July 23, 2024

Advancing Digital Growth

Pioneering Technological Innovation

Making and interpreting: digital humanities as embodied action

16 min read

Kirschenbaum notes that DH is more akin to a common methodological outlook (2012), which perhaps downgrades the significance of DH and its potential to be a new space in comprehending and forming the world. Some scholars question whether the centre and the boundaries of DH remain amorphous (McCarty, 2016); Svensson (2016), for example, describes DH as being in a liminal state, that it is neither discipline nor interdiscipline. DH seems to have huge potentiality; however, at the same time, its promised future is continually delayed in which its highly anticipated impact has not yet been fully realised (Alvarado, 2012).

The role of humanities scholars always concerns the production and interpretation of cultural materials in constantly changing cultural and social environments, rather than focussing on technological progress (Fitzpatrick, 2010), which is also coherent with Earhart’s view that DH should engage theoretically with technology, not merely with the content of technologies (2012a; 2012b). Cong-Huyen (2015) and Parikka (2012), for example, mobilise critical theories to bridge the ‘natural’ progression of technology and critical thinking on cultural materials. This article argues that, on the premise of ever-strengthening digital technologies, bodily movement becomes the meeting point of the two, whereby immanent and irreducible bodily actions operate technologies in the ways to favour the latter’s own interest, while the operational technologies reinforce the users in perceiving the world, in which actions are taken in field study, searching for materials, visualising the research, and enhancing decision making, as well as accommodating various digital technologies in the process of knowledge making. Bodily movement is specific to the medium with attention paid to details and complexity, wherein the body is cultural and physical in its historical context, which in turn diversifies the understanding of DH 2.0 practice. Moreover, the bodily experience in everyday research practice could become prominent in and provide alternative ways of thinking to DH 3.0. The interaction between body and digital technologies in everyday experience determines what knowledge can be produced and how it is to be presented. Concrete actions determine bodily experience and subsequent understanding of the world, which are what humanities scholars work with, and are affected by and inseparable from. From everyday practice, new realisations emerge in bodily actions and reactions situated in the digital environment, some of which are immature, controversial or even handicapped, yet they actively contribute to the perception of the world.

Negroponte (1995) notes that digitalisation has created a new living space, and people in the digital age live more in the virtual space constructed by digital technology. What is emphasised here is that while people study, work and communicate in this space, regardless of whether it is actual, virtual or mixed, bodily actions are taking place to create new literature, art, history and even culture in the virtual interaction. After more than two decades later, the increasing integration of body and technology allows DH practice to become an event, in which the embodied body acts and reacts in a situated digital environment. Therefore, bodily actions itself is the process of knowledge making that leads to new realisation and ‘digitised’ knowledge.

Narrowing the ‘gap’ – connecting body to DH in digital fashion design practice

The selected and synthesised historical trajectories of the growth of DH not only demonstrate the increasing impact of digital technologies upon everyday life, but also pave the way towards conceptualising the connection of DH to the body. The observable ever-strengthening technologies and deepening of everyday engagement have prompted the rethinking of the situated body in terms of DH. This brings the ideas of ‘digitised’ body, ‘digitised’ knowledge and embodiment into focus, especially given the high number of everyday experiences involving the mix of actual and virtual realities. The realisation of dematerialization does not entail embracing virtuality by abandoning materiality. But rather, dematerialisation reflects a new type of ‘digitised’ knowledge and embodiment in mixed reality. The everyday body can visually experience the simulated virtual space while the body remains situated in the actual environment in terms of haptic experience, for example.

