Psychophysics revisited

Sensory perception and interart research seems to occur these days in the in-between spaces of art history, literature, media studies, anthropology, neurological sciences, and many more disciplines that contribute to the exploration of a new aesthetics. This new aesthetics very much includes aisthesis or the study of physiologically and psychologically infused perceptive abilities in the human. Whatever happened to the term “psychophysics” in this arena???

A long-out-of-print volume, Sensory Communication (ed. by Walter Rosenblith), based on a 1959 symposium, has recently been reissued by MIT Press. It reminds us of pioneers like Fechner (criticized therein) in the early days of experiential aesthetics and of the nascent fascination with the human-computer interface and AI around the middle of the 20th century. S.S. Stevens poignantly extracts and highlights the ambiguities inherent to research in psychophysics, playing into the qualitative-quantitative divide co-existent with C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”:

“It must be confessed at the outset that psychophysics has often failed to do its part of the job [it tells what the organism can do and it asks those who are inspired by such mysteries … to advance our understanding of how such wonders are performed] with distinction. Its task is not easy. For one thing, long-standing prejudices, derived in great measure from a chronic dualistic metaphysics, have triggered a variety of stubborn objections whenever it has been proposed that sensation may be amenable to orderly and quantitative investigation. You cannot, the objectors, complain, measure the inner, private, subjective strength of a sensation. Perhaps not, in the sense the objectors have in mind, but in a different and very useful sense the strength of a sensation can, as we shall see, be fruitfully quantified. We must forgo arguments about the private life of the mind and ask sensible objective questions about the input-output relations of sensory transducers as these relations are disclosed in the behavior of experimental organisms, whether men or animals.” (1, original edition).

Must we? At a time when “sensible objective questions” have encountered years of questioning, what prevents us from looking at the “private life of the mind” as hard data?

Senses and the City

“Experiencing with all the senses” – this seems to be the preferred motto for the up-to-date hedonist whose life is supposed to be a non-stop event. From our consumer society‘s point of view, the senses are “hip” –  there is almost no advertising slogan for life-style products or happenings which does not promise special intersensory sensations. In this context mainly tactile, olfactory and gustatory experiences play a prominent role: luxury goods like perfumes, cosmetics, champagne or wine and clothing are promoted through their ‘immediate’ impact on the psychophysical well-being; the same applies to places like hotels or even cities which try to attract visitors with their all-encompassing sensory reach that promise a holistic wellness experience.

In highlighting the importance of the ‘lower senses’, consumer culture is more advanced than philosophical epistemology. According to most perception theories, smell, taste and touch do not contribute to intellectual insight – most prominently, the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant determined a hierarchy of the senses in which taste and smell hold the lowest position.

Despite this ignorance, tactile, olfactory and gustatory experiences are the most intense and informative when one seeks to relate such diffuse phenomena as the atmosphere of a city or a district. The Romanian philosopher Mădălina Diaconu from the University of Vienna has worked for several years on an alternative approach to experiencing our everyday environment. In a case study she investigated the meaning of tactile and olfactory experience in the city of Vienna. With students she developed “smellscapes” of some Viennese quarters, analyzed the tactile qualities of house walls and pavements as well as the impact of publicly placed furniture on the individual’s posture and comfort. These studies make very clear that experiencing a city is not limited to visual and acoustic sensations but inherently integrates tactile and olfactory perceptions. And, of course, this holistic intersensory experience is inseparably linked to strong emotional reactions (and actions).

The studies of Mădălina Diaconu* and some other researchers from different disciplines (like human geography, environmental studies or architecture – see, for example, Victoria Henshaw’s blog “Smell and the City” at Manchester University) show that urban design has to consider much more than merely visual and acoustic aspects when planning buildings, places, quarters or other urban environments. Although the atmosphere of an urban region consists of many unpredictable aspects like social interactions and individual psychological dispositions, there are elements that can be planned: thus, taking intersensory experience seriously means integrating touch, smell and even taste in urban design processes which might strengthen the positive effects on the individually and socially experienced atmosphere of a city.

* Mădălina Diaconu’s publications concerning her project on the Sensescapes of Vienna:

  • Mădălina Diaconu, Eva Heuberger, Ruth Mateus-Berr, Lukas Marcel Vosicky (eds.): Senses and the City. An Interdisciplinary Approach to Urban Sensescapes, Berlin: LIT 2011.

