Overplaying the Senses

I have been working on a chapter discussing sensory approaches to Roman cities and urbanism using Pompeii as a case study. In the final section, I decided to tackle a topic I keep running into, which constantly bothers me. There is a distinctive approach to ancient cities that empahise the dirt, disease and waste as simple ways of distancing the ancient from the modern. This approach brings with it an emphasis on the ‘sordid nature’ and, if you take literary sources at face value, the smelliness of the ancient world. Now, I do not think that the ancient and modern can be directly correlated, but I also do not think we need to overplay certain senses, in this case most often smell, to makesuch claims. I have continually argued that the Romans lacked the ability to sound proof their buildings. However, this argument does not suggest that Romans were unable to acoustically differentiate space or that they were simply loud or thatthey did not care about sound and noise. That is to say, we need to be more nuanced and careful in treating the ancient world, or we risk implicitly reinforcing a view of the ancients as ‘not as smart as me’ (an implicit academic egotism, for sure). Anyways, below is that section of the chapter…

Overplaying the Senses

The discussion above has produced a city that has different geographical sensory features, but as indicated at the start, these do not correspond to generalities across the city. While individual sensory characteristics were experienced more regularly in certain areas, this does not extend beyond a certain distinct area. This is a picture of differentiation; certain senses are peaked in certain areas of the city, like the area around the Via degli Augustali. This interpretation of the sensory geography derives from the approach taken, which emphasises the kinaesethic experience of city-dwellers. Movement and mobility are at the base of such an approach and mark the city at different scales, whether the city and countryside, local neighbourhoods, or specific street segments.

However there is another line of thought that sees the city itself, especially Rome, in terms of filth and disease. This is a reading of the city founded on a lack of efficient sanitation, breeding disease, which produces nauseous smells and general detritus across the city. Drawn primarily from ancient satirical sources, especially Horace, Juvenal and Martial, mixed with anecdotal stories from the likes of Lanciani, this tradition is not new (Morley 2015, p. 112). The reading of Roman cities as unhealthy continues through the classic works of Yavetz (1958) and Scobie (1986; cf. Laurence 1997). For Scobie, in particular, a contemporary U.K. poverty survey forms the standard by which to asses Rome (1986). Rome is as the satirists describe it, filled with noise, crowds and dirt, which correspond to contemporary urban problems. In this interpretation, ancient urbanism was the carrier of contemporary urban problems and maladies, and to some scholars, therefore, loud and malodorous. This line of thought overplays the sensory impact of literary descriptions, especially in terms of sound and smell, and reads those impacts back into the archaeology. Unsurprisingly, Scobie comes to a Hobbesian conclusion that life in Rome was short and often violent (1986, p. 433). This view of Roman life has been extended to the sensory realm, suggesting that Roman cities stank with waste, dead bodies and putrid diseases (Koloski-Ostrow 2015; cf. Veitch 2017). Difference is highlighted in this interpretation, over and against the ways in which a plurality of stimuli are experienced continually by the body (Morley 2015, pp. 112-3).

In contrast, the Roman city was more than just waste, dirt and disease. The movement of goods, people and ideas went hand-in-hand with the movement of waste and disease. Mobility was central to the experience of Roman cities and what is needed is a focus on the ways these various elements (dirt, disease, waste, water, people, animals, etc.) moved through the urbanism of the Roman empire. Critical engagement with the archaeological remains enables the politics of literary moral judgements to surface without recourse to anecdotal overemphasising the sensory characteristics. Yes, Rome was loud, but that simple notion does little to help us understand the ways in which the city was experienced. In the case mentioned above, smell is used as a ‘common sense’ argument over and against nuanced interpretations. This line of reasoning brings with it limitations. The question ‘did the ancient world smell worse, than today?’ hides the more important questions of cultural, social and political judgements about everyday existence in the Roman world, paralleling the work of Bourdieu on judgements of taste (1979).

