sense n. & v. * n. 1 a any of the special bodily faculties by which sensation is roused. b sensitiveness of all or any of these. 2 the ability to perceive or feel or to be conscious of the presence or properties of things. 3 (foll. by of) consciousness 8 (in pl.) a person’s sanity or normal state of mind. * v. tr. 1 perceive by a sense or senses. [Middle English from Latin sensus ‘faculty of feeling, thought, meaning’, from sentire sens- ‘feel’]
An assessment of the senses poses a number of problems. Unlike other terms and concepts in media theory and art history, the senses belong equally to science and the arts. While Aristotle, Galen, Erasistratus, and Plato drew from the seat of theimagination in order to explain the science behind sensory perception, Benjamin, Alberti, Eisenstein, and McLuhan culled from science so that they might account for the arts. Some, like the Scotsman Sir Charles Bell pursued both. Any account of the history of the senses as they pertain to media and the arts must necessarily also be an account of scientific claims made about the body. As the mediating forces between the body and the entirety of the external world, the senses are both biological and cultural, empirical and imaginative, objective and intensely personal.
Originally conceived by Aristotle, the five senses were thought to be the windows of the soul. Contemporary understanding of the nervous system, however, has expanded the field, the skin believed to be a mediator for several senses: pain, pressure, hot, and cold. While certain conditions may cause a loss of pain, or an inability to feel cold, they will not affect the sensation of pressure or heat – and vice versa. It has also been theorised that equilibrium and receptors in the circulatory system and digestive tract operate in much the same way as sight, smell, and hearing. Furthermore, modern medicine has also established that all of the various senses are attached to a central nervous system, located in the brain. The central nervous system coupled with the external stimulus of our environmental experience determines our mode of being-in-the-world. Understandably therefore, changes in sensory perception have proven to be useful fodder for the cultural critic.
sensation n. 1 the consciousness of perceiving or seeming to perceive some state or condition of one’s body or its parts or of the senses; an instance of such consciousness (lost all sensation in my left arm; the sensation of falling) 3 a a stirring of emotions of intense interest esp. among a large group of people (the news caused a sensation).
The development of urban life in the nineteenth century led many to wonder about the effect of external stimuli on the interior life of the human subject. Walking the streets of Paris, the flaneur went in search of stimulation, eager to drown his senses in the sights, sounds, and smells of the modernising city. Throughout Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal – the Ur-text of urban sensory experience – one finds reference to the various smells of perfumes, the scent and taste of wine, the cries of street mongerers and the sobs of beggars, the laughter of a newly arrived bourgeois consumer class, and the shiny look of a newly Hausmanised Paris. But this actively sought-out sensory overload can also be read as a means of steeling oneself against the inevitable changes in the cultural landscape – better to be desensitised and prepared through over-stimulation than to be taken by surprise.
desensitise v. tr. 1 reduce or destroy the sensitiveness of (photographic materials to light, a person to an allergen, etc.).
The difficulties in determining a balance between enough and too much stimulus played themselves out in the works of many turn-of-the-century artists and intellectuals: Georg Simmel, Henry David Thoreau, Edvard Munch, Sigmund Freud, and Walter Benjamin. All were wary of the changes being wrought in urban life and their effects on the human sensorium. Simmel worried that the city-dweller would be forced to retreat ever further into her own psyche in order to protect herself from the onslaught of external sensory stimulus, while Thoreau went further than simply worrying and moved to the woods where he would be better able to commune with himself – without the sensory distractions of the modern city. Munch suffered ollapse amidst the development of the modern city, while Freud did his best to help others like him to deal with their over-burdened nervous systems. And through it all, Benjamin worked to record the changes and measure cultural transformation according to corresponding alterations in sensory perception.
sensitise v. tr. 1 make sensitive. 3 make (an organism etc.) abnormally sensitive to a foreign substance.
For Benjamin, shock was experienced equally on the factory floor and in the urban mass. But while shock and sensory overload were typically viewed by his contemporaries as negative by-products of urban living, Benjamin understood shock to have revolutionary potential. Shock would provide the stimulus for an awakening of the senses to their own manipulation and this sudden awareness would prompt rebellion in the human body, in thematerial, as well as in human consciousness. According to Benjamin, the “crisis in perception” brought on by the advent of photography opened up the possibility for a re-imagining of the human sensorium and therefore a restructuring of the human experience of being-in-the-world.
