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.