Researching Time, Senses and the Urban – Monica Degen & Astrid Swenson

Respondent: Patricia Baker


Westgate Gardens, Canterbury

In this paper we discuss the ways in which we can access methodologically the diverse and multiple timescapes that converge or conflict in the urban to produce a particular sense of place in the contemporary city. We will draw on two research projects to illustrate the multiplicity of temporal narratives, practices, and ideologies which operate at different speeds and intensities in areas of urban change and how to research how they are expressed through the built environment, policy practices and everyday life.

First, we will be drawing on a case study of a street in Barcelona to discuss a theoretical approach to timescapes of urban change. Focusing on the neighbourhood of el Raval, we will explore how the organisation of time can be theorised in areas that have been experiencing long time regeneration processes. While the making of urban space is the materialisation of the passing of time, and time and space are the forces that frame and shape urban capitalist economy, there has been a distinct prioritisation of space over time in the analysis of new urban spaces. This has often led to a ‘fixity’ of space in the analysis of urban regeneration, with studies focusing on a moment in time rather than viewing urban redevelopment as a long term and historical process and place-making as a temporal practice. We argue that urban redevelopment processes need to be analysed over time and across various temporal-spatial layers such as the global, local and personal realms.

Secondly, to illustrate how to research these temporal processes along and across time, we will draw on a project that has brought together both academics and urban professionals (architects, urban planners, museum curators, artists) in three cities across Europe to develop a sensory methodology toolkit. Here we will discuss the considerations, possibilities and constraints that a diversity of inter-disciplinary and cross-professional methods bring to researching historically embedded places from a sensory perspective. In particular we will be suggesting a ‘dialogical approach’ across disciplines and professions to develop methodological frameworks that allow to assess how far the experience of the urban is historically or time specific. We suggest that only through this dialogue we can explore how far methods developed for understanding the present can be applied to historical sources and how, in turn, a greater understanding of the historicity of sensory experiences might lead to a less static approach in the present. Ultimately, in this paper we argue that to understand the time and place specific features that govern sensory-emotional responses to the urban need methods that transcend disciplinary and professional frameworks.

Atmosphere is to Multisensory Perception as Matter is to Consciousness
Ben Jacks

Respondent: Matthew Nicholls


Cloisters, Canterbury Cathedral

Architecture specifically, and the built environment generally, are always about mental constructs and experiences on the one hand, and physical actualities on the other. Architecture is the object out there and the surrounding fabric, and it is also about the multidimensional, multisensory experience of an object, space, place, or landscape.

The sensing and description of qualities of the built environment has recently begun to be referred to by the useful term atmosphere, a concept with origins in phenomenological thought, and which has been worked out in theoretical and philosophical terms. While easily misunderstood, and negatively critiqued through misdirection, atmosphere nevertheless offers a way in to thinking about multisensory perception.

This talk will take multisensory perception and atmosphere as starting points for the consideration of the built environment. The emphasis will be on the walker—the individual perceiving through multiple senses in her upright moving around. Focus will be on particular experiential techniques enhancing multisensory perception and theoretical underpinnings derived from various sources from Buddhism to Thoreau.


The Silent Transformations of Rosemary Lee’s Meltdown – Martin Welton

Respondent: Helen Slaney

Meltdown (Photo by Hugh Glendinning)

In this paper I consider the relationship between silence and stillness in terms of atmospheric transformation, and in particular how the act of stilling afforded by falling or becoming silent opens an affective space in the climate of urban life. Drawing on a model of theatrical attention in which performance stills and silences its audience members, I follow the philosopher Bruce Wilshire’s proposition that this stilling in silence affords ‘contemplation of that which within his own person [each] would find it difficult or impossible to speak’ (1982, p.80)

Focussing on the choreographer Rosemary Lee’s performance Meltdown, I propose it as an instance of what Francois Jullien describes as ‘silent transformations’. These are changes of state before vision, but which occur either so slowly, or ‘silently’ in Jullien’s terms, that their movement does not register, even as one notes that a change has occurred. In Meltdown, first staged for the 2011 Dance Umbrella, a group of twenty men sank slowly, almost imperceptibly to the ground beneath a giant sycamore in London’s Brunswick Square – so gradually that the movement itself almost escaped notice. Unlike affective and aesthetic experiences of visible movement, transition or transformation of this sort is rarely given direct attention; like ageing, we can barely see such changes happening ‘before our eyes’ (Jullien 2009). The change is ‘silent’, in Jullien’s terms in that it does not announce itself, but, like age, registers with us as a sense of shiftedness, nevertheless.

Although Lee’s performance had a ready audience, attracted by reputation and by marketing, passers-by were also drawn into the still, silent attention given to the sinking men. All participated in a theatrical ‘hush’, a collective attention to and through silence – a sensing of a shared ambience in which ‘the situational has prevailed over the personal’ (Jullien 2009, p.15).

