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APPROACHING MEDIA THROUGH THE SENSES: BETWEEN


EXPERIENCE AND REPRESENTATION
Published in Media International Australia No 154, February 2015
http://www.uq.edu.au/mia/2015-issues#154

Sarah Pink, RMIT University


Abstract
There has in recent years been a growing interest in media and the senses. Yet there
has to date been no sustained focus on the implications of existing approaches to the
senses for how we understand this relationship. In this article I demonstrate how
contemporary debates rooted in, but by no means exclusive to, anthropology that
pivot around concepts of culture, representation and experience can inform the ways
we might conceptualise the relationship between media and senses. I explore the
tensions between and analytical consequences of, on the one hand culturalist
approaches to both the senses and to media, and on the other phenomenological
approaches. Such debates moreover reveal the need to explore further how the
relationality between representational and non-representational elements of media and
content might be articulated.
Keywords: media, the senses, perception, phenomenological anthropology,
representation, non-representational approaches, interdisciplinarity.
Introduction
In recent years a sensory turn in scholarship across the social sciences and
humanities has invited deeper considerations of the experiential elements of how we
make and inhabit our everyday environments. This coincides with calls for
approaches to media studies that direct our attention from the analysis of media
content to the non-representational and practice. Together these moves urge us to
approach peoples experiential engagements with media in habitual, on-going and
routine everyday life places and practices from a new perspective.

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The turn to the senses has impacted to some extent in media and communication
studies, visual studies and digital art, but is not represented by a single movement or
theoretical agenda. In this article I call for closer attention to the implications of
engaging theoretical and methodological tools available for thinking about media
through the senses in media scholarship. Doing so also adds to new element to calls
from media scholars such as Nick Couldry (e.g. 2012) and Shaun Moores (2012) for a
focus on practice and the non-representational as part of a non-media-centric
approach to media studies. Both practice theory (e.g. Schatzki 2001) as developed in
sociology and non-representational theory as developed in human geography (see for
example Lorimer 2005) and in anthropology (e.g. Ingold 2010) implicate the study of
the unspoken, tacit and sensory elements of everyday life. This has meant that in other
disciplines the debate between approaches that attend to representations and those that
focus on the non-representational have been played out over different issues. For
example, in human geography a focus has been on a world of flows and processes
rather than the world as mapped, and in anthropology on the analysis of the ongoing,
experiential and relational qualities and affordances of the world and what is part of it
instead of attention to the symbolic (see Pink 2013, Chapter 1 for a discussion of
some of these disciplinary issues). Yet these shifts in approaches have led to only a
very limited amount of discussion of the experiential and sensorial dimensions of how
we perceive and engage with media in everyday life. In contrast, through the
representational approach of Visual Culture Studies W.J.T. Mitchell (2005) engages
the sensory to develop a semiotic approach to media.
In this article I examine the critical relationship between approaches that focus on the
senses through representations and non-representational approaches. My focus is not
on media or its use per se but on how we might engage theoretical tools to interpret its
sensory qualities and the experience of it. In doing so I thus outline the relevance,
significance and implications of this debate for media studies.
Media and the Senses: some starting points
There is a growing interest in media phenomenology including in British and
Australian media scholarship (e.g. Moores 2012, Richardson and Wilken 2011, Pink
and Leder Mackley 2013) as well as new ways of thinking about media audiences
(see for example Nightingale 2012). As part of this context, recently scholars have

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begun to develop an interest in a focus on sensory experience for understanding
media, including work on sensoriality in film (e.g. Marks 2002, MacDougall 2005), in
gaming studies (e.g. Shinkle 2008, Richardson 2009, 2012), in the experience of the
ipod (e.g. Bull 2007), digital photography (Pink 2011, Forrest 2012) and the tactility
of the keyboard and screen (Moores, 2012, Fors et al 2013). In these works the
material and intangible, experiential and aesthetic qualities of media invite us to
attend analytically to the senses. In a context where locative media are increasingly
ubiquitous, the tactility of touch screens, the visuality of camera phones and the
immateriality of digital visualities also call for analytical attention. These qualities
and forms of embodied and perceptual engagement with new media technologies
hardware and software do not make our experience of digital media more sensory
than that of old media. Yet, new ways of touching, looking, and moving with digital
media, including but not at all limited to locative media (Pink and Leder Mackley
2013, Pink and Hjorth 2012), have alerted us to the sensoriality of our embodied and
affective engagements with media in new ways. Such realisations invite us to probe
further into the kinds of embodied experiences these encounters between people,
(digital) media technologies and other constituents of environment invite or generate
as well as to engage theoretically, methodologically and analytically with the sensory
qualities and experiences of digital and old media.
To examine the implications of developing a sensory approach to analysing media, in
what follows I create a dialogue between how the relationship between media and the
senses has been conceptualised in literatures that take representational and nonrepresentational approaches to culture and the senses.
Points for departures: extensions, ratios and hierarchies
Marshall McLuhans proposals that the medium is the message, and more
sensorially the massage (1967), have had an enduring influence in the social
sciences and humanities. Significantly his work has also supported the development
of contemporary sensory studies (in Howes 2005).
McLuhan made two key arguments about media and the senses that are pertinent here.
First he proposed that in an existing world where he claimed there was a peculiar
monopoly and separation of visual experience, at the expense of the other senses,

