Margus Ott. Embodied space: metaphor and metamorphosis

Space is not something straightforward and given, it emerges from transposition and transformation. Actual space is never uniform, but contains prioritised directions that are bound to our agential needs. However, postponing the individual needs creates possibilities for rethinking and redesigning the space. This yields powerful results, although one should not get overly entangled in admiring them. These results are just fulcrums for further transformations. 

In this paper, I shall discuss the concept of embodied space and examine two aspects of space, metaphor (or transposition) and metamorphosis (or transformation). The following account is genetic, in the sense that it pays attention to the particular way that space is formed, and it is not anthropocentric, although human space has its peculiarities.

1. Body and postponement

We first need to examine the role of the body in how our concept of space is formed. Our casual understanding of space takes it as a given: space is something to be found between objects, objects are situated in space. However, we also know from the evolution of the universe that objects and distances between them have emerged gradually, starting from the Big Bang. Every entity is characterised by a certain energy and reflexivity of that energy (without which the process or object would pulverise into non-existence). An individual is formed by a cut that separates it from itself and unites it with itself. An individual is a transposition into another time and place. In this way, it transforms, i.e. differentiates itself from itself. The internal cut of an individual is likewise its external cut that separates it from others and enables individuals to interrelate with each other (by means of „forces”). An individual is transposed to others and others to it; it affects others and others affect it, and so it is transformed. 

Considering space from such a genetic viewpoint, we can see that space is always related to certain bodily capacities for action (cf. Bergson, „Matter and Memory”, Chapter 1). This eo ipso makes space heterogeneous and anisotropic: certain things fit with the capacities of the body, while others do not; some things fit in one way, while others fit in a different way. This applies with full generality to all individuals. For instance, even for a carbon atom, the environment is not uniform: carbon reacts with some atoms, but not with others; with certain kinds of atoms, it forms one kind of chemical bond, while other kinds of atoms lead to different kinds of bonds. A body is constantly in action and an acting body always highlights certain points of interest that concern its present action, all the while obscuring others.

On simpler organisational levels, these interactions with others are realised in a rather immediate way: on encountering an atom that enables a certain reaction, the reaction follows by default. The capacity is immediately folded out in action. On more complicated organisational levels, as in the case of life, the capacities for action are more varied and their unfolding more nuanced: for instance, I might react to a stimulus only if a certain other stimulus is present; or, depending on my internal context, a single kind of stimulus might initiate one among a variety of different processes (or nothing at all); or, an earlier experience might modify my default reactions (I smell food over there, but I have learned that it can be dangerous there, so I should stay away) etc. This means that the capacity is not immediately unfolded in an action, but there is a choice from a reserve of actions. This reserve creates a gap in space – a point of reference around which the whole environment is organised. This takes place always in cooperation with certain „others”, i.e., interesting aspects of the environment. 

As the diversity of possible actions increases, so does the reserve of actions. A body has always a certain degree of spontaneity, however rudimentary, and when it encounters external influences, these influences do not proceed in an even and uniform way, but they undergo a change, deviation, transformation. And if a body has a greater number of meaningful ways for relating to its surroundings, this transformation is likewise going to be more notable. Due to their language and material culture, humans possess a number of action possibilities so great that they are not forced to carry one out at any given moment, but may temporarily cease all action instead and „stop” to „think things over”. Of course, this is possible only to a certain extent and only temporarily (since actual and present-at-hand actions will never forgo us completely, but always lurk on the horizon – eventually, we willy-nilly have to go to the kitchen, toilet, etc).

This capacity for stopping, postponing the „game” also enables us to reset it. As I stop acting and start reflecting, I might realise that there are better ways to proceed, or that it would be better not to proceed at all. Withdrawing from the spacetime of ordinary action and placing oneself elsewhere (e.g., imagining myself on the top of Mt. Everest or in the Mariana Trench; reminiscing my childhood or ruminating about a gloomy future), this not-here/not-now enables me to distance myself from the here-and-now and reshape my environment (and one of the occupations that emerges from this is naturally architecture, i.e. the ability to shape one’s habitation, settlement, landscape). The transposition is maximised: I can transpose into whatever time and place; that which is transposed (a certain time and place) and its background (another time and place) become differentiated, the relocation becomes free. Such an ontological transposition is supported by language; the ontological „metaphor“ is the source of linguistic metaphors. Here, we indirectly witness pure transformation, metamorphosis itself: transformation not into this or that, but simply into other as such. 