In short, Roman cities were filled with places of sensory experiences that elicited social, economic and political responses to that stimulation, which were part of the reproduction of Roman society. To be a proper Roman was to smell, sound, move, gesture and dress in a particular way that fluidly changed over time; while deviations from this were the source of literary criticism or moral degradation (see Corbiell 2004, O’Sullivan 2011, Harlow 2013, Laurence 2015). Overemphasising the senses risks limiting our understanding of ancient social relationships, reducing the complexity to straightforward readings of the literary sources. Like so many other topics, the material remains evoke complex relationships between inhabitants, environments, urban structures, which further complicate Roman, or any other, social and cultural relationships (see Urry 2003). Therefore, we need to be cautious and nuanced in applying sensory methodologies, as well as in interpreting the various forms evidence available for any given period.



Corbiell, A. (2004) Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Bourdieu, P. (1979) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Harlow, M. (2013) ‘Dressed Women on the Streets of the Ancient City: What to Wear?’ in Hemelrijk and Woolf (eds.) Women and the Roman City in the Latin West (Leiden: Brill), 225-242.

Koloski-Ostrow, A.O. (2015) ‘Roman Urban Smells: The Archaeological Evidence’ in M. Bradley (ed.) Smell and the Ancient Senses (Abingdon: Routledge), 90-109.

Laurence, R. (2015) ‘Towards a History of Mobility in Ancient Rome (300 BCE – 100 CE)’ in I. Östenberg, S. Malmberg, and J. Bjørnebye (eds.) The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome (London: Bloomsbury), 175-86.

Laurence, R. (1997) ‘Writing the Roman Metropolis’, in Parkins (ed.) Roman Urbanism: Beyond the Consumer City (London: Routledge), 1-20.

Morley, N. (2015) ‘Urban Smells and Roman Noses’, in Bradley (ed.) Smell and the Ancient Senses (Abingdon: Routledge), 110-119.

O’Sullivan, T. (2011) Walking in Roman Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Scobie, A. (1986) ‘Slums, Sanitation and Mortality in the Roman World’ Kilo 68: 399-433.

Urry, J. (2003) Mobilities (London: Polity).

Veitch, J. (2017) ‘Making Sense of Antiquity’, The Senses and Society 12: 103-108.

Yavetz, Z. (1958) ‘The living conditions of the urban plebs in republican Rome’, Latomus 17: 500-517.

Porticoes, Embodiment and Street Cries: Recent work…

Image: North Cardo Maximus, facing south, towards the forum in Ostia (Jeff Veitch)

Currently, I am working on a variety of different things all at once (presentations, publications, job applications). I have not posted here as much due to these activities and some, like job applications, are not very exciting things to discuss on the blog. However there are a couple of concepts and ideas that are worth briefly discussing, in the hopes that it will motivate me to devote more time to them in the coming months. So, here are a couple of topics swimming in my head right now…

Porticoes: I have two upcoming presentations that I am working on (details here). Originally, I had planned to write two completely separate papers on different aspects of my work (motivating me to write and formulate more particular approaches, ideas, etc). Instead, the two presentations will draw on case studies of porticoes from Ostia. In preparing these presentations, I keep returning to the experienced difference of portico architecture within the social space of streets. At a basic level, the portico is shaded and separated from the street. In auditory terms, the portico and street are different auditory fields, however the two fields influence each other. When the acoustic properties of street canyons are modelled, in instances where porticoes exist, the properties show a marked progression towards the acoustic properties of Ostia’s main street, the decumanus. In a way, certain streets approach the auditory character of the decumanus with the addition of porticoes. The chronology further emphasises the experienced character of the space, which is replicated to various degrees in other places across the city. Streets that could never reach the scale of the decumanus are able to mimic its auditory experience through more controlled and smaller scale developments. I will be testing some of these ideas this next week, when I present in Kiel, Germany.

Embodiment: Several books, lectures and writings have brought embodiment back to the forefront of what I am doing. I picked up Terry Eagleton’s new book, Materialism, and he makes a case for the importance of embodiment in Marx, as well as other forms of materialism. Tied into the emphasis on embodiment is the role of the senses as ways of measuring urban space or embodiment as site of particular forms of knowledge gleaned from the senses. These are not new ideas for me, but they are beginning to crystallise in particular ways (as well as focusing my generally scattered interests). Much of these ideas will appear in my presentations coming up, although they are primarily in the background and theory behind the presentations.

