Thursday, July 28, 2016

Walking, the Human Senses, and the Sensuous Surface

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; / But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.                                      
                                                    —Wallace Stevens, “Of the Surface of Things”

Historically, philosophers have been skeptical, even suspicious, of the surface, a plane of the visible and the apparent that suggests shallowness, superficiality, illusion, and a lack of gravitas. In German, for example, the realm of aesthetics typically belongs to the arena of “Schein” (appearance) as opposed to that of “Sein” (Being). And yet, beauty—and with it aesthetic enjoyment—is entangled intimately with this sphere of the epidermal. From the roiling white caps of ocean waves to the flickering sheen of silver coins loitering in the bottom of a fountain, we are drawn deeply to and through the patina and palpation of the shimmering “skin” of things.

It is valuable to reflect upon our encounters with the sensuous surface of the earth in the everyday enterprise of human motility and ambulation—that is, walking. How and why are we drawn along on foot and seduced by the charms of the tellurian domain? Are there sensuous imperatives that hold, command, or channel our unfolding actions and attractions as we walk? Might a sense of style or even an aesthetic sensibility emerge through regular and reflective walking practices that could inform practical work in urban design, ecological theory, or the politics of the pedestrian world? Through the medium of our bodily senses and a vocabulary cobbled together from experiences of physical texture and tactility, furtive glancing and more protracted beholding, temporal rhythms and emergent patterns of repetition, or simply attention to the earth’s lines, colors, fissures, shapes, and curves, we might learn a great deal about our surroundings.

Walking, in short, encourages a fundamental, if overlooked, form of sensuous engagement with the biological and built worlds in ways that other forms of bodily posture and comportment do not. In relying largely on horizontal movement across surfaces, it stimulates the corporeal senses—via a kind of actual and imaginative “friction”—and offers, in turn, a needed counterpoise to both the physical tendency to “look down” upon the subtending earth and the metaphysical penchant to “fall up” towards the universal, the transcendental, and disembodied abstractions. In so doing, it can help to provide a viable everyday environmental aesthetic—one whereby we literally and figuratively move from sensation (sense perception) to the sensuous and eventually to a more robust ecological or communitarian sensibility. In addition to wilderness walkers, the urban “stalker,” flaneur, and aesthete might develop and, in turn, come to rely upon such a “sensibility” (understood as a flexible aesthetic temperament or disposition rather than a ideologically rigid position) as he or she becomes a cultivated appreciator, artist or “voluptuary” of beautiful and sensuous surfaces.

How might we come to understand sensuous surfaces?  Very briefly, the sensuous involves engagement with, arousal of, or gratification in one or more of the human senses. It frequently carries further into the anticipation or experience of physical pleasure itself and even carnal arousal or erotic expression. Mikel Dufrenne draws a helpful distinction between the “brute sensuous” and the “aesthetic sensuous,” where the former is encountered in ordinary perception and the latter resides solely in aesthetic objects. And Alphonso Lingis rightly locates a further link between the sphere of the sensual and the realm of the elemental, observing: “Sensuality is a movement of involution in a medium. One finds the light by immersion, one is in atmosphere, in sonority, in redolence or in stench, in warmth or in cold.  One feels the supporting element of the ground rising up within one’s posture.”

In the simplest sense, a surface is the outermost boundary of an object. “Sur” means ‘above’ or ‘over’ while “face,” suggests the ‘look’, ‘appearance’ or ‘countenance’ of entity.  When surfaces are sensuous, they attract or delight us at a peculiarly visceral and imaginative level. A sensuous surface also suggests more than what initially meets the sensing ear, hands, feet or eyes since it can withhold from fully exposing or expressing itself.  On first blush, we are not necessarily privy in a conscious way to the unseen insides, the unfelt undersides, or the undetected infrastructure that gives a surface its aesthetic qualities or properties such as shape, illumination, slope, color or texture. There is routinely, however, a glint, trace or residue of greater dimensionality, of something more to come or be brought forth.  In other words, surfaces do not preclude the intimation of intensity or the possibility of profundity, a point Wittgenstein gestures toward in his remark, “the depths are on the surface.”

We might reasonably consider sumptuous walking surfaces as being like layered fabrics or lush woven carpets.  There exists granularity and volume to them. We sense slight thermal changes, pressure differences, and vibrations and adjust our actions or reactions accordingly in response.  Just as clothing becomes a kind of “second skin,” a sensual extension of the body, worldly surfaces might be understood as akin to an encapsulating “third skin,” outer membrane or tenuous shell of a sort.  Indeed, walking surfaces can become beautiful or intriguing when they are adorned or illuminated with artful graffiti, chalk drawings, colorful lights, and poetic words.  Or they can become annoying, harrowing or even dangerous when they are populated with advertisements, holes or pollutants that undermine either their functionality or charm. 