2. Horizons

Let us examine some approaches to transposition (or, metaphor). First, in phenomenology, there is the discussion of objects and spaces being transposed to internal and external horizons.[1] At any given moment, each object I perceive is given by one of its sides, from one particular perspective, but its being as an object is not exhausted by this. By walking around the object or turning it in my hand, I am able to see its other side, and then yet another – and all these sides I attribute to the very same “object”. This is the internal horizon of the object. The “object” is a result of transposition. Thus, there is always more presented in perception than merely sides; “behind” the sides is the object “itself” with its “intrinsicality”. There is also the deep horizon of an object – I assume that the object can be divided into parts; a loaf of bread can be sliced, a pencil broken in half, a piece of sandstone crumbled. This divisibility of the object means that it is projected onto its deep horizon. Granted, quantum mechanics tells us that this process of division cannot continue indefinitely – at a certain point (i.e. when we come to the Planck scale), the divider becomes so much inseparable from the divisible that further divisions are ruled out. Objects also have an external horizon, meaning that each object forms a system with others: next to the chair, there is a desk; on the desk, there is a book; next to this room, there is a hallway; the hallway leads to other rooms in the house; outside the house, there are streets, other houses, the city; outside the city, there are highways, other cities, other continents; around the planet Earth, there is our Solar System; around that system, there is the Milky Way Galaxy; around that galaxy, there is the Universe – the last order of things. Thus, each object is transposed to an external horizon that extends to the whole Universe.

3. Transposition of being and transposition of direction

Second, Lakoff and Johnson similarly demonstrate how existing objects are themselves results of transpositions, metaphors.[2] When a child first starts to move around and manipulate her surroundings, she begins to delineate the precise contours of objects – contours that are further reinforced by the acquisition of language. For instance, these vertical and horizontal things over there belong together, they can be grabbed or moved in concert, and they are collectively known as “a chair”. Discreteness is also extended to objects that lack clear spatial boundaries, e.g., “a mountain” (for where exactly does Munamägi begin and end?); furthermore, this kind of “objecthood” can be projected to where no tactile contact is possible, e.g., “a cloud”. This enables to attribute objecthood or creaturehood even to abstract phenomena, e.g., inflation (“inflation dropped”), to delineate emotions (“love is burning in my heart”) and form “abstract” concepts that are governed by the logic of concrete objects. 

While transpositions of being establish boundaries and quantities, transpositions of direction (i.e., orientational metaphors) restructure directions. Space is not isotropic, but structured by directions of priority. My sensory, prehensile and locomotive organs are primarily forward-directed: eyes, nose, mouth; hands are most effective when used in front of the body, legs are built for moving forward. Thus, (moving in) the forward direction is particularly important, significant, valuable to us; this is likewise expressed in corresponding figures of speech: “things are moving forward”, “forward-looking”, “foremost”. The front side and forward direction involve various possibilities, but also dangers (“look ahead!”); whereas anything extraneous to that direction is “a side issue”. Or take, for instance, the metaphors good is above and bad is below (”an elevated feeling”, “the mood sunk”), which are based on the metaphors consciousness is above andunconsciousness is below: when we are healthy and active, we are upright, and our joyous mood is usually accompanied by a straight posture; whereas when sick or unconscious, we tend to lay down, and feeling sad makes us droopy. Similarly, the left side and right side are not uniform and neutral, but the right side is “right”: since most people are right-handed, their right side tends to be stronger, more dexterous, “more right” (hence the linguistic handedness-normativity that biases us against left-handed people). The left side tends to be associated with weakness and evil. Anisotropy of space is thus rooted in our language and forms the foundation of our tools for thought.

By saying that something is in front of something else, or behind something else, we are redeploying our me-here-now coordinates to someplace else, i.e., transposing to some particular other, such as that tree over there (and this is related to the intersubjectivity of cognition).[3] I am able to say that something is in “front” of the tree or “behind” the tree due to having taken the role of that tree, so to speak, or adopted its viewpoint. Note that in English (and Estonian) language, we talk as if the tree was a person facing us: the “front side” of the tree is understood to be the one turned toward us and “back side” the one that is turned away. However, there are also languages where no such rotation occurs in the redeployment of the coordinate origin, but where there is simply translation, so that the “front side” of the tree is the one further away from me and “back side” the one that I can see; the tree is, so to speak, facing the same direction as I am. On the other hand, I could also consider myself as a tree – for instance, the Estonian word for “near” is “juures”,which is associated with the word “juur”, i.e., “root”; thus, in order to say in Estonian that something is near me, it is as if I become a tree and consider the extent of my roots.