The haptic, as a somatic sense of touch, has been studied extensively in the field of psychology with recent scholarship focusing on touch or non-visual senses (Classen, 1997; Stoller, 1997; Geurts, 2005; Howes, 2003; Feld, 2005; Paterson, 2007). Bodily actions are embodied, tactile and spatial experiences, that arise from touching and sensing via skin, for example, and provide a sense of immediacy for the body when interacting with actual space; it is “like a journey inward into the fibrous and synaptic entanglements of a diffuse nerve-muscle system” (Paterson, 2011, 266). Bodily actions in a physical space combine several somatic senses, namely, the modalities of proprioception as the body’s muscular tension, kinaesthesia as the sense of the body’s movement, and vestibular sense as a sense of balance (Paterson, 2007, 4). That is to say, apart from our visual perception, virtual space is also experienced and understood through our skin, such as through touch. Digital fashion designers in everyday practice, for instance, are visually immersed in the world of the virtual, and whose bodies have ‘retaught’ their physical experience via virtual experience. This is a type of haptic experience embodied in digital action, or digitised embodiment, which impacts upon the actual body continuously into their everyday lives.

Scholarly investigations on digitised embodiment have examined how the body interacts with, and is (re)configured by, digital technologies, focusing on various increasingly digitised environments—such as “sensor-saturated physical environments” (Lupton, 2017, 202), where the body is exposed to, grows with, and is constantly under surveillance—that configurate and reconfigure bodily actions (Bauman and Lyon, 2012; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011; Kitchin, 2014). The body is digitised and recorded constantly while surfing online, walking under surveillance, talking on the smartphone, body scanning for health checks, etc., hereby reproduced by/in the digitised environment. In other words, digital data are generated and used to further discipline bodily behaviours. The complex relation between body and digital technology is full of entanglements, as well as inextricabilities in terms of sociomaterialism, which argues social and materiality aspects are entangled in an organisational life (Orlikowski, 2007). In Orlikowski and Scott’s words: “sociomateriality is integral, inherent, and constitutive, shaping the contours and possibilities of everyday organizing” (2008, 463). The inextricable, intertwining in-between reflects that the body is a digital data assemblage (Lupton, 2015). The entanglements in, and co-configuration of, each other, between body and digital technology, reflect a type of bodily knowing that is inclusive of haptic experience.

Bodily knowing, apart from being related to individual consciousness of the body’s physical conditions, is the understanding of and interaction with its surroundings, which are usually occupied by other bodies and objects. As Lupton notes, “[w]e experience the world as fleshly bodies, via the sensations and emotions configured through and by our bodies as they relate to other bodies and to material objects and spaces” (2017, 201). The body extends beyond its physical entity and is distributed into the inhabited space involving embodied interactions and affective responses, whereby embodiment is a relational assemblage (Lupton, 2017). While feelings are produced through interaction between self and world (Labanyi, 2010, 223), the body in environment touches and is touched.

Acknowledging that the virtual is anthropological (Boellstorff, 2008, 237), anthropological methods can be applied to investigating the world of the virtual by (re)interpreting socio-cultural relations manifested in virtual space, such as social status, gender issues, disabilities, ethnicities, class, etc. For example, scholars in videogame studies investigate bodily representations in virtual space, with focus on the presence, absence, and types of the portrayal of social groups in terms of identity, gender, and sexuality (Downs and Smith, 2005; Heintz-Knowles et al. 2001; Janz and Martis, 2007; Williams et al. 2009), and the phenomenological experiences of engaging with third-person videogames, which the player controls the game through avatars that results in control of three bodies: the avatar’s body, player’s own body, and visual perspective of a “game body” (Crick, 2011, 262).Footnote 10 Bodily actions may be conducted in actuality, yet their simulated impact virtually can achieve certain new actions created in the situated mixed reality where body capacities and boundaries can be rethought in terms of situatedness. The bodily actions conducted while comprehending the mixed environment via haptic experience produce new ‘digitised’ knowledge and become the bodily digital. The case study on digital fashion design practice is analysed to substantiate the thinking of the bodily digital whereby the body in everyday practice/life is the product of digital actions that, in turn, lead to ‘digitised’ knowledge.

