Yesterday I finally made it to McConnells Mill state park, where I enjoyed a spectacular 12.4 mile hike on the most pleasant day of this September. The hike, which follows the Western side of the Slippery Rock Gorge, begins at Hell’s Hollow and terminates at Eckert Bridge (below). I took this picture while having lunch in the creek (safely atop a rock).
At one point during the hike, I was moving at a pretty swift pace. At a small stream crossing I planted my foot on a large rock situated at roughly a 45 degree angle. The rock was damp and I immediately felt unsure of my footing, so I froze. In an instant my body registered its uncertainty and took stock of its position, and as I stared intently at my foot I was made aware of three options. Now, as I stared–and I should say that all of this exhibits the kind of knowledge, or ‘practical competence’, discussed by Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception–my mind was pretty much empty. It was too fixated on my foot to think, but nevertheless my body knew the condition it faced. As I am a relatively experienced hiker, I kept my footing and avoided an immediate spill. Such is the nature of my habit body. The three possibilities my body faced were: 1) attempt to move ahead, apply too much pressure and risk slipping; 2) lean backward and disengage the rock; 3) maintain a balance that would enable my body to remain on the rock and eventually step forward. Sensing that the risk of slippage was too great in #1 and #3, I ‘chose’ #2. It was an act of corporeal wisdom.
In one respect, this picture represents the body as an ‘I can’, a competent and able body that is well-adjusted to its environment and capable of dealing with its demands. But on the other hand, one must also see the body in this situation as compelled by an imperative that is commanded by the environment. Lingis is getting at something like this in The Imperative (pp. 67-8), when he writes:
The imperative in our environment is received, not on our understanding in conflict with our sensuality, but on our postural schema which integrates our sensibility and mobilizes our motor forces. It is received on our sensory-motor bodies as bodies we have to center upon things that orient our movements, bodies we have to anchor on the levels down which our vision, our touch, our listening move, on which we station ourselves and move in the heart of reality. It orders our competence.
Yes, as I stood frozen on the rock I was ‘anchoring’ myself; I had to. In that moment, on the rock, it was the rock that dictated my body’s orientation. This is not to say that I was at the total mercy of the rock, for I did not succumb directly to its slick and unpredictable surface. But I must admit that my body was caught somewhere between and ‘I can’ and an ‘I can’t', which played out as a negotiation between the imperative of the trail and the know-how of my postural schema.
Well, if this isn’t a conference I’d love to participate in, I don’t know what is:
Sensory Worlds: Environment, Value and the Multi-Sensory, 7-9 December 2011
It is through our senses that we investigate, navigate and know the world around us and the other beings, forces and phenomena that constitute it in its rich and lively variety. To consider the nature of sensory being is to be confronted by questions that examine the ways in which we engage with our environments and those that interrogate the very nature of embodiment. Constantly at work and yet often undervalued, the sensorium is broader and more complex than the traditional Western classifications of the five senses allow. Intermingling and constantly shifting with our attention and experiences, our senses orient us in the world (though sometimes they also disorient us). We sense the world and are at once both part of it and other from it. Moving through a terrain, feeling the resistance of the ground beneath our feet or the push of the crowd, or smelling the fumes of diesel and the throbbing heat of a machine engine, or quietly tracing the intricate lines of wood carvings made by another hand in another time, or tasting the sharp or bitter flavours of foods unfamiliar to the palate, or re-imagining the suffered pain of an ugly injury; all such episodes and more raise the question of how our senses play a role in human flourishing and well-being. Furthermore, they illuminate the ways in which our actions, values and ways of understanding the world are rooted in our sentience – which is ever becoming and allowing of us to exceed ourselves.
Sensory Worlds engages with these and other issues; considering ‘worlds’ in a particularly ecological light in order to ask: what contribution can a sensorially-engaged Humanities make to environmental thinking and action? The conference will examine the multi-sensory and will reflect upon the historical, contemporary and possible future relations between the senses (from balance to taste to the haptic and beyond). It will be an interdisciplinary, interrogative and exploratory meeting that will make space for sensorially-engaged scholarship and practice, and will facilitate discursive and constructive meetings between a variety of scholars working on themes related to embodiment, ecology and value. Contributions are invited from those working within the humanities, arts and social sciences. We are interested in contributions that will themselves embody alternatives to the presuppositions common to Western twentieth century engagement with the world such as anthropocentrism, mind-body dualism, and isolated subjectivity.
Levi’s got a great response up to some concepts I’m using in my own work. He draws some parallels to his own branch of OOO, and shows me a thing or two about how to expand my own thinking. Check his post out here.
Michael at Archive Fire has a couple generous responses to my recent posts on sensation. You can find his remarks here and here. First, I want to say what I like about his own contribution to the discussion. Second, I’ll clarify a few things about my own position.
Michael writes: “What you want to call a thing’s “qualities” I call its immanent properties. I prefer to use the term ‘properties’ because the word ‘quality’ carries with it the connotation of ‘being perceived’ by the subject. In fact, I argue that entities are temporal assemblages of immanent properties – and thus vulnerable to a myriad of affects (assailing and being assailed) on multiple scales, and from various angles, depending on the circumstances obtaining within the wider ecology of forces, flows and things.”