Sensory Archaeology – Robin Skeates

Respondent: Eleanor Betts

Pottery Sherd with Resin – Amarna Project

Archaeological theorists are increasingly recognising the relevance of sensual culture studies in their work on archaeological remains and past societies, ranging from the look, form and feel of raw materials and artefacts, to the multi-sensory experience of place and space at prehistoric sites and monuments and in the landscape, to visitors’ experiences of archaeological sites and museums. Such studies complement contemporary anthropological or ‘interpretative’ approaches in archaeology. Taken together, these archaeological approaches emphasise the embeddedness of peoples’ bodies and artefacts in the cultural process, and their active participation in the production, reproduction and transformation of socio-political meanings, values and relations. They share an interest in phenomenology and in the structured and structuring role of the body and senses in routine and ritual experiences. They recognise the importance of individual perception. They share a self-critical interest in deconstructing the history of archaeological thought. They also share a concern over our own limitations to appreciate fully those cultural groups to which we do not belong. This perspective, then, helps archaeologists interpret past cultures in a fresh manner, by encouraging us adopt a comprehensive viewpoint, to become deeply immersed in the realities of the archaeological evidence, and to distance ourselves from our own cultural bias.

In other words, sensory archaeology seeks to challenge and transform mainstream archaeology by exploring a wide variety of thought-provoking research questions and innovative methodologies for disseminating results:

  • What human senses have previous generations of archaeologists considered in their interpretations of the lives of past people, and to what extent have their conceptions of these been biased by conventional Western thinking?
  • To what extent have archaeologists’ writings, illustrations, site management plans and museum representations prioritised the sense of sight, and distanced the full-bodied sensory engagement of non-archaeologists? How can a more sensuous past be disseminated?
  • How did past people use their senses to routinely and ritually experience, inhabit, exploit, construct and structure their sensuous material worlds?
  • What was the approximate sensory impact of the natural environment on past human groups at different times and places?
  • Why and how did distinctive sensory cultures develop?
  • Which senses were repeatedly and deliberately evoked, emphasised and associated in particular past cultures, and how might they have contributed to cultural expressions, understandings and orderings of the human and social body over space and time?
  • How were sensory resources, practices and values maintained and transformed over the long-term?
  • How were new, exotic, raw materials, commodities, technologies and orders incorporated and understood within traditional sensory practices and values?
  • How were sensory resources, practices and values used and restrictively controlled as instruments of power and ideology?
  • To what extent should/can sensory archaeology inform archaeological practice?

Engaging the Historical Archive of Sensation – Annette Kern-Stähler

Respondent: Jessica Hughes


Dioscorides, de Materia Medica

As part of what the anthropologist David Howes has called a ‘sensorial revolution’ in the humanities, sensory history has emerged as a dynamic field of enquiry which seeks to understand the role of the senses in past societies. Working on the premise that sensory experiences are historically and culturally contingent, studies in sensory history explore the shifting meanings of, and attitudes towards, the senses and sense experiences.

Historicizing the senses poses methodological challenges, not least due to the ephemeral nature of sensory perception. A number of sensory historians have expressed their regret that our understanding of the role of the senses in the past is ‘constrained’ by our dependence on textual evidence. Yet, I argue that written texts constitute an important part of what Holly Dugan has called ‘the historical archive of sensation’. It is the language of sensory perception embedded in these texts, I propose, that offers valuable evidence for our study of the role of the senses in the past and for our attempts to uncover past sensescapes. I will exemplify this approach by two case studies from medieval England.


Distinguishing senses: naturalism and non-naturalism – Louise Richardson

Respondent: Clare Batty

Instituto de Cajal, Madrid

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1899) Purkinje cells in Pigeon cerebellum



In this paper, I will give an overview of contemporary philosophical discussions of what the senses are, with the aim of illuminating the possibility of bidirectional influence between these discussions and others taking place in sensory studies. Contemporary philosophical discussions of what the senses are encompass at least the following two foundational issues: (a) how the senses are distinguished from one another and (b) how the senses are distinguished from other capacities that are not senses. Anyone making theoretical use of the notion of a sense should reflect on their commitments with respect to these issues, philosophical discussion of which should take into account the range of theoretical (as well as practical) purposes to which the notion of a sense is put.

I will contrast naturalist and non-naturalist approaches to these issues and present reasons to prefer non-naturalism, at least as an account of the senses as they appear in the ‘manifest’ as opposed to the ‘scientific’ image (Sellars 1963). On a naturalistic view, the senses and the instances of perceptual experience belonging to each sensory modality form natural kinds, the essential nature of which is to be determined by scientific discovery. The non-naturalist rejects naturalism and may see senses and kinds of perceptual experience as, for example, conventional or social kinds, a view that, on the face of it, sits well with the apparent ‘cultural contingency of sensory taxonomies’ (Howes 2013) noted in sensory studies.

Sellars, W. (1963). Philosophy and the scientific image of man. Science, Perception and Reality, 2, pp. 35-78.
Howes, D. (2013). The expanding field of sensory studies. Retrieved September 2016 from http://www.sensorystudies.org/sensorial-investigations/the-expanding-field-of-sensory-studies/.