Walking possesses the ability to animate our senses in ways in which sitting, standing, and lying—the three other major bodily postures and physical modes of being in the world—do not. More specifically, mindful walking triggers both our “distal” senses (sight and hearing)—which pick up information at a distance—and our “proximate” senses (smell, touch and taste)—which are tethered more closely to the visceral body—as well as our “auto-centric” faculties (self-centered and subjective) and “allocentric” (other-centered and more objective) capacities.  By attending actively to the full human sensorium when we perambulate, we might thereby nurture a form of “peripheral vision” (hearing, touching, feeling)—a sensual awareness of what lies near or lingers upon the edges, limits, perimeters, and margins of our perceptual fields. 

As we journey through the world on foot, we are moved not only by cognitive intentions and conscious interior directives, drives, or choices through we which exercise an actual or imagined control, but we are lured along externally by sensuous phenomena and affects that emerge independently and unexpectedly: unusual textures, interesting patterns, erotic shapes, atmospheric moods of the weather, color tones, distinct smells, shape-shifting shadows, and the like.  We are also both led and limited by physical affordances: possibilities for action in an environment that presented by objects.  These range from thresholds and steps to rocks and posts that are supported by, co-extensive with, or expressive of the underlying earth.

More specifically, the materiality and horizontality of the ground—the substrate of brick, sand, stone, soil or concrete beneath and before us—serves to guide and govern our habitual but often unconscious corporeal movements and to orient our upright and vertical bodies. As we traverse the ever-changing and undulating ground in front of us, walking stimulates our multiple senses through a form of productive “friction” with generative and affective feedback loops to the other parts of our body.  We find ourselves enticed by the membrane or seemingly palpitating “skin” of the earth. We are distracted or seduced by the charms and challenges of surfaces—layers of wet leaves, fresh tracks in the snow, or chalk marks left for a child’s game of hopscotch—which can offer sensuous imperatives that lure, channel, and even command our evolving interests and actions. From such encounters, a somatic style or an aesthetic and ecological sensibility can, in fact, potentially arise with practical implications for work related to environmental planning and ecological design.

Sense-centered and hence sensuously aware walking involves an attention to the nuance of color, shape, curves, lines, patterns, and other forms of repetition. Sidewalk cracks, for example, reveal character in a place and serve as registers of time in a surface, just as wrinkles or scars do in an aging human face. Lines offer us grooves to visually anchor motion, provide channels for forward flight, or outline avenues of escape. Curves are alluring and enticing; they suggest the unknown or hint at concealed realms, counteracting the rule of straight lines, grids, and utilitarian structures. Sidewalks that are sensually engaging—that visually weave and wend, or offer attractive and varied textures that call forth touch, or provide pleasing rhythms and acoustics—embody and bequeath us a kind of “beautility,” (being at once both beautiful and useful) to the urban floor and pedestrian experience.

Sight.   Given its ties to peripheral spaces and places, walking might help to facilitate and legitimate a model of sensual perception that represents an alternative to the relative hegemony of the visual gaze, which is a more objectifying and invasive form of looking.  Walking is especially suited to the shorter span of the glance. The glance alights on surfaces; it careens and reverberates them. Unlike its counterpart, it is nimble, pointillistic, and given or geared to particularity. Whereas the gaze tends to be sober and serious, the glance is potentially playful, irreverent or subversive. It is tuned for surprise, delight, and even enchantment because the snares for our visual attention are constantly changing in a walk. 

Below is a very rough contrast of some of the hallmark features that characterize these two different ocular frameworks, distinctions that summarize briefly and build upon points made in a more fully developed form by the philosopher, Edward Casey.  By comparing the columns, we can see important dissimilarities in terms of the passage of time, the degree of focus, the kind of attention, and the quality of appreciation offered respectively by visual gazing and glancing. 

