Reflections on Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience: Contemporary and Classical Perspectives, Part 3: Sensory Experience

‘Among the Roman’s, until their long decline, we find a powerful sense of civic involvement that connected individuals to the city. The most important pleasures were experienced within a social framework; in other words, private and public were not yet separated, and public did not yet have the unpleasant, almost ridiculous, character it has assumed in our society… [The Baths of Diocletian in Rome], covering nearly fifty-seven acres, was a small city in the City of Cities, and surrounded by a vast park. Intended to cultivate the body as well as the mind, the Roman baths are one of the most original architectural creations that history has known… Even today, the buildings themselves appear to be characterised by a degree of luxury next to which our own cultural institutions and stadiums appear to descend from barbarians and puritans, more ascetic than they are subpar.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 136-137 (emphasis mine).

Sensory experience was the last theme of the conference Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience. In the last two posts, I took up the themes of theory and methodology, which overlapped in several key ways. However, sensory experience moves the discussion outside of approaches to material and physical sources and into the realm of the sources themselves. In the previous posts, I argued for the senses as critical tools in theorising space and society. Methodologically, the senses are reflexive, requiring inventories that shift due to space and time. The senses also serve as thick descriptors of the reflexive nature of space and society. Sensory experience entails the combination of space, time and reflexivity. In a way, sensory experience is the result of a sensory theory and methodology of the body in space. To that end, let’s see where the theory and methodology of the previous posts have to lead us in terms of sensory experience.

Sensory Experience

I began, once again, with a quote from Lefebvre. In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre draws on the Roman baths as some of the ‘most original architectural creations’ of a space of enjoyment (137). As discussed in the first post, Lefebvre has a broad definition of architecture that includes the physical building as well as the feelings, desires, pleasures that it entails and the space it produces. In the context of Lefebvre’s exploration of enjoyment, the Roman baths do not have enjoyment as their goal; rather the baths allow it, prepare for it and lead it (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 151). We can easily substitute experience for enjoyment. Sensory experience is not the goal, but rather a product of the space.

The body takes the central position in this respect and Lefebvre sees this placement as requiring a new paradigm (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 150). Lefebvre suggests a ‘pedagogy of the body’ that ‘would connect the conceived to the lived (and conversely), assumes a form of qualitative knowledge still in a state of germination and promise. Rhythmanalysis, for example’ (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 149). The invocation of rhythmanalysis draws the senses and time into this pedagogy of the body, the rhythmanalist ‘thinks with his [sic] body’ (Rhythmanalysis, 21). This further elaborates the nature of Lefebvre’s tripartite division of space between the conceived and the lived. The conceived is the body, or space, of scientific knowledge of anatomy, or of physiology, which is focused on the subject, while the lived body, or space, is one of imaginary appropriation and makes symbolic use of the body’s objects (H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 39-40). The knowledge derived from the connection of the conceived and lived is sensory knowledge. Lefebvre draws on smells and musical metaphors to describe the rhythmanalist’s methods and emphasises the measurement of space by the body (Rhythmanalysis, 21, 27, 33). The senses bring with them a multiplicity of meanings (sens), which can mean ‘sense’ or ‘meanings’ (Rhythmanalysis, 32; cf. translation by Kofman and Lebas, Writings on Cities). But this is exactly the point. There are a multiplicity of senses and meanings, which the body constantly negotiates, interprets and reflects upon. Sensory experience is the multiplicity.

This sensory experience also entails a multiplicity of times. Lefebvre draws a distinction between linear and cyclical time, however temporalities extend beyond this simple division (Rhythmanalysis, 30). Doreen Massey argues for the reintegration of space and time within a conceptualisation of space-time, that is seeing the spatial form of social relations constituted in time, as well (Space, Place and Gender). Massey draws on contemporary physics to conceptualise space-time as n-dimensional (see her quotes in the previous post). By this way of thinking, social relations who constitute space are dynamic and simultaneously coexistent in time (D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 265). Time, like space, has a perceived, conceived and lived element (to use Lefebvre’s division). This is a useful way of drawing together the elements of space-time, the body and the senses into the concept of experience. The body interprets the multiplicity of sens, both meanings and senses, which constitute space-time, as sensory experiences.

To return to the Roman baths, the site is one of multiple temporalities. Daily routines of bathing were based on different times of attendance. Changes to temperature in the bathing rooms further differentiated the temporality of the space. Choice was another factor, especially choice as to which bath one attended. Other temporalities are evident, such as construction and maintenance in the inscriptions. Naming of baths connected the location with a family, person and time. Fires, extensions or contractions of the space also mark temporalities. Yet all these times, overlap with the space of the baths. The mediation of the temporality and spatiality of the bath was the sensory experience of the bath. Bathers moved through the different rooms from cold to warm, as well as from areas of activity to more passive areas. Movement serves as the basis of interpretation of the space-time of the baths. Informed by the senses, the body moved through space-time in both the present, as well as being drawn into the historical pasts and other time through interaction with inscriptions, statues, mosaics and other pieces of art. As Lefebvre notes, there was a social framework that Romans experienced, which gives clues to the way society worked (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 136). The sensory experience is implicated in the production of history through its mediation of space-time (D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 254). Here we come back to Lefebvre’s point, by way of Nietzsche and Marx, that the senses are the theoretical tools by which we produce and interpret space-time. This history of sensory experience is the history of space-time, a history of movements.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s