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Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media

Author: Laura U. Marks
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002
Review Published: April 2006

 REVIEW 1: Ted Kafala

Like engaging the contours of unearthly surfaces and previously unknown topographies, Laura Marks' writings explore the haptic and embodied dimensions of contemporary media arts. Her "sensuous theory" is her own amalgam of a Deleuzean metaphysics of surfaces, which deals with the materiality of electronic and digital surfaces, feminist and post-psychoanalytic theories of decentered subjectivity in independent film and video narratives, Peircean semiotic categories, and the affective and embodied experience of new media objects. Earlier versions and portions of the chapters in Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media have been previously published as articles in various journals on the media arts, cinema, and video, including Millennium, Jump Cut, Parachute, and Afterimage. Although chapter topics by themselves appear discrepant and without continuity, sometimes refreshingly out of sequence, crossing conventional disciplines and genres, Marks' theoretical introduction on 1) the nature of the ontology/architecture of new media and 2) the haptic and synaesthetic experience of media provides a common thread, or strategy, for moving through the book. My familiarity with some art and media over others made some of the reading a little easier. Sometimes I got lost in the rich descriptions without immediate references to the work in question, but in the end this was not very important. Marks captures for her readers the texture and ethos of much recent media and cyberspace art: Their subversive, experimental, and sensual qualities are often parodic of and playful with technolust and futurist notions of technology, with the uncertainty and vacuousness of information culture, and with the constant, routine oscillation between analog and digital phenomena in everyday life.

Marks' chapters on the haptic-visual experience of video and film, which comprise almost half her book, draw on both medium-specific observations and a rich body of independent documentary and ethnographic work. Her writings encapsulate recent tensions within cinematic theory between a renewed interest in materialist strategies of "the real" and phenomenological, psychoanalytic foundations. Problems may surface when Marks attempts to reconcile or meld ideas from Deleuze's "immanent materialism" with a phenomenology of cinematic viewing in which both "I and the object of my vision" confront each other in either an affirming or negating manner (13). At first thought, Deleuze’s notion of variegated, mobile, and decentered subject deviates substantially from phenomenology’s traditional notion of the anchored, centered, and "unfearful" subject (xix). Also, Deleuze's affective and "constructivist" notion of perception recognizes the second-order affective qualities of media as real and embodied properties that are rooted in the world, something which is traditionally anathema to phenomenology. However, Marks suggests that the labile, plastic, tactile texture of electronic video, with its sense of closeness and shallow space, invites a more multisensory engagement with the visual image while it "muddies intersubjective boundaries" (17). She suggests that the ideas of Deleuze may have more in common with those of Merleau-Ponty and his reading of Henri Bergson than some of us previously suppose, that the participant's relationship with media may be one of mutual embodiment, and that the affective elements of perception are real phenomenal and embodied items that have an intensity that reverberates with the observer.

In her chapter, "The Logic of Smell," Marks extends the haptic-visual synaesthetic strategy to a third sense. Marks explores how a smell resonates in the body, creating an affection image with a particular and absolutely singular kind of meaning. She explores the consequences of DigiScents'® attempts to harness odors for instrumental purposes, such as entertainment, marketing, mood control, and neo-smellorama movies (114). Since capitalist entities rely on the effectiveness of symbolic signs, DigiScents's iSmell™ communication device is an example of a process that builds memory associations with smell while at the same time tries to sever ties between that same odor and less narrow, more unpredictable, embodied, precognitive, and sensuous associations and memories of events (116). In extending the multi-modal notion of affect, she borrows from Deleuze's radical inversion of Platonic thought that synthesizes singularities (events) in relation to surfaces and depths, a reversal of the Platonic "body and idea" binary, and an alternative notion of "essence." Marks also refers directly to Deleuze's notion (via Bergson) of the recollection-image that permits an odor to trigger a very individualized image of an event within the circuit of memory, and consequently to stimulate memory-driven responses. As one of the most immediate of senses producing specific associations and signs, a smell allows a recollection-image to pass through planes of consciousness and enter coalescence with the present while restoring the detail and completeness of the object under mental reflection. As Marks notes: "Smell is already a movie, in the sense that it is a perception that generates a mental narrative for the perceiver" (114). In this way, Marks suggests that smell operates on the cusp of the material and the symbolic, inside the continuum between immediate bodily perception and third-order symbolism.