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which is imposed by print and its industrial organisational extensions, arising in the
nineteenth century (2005: 46), television had produced a new extension of the
senses. Television, he argued was not just sight and sound, but tangibility in its
visual, contoured, sculptural mode. This he conceptualized as a sudden extension of
our sight-touch powers and asked what changes it had led to. Indeed for McLuhan,
any new medium alters the existing sense ratios and proportions just as over-all
colours are modified by any local shift of pigment or component (2005: 47). Thus,
with a degree of technological determinism (c.f. Howes 2005: 23) we would not agree
with now, McLuhan suggested that new media change how we experience the world.
Second, McLuhan established the notion of sense ratios, by which he suggested
different senses dominated in the ways that we experience different media, and that
these ratios shifted according to the medium concerned.
The anthropologist Howes began his project of the anthropology of the senses in the
1980s, through publications (e.g. Howes 1991, 2003), the Sensory Formations book
series and the Senses and Society journal (others of course also made important
contributions) (Pink 2009, Porcello et al 2010). Howess work links to McLuhans
approach, as Ingold notes, writing how: Between them McLuhan, Carpenter and Ong
effectively laid the foundations for a currently vibrant field of enquiry that has come
to be known as the anthropology of the senses (2000: 250). Where McLuhans
interest was in sensory ratios and how these changed across time along with the
introduction of new media, Howess focus was on sensory hierarchies and how these
differ across cultures (see Howes 2011). His initial argument was that just as the
sensory profiles of individuals may differ as a result of their social roles demanding
different perceptual skills (e.g., cook or musician), so may the sensory profiles of
whole societies, relatively speaking (see Howes 1991: 328). Both McLuhan and
Howes seek to identify how the different senses as separate from each other might be
seen to be dominant or subordinate in different circumstances. Howess project is of
cross-cultural comparison, a characteristic of an anthropology, which assumed kinds
of holism that are now considered more problematic (Pink 2006). He also argues for a
relativist approach, insisting we should not subordinate other ontologies to those
proposed by modern western philosophy or science (e.g. Howes 2003, 2011).
Howess agenda for the senses, rooted in this area of anthropology, invites us to
consider culturally specific understandings of the senses as relative and their

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hierarchical ordering in different cultures to potentially be different.
Both McLuhan and Howes are thus concerned with cultural categories of sensory
experience vision, sound smell, taste and touch and with how we experience
through these categories. Treating the categories themselves as an object of analysis
they are interested in how these can be fitted into cultural hierarchies (Howes) or
ratios (McLuhan), which in turn are seen as generating particular sensory ways of
experiencing and making meaning in the world. This emphasis on the cultural, and on
categories as a unit of analysis, is also, I suggest why these approaches have been
appealing to researchers of culture.
In the next section I develop these insights further through a discussion of the work of
the anthropologist Tim Ingold. Ingold is not directly concerned with the study of
media, yet his critique of how the senses have been treated in visual culture studies is
highly relevant to this discussion: he argues that anthropologists of the senses such as
Howes have implemented exactly the same manoeuvre as have their intellectual
bedfellows in the study of visual culture. To the worlds of images conjured up by the
latter, they have simply added worlds of sounds, of feelings and of smells (2011b:
316). In the next section I build on this point through a discussion of the debate
between Howes and Ingold, before following it up with reference to the work of
W.J.T Mitchell.
Debating anthropology and the senses: the implications for a sensory approach
to understanding media
Recently non-representational (e.g. Thrift 2007) approaches in human geography, and
anthropology (e.g. Ingold 2011) have impacted on the work on some media scholars
(e.g. Moores 2012a, 2012b). The relationship between such approaches and
traditional culturalist approaches described above can be seen in a debate over the
anthropology of the senses, between Howes and Ingold in the journal Social
Anthropology, Ingold states that his overriding aim is to understand how people
perceive the world around them, and how and why these perceptions differ. We
might then ask what this means for understanding a world of which digital media are
an increasing part. Ingold is also refreshingly open to consider how we might do this
arguing that We should listen to what so-called indigenous people have to tell us,