Finally, street cries: Street noise is one of the primary topics in my work and one that I continue dig into. After the winter holidays, I read through a series of books on Paris in the 18th and 19th century. Street criers, sellers and vendors were a part of the landscape of the city in that period and changes to the architecture of Paris were expressed in relation to street noise. There are some parallels with the ancient world, although comparisons need to be cautiously approached. What I find most useful, however, is the theoretical implication of much of this work, which builds bridges between social, political and economic aspects of the senses and their spatial settings. In short, as the topography of Paris changes, the sensorium likewise changes; these shifts produce different social, political and economic spatialities. Rome, I would argue, undergoes parallel changes in many ways. To say that architectural changes that alter the topography of Rome change the experience of the city is obvious. However, what need further study are the particularities of these changes.

How did the addition of porticoes change the way sellers utilised street space? What are the economic implications? Or social? Or political, for that matter? Do street traders change tactics in response to the development of porticoes along streets? Some of these questions have begun to be addressed in various ways. Sarah Bond’s new book, Trade & Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean, address aspects of social stigmas towards criers and auctioneers (praeco). In particular, Bond emphasises the changing nature of such social stigmas from the late Republic to late antiquity. The emphasis on changing stigmas, parallels my own interest in changing urban forms. In a different context, Arjan Zuiderhoek, in The Ancient City (part of the Key Themes in Ancient History series), discusses (briefly) street sellers in terms of a wider understanding of ancient cities. Zuiderhoek covers a similar longue durée of ancient history, although he highlights continuity in city formations, focusing instead more on the archaeological material and current debates. Both are recent publications, which highlight some of the areas for further investigation.

Hopefully, in the coming months some of these ideas will formulate into even more coherent research agendas, possible publications and further blog posts. In the meantime, it’s back to presentation prep and editing a chapter due by the end of the month…

Senses of the Empire is out!

Image: Senses of the Empire book cover (Routledge 2017)

Available here Table of Contents Introduction: Senses of Empire Eleanor Betts Chapter 1 The Sounds of the City: from Noise to Silence in Ancient Rome Ray Laurence Chapter 2 The Multivalency of Sensory Artefacts in the City of Rome Eleanor Betts Chapter 3 Beyond Smell: the Sensory Landscape of the Roman fullonica Miko Flohr Chapter 4 […]

via New publication: Senses of the Empire Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture — Sensory Studies in Antiquity

I have a chapter in Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture, edited by Eleanor Betts. It is an exciting volume covering a aspects of methods, theories and historical insights into sensory studies of antiquity. My chpater outlines my own methodology for assessing acoustic properties in an archaeological context. The conference in which this volume comes out of was my first foray into sensory studies approaches and it is great to see the final result (although I have not yet received my copy of the book…).

Making sense of antiquity: Review of The Senses in Antiquity series (Routledge) in The Senses & Society 12.1

Image: The Forum Romanum (Jeff Veitch)

My review of Mark Bradley and Shane Bulter’s The Senses in Antiquity book series was published in the journal The Senses and Society. I review the three books out so far (Synaesthesia, Smell, and Sight). The issue is available here (you will need institutional access). I have posted a preprint here.

Non-visual knowledge & sensory metaphors: J. Butler, A. Amin & N. Thrift, & S. Graham

I attended Judith Butler’s Houseman Lecture at UCL on Wednesday, which was recorded and should be available on YouTube soon (I’ll add a link as soon as they post the lecture). The lecture was titled ‘Kinship Trouble in The Bacchae’ and explored issues with the kinship categories in Greek tragedy. While Greek tragedy is not my specialty, contemporary discussions of social relationships and interactions in their spatial configuration and geography are relevant too much of my work.

In particular, I was struck by two points in the lecture: 1) an emphasis on non-visual forms of knowledge/recognition; and 2) the use of sensory metaphors, in particular sound metaphors, to describe the dialectic (my term) implicit in kinship relations, or social relations in general.

