The Sensorial Object
Clive Cazeaux: Professor of Aesthetics
Cardiff School of Art and Design
The senses are metaphorical. Art is metaphorical. The sensorial objects in this exhibition immerse us in metaphor. These sentences baldly make their points, but the meanings are unusual or strange or ambiguous, or just too compressed. The senses are not usually linked with metaphor, and to sum up all art as metaphorical is just that: to sum it up, and therefore somehow to reduce it. I should elaborate.
In the West, the senses are customarily understood to be the channels by which we receive the external world, and more often than not, those channels are assumed to be direct and immediate, the world delivered to us as it exists in itself, without interruption. This directness is first expressed by Aristotle who declares in De Anima that perception is the receipt of sensory impressions; perception, he writes, ‘receives perceptible forms without their matter, as wax receives the imprint of the ring without the iron or gold’. Allied to this directness is the idea that each sense has its own uniqueness and particularity, something that the other senses don’t have, that belongs to the moment, and that certainly cannot be put into words. This concept of the senses is presented by John Locke in the seventeenth century as an attack on rationalism, and an affirmation that sensory experience provides knowledge that reason and concepts cannot supply. The senses, he argued, come to us as ‘simple ideas’, where ‘simple’ is meant in a strict sense to signify that sensation has a unique, singular quality that cannot be broken down into elements that might have something in common with other elements elsewhere. So it would appear I was wrong. The senses are direct and ineffable, two qualities that suggest that sensation is very much its own thing, locked up inside its own particular nature, and as far away as you can possibly be from the transitions and transformations performed by metaphor.
Metaphor is the description of one thing as something else, for example, ‘the brain is a computer’, ‘love is a battlefield’, and ‘the seminar opened things up for me’ (as if understanding can open up like a flower or a landscape). It is more often than not seen as a poetic or linguistic device, but recent studies in philosophy and cognitive linguistics have shown it to be a principle of interaction and exchange that goes all the way down to the way human beings perceive, think and organize the world. Some, for example Nietzsche and recent work in speculative realism, even go so far as to situate it as a principle in the world underlying all forms of being. The action of claiming or perceiving one thing as something else, it is argued, is not just an act of comparison but a process that gives the object a new identity and draws attention to the perspectival, pictorial nature of all knowledge.
On this basis, the metaphorical nature of the senses can be grasped in two ways. Firstly, we can never address the senses directly. They are always seen from one theoretical perspective or another, as one thing or another. We can never get to the senses pure; they are always seen as something else. My introduction to the senses as not being metaphorical was saturated with metaphor: reception, impression, channel, and simple (or ‘one-thing-ness’). As soon as a definition or theory is applied, a commitment is made, a particular section of reality is placed in a frame and given a meaning and value, and everything outside that frame is subordinated or dismissed. On the plus side, it means that the study served by the frame can go ahead, the meaning and value can be put to work in a method, and conclusions can be drawn. On the minus side, a lot of reality is excluded which, given a different frame, could have had a bearing, if not on the study in question, then on a related one. Sensation can only enter discourse through description but the description, far from merely capturing what is there, imposes its own frame, emphasizes a particular character within, or even assigns a character to, sensation.
A second way of grasping the metaphorical nature of the senses is to challenge Locke’s doctrine of simple ideas and adopt a theory that asserts the fundamental nature of synaesthesia, the idea that the senses draw upon one another. Before the word ‘synaesthesia’ was adopted by medical science as the name for a neurological condition, it referred to the idea that there is a form of communication or ‘togetherness’ between the senses. Twentieth-century phenomenology, the philosophy of experience, has revived this notion. In the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the senses, rather than being conceptualized as five individual channels filling the human subject with information, are presented as modes of disclosure that are coordinated with one another in the construction of the world. Just as any coordinate system defines one location in terms of another, Merleau-Ponty writes in The Phenomenology of Perception, so colours, for example, become comprehensible elements only ‘if they cease to be closed states or indescribable qualities presented to an observing and thinking subject, and if they [instead] impinge within me upon a certain general setting through which I come to terms with the world’. One sense speaks to another because the senses, rather than being channels, are in fact openings onto a world, and as such each sense is pregnant with possibilities that point towards other forms of sensory disclosure. Synaesthetic perception is, therefore, according to Merleau-Ponty, ‘the rule’:
The senses intercommunicate by opening on to the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass, and when, with a tinkling sound, it breaks, this sound is conveyed by the visible glass… I hear the hardness and unevenness of cobbles in the rattle of a carriage, and we speak appropriately of a ‘soft’, ‘dull’, or ‘sharp’ sound.
