It’s The Eyes That Have It

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A famous painting of a starry night's sky

Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night

As Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Humanities in Public (HiP) programme launches into its seventh and final stage – Sensing Place – the academic focus moves on from bodies living and bodies dead to sense data, perception, and the nature of the world around us.

The University of Aberdeen’s Tim Ingold arrived at five o’clock to lead the participants of HiP into the confusing world of sensory perception with a talk called Reach for the Stars: On haptic perception and the atmosphere.

Google’s dictionary function defines ‘haptic’ as:

Relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception.

Professor Ingold used ‘haptic’ as a metaphor. He wanted to explain to us that through our empty pupils and our optic nerve, we touch the world’s atmosphere, and it touches us.

He focused almost exclusively on sky, air, atmosphere, and the senses – with Van Gogh’s Starry Night projected on the whiteboard behind him – but the scope of his argument spanned a prodigious swathe of academic territory. Ingold paid reference to the work French philosopher Henri Poincaré frequently, and with good reason – Poincaré’s spread across theoretical physics and philosophy of science laid the groundwork for Ingold’s closer, more humanistic focus on the human being and its endeavours and experiences. In about sixty seconds Ingold proved able to switch from a discussion to the physical nature of light, to the difference between line and colour in art.

No wonder, then, that this HiP lecture was one of the most heavily attended to date, and that it drew attendees from a wide range of disciplines. Before the lecture began I spoke to a man who took part in a reading group at the Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD), who told me that ‘Tim Ingold’ is the name which crops up most in their discussions. In the question time after the talk, audience members from a variety of fields raised their hands to speak up: by my count I heard at least one scientist, two artists, and a veteran worker in care for the blind. I even found myself sitting next to Jess Edwards, the leader of MMU’s English department.

And the English language certainly was an issue at stake. Tim Ingold kept apologising, “I’m sorry if my ideas sound difficult, it is just that they are so hard to get across in the English language.”

It was when Tim Ingold hit upon these difficulties that he drew closest to pure philosophy. He stressed over and over the importance of the distinction between simply receiving sense data from the world, and actively breathing it in.

If this difference seems negligible or pointless to you, then consider. Is anything more basic or integral to human existence than that human’s relationship with the outside world?

The Humanities are about humans – we hope – and this opening lecture in the Sensing Place series did this claim a great service, as well as working to further extend the reach of the Humanities toward the edge of light, language, art, and the world itself.

The next Humanities in Public event is the Sensing Place Symposium, which will take place on Monday 19th May at MMU’s Geoffrey Manton building, Lecture Theatre 4 from 5pm onwards. Guest speakers include Dr Tim Edensor, Dr Victoria Henshaw, Dr Toby Heys, and Dr Sara MacKian. To find out more and book tickets, visit the Humanities in Public webpage.

Angus is an aspiring writer, hobbyist photographer, and undergraduate student of English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is originally from Dundee, Scotland and has been living in Manchester, England since the summer of 2011. You can find all of his online hiding places here.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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