I’m perfectly fine with the term ‘property’ instead of ‘quality’, and in fact I’ve used property and quality alike. Sometimes interchangeably, but now I’ll be sure to make a distinction or avoid quality altogether. As I said, I take an objects disposition to be constituted by its singular gathering of properties, or what Michael calls a ‘temporal assemblage of immanent properties’. For his part, I’d like to hear a little more about what temporality entails here, as well as why ‘immanent’ is used as a qualifier here. Are there transcendent properties of objects?
Michael also wants to know what I think objects are. Provisionally, I’ll say that objects are singular composites of properties with the power to effect sensations. Indeed, they are assemblages without a substantial core. No core is needed, properties simply hang together for some time until they can no longer do so. The identity of an object is determined by its capacity to affect other bodies. In this sense, I like Michael’s suggestion that my understanding of objects has a resonance with the Latourian notion of actant. Likewise, my understanding of objects derives from Spinoza’s conception of bodies given in Part II of the Ethics, the so-called ‘brief preface concerning the nature of bodies’ (at P13). Bodies are identified by the effects they can produce, or what they can cause. This capacity derives from their disposition, which I see as dictated by a given state of their plasticity (their capacity to give and receive form [James], or affect and be affected [Spinoza]). For me, I’d like to talk about what sensations a body can produce; the language of cause may be too strong for me. Sensations are caused, it seems, but they are more than mere effects. Their conditions of actualization require more than the presence of some sentient creature. (The language of ‘disposition’ I borrow from Stephen Mumford’s book Dispositions.)
As to the point that we need to be able to distinguish between sentient and nonsentient bodies. I agree, there must be a distinction. I think its a difference of degree, not of kind. So, on my broad definition of sensation all bodies or objects are sentient, but humans have a more complex sentience than, say, a stone. However, the sentience of humans is not more complex than a community or an ecosystem–far from it. The confederation of bodies in an ecosystem renders that system’s sentience drastically more complex and multidimensional. This is my attempt to avoid anthropocentrism about sentience, despite admitting that humans have a greater degree of sentience than stones. In addition, I’d say that humans have perception, which perhaps only some other animals have, and cognition. It is at these levels that I would distinguish them from other entities.
If you read this, Michael, I’d like to hear more of your reasons for disavowing the ‘inter-mediate gap between entities’ where qualities would appear to one or the other of these entities.
Rousseau notes the following:
‘Observe nature and follow the path is maps out for you. It exercises children constantly; it harden their temperament by tests of all sorts; it teaches them early what effort and pain are. Teething puts them in a fever; sharp colics give them convulsions; long coughs suffocate them; worms torment them; plethora corrupts their blood; various leavens ferment in it an cause perilous eruptions. Almost all the first age it sickness and danger. Half the children born perish before the eighth year. The tests passed, the child has gained strength; and as soon as he can make use of life, its principle becomes sounder’ (Bloom trans. of Emile, 47).
I’m reading Rousseau’s Emile for the first time. In Book I he discusses the physical constitution of the child and makes myriad recommendations for safeguarding the nature of this constitution. As Dewey will do a couple centuries later, he gives a significant place to habit in education. But he also acknowledges what we might call the pre-habitual plasticity of the child’s constitution: ‘Before the body’s habit is acquired, one can give it the habit one wants to give it without danger. But when it has once gained its consistency, every alteration becomes perilous for it. A child will bear changes that a man would not bear; the fibers of the former, soft and flexible, take without effort the turn that they are given; those of the man, more hardened, change only with violence the turn they have received’ (Bloom trans., 47).
Dewey, it seems to me, is thinking of impulse in the same terms that Rousseau is conceiving the child’s constitution. Beyond this, Rousseau is quite fascinating to read for all of the advice he gives about child-rearing, ranging in theme from air quality to the diet of the child’s nurse (which should be, we learn, a vegetarian one).
There are posts here and here by Larval Subjects that are no doubt attuned to my interest in granting autonomy to objects while at the same time claiming that (sensuous) relationality is constitutive of identity. Indeed, L.S. is an obvious ally for many reasons, I am slowly learning. Given that so much of my time is devoted to the dissertation and teaching, I’m doing my best catch up with his thinking, and I fear that some of my posts will merely be echoes. That’s a disclaimer.
This post stands as the first in a series of posts about the concept of sensation. Nothing like a history of the concept of sensation, save Daniel Heller-Roazen’s marvelous The Inner Touch (Zone 2007), exists. Unless I am mistaken. There is also the out-of-print Sensation and Perception: A History of the Philosophy of Perception, by D.W. Hamlyn. This book is something closer to a survey, less of a detailed conceptual history. Such a history should be written. Absent such a history, we are left to fashion an ad hoc story about the fate of sensation in the history of philosophy. It seems that after Kant sensation must remain relegated to the noumenal realm, and therefore off limits to our finite minds. On the other hand, sensations are often regarded as purely subjective, felt phenomena. They are never pure or without sense, or so we are told. This latter rendition of sensation neglects an essential feature of sensation, however, which is why I think we ought not subjectivize sensation: sensations are received. They come from elsewhere in many instances. In this way, they are objective and real in an important respect.
