Steve Connor

A talk given at the conference on The Senses, Thames Valley University, 6 February 2004


The current intensification of interest in the history and prospect of the senses is both driven and stalled by a tendency to the seemingly irresistible tendency to subject the senses to discrimination and comparative evaluation. This habit of divide-and-rank is a well-established pattern in the history of thinking about what we continue to believe are the five senses. Ever since Aristotle’s influential restriction of the idea of sense to the information transmitted physiologically through particular organs, and the consequent discrimination of precisely 5 senses, there has been a tendency to order the senses in hierarchical series. What is more, through medieval and early modern Europe, the rankings have remained remarkably consistent. Heading the pack, and well apart from it, comes the dominion sense of sight, the keeper of the citadel of the soul according to one popular metaphor, and therefore assimilated to reason, conscience and judgement. This is followed by hearing, its place of honour asproxime accessit secured by its association with language. Then, perhaps a little surprisingly, comes smell, then taste. And finally, and despite the fact that Aristotle saw it as the only sense necessary for life, and as implicated in all the others. Perhaps the only surprise in this list is that smell should be ranked higher than taste, for, in Western Europe at least, the metaphor of critical ‘taste’ means that this sense has displaced smell as the more discriminatory sense. But the tradition which dominates through Europe associates smell with the spirituality and rationality of the soul – St Paul describing the Holy Spirit as an ‘osmé’ or fragrance.. Smell is as it were the hinge or Janus-sense; drawn downwards to the lower features and functions of the body, it also looks down its nose at them, having an orientation towards the higher senses.

That touch should so regularly bring up an ignominious rear in the parade of the senses may also be a surprise, given the largely positive valuation of different qualities signified by terms like touch, tact, contact and intactness. But there is indeed a long tradition of the denigration of touch in Europe. Touch signifies the proximity, the undifferentiation of the body. Ficino wrote, “Nature has placed no sense further from the intelligence than touch”. Kant argued that “By touch, hearing and sight we perceive objects (on the surface); by taste and smell we partake of them (take them into ourselves)”. Kant’s distinction seems to leave touch as a hinge sense, able to be lifted into perception by the differentiating senses of hearing and sight, but also able to sink into the grosser participations of taste and smell. Touching yourself is the worst kind of touch, because it disallows even the minimal differentiation involved in being touched by another body.

During the nineteenth century, the hierarchy became evolutionised, in the work of Lorenz Oken, who proposed a hierarchy of races and animals based around their dominant sense. One should not be surprised that what he called the European ‘eye-man’ should come at the top of the list while the African skin-man should be the most primitive form of organism, alongside the elementary infusoria and groping gastropods.

A decade or so before the currently heightened interest in the senses among cultural historians, Fredric Jameson was to be heard protesting that the senses have a history. For Jameson, the most important recent feature of this history is the ‘autonomisation’ of the senses which he saw arising at the end of the nineteenth century. Jameson sees this autonomisation as an aesthetic defence against the spread of commodification and the law of exchange which suggested that there was nothing that could not be exchanged for something else. The autonomisation of the senses actually takes two separate but correlative forms. The first is the separation of the senses one from each other, in the hallucinatory heightening of the powers of individual senses and their stimuli, in symbolism, impressionism, and other arts of ‘decadence’, which Nietzsche saw as characterised by a hypertrophy of the fragment. This involved principally the powers of eye and ear, but also the cultivation of tactile sensitivities, in Pater and Wilde, say, and of olfactory sensation and artifice, for example in Joris-Karl Huysmans and Richard le Gallienne. We might correlate the selective heightening of the individual senses with the splitting of the different senses into separate channels which, according to Friedrich Kittler, was effected by the new sensory technologies of the late nineteenth century – camera, telephone, phonograph, typewriter. But, though this is in a sense a denial of the substitutability and complementarity of the senses, it also suggests the arts of synaesthesia, as in Baudelaire’s ‘Correspondances’, and Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’. I will have more to say in a moment concerning synaesthesia, but here I will just note that it is by no means unusual for the sifting out of the senses to be accompanied by a knitting together of them.