This could be construed merely as the point that instances of joined sensation are learned through association, ideas that are put together over time because experience teaches us that they come together. But this is to fall back under the spell of the ‘channel’ metaphor again, and to let it blind us (pun intended) to the fact that whenever we try to arrive at the essence of something, we always end up borrowing concepts from elsewhere, reaching out for properties that do not belong to the object, in order to describe the object. Is it really so strange to think of one sense beckoning towards another once it is recognized that experience and knowledge are set within the ways in which a multisensory body finds its way about the world?
But what about art? To claim that all art is metaphorical is surely a reduction. But that’s only if we continue to treat metaphor as one poetic device among others and, therefore, to assume that I am trying to package all of art into one corner of poetry. The theory of metaphor offered here is different. Metaphor tests our sense of the properties that belong and do not belong to an object. Taken at face value, metaphors are nonsensical: time is a river; architecture is frozen music? But they are more than nonsensical – they work – because they represent a major redistribution of how we see one part of the world relating to another. To say that art is metaphorical is to assert that art has an effect on how we categorize and know the world. I don’t think this is a reduction. The metaphorical dimension of art is one of the features driving artistic research: art upsets how we know and think, and spending time reflecting on that upset is a contribution to what counts as knowledge, even if it is to point out that there are modes of practice that don’t confirm to the paradigms of knowledge, e.g. science and reason.
The sensorial objects in this exhibition immerse us in metaphor. Part of the pleasure of working with materials as an artist is discovering how the manipulation of a material can take it somewhere else, can bring it to a concept that ordinarily would have nothing to do with that material. In this sense, there is no such thing as simple or pure material. It always occurs and behaves in response to the conditions in which it is set – hot, cold, damp, dry, light, dark – and the bodily, perceptual actions of its beholder. Furthermore, we as viewers get to experience some of the pleasure of transition because the move is not a datum locked in the artist’s head but a state of play in the public realm, made available to us through the senses, and made available in a certain way, as a result of the artist’s exploration of the material and the ‘somewhere else’ to which it is taken. There is often the worry that the ‘true’ meaning of a work lies with the artist. While such meaning might be of interest in terms of biographical information about the artist, there never can be the true meaning of a work because an author or artist is never in total command of the meanings that their materials evoke.
The fact that the objects on view are objects helps with our experience of the pleasure of transition. Surely this is a statement of the obvious; to point out that objects are objects is not the most ground-breaking of claims. But the point is that we all too often assume we know what an object is: a thing with a set of properties that can be known and quantified, as if every item were accompanied by a checklist that we can tick. But this is only one concept of an object. Alternatively, objects occur. They greet us in certain ways, and are suggestive of actions, applications, values and meanings. They do not sit in themselves but are always reaching out towards other things; they are localized concentrations of qualities that, in virtue of their density, are always metaphorical explosions-waiting-to-happen. It is never a matter of whether the meanings that follow are right or wrong. Again, no author or artist is ever in total command of the meanings of their materials. Rather, these will be openings and trajectories where we get to enjoy what initially appeared as one thing, becoming something else.
Aristotle, De Anima, in J.L. Ackrill (ed.), A New Aristotle Reader (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
John Locke, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (London: Penguin, 1997). Work
originally published 1690.
Ibid., book 2, chapters 1 and 2.
See, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’, in
Clive Cazeaux (ed.), The Continental Aesthetics Reader 2nd edition (Abingdon:
Routledge, 2011) pp. 62-76.
See, for example, Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the
Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2005) pp. 101-24, 141-44.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London:
Routledge, 1978) p. 210. Work originally published 1945.
Ibid., pp. 229-30.