Embodied spatial experience is not limited to the physical domain, but underlies all of our thinking and cognition – in this sense, culture as such can be understood to consist in “spatial design” or “architecture”, transpositions from immediate psycho-physiological experiences and surroundings to various “other” places.

4. Intersubjectivity 

Let us examine some further important aspects of spatial transposition: intersubjectivity, enactivity, emotivity and temporality.

We do not experience the world as something that is there simply for us, but also there for others – i.e., we experience the world as given to other subjects as well. This is not an experiential horizon, but rather a modification in the structure of experience itself, thus rendering it reflexive: this rattlebox exists not merely for me, but also for my mother (transposition to transposition). It is not that I infer my mother’s subjectivity from my own subjectivity that is somehow given beforehand – rather, “I” and “the other” both coagulate out of the volatile primordial experience as its poles, so that I gradually start to distinguish more clearly what belongs to “me” and what belongs to the “other”. These “others” also exhibit spontaneity and initiative in their actions – primarily other people, but also other creatures, such as pets. And even simple material objects with their resistibility, self-sufficiency appear to exhibit some kind of selfhood – and this observation is the foundation for embryonic “animism” and all forms of play, for any given thing can become any other thing. A book can be a bear, a pen can be a rabbit. Furthermore, the object of reference is not some actual bear or rabbit, but the child relates to a more volatile “self” that can be summoned (in “play”) in the form of any kind of being whatsoever – a being that also retains something of this virtual plasticity and transformability. A book-bear can become a book-house. Thus, the experience of objects and spaces is intersubjective from the outset, and this intersubjectivity is not limited to human subjects, but includes other living creatures and even all the other beings as well.

5. Enactivity

Objectual and spatial cognition is not disembodied and contemplative, but proceeds in an enactive, sensorimotor, embedded way. I shake the rattlebox in my hand, examine it from its various sides, try to bite it. Space is the playground of an embodied, enactive, goal-directed being. It is not isomorphic or isotropic, but laced with points of interest and affordances. Even when simply sitting in my room, I am surrounded by a range of meaningful elements, all of which comprise action plans. In front of me, there is a window that enables me to look outside; under my hands, there is a table where I can place things; behind me, there is a bed that enables me to lay down and a door that enables me to leave the room. Standing in a place, I am instantly able to grasp all the ways I could move around in it, all the possible trajectories I might pass through, and a wide range of other parameters of mobility: whether the surface is hard or soft, slippery or rough (so when I encounter ice, I switch to the specific gait for walking on ice), flat or sloped, dry or puddled, clear or thickety, etc. Such anticipations might turn out to be misleading – we might end up stepping on a presumedly solid surface that nevertheless breaks, etc. Still, we cannot help but project our anticipations and adjust our bodies accordingly: now I need to climb the stairs; over here it might be slippery; over there I might smell something (e.g., when passing by the food district); around the corner, it could be windy, so I need to lean against the squall, etc.

I do not simply inhabit space as it is, but always do it (at least in a certain sense and on a certain level) with some goal in mind. Human beings are complex enough to be capable of seemingly not having any desires, simply whiling away idle moments, doing nothing and rebuffing anything of interest that one’s surroundings might present. Yet, even in such an idle state, there are still random thoughts, memories, dreams whirling around in one’s head (thus, the person is still acting, even if the action is “internal”), and the person is still surrounded by space, complete with its lures and possibilities, ready to come out of its latency at any given moment. And, sooner or later, this moment will inevitably come. The person becomes hungry, needs to go to the toilet, etc. She gets herself up, goes to the kitchen, to the bathroom, goes to get the kids from the kindergarten, etc. It is not that contemplation is primary and action something optional, but vice versa – action is primary and has to explain this truly distinctive capacity for deliberate idleness, or, more generally, the capacity of postponing explicit action in order to act implicitly (think, imagine, recollect, etc.) instead. On the other hand, such temporary postponement opens up possibilities of transposition and rethinking, transformation.

