I am a philosopher by profession. My days are filled with reading, writing, thinking. I work with words, combine linguistic concepts, derive arguments and conclusions from them. But there is a risk: forgetting the senses. Philosophers can forget their bodies, neural pathways, sensations. They can ignore their skin that touches the rough pages of a book, and their brain cells that are so very fragile, mortal and protected by the senses.
In the early 20th century, phenomenologists such as Edith Stein reminded other philosophers not to forget the physical body. Instead of “objective truths”, phenomenology sought to perceive a subjective view of reality. It asked: how does a human experience reality? Experience comes with bodiliness. A thinker can only form thoughts through their body, in the body. Writing comes from the hand that needs the breathing lungs, pumping heart and the ability to sense cold, feel thirst or hunger, to feel desire. This may seem obvious. But I know a number of contemporary philosophers who regard the sensoriness of phenomenologists as somehow non-philosophical.
In autumn 2020, I was sitting in a park and reading The Ego Tunnel, a book written by Thomas Metzinger that combines neurosciences with philosophy. Metzinger describes the way the human mind simulates reality, constructs it. His description follows Immanuel Kant’s argument, according to which we can never perceive “reality as such” – we can only perceive its simulation and we are the prisoners of this simulation. The simulation of reality is like a film or game that our brain constructs and outside of which we have no access: it is reality as we perceive and experience it, not reality objectively perceived. In a distinguished manner, Metzinger successfully explores the significance of deviations in the simulation. Unusual things can sometimes happen in the construct of the simulation, such as the phenomenon of the “out-of-body” experience. The brain makes a miscalculation, which leads to leaps out of the normal, a literal flight from the conventional. I was devouring the book, shutting my senses from the surrounding park.
WRITING ON THE CONDITIONS of possibility for totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt notes that, while isolation is necessary for stripping people of political power, isolation itself does not lead to a total eclipse of freedom. (1) Isolation, she writes, is in fact necessary for thinking, for when isolation takes the form of solitude, it is a place not of loneliness but of “being together with oneself”, of being “two-in-one”, a place where the world accompanies the individual in her inner dialogue. But isolation is solitude only insofar as she can return to the world of others and through their recognition become again one, an irreplaceable individual who can contribute to the collective work of world-building. It is when “the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed” that isolation becomes loneliness. (2) While isolation concerns only political participation, loneliness concerns one’s life as a whole. Totalitarian domination thus “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all”. (3)
We have learned to think that to be free is to live an unbound life. But it is not detachment that makes us free: only belonging can give us freedom. In his analysis of the origins of money, David McNally describes the state of the enslaved person in Ancient Greece as total “deprivation of communal belonging”. (4) Natal alienation, disconnection from land and culture, repeated cutting off of whatever fragile social bonds the enslaved person had been able to establish renders them ‘orphans’ or what was later commonly described as ‘socially dead’. The unfreedom of the enslaved, McNally writes, is “sealed in their juridical inability to ever become “kin””. (5) Yet, enslavement is not the only form of unfreedom. “Some people,” notes Judith Butler, “work for the common world, keep it going, but are not, for that reason, of it.” (6) Those trapped outside of belonging form the foundation of society, yet remain unacknowledged, like the invisible hands of a puppeteer that make the figure on the stage act seemingly on its own.
(1) Arendt, 1951, 460-479
(2) Arendt, 1951, 475
(3) Arendt, 1951, 475
(4) McNally, 2020, 38
(5) McNally2020, 38
(6) Butler, 2021
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IN 2019 I HAD A DREAM ABOUT A WHALE. Or I thought it was a whale. It was someone ancient who slowly faded into the blue darkness. I realized how littleI know about whale species and still I could not imagine my life without them existing, somewhere in the deep blue oceans. I started to learn more about cetacean species and their culture. Also about the human history with whales. I found myself searching for a place where to go to and meet them. I found myself asking, is the whale a real being to me, or does it represent part of my internal psyche? Soon I found myself in Iceland walking in the shorelines of the North Atlantic Ocean, looking for them in the horizon.
In Norse mythology, humans are intertwined with other species and forces, and these perceptions are still alive to some extent within the cosmology of present- day Iceland. Oral traditions and storytelling that connect humans to landscapes and other species continue to thrive. Icelanders also practice whaling despite a global ban. I have always been interested in the complex and mostly violent interaction that humans have toward other species, and there are plenty of these stories about the giants of the Oceans. Hunting the great Leviathan, the monster of the Oceans.