Working with a similar conceptual framework, the inter-war avant-garde also sought to reprogram sensual experience according to the development of modern technology and the urban metropolis. While the Futurists emphasised an invulnerable body, free from shock due to its symbiotic relationship with machinery, Dada lost itself in the trauma of the sensual experience of modern warfare. Working somewhere between the two, Russian Constructivists sought to forge a relationship between the human body and machinery that would enhance the experience of the human sensorium rather than deaden its faculties. Constructivist projects sought to double the human body in their objects (furniture, work rooms, monuments) in order to remove the alienating and anaesthetising quality of modern urban industrial living and production. Indeed, Benjamin’s call to politicise art can be understood, through the various projects of the avant-garde, as a call to shock the human sensorium out of its protective shield of complacency through the use of aesthetics. Fascism thus becomes associated with the anaesthetised and invulnerable body while the revolution comes to mean a reawakening of the senses.
sensitive adj. & n. * adj. 1 very open to or acutely affected by external stimuli or mental impressions; having sensibility.
Theorising the relationship between art, politics, and the human sensorium, Susan Buck-Morss, by way of Terry Eagleton, returns the aesthetic to its original etymological meaning: “Aisthetikos is the ancient Greek word for that which is “perceptive by feeling.” Aisthesis is the sensory experience of perception. The original field of aesthetics is not art but reality – corporeal, material nature. Aesthetics is a form of cognition achieved through taste, touch, hearing, seeing, smell – the whole corporeal sensorium” (Buck-Morss 6). Art as aesthetics then becomes the acculturation of the senses. In fact, all media, in the strictest definition of the term, are then bound up in the world of the human sensorium, working to harden, awaken, dull, cultivate, and shock the senses. For Buck-Morss, however, this acculturation can never be total. Because the senses are also biological phenomena, programmed to serve instinctual needs (warmth, nourishment), there will always remain an “uncivilisable trace,” a mode of resistance to the coercive strategies of taste. [see synaesthesia , (2)]
sensorium n. 1 the seat of sensation, the brain, brain and spinal cord, or grey matter of these 2 Biol. The whole sensory apparatus including the nerve system.
However, while Buck-Morss, through the lens of Benjamin, understands the senses as having an autonomous dimension to their relationship with various media, others, most notably Marshall McLuhan, conceive of the media as a totalising force in which the senses are made and remade according to technological development. For McLuhan, media are the extensions of a human sensorium that does not hold on to Buck-Morss’ resistant “uncivilisable trace:” “The effects of technology … alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance” (18). While McLuhan contends that the medium is the message, that use and content are irrelevant in so far as the medium’s effect on the sensorium is concerned, Buck-Morss counters with the claim that there is no natural and overriding constitution of technology. There is indeed medium specificity – photography affects the senses in ways that painting does not – however, the potential for an awakening of anaesthetised senses lies as much in the use and content of the technology as it does in its form.
According to McLuhan, the very structure of electronic media are such that they transform the human sensorium so that it is no longer capable of being detached and alienated, as it was under the rule of mechanical and literate media. Celebrating the dawn of a new era, McLuhan writes, “In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner” (4). For McLuhan, this view of the electronic age is not a possibility but rather a structural necessity, a content that must necessarily follow form. However, the contemporary proliferation ofimages of an invulnerable body, of an impenetrable sensorium, suggest that despite our electronic era and despite the formal qualities of new media, novel methods have been devised to maintain sensory alienation and anaesthesia. Rather than promoting a mutually-participatory sensory response, many new media (the computer game, smart bombs) in fact absolve the body from the experience of empathic pain, thereby also removing the sensory dimension of the consequences of our actions – a dimension that figures prominently in McLuhan’s utopian vision of electronic media. Indeed, it will require more than a change in technological orientation to fundamentally alter the relationship between the human senses and their external stimuli.
The Committee on the History of Culture
University of Chicago
Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. Tr. John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.
Ackernman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. Random House: New York, 1990.
Aristotle. De Anima. Ed. David Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. Penguin Books: New York, 1991.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Complete Verse. Tr. Francis Scarfe. Anvil Press Poetry: London, 1986.
Benjamin,Walter. “Some Motifs in Baudelaire” in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Tr. Harry Zohn. London: Verso, 1983.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction” inIlluminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, Tr. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.
Buck-Morss, Susan. “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.” In October: The Second Decade. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Tr. James Stracey. New York: Liveright Pub. Corp., 1961.
Gordon-Taylor, Sir Gordon and E.W. Walls. Sir Charles Bell: His Life and Times. London: E.& S. Livingstone, 1958.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Tr. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.
Johansen, T.K. Aristotle and the Sense-Organs. Cambridge Classical Studies: UK, 1997.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
Proust, Marcel. A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. Paris: Galimard, 1987,
Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in Social Sciences III Selections and Selected Readings, Vol 2, 14th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Bramwell House, 1970.