6. Emotion

Space is always emotionally charged, or, has a certain affective background. We already saw that space is anisotropic, with objects and directions of interest highlighted, and others downplayed; let us now add that these interests and preferences are always felt preferences – they matter to me in a bodily way, as expressed in some feeling (joy, sadness, excitement, listlessness, etc.). Uniform space that lacks any emotional charge whatsoever is inconceivable. Existence is always in some kind of contact with itself, it “feels” itself. Being matters to us, we “feel” being, we feel ourselves as beings and also our being itself. Just like our muscles have a certain “tonicity” that enables us to act, we also possess an emotional “tonicity”, tuning or mood that makes us capable of feeling.

As I exist, I cannot help but encounter other subjects and objects. In such encounters, my mind goes into motion (as described in traditional Chinese epistemology – see, e.g., “Record of Music” Yueji 樂記): there is the motion of my senses (i.e., they perceive) and motion of my mind (i.e., it feels, emotes). While, etymologically speaking, e-motion is “outwards-moving”, according to the Chinese account we should instead talk of immotion, “inwards-moving”, i.e., where something external generates a movement on the “inside”, a “motion of the mind”.

Thus, experienced space is always emotionally charged: colours, shapes, lines, beings constantly modulate my feelings. Red and jagged figures excite, green and smooth ones soothe. Looking at living plants generates a feeling of harmony. Trudging up the stairs of a building with a high socle and statuary pillars makes you feel small and humble. A spatial designer literally shapes our feelings.

7. Time, transformation

All the spatial transpositions that we described above have a temporal dimension. All the possibilities that appear in visible space are temporal possibilities: objects that are closer signify that I can reach them more quickly, while objects that are further away can be reached more slowly. Space delineates the future that I need to keep track of in order to get by. My internal modifications (hunger, the need to go to bathroom, etc.) determine what I require of space; external modifications in space (the bear is getting nearer) signal imminent future modifications to me (the bear could attack me). And this future is drawn out on the backdrop of the entirety of my past and life experience.

I am transforming, undergoing a metamorphosis, and this means that I never coincide with who I am right now, but constantly exceed it. This excess or surplus is expressed in the range of my action possibilities (e.g., as a carbon atom, I can react with both oxygen and hydrogen). In the case of a human being, this excess is sufficiently extensive and self-consistent that it need not be discharged in action, but could be postponed, in order to remain in pure transformation, metamorphosis. Not becoming into this or that, but simply other as such. It is precisely this capacity that enables humans to perform such wide and loose transpositions or metaphors: to distinguish “objects” around themselves and project objecthood also to intangible matters (clouds, feelings, thoughts, time, etc.), enhancing their abilities to manipulate and rearrange. This is what guarantees our success, but in doing so, it can also easily subject us under its control and leave us stuck marvelling at the (spectacular) achievements. For this reason, we should constantly keep turning back to transformation itself: „Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Ro 12:2), „objectify the objects, but do not let yourself be objectified by them” (物物而不物於物, „Zhuangzi“, Chapter 20), for “he who objectifies the objects is not an object” (物物者之非物, Chapter 11). 

In conclusion, as we ventured beyond the casual understanding of space, we encountered aspects of space and spatial design such as embodiment, sensorimotoricity, emotivity, transpositionality, temporality, transformation. Space is a metaphor, and metaphor is metamorphosis. The products of metamorphosis are always certain present-at-hand objects and states of affairs, which inevitably gives rise to product fetishism, drawing one’s attention from the transformation itself to its mere outputs. Since architecture often produces objects that last for a long period of time, it is a field that involves an even greater risk of this kind of bewitchment.

MARGUS OTT is a philosopher.

PHOTOS by Tõnu Tunnel.

PUBLISHED in Maja’s 2019 winter edition (No 95).

[1] See: Tõnu Viik, „Fenomenoloogia: sissejuhatus“. – Epp Annus (ed.). 20. sajandi mõttevoolud, Tartu Ülikooli kirjastus, 2009, pp. 215−228.

[2] See: George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, „Metaphors We Live By”, 1980. Lakoff and Johnson call these “ontological metaphors“; however, a more suitable label would be „ontic“, from the Greek term on/ontos, „being“.

[3] The same applies with relocating the temporal point of origin: “before” or “after” some past or future event.

[4] Concerning the architecture of impermanence, see: Kamo no Chōmei, „An Account of My Hut“.