Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art
Editor: Caroline A. Jones
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: November 2008
Sensorium is a multiple text, one made up of several different forms. It is at once a curatorial text, referencing the exhibition "Sensorium" held at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (2006-07); a critical art history; and an encyclopaedia of media technologies. As such, it is hugely diverse, rich, and ambitious, and of great value to new media scholars, art historians, and media artists alike. It also provides both a catalogue of contemporary practice and "key words" in contemporary theory that make it a versatile teaching text.
Trying to make a cut through this book requires a creative strategy to foreground both the coherence and diversity of its intersecting elements. This review takes two such strategies, asking first what is old and what is new, and second what is coherent and what is contradictory.
Caroline Jones, who edited the collection and wrote the opening essay (as well as some of the entries), is an art historian and this book is in many ways a history, drawing a specific genealogy of the subject through the visual aesthetics of modernism, through to the sensory and affective aesthetics of the present conjuncture. Jones' long essay "The Mediated Sensorium" at once marks the theoretical challenge of this tautologous subject (after all "the human sensorium has always been mediated," p. 5) and outlines the specifics of her project. This project looks at how the "fulcrum (of) mid century modernism forged in the United States" (6) trained the modern subject to experience the body and its senses as separate and seperable elements through the primacy of vision. It examines how this mode of vision has been eroded but how it still retains what Jones refers to as a "tattered hegemony" of visual modernism in the context of the sensory present. Thus, although the present is defined for Jones as a point in which bodies and their multiple sensoriums are mutually constitutive ("Embodied experience through the senses (and their necessary and unnecessary mediations) is how we think," p. 5), the primacy of sight and the division of the senses maintain a regulatory power in the present.
Jones' argument that we are not Cartesian anymore, and perhaps never were, is not what is new. This argument is one that has proliferated across texts about virtuality, new media and digitisation (e.g. Alluquere Rosanne Stone, Eugene Thacker, Donna Haraway, Margaret Werthiem). However, what is new (or at least refreshing) is that Jones provides a very specific, rich, and informative series of examples and case studies to think this through with, and she also provides a theorisation of how the current conjuncture might be understood in relation to these debates. The detail of Jones' argument draws on her previous work (2005) on the mid-century art critic Clement Greenberg and also draws on her critical and encyclopaedic knowledge of art history and contemporary art practices. The limitations of this genealogy of the subject are clear (it relates to the aesthetics of modernism in the USA and contemporary US-based uses of media technologies). At the same time these limitations provide the productive coherence for the volume. Although never defined as such, the book is about is what might be loosely called new media art or digital art practices. Although such taxonomies are doomed to failure, it is important to foreground the significance of this specificity for the book -- and for potential readers. The subtitle, "Embodied experience, technology, and contemporary art," is important and the specificity of the intersection of these components (the body, media technology, and art) makes the book a key text for media theorists, students, and practitioners as well as an art history text.
In addition to the opening essay, the collection contains a section of essays by the artists and curators of the Sensorium exhibition. This section of the book is at once production log, curatorial record, catalogue, and critique. Although the entries are too numerous to list in this short review, they provide a valuable repository of interviews, images, plans, and reflections. This section provides rich insights into the workings of practice and what Jones' refers to as a view of "the culture of the technologised body from the inside" (4). In addition to this section, the rest of the book consists of an "Abecedarius," or an A-Z list of entries "thinking the body through its technological mediations" (3).
The Abecedarius concludes with "Zoon," an interview with Donna Haraway, and begins with "Air," an essay by Bruno Latour. It aims to provide the intellectual reflection on the views "from the inside" provided in the previous sections by the curators and artists, thus providing a complementarity between practice and reflection, inside view and external gaze, artist and art critique, or text and audience perhaps. This idealised inside/outside structure on the one hand detracts from the overall framing that the senses are how we think. On the other hand, this contradiction enacts the argument that Enlightenment thinking and its revival through mid-century modernism still structure how it is that the world can be known and understood in the current moment of change.
The Abecedarius section brings together an impressive collection of experienced and well-known scholars across science studies, art history, and media studies, and provides a cross between a "key words" and an encyclopaedia. This hybrid form and the wealth of reflection and scholarship contained here makes this a text with something for everyone, potentially contributing fairly equally to further scholarship and research, and to teaching and learning environments. The critical coherence of these entries is that they all dwell on aspects of media technologies and sense perception. Its contradictions lie in the differences between celebration and pessimism, and the important tensions between the aims to be "forensic" and "diagnostic" (4). The entries are not always consonant with Caroline Jones' overarching framework and her definition of the current conjuncture as a moment of calm in which the prosthetic has become habitual, a techno social "comfort zone" (5), in which we can therefore pause and reflect before being drawn into the next "fulcrum." Further, this schematic and chronological view of the world set up in the opening essay is often made more complex by the diversity of the Abecedarius section. The contradictions that appear in the tautology of "the mediated sensorium" also haunt this section. However, these contradictions are themselves a kind of critical supplement that provide breaks and moments for reflection in what otherwise might be a kind of dazzling seduction by the book itself as a beautiful object.
The Abecedarius section is too extensive and diverse to provide any kind of map here. However, there are two aspects that continue my trajectories of old/new and coherence/contradiction that I will foreground briefly. These are the entries by Caroline Bassett and by Michel Foucault. What both authors share is a lucidity and poetics of thought and expression. Bassett brings a new and sometimes unpredictable perspective to bear through her discussions of "identity theft" (154), "remote sensing" (200), and the "yuk factor" (238). Foucault, in "Utopian Body," is beautiful and haunting in this poetic textual reproduction of the voice of the dead (a translated radio interview from 1966).
Foucault is at once old and new in "Utopian Body" which sees its first translation into English but which was broadcast, on French radio, as an audio address in 1966. Foucault's entry is the centerpiece of the Abecedarius entries and a contradiction in their kind. Articulated almost in the same period as the fulcrum of modernism detailed by Jones, it is also a poetics of the sensorium, disrupting the chronology of her argument. As Foucault notes: "So the body, then, in its own materiality in its flesh, would be like the product of its own phantasms. After all, isn't the body of the dancer precisely a body dilated along an entire space that is both exterior and interior to it? ... It is at the heart of the world, this small utopian kernel from which I dream, I speak, I imagine, I perceive things in their place, and I negate them also by the indefinite power of the utopias I imagine" (233).
Bassett provides a cautionary tale in the story of affect and a useful commentary on the old and the new. In a graceful slippage from "yuk factor" to "yuk factory," she argues: "To produce fear and prejudice, it is useful both to revive old scares about disease and infection and to invent new fears about cloning and genetic engineering. Within these circuits, the yuk factor, with its implicit biological destining, is coming to be deployed as a kind of ideological machinery to produce the normative" (240). Thus, perhaps sense perception might not be the answer, or even a radical disjuncture. Whilst Sensorium provides a cartography and genealogy of subjectivity and the senses, there is little indication of what constitutes a politics of the present, or what "fulcrum" might be next. Jones' vision of the current conjuncture is at once elaborated as a moment of multisensory reflection and at the same time for all our sensory perception, unknowable.
Haraway, Donna (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.
Jones, Caroline (2005) Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stone, Alluquere Rosanne (1995) The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Thacker, Eugene (2004) Biomedia. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Wertheim, Margaret (2000) The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet. London: Virago Press Ltd.
Kate O'Riordan is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Film at the University of Sussex and she co-directs the Centre for Material Digital Culture. Her research interest and expertise is in the intersections of information, communication and bio technologies and the body. <K.ORiordan@sussex.ac.uk>
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