Maybe it is our yearning to connect and communicate with other species? Slowly forgetting how to empathetically communicate with other species. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass describes:
“Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection “ a species loneliness”— a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.” (Kimmerer, 2013)
A disembodied voice carries over an open square, singing in a high-pitched voice. Some of it you can make out: “…words floating in the wind, not knowing where to fall…” A woman walking her pug stops, looks up, trying to figure out where the voice is coming from. The singing continues, multiplying in number and tone, as a group having a salsa lesson in one corner of the plaza move in their own separate rhythm, and a man in a crumpled suit wearing headphones gleefully belts out a line of a show tune, knowingly competing with the growing dusk chorus.
Elsewhere, a pale blue butterfly, its wings tinged black, lands on a pair of empty trainers sitting amongst leaves on the ground. The laces and tongue of the shoes are bolts of neon green, the rest of it a bluish grey: the butter-fly seems to belong here, blending in as if it were drawn to the colour coordination.
A stray curl of dust rests on a sheet of grey glass, overseen by a semi-trans-parent conch. The grey glass is frosted, absorbing and neutralising the colours around it, a template for the muted contours of those who pass by. The conch, open on one side, is luminous glass that swallows the remainder of the light, its shadow somehow also shining bright.
These are just brief moments, taken in time from across the spectrum of works that make up A I S T I T / coming to our senses. A I S T I T features artworks across a range of media, such as these instances from Kalle Nio and Hans Rosenström’s outdoor sound installation Weaving, Yearning (2021), Laure Prouvost’s skipping video Swallow (2013), and the sculpture Lambi (2019) by Kapwani Kiwanga. A I S T I T — the word for “senses” in Finnish — already sug-gests the approach taken, a “coming to” the senses. Though as in these stolen moments, it also works through sense to arrive somewhere else, somewhere unexpected.
We are becoming increasingly senseless. In the 21st century, sight is so overwhelmingly colonising our way of knowing our world, that we are losing connection with our other senses, of smell, touch, taste and hearing. In the digital age, image is all: “I see (and I am seen) therefore I am”. Every second around the world, 90,000 YouTube videos are watched, 200,000 text messages are received on our phones, 3 million emails are sent (1). Every day 300 million photographs are uploaded onto Facebook alone (2). We are bombarded by technologically mediated images and information every second of every day, so much so that what we see has become more important than ever before in human history. Even more so in the Covid-era, when our connection to others is increasingly mediated by technology – the smartphones we carry, the smartwatches we wear, our computers and tablets. Friends, families and strangers are seen at a distance for fear of transmitting the virus. The virus has also mounted its own attack on our senses, affecting the sense of taste and smell of many people who catch it. Real touch, including hugging and kissing, is avoided, except for people who live together. Seeing is what keeps us in touch metaphorically, but not literally.
Politics is also increasingly dominated by the sense of sight. Politicians care about what they call “optics” – how things look and how the public are seen to respond – a term borrowed from the science of the physics of light. Populist politics is as old as democracy itself, but in the 21st century populist politics driven by the feelings of the masses has gained bigger traction than ever before thanks to technology and the mass aggregation of responses in the digital realm. We are truly in the ultimate era of the eye – where sight is king and all other senses are increasingly being rendered senseless in every sense of the word.
A winter tree in abscission is what the blood vessels in the brain resemble if you look at a map of blood flow through a cerebral angiogram.
They also look like an aerial view of a river’s meandering tributaries flowing out into the ocean, or, like the branches of vast and reaching air passages in the lungs.
These phenomena all look the same because their constellation is made up of dendritic patterns. (Dendrites, from the Greek, means ‘tree-like’.)
Relationships also follow a dendritic pattern. Were you to depict the connections between two or more entities (people, groups, institutions, the natural world), it would present a tree-like form. It would reveal a core context from which a relation emerges, as well as the branches that stretch in, out, and in-between the time and space of the relationship like elastic bands.
there are so many ways to die
elementally displaced kelp feigns leather, invertebrate
life on this stretch of beach
the strength, and the sleek, of the once slipping-up limbs now wilted, give in
to the weight of the open air
these supple arms once wrapped themselves around otter
necklaces, linking hands
thwarting floating away
sinuous grace, furling unfurling
densely furred flak, trying to get some rest.
now, here, on the sand to hold it between my fingers is
a dislocated frond, vegetable tentacle
is to put your palm on the back of another beached soul (porpoise skin, whale cheek)
still breathing, this
as elemental as
I remember the cold jolt, the breathtaking
arrival of everything
flashing against my thinnest skin
the world is sharper in the dark.
i feel alive
i feel alive —