The second kind of separation is effected by a sequestration of the senses as such from the larger realms of action and cognition. The aestheticism of the senses that results is really not an art pour l’artbut a sens pour le sens, an aesthesia, or suraethesia to set against the alleged anaesthesia of modern life. It seems not for nothing that in English the realm of quantity should be signified by a word – ‘number’ – that seems also to signify the absence of feeling or qualia. Where I.A. Richards suggested that poetry might be able to move into the place of religion and save us from relapse into pure rationalisation, nowadays it is the senses that are more and more called upon to fulfil this role. Where, for the medieval world the soul had to guard against the dangers and delusions of the senses, for us the senses, embattled, dubious, fragile, dissociated, are all that remains to us of soul.


The contemporary return of the senses to prominence in cultural theory is driven by a kind of negative hierarchical impulse. Typically, one starts such an operation from the suggestion that the eye has an unjust and unearned dominion in individual life, a dominion that requires and results in the relegation of the other senses. The association of vision with knowledge and judgement seems often to be taken as a sign that vision has in a sense gone over to the other side, and so belongs more to reason and cognition than to feeling, though this, as we have already seen, is a long-established prejudice in thinking about sight in Europe. The interest in ‘the senses’ can often nowadays be decoded as an interest in ‘the other senses’, as though one might thereby in some way be able to soften or mitigate the cold severity of the eye. Many other orthodox binaries are then keyed predictably into this one: thus we hear time and again of the masculinism, the imperialism and the characteristically ‘Western’ nature of the eye.

Some of this scopophobia derives from what is in fact a distinctive feature of vision, namely its tendency to isolate and distinguish its objects. More than any other sense, perhaps, and differently from any other sense, the role of vision seems to be to pick things out from their backgrounds. If we distinguish the senses, we do so by the action of some inner or prosthetic action of the eye. The ear, nose, tongue and fingertips all depend upon the meeting or mingling or admixture of things; something must come up against another thing, or impart something of its substance to us. We cannot hear the sound of one thing alone; the only sounds we ever hear are the results of one thing striking another. By contrast, the eye is actually incapable of seeing anything with which it is in contact, and is incapable of seeing two things at once. Looking at a landscape, or painting of a landscape, we only see whatever at any one moment we are isolating from its background, a background that we cannot at that moment see. It is no surprise then that Michel Serres should use the senses as a way into what in his remarkable 1985 book Les Cinq Sens of what he calls a ‘philosophy of mixed bodies’ – though he does not subtract vision from the sphere of the senses.


Our growing familiarity with multimedia environments, at least since the coming of sound to cinema, and probably long before, has encouraged an interest in a sensory phenomenon which seems to be its image: synaesthesia. Although synaesthesic effects had been noted at least since the seventeenth century, it did not attract serious enquiry until the end of the nineteenth century.

Synaesthesia is sometimes presented as a kind of utopian overcoming of the splitting or alienation of sensibility brought about by the règlement des sens, to invert Rimbaud’s formula. Seen as a primal plenitude, in which every sense is in connection with every other, synaesthesia seems to be the promise, within the individual, of a multimedia paradise of convergence. Douglas Kahn and others have pointed to the interest in synaesthesia that characterised modernism, representing this attempt to compound the senses as an avant-garde desire to go beyond the segregated sense-economies of the everyday world. Baudelaire’s ‘Correspondances’ intimates this dream:

Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme des hautbois, verts comme des prairies,
-Et d’autres corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

Perfumes, colours, sounds correspond

There are perfumes fresh as children’s flesh
Sweet as oboes, green as prairies
And others still, corrupt, rich and triumphant

Having the wideness of infinite things,
Like amber, musk, benzoin and incense
That sing the transports of the soul and senses.

Richard Cytowic begins his popular exposition of the case of Michael, ‘the man who tasted shapes’, with a scene in which Michael worries that the sauce for his chicken is too round-tasting, when he wanted it to be pointy. Michael, who is said to be ‘a creative type’, lives emblematically enough in a house with no rooms:

His house had no inside walls. Its “rooms” poured into one another instead of keeping to well-defined spaces as rooms in most homes do. When I sat down among the appliances – what he called the kitchen – it struck me how jarring the open funkiness of a Bohemian loft was in the Bible belt.