Non-visual forms of knowledge are at the centre of my acoustic work. The experience of acoustics, hearing a sound in a particular space, immediately tells us something about the space, in a non-visual way. Usually this is the volume of the room, a measurement gleaned from sound better than sight. At a couple of points in her lecture, Butler made reference to the inadequacy of visual recognition. Children stories are full of misunderstood kinship relations typified in the question, ‘are you my mother?’ These narratives are grounded in the requirement of audible asking, rather than visual confirmation. Related to this misrecognition, Butler pointed out that it is through sound that children are taught the first level of kinship relations in the learning of the words ‘mum’ or ‘dad’. Now, apart with learning the word the child is taught to associate it with the proper object. Here it is attaching the sound to the proper object that forms the initial recognition, which the visual signifier can be later misunderstood. This interests me as an aspect of the complexity of sensory experience and the social/cultural forms of misunderstanding or misrecognition of that experience. I found it fascinating to think about the initial teaching of the child through sound, only to later questions the visual recognition and to return to sound for proper confirmation.

Recently, I have been working on a chapter looking at sensory approaches to ancient cities and urbanism. In the writing process, I found that I was using sensory metaphors to describe unstable, continuously moving, or aspects ‘in process’. Standard discussions of archaeology rely on visual metaphors, which have stable, fixed and static connotations. In contrast, sound metaphors have more dynamic connotations. Echoes rebound off structures; resonances vibrate and energise after the initial production. Two writings drew my attention to non-visual metaphors as better modes of discourse: Amin and Thrift’s Cities: Reimagining the Urban and Graham’s chapter, ‘Counting bricks and stacking wood’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome.

In her lecture, Butler continually returned to the implicit dynamic in kinship where one alternates between feelings of love/murder and recognition/unknowing. In describing these alterations, she drew on sound metaphors, especially resonance, echo and reverberation. It seemed that these metaphors made sense of the complexity implicit in affects and social relations at the centre of kinship relations. Auditory metaphors further imply a certain methodological practice, namely reflection. That is to say, the metaphors are ground in sound reflecting off things or parallel frequencies sounding together (resonance). I have discussed my own interest in reflexivity as a methodological tool. The interactions between people and space are reflexive and shape one another simultaneously, an aspect experienced in hearing an echo or resonant note.

Amin and Thrift critically questions three standard metaphors for the city and everyday urbanism, namely the flâneur and transitivity, rhythms and rhythmanalysis, and urban footprints and naming (10-25). These metaphors, for Amin and Thrift, are used with minimal methodological clarity, although they do emphasise that the metaphors are sensory. The critique is a valid reminder of the need to use the right metaphor to clarify complex and dynamic processes, which the urban metaphors were opening up. What is worth remembering is the way metaphors can open up new ways of understanding, but that these understandings, and metaphors, need to be critiqued, as well.

In a different way, Graham (checkout his website) shows the way sensory metaphors can be used to open up new understandings of urban processes. At the outset, Graham notes the use of metaphors as conditioning the way we think about the city. In this case, the city is a living thing that is an ‘emergent feature of the way its citizens interact’ (278). Graham draws on the metaphors of background hum or noise to discuss the flows of energy (both human and material) through the city of ancient Rome. Anyone aware of my own work will immediately know my interest in such usage. Drawing on figures for man power days, materials needed and load carrying measures, Graham calculates the provisions of material, people and transport for building in Rome, which makes up the background hum of movement and work in the city. In certain instances, peaks in activity would punctuate this noise, such as imperial building projects. In my own work, I have focused on the actual noise of such construction however, when dealing with certain scales, like the whole city of Rome, the particularity of individual sounds looses its importance. Instead, the auditory metaphor allows for the focus to shift between specific activity and city scale.

