Before Sight

Before sight there were touch and smell, both in our evolutionary and developmental past. Scant attention has been paid, though, to tactile, gustatory, and olfactory information in the semiotic literature. By contrast, visual and acoustic communication has attracted much research, and the meanings which images and sounds convey have been extensively discussed. This situation reflects not only natural biases, given the dependence of humans on sight, but also cultural constraints originating in the centrality in human societies of spoken language, music, images, and, relatively recently, literacy. Information provided by the other senses nevertheless plays an important part in our meaning-making processes. The three works briefly reviewed in this section call attention to touch and smell, and to the natural interfaces and merging of the senses which, at times, emerge in consciousness.

Social Semiotics. Volume 21.4 (September 2011). Special Issue: Touch.

Among the crowded field of semiotics journals, Social Semiotics stands out as the most innovative outlet for original research exploring new frontiers in the realm of signs and meaning. Its latest issue, under Guest Editor Anne Cranny-Francis, is entirely devoted to the sense of touch. This volume deserves special attention because it brilliantly contributes to staking out a domain of inquiry which has been so far glossed over by semiotic research in spite of the fact that touch, in the form of direct or mediated contact, is the most fundamental channel of environmental and social information. The purpose of this collection of research articles is, in the Editor’s words, to offer “an overview of the social and cultural meanings of touch – including connection, engagement, contiguity, differentiation, positioning – and their contribution to our understanding of the world and of our own embodied subjectivity, along with their deployment in a range of contemporary technologies”. The eight articles which form this volume provide an intellectually exciting experience and a roadmap for future research. In the first article, Anne Cranny-Francis explores the multiple significances of touch and reviews the current relevant literature with special attention to touch-based technologies. Her abundant list of references (mostly from the past decade) is a precious bibliographical resource for whoever would be motivated to pursue this line of research.  In the next article, “Transfections of animal touch, techniques of biosecurity”, Nicole Shukin addresses the social construction of the ambiguous meaning of touch through examining both the issue of contagion (through contacts) and the various psychotherapies based on petting animals as a technology of feeling.  In “Losing touch: pedagogies of incorporation and the ability to write”, Megan Watkins and Greg Noble point to the importance of tactile experience in the acquisition of literacy by children who learn how to produce, use, and manipulate written texts. The fourth article describes and comments upon a sound art project by artists David Chapman and Louise K. Wilson. In “The caress of the audible: Re-sounding Falkland”, the co-authors explore the haptic dimension of their multimodal (audio and video) successive installations on the Falkland Estate in Fife, Scotland. How touch is linked to consumer decision-making is the topic of psychologist Cathrine V. Jansson-Boyd in “Touch matters: exploring the relationship between consumption and tactile interaction.” This new, provocative twist in a research field dominated by the role of vision in advertisement and marketing endeavours to explain why the tactile affect is also effective. Next, Kirsty Beilharz, from the DAB Sense-Aware Lab at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, looks at the use of embodied music controllers for gestural interaction with sounds. “Tele-touch embodied controllers: posthuman gestural interaction in music performance” expands the notion of the restricted body contacts between performers and musical instruments to the total intimate fusion which occurs when the interface is fully embodied through embedded sensors and actuators.  The last article, “Tactile aesthetics: toward a definition of its characteristics and neural correlates”, by experimental psychologists Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence, focuses on the neural basis of the hedonics of touch in art and life. The authors’ serious inquiry in this little explored domain is supported by an abundant and invaluable list of references. The volume concludes with a photographic essay by Anne Cranny-Francis which appropriately provides a visuo-tactile illustration for the cross-modal aesthetics of touch.

The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell. By Luca Turin. Faber & Faber, (2006).

In the context of this selective probe into studies of primal signals and signs, Luca Turin’s volume begs for more attention on the part of semioticians who do not deliberately restrict their concerns to the study of the production of intertextual meanings in discourse. The world of scents, odours, smell, perfumes, and flavours saturates our natural and cultural environment, and this constant input is ever active in the semiotic landscape in which we are immersed. A full semiotic treatment of the molecular medium which moulds our biological and social behaviour is still lacking. Discussing the poetics and rhetoric of the names given to commercial perfumes is the easy part of the task. Relating the chemistry and physiology of smell and taste to the cultural discourse which our primal sensations generate is a daunting challenge.  As a biophysicist who taught at University College London, Luca Turin clearly explains in his book how perfumes are composed and how they act upon our brain. As an expert who switched from an academic career to the world of trade – he became a scent designer for a commercial company a decade ago – Turin is fully conversant with the semiotics and pragmatics of the perfume industry. The book includes some fifty short chapters expertly written for non-specialists. It has been praised, though, in scientific journals such as Science. Sampling the titles of some chapters will give a flavour of the kind of information which can be found in this 200-page paperback: “The beginning of smell: chemical words”; “Smell becomes perfume: chemical poems”; “How molecules are made”; “A problem of nomenclature”; “The smell alphabet”; “Molecular chords”; “The future of fragrance”. The issues raised in these chapters are relevant to both biosemiotics and cultural semiotics. For those who would like to deepen and expand their understanding of the world of smell, an invaluable companion volume is Lyall Watson’ s Jacobson’s Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell (Penguin Books, 1999)

The Man Who Tasted Shapes. By Richard E. Cytowic. The MIT Press, (1998).

Synaesthesia is a well-documented, albeit shocking phenomenon for the vast majority of humans who do not experience the natural merging of two or more senses in a single perception: sounds which have colors, shapes which have sounds or taste, colors which have smells, and the like. Richard Cytowic published in1989 (New York, Springer Verlag) the first book in English to consider synaesthesia from both the neurological and psychological points of view. His second book on this topic, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, is divided into two parts. The first one (A medical mystery tale) offers in narrative form a thorough account of the neurological architecture which creates the atypical perceptions diagnosed as synaesthesia. Although this phenomenon is considered pathological because of its rarity in its most extreme form, it nevertheless points to a potential of the human brain which may explain the propensity with which we create cross-modal metaphors. The complex logical and semantic models which have been constructed in order to justify on rational grounds such transgressions of sensorial categories, might find a better explanation in the very wiring of the brain and its genetic and developmental variations. The book is written for the general educated public but rests on scientific evidence. From an evolutionary point of view it can be noted that discriminating between shape and taste might have not been adaptive for predators hunting for their swimming preys. In human cultures, metaphors flourish in poetry which by many aspects evokes primal states of consciousness in which sensations and emotions merge. This is why, undoubtedly, the author devotes the second part of the book to the “primacy of emotion”. In brief, this is a thought-provoking work which could inspire further research and expand the vista of semiotics.

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