But there are difficulties in the link between synaesthesia and the ideal of sensory plenitude. For one thing, synaesthesia has its own clear patterns of dominance. The process of referring flavours to shapes is a rare specialism even amid the rare phenomenon that true synaesthesia is. Among most synaesthetes, and therefore in most discussions of synaesthesia, the sensory correspondence that will predominate will be between sound and vision. Perhaps around 1 in 200 persons has some kind of synaesthesic experience, 75 of these being women. Of these, about two-thirds will have the experience of seeing letters, numbers or words as coloured. Rimbaud’s sonnet ‘Vowels’ famously sets out such a systematic chromography:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes :
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d’ombre; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombelles ;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes ;

U, cycles, vibrement divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux ;

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges :
– O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux !

Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O: one day,
vowels, I shall tell of your hidden beginnings:
A, black velvet bodice of glittering flies
which buzz about villainous stinks,

grottos of shadow; E, candour of canvas and steam,
lances of proud glaciers, white kings, cow-parsley quivers;
Purpureal I, hacked-up blood, peals from pretty lips,
in anger, or drunk with penitence;

U, waves, godly undulations of viridian seas,
the peace of beast-broadcast pastures, the furrows
alchemy scores in the broad scholar’s brow

O, supreme trumpet, wild crying stridence
World-crossed, angel-crossed silences
Omega O, His violet eyebeam.

Not only is the majority form of synaesthesia the processing of sound or shape as colour, for the vast majority of these synaesthetes, the process works only one way. Numbers or sounds may have their colours, but the sight of the corresponding colours does not for most of these synaesthetes, set celestial chords chiming or project numerals in shimmering mid-air. Richard Cytowic suggests that this may be partly because we are apt to think of colours as transferable attributes of things, whereas 5-ness or B-minor-ness is much more abstract notion to conceive. But what does it mean for the synaesthete to operate as a one-way street of sensory transformation, for a synaesthete to have colour as a destination or product as a result of this transformation, rather than, say, B-minorness? (Richard Cytowic observes that synaesthesia is characterised by distinct yields or increments of pleasure: the correspondence is not mere equality, it is an active production.)

Synaesthetes have extremely stable patterns of association. Many chromographic synaesthetes would have great difficulty in making sense of poems like Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’, for most of whom the colours would be all wrong, so that reading the poem would be equivalent to somebody reading a poem which required one to hear vowels as consonants, say. Synaesthesia may provide an image of primal interfusion, but synaesthesia itself is a phenomenon of sensory locking, bearing the same relation to intersensoriality as, say, shoe-fetishism does to polymorphous perversity.

Neurological research into synaesthesia takes the form of investigation of the mapping function of the brain. One of the things that might strike us as curious about this is how closely the model of neurological function actually mirrors the majority synaesthesic illusion; the maps which result from the process known as PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanning show different areas of the brain ‘lighting up’, areas of increased brain activity being rendered as patches of colour. They thus seem like a replication of the very process of transcoding that is performed by the synaesthete. This might either be regarded as confirmation of the process of neurological mapping, or a suggestion that it is a reproduction of the terms of the illusion rather than an exploration of them.

We may think of multimediality as the accompaniment or even the induction of synaesthesic sensibility. In reality, it is also the production and instantiation of a theory about the senses, and how they are constituted and configured. Every sensory machine is an embodied fantasy of how the senses work. What is more, such fantasies are themselves part of the workings of the senses. Synaesthesia is an example of such a mechanism. Synaesthesia is a machine for processing sensory mixing. The output of this machine is nearly always a series of topographical correspondences, in simplified space. This simplified space will nowadays most often take the form of an electronic apparatus, which can be subject to ‘cross-wiring’, or a colouring-book map, which allows for overlap. Both of them depend upon, or themselves produce a picture of the brain. But what is a picture? What is a map? What is a radio? What is a colour?