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to what people with impairments of sight and hearing have to tell us, [and] what
psychologists, neurophysiologists and philosophers among others have to tell us
(Ingold 2011b: 323). Ingolds approach is highly relevant for thinking about the
sensoriality of a world in which digital media are increasingly ubiquitous (see also
Moores 2012b) precisely because it offers alternative ways of understanding media.
Ingolds ideas are grounded in the works of Merleau-Ponty, Hans Jonas and James
Gibson all of whom reject the representational theory of knowledge on which Howes
founds his anthropology of the senses (Ingold 2011b: ??). Whereas, Ingold argues,
Howes reifies the senses as bodily registers that convey messages to the mind of
the perceiver, for Ingold the mind does not have to piece together information about
external objects delivered by way of different registers and the senses are not
keyboards or filters that mediate the traffic between mind and world. Rather, he sees
them as aspects of the functioning of the living being in its environment. And their
synergy lies in the fact of their being powers of the same organism, engaged in the
same action, and attending to the same world (2011b: 314-5). Ingold deals with
questions of representation, mind, perception and the senses in the following extract:
I hold that mind is not an interior domain of representations, set over against
an external world in which they find behavioural expression, but is rather
immanent in the multiple sensory pathways along which activity spills out into
the environment. Learning and doing are as much mental as they are bodily, if
indeed the two can be distinguished at all (Ingold 2011b: 324).
This leads him to
reject the epistemology that drives a wedge between the world of practical
activity on the one hand and, on the other, the world of symbolic
representation (Ingold 2011b: 324).
Ingolds challenges a focus on culture and representation and offers a way to go
beyond it. When he argues that The senses cannot be differentiated according to the
kinds of information they transmit for the simple reason that they are not transmitters.
Vision, hearing and the rest are aspects of action ways of attentively going forth in

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the world; they are not filters in the conversion of external physical stimuli into
internal mental representations (20011b: 325), we can see how dividing up the
qualities of different media into varying hierarchies of sensory ratios does little to
create a connection between the new sensory qualities of old, digital and emergent
media and the ways in which we experience them sensorially. This analysis has
implications, as I outline in the next section for treatment of media and the senses in
visual culture studies.
The senses and the shift away from visual media
In an article aptly titled There are no Visual Media published in 2005, W. J. T.
Mitchell debunks the idea of visual exclusivity arguing that one corollary of the
claim that there are no visual media is that all media are mixed media, he proposes
that the very notion of a medium and of mediation already entails some mixture of
sensory, perceptual and semiotic elements. There are no purely auditory, tactile or
olfactory media either (Mitchell 2005: 260).
Mitchells focus is on media, rather than on how people engage with media, and this
also distinguishes his approach from that of phenomenological anthropology. He asks
therefore how following on from this we might distinguish between media. To
develop this he turns to McLuhans (1994[1964]) Understanding Media. He
emphasizes that McLuhans larger point was definitely not to rest content with
identifying specific media with isolated, reified sensory channels, but to assess the
specific mixtures of specific media (2005: 261).
Mitchell calls for further empirical and phenomenological analysis of the sensory and
semiotic elements of media (2005: 262). Building on McLuhans work he argues that:
the specificity of media, then, is a much more complex issue than reified sensory
labels such as visual, aural and tactile. It is, rather a question of specific sensory
ratios that are embedded in practice, experience, tradition, and technical inventions.
He then suggests We also need to be mindful that media are not only extensions of
the senses, calibrations of sensory ratios, they are also symbolic or semiotic operators,
complexes of sign-functions (2005: 261). These points support Mitchells aim to
dislodge assumptions about the status of the visual that prevailed in visual culture
studies. First, Mitchell develops McLuhans idea of sensory ratios to argue for a