Graham has also worked with sonification, which is in a way an auditory metaphor. Sonification converts data into a song and allows one to listen to the analysed data. Although self-proclaimed ‘bad’ music, Graham has set a variety of different data sets to song here (Cacophony: Bad Algorithmic Music to Muse To). This is often done with geospatial data as you can hear the changes in the song as you move geographically across a map, although you can do the same with temporal changes. At Programming Historian, Graham has a leason on the process of sonification (here). This form of data manipulation serves as an auditory metaphor, making connections and clarifying aspects implicit in data that are not visable. Again, this allows for ways of understanding to be separated from visual forms, taping into other sensory modalities to create knowledge.


Some Thoughts on 3D Models, or Putting 3D Models to Research Use

I have an unease with ‘historical reconstructions’, 3D modelling and VR/AR of historical remains that centres on questions of research (see here). This is not to say such reconstructions are ‘bad’, but they seem to be an end-in-themselves. The reconstruction is a way of visualising the total understanding of ‘X’ (whether a building, street, city, etc.) and that is that. No further questions.

However, this reduces the reconstruction to nothing more than a pretty spreadsheet. Yes, a very pretty spreadsheet, but an expensive catalogue of archaeological remains (like this). Instead, I see the ‘tool’ side of models as their primary purpose. Models can be used as a tool to critically evaluate the ancient remains in a way other forms of research do not. As an example, a friend posted this NY Times article on mapping the shadows of buildings in NYC. It is a fascinating read about the effects of the skyline in everyday choices, movements, and, most important for NYC, property values.

‘Sunlight and shadow shape the character and rhythm of New York’s public spaces. They have the power to control the flow of foot traffic on our city streets and decide which plazas hum with activity and commerce and which stay barren and desolate. And probably most noticeably, they have the power to change the rent.’ (Bui and White).

Air and sunlight are, for NYC, commodities that shape the value of a property. I was immediately drawn to Roman law. Air and sunlight were legal requirements that restricted extensions to buildings (Dig. 7.1.30; 39.2.25; 8.2.11) and Vitruvius discuss the placement of certain rooms based on seasonal sunlight patterns (De Arch. 6.3.11; 6.6.6). The importance of air and sunlight were recognised by the Romans and this importance worked its way into law. This process from lived experience to legal requirement can be seen in terms of the commodification of sunlight similar to NYC (although, not in the same capitalist sense).

In my own research, I have looked at some of the social processes (all related to sounds) that shaped the way the ancient urban environment was constructed. Sunlight is an example of a natural process (non-built) that shapes social interaction in urban space. It is that point, the non-built aspect of sunlight in relation to physical buildings that allows for models to be a critical tool. I can stand in Ostia and track the movement of the sun’s path, but by modelling the building and sun’s path, I can question building heights influence on street space, or requirement of internal lighting for room usage, or even hypothesise relative values based on direct sunlight in comparison with other buildings. The list goes on the more you think about (as I have found out…). So, with the legal requirement of light and the archaeological remains of Ostia (as well as a question from a friend), I went fishing for sun path models to apply to Roman buildings.

It did not take long to find Andrew Marsh’s blog, which has a web-based app for 3D sun path analysis. As the sun’s path is based on the geographical location of the space in question, the app uses Google earth to pull coordinates (top left in the screenshot below). There is a map of the daylight length (bottom left) and a moveable 3D model of a multifunctional urban space (right). The 3D is centred on the building in red and set on a compass so, you can orient it, if you like (I set it roughly to the orientation of the site so, I did not confuse myself).


Sun-path for the Portico di Pio IX in Ostia on 12 Jan. at 10:30am (from http://andrewmarsh.com/apps/staging/sunpath3d.html)

I selected the Portico di Pio IX on the north card maximus in Ostia (see here, here and a forthcoming chapter here) and tomorrows date (12 Jan.) at 10:30am. The day length is relatively narrow and the suns path is rather low in the sky, running from 120∘ (SE) – 240∘ (SW). This creates long shadows to the west in the morning appearing between 8:10-20, direct sunlight down the street at midday, and long shadows to the east in the evening until sunset around 16:30-40. This forms the basic outline of sunlight throughout the day (at this point in the yearly cycle).

