The Senses as Theoreticians

I mention it regularly in my presentations that noise and sound serve as critical tools for understanding urban space, not simply as objects in space-time. Anyone who reads this blog will be aware of this distinction, as I talk more about the theoretical applications of noise to urban space, than listing the sounds and noises found in Latin lit (although, I have some graphs and resources for noise/silence terms here). However, I have run into the reference that originally clued me into this point several times recently. I want to look at that reference in detail, as it seems to me to be a crucial piece that often gets overlooked, or the implications are not fully realised.

I first encountered the idea that the senses could be theoreticians in Lefebvre (of course…) and it’s worth quoting it in full:

‘The truth of space thus leads us back (and is reinforced by) a powerful Neitzschean sentiment: ‘But may the will to truth mean this to you: that everything shall be transformed into the humanly-conceivable, the humanly-evident, the humanly-palpable! You should follow your own 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.’ (The Production of Space, 399-400)

This passage is the end of chapter 6 and precedes the final chapter ‘Openings and Conclusions’. Thus, it comes at the culmination of Lefebvre’s discussion of the truth of space, over against true space, and its relation to social practices and social relations (The Production of Space, 397-400). The importance of Marx and Nietzsche for Lefebvre’s thought is well known (see Lefebvre’s La fin de l’historie (1970); Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche ou le royaume des ombres (1975); Koffman and Lebas intro in Writings on Cities (1996)) and he suggests that part of the connection between subversive Nietzschean and revolutionary Marxist thought through the truth of space. In contrast to true space, the truths of space of connect social practice to mental concepts and show how knowledge, consciousness and social practice share a common centre (The Production of Space, 399). This centre is a concentration of energies, a focus or core and a dialectic: ‘What is the ‘subject’? A momentary centre. The ‘object’? Likewise. The body? A focusing of active (productive) energies. The city? The urban sphere? Ditto’ (ibid, 399). For Lefebvre, this concentration, focus of energy and dialectical relationship emphasises centrality as key to mental and/or social space (ibid, 331-2; 399).

Centrality is defined by a ‘gathering and meeting of whatever coexists in a given space’, which makes it a form, although empty of content in itself, in geographical space (ibid, 331). This empty form of centrality also implies mobility (ibid, 332). What marks present society from ancient society is the aspiration of centrality to totality (Lefebvre refs to ancient Greece in this passage and the work of Jean-Pierre Vernant, ibid, 332). Centrality becomes centralisation in modern society. Returning to the senses as theoreticians, centrality as a spatial form, empty of content, and mobile is parallel to the sensory organs within the human body. This point needs fleshing out and for that we return to Marx’s point in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscript of 1844.

Marx’s line comes from the second manuscript, which formed an appendix titled ‘Private Property and Communism’. The section is broken into five elements in a definition of communism, although two different forms of communism are discussed. The first two points pertain to what Marx calls crude-communism and the third to fifth points relate to Marx’s own conception of communism.

For Marx, the senses, and sensory organs, are not passive receptors, simply responding to what is around them. Instead, the senses, like labour, create objects and, in the cases of the senses, reality. That is the senses are active in the creation of objects, as a historical evolution of human being (see Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis, 45-6). The senses, in this way, work on an object on the model of human labour working on raw materials. Marx makes a critical distinction between human labour and sensory perception, which is fundamental to each form of work. The distinction is that sensory transformation of the object is in terms of potential meanings, rather than the object as artefact (The Philosophy of Praxis, 46).

What Marx argues against is that in capitalist society appropriation of things is only conceived in terms of possession (Early Writings, 351-2). This is why the discussion of human senses, and sense organs, comes in the midst of the discussion of private property. Marx argues for an opening up of the concept of appropriation to include all human relations, listing ‘seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting feeling, thinking, contemplating, sensing, wanting, acting, loving’ (ibid, 351). Objects are appropriated through the senses, which does not always involve possession (in the majority of cases it does not).

Lefebvre links Marx’s idea of appropriation by the sense organs to use value and accumulation (The Production of Space, 179). The human being accumulates minimal and massive types of energy and disposes of minimal and massive amounts of energy. Sensory organs function on the level of minimal types of energy disposal, which correspond to forms of information processing (in conjunction with the brain). Massive forms of energy disposal include the muscular system or sexual organs. Lefebvre is right to note that these two forms of energy are not strictly separable (ibid, 179). This conception of the sensory organs parallels centrality as the space of accumulation of energy and its disposal in rupture, explosion or being rent apart (ibid, 332-3). What is underdeveloped in these parallel conceptions is the role of mobility and movement by the human body in the perception of space.

By comparison, Tim Ingold sets sensory perception not inside the head (an essentially mental activity ‘performed upon the raw material of sensation’, The Perception of the Environment, 244), but rather ‘sensory awareness rides on the cusp of the very movement of the world’s coming-into-being’ (ibid, 245). For Ingold, the separation of, and preference for, vision over hearing in Western thought has further reduced the role of movement in perception.

Returning to Lefebvre, these types of energy, both minimal and massive, are mobile around the human body, while the human needs stable apparatuses to capture these energies (Lefebvre’s point), the process of capturing these energies is dependent on movement (Ingold’s point). Lefebvre is less concerned with movement and, instead, interested in the relationship between the human body and space. The accumulation of energy by the human body before it acts constitutes a defining aspect of the relationship between the human and space (The Production of Space, 179). ‘Productive’ expenditure of energy is any energy expenditure that effects some change in the world (ibid, 179). For the human being, this implies a relationship to oneself, which makes this productive expenditure of energy a reproductive expenditure that constitutes social life. Movement, however, is best understood as a productive expenditure of energy, one which is guided by sensory modalities, as Ingold points out. Ingold’s emphasis on movement as the ground for perception can be aligned with Lefebvre’s argument that the human body and urban centrality are sites of accumulation of energy, which are spatial and temporal. What I suggest, and interests me, is that Lefebvre and Ingold should be read in conjunction and that movement is the process through which sensory information is accumulated in the human body from its interaction in space. The senses are the mediating organs in the process of interpreting social and mental space, and simultaneously human relationships to space. This is the production of space through the senses, which was the point we began with. The senses are theoreticians for interpreting social relationships, the mental conceptions of space and interactions between individuals in daily practices.

At the foundation of such a theoretical endeavour are movement, space and the senses. The three elements are in relationship; a dialectical relationship that includes the physical, mental and social space, which is interpreted and reproduced through the senses and movement.


  1. Feenberg (2014) The Philosophy of Praxis:Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School (Verso).
  2. Indgold (2011) The Perception of the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill (Routledge).
  3. Lefebvre (1991) The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Blackwell).
  4. Marx (1992) Early Writings. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Penguin Classics).

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