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Losing Touch with the World

In a world replete with sensory delights, the mere thought of relinquishing one of its eponymous modalities to the ravages of disease or physical trauma is inconceivable. By large, many who come to know and understand the world through a Western-model of the five senses gravely underestimate their ability to cope in the absence of one. As “knowing” of the world in and of itself – that is, as an entity whose very nature and operation is an inherent part of its denizens being – is ostensibly a tacit process from birth, and, most irrefutably, one which is taken for granted, I cannot help but posit that in the context of an anthropology of the senses, the presence or absence of a particular sense and the particular, subjective experiential consonance that follows it (or precedes it), is analogous to the tenets of ethnographic research. On the consensual premise that much our personal and shared experience(s) is/are governed by and through our sense of vision, the idea of a non-visual mediation of our environment – at least to the majority privileged with sight – poorly resonates if one is accustomed to a predominant appraisal of their world through that one mode of understanding. Ethnographic research accounts in the field of anthropology seek to bracket and subvert the taken-for-granted assumptions of a hegemonic, phenomenal understanding through observing and participating in the cultural practices and shaping of perspectives of those who employ or discount this phenomenon. Comparatively, bracketing an element of our sensorium, and thinking of what it would mean to lose – and possibly reclaim – a given sense, leads us to examine the shaping and reshaping of what may be thought of as objectively-shared perception.

G-d forbid that I should lose one of my senses, either completely or to varying degree, the importance of that sense is contingent on how I have come to define and contextualize my understanding of the world and personal being; my short-term goals and future aspirations, and my current standard of living. In my instance, it is done so predominantly through sight. As a loss of tactility – and more often than not, the natural mobility that accompanies it – can be localized to particular bodily segments (i.e. legs, torso, arms), perhaps for the majority without profound, long-term psychological implications (though this question will remain unfounded in the context of this response), I would be more so inclined, however unpalatable the thought, to relinquish this sense above others as one that is less demanding of recourse. While initial grievances may run strong, and my accessibility to public services and private functions would be rendered limited, how I function, perceive and make sense in and of the world, though temporarily embittered, would largely remain the same, albeit with some changes to physical interaction.  It would not require me to “re-learn” the world and its constituent parts through a consonance of other means (i.e. senses) I am less attuned to, especially as the human brain’s neuroplasticity decreases with age, and impediments toward my life chances and overall enjoyment of life could be mitigated by the advent of prostheses and assistive technologies that have devoted so much attention to restoring public accessibility.

However, it does not go without saying that some of the everyday tactile pleasures so often taken for granted would be lamented over.

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Do you see what I hear?

The acoustic realm of ethnographic research has often been relegated as sub-par relative to the near-ordained tenets of visual acuity, intimating that which is seen and touched with that which exists. It is not striking, then, that the exoteric corporeality of the world should dominate the imperceptible – that is, our inability to directly sense the presence of what may or may not be present. Sound as an omnipresent phenomenon is instilled with a duality of intention and disruption; it may be readily apparent or concealed by the limitations of human physiology. One thing holds consistent, however, and that is through the ethos of modernity, the transient nature of soundscapes are elucidated upon as sites which generate authentic meaning, “sense or nonsense” (Schwartz, 1995:12).

In his anthropological report on immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography, Stefan Helmreich (2007) examines the seafloor off the Pacific Northwest coast in the three-person submersible Alvin in an attempt to demonstrate how both “interior and exterior soundscapes [i.e. within and outside of the submarine, respectively] create a sense of immersion” (621). Most interestingly is his borrowed notion of Donna Haraway’s “cyborg” to the affect of Alvin as part of an information dynamic[s] (628). By this regard, the cyborg is an augmentation of the human sensorium, enabling our ranged sensory capacities to perceive what was formerly imperceptible unaided, in this case, the mapping of a percolating submarine volcano through the transduction of reflected sound waves into visual data (624-625). It is these alternate representations of reality that pique my curiosity.

An authentic representation of the world – in both its micro-and-macroscopic edifices – through employing our senses alone is a near impossible feat. I take “authentic” in this regard to mean experiencing through the traditional sense most commonly associated with its respective stimulus, for example, the cogent audibility of sound waves through human ears. Furthermore, if we are to retain a definition of transduction as the conversion of variations in one medium to corresponding with those of another (622), especially within those which cannot be witnessed directly, then how do we, beyond a reasonable doubt, validate our inferences of secondary observation of that which has been transduced, or rather, transformed? Is it truly possible to capture the complete and natural essence of anything when we consign the role of our senses to prostheses, or do we risk forgoing a crucial element of the human experience? By no means is this to suggest that these particular representations fall under the umbrella of simulacra, but rather invite further discussion on epistemological and sensory discourses.

Making Sense of it All

I remember growing up, my mother used to tell us kids to walk properly and not to walk in a shifty way

My grandparents (who are Christian) would always tell me that cleanliness is next to godliness

I tried to understand in my own terms what this could mean

In kindergarten, I was always taught to explore with my imagination and creativity using all the senses possible

How can one truly get an adequate and whole sense of our world by observing it through only one sense? How can it truly be valued and appreciated if we don’t really “know” the object?

