Reflections on Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience: Contemporary and Classical Perspectives, Part 1: Sensory Theory

‘The truth of space thus leads back (and is reinforced by) a powerful Nietzschean sentiment: ‘But may the will to truth mean this to you: that everything will be transformed into the humanly-conceivable, the humanly-evident, the humanly-palpable! You should follow your senses to the end [Eure eignen Sinne sollt ihr zu Ende denken.]’ Marx, for his part, called in the Manuscripts of 1844 for the senses to become theoreticians in their own right. The revolutionary road of the human and the heroic road of the superhuman meet at the crossroads of space. Whether they then converge is another story.’ –H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 399-400 (emphasis mine).

I spent the end of last week, Friday and Saturday, at a conference titled Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience in Canterbury hosted by my own department, Classical and Archaeological Studies. The two days were full of great discussion and presentations on sensory studies from a variety of disciplines, although anthropology was notably missing. However, I walked away with several questions about the role of three themes in the title: theory, method and experience. I found myself frustrated and enlightened by the way these themes were brought together or played off one another. Here, I want to take of each in critical conversation with my own approach (I was not a presenter or respondent) to the senses. I have broken-up each theme into an individual post due to constraints of space and time. This first post will be more theoretically driven, than other posts on the blog, which deal with physics and acoustics in practice, however the conference was primarily focused on cross-disciplinary discussion and therefore much of the conversation was theoretically informed (those that know me, know that I am very at home having theoretical and theory driven conversations). I will tackle methodology and experience in the next couple of posts, although all three play off each other continually. With that, let’s jump right in!

Sensory Theory

I started with Lefebvre’s comment on Nietzsche and Marx because, for me, it offers a key clarification of sensory studies, namely do we study the ‘senses’ as objects (‘things’ in the world, categorising the smells, tastes, touches of a particular time or place) or do we use the senses as theoreticians to understand a social or cultural group? For Lefebvre, it is the latter. The senses offer tools for analysing the way space is perceived, conceived and lived (to use Lefebvre’s tripartite division). Monica Deegan, the first presenter (Researching Time, Senses and the Urban, co-presented with Astrid Swenson), brought this point to the forefront, commenting that the city, or urban, was first and foremost experienced through our bodies. The role of the body would return again and again in the discussion, but what struck me was the immediate recognition that senses overlapped, while at the same time combined to interpret the urban (or any other form of landscape). That is to say, our bodies and sensory modalities make the world cohesive, although not always in a linguistical manner. Our senses, then, are the tools used in the social production of space (to use Lefebvre’s terms again). Here, we come to one of my own interests that were only briefly touched on. If the senses are the tools for interpretation, then the senses can be theoreticians in their own right, as Marx indicated.

This requires us to set aside the categorisation of senses into lexical groupings and instead use sense perception as a theoretical approach to the ancient world (or any time period). For me, this is where the acoustic measurements are useful as spatial abstractions, which can be related to bodies in space. A particular space can be measured to indicate the way the room effects sound. This measurement will give us a numerical indication that avoids resorting to linguistical categories (like loud, quite, soft, etc.). But even more important the measurement is a direct measurement of sound produced in that space. The direct correspondence allows for the limitation of possibilities. Certain sounds will cause fundamental problems for the use of the space. These limitations will also apply to the social use of the space, as well as its sensory experience. In a way, this brings us back to the lexical categorisation, although we have to pass through the body and its sensory experience. Again, Lefebvre was already aware of this feedback loop created by space and the senses:

‘Something is adjusted to each body, precisely to the extent required. Space speaks and does what it says. Is it the human being present in such a place who receives a message from that space appropriate to its meaning – contemplation? On the contrary, wouldn’t it be space that receives the perpetually confused message of the human being in search of life and truth, and that reflects back upon him, or restores it clarified and intensified?’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 11 (emphasis mine).