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focus away from the idea that different media are specifically visual or aural.
Rather he is interested in how what he refers to as the sensory channels and semiotic
functions are hierarchically ordered, lead to each other and are nested in relation to
each other for different media. Or finally where there is a braiding when one
sensory channel or semiotic function is woven together with another more or less
seamlessly as in synchronized sound or conversely a braid or suture can be
unravelled and a gap or a bar can be introduced into a sensory/semiotic ratio, this
means that also there might be signs and senses moving on parallel tracks that never
meet, but are kept rigorously apart here subjective connections need to be made by
the audience (2005: 262).
Mitchell also builds on the neuroscience of Oliver Sacks to argue that natural vision
is a braiding and nesting of the optical and tactile (2005: 263), thus acknowledging
that There are no purely visual media because there is no such thing as pure visual
perception in the first place (2005: 263). The analysis opens up a new route for the
exploration of the visual in visual culture studies (2005: 265)). Indeed it would be
difficult to disagree with his argument against the existence of purely visual media.
Yet his approach has certain analytical consequences in terms of what it can tell us
and in the remainder of this section I explore its limits for understanding media in
everyday life by posing two questions. The first relates to the epistemological status
of sensory hierarchies that might be created from impure categories of vision, touch
or sound. The second relates to the constructedness of semiotic categories and the
subsequent limitations in terms of what they can tell us. I approach these in turn:
If there is no pure vision, touch or sound, how might a sensory hierarchy built up of
these categories be determined? By this I mean, how would we know if a medium
were dominated by one of these categories in terms of how it is experienced? This is
complicated if we take seriously the argument that sensory categories are themselves
culturally constructed and cannot necessarily be mapped directly onto processes of
human perception. Indeed research in anthropology (Geurts 2003) philosophy and in
the neurosciences implies that sensory perception does not get braided into in impure
predetermined categories, and that it moreover does not necessarily happen in
categories at all. In fact researchers in this area are now arguing that the five senses

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do not travel along separate channels, but interact to a degree few scientists would
have believed only a decade ago (Cytowic 2010: 46).
If we take seriously this argument that in human perception the categories are not
separated out, then it is hard to see how they could be actually nested or braided in
relation to each other in a way that could then be directly mapped on to human
experience. Following this line of argument it would be rather only once experience is
classified culturally into constructed sensory categories that such braiding can become
analytically visible. Therefore we would have to understand that it is not actually the
senses that become nested or braided in media, but rather the analytical sensory
categories that come to stand for elements of multisensory experience that are
conceptualised as braided. What is important here therefore is not to conflate the two
ideas of on the one hand sensory categories as culturally constructed analytical
categories through which we can discuss media and the senses and on the other hand
the way that we as humans actually experience media. We do not experience through
these categories themselves, but we might rather use these categories as ways to
communicate about our experience of media. Therefore while Mitchell is right that
there are no visual media, following his approach the impurity of the visual, aural and
other categories depends on their interpenetration with other pre-determined
categories. In contrast phenomenological anthropology invites us to understand the
complexity of sensory perception in alternative ways that interrogate and go beyond
cultural categories. This is not to argue against using cultural categories in academic
research (e.g. see Fors et al 2012), but to emphasise the importance of establishing a
reflexive awareness of what such analytical categories stand for in relation to the
experiential realities we are seeking to discuss.
My second question focuses on how semiotic approaches to media analysis involve
working with a set of categories, which are part of a culturally constructed way of
understanding media and its semiotic functions. We cannot avoid using culturally
constructed categories the categories of scholarship are all such and I do not argue
that the categories of semiotic analysis should be abandoned. However, if we use
these in conjunction with a sensory analysis we need to be aware of their status as
categories and the analytical implications of this. For example, the anthropologist
Birgit Meyer has shown the potential of anthropology as a critical voice in relation to

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modern western semiotic analysis. Meyers examines the work that is achieved by an
analysis of the social processes through which media become so much entangled with
what they contribute to mediate that they are not visible as such, at least not for those
who are partaking in mediation (Meyer 2011: 26). Her analysis of the place of media
in sensational religious experience in Ghana enables shows how an internal semiotic
code enables the media to disappear from religious experience, to create a sense of
immediacy. She stresses how although the anthropological insiders view is
important, her own analysis still requires a standpoint that is external to the very
sensational forms and semiotic ideologies that I identify as central to engaging media
(2011: 37). Meyer argues that it is not only the semiotic codes of the people whose
cultures anthropologists analyze that need to be subjected to such an approach.
Rather, likewise grand, universally applicable theories of media and mediation that
seek to establish in general or even universal terms what a medium is and how it
works are also imbued with their own semiotic ideologies, and therefore our own
media theories need critical attention (Meyer 2011: 37).
A reflexive approach to how modern western semiotic analysis itself is constructed
leads to greater awareness of the status of knowledge about the sensoriality of media
it produces. Sensory perception cannot be straightforwardly or directly slotted into
sensory categories. One would need to either classify elements of the experience of
media into analytical units that can be mapped onto or interwoven with those of the
semiotic categories being used, or to understand the sensoriality of media as ongoing,
beyond representation, something that cannot be broken up into analyzable units. A
semiotic approach would involve either the pairing of one set of culturally constructed
categories to another set (that is semiotic categories to sensory categories), or relating
processes of sensory perception that brain scientists are perhaps still not in agreement
about to hierarchically ordered semiotic structures. This would allow us to put some
order into what ethnographers often (following Law 2002) refer to as the messiness of
reality and the way it is perceived. Yet such an approach is not easily reconciled with
the notion of the on-goingness and non-representational nature of sensory experience.
While it understands media as not simply visual, it does not offer us a way of
understanding the relationship between the sensory affordances of media and the
ways they are actually experienced.