Now, what are missing in this scenario are the buildings along the cardo maximus. The mixed-use urban space in the 3D model is instructive, but only if you know the buildings on the street (this is where models become more than pretty pictures). Now, the cardo is an open space (8 m wide and 130 m long) with two identical buildings on either side (rows of 8 shops with a portico in front). At midday (12:00), the sun would be reaching its peak, almost due south of the street. Two things come to mind; 1) this indicates that the temple (Capitolium) in the forum would receive direct sunlight to its facade and steps, while 2) casting a long shadow down the cardo. This feature would not change throughout the year, as at the summer solstice and winter solstice the sun’s position, at midday, remains in the southern region of the sky.

I also found a dynamic daylight analysis app on Marsh’s blog, which allows one to simulate daylight in a simple room (initial release so just a square room). So, I built a shop in the Portico di Pio IX and set a window to the size of the front door (as there is no ‘door’ in the model).

Screen Shot 2017-01-10 at 5.02.30 PM.png
Dynamic daylight model of a shop (Portico di Pio IX) (from http://andrewmarsh.com/apps/staging/daylight-box.html)

The shops in the Portico di Pio IX had two levels (a mezzanine space above the ground floor); the model is of the ground floor area, under the mezzanine. Again, the app allows you to mess with the orientation and you can adjust all the elements as needed. The result, shown above, is as expected. A high daylight factor (DF) in the area around the shutters with the work plane height set at 1 m. The DF range is between 2.7% and 23.9% with an average of 5.7%. The DF is the ratio of light inside to light outside the room (a calculation used in architectural design. There are slight changes to the DF ratios as the work plane changes (avg increase to 6.8% at 0.05 m from the floor) and at a work plane height of 2.135 m the DF avg drops to 4%.

As an example, I placed the work plane height at 0.85 m, which corresponds to several bar counter heights in Ostia (see Hermansen 1982). The result is interesting, or at least allows for some comment. At 3 m into the shop, the DF is in the range of 6-8%, suggesting that natural light would light a counter (as counters were under 3 m in length).

Screen Shot 2017-01-11 at 11.25.28 AM.png
Dynamic daylight in shop (Portico di Pio IX) with a work plane height of 0.85 m (highlighted in red; bar counter height) and DF contour grid in 3D. (From http://andrewmarsh.com/apps/staging/daylight-box.html)

What is missing, which will change this model, is the portico space in front of the shop. As seen in the sun-path, there will be little direct sunlight into the shops along the Portico di Pio IX. In particular, the shops on the westside will get early morning sunlight and the westside, evening sunlight. The portico will block much of the light at these times, however in the midday sun, it will provide needed shade (as anyone who has worked in Italy in August can attest). What this model does suggest is that choices, such as counter height, could be dictated by natural light, and importantly, the heating capacity of natural light. Although, in the case of the Caseggiato del Termopolio (1.2.5; the most well-known bar in Ostia) it’s counter and space orientation will never receive direct sunlight. What we might begin to see is the material remains of the ‘commodification’ (for lack of a better term) of sunlight within an ancient context.

Finally, it is worth returning to the start of this post. 3D models and reconstructions are useful and helpful for historical research. The discussion here has benefited directly from such modelling techniques, although, as stated, it was the need to move past the image, fly-through, or even simply trying to document every element within the model that drove my interest. We need to push the utility of 3D models and reconstructions for critical questioning of our own academic assumptions and start to use them for addressing new modes of enquiry and topics of interest, rather than as an end in-themselves.

KISS Inaugural Lecture, University of Kent: Alan Penn ‘Architectural Space and Social Action: How does the built environment relate to human society?’

‘Buildings, or cities, are different from different points of view.’ –A. Penn

On Wednesday, I was in Canterbury for the KISS (Kent Interdisciplinary Centre for Spatial Studies) Inaugural Lecture given by Alan Penn, Dean of the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture. The lecture introduced the concept and basic form of analysis know as Space Syntax. I have used Space Syntax in my own research and it serves as a sounding board for the acoustic analysis I undertook in my PhD. Space Syntax is one of analysing, and more importantly discussing, the micro-macro movements of people in space. That is Space Syntax analysis focuses on the relationship between a single space (room, street segment, etc.) and the whole (building, neighbourhood, region, city) in terms of movement. In this reflection, I want to draw out the way the senses serve as critical tool in interpreting the micro-macro experience of space.