I have spoken of the synaesthete who moves from graphic or auditory to colour. What, though, is colour, or rather a colour? Is it a visual phenomenon, setting aside the question for the moment of whether we are going to be able to allow such a formula to satisfy us? Does colour wholly belong to vision? Are all colours instances of the same thing? Surely not. One of the causes of our currently anaemic understanding of the nature of colour is the fact that its investigation has for so long been in the hands of art historians and psychologists of visual perception. A material history of colour is only just beginning to come into view, very largely as a result of the work of Michel Pastoureau and some (very few) others. Material history here seems right, for colour is always more than the optional covering or coating of things. A history of colour is also much more than a history of colour symbolism. Colours have meaning because they soak up sensory-material associations from the things they tint.

One of the interesting and sometimes confusing features of the history of colour and colour terms is the natural tendency for colours to be identified with the particular objects they characterise: often these are natural objects, like plants or precious stones, but the same also implies to items of clothing and textiles. The colour moves from being a synecdoche or associated feature of the object to becoming the object’s name: the most obvious example of this being gold, a colour which it is almost impossible to strip of its associations with the economic and symbolic value of the metal it characterises. A less familiar example is the word ‘puke’, which in the early seventeenth century was the name for a woollen fabric, of a rather superior kind, used commonly in the making of gowns, which later came to signify the particular colour associated with this fabric – apparently a dark blue or inky black. Another case is the term ‘isabelle’, to signify a rather soiled-looking calico, in memory of the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain, who vowed not to change her underwear until her forces had taken the city of Ostend (the grubbiness of the shade they finally attained may be gauged from the fact that the siege lasted from 1601 to 1604).

In such cases, and they are many, the colour as it were mingles with an object or substance, imparting its tincture to it, and receiving back the object’s impress. The coloured object – gold, milk, sky, blood – gives rise to what we might call an object-colour, a colour with its own phantasmal form, texture and density. And then, since colours are by their nature transferable, for anything can in principle be of any colour, these object-colours can mingle with other objects. Of course, for painters, who, before the availability of commercially-produced pigments in the nineteenth century, would have been used to making up their own pigments, colours have long had a bodily character – a texture, elasticity, even movement and gesture. But these tactile dimensions of colour have not been lost. The fact that distance lends blueness as well as enchantment to the view, as a result of the scattering of light of different wavelengths which means that only light from the blue portion of the spectrum gets through, may have a certain amount to do with the associations of blue with transcendence, holiness and hygiene. To hold something blue in your hand is to make distance proximate. One of the reasons that the history of colour is so interfused with all aspects of social and cultural life is that it so intimately involved with the symbolic life of substances. No history of culture can well do without the philosophy of mixed bodies that colour comports.

In my Book of Skin, I consider the many medical and bodily correlatives of colours, suggesting that the chromoclastic discredit into which colour has sometimes fallen, resulting in colour being seen as a kind of pathology of vision, is doubled in the fact that so many names of diseases – cirrhosis, purpurea, glaucoma, xanthopsia, anthrax – are derived from names of colours. The willingness to believe in the different characters of colours suggests that colours are not mere attributes which qualify or are applied to bodies, they are themselves quasi-sensate bodies, or corporeal outlines (the word chromameans skin or coating). The idea of a sensitive second body of colour finds its most definite expression in the idea of the aura, which started its migration from religious iconography into popular mysticism and NewAge pseudo-medicine from the 1880s onwards. The aura is more than just an emanation or effusion (despite the close association between certain colours and excrement); it is a tremulous sensory apparatus, which both ghosts the condition of the bodily organism and autonomously responds to its environment. Michel Serres repeatedly draws on the aura’s coat of many colours as an image for sensorial multiplicity, making of it a second skin, rippling with zones of sensitivity and the flickering alternations of ‘I’ and ‘it’.

All this makes the discussion of the process whereby sounds or forms are thought of as simply and uniformly ‘translated’ or transcoded into colour extremely approximate or preliminary.

