Master of Arts
Theory and Criticism
This thesis investigates from a phenomenological perspective how it is that I am able to share a space with my brother, Kyle, by way of the videocalling application FaceTime. While the thesis uses the personal as a starting point, it then draws on Merleau-Ponty, the tradition of critical phenomenology, and Media Studies to argue that the one and the other can share a ‘space’ through the screen, despite that they ostensibly only have mutual access to their auditory and visual environments. Drawing heavily on Merleau-Ponty and other contemporary phenomenologists, the thesis takes space and communication to be two different sides of the same phenomenon of intercorporeality, of being in a world with others, and proposes that communication and space are not superpositional (subsequent and/or antecedent to one another; causally related), but coeval and coterminous. I argue that contrary to some recent and canonical media studies paradigms, the screen is phenomenologically neither a flattening of presence or being through the institution of a transcendental ocularcentirsm, nor the portal to another (virtual) world, and thus not emblematic of an exposure to or display of pure presence. Rather, I suggest that the screen of the videocall is the ongoing surfacing of what Lisa Guenther calls intercorporeal depth, the manifest “vision of another vision, complimentary to mine and yet irreducibly different”; indeed, I see myself as “one among other” seers, and “not as a solitary subject of experience,” even if the videocall nonetheless heightens one’s experience of geographical distance (Guenther: 2013). Ultimately, the thesis regards the computer screen as a surface that might provoke us to hesitate in the reenactment of sedimented (ocularcentric and egocentric) ways of seeing and proposes instead that a sense of sharing space can be thought through in terms of the pre-thetic, operative intentionality of Merleau-Ponty's "sensory life”. Drawing on the media theory of Laura Marks and the critical phenomenology of Alia Al-Saji, I conclude that the videocall is an instance of haptic visuality and, as such, represents an ‘affective’ or ‘rhythmic’ instance of lived ontological non-coincidence that is nonetheless a communion.
Summary for Lay Audience
Videocalling technology has become increasingly accessible across demographics. Media studies has long concerned itself with the implications of being able to communicate across distances in apparently ‘real time’—without (noticeable) delay. Still, there remain some trends in media studies whose foundational presumptions end up reducing the videocall experience to a ‘substitute’ for ‘in-person’ communication, and which presumptions in fact deny the possibility of any communication occurring in the first place. I suggest that these theories end up either painting interlocutors as isolated individuals or else reducing space to something that can never be shared. At the same time, there are also strains in media studies that take up diverse theoretical and philosophical starting points in order to describe the creative, communicational potential of digital, screen-based communications technologies. However, there remain few theorizations of contemporary videocalling communication, especially in terms of one’s experience of space, time, and embodiment. Accordingly, through a description and analysis of videocalling with my own brother, I ask how the videocall engages the senses such that interlocutors feel a sense of shared space. Specifically, I am concerned with how the videocall allows for a sense of shared space through the ostensibly limited sensory pallet of hearing and vision. I thus aim not at defining ‘communication,’ writ large; instead, through the philosophy of phenomenology, I consider how the self and the world structure one another such that the space shared over the videocall can appear as more than one which is typically regarded as virtual, sensorily deprived (or somehow ‘crippling’), or imagined. The phenomenological philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty offers a way of considering my sense of myself as always impacted and conditioned by the other’s presence before I grasp myself as my self; similarly, it allows for a way of conceiving space as more than something subjects and objects ‘occupy.’ According to both Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and his recent critical interpreters, the recognition of both presence and the senses of self and other that this entails are always co-relational. The material infrastructure of the videocall helps provoke a recognition of this foundational co-relation.
Morantz, Liam, "Alighting: A Phenomenology and Ethics of Sight and Touch in the Videocall" (2021). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 8327.
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