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Haptic Visuality (Laura U. Marks’s Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media)

Research Report by Angus Forbes
(created 8/11/06; version 1.0)
[Status: Draft]

Related Categories: Cognitive Approaches to Reading

Original Object for Study description

In the last decade, the critical discourse of new media studies has shifted its focus from the virtual to the physical; from an abstract, decontextualized space to the embodied experience of augmented reality. Digital media have come to pervade everyday life and new media criticism has increasingly encouraged culturally specific, materialist and multisensory approaches. Laura Marks’s formulation of haptic visuality offers one such approach. As a way of seeing and knowing which calls upon multiple senses, haptic visuality offers a method of sensory analysis which does not depend on the presence of literal touch, smell, taste or hearing. While many sensory analyses focus on the evocation of and interaction between these literal senses (for example, the study of tactile interfaces, kinesthetics and textures), Marks’s concept of haptic visuality provides an alternative framework for discussing online new media works (too often understood as “simply” visual) in relation to multiple senses, affect and embodiment.

Not to be confused with haptic perception, the way we literally experience touch, haptic visuality refers to viewing which, usually because of the lack of distinction in the image, draws upon other forms of sense experience. Haptic visuality is thus a “tactile” way of seeing and knowing which more directly involves the viewer’s body. The eyes metaphorically function as organs of touch. Laura U. Marks, a Canadian media theorist and curator, initially develops this concept in relation to the formal and aesthetic strategies of intercultural cinema. In The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, she argues that intercultural media, which often points to the limits of sight, sound, and representation appeals to a intimate, embodied and multisensory viewing.

Alois Riegl, an art historian of the early 20th century, charts the development from the physical tactility of ancient Egyptian art to the rise of abstract space and figurative late-Roman works. In the Egyptian art, the entire artwork occupied a single plane, encouraging interaction as with another physical body, an attention to texture. Figurative art, on the other hand, allows the viewer to behold figures in an illusionistic space. Rather than a haptic, caressing gaze, it gives the viewer a sort of visual mastery. The early artworks closely align with haptic visuality, while the late-Roman and abstract space of Western cultures most often encourages an optical visuality. This distinction between the haptic and the optical can be traced in numerous works of the 20th century, notably in Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation of the smooth and the striated. Smooth space is that which must be navigated through by haptic perception of the immediate environment, while the striated corresponds to the more distant vision of the optical.

Haptic visuality and optical visuality are not completely opposed, but exist on opposite ends of the same spectrum. For Marks, as for Deleuze and Guattari these forms slide into each other, occupying a range of relations depending on the media object. Marks further describes haptic images (those which invite a haptic look) are often grainy, distorted and highlight our inability to see. Because we cannot identify an Other space and Other figures, our haptic look rests on the surface of the image rather than penetrating into it. We sense it with our bodies, treating this other surface as another skin. Optical images, on the other hand, portray a figures for a viewer to identify with, a space to exist in. Few media works are ever completely haptic, but rather depend on the oscillation between haptic and optical visuality. This oscillation is one between visual mastery and loss of reference and control; for Marks this is what makes haptic media erotic.

Since her study of intercultural cinema, Marks has weaved her investigation of haptic visuality through a variety of forms such as performative experimental film, pornography and dreams. In her most recent book, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, she explores three key issues in new media studies: the shift to digital video, the role of the electron in digitization and the materiality of the internet. Particularly relevant to the Transliteracies project is the third essay, “Immanence Online,” in which she maps five different levels at which the World Wide Web can assert its materiality: the quantum, electronic, hardware, software and social. Her analysis of new media art shows the ways its imagery can likewise point past the sensuous limitations of the interface, sparking a multisensory, haptic experience.

Research Context:
Marks’s formulation of the haptic takes place within the longer critical tradition of phenomenology and sensory theory. As mentioned above, her conception of haptic visuality stems from Riegl, Deleuze and Guattari; she expands on both the haptic/optical distinction and psychoanalytic accounts of the Gaze, offering application to contemporary media objects. She builds upon a wide range of phenomenological work, from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s foundational text, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945) to Vivian Sobchack’s The Address of the Eye (1992), which situates the phenomenology of cinematic experience as synesthetic and interactive: an exchange between two bodies.

Technical Analysis:
Haptic visuality does not correspond to any specific technology, medium or aesthetic strategy. Though particular aesthetic or formal characteristics, such as video’s poor resolution, might make haptic imagery more prevalent in a given form, the strength of haptic visuality as a analytic device is that it is not medium or technology specific.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:

Marks herself states that it “is timely to explore how a haptic approach might rematerialize our objects of perception, especially now that optical visuality is being refitted as a virtual epistemology for the digital age”[1]. In light of the broader tendency towards both optical, figurative representation within digital space and ocularcentrism in the analysis of this space, Transliteracies will benefit from the balance of a sensory, materialist approach. Haptic visuality is one possible framework for studying the body’s involvement in online media works (outside of the structure of point and click interaction) as well as a potential alternative history for these works.

Resources for Further Study:

  • Hansen, Mark B. N.. New Philosophy for New Media. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004).
  • Marks, Laura U.. The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).
  • Marks, Laura U.. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. trans. by Colin Smith, (New York: Humanities Press, 1962).
  • Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

[1] Marks, Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, p. xiii.

  tl, 08.11.06

One Response to Haptic Visuality (Laura U. Marks’s Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media)

  1. Martin Kline and the Experience of Seeing « New Britain Museum of American Art says:

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