 Lefebvre’s question is apt, is it space than sends a message or human beings that send messages into space? In a typical Lefebvrean manner, he says both. It is the social activity, in this case contemplation, that creates an effect, which is reflected back by the space in which contemplation takes place. Place, in this sense, becomes a space and social actions in space. But it also is the sensory perception of space, social action and time. Yi-Fu Tuan, who was referenced in Deegan’s presentation, provides a helpful reminder of the experiential aspect of place (I know I said I would deal with experience in the last post). For Tuan, ‘space’ and ‘place’ are differentiated by experience (Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience). Drawing on a conversation between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg on visiting Kronborg Castle in Denmark, in which Bohr relates the difference in feeling the castle assumes when thought of as the place where Hamlet lived, Tuan sets out to understand the aura of ‘place’ described by Bohr (Space and Place, 4). Here, again, sensory modalities are social and cultural constructs, which produce non-communicative experiences, experiences that are indescribable. In this case, sensory studies offers a way into these experiences, a way led by sensory theories (not theories about the senses, but the senses as theoreticians).

Tuan makes a distinction that connects with the Roman world, as well as being part of the discussion following the final presentation at the conference (Louise Richardson on Distinguishing Senses: Naturalism and Non-Naturalism with a response from Clare Batty and Kelli Rudolph). Space is known through movement, while place is pause (Space and Place, 6, 12, 179-83). Several presentations touched on aspects of movement, anywhere from walking to theatrical performances, to traffic and cart movements, not to mention combinations of these, such as the York Corpus Christi plays that were moving shows performed in the 14th century (Annette Kern-Stälher, Engaging the Historical Archive of Sensation). However, in the final presentation, which followed the discussion of the York plays, a presentation of non-Naturalist categorisation of senses was given (analytical philosophical approach). Richardson commented that a non-traditional categorisation of the senses, Piers Plowman’s in this instance, could be possible, but that it was unclear why ‘walking’ could be a sense. The categorisation depends on a specific definition of ‘sense’, but that was the problem. Definitions are part of the social, cultural and experiential construction of a given group. That is to say, sensory perception will be different for different social/cultural times, as well as spaces (the second being more important for me, at times). Space, as Lefebvre’s approach encapsulated in the quote above, is theorised through the senses. Abstracting the senses from space, to analytically categorise them, reduces the categorisation to box ticking (if, then statements, listing propositions, etc.). Those who know my own interests will not be surprised to hear I disagree with this line of enquiry. Senses, as spatially and socially formed, cannot be reduced to words and texts, which often fails to adequately describe sensory experience (a point made by several other participants). In this case, movement is a mode of interpretation of the environment. This is a point made by de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life:

‘[Ordinary practitioners of the city] walk—an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.’ -M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 93.

 I do not like to see movements as ‘texts’ for the exact point that de Certeau makes in the second half of the quote, that is movements cannot be read. However, it does open up the possibility to see movement as an interpretative process of spatial negotiation. In the same way the senses interpret space and time so, movement do the same.

In my own work, the idea of movement as an interpretive tool comes to the forefront when looking at the language of noise in Latin. The most common term for loud noise (strepitus) was associated with busy activity and confused movements, while silence (silentium) had the connotation of stillness and lack of movement (Veitch, Acoustics of Roman Ostia, 44). The close connection between sound and movement further emphasises the potential for the senses as theoreticians. The social construction of mobility in the Roman world produced particular movements (see J. Urry, Mobilities and R. Laurence, ‘Towards a History of Mobility in Ancient Rome’, in The Moving City). These movements were structured in the same way as sounds. The physical spaces structured movement and acoustics. In this way, by placing the physics of sound within the human body, a theory of auditory movement could be applied to the ancient world. My own PhD was the basis for my developing auditory theory, but the other senses could be offer different perspectives on the social construction of the ancient world.

In the next two posts, I will reflect on the topics of methodology and experience. In particular, I reflect on the discussion of Peter Zumthor’s concept of ‘atmospheres’ and my own desire to see architectural environments (the subtitle to Zumthor’s book) as part of Soja’s Thirdspace and Lefebvre’s expanded definition of architecture in Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. In the last post, sensory experience is taken-up and I reflect on my own unease with the term (an unease not helped by Lefebvre).


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