Then we are back to Kant. On this view, if sensations are objective, then they are unknowable. They are inferred from perception; they explain the variety of our perceptual experiences, but they never appear. It’s not satisfying to stop there. The Kantian framework calls for speculation. It is at this point that I see my own interest in sensation sympathizing with the speculative realist movement, which I first encountered reading and dialoguing with Graham Harman. Graham’s concern is with the reality and autonomy of objects, wholly apart from their dealings with humans. For my part, I want to say something about the reality and autonomy of sensations. If objects are objectively real, then the sensory content they emit must have a reality of its own. I’d like to give a quite strong sense to this reality, perhaps allowing sensations to have their own substance, even if this substance is constituted relationally.
Now, I’m not concerned with whether or not an object is really red or really blue. The point is that it has the capacity to produce a sensation of red or blue in me: it has a color power. This power is real and it is in charge of the sensations given off by the object. A phenomenologist like Merleau-Ponty will argue against the reality of sensation by pointing out that we only ever encounter meaningful, sense-full, things. The atomistic impression conjured by the empiricists just doesn’t exist at the level of perception, which is our primary mode of engagement with the external world. On this view, perception will always be one step ahead of sensation; sensation remains outside the scope of normal possible experience. There might be limit cases. For instance, hallucinogenic drugs may allow us access to genuine sensations. We don’t have separate sensation and perception so strictly to get to sensation, even if there are advantages to doing so.
First, it’s not really necessary to infer the nonexistence of sensation just because perception is primary. Perception shouldn’t be seen as a wall between us and the sensory manifold. There is no reason to not regard the qualitative content of perception as the content of sensation given that the qualitative content provokes responses in us that are not ‘meaningful’ in the usual sense of that term, but are instead affective. If we take the affective to indicate something like emotional meaning, then the qualitative is meaning-laden. Merleau-Ponty talks about the repellent nature of red, which would seem to essentialize that color’s meaning for the body. I don’t know if we can go that far, but I think he is right to note that colors do things to bodies.
Second, it’s advantageous to keep sensation completely separate from perception, in which case sensation would belong to ‘a past which has never been present’, or an a priori sensuous realm of experience. Both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas (the latter to a greater extent) acknowledge his realm. On this reading of sensation, the sensuous is constantly introducing a diachrony into what would otherwise be a synchronized relation between subject and object. This notion of synchrony is often at play in the phenomenological literature (which is the literature that I’m primarily drawing my reading from), and it gives a false sense of our material relations. This is really what’s motivating my interest in sensation, particularly the materiality of sensation. Because the phenomenological perspective is quite keen on finitude and the limits of knowledge, and because it confines itself in principle to ‘the things themselves’, it has trouble giving an adequate account of what is not ‘given’ to consciousness. Sensation is one of the great ungivens, the withheld elements of experience. But the autonomic systems of the body tell us a different story, a story which shows that sensation is not withheld from experience, just withheld from consciousness. Massumi’s first chapter in Parables for the Virtual, ‘The Autonomy of Affect’, is a good read on this.
A nonreductive account of the affective and effective dimensions of sensation is needed to qualify its autonomous functioning. Such an account will be metaphysical to the extent that it will be (a) speculative and (b) treat sensations as powers, where a power is understood as a real, nonphysical capacity to affect bodies. Given this view of sensation, we will be allowed to speak about the sensations undergone and possessed by inanimate objects. This is one of the non-anthropocentric payoffs. There are a handful of allies in this cause, including James and Dewey, Whitehead, Lingis, E. Straus, Levinas, Hippocrates, Spinoza, and Deleuze.
Be a Spinozist: ‘Children are Spinozists,” Deleuze and Guattari tell us in A Thousand Plateaus. This means, in part, that they tend to apprehend objects as assemblages, rather than as beings whose functions are specifically determined by nature (organic) or craftsmanship (inorganic). Objects are what their relations enable them to be; they are whatever they can link up with. This does not mean that objects are merely their relations. It implies that objects are imbued with more power than their substantial form contains. Is this power really possessed by the object or does its relations determine its power? Analytic metaphysicians debate this question, I have found out recently. This is a great question, a Spinozist question. In any case, the child more readily discerns possible connections, aggregates, and therefore thinks of the world of objects in terms of machines instead of organs. They don’t ask, What is the chair? They ask: What is a chair? The difference here is the difference between asking for the genus and specific difference of a chair or asking after the Form of chair, and asking what a chair can do. Not what is it made to do, but what can it do? For Spinoza this is understood as affective capacity–the capacity to affect and be affected by other objects/bodies. Children are especially adept at cataloguing the affective capacity of objects, and in virture of this their method of organization (their taxonomy) is more concrete, keyed into the imperceptible forces that join bodies into composites or tear bodies apart from one another. Children are neither Aristotelian nor phenomenologist.