In German:

  • Mădălina Diaconu: Sinnesraum Stadt. Eine multisensorische Anthropologie, Berlin: LIT 2012.
  • Mădălina Diaconu, Gerhard Buchbauer, James G. Skone, Karl-Georg Bernhardt, Elisabeth Menasse-Wiesbauer (eds.): Sensorisches Labor Wien. Urbane Haptik- und Geruchsforschung. Berlin: LIT 2011.

Atmosphere and Affect

Two weeks ago I attended two conferences, one organized by a non-profit association of architects in Aachen on the making of atmospheres (“Atmosphären machbar?”, May 29, 2013), and one academic conference with the title “Timing of Affect” (May 30 – June 1, 2013), organized, among others, by Prof. Dr. Marie-Luise Angerer (Kunsthoschule der Medien/Cologne) and Prof. Dr. Michaela Ott (Hamburg University).

Atmosphere and affect are very closely related since, according to the German philosopher Gernot Böhme, atmospheres are primarily felt. Experiencing atmospheres is a sub- and preconscious process which is based on an initial intersensory sensation and on affective re/actions. Hermann Schmitz, the founder of “New Phenomenology” and one of the foremost theorists of atmosphere, even equates atmospheres with feelings: “ortlos in den Raum ergossene Gefühle” (feelings placelessly poured out into space).

Despite this close relation between atmosphere and feelings/emotions, there are two very separate discussions, one focussing on atmosphere as mainly a phenomenon of space; the other on affect and emotion as a phenomenon of time. The two conferences appeared paradigmatic for this division: the conference on atmosphere consisted of four presentations covering the epistemological status of atmospheres, the ‘making’ of atmospheres in environments of consumption (shopping malls), the future of living spaces designed with digital media, and a critical discussion of the possible manipulative character of atmospheres. According to Achim Hahn, professor for architectural theory at the Technical University Dresden, atmospheres cannot be ‘made’, they are a result of a complex cognitive and affective cluster of processes and therefore purely individual. The architectural practice, of course, points to a different perspective: while used to concentrating mainly on the visual aspects of constructing buildings for a long time, architects now begin to realize the emotional dimension of creating spaces. They now turn to such diffuse phenomena as atmospheres which they acknowledge can be created intentionally.

Despite these differences in approach, both, the philosophical and architectural discourse on atmosphere, concentrate on immediate aspects of space and experience and ignore the aspect of time. This leads to the question of the overlapping of atmospheres. Phenomenology treats atmosphere as a homogeneous entity. As everyday experience shows, homogeneity in perception is very rarely the case. Mostly we are confronted with intersecting and overlapping atmospheres – for example experiencing the atmosphere of a building in interrelation with the atmosphere resulting from human interaction. Although seen as an affective experience, it remains unclear what kind of affection is triggered in the experience of atmospheres (and this lack of specificity extends to ignoring the related temporal aspects of atmospheres).

In contrast, the academic discussion (in the humanities) about the different dimensions of affect seems to focus on experience of time, the main issue at the conference “Timing of Affect”: theories of affect, affect and digital media, affect and politics were some of the core topics covered by presentations of Moira Gatens, Michaela Ott, Marie-Luise Angerer, Mark B. N. Hansen, Orit Halpern, Steven Shaviro and others.

In both academic discussions presenters concentrated on a core group of theoretical thinkers: the discourse on atmosphere is dominated by phenomenological approaches from Edmund Husserl to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from Hubert Tellenbach to Hermann Schmitz and Gernot Böhme, while the (more international) discussion on affect is dominated by references to Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze (and with him Baruch Spinoza), Brian Massumi and expands to psychology (Daniel Stern) and cognitive sciences (Antonio Damasio).

While the phenomenological theories on atmosphere do not specify what they mean by affect, the discourse on the nature and cultural meaning of affect very rarely uses the term ‘atmosphere’. And while the discussion on affect and affection also integrates media theoretical aspects, the phenomenological notion of atmosphere nearly ignores media and mediated experience.

This division of discourses seems to me to be paradigmatic for the tendency to artificially, haphazardly isolate topics. Maybe it is caused by the complexity of the two topics, both of which can only be treated in interdisciplinary dialogue. Unfortunately, it leads to the concentration on a dominant theory tradition: once such a historical chain of arguments is discovered, it seems that the discourse stops or hesitates going beyond these implicit borders. In the case of atmosphere and affect, it is high time to once again transcend these borders and bring both discourses together. Such convergence is crucial in order to intensify the discussion on interart, intersenses and intermedia: they are inherently related to both atmospheres and affection.