Since smell has such a strong symbolic component (there are linguistic cues associated with olfactory cues), it can be used descriptively in cinema to activate circuits of memory in the viewer, although oftentimes these experiences may be intensely felt and individualized. The perceptual event, as already alluded to, is an incorporeal surface effect produced by bodies, a kind of floating entity, residue, or aftereffect which is everywhere apparent and nowhere localizable. So, the original audiences found no common way of experiencing the synthetic smells put out by John Water's Polyester (1981) Odorama™ scratch and sniff cards, such as air freshener, or sneakers odors. The scratch and sniff cards were passed out to the audience as they entered the movie theater: The film cued the audience to "scratch and sniff" at appropriate moments during the screening. Likewise the sensuous visual close-ups in Tranh Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) bring multiple senses in closer proximity to each other in a "haptic feast." Relatedly, in her earlier chapter "Haptics and Erotics," Marks refers to the haptic, embodied way the viewer responds to analog and digital video as another body, and to the screen as another skin, that the differences between touch and the other senses are a matter of degree and not of kind (3-4). Video's denial of the depth of focus found elsewhere in film brings meaning to the surface where vision meets with the other senses. For example, in Michael O'Reilly's Glass Jaw (US, 1991, video, 20:00), small objects create a visceral pull on the viewer; in Dave Ryan's Haptic Nerve (US, 2000, video, 12:00), a whispered voiceover accompanies quick montages of tangible but indistinguishable shapes and textures; and in Mona Hatoum's Measures of Distance (Lebanon/Canada, 1988, video, 15:25) images are not only superimposed with calligraphic writing, adding a tactile quality, but the camera switches between more haptic and optical visual modes through changes in focus and distance (11-16). In such footage, video tends to enrich communication and to undermine its conversion into third-order simulacra, to rescue moments of particular existence from the abstract, encoding machine of the symbolic (123). The experiencing of the transformative encounter on video brings us back to the more embodied spectatorship of the early 20th century films of Bela Belasz and Dziga Vertov, which construct a sympathetic relationship between the viewer's body and the cinematic image, or to a more feminist haptic-visual strategy of touch that subverts and replaces the Western, Cartesian obsession with vision and mimesis with the body as the bearer of meaning and sense (7).

In the last few chapters of the book, Marks attempts to undermine the widely-accepted technolibertarian, corporate-futurist notions of digital media as immaterial and transcendental. She discusses how digital media satisfy the audience's desire for "the indexicality of the real" on many levels, and how the sense of virtuality experienced in computer-mediated worlds is enfolded in its own sense of materiality and embodied knowing. Digital media, because they necessarily abstract experience into information, invite us to mistake those abstract worlds as reality and to attribute a false transparency to that information (178-9). Marks critiques the dominant, technolibertarian, Silicon Valley-oriented discourse on cyberspace that has infused both the humanities and sciences: This discourse presents cyberspace as immaterial, disconnected, and discrete, consisting of pure data, or symbolic information. It is also premised on the idea that the analog relationship between the image and the real referent that exists in photography is broken, and that the wave-particle relationship in broadcast and analog video is completely overridden when the image is approximated to symbolic number, or integer value in the process of digitization. Marks demonstrates how digital media are material on many dimensions: On the quantum physical level, the indexicality of the real continues to survive through wave-driven approximations on digital electron pathways. In "How Electrons Remember," Marks points out how digital circuits "remember" original analog wave-particle forms in a weak, subatomic, microindexical way, how analog properties continue to exist in survivals and vestiges in the "indifferently promiscuousness nature of silicon" (171). Of course, in the process of digital approximation, the detail and quality of the analog wave is lost in "quantum nonlocality," the shared properties of electrons on a common wave.