The Gaze                               The Glance

Glares                                    Glimpses
Sober, serious                        Subversive, irreverent
Depth                                     Surfaces
Lingers, loiters                      Alights, insouciant
Scrutiny                                 Celerity
Internalizes                            Enjoys
Contemplates                         Captivates
Studies                                   Surprises
Stares                                     Seduces
Duration                                 Instant
Permanence                            Fleeting
Intelligible                              Sensuous
Centers                                   Peripheries
Sitting or standing                  Walking

While ambling along a sidewalk, we can glance quickly or furtively into or across the street or through a store window. We can be temporarily intrigued, astonished, or captivated. We might momentarily enjoy curious sights or erotic encounters without scrutinizing them closely in a threatening manner. Peripheral vision—glimpsing or glancing off to the side—encourages bivalent exchanges and eccentric (off center) interests rather than more one-sided or (self)-centered frontal assaults on our surroundings.

Touch. By its very nature, walking invites and involves elemental surface contact. It initiates conversation between the feet and the ground; it introduces our bodies to and into the world, the environing elemental medium.  Ideas and images begin to form and flow; they produce their own “kinesthesias” of a certain kind.  The eyes and ears even seem to reach toward outlets and objects as well with a sense of form of projected intentionality.  As the poet Rilke puts it in “Spaziergang” (A Walk), “My eyes already touch the sunny hill,/going far ahead of the road I have begun./So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp.”

The Greek word haptein means more than simply to grasp or clutch with the hands in that it encompasses the broader touching of an entire human body.  Our sense of touch is the manner in which we sensuously com-prehend—literally hold together in a joint way—the surrounding world.  We be-hold place and grow to inhabit it. When we walk within a particular place, we become an ambling extension of it. We belong to it bodily. 

Even with shoes on, we can differentiate, first, the qualities of rough and smooth, soft and hard, and wet and dry along with, secondly, multiple kinds of surfaces and substrates, whether they be wood, concrete, grass or brick in built environments or mud, sand, gravel, stone, silt or dirt in more natural areas. With the growing use of materials such as asphalt and concrete for walking and driving surfaces, however, our tactile stimulation is increasingly simplified and our senses are disengaged further from our surroundings. There is, in other words, a concern with quite literally “losing touch” with the immediate environment when our haptic senses are neglected. This development suggests the need for more varied, less uniform walkways constructed of cobblestone, mosaic tiles, brick, wood, metal and other physically and sensually-engaging surfaces which keep us more intimately attuned with our own bodies, neighborhoods, and biotic communities.

When walking, we need attend to the tradeoffs between, on the one hand, being protected by garments, hats, gloves, shoes, sunglasses or bug spray which can occlude our senses or insulate our bodies) and, on the other hand, being receptive (open, responsive, and inviting). We should be aware as well about the subtle tension and interplay between comfortability and vulnerability—being too exposed to the elements or another’s gaze but being aware of glancing communication that is generated through our gestures and the corporeal semaphores we are forever sending.  We might want the rain on our face at times but not the direct sunlight in our eyes. Our nerve endings are capable of distinguishing temperature changes to a tenth of a degree and even while wearing clothing we should still be able to distinguish up to a dozen different airspeeds. It is helpful in this regard to remember that the body is not simply a closed container but a porous meeting point of our flesh and organs with the ambient environment. 

Sound. As with sight and physical contact, there is a complex and changing acoustic world to be appreciated when we are on foot. As we walk, we play the place, in effect.  We attune and entrain ourselves bodily to the beats and “music” in the margins and become part of a reverberating and sonorous “echo-system” that is mixed and remixed constantly. Walking thus possesses a deeply musical aspect to its motions, a dimension that is both temporal and spatial. As we walk, we are often drawn along, as in a song, by the figures and surface elements in a landscape.  Like sheet music, there are visual “notes” and “scores” to be sensuously encountered and creatively “played” by the moving body.   Fence patterns, telephone posts, doors, hedges, flower boxes, trees, and many architectural features provide opportunities for attuning oneself to a neighborhood.  The surface of the city sidewalk or wilderness trail is rife, too, for possibilities of finding syncopation, repetition, and rhythm. No wonder, then, that many walkers hum, sing, or listen to music as they walk.

            When thoughtfully planned, sidewalks possess a rhythm that enhances, facilitates and encourages energetic and engaged movement that is related aesthetically to the landscape and surrounding objects and buildings. There are, then, multiple possible responses to the challenges of “environmental boredom” and the emergence of “blandscapes” (bland landscapes)—that is, when walkways, paths and streets are overly uniform, uninteresting to our senses, or monotonous in appearance. Such phenomena point to the need for changes of level and height, the significance of altering surface qualities, the importance of providing alternatives to the classical, if efficient, grid patterns, and the value of placing curves in the “walkscape” in order to supplement open vistas and views, a subject to which we now turn.  

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