Designing digital cloth requires relatively fewer intensive actions, mostly limited to the operation of computer devices, including typing on the keyboard, dragging and clicking the mouse, etc., compared to traditional methods in the process of garment making, such as sewing, stitching and cutting, which involve the participation of the whole body, where the texture of fabrics is sensed and understood mainly via touch. When touching occurs, somatosensory signals are transduced by nerves, either as the pressure felt by the designer’s fingertips pressing against the textile, or the temperature felt from the warmth of the fabric on the skin. The haptic knowledge about textiles is embedded in designers who were initially trained in traditional methods; subsequently, their bodily experience casts the approach and fosters the understanding of digital garment making. Moreover, digital clothing, which require comparatively fewer complex bodily tasks in the process of making, is done in virtual space that prompts designers to rethink their bodily boundary and capacities in the mixed (in)tangible world. There is a correlation between a simple latitude action taken with minimum muscular tension, and achieving rather complex tasks in digital space. The narrowing ‘gap’ between the body and the digital is manifested in the case of digital fashion design practice that reflects how the haptic experience is digitised, and how the digital experience is bodily digital. Designers engaging with digital data assemblages are in turn managed and manipulated by the assemblages that impact upon their ways of knowing and embodiment in their practice that is situated in mixed reality. “Technologies discipline the body to better assimilate it to their requirements, their ways of seeing, monitoring and treating human flesh” (Lupton, 2017, 203).

Fashion designers not only use 3D-technology to create digital prototyping and sampling of the garment for final visualisation, but also to think through, with and alongside the digital technologies and new media (Manovich, 2020; Hansen, 2006; Hayles, 2012), as supported by Johnston’s argument (2012) on the concept of autonomy in technology, which is originally from Kittler (1990). The digital transformation, called digital mediatisation or ‘digital fashion’ (Milne, 2019), in the investigation on fashion and its relation to digital media (Rocamora, 2017, 505), takes place in many facets, such as fashion shows, collections design and retailing, that turn the products, wearers and environments partially or entirely virtual. Although many hurdles and challenges have been identified, such as how fashion design practice can create meaningful content for digital worlds (Tepe and Koohnavard, 2023), the shift to computer-aided design (CAD), such as CLO3D and Browzwear, is becoming popular in everyday design practice. The technology enables and enhances design processes operating under the concept of greener and more sustainable design, such as the use of digital 3D software in zero-waste fashion design practice (McQuillan, 2020) and 3D virtual prototyping as a new medium and influence on design methods and visual thinking (Siersema, 2015).

The digital work, entitled The Region ‘X’, created by fashion designer Tianjiao Wang in 2022, with its theme on the human body intertwining with all things, is inspired by a movie called Annihilation (Garland, 2018). Wang is trained in traditional methods of garment making accompanied with essential knowledge and bodily skills, but has lately turned her attention to the digital field, creating collections using software. For example, the pattern cutting and silhouette of The Region ‘X’ are done by CAD and Photoshop respectively, and the virtual fabric reinforcement is manipulated in CLO3D, as shown in Fig. 1. The sagging effect of cloth as a visual experimentation is done by Cinema 4D, which allows for continuous adjustments of the garment style and shape and detailed design in the virtual environment. RIZOMUV is used to arrange and disassemble the UV and to optimise the position of the panels. Painting the surface materials of the garment is then done by Adobe Substance 3D Painter, as shown in Fig. 2. Accessories, such as hand decoration, shoes and hats, are created in Cinema 4D.

Fig. 1: The fabric reinforcement is experimented with in virtual reality.
figure 1

The visual experimentation, such as the sagging effect of cloth, is simulated in Cinema 4D. The virtual reality allows for continuous adjustments of the garment style and shape. Photo credit: Tianjiao Wang, 2023.

Fig. 2: RIZOMUV is used to arrange and disassemble the UV and to optimise the position of the panels.
figure 2

Wang experiments with painting on the surface of garment materials in Adobe Substance 3D Painter. Visually triggered ‘touch’ experience takes place in this practice. Photo credit: Tianjiao Wang, 2023.