When you’re aware of more than your ordinary senses you look at things differently

Create a new sensory experience

Listen to your body, and recognize what your body does

Because quite frankly, people are becoming dull!!

Who really is the judge of what scents mean?

It occurs to me that the Church would devalue sight because it cannot be used to confirm the presence of a god or instill faith. Perhaps smell was privileged during this highly religious period in Western history because, as Classens article explains, it was tied to God

Do I recognize good smells as a sign of cleanliness because it’s a personal preference or is my association so deeply shaped by society that it is simply just an outcome of what I was taught to believe

How much the smell of the leaves outside excites me for Halloween or that when the snow falls in December it’s time for Christmas

I am transcended by the power of smell[6], my mood is enhanced, memories and emotions are triggered, and the line we tend to draw between feelings and physical sensations (Geurts 2002:180) is blurred

The odor of sanctity allows one to take a leap of faith to the non-rational where things cannot be explained in rational logical terms but rather metaphorical depictions that are understood through our sense of sight- what is one without the other? It’s like bread without butter

By deodorizing and odourizing nearly everything there is today, we loose natural scents of things such like what Howes recognized in the mid-eighteenth century. Is this a bad thing?

To ignore your sense of smell is to ignore a part of the world around you

We tend to follow the crowd and restrict our senses depending on what the media or society instructs us to do

This is madness because overtime one does not know who he/she truly is

Our society tends to associate the normative with the natural

In the West, I feel that there’s an attempt to establish a “sameness”—or in the words of Howes in “The Decline of Smelling”—a “blandness”; standards, which, if we deviate from, are considered “other” at best

How can one truly get an adequate and whole sense of our world by observing it through only one sense? How can it truly be valued and appreciated if we don’t really “know” the object?

Can we find the poetry in an object

I come from an Italian decent, and often I find the simplest thing difficult to describe to one in an English language. Yes, the stereotype is true; Italians love to talk with their hands!

 It wasn’t just a feeling, it was more than that, all the emotions she described, the feelings she got, how could it be just a rock?

Who is to say that one should not or could not see music, or hear colour or taste through their eyes

Are emotions—like seselelame suggests—interwoven with consciousness and cognition?

Feel the surprising lightness of a hefty-looking cane, sense the rhythm of knots on the strings of a colourful Incan quipu (a recording device), smell the sanctity surrounding a relic that once belonged to a saint, hold a sea captain’s log and tasting its mustiness on your tongue

As the world continues to be in constant movement, we are better off looking at it through the dynamic prism of holism and appreciation

Working Your Senses

Much like that of Desjarlais’ “Twenty-Seven Ways of Looking at Vision”, the following is a personal ethnographic narrative based on a brief, three-hour sensory experience with a culturally-Western “artifact”, and attempts to subvert the normative applications of the traditional five senses (though not exhaustively) through bracketing the tacit assumptions associated with the artifact itself and its contextual pertinence.

First impressions of the artifact presented to me were those of a visual nature and far beyond the realm of any practical usage in my everyday life. This observation was presupposed on my past association with objects of the same category (i.e. plush toys), recognizable by their distinctive caricaturizations, including disproportionate features relative to the animal or creature it is meant to portray (anatomically speaking), as well as a friendly disposition intent in mitigating any hostility affiliated with such a creature. The plush was that of a single-humped camel, with dimensions approximating 1’x8”x6”. While its live-action counterpart is not wildly present in North America, limited to the confines of zoos and caretakers, it nonetheless remains a pedagogical part of regional differentiation, reinforced through various descriptive and visual mediums of literature and television. The top of its torso is draped in a small woven blanket adorned in shades of red and gold; traditional colours incorporated in the garb of Middle-Eastern royalty (or so I have been led to presume). I noticed a variety of textures on the toy, and although not feeling them as of yet, I assume their kinesthetic properties based on previous experiences with different objects of a similar composition, such as decorative throw pillows commonly found in house-wares stores. The manufacturer’s label reads “Designed and created by ‘Bambino’ Dubai; Polyester Fiber Contents; For Ages 3 and Up; Made in China”.

This assumption was validated upon touching the camel with my hands. These textures are primarily soft and smooth when stroking the camel in one direction (top to bottom along the neck and front to back on the torso), yet when done so in the opposite directions, the texture is slightly rougher. I also observed a slight gradient in colour during the latter from a light shade of beige to a tinted one. Curiously, I inspected the camel by orienting it in a number of directions to see whether this change in colour was consistently uniform, realizing that it was the result of interplay between light and shadow, and that the colour had in fact remained as a neutral shade.

