3.01  Culture and the 'Five' (not) Senses

Our species has evolved in an intimate relation with the surface of our planet primarily through our senses, so there is a certain benign eco-logic to their assembly. The relationship between our bodily senses and the global ecology is clearly benign in the sense that our ancestors have survived a million years in these environments. Particular cultures have ascribed importance to different sense receptors for particular advantage, but it may be reasonable to assume that an evolutionary scale of wisdom still clings to the integrated use of the complete set. It is on this level that we are most directly in touch with our ecological substrate and it is from this level that our judgement in relation to that material context must surely arise. Certain senses may be more efficient data carriers, but in terms of our species' evolution every sense must have its necessary part to play. A wise relation to our environment could well then entail a cultural process that engages all our senses and all our abilities.

The normative categorisation of art forms does not make their relation to our sense receptors clear. The 'five senses' is a phrase that is commonly used to refer to our spectrum of senses. These five do not include the thermal sense, one of the most crucial to our well being.[1] The traditional five are composed of multiple sense organs.[2] Each sense flux logically has a means of expression and an art form can be derived from it. These art forms, and their combinations, give us the most direct way of connecting our intuitive intelligence with the flux within which we have evolved to live.  Freedom of expression and play in each of these art forms should be considered of crucial importance in terms of the most elemental job culture must perform - Its effort at total qualitative assessment.[3] I am emphasising the centrality of non-verbal arts to our concept of culture, as Habermas' argument will favour the written above the oral and the verbal above the non-verbal.

Arts whose media is oral and literary languages are one step removed from our direct experience of being in the world. These more abstract arts are particularly good at providing an overview of the experiences gained through our senses. And whatever non-verbal understandings are reached by artists they must still be validated by a process that will engage in language in one form or another.

The call and response of the combined codes of our sensory apparatus at some point in our evolution gave rise to a meta-code - speech that could capture all the important symbols from the perceptual cornucopia and reduce them to a unified shorthand system of sounds accompanied by facial expressions and gestural signs. This performative 'language', along with the use of tools, transformed the relation of Homo Sapiens to each other and the rest of nature producing a more complex and reflexive consciousness. The cultures that arise from this form of communication are known as oral cultures. [4]



[1] My main inspiration here is Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight in Architecture (MIT 1979)


[2] A. Iggo refers to the 'at least 15 functionally and morphologically distinct kinds of afferent units' in the skin. See, The Senses, eds. H.B. Barlow & J.D. Mollon (Cambridge U.P. 1982 p369)


[3] As we shall see later with Habermas' reference to Max Weber there is also a long running critique of the historical separation of the arts and sciences into separate subjects / professions / disciplines. These separations lead us to lose sight of the complete picture of an integrated social life.


[4] This is something of a misnomer because in an important way cultures never cease to be fundamentally oral even when their hierarchies are dominated by writing.