Hearing Feelingly

The senses are multiply related. We rarely if ever apprehend the world through one sense alone. Indeed, under conditions in which any one sense predominates, closer inspection may disclose that the predominating sense is in fact being shadowed and interpreted by other, apparently dormant senses. Indeed, we might enunciate a paradoxical principle: that the more we concentrate, or are concentrated upon one sense, the more likely it is that intersensorial spillings and minglings will be induced. To stare intently may be to long to grasp and consume; to be surrounded by sound is to be touched or moved by it. Intersensoriality is at work whenever one sense is stretched, isolated or intensified: as we strain to make out a tune;; as we pore over a painting, as we bury our heads in a bouquet of flowers, or puzzle to give a name to an aroma (and why should an aroma seem so agonisingly incomplete until it is furnished with a name?) This is because every intensification of a particular sense involves a doubling of that sense, an apprehension of its action of sensing, as well as a losing of oneself in the object of the sense. Such intensifications or objectifications of the action of the senses are usually though not invariably, achieved by means of an intensification of awareness of the organ of the sense.

But this self-awareness or sensory reflexivity requires supplementation from other senses. The more dominant a particular sense, or the apparatuses used to support and supply it may seem to be, the more it will implicate other senses, and therefore the more complex, and the less “pure” its dominion will become. The development of the microscope in the seventeenth century allowed the extension of the powers of the eye into regions and dimensions that had previously been unavailable to it; but in provoking a new sensitivity to the swarming surfaces of things, it also extended or rarefied the sense of touch. The microscope not only looked intently at the skin, at the populous surfaces of living things, it also looked with the skin: gave the skin eyes. Similar synaesthesias are precipitated by more modern visual machineries. If it is true, as is often said, that our contemporary lives seem dominated by the technologies of vision, then the effect of this may be to give visuality the same complex hegemony as English: because it is everywhere dominant, it is everywhere subject to corruption and contamination. To understand the workings of any of the senses it is necessary to remain aware of the fertility of the relations between them.

Michel Serres sees the sharpness and subtlety of the senses as dimmed by the dominion of language, and represents his work of remaking the sensory body for philosophy as a rescuing or redemption of the senses from language’s petrifying force. And yet the highly sensory nature of spoken language has often compelled the suspicion that it might actually itself have a claim to be thought of as a sense. The 1607 play Lingua: or the Combat of the Senses, usually ascribed to Thomas Tomkis, presents a competition between the tongue and the other senses, in response to the tongue’s demand that it be considered one of the senses. Here, my concern will not be with the work of language in representing and constituting the senses, though there is much to be said about this topic. Rather, I would like to think more narrowly about the nature of speaking.

Let me in fact try the hazardous, trick-cycling experiment of thinking about speaking in the act of doing it. What is it like to speak? It is not a bit like playing a wind instrument, which involves stopping and modifying in various ways a flow of air. Speaking is like having something in your mouth, something which you have actually made, from a confluence of the soft breath drawn in from outside and drawn up from within, and the interplay of the various hard and pliable participants in speech: the tongue, the palate, the teeth. In shaping my mouth to speak, I seem to shape the words themselves, conceived as objects. Speaking is tactile, a shaping of an imaginary, elemental substance, perhaps that primal phantasmal playdough which Gaston Bachelard suggests is at work in every encounter between man and matter, giving rise to the principle that he calls the ‘cogito pétrisseur’, the cogito of paste.

I airily say ‘my mouth’ as though this were a simple and obvious thing. But my mouth is more than a kind of windbag, though the magical nature of bags, sacks and purses may have as much to do with the limitlessly endlessly productive nature of the mouth as with the symbolism of uterus or vagina. I not only, as we say, form my words as I speak, I also seem to form my mouth. And the thing is, I am extremely unclear as to where my mouth even begins and ends. When I speak, my mouth enlarges into an entire landscape or skyscape, in which there is easily enough leg-room for the rest of my body. When I gesture, as I must, for who can speak without the accompaniment of the shoulders and fingers, my gestures seem to come from my mouth, or shadow its movements. Speaking in a way turns me inside out. When I speak, my mouth is not in me, I am in my mouth. There is a strong tendency to imagine the brain or the space of interior experience as the same kind of primal cavity as the mouth. When Jean Piaget enquired of a group of children ‘where do you dream?’, one boy sagely replied ‘In my mouth’. Why else would the descent into the lucid, waking dream of cinema seem to require the compulsory accompaniment of so much crunching and slurping?