Bubbling Pablum or Commingling Snails

As much as scholarly and artistic pursuits are part and parcel of this blog, so are the perception and experience of the everyday. Convergences and intersections inform how we process life, body, mind, other, how we reflect, wonder, create. How better to remind ourselves than by asking seemingly benign questions? The following are random excerpts from Padgett Powell’s inquisitive The Interrogative Mood (2009), providing a list of questions to guide our chance encounters of different kinds.

“Have our lips ever done what we want them to? Are there interstices in your character? Can you imagine certain smells – say, the smell of cedar? If you saw on a T-shirt the slogan BLOOD IS LIKE A PARACHUTE, what would you think that slogan intends to mean? Would you prefer to expire on a fair day or foul, or do you think you’ll be past appreciating and lamenting the weather by that point? Would you like, right now, some cornbread? Have you ever pinned butterflies? Do you wonder if there is, say, vanilla Coke and cherry Coke, and if the global market is the thing, why there is not, say, nutmeg Coke and cumin Coke and anise Coke and garlic Coke and sauerbraten Coke and horseradish Coke and chili Coke and coconut Coke and lemongrass Coke? Do you like it when your body is sore? Would you drink something called a ‘plumber’s concoction’? Do you understand the physics of chocolate? Would you like to eat soft-serve ice cream beside a municipal pond colored that fetid green from goose shit and paddled upon by uncivil ducks? Is your mind bubbling pablum or snails commingling? What is your favorite spice?”

[Insert your questions here]


Interart Studies has established itself as a field wherein scholars from a variety of disciplines analyze the connections between different art forms, based on historically and culturally divergent concepts of mono- and intermediality. Intermediality, in turn, denotes interrelated strategies of different media designs: they generate new forms of production and reception modes. These modes amount to more than the awareness of accumulated media at play. They point to a new era of convergences, both with regard to production and reception that have become part of everyday processes. They are at the forefront of the arts, of advertising, social, and broadcasting media, and of research that spans the humanities and the natural sciences.

The notion of intermediality comprises media production strategies and intersensorial perception modes simultaneously. This correlation and interdependency is, as of yet, barely accounted for in Interart Studies, excepting a few notable models such as Caroline A. Jones’s concept of “sensorium”: it relates sensorial perception to cultural mediation. Intersensorial perception, nonetheless, is currently emerging as an innovative area in various academic and arts disciplines, and in the private sector, showcasing new phenomenological approaches and communication processes.

At this instance, the interrelation of the arts, media, and of sensory perception modes presents a multitude of questions yet to be discussed. While the various approaches inspired by phenomenology and experiential aesthetics, for example, emphasize a mode of “immediate” perception, media studies still think of perception as inherently influenced by media technologies (in the anthropological sense developed by Marshall McLuhan). Perception is considered exclusively mediated. Concurrently, the cognitive sciences also play an important role in developing epistemological models: new fields such as neuroaesthetics have emerged and attempt to access and explain aesthetic experience with scientific methods of quantification and assessment. Both approaches require critical thinking and analytic consideration, both within and without the academy.

Dick Higgins’s 1960s model of Intermedia:


These threads of discussion point to a pivotal question: what sort of (new) epistemological models do we require to address convergences in production and perception? The most dominant ones still implicitly rely on the visual sense as THE perception paradigm. It seems, though, that we face increasing polarization: on the one hand, there is the idea of “embodied cognition,” related to the phenomenological concept of pre-conscious holistic sensing; on the other, there are the traditional models of visual, sometimes audiovisual, modes of perception, complemented by research in the cognitive sciences, that still prioritize the two senses Western cultures deemed epistemologically significant. Meanwhile, the attention to other forms of perception has increased – thanks to the topical developments in the arts (e.g. interactive installation art) and to shifts in research and analysis that include alternative and equivalent ways of knowing. The interdisciplinary debates on the meaning of synaesthetic ways of perception, for example, have intensified, freed of stereotypical readings that hark back to the 19th century. And the cultural and cerebral meaning of the “lower” senses, most significantly tactility, taste and smell, has attracted heightened attention and scrutiny from different areas in the last few years.

These are only a few of the topics under discussion in this blog. The blog itself presents an initiative by Anke Finger (University of Connecticut, USA) and Christiane Heibach (Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, Germany). It serves three functions:

a)    to provide access to international research, resources, and other relevant products within the field of interart studies;

b)   to put scholars, artists, and the general public into dialog with each other (in a weekly update we will discuss new books, provide links for related events – conferences, exhibitions, performances, talks, media, etc.), and

c)    to provide short comments on relevant topics, inviting our readers to participate in and engage with this new era of convergences.