Reflections on Sensory Theory, Methodologies and Experience: Contemporary and Classical Perspectives, Part 2: Sensory Methodologies

‘What I propose to understand by ‘architecture’ is the production of space at a specific level, ranging from furniture to gardens and parks and extending even to landscapes… This sense of the term corresponds to the way it has been used since the beginning of the twentieth century, which is to say since architects began to design furniture to express their views and present their projects on what is commonly called ‘the environment’ – although I shall be carefully avoiding this expression because it has no precise meaning and has been corrupted by abuse.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 3.

 The second theme of Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience was methodology. In many ways, the overlap between theory and methodology was constantly negotiated by presenters and respondents, which lead to fruitful points of contact and divergences. In particular, much of the discussion centred on the concept of ‘atmospheres’, drawing on the works of Tonino Griffero, Peter Zumthor and others. While I found the discussion helpful, it, at times, lacked a spatial grounding. No surprise, I was drawn to Soja, Lefebvre and Massey and I want to explore the way atmosphere might lead to methodologies which bring together senses, space and time.

Sensory Methodology

There is no singular sensory methodology, a point brought out in the range of speakers and respondents at the conference. Robin Skeates presented on fieldwork and archaeological practices from a sensory perspective, highlighting three key elements of reflexivity, inventory and thick description (Sensory Archaeology). While particular to archaeology, these three elements are useful in critically engaging with the methodologies discussed, especially the concept of atmospheres. I open this post with another quote from Lefebvre, as I find his expanded definition of architecture to be similar to atmosphere, but the crucial dimension of space is shot through Lefebvre’s redefinition. Martin Walton’s presentation (The Silent Transformations of Rosemary Lee’s Meltdown with a response by Helen Slaney) brought the challenge of the senses and space to the forefront in discussion of Rosemary Lee’s Meltdown, a choreographed performance by Dance Umbrella in London’s Brunswick Square (2011). Stillness and silence opened up affective space in urban space. As discussed in the previous post, the senses served as interpreters of the change in atmosphere of the space. The separation of ‘space’ and ‘atmosphere’ highlights the distinction implicit in the discussion, namely that the two elements were distinct. The discussion was reminiscent of Soja’s description of secondspace (Lefebvre’s conceived space), a space of imagination, reflexive thought or symbolic representation (overview in Postmetropolis, 10-12). The space was altered through the affect of the performance, or the atmosphere changed the quality of the space in the act of performance.

I like the emphasis on agency; the act of performance does something to space (as I am also keen to keep the ‘something’ ambiguous). Here reflexivity takes on importance. Atmosphere is a reflexive term, building on the social action of participants. I want to extend the reflexivity to the space of action, as well. I should note that many of the presenters and respondents would agree with this and I do not wish to imply that they were opposed to object or architectural agency. This is also at the base of Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space. Starting from the body, Lefebvre notes that there is a possibility of multiple codes and encodings (citing the visual, or the sensory, or the communication in space), without privileging any one, since there is no encoded architectural or spatial effect (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 151). The reflexivity of architecture coincides with the reflexivity of the senses (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 41). As a methodological pointer, the body as interpreter of space uses the senses to interpret atmosphere. In my own work, I stress the role of architecture, in Lefebvre’s broad definition, in social construction, while the senses are interpretive tools, which are used to analyse the process of social construction.

The reflexivity of senses, spaces and social constructions was further brought to the forefront in Matthew Nicholls’ response to Ben Jacks, who first raised atmosphere as a theoretical concept. Nicholls focused his response on his own digital reconstructions of Rome, which lack the social reflexivity implicit in atmosphere. The visual dependence of 3D reconstruction has yet to move beyond the display of already known facts of space (usually in Soja’s firstspace sense). In this way, atmosphere is completely missing from the reconstruction and spatiality is no better than a hyped-up 2D plan. This tension was brought up by Jacks in response, noting the unease he has with VR, AR and other reconstructions. My own unease comes from the reduction of lived space to what Lefebvre calls a ‘lunar landscape’ where space has lost the ability to attract and tempt the user with objects, people, encounters, or enticements and adventures, namely space without atmosphere (H. Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, 603). Or as Massey comments,

‘A first requirement of developing an alternative view of space is that we should try to get away from a notion of society as a kind of 3-D (and indeed usually 2-D) slice which moves through time… Instead of linear process counterposed to flat surface (which anyway reduces space from three to two dimensions), it is necessary to insist on the irrefutable four-dimensionality (indeed n-dimensionality) of things. Space is not static, nor time spaceless.’ –D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 264.

My own discussion of reconstruction in terms of sound requires not simply a model but the archaeological detail of the site, space or building. Materials, dimensions and construction methods, as well as decoration are all necessary in order to place sound with in the model. The same should be done for the producer, which is also a function of time, of the sound to even closely approximate the soundscape. In this way, my own method entails a fair degree of inventory, as well as reflexivity in the inventory itself. However, to only include inventory (categorisations, lists, etc) or reflexivity limits the possibilities of the methodology.

I am somewhat less inclined to thick descriptions, although I do see the use and value in Skeates’ own work (see his An Archaeology of the Senses: Prehistoric Malta). My emphasis on space and spatiality however, indicates a different form of thick description. The importance of the interaction between senses, space and society coincides with the importance of mediation. As Lefebvre states,

‘[t]here is no sensation without mediation or activity, and, therefore, no sensation as such, no sensation without appreciation with its implicit judgement. Pure sensation has never existed. Immediacy is found within the bounds of the sensory, within the indiscernible ambiguity of the sensory and the sensual. It is also found beyond it, in the unity of the sensual and the sensory of a space.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 115.

A sensory methodology, like a sensory theory, needs to grapple with the way sensory modalities mediate space and time. Space and time are at the centre of experience, which I will deal with in the following post. However, the bringing together of the senses and society in space has methodological implications for understanding senses. In particular, it is the ‘mixity’, as Doreen Massey puts it, of space, where a multiplicity of histories are brought together in specific places, that produce tacit knowledge gained through the senses (D. Massey ‘Cities in the World’, in City Worlds). In this way, the multiplicity of histories can be told as thick descriptions of space.

In a way, the senses serve as thick descriptors of space. Spatial work and architecture, in a limited sense of buildings, are mediators between the sensory and metaphysical perception and conception of objects, but fail to mediate between the sensory and the active perception of space (H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 95). Taken as thick descriptors, the senses serve to construct specific places and times, that is atmospheres. Lefebvre makes reference to this possibility in a footnote, noting that noise, as the residue of sound, can be taken as means of constructing ‘contexts for a life to be created (‘moments’)’ (H. Lefebvre, Metaphilosophy, 303 n.7). Writing thick descriptions of the senses are therefore one methodological approach, which can serve to encapsulate the complexity of senses and society for any given period.

In the next post, I turn to the theme of experience, which draws together much of the discussion from the last two posts. The role of sensory experience in theorising and formulating methodologies is central and needs further nuance than often given. The movement here from theory to method will continue to experience. In particular I have mentioned the centrality of time, the senses grounded in space-time and can serve, again, as a useful tools in understanding the experience.

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