizing the possibilities of exploring conceptual paradigms regarding interactive and immersive experiences in decolonized spaces that do not seek, as Lévi Strauss once did, the "inspiration of a new humanism" (qtd in Derrida 292). On the contrary, my aim is neither to reinvest theory with the humanist ideals of techno-romanticism nor to ignore the fact that, as Davies astutely puts it, "the technology associated with [VR] is not neutral—it has come out of the military/scientific/Western/industrial/patriarchal paradigm" (qtd in McLeod 14). More, my aim has been, in the words of Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto," "to suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves" (181). Indeed, my concluding thought takes the form of a question regarding the role of interpretation that is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism. The question alluded to is Derrida's and remains, as yet, unspoken regarding theory and interpretation: "Here there is a kind of question, let us call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today" (233-34). For the moment, let us also call it speculative; let us call it virtual.


[1] See "Spatial Cognition" by Boyce Byerly, which discusses the relationship between spatial cognition and Cartesian coordination, at http://www.boycebyerly.com/research/space2.htm.

[2] See Janet H. Murray's 1997 Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, which was the first to posit intersections between the study of literature and the use of digital technology by likening immersive technology to the Shakespearean stage and calling it a "new medium for storytelling" (11) and a "compelling medium for narrative art" (84). In Hamlet Murray claimed that "digital narratives […] offer […] us the opportunity to enact stories rather than merely witness them" (72). Later, literary scholar Marie-Laure Ryan argued in Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media that virtual reality experience is analogous to the immersion and interactivity involved in reading literature. Aiming to develop a "phenomenology of reading"—described as "collaboration between reader and text in the production of meaning" (14)—Ryan sought to transfer "the two concepts of immersion and interactivity from the technological to the literary domain" for purposes of "exploring the fate of traditional narrative patterns in digital culture" (2, emphasis mine).

[3] This is not to say that narrative study is irrelevant; as Thomas King puts it, "The truth about stories is that that's all we are," and this current experiment of mine regarding theoretical frameworks is no exception (qtd in Valaskakis 3). Furthermore, as Burnett argues, "interactivity will not be achieved [merely] through effects but as a result of experiences attached to stories" (101).

[4] Philip Zhai points out that physicists have even tried "to find a possible connection between ancient mysticism and modern physics" (116). Zhai's question in this regard is also highly suggestive: "Can we find a way to bring a mystic and a hyperspace physicist together so that they can verify one another's statements about the unobservable?" (116).

[5] For example, a neuroscientist in Britain has found a way to induce an "out-of-body experience" that makes VR immersants feel as if they are standing behind themselves (see McIlroy).

[6] The 1992 work of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun marks a turn in indigenous art towards decolonizing virtual space. Entitled "Inherent Rights, Vision Rights," the project is listed as the first Native artwork in cyberspace; in it, the participant is invited to experience a ceremony in a traditional West Coast long house. At first glance, the work seems grounded in a familiar spatial model: one enters a recognizable space, and time is relative to this entry. However, the scene shifts and Yuxweluptun uses VR to stage what he calls "a cultural exchange" between Western concepts and West Coast forms. As the participant gets closer to the masked dancers within the scene, the drumming gets louder and the spatial/temporal coordinates change to allow the intersection of worlds whereby the participant is encouraged to interact with figures from the spirit world. What is telling about this recombinant VR work can be heard in the ambivalent response to it by Charlotte Townsend Gault who says, "The open question is whether [Paul] can blend genres with this eclecticism […] and still hope to determine readings and command moral imperatives" (in W. Jackson Rushings's Native American Art in the Twentieth Century, 116). The art of Yuxweluptun is the topic of another research project currently underway.

[7] Davies does not privilege the ideals of techno-romanticism; see interview with Carol Gigliotti.

Works Cited

Berman, Morris. The Reenchantment of the World. New York: Bantam Books, 1984. Print.

Bohm, David and B.J. Hiley. How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. 5th.ed. Eds. Theodore Schick, Jr. & Lewis Vaughn. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

Burnett, Ron. How Images Think. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.

Butler, Judith. "The Question of Social Transformation." Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Byerly, Boyce. "Spatial Cognition." n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. http://www.boycebyerly.com/research/space2.htm.

Davies, Char. "Changing Space: Virtual Reality as an Arena of Embodied Being." Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, Expanded Edition. Eds. Randall Packer and Ken Jordan. New York: Norton, 2002. 293-300. Print.

———. "Forest Grid." Osmose, 1995.

———. "Landscape, Earth, Body, Being, Space, and Time in the Immersive Virtual Environments in Osmose and Ephémère." Women, Art, and Technology. Ed. Judy Malloy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. 322-37. Print.

———. "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space." Digital Creativity 9.2 (1998): 65-74. Print.