The action of speaking is an act of making. I make words out of me, out of my own primary matter. This primary shaping implicates the ear, which acts as a sort of feedback mechanism. I do not overhear myself exactly, as I speak, since I seem to hear the words sound before I shape them. But I hear them sound kinaesthetically, as a shape to be made, as a posture or pattern of tension or traction.

The more fanciful this seems, the more to my point it will be. The action of speaking is an action of self-production in fantasy, in the fantasy of self-production.

There is good reason to posit the disproportionate role of touch in the coordinating of the senses one with another. Because all of the primary senses are lodged in the skin, on the outside of the body, one might say that in literal terms they are connected to each other by a membrane of tactility, and that this is reproduced in the way in which we experience them – as may perhaps be testified to by a term such as “sense-impressions.” More than this, though, touch seems to be the primary or favoured mode of our sensory self-attention, which is perhaps why our models of the workings of the senses tend to be topological. This is not to say that we only have knowledge of our senses through touch: knowledge and understanding of the senses will also be encoded in visual terms. But our investments and identifications and above all our feelings of love for the senses, along with their reversals and negative correlatives, such as the wish to mortify or deny the senses, tend towards the tactual. As Michel Serres suggests, the act of beautifying the face involves the touching, the touching up, as we may say, of the senses as they are manifest in the head and face – the lips, ears. It is with the hand that we stop the nose, block the ears, or cover the eyes.

Touch appears to be the most versatile and various of the senses, partly because it threads through all the other modes of sensory apprehension, and also because it seems itself to be formed differently depending upon the particular kind of apprehension it delivers, whether of shape, texture, volume, space, tightness, heat, or weight. It may help to understand and appreciate the comminglings of hearing and touch to suggest some distinctions between some broad modalities of touch. There is the apprehension through touch of what we might call qualities of measure, by which I mean qualities of shape, distance, space, volume and texture. Then there is the apprehension of what might be called pitch; included in this heading would be all the sensations of weight, force, tension, and balance. Then there are relations of temper; these include the whole range of sensations of greater or lesser degrees of excitation, whether in heat, cold, itch, inflammation, or sexual arousal. (I have of course skewed the matter by giving these categories names that suggest the elements of music. But what is music?)

We are too apt to think of the senses as gateways to the outer world, and therefore also as watchers at our gate. But as Boris Galayev has insisted, our five senses are also supplemented by a kind of inner sensoriality; the interoceptive means by which we register our own condition of well-being or discomfort, as well as the proprioceptive senses by which we measure and locate ourselves relative to the world. What sense is it, for example, that gives us the apprehension of ‘leftness’ and ‘rightness’, or of uprightness? The traditional trope of the spider in its web, as employed by Sir John Davies in his ‘Nosce Teipsum’ (1599), is used to figure the soul at the centre of its ramifying sensory empire

Much like a subtill spider, which doth sit
In middle of her web, which spreadeth wide;
If ought doe touch the utmost thred of it,
She feels it instantly on every side

But the image may also be taken to figure the reversibility of inner and outer, suggesting that the inner both spins out the web of its relations with the outer, and also, in a sense constitutes itself out of its filaments of outreach. Thus there are intersensorial relations and reciprocities, not just between the cardinal points of the pentagram of the senses, but also between each of these points and the hazier, but pervasive and powerful forms of interoception and proprioception. One of the most suggestive examples of this proposed by Galayev is the interaction of vestibular sensations, of weight, balance and orientation, with relations of hearing. The word ‘tonality’ usefully combines reference to sound and muscular tension. What we mean by harmony, he suggests, may have a great deal to do with the fact that our bodies are formed in response to a very particular form of subjection to gravitational environment. The interest in zero-gravity art in recent decades may also the testing of the proposition that modernism itself (Galayev’s particular example is atonal music) may be an attempt to develop new weightless senses, or senses in suspension.