To start out, I should be clear that I find Space Syntax to be a very fruitful tool to think about space. The basis of the analysis is movement through space and in time. The combination of space-time is a necessary starting point for any understanding of urban experience. In the field of Classical Archaeology, a professed ‘spatial turn’ has happened (although, many think it is just now starting). The emphasis, therefore is on space, not time. In my own work, time is just as important. Sound happens in space, but, more importantly, it happens in time. Following Doreen Massey, I seek to emphasise the combination, space-time, as the key to understanding urban soundscapes (see Massey 1994). Space Syntax has a slightly different, although parallel focus, on movement in space-time. In Space Syntax terms, ‘integration’ defines the relationship between a single space and the whole. Thus, the integration value also serves as a space-time measure, as more integrated spaces are more easily accessible.

But here I run into one of the distinctive differences between Space Syntax and my own phenomenological approach: do we experience the whole (whether building, city, region, neighbourhood)? Space Syntax seems to say yes, the whole is implicit in the particular, although the whole is made up of all possible ‘points of view’. I am hesitant to agree and I find the senses to be useful critical tools in describing my hesitation.

Sensory experience, in the broadest sense, is a made up of various sensory registers (associated with the different senses). These registers have particular distance decay rates. A sound decays by 3 dB when the distance from the sound is doubled. Smells have different decay rates, which are shorter. Sight covers the furtherest distance and is the central analytical approach in Space Syntax. The decay rate influences the total area perceived and even when all the sensory registers are combined there is a limited range. Now, the limited range is further constrained by conscious awareness. As people move through space, much of what is interpreted by the sensory systems is interpreted unconsciously, often spoken of as ‘experience’. This is not to say that it does not form knowledge, but that it forms a tacit knowledge of urban environments. In particular space-time settings, different sensory registers come into play. In way finding, sight and hearing take precedence, while in food shopping, smell and touch take on greater roles. In this sense, the ‘experience’ of space-time dictates the sensory registers in which we consciously pay attention to. This attention is often fleeting, but it does indicate the way in which human perception of ‘space-time’ as a thing is mediated by the senses. We make sense of the worlds we experience through our senses.

This guiding principle is part of the Space Syntax approach and I assume many in that community would not disagree with it. However, as a historian, as opposed to designer, architect or urban planner, I deal not with future potential, but with analysing the past. This has implications for the source materials at my disposal, as well as for the interpretive questions I bring to those sources. In many ways, this makes me less concerned with the ‘intelligibility’ of a city (a key term in Space Syntax) and more interested in response inhabitants had to the experience of ‘intelligibility’. Take hearing as an example: we will instinctively turn in the direction a sound is perceived to come from, most often based on where we expect the sound to be produced, not where the sound actually comes from. The instinct is not wrong, but built through the experience of urban space, particular objects and habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term). Getting the spatial location right is not as interesting as exploring why I looked where I did. The same goes for the ancient city. I am more interested in the way Roman authors describe places, whether intelligible or not, through their senses, as a way to understand the space of the city. This allows me to push the literary sources further and ask how that experience creates an uneven urbanism, an urbanism of certain space-times and not others, or of certain streets (or buildings, neighbourhoods, on and on…) and not others. ‘Intelligibility’ becomes a comparative tool to understand the descriptive experience, or the fashioning of the historical space-time.

Alan Penn ended with some points on architecture as a discipline and the theoretical/methodological focus, which Space Syntax brings. In particular, two points stood out, namely buildings, or cities, are non-discursive objects and configurations are relational. I make similar points through my own work and both points appear in this post. For me, these points are implicit in a sensory approach to urbanism, or architecture. Movements, sights, sounds, smells and any other sensory stimuli are the product of space-time and social activity. In this way, the senses are the non-discursive interpreters of the built environment, as well as being indicators of the relational character of urban configurations. The senses draw out these points, requiring us to think about the implications for the ancient world.

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.

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.

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).