Friday, April 17, 2009

the sensuous sensoria

a remix of cut&pasted thoughts about the hierarchization of our senses, the hegemony of vision in the Western culture, the richness of differences between the 'sensoria' of disimilar cultures and traditions and how the senses are shaped by the media we use and other cultural factors...

What is considered a strange blurring of sensation from one perspective, is a normal and 'natural' way of perception of the world in another, and indeed many individuals and their cultures develop sensoria fundamentally different from the vision-centric modality of most Western science and culture. One revealing contrast is the thought of a former Russian on the matter:

The dictionary of the Russian language...defines the sense of touch as follows: "In reality all five senses can be reduced to one---the sense of touch. The tongue and palate sense the food; the ear, sound waves; the nose, emanations; the eyes, rays of light." That is why in all textbooks the sense of touch is always mentioned first. It means to ascertain, to perceive, by body, hand or fingers (Anonymous 1953).

As David Howes explains:

The reference to Russian textbooks treating touch first, in contrast to American psychology textbooks which always begin with sight, is confirmed by other observers (Simon 1957) and serves to highlight how the hierarchization of the senses can vary significantly even between cultures belonging to the same general tradition (here, that of "the West")...

this is related to the ideas around the 'sense ratio', developed and popularised by McLuhan (after his mentor Harold Innis and other guys) who believed that

'media were biased according to time and space. He paid particular attention to what he called the sensorium, or the effects of media on our senses, positing that media affect us by manipulating the ratio of our senses. For example, the alphabet stresses the sense of sight, which in turn causes us to think in linear, objective terms: the medium of the alphabet thus has the effect of reshaping the way in which we, collectively and individually, perceive and understand our environment.'

from 'Sensorium' Wikipedia entry

by Bobby Campbell

In addition, within the more anthropological 'sensory cultural differences department', 'The Spell of the Sensuous' by David Abrams seems an interesting and amusing reading. He is an 'ecophenomenologist' and his theories are a mixture of philoshopical thought (based in the phenomenology of perception of Merleau-Ponty) and magic (following his own experience during years of exchange with shamans and sorcerers in Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka...).

from a review of the book:

What happened? If the state of non-separation and identification with the natural world, apparently so accessible to our aboriginal ancestors and neighbours, is our natural state of being, how did he so easily lose it? Further, how have we collectively as a species so easily lost it? These are the great questions at the heart of David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous.

All the tracks he follows, and there are many, lead him to what he posits to be the single most important technological innovation our species has achieved: the phonetic alphabet. Drawing on extensive anthropological literature, he demonstrates that the way oral, pre-literate cultures experienced the world is radically different from our own. To begin with, time was (is) experienced as cyclical in nature, with great, repeating mythological stories defining the cycle of the year. No meaningful distinction was made between time and space. Story and meaning derived from and were tied indissolubly to place: the body of wisdom developed by a community, often in the form of songs and stories, represented its store of wisdom on how to live well and sustainably in its own, unique place.

... I wonder aloud if it might be possible to develop ways of using our current technological means in order to contribute to reconnect -somehow- with part? of that lost-dormant 'natural state of being'... or better said... with a revision of it, developing new-old-alternative ways of perceiving the world, closer to 'nature' and more sustainable...

When talking about the feelSpacebelt in our first meeting, Edwin mentioned the 'absolute orientation' skills of aboriginal australians... I was curious and found this article comparing aboriginal and western ways of knowing.

an aboriginal map artistic representation


  1. interesting points..

    I was thinking about different words for sensing in different languages.
    In Russian, if I remember correctly, the word for 'feeling' (чувствовать) can be used for all senses, like the word 'sensing', but used in a much less abstract way. Also I remember that the word 'слушать' means both smelling and listening.
    In French, 'sentir' means both having a feeling, feeling with your skin and smelling.
    Dutch 'voelen', German 'fühlen' and English 'to feel' is both having an inner feeling, as well as feeling with your skin.
    It would be interesting to find out how the senses are taken together by such words in other languages..

  2. it reminds me of Italian:

    'The verb ’sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ’sentirsi’ means to feel'

    I found it via an essay by Evelyn Glennie, a very inspiring percussionist who is deaf (ear-wise)...

    in Spanish 'sentir' can be used for a good number of things... mostly for general external stimuli and for pain, pleasure and other body sensations.. for hearing too... not for smelling...also when feeling sorry (lament) something... etc etc