The senses are productive. They are a series of integrations and transformations: what Michel Serres is wont to call ‘black boxes’, the function of which is to turn quanta into qua;ia. number into value, stimulus into information. The senses are of concern to us because they turn being into value. The Aristotelean tradition distinguished between the lower senses, of taste and touch, which were merely necessary to be, merely ad esse, and the higher senses, which constituted well-being and thus were, ad bene esse. The senses make out the sense of the world as they make that world over to us.

The senses are the production of meaning and value, and thus a form of thought. What we think about thinking, what we make of it, is itself necessarily intersensorial.

Another reason that the relations between the senses are so complex and variable is the fact that we do not have a merely client relationship to them. We not only use our eyes, ears, skin, nose and tongue to convey information to us about the world, nor are we passively reliant on them. Our senses are our accomplices, our accomplishments. We establish strong bonds of pleasure, identity and even love with those senses and their associated organs. Amid all the vast literature about the powers and protocols and pleasures of looking, there is actually surprising little about the particular pleasures taken in one’s own activity of sight. It is perhaps only when we confront the possibility of our senses being dimmed, damaged, or taken away from us that the intense love which binds us to them become apprehensible. This love for the senses expresses itself in and may derive from the need to protect organs which are at once extremely important to us, and also, by definition, sensitive and easily damaged. The love for the senses takes cultural as well as individual forms: in the formalising of particular kinds of sensory pleasure – in the experience of perfume, music, food – the senses themselves are set apart and invested with a kind of collective narcissism. ‘Voluptuousness’ names this pleasure taken in taking pleasure, the sensation of sensing delivering its own increment of pleasure. The tendency to personify or allegorise the senses which has been apparent throughout Western and Eastern art, embodies our apprehension that the senses are ourselves at one remove: that each sense is a sort of fluent, excursive second self, or fluctuating series of such selves.

Human beings do not merely sense. We organise, articulate, make sense of our sensory perceptions. The senses are not merely channels, they are forms of self-relation. This kind of reflexivity is usually atttributed only to one organ, and one sense, skin and its power of touch. The skin, we are often told, not only feels the objects that it touches it that touch it, it also feels itself feeling. A second skin or inner skin seems somehow to be recruited or conjured to do the feeling of the feeling. Such sensory doubling has also frequently been noted with the eye, which permits us to envisage the action of seeing. Michel Serres follows Condillac in giving a privileged role to touch and the skin in forming self-consciousness or reflexivity.

I touch one lip with my middle finger. Consciousness dwells in this contact. I start to explore it. Often consciousness conceals itself in folds, lip resting on lip, palate closed on tongue, teeth against teeth, eyelids lowered, tightened sphincter, the hand closed into a fist, fingers pressed against each other, the rear surface of one thigh crossed on the front face of the other, or one foot resting on the other. I bet that the homunculus, tiny and monstrous, of which each part is proportional to the magnitude of sensation, swells in those automorphic places, when the skin tissue folds upon itself. By itself, the skin takes on consciousness…Without this folding-over, this contact of the self with itself, there would be no internal sense, no body of one’s own, or even less coenesthesia, no body image, we would live without consciousness, featureless, on the point of vanishing.

But such doublings need not, and perhaps typically do not require the metasensual doubling of eye, or nostril or tongue. Usually, some other sense is drawn on to provide the supplementation. What Gilles Deleuze calls the ‘inclensive’ nature of the soul may be regarded as an effect of the crossings or interferences of the senses, not just in terms of the master-sense or infra-sense of touch, but also in terms of the unpredictable crossings of all the senses, including the derived or secondary senses that are themselves propagated from these crossings.