———. "Rethinking VR: Key Concepts and Concerns." Hybrid Reality: Art, Technology and the Human Factor. Ed. Hal Thwaites. Montreal: International Society on Virtual Systems and Multimedia, 2003. 253-262. Print.

———. "Virtual Space." Space: In Science, Art and Society. Eds. François Penz, Gregory Radick and Robert Howell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 69-104 Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. "Totem and Taboo and Other Works." Ed. and Trans. James Strachey. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XIII (1913-1914). London: The Hogarth Press/Vintage, 2001. Print.

Gigliotti, Carol. "Reverie, Osmose and Ephémère." n.paradoxa 9 (2002): 64-73. Web. http://www.immersence.com/publications/2002/2002-CGigliotti.html.

Haraway, Donna J. "A Cyborg Manifesto." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Philosophy of Mind. Trans. W. Wallace. and A.V. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Hauke, Christopher. Jung and the Postmodern: the Interpretation of Realities. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie, ed. Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture. Ed. Gail Guthrie Valaskakis. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2005.

Jahn, Robert G. and Brenda J. Dunne. Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1987. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1992. Print.

Jung, Carl G. "Letter to Gebhard Frei, January 17, 1949." Jung on Synchronicity and the Paranormal. Ed. Roderick Main. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1997. Print.

Kress, Gunther. "Multimodality, Multimedia, and Genre." Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Carolyn Handa. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004. 38-54. Print.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970. Print.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990. Print.

Little Bear, Leroy. "Jagged Worldviews Colliding." Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision. Ed. Marie Battiste. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000. Print.

———, and F. David Peat. Rituals of Renewal: Spiritual Transformation Through Native American Tradition. Secaucus, NJ: 1999. Print.

Louie, Robert. "Welcome." On Common Ground: National Media Arts Conference and Festival (Celebrating Indigenous Culture). Rotary Centre for the Arts, Kelowna. 2008.

McIlroy, Ann. "How to be in Two Places at Once." Theglobeandmail.com. The Globe and Mail, 23 Aug. 2007. Web. 3 Aug. 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/science/article777752.ece.

McLeod, H. Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments. Ed. Marry Anne Moser with Douglas MacLeod. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996. Print.

McPherson, Dennis and Doug Rabb. "Occasional Paper #14 Indian from the Inside: a Study in Ethno-Metaphysics." Thunder Bay: Centre for Northern Studies, Lakehead University, 1993. Web. 

McRobert, Laurie. Char Davies' Immersive Virtual Art and the Essence of Spatiality. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007. Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Ed. James Edie. Trans. William Cobb. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1964. Print.

Moyah, Elaine. Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. Elaine Moyah, n.d. http://www.lawrencepaulyuxweluptun.com/index.html Web. 2 Oct. 2009.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997. Print.

Nchmzow, Ulrich, Toshihiro Matsui and Hideki Asoh. "'Virtual Coordinates': Perception-based Localisation and Spatial Reasoning in Mobile Robots." 1998. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

O'Neill, Shaleph. Interactive Media: The Semiotics of Embodied Perception. London: Springer, 2008. Print.

Peat, F. David, ed. The Pari Dialogues, Volume 1: Essays in Science, Religion, Society and the Arts. Pari: Pari Publishing, 2007. Print.

———. Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Universe. Boston: Weiser Books, 2005. Print.

Ronell, Avital. "A Disappearance of Community." Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments. Ed. Mary Anne Moser. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999. 119-128. Print.

Rorty, Richard. "Introduction." Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982. xiii-xlvii. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/rorty.htm. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. "Allegories of Immersion: Virtual Narration in Postmodern Fiction." Style 29.2 (1995): 262-286. Print.

———. "Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory." SubStance 28.2 (1999): 110-137. Print.

———. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print.

Semmens, Grady. "Inuit Prehistory Enters the Digital Age." U Magazine. University of Calgary, Spring 2008. Web. 1 Oct. 2009. http://www.ucalgary.ca/news/uofcpublications/umagazine/spring2008/researcher.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books, 1999. Print.

Thurschwell, Pamela. Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Waldram, James B. Revenge of the Windigo: The Construction of the Mind and Mental Health of North American Aboriginal Peoples. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. Print.

Zabriskie, Beverley. "Jung and Pauli: A Meeting of Rare Minds." Atom and Archetype: The Pauli/Jung Letters 1932-1958. Ed. C.A. Meier. Trans. David Roscoe. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2001. xxvii-xlix. Print.

Zhai, Phillip. Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality. Maryland: Rowman & Little Field, 1998. Print.

Valid XHTML 1.0!



Jodey Castricano (University of British Columbia)





Creative Commons Attribution 4.0


File Checksums (MD5)

  • HTML: 72e46eb2217e87e0df3ffb626a84ae92