Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 36, October 2002



Laura U. Marks


Emergent Senses

A Response to Swalwell



Melanie Swalwell

'The Senses and Memory in Intercultural Cinema'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 32, October 2002


I am delighted that Melanie Swalwell takes up _The Skin of the Film_ [1] so thoroughly and thoughtfully, and further chuffed that I can respond in _Film-Philosophy_'s speedy electronic salon. Swalwell's focus on my arguments about the sensuous and multisensory character of cinema is most welcome, especially given her own provocative research into the new configurations of sense experience that emerge in interactive media. Swalwell takes up my invitation to pull the book in the direction of her own interests, and so I will build in turn on her points about the accessibility and flexibility of sense experience.


Swalwell observes 'popular representations frequently portray sensory affects as the automatic outcome of purchasing experiences', in contrast to the difficulty with which sense experience is accessed in the works I discuss. This point is welcome, for certainly the exploration and exploitation of sense experience is 'hot' both commercially and creatively now, but it was in the works of emigrant, exile, indigenous, and other ethnically marginal artists that I found the most radical experimentation with representing sense experience. They appeal to sense memories and forgettings as a crucial repository of cultural meaning, not a sensuous sauce on top of the plenitude of meaning that's accessible to people living more or less squarely in the middle of a dominant culture. Swalwell acknowledges all this acutely; I emphasize it again simply to distinguish between the hapticness of, say, Rea Tajiri's _History and Memory_ and a Burger King ad. Both are sensuous, but the stakes are different.


Swalwell's recognition that 'it is encouraging to see someone questioning the stability of the nexus between instrumentality and sentience' is much appreciated. The senses themselves are precious exponents of our being in the world, including the pleasure of perceptual discrimination, skill, and even mastery. [2] My faith in sentience comes from a phenomenological confidence in intersubjectivity; that looking-being seen, smelling-being smelled, etc., are mutual acts (and the subjects need not be human). It is only in particular historical circumstances that any sense perception may be bent to the ends of human power over others.


Swalwell's faith in the individual's ability to decolonize his or her own sense experience is even greater than mine. She points out, in a just critique, that an instrumental *image* (which, in my usage, may be a sound, smell, etc., as well as a visual image) need not be *perceived* instrumentally. The thinness of perceptual experience I refer to isn't a result of technology per se, but technologies that reduce sensation and perception to the recognition of signs. Yet to some degree it's up to the perceiver whether to recognize them as such. In Swalwell's nice phrase, 'a chance city symphony of noise', the instrumental urban sounds of sirens, car alarms, etc., lose their symbolic quality. As noise, they arrive to us less as signs with specific meanings than as an audible texture. Noise, one might say, is haptic sound. To some degree it is up to the individual hearer whether to experience them as a texture or to distinguish and perceive them, as in the difference between haptic and optical visuality.


Thinking this way, which Swalwell does well, allows us to understand mass-encoded images (visible, aural, tactile, olfactory and gustatory) as accumulating in layers on the world of experience. Any of these layers may be experienced as primary. In Peircean terms, they are Thirds (symbolic images, in this case) that return as Firsts, the stuff of new perceptions. For example, in the book I quote food critic Jeff Weinstein reminiscing about the packaged apple pie of his, and millions of other North Americans', youth. Same pie, different mouths, different pie-perception and pie-memory. (I can see and hear the crinkly waxed paper wrapper in my mind now, I can taste those cinnamon-sludgy former apples, but darned if I can remember the brand name.) For each generation growing up in increasingly and differently technologized societies, it is (and will be) interesting to see how they navigate the thickening texture of the perceptible and cognizable world -- what they choose to distinguish, what remains indistinct, what is the rhythm of this 'haptic-optical' shift. Also it is interesting to consider how various groups of people create their own 'texture maps' of technologized society. Immigrants continue to be my favorite agent of this process, because they have to creatively negotiate a differently technologized culture. But also think, for example, of the ways deaf people, elderly people, teenagers who don't have the money to jack in, and other groups with quite specific interests decide what to focus on, what to block out, what to reweave and reinvent.


So Swalwell is right that technology need not be linked with sensory impoverishment. The question of instrumentality lies somewhere between the object and the perceiver. Nevertheless, I do find that sense experience is increasingly instrumentalized in the current state of global capitalism (if you'll excuse the condensed term). I don't want to bracket the enormous power of the corporations that attempt to encode our sense experience for us. I still think it's important to distinguish between perceptions that arrive pre-symbolized, and perceptions that require a detailed sensory engagement with the world because their meaning is not already given.


Thus my research has turned to objects that are increasingly hard to pin down: from haptic images to fugitive odors to wily electrons, and beyond. This trajectory is evident in my brand-new book, _Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media_. [3] Where in _The Skin of the Film_ I 'looked' to intimate sensory experiences as a kind of refuge from the colonization of sense experience, now I see such a refuge (or Temporary Autonomous Zone, in Hakim Bey's term) in that which is utterly imperceptible, enfolded, or immanent.


My current research returns to the origin of the notion of haptics in the writing of early art historian Alois Riegl, who controversially distinguished optical and haptic images as proto-European and Oriental respectively. Riegl argued that Roman figurative, illusionistic art, clearly distinguishing figure from ground, was inherited by European painting. In a parallel historical development, a non-representational, falsely termed decorative mode in which figure and ground were inextricable became the province of Islamic art. This privileging of haptic imagery took place within Islamic art, I would argue, for both theological and geopolitical reasons. I am curious whether the haptic spectatorship of these works invites a similar dissolution of self as does the haptic spectatorship of the films and videos I discussed in _The Skin of the Film_. What is the mimetic relationship with this particular kind of abstract image? Also, in the history of Islamic art, images do not *represent* but actually *embody* and *perform* religious and philosophical statements. As such Islamic art, particularly mosque architecture and calligraphy, is algorithmic. Currently I am turning to this work as a fruitful prototype for computer-based art. Computer art is similarly algorithm-driven, often displays a lack of concern for the visual image, and is an exercise in making manifest the invisible, if not the transcendental as in Islamic art. This research may seem a great departure from the work on embodiment and sensory experience in _The Skin of the Film_. The common element is that both projects seek non-Western alternatives to the Western privileging of optical visuality, in order to turn these rich bodies of knowledge to the understanding of contemporary culture.


Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada





1. Laura U. Marks, _The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses_ (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).


2. See Grahame Weinbren, 'Mastery (Sonic C'est Moi)', in Martin Reiser and Andrea Zapp, eds, _The New Screen Media_ (London: British Film Institute, 2002).


3. Laura U. Marks, _Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). See <>.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Laura U. Marks, 'Emergent Senses: A Response to Swalwell', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 36, October 2002 <>.



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