Sensing Place Symposium

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This week’s Humanities in Public (HiP) event had a lot to live up to.

Professor Tim Ingold’s Reach for the Stars lecture of last week drew a large crowd, held its rapt, and then closed off with an intense Q&A session.

HiP’s sequel in the Sensing Place series, the Sensing Place Symposium, put four academics up to the task of following on from Tim Ingold, and expanding, re-framing, or outright contradicting his understanding of sense, place, and the human being.

Each lecturer was assigned one sense to tackle.

The Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) Geography Department’s own Dr Tim Edensor dealt with sight in a talk called Sensing Light and Darkness. Sight was also Tim Ingold’s domain, so Dr Edensor had his work cut out for him.

He began by reminding the crowd that it wasn’t until the 1700s that Western societies began to banish the total darkness which had previously blacked out the entire latter half of the day and relegated all outdoor activity to criminals, victims, and the night’s watch. We abolished this grim landscape during modernity, but replaced it with another: a drab orange landscape of flat sodium lighting. “The only solution,” Tim argued, “Is more solutions: creative, ambient and pleasant urban lighting, designed by artists and installed by the local authorities.”

The theme of human development and urban planning continued in the lecture entitled Urban Smellscapes: Relationships Between the Sense of Smell and Place, given by Dr Victoria Henshaw, of the University of Sheffield.

Dr Victoria Henshaw

Dr Victoria Henshaw

Dr Henshaw emphasised the importance of this often-overlooked sense by handing out samples of various smells in the urban environment to her crowd. We sampled ‘old hospital’, ‘new hospital’ (noticeably less nasty), ‘Glasgow’, ‘Champ de Mars, Paris’, and even ‘bomb site’. She also revealed a rather jarring statistic– that roughly half of those born without a sense of smell suffer from depression. “Smell is overlooked as a positive,” Dr Henshaw argued, “And because of this, we are missing an opportunity to make our lives and cities better.”

By the halfway point of the symposium, the dense academic language we had seen in the talk given last week Tim Ingold was still yet to resurface. ‘The senses’, as of yet, seemed very ordinary.

Dr Toby Heys, of the Manchester School of Art, reversed this trend in spectacular fashion. His lecture, entitled The Highs and Lows of Sonic Cartography, was incredibly hard to follow, but drew a focus on the malleable and manipulative qualities of sound waveforms, as evidenced by research carried out by the evil geniuses working in the United States’ military-industrial complex. Dr Heys’ words were more like a dance than a cogent argument, but by the end, we had all heard what he had to say.

‘Manipulation’ carried on a theme first invoked by Dr Henshaw when she referenced the deception carried out by supermarkets when they vent the fresh-bread fumes from their bakery outside the front door, in order to draw in customers. “It isn’t manipulation, per se,” said Dr Henshaw, “But people don’t like it. They want their environment to be honest.”

‘Honesty’ and ‘dishonesty’ cropped up again in the closing lecture carried out by Dr Sara MacKian of The Open University. Dr MacKian admitted straight off that although the had been assigned the sense of touch, she had decided to shift her academic focus onto the ‘sixth sense’: the connecting bridge between the spheres of everyday human life and the sphere of the spirit. Dr MacKian never attempted a definition of what exactly constitutes ‘spirit’, but she did she lay out a few examples of the apparent experiences of ‘spirit’ on which she conducts her day-to-day research. Tarot cards, healing, synchronicity, channelling the dead, etc. These were her focus.

Dr MacKian drew particular attention to the failure of the social sciences to deal with these types of experience, and gave several accounts of times when fellow academics had sniffed, scoffed, or snubbed her.

“You don’t really believe in this stuff, do you?” was the question the most polite would ask.

“What does it matter,” goes the reply, “If I am investigating genuine human experience, just the same as you are?”

Dr Sara MacKian

Dr Sara MacKian

In my eyes, Dr MacKian’s lecture asked the entire crowd one implicit question. Which is more honest, and less dishonest: to acknowledge and investigate all reported human experience, or to write off the experience which is currently the least plausible?

The post-lecture Q&A teased out the common thread that drew the four lectures and four speakers together, and linked their words back to Tim Ingold and his Icarus-esque quest to ‘Reach for the Stars’. Everyone in the room who spoke wanted to know the range and limits of possible human experience.

“Do you think there is an edge to the map?” A member of the audience asked.

Toby Heys answered that in terms of sound and waveforms, there an incredible range of physical realities and possibilities, but only a few of these can ever be witnessed and experienced by human beings without the aid of advanced machinery. In the end, it’s just the way we’re wired up.

HiP’s Sensing Place series will conclude on Monday 2nd June with the Sensing Place Poetry Gala. The gala will be held at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation from 6pm, and will feature Sean Borodale, Deryn Rees-Jones, Michael Symmons Roberts and Jean Sprackland. Tickets are free of charge, but there are limited spaces available, book here to avoid disappointment.

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. 

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

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