Ocularcentrism, storytelling, and the internet

Posted by @ 3:02 pm on March 11th, 2011

In The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, philosopher and architect Juhani Pallasmaa mourns our ocularcentric culture. By ocularcentric, Pallasmaa means a culture made for the eyes, where sight dominates all other senses, where we experience the world through vision alone rather than an integration of all five senses. Pallasmaa argues that second to vision is hearing. The other three senses are ignored almost entirely. This is pretty radical, especially considering that he’s an architect, an occupation focused keenly on the visual experience. And yet, Pallasmaa argues:

Sight isolates, whereas sound incorporates; vision is unidirectional, whereas sound is omni-directional… Sight is the sense of the solitary observer, whereas hearing creates a sense of connection and solidarity. (49-50)

Reading Pallasmaa, I immediately thought of Walter Benjamin and his argument about the end of storytelling, how as a culture, we have lost our memory of oral narrative, which ultimately leads to an inability to communicate orally. Oral stories are grounded in the audio, but even more importantly, they offer a different way of thinking. To tell a story is an art. Whereas I can write novels and short stories galore, I am a terrible storyteller, by which I mean a terrible story-speaker. Why? It’s a way of thinking to which I am utterly unaccustomed. I have grown up in an ocularcentric world, where weight is put on the written word. What is written is powerful. It is permanent. What is spoken is ethereal. It is gone – and forgotten – as soon as it is spoken.

But why the eyes? We have five full and very useful senses! Why vision?

As a society, we put more weight in vision, and to a lesser degree hearing, because the other three senses—taste, touch, smell—are so clearly sensual, and we’re all scared of the sexy. Call us Protestant prudes. But, I mean: Can you imagine a world where we experience things more through touch than sight? Can you imagine distinguishing a person or feeling an emotion more through shape and feel on your skin than by looking at faces? Or their smell? To be close enough to smell and have a nose so keen as to know smell so personally? And taste! Well, I won’t even go into that possibility!

But come on, Lily!, you say. Vision is the most pragmatic method of recognition. And you’d be right. Pragmatically and evolutionarily speaking, sight is the most efficient way to discern shapes, people, things, etc., but Pallasmaa (and I) would argue that vision, as a sense, has come to dominate all other senses, and we have developed an over-reliance on sight, so much so that our other senses have diminished, not only in value but also in use. We hardly use touch, unless it’s sexual/sensual. We like our “space.” We are told not to touch a lot of things. We are told not to touch each other. Think of all the things are not allowed to touch. Our skin—our largest and most sensorially perceptive organ—is out of bounds. Even when we do touch, we use our fingers. What about all that other skin? What about all that possibility for sensation?

And taste: Most Americans are taught that McDonald’s tastes good, and folks, when McDonald’s tastes good, we have definitely lost our sense of taste! Ok, all joking aside, given the constant bombardment of advertising etc that tells us that our bodies are inadequate—or maybe all too adequate—we’re taught and trained to hate food, since food makes us fat and therefore unattractive and therefore ugly and therefore bad human beings.

Smell is equally problematic. Usually, smell only becomes obtrusive when the smell is bad. Good smell is appreciated and then our noses acclimate and just like that, the appreciation, the pleasure of the smell, is gone.

And so, we live in an ocularcentric world. But what does this really mean? Well, it means that we appreciate things visually and we appreciate visual things. We prioritize the visual more so than any other sensory experience and perception. Aesthetics, for instance, are judged visually. How else would you judge aesthetics?

Both Pallasmaa and Benjamin discuss a time before the printing press, a time when information was communicated orally. We had to listen in order to learn, whether it’s information or gossip. Then, the printing press and the whole world shifted. Once information could be disseminated cheaply and widely, people didn’t have to listen so well anymore. Also, reading is more time efficient than listening. Writing is more efficient than speaking. But still, you had to listen for gossip. In order to learn about the juiciest news about a neighbour or friend, you had to open your ears.

But then, my friends, but then, the internet and the whole world shifted again. Now, not only do we not need to listen in order to gain information, we don’t need to listen to learn about the secretest of secrets. With the advent of social networking and chats, emails and blogs, anything and everything we want is available to our eyes. We just have to do a little clicking and maybe a bit of typing and for our pretty little eyes: a feast!

Pallasmaa writes:

The hegemony of vision has been reinforced in our times by a multitude of technological inventions and the endless multiplication and production of images – ‘an unending rainfall of images,’ as Italo Calvino calls it. ‘The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as a picture,’ writes Heidegger. The philosopher’s speculation has certainly materialized in our age of the fabricated, mass-produced and manipulated image. (21)

Whereas Pallasmaa really focuses his book on the effects of ocularcentrism on architecture, I wonder what it means for storytelling, not just oral narrative but our understanding of the construction of stories. Before the internet, before the printing press, stories took time and space to tell. The listener required great patience while waiting for a story to unfold. The printing press took away the necessity of space. That is, people no longer needed to gather in order to hear a story. You just needed the time to read it. Now, with the advent of the internet, our stories are becoming shorter and shorter. We need very little time and almost no space to read. We just need a place to set our bodies and our laptops.

Now, I’m not all doom and gloom. I’m not saying this is the end of the story or anything like that. But I am slow to adjust to our newer modes of storytelling, and I wonder what all of this will mean. We are in the middle of an evolution of the story. Where will we go? What will our stories look like? (Look at me! An ocularcentrist!) Do you think the future promises more ocularcentrism? What will it mean? And so, I close with no answers, not a single one, but here, I offer you some pretty things: Pallasmaa’s creations!

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