Investigation of synaesthesia was held back for a long time by the fact that it was regarded as an illusion, or a representation rather than a ‘real’ sensation. You would be right to wonder whether the compoundings of the senses of which I have been speaking do not really belong to the realm of metaphor and representation rather than sensation. But I have also been saying that the senses are rarely invisible or inapprehensible to themselves. Human beings have been taught by their senses a reflexivity so intense and unremitting that most actions of the senses are also acknowledgements, modellings, imagings of them. Without the possibility of supplementary representation, the sneses are a kind of bodily unconscious, without interest or concern to us. So sensation is always to some degree represensation. And how do we do this higher level activity of representing ourselves to ourselves? How, if not in the ways taught us by our senses themselves? One cannot entirely distinguish representation, designation or figuration from sensation, if those actions are themselves not autodidactic, but actions and emanations of the senses themselves.


It was thought by medieval philosophers that there must be some sixth, overarching sense, a sensus communis, which allowed the individual senses to be coordinated one with another. Often we seem to assume a radial model, in which each of the senses conveys a different form of information to a central command and control module which receives and processes the sensory input from these five channels. But we do not merely “use” different senses to give ourselves a more three-dimensional fix on the objects of our apprehension. The sense we make of any one sense is always mixed with that and mediated by that of others. The senses form an indefinite series of integrations and transformations: they form a complexion. So there may be no such central module, no statue on which the senses may be thought of as being hung or draped. The senses communicate with each other, in cooperations and conjugations which are irregular and emergent. This complexion of the senses knits itself together anew with each new configuration. The sensory homunculus is not merely a human body that has been stretched and inflated in various dimensions. It has the shape of a cloud or flame. We cannot merely reflect on the operations of sense without performing active sensory operations, or enacting sensory apprehensions. Writers seeking to account for the relegation of the sense of hearing and to redeem it from that relegation, may often nowadays evoke the idea of a cultural sensorium, or a mansion of the senses. But what living in a culture offers is not just a static consortium of the senses, disposed like a molecular structure in a particular configuration, but rather a field of possibility, a repertoire of forms, images and dreams whereby reflection on the senses can take place. Intersensoriality is the means by which this is enacted. Cultures are sense-traps; which bottle and make sense of sensory responses; but they are also sense-multipliers.

The senses model and make our world, but they are themselves remodelled and remade by the world they make. The senses can not only be internally displaced and reconfigured, they can also be diffused. E.O. Wilson discovered that ants convey messages about the nutritional condition of the nest in general in chemicals exchanged in the touching of antennae. In a sense, he concluded, the nest does not have a multiplicity of individual organisms to be individually kept nourished; rather these individuals are the vehicles and messengers of a single, distributed stomach. Perhaps our ever more convoluted, interactive culture is best seen as a flickering network of such exchanges; not a thin, insipid paper-currency of signs and pictures, but a gustohaptic switchboard of sense-representation, or represensations.

And it is no accident that I should evoke nonhuman sensing, for the classification and objectification of the senses throughout Europe and beyond has taken the form of animal projections. As a motto from Thomas de Cantimpré’s 13th-century Liber de naturis rerum has it:

Nos aper auditu; linx visu, symia gustu
Vultur odoratu precellit aranea tactu

The boar outdoes us in hearing, the lynx in sight, the monkey in taste
The vulture in smell, the spider in touch

The senses are mediate, not just because they transmit information across a medium, but because they themselves constitute a mid-space: what Michel Serres calls a milieu, a melée, mélange: even, in so far as they mediate between human senses and assimilations and mimicries of the nonhuman, a menagerie.

These fluctuating multisensory ensembles do not form a Gesamtkunstwerk, because its assemblage is never entire or sufficient – never sufficiently ‘gesammelt’. And, despite our efforts to fix or reify the senses and their work, it is never sufficiently collected or composed, and never wholly precipitates a work. The senses are uncollected works-in-progress, then, rather than a collected works. The senses fix our attention because they already are our forms of attention, already are ways of attending to the manners of our attention.

But we can neither save the senses, nor be saved by them. The senses cannot plausibly be made to stand in the place once occupied by art or the body, against power, knowledge, reason. For the senses are not a positive fund or resource; they are probabilistic, they include the possibility of their absence. We can feel them when they are not there. We know what it is to be numb. In this sense, the senses acquaint us intimately with our own limits and finitudes.