Even if we do not buy into the argument surrounding electron survivals in quantum locality, Marks also proposes that digital media are material in the computer code. The new media object is a combination of data and code, but the actual way that data is stored in the object takes the form of the code -- that is, the set of instructions associated with that object (interactive media, digital video, digital still, or computer game). Digital media also embody a materiality on social and global levels both in the social exchange and material enterprises that encompass e-business and in the Web art that parodies and makes alternative uses of those commercial practices. Marks discusses a variety of broadly social and conceptual Web art that sabotages online commercial culture, subverts source code, or bends and corrupts the uses of off-the-shelf Web design software (181-90). Online art is temporary and ephemeral, as well as burgeoning and invasive in nature: Many of Marks' examples, such as Vuc Cosic's ASCII-based art, are no longer available, while others, like Mark Napier's shredder and composter, hijack your browser.

Readers may also have empathy with Marks' expression of the nostalgia-melancholia for the lost body of analog video, with its indexical relationship to real things, and with its own particular analog physicality represented by electronic dropout and decay, signal distortion, chroma bleed, and "TV snow" (153). Not unlike electronic music audiences' thirst for the sounds of analog synthesizers, Marks relates this sense of nostalgia with a longing for "Firstness," the sign and meaning that derives from immediate perceptions in Peirce's terms. Similar to the sense of materiality conveyed and embodied by Web art, she suggests that the audience may find a new "Firstness" in digital video in 1) its pristine features, such as its database search and retrieval functions, its nonlinear organization, and seamless spatial compositing, and 2) in its fallacious machine errors, algorithmic or programmatic failures, bit rot, data loss, truncated pixels, pixellation, and "hand processed"-looking low-res manifestations. Readers may not find this argument convincing. The fact that new media may be variable, or mutable in quality in that they can exist in potentially infinite copies with no difference from the originals, and may be flexibly edited and transcoded into innumerable file formats, may not compensate for weak links to the phenomenal world or substitute for the tangible reassurances of the material medium. Marks certainly suggests that we experience a different sense of synaesthesia from "the embodied thinking that can be accomplished by a translation program acting on a database" (149) than through the qualities immanent in analog video.

Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media gives homage to the media artists and experimental videographers that pushed forward a technosensual, embodied, interactive relationship between concrete "living" art and observers, the minimalists and kinaesthetic artists of the 1960s onwards. Reflecting on history, Marks reminds her readers that interactive media emerged from collusion with specific military and corporatist practices, including centuries-long investments in Cartesian optics (xxi). Implicit in her writing is Marks' attempt to reposition the materiality of media art decisively away from the sterile formalism of the purist art object by sometimes resorting to a "radical formalism" of the electron particle using Peirce's categories, and more often by emphasizing the "deep communicativity" of media (xxii). In this way, synaesthesia is our bodily method of translating information among modalities, and digital media index several levels of material, interconnected life. Readers may resent Marks' shifting of Deleuzean ideas closer to phenomenology as they may resent elsewhere lumping Deleuze with empiricists and pragmatists such as Henry James and C. S. Peirce (Deleuze's concepts in several books are eminently more complex and harder to pin down). However, Marks does a great service to artists and audiences by contributing to the discussion of the ontology of new media objects, by replacing the discourse of virtual transcendence in cyberspace with one of immanent materiality, and by drawing attention to the feminist embodiment of art and media.

Ted Kafala:
Dr. Ted Kafala is a professor of communication and media at the University of Cincinnati's College of Applied Science. His research and scholarly interests include art/media theory and criticism, including the study of the perception and reception of media effects; and cyberspace and technoculture studies with a focus on new technologies and the relationship between media and technology. He has recently published critical articles on the relevance of the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Paul Virilio for new media, and hopes to continue to research and write in the interdisciplinary borderlands between art and technology, visual and textual studies, digital video and cinematics.  <Ted.kafala@uc.edu>

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