It's not just the eyes that have it

May 5, 2006

The academy was for centuries blind to anything that could not be rendered into text, but a 'sensory' revolution is afoot, discovers Sara Wajid

When I asked Sukhdev Sandhu to write about a Muslim vernacular in the urban landscape last year for a book that I was editing, he insisted we walk.

"Our anthropology of Asian ruins will be conducted by foot," he later wrote in I'll Get My Coat . "We want, more than anything, to walk. Roaming, wandering, being a flâneur : these are meant to be the preserve of the Euro aesthete. Few of our Asian friends like walking; they share a trace memory of those grim days back in the 1960s and 1970s when every journey to school or to the cash-and-carry store in town was fraught with danger. Subway attacks and casual peltings were common. So were catcalls and volleys of abuse. We kept our heads down, quickened our step, scurried away... Our parents didn't have cars in those days... Now, we have relatives whose initials are BMW. They're auto-crazy low-rider fans who cruise around city centres with the bass turned up. They believe walking is for the servile and the damned. We, however, are not scared of corns."

Sandhu seemed happiest when scurrying into stinky alleyways of Stoke Newington or sitting in a Manningham street eating masala fish and greasy chips out of paper with his hands. His "sensory model" for the book was a corner of carpet in his uncle's living room that he and his brother secretly weed on as children and that unlocked potent memories for him whenever he went to the house as an adult. He felt that our engagement with the city should be like sniffing that carpet, and you can't smell through a car window.

I see now that Sandhu was trying to reinvigorate an enfeebled British Asian sensorium, and the resulting book was part of what anthropologist David Howes, editor of the Berg Sensory Formation Series, calls the "sensual revolution" in social sciences.

"This revolution in the study of perception highlights the fact that the senses are constructed and lived differently in different societies and periods. The perceptual is cultural and political, and not simply (as psychologists and neuroscientists would have it) a matter of cognitive processes or neurological mechanisms located in the individual subject," he says.

"Sensual scholars" such as Howes write with evangelical zeal about the joy of reclaiming the full spectrum of the senses from an "eye-minded" academy, which renders everything from meals to sex a text to be read, rather than sensed. Over the past decade, there has been a groundswell of conferences, book series and a new journal, The Senses and Society . Howes portrays the social sciences as the intellectual equivalent of the Morlock tribe of H. G. Wells's Time Machine - they live underground and have lost two of their five senses through lack of use.

The interdisciplinary approach of sensory studies attracts scholars from anthropology, sociology, cultural geography, philosophy, literary and cultural studies. One of the most fertile areas of research is a refreshed "sensing" (not reading!) of the city. A year-long exhibition that began last September, Sense of the City - An Alternate Approach to Urbanism at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal and an associated book, has harnessed much of this work.

In his essay Architecture of the Senses , Howes explains: "In pre-modernity, the senses were considered as a set, and each sense was correlated to a different element: sight to fire and light, hearing to air, smell to vapour, taste to water and touch to earth. All of these senses, like all of the elements, were integral to the epistemology and ontology of the universe. This elemental understanding of the architecture of the senses came undone during the Enlightenment, when the association of vision with reason became entrenched, and the progressive rationalisation of society became identified with the increasing visualisation of society and space."

For Howes it has taken "an ideological revolution to turn the tables and recover a full-bodied understanding of culture and experience".

British Asians are not the only ones who don't walk in or make full sense of the city.

According to cultural historian Constance Classen, as late as the end of the 19th century most city dwellers walked the three or four miles to work - just a century later most city folk barely walk at all on a daily basis.

"Such lengthy daily walks would give one a much more intimate sense of the environment than is possible with a car or bus ride. Hence one's sense of the city comes not just from its physical features, but from one's own social location and practices."

Despite the sensuous revolution, visual cultural studies, particularly in relation to the city, has never been stronger. Paul Halliday, who runs the enormously popular MA in photography and urban cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, knows this well. He qualifies the accusation of a "visual hegemony" saying: "Sometimes critical theoreticians look for something to revolt against in order to make something new. In the project to expand the sensorium, we should accept that people such as architects will bring their own ingrained sense of the visual, and that maybe the primacy of the visual is for a good reason.

"There has been a real increase in interest (from students) in what an interdisciplinary approach can offer them. They want to know more about soundscapes and how all this can inform their visual practice. An awareness of the sensorium runs throughout our course, and we encourage people to problematise the primacy of the visual. Students have been doing work around touch with a calligraphic project. I've certainly always looked at my practice (as a film-maker) as linked to the idea of sensorium. The whole realm of digital media is really mindblowing now that we're dealing with digital convergence and seeing practitioners who are using everything.

"The anger against the visual is the anger of the logocentric academic tradition not fully coming to terms with its own sense of obsolescence.

It's part of the crisis in critical theory - we are moving to another new kind of sensorium (with an emphasis on the audiovisual), and there is a fear of writing itself becoming increasingly obsolete."

This is something neurobiologist Baroness Greenfield recently raised in a House of Lords speech about how modern technology's reliance on the visual over the written word might alter human brains.

Howes disagrees. "Paul Halliday is doing important work, the Goldsmiths programme is justly famous, but he remains caught in the age-old dialectic between logocentrism and ocularcentrism, word and image. Visual culture studies privileges the latter term in each of these pairs, and because we live in a civilisation of the image, its star is in the ascendant, within and without the academy. The point of sensory studies, however, is to circumvent this dialectic and start engaging with the multisensory richness of the world around us. Different cultures and historical periods present different sensory ratios: the audiovisual is but one combination among many. The sensuous exploration of the urban landscape yields many pleasures, and also many meanings that never register in the viewfinder of a camera. Rather than extending the gaze (at the expense of the word, but also at the expense of the non-visual senses), sensory studies stands for multisensory processing. After all, most objects and events in the 'real world' are specified by multiple senses, and such sensory interactivity deserves to be recognised and explored rather than ignored. Sensory studies refuses to side with either the forces of logocentrism or those of ocularcentrism."

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