Digital technology is used as a means of creating alternative fashion-related experiences for digital and hybrid spaces, introducing practitioners to possibilities beyond the construction of physical products through digital means. The concept has been widely implemented in contemporary fashion education; for example: new technologies are taught at fashion schools (Bain, 2022); new teaching models are associated with technology learning (Bertola and Colombi, 2021); digital skills are used in the fashion studio (Särmäkari, 2023); and body-diverse methods are used in designing dress in the digital age (Tepe, 2022). Yet, digital fashion is more than a visual festival; advanced digital technology is not a better tool than the sewing machine, for example. As shown in Wang’s case, the body interacts with and is situated in the mixed reality, where the sensorial body is in full operation and becomes bodily digital. The body is the product of digital actions and is a digital embodied being. Tactile experience, via touch and feel, which is essential for traditional designers in differentiating and selecting textures and materials that express individuality and create meanings, is significantly intertwined with visual experience in the digital space. In this sense, the texture and material of fabrics, such as wool, cotton, linen, synthetic polyester, etc., are identified by visual perception, given the capacity of CAD, such as CLO3D and Browzwear, to vividly delineate various textures on screen. In other words, the simulated materiality shown on screen is detected by visual means and ‘perceived’ by the body in front of the computer with haptic experience via touching the keypad, clicking on the mouse, etc. The digital design practice provokes the memory of bodily touching materials, which is reassured visually on screen, therefore that fabric is ‘touched’, ‘felt’ and selected. This mixed reality practice produces a type of haptic experience, which involves the visual. The intertwining of the body with mixed realities via visual and haptic experience makes the bodily digital or digital embodiment, in which ‘digitised’ knowledge is produced as the body becomes the product of digital actions (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The final look of the collection in which the design process has been carried out by virtual means all the way through.
figure 3

Photo credit: Tianjiao Wang, 2023.

Mobilising the bodily inclusive in research activity

Thinking digital technology (such as Web 3.0), humanities and contemporary theory of bodily embodiment altogether is being bodily inclusive in research activity. There are no identical bodily actions taking place, for example, among different scholars or by the same scholar in different projects, regardless of the methods used. The attention on bodily actions brings forth an alternative thought process to help with re-examining and improving incomplete research, offering a pathway other than a concrete conclusion as a traditional research outcome. Take for example Zhu’s (2021) analysis based on distance reading of 1500 review comments collected as a small fraction out of the total of 654,914 comments on the Internet platform Douban regarding the famous Chinese movie The Wandering Earth.Footnote 11 Review comments were collected solely from Douban, which means that data from other major Chinese online platforms are not taken into consideration. To go beyond Zhu’s limited conclusion on the movie, which attracted great public attention and opinion in the Douban community, the bodily inclusive approach can offer further possible work to be done in terms of the online users and the scholarly practice.

Online social media environment such as Douban have specific users in terms of gender, age, cultural background, social status, etc. as well as online behaviours that are relatively consistent. The 1500 comments were first screened and selected by Douban as the gatekeeper before being made available to viewers, including Zhu. Without an understanding of the criteria used by Douban in screening and selecting comments, that is to say, in determining what can or cannot be seen by viewers, the analysis of the 1500 comments could be misleading in reflecting the viewers’ genuine attitude towards the movie in the Douban community. Despite the current limitations of the research, thinking the bodily inclusive can alter the focus to, for instance, bodily actions of online users, who are differentiated in gender, age, cultural background and social status, moving in and out of actual and virtual space while operating and being operated by digital technologies, whereby digital bodily actions become an active part in perceiving and reflecting their perception and attitude towards the movie. There is a potential pathway for Zhu to pursue deeper understanding and to obtain further insights about the impact of the movie on the online community by focussing on the users’ bodily interactions in relation to digital technologies,Footnote 12 rather than relying on and being limited by the official screening of the comments against certain criteria and social values. For example, Piper investigates online reading concerning users’ hands (2012), that reading body in a digital environment requires greater haptic intelligence (McLaughlin, 2015). The impact of digitisation on tactility and the sensory responses of users (Mangen and Schilhab, 2012) reflects upon bodily actions. Online reading is a practice that is “material, embodied, and responsive to [the] environment” (Thomas, 2021, 2), while the reading body in actions is tactile, situated, and creative.

