Making ‘Sense’ of Place

On what we can see, and what we can't

Hello and welcome to the 46th issue of Place! What is it about the crunch of pebbles on a beach that make us more aware of our surroundings than the dull thud of our footsteps on a city sidewalk? “It’s almost impossible to describe anything without appealing to information we have gained through at least one of our senses,” writes Molly Simpson in this week’s dispatch. Our senses are so powerful in engaging us with the places that we are in that they can almost ‘glue’ us to them, Molly argues. So much so, that we even notice things that are absent in our environment - as if we can see their ghost...

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Making ‘sense’ of Place

Walking along the stony beaches at Whitstable, on the north-east coastline of Kent in England, is hard to do without engaging all of your senses. There is a fussiness to it, a cacophony of stimuli that makes it difficult not to respond to the information that the beach is sending to you. The uneven gradient of the sloped shoreline demands considered placement of each step, returning an aural ‘crunch’ as pebbles make room for your footprint. The persistent breeze (or full-blown gale in winter) only further riles the seagulls hovering above who you must keep an eye on at all times, for they are aiming their own gaze below, where families and friends huddle together around bags of fish & chips, perched on the damp timber groynes that divide the coastline into semi-sheltered segments. The fresh air is tinged with an almost imperceptible taste of salt that lingers in the nostrils and on the tongue, though it’s hard to discern whether this is coming from the sea spray or the chips.

As I’ve spent three UK lockdowns in a comparatively sterile environment, 50 miles away from the Kent coast in my south-east London home, I’ve found myself dreaming of walks along that beach, and yet not entirely cognisant of what exactly it is I have been craving. What does it offer me that I can’t quite recreate in my suburban environment?

It has been said that a place is just space with meaning attached to it, which begs the question: meaning what to whom? We humans are fundamentally hard-wired to seek meaning in everything we encounter in the world. We are predisposed to interpret the objects we see, the relationships we have with other people, and even to speculate our own purpose within the wider universe; the lived experience of any human being is, in essence, a quest for such meaning.

This mystery has preoccupied some of the world’s greatest thinkers since as far back as Plato and Aristotle; they have puzzled over the role of our own minds in dictating the way we experience the world, what we see, think and know. As a philosophy student at university, I was drawn to the topics that confronted this interaction between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ head on – particularly the role our senses play in knowing our environment, introducing us to the places we find ourselves in. I want to know why the animated scuttle of pebbles giving way to my feet grounds me, in a way that the lifeless smack of my shoes on the pavement outside my front door cannot.

It’s almost impossible to describe anything without appealing to information we have gained through at least one of our senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch). We unwittingly acknowledge this when we say something ‘makes sense’ when we come to understand it. These bodily systems provide a gateway for what lies beyond the boundaries of our skin to reach inward to our thinking brains and yet, even as our biological understanding of our eyes, noses, ears and tongues have improved, the true nature of the dialogue between the outside world and our inner selves remains unknown.

Philosophical arguments for perception will often refer to phenomenology – that is, the ‘what it’s like-ness’ of an experience. For cultural ecologist David Abrams, whose work investigates the ecology of perception and the ongoing spontaneous reciprocity between our bodily senses and the world, the activity of our senses functions “to bind our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem, as though our animal senses work almost like a kind of glue.” The physical sensation that accompanies many of our daily interactions with the world is testament to this, even something as commonplace as looking up at the azure sky on a clear day: ‘Why would that colour be so intense to us if we’ve evolved underneath it for so many million years?’ Abrams questions. ‘You would have thought it would become a kind of washed-out neutral colour to us, a kind of grey, but it is not neutral at all – it is so intense and vivid and brings so many cascades of sensation and feeling and emotion.’

In other words, the way that we perceive the ecosystems we inhabit reveals that we are not so distinct from them as we might think. Our attempt as a culture to dismiss this connection is manifest in our vocabulary, when we speak of the ‘natural world’ as if it is separate to a distinct human realm, and ‘man-made’ objects as if they have been manufactured without any input from nature. These ways of speaking ‘work to stifle or frustrate the instinctive rapport between our animal senses and the animate world around us’, and Abrams corrects this myth we have written for ourselves by appealing to our senses: in bearing witness to the earth, we become bound to it ‘like glue’.

The degree of entanglement between our vision, our consciousness and the world is felt strongly when we see an absence (something that is not there). Conventional philosophical theories of sensory perception hold that we can only perceive physical objects that are present before us, but I defended the less conventional view that we can actually see that something is absent in everyday scenes, too. Anyone who has left an object on a table only to walk back into a room to find it missing – a visual imprint of the it lying there left on your brain, accompanied by that gut-sinking feeling at not seeing it where you left it – will have an inkling of our curious ability to perceive absences, and the haunting feeling that often comes with it.

We are awash with such scenes now, thanks to the pandemic. City centres have emptied, offices remain dormant, museum collections have sat gathering nothing but dust. There is a new peculiarity to the places we know as living spaces, now seeming quite still and inanimate without people to fill them. This absence is felt most strongly in densely populated cities like London. For those who have stood in the centre of a town square or the middle of a main street or train station during lockdown, with nary a pedestrian or vehicle in sight, you may have experienced this eeriness first-hand. The closest descriptor I have found to describe the sensation isKenopsia: the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet. There is ample photographic evidence taken during the past year to stimulate the feeling through your screen, though nothing compares to witnessing it in real life.

What this all suggests to me is that the meaning of a place resides in that sweet spot between observer and observed – viewer and object (or indeed maybe even the absence of one). That sweet spot may be better known as our Attention: that marvellous capacity we have that allows us to privilege the information we take in about one thing over another. The pivotal role of attention in shaping not only what we sense, but our very experience has been preached since the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (“You become what you give your attention to”) right up until philosopher-meets-psychologist William James in the late nineteenth century(“My experience is what I agree to attend to”). Like a moderator, our attention is what directs the conversation that occurs between our surroundings and our inner being, acting as the ‘glue’ that binds us in place and in meaning – very much shaping the way we orient ourselves in the world.

Attending to something has the remarkable effect of expanding our awareness (not narrowing it down to a pinpoint, as we tend to think it does), growing with it our capacity to absorb the full complexity and liveliness of whatever we are attending to – be it the person sitting across the table, or the horizon that lies before us. ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’, wrote French philosopher Simone Weil, whose own lyrical reflections liken paying attention to an act of love. The currency of attention is not scarcity, it trades in abundance; meaning is never lacking when we are giving something our attention.

This holds true for places, too. We offer up meaning to a space when we orient ourselves within it with our fullest attention – giving in to the pull it has on our senses, drawing us further into our environment and, somewhat paradoxically, leading us further into ourselves at the same time. 

I think this is what I have been craving most: the feeling of having no choice but to turn my attention towards the sights, smells, and sounds that characterise that corner of the English coastline where a seaside walk is akin to a whole-body experience. I miss being stuck in one place by my senses.

- Molly Simpson is a Content Editor and Masters student practising Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins in London, UK. You can find her on instagram @_mollywithawhy, and on her blog at www.mollywithawhy.co.uk


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