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Media, representation, place and practice
Non-representational approaches enable us to deconstruct the analytical categories of
culturalist approaches to media, to attend to the experiential rather than textual
qualities of media, and remind us of the importance of non-media-centric analysis.
Yet, media have a special quality in relation to a non-representational theory that is,
that media content is necessarily concerned with processes of representation, the
creation of images, sounds, and more that have intended (if not received) meanings,
that people who have common experiences (if not cultures) will comprehend in
ways that have commonalities. Media representations (see Bird 2010) as well as
technologies become part of our everyday practices and ways of being.
The work of Barbara Maria Stafford invites us to precisely such a challenge. In
common with Ingold, Stafford invites us to consider scientific and philosophical
questions and theories about questions like where and how cognition takes place,
where conscious thought begins and ends, how knowledge is transmitted and how we
learn, and draws on the work of neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists. She
argues that Instead of linguistic models of representation, I put forward visual modes
of presentation (heraldic devices, blazons, mosaics) demonstrating how thought
interpenetrates the components of sensation and the elements of sensation enter into
thought. This approach means that representations do not hang about in our heads
but rather the process is not one of representation but manifestation at the interface
where the neural and sensory registers dovetail or become superimposed into a whole
(2006: 215). Stafford suggests that this delicate joining of self to world and of world
to self [i.e. when we view images], as J. J. Gibson argued in his theory of affordances,
is predicated on an organisms response to the visual features of the environment that
matter to it (2006: 215). For Ingold, Stafford and other contemporary scholars we are
living in a world in movement (see also Massey 2005), in which we are constantly
learning, going through and moving on. These works invite us to consider how the
senses/sensory perception become part of the ways in which we experience and
engage with media both as a technology and as representation, and as part of the
wider environments in which we live our everyday lives.
There are points of connection between such approaches and contemporary media
studies. For example, Nick Couldry and Ana Mcarthy (2004), and others who follow

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spatial theory in seeking ways of understanding media in everyday life (e.g. Moores
2012, Pink 2012) suggest situate media as part of the making and experience of place.
Likewise the interest in practice theory in media studies from Brauchler and Postill
(2011) and Couldry (2011, 2012) emphasises what people are doing with their bodies
in relation to media in particular environments. A focus on the sensoriality of our
practical engagements with media within ecologies of place also raises questions
about the relationship between how we experience media content and media
technologies. In different ways these moves bring together a series of points about the
relevance of the senses for understanding contemporary media, invite us to go beyond
the representational, beyond the anthropology of the senses, and beyond culture.
Conclusion
It has been my intention to open up the study of media to questions about sensoriality
as they emerge from debates focused in anthropology. I have juxtaposed alternative
approaches to show how their theoretical commitments lead to particular analytical
consequences. These could be seen as representing a series of binary choices that we
might make to interpret how media are experienced and what this means, for instance
between: culture or phenomenology; mental representations or non-representational
theory; the anthropology of the senses or phenomenological anthropology; semiotics
of affordances; cultural relativism or neuroscience; and so on. Yet setting one
approach as against another is, in interdisciplinary scholarship, not always helpful.
My own argument is for an approach to media as part of wider experiential and
practical ecologies of activity, place, and environments, which follows Ingolds
approach and is broadly non-representational. However media cannot be studied
without an acknowledgement of their content. We would not use media if they did not
have content and studying media content raises questions about representation. While
theoretically non-representational approaches to media offer new ways to consider
how digital technologies and people form part of a shared and co-constituted sensory
environment, the context is more complex. This remains a challenge for future work
and more theoretical and empirical research is needed in this area, particularly in
relation to the ways that digital media refigure this relationship. Locative media,
digital cartographies, touch screens, body-monitoring devices and many more
contemporary and emergent technologies become part of our embodied and emplaced
experience at the same time as offering us representations or enabling us to create and

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share representations of ourselves and elements of the worlds of which we are part.
To focus on such questions we need to attend to how media content and
representation is part of the sensory and experiential ways that we engage with media
in everyday life, and to achieve this means at least in part engaging with theories of
sensory perception and experience.
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