I squeezed the camel’s torso noticing that the fibers it is comprised of have a degree of retention to them, and rationalized this durability based on the aforementioned intended age group and their near-pathological indelicacy with most everything. Upon feeling the legs, I discovered that the toy is structured around a skeletal frame comprised of what I assumed to be a series of hard plastic joints that run through the torso and toward the base of the neck, though this remained unconfirmed as I was not granted the option of dissecting the plush for further analysis. This frame is otherwise not visible nor is it readily apparent upon first touch. Fidgeting with the limbs, the jointed structure appears capable of contorting and holding its shape at the whim of the user, which led to some amusing poses made by me out of inevitable boredom. Upon solicitation from a colleague, I proceeded to – though reluctantly – discretely taste the camel’s “hair” so as to engage the complete modalities of my sensorium. It was bland, for lack of a better word. I smelled it, noticing a clean, fresh scent, bordering on what I would describe as “sweet”, regardless of whether that was an accurate description or not. I shook the plush to see whether it had any audible components, of which it did not, though when I dropped it on the floor it made a slight “thud” sound.

My lack of mental stimulation with the mundane plush impelled me to find more creative uses for it. I extended both its front and hind legs in their respective directions, and discovered that when tossed in the air, it was quite aerodynamic, somersaulting with a near-perfect center of gravity. I then extended the legs outward to the sides of its torso and attempted to balance it on my head, which I was able to do with little hassle.

Some of the main challenges associated with communicating to another in writing were particular ineffable, abstract sensations that are best experienced first-hand to truly resonate with, such as describing what “clean” and “fresh” smell like, using the analog of “sweet” to best convey this sensation. Even so, this prosaic description goes unmerited in realizing the subjectivity of sensory experience and the descriptive limitations of the English language, and that my personal interpretation is not necessarily reflective of the object’s positive reality. I grew nostalgic when telling others that I had the opportunity to ride a camel through the Negev dessert several years ago, attempting to explain that their legs “fold in” on themselves to raise and lower riders, though without a visual model to refer to, this proved slightly difficult. As an experiential-participatory journey, the challenge was conveying its intended function to others, which left them somewhat bewildered when taking them through the sensory experience I had. This had me thinking: could this plush toy, and all other toys for that matter, merely be pedagogical tools of discernment between reality and illusion; of fortifying the discrepancy between what we think and what is? If our senses are the medium through which we come to understand and appraise the realities of our world, is how we experience and play with toys and other cultural an indicator of their reflective truths? I eagerly anticipate the the answers to these questions as I continue with my journey through the senses.

Twenty-Seven Ways of Looking at Vision

Robert Desjarlais’ Sensory Biographies explores the various modalities of perception and understanding employed by Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists throughout their lives and even through death. In “Twenty-Seven Ways of Looking at Vision”, contemporary Western views inherited from the Graeco-Roman tradition of adopting the five senses, particularly vision, as merely the product of physiological processes is paradigmatically challenged as a socio-cultural construction predicated on this ideology, and examines vision from both epistemological and existential vantages.

            Most interestingly, the terms “vision” and “sight” as used by the Yolmo Buddhists are not limited to the realm of ocular reception, but make reference to both the corporeal and ethereal elements of reality, bordering on the esoteric and metaphysical. Procuring knowledge of reality or of a person through sight, in what is often referred to in Western culture as figurative or metaphorical (e.g. “it’s written on your face” or “her gaze pierced my soul”), is awarded a more substantive basis in the context of Buddhist practice. Vision in this sense of the word encompasses a plurality of understanding their world beyond what is seen by the eye, and is an active and participatory process engaged in by its practitioners.  

Nevertheless, this paradigm of vision carries with it certain transcendental capacities, relating to both body and time (p.92, 95). Much of its value is ascribed in its ability to perceive the written word – especially lamaic texts regarded as sacrosanct – and relegates the spoken to secondary. In doing so, knowledge acquires a degree of permanency and truthfulness, the latter of which being a central aim of Buddhist practice (p.78), based on the lama’s supposed clarity of understanding the world and in itself constitutes a valid authority.

From this stance, I am inclined to draw a parallel between my own Western culture and that of the Yolma wa. While vision and mutual acknowledgment between parties in both respects entails a number of connotative meanings which shape our behaviours and understanding of one another, literacy remains as the catalyst to achieving specific ends. In its most prevalent sense, literacy is circumscribed as a systematic visual act; of reading printed words and interpreting actions, and assigning those words and actions meaning. In my case, these ends include a certain standard of living that is more often-than-not achieved through higher education and professional labour geared toward advancing humanity. Those proficient in a given discipline or field tend to be granted elevated status amongst lay persons. In the case of the Yolmo wa, understanding and internalizing lamaic texts are a means to personal enlightenment and reaching heaven (p.72)..

The ability to contextualize and make sense of our world is predominantly a visual task, yet as Desjarlais has demonstrated through his ethnography of the Yolmo wa, it need not be a passive one. If visual literacy is a precursor to thought and remembrance, and “thought itself is quite often understood to proceed through images” (p.94), I can’t help but wonder if literacy is restricted to mere orthography or if it permeates other modes of the sensorium. 

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