Bodily actions, such as extending the arm and moving the fingers to grab a cup of tea in actual space, is studied within the scope of anthropology and social science, where bodily gesture and the action sequences reflect social status, gender issues, disabilities, ethnicities, individuality, etc., while meanings and interpretations are (re)produced. While research has extended into the world of the virtual to investigate the avatar as the representation of the body and its relation to other avatars in a virtual ‘socio-cultural’ environment for example (Villani et al. 2016; Freeman and Maloney, 2021), there is a body present in front of the computer screen whose tactile experience continues, and whose digitised embodiment reflects the intimate interconnection between DH and the body. That is to say, there is scope to observe and study the situated body of Internet users, acted upon by socio-cultural institutions, and how they exercise power and behave online via concrete bodily movement. Observing and measuring bodily gestures and movements in the way the users drink, smoke, talk, etc. while clicking the mouse, touching the screen, and typing the keyboard to make/delete online comments or ‘like’ things, can provide further insights in terms of the interrelationship between online and offline behaviours.Footnote 13 Furthermore, the interrelationship is mutually impactful between digital technologies and the body as culturally embodied and historically inherited being; bodily action in front of the computer screen is a reflection of this interrelationship.

To observe and study the bodily inclusive on both the scholars who are situated in a digital environment while conducting research activities, and certain groups of people acting online as the study objects, is to think the ‘gap’ and the moment of close encounter between the body and digital technologies. In other words, in the encounter of the two, the characteristics of DH 2.0 come into play as being at once qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive and generative, as well as being immanent and lived experience. Moreover, it is foreseeable that increased interactivity and user participation enabled by Web 2.0 (Davidson, 2012) are further strengthened by Web 3.0, in which bodily experience in actual and virtual space would be no longer separable for example. Thinking body, digital technology, and humanities altogether, along with the arrival of Web 3.0, is a means to image DH 3.0 in terms of the trans-disciplinary, focussing on the concept of the digital lived encounter.

Furthermore, thinking the bodily inclusive in the process of DH activities is to say Zhu’s research is more than offering a conclusion with more or less limitation though, drawn from database analysis that is always partial and shown in visualised patterns that have to be simplified to allow wider access. Yet, a clear pathway of how the multiple decisions made and led to the conclusion is reflected on the bodily actions. For instance, the process of research involved a large number of Zhu’s bodily actions in interacting with the database that are mutually impactful and can be tracked and reviewed anytime afterwards. In other words, the making in DH practice is a creating of indexicality, a sign pointing to some aspect of its context of occurrence, where each interaction of the involved data as the context, which is selected, omitted, (re)edited and (re)ordered, projects the occurrence of bodily action in front of the computer screen. Every bodily gesture and movement taken contributes to the perception formed by the body towards the world, and impacts upon knowledge production. Therefore, Zhu’s research subject matter is ‘1500 review comments’, but it can also be equally thought that the subject is the work of Zhu’s series of bodily movements interacting with the data in real time in mixed space as an extension of Zhu’s cultural body. The making in DH practice is also the creation of human indexicality. Thinking the bodily inclusive is to acknowledge and unveil the process of knowledge production in DH practice where the constant interaction and mutual impact of operating digital technologies throughout the research is full of criticalness and decision making.

Thinking the bodily inclusive is to go beyond the earlier productive work via traditional methods, which has been erased by the process with only a conclusion at the end. There is no such a thing called ‘raw’ data that seems innocent, as data is mined, collected, stored, sorted, (re)visited, extracted, analysed, deleted and restored via and by bodily actions. There is a reshuffle and a re-ordering and therefore re-interpretion of the data every time a bodily action takes place. Hence, the bodily actions in the research process reflect and visualise the pathway of certain bodily experience gradually accumulated that contribute to the production of knowledge, apart from and along with the fixed and must-be-arrived-at ‘conclusion’ of research.


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