Interview with Stephanie Merchant

Photo by Stephanie Merchant

 Simon Dawes interviews Stephanie Merchant about her article The Body and the Senses: Visual Methods, Videography and the Submarine Sensorium’ in Body & Society 17.1

Simon Dawes: Your interdisciplinary article examines underwater videography footage to explore how we might begin to study and represent the ‘unrepresentable’ senses of, for example, touch and the somatic senses, such as proprioception. Could you begin by telling us about how the research behind your article came about, and how it fits into your wider research?
Stephanie Merchant: My wider research is concerned with geographies of nature and the body, in particular phenomenology and the mediating role technology plays in our relations to/with the environment. My PhD explores these themes within the context of dive tourism and it is from this work that this paper came about. It was clear from the start of my PhD that it would be difficult to study the body underwater in ‘real time’ due to the logistical constraints of communicating and recording ‘data’. After learning to dive accompanied by a videographer, I discovered that there was a BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club) professional underwater videography course. I completed the course and that’s what the ‘experimental methodology’ aspect of my PhD emerged from.
SD: Could you explain some of the concepts to which you refer (‘synaesthesia’, ‘proprioception’, ‘submarine sensorium’), and summarise for us the evolution of sensuous scholarship and the methodological challenge it poses?
SM: Synaesthesia is ‘when stimulation of one sensory modality automatically triggers a perception in a second modality, in the absence of any direct stimulation to this second modality’ (Baron-Cohen and Harrison 1997: 3). Proprioception is “our sense of balance, position, and muscular tension, provided by receptors in muscles, joints, tendons and the inner ear” (Leder 1990: 39). Drawing on McLuhan, Howes (2003) talks of the sensorium as being the ‘seat of sensation’ where according to context or learnt behaviours our ‘ratios of sense’ vary. For McLuhan it was tools, technologies or mechanical extensions that brought on changes to these ratios of sense, whereas Howes claims that these can occur at the level of the body, unprostheticised.  In the paper I talk of the ‘submarine sensorium’, by which I refer to the way in which the senses are reorganised as the body becomes accustomed to the technology of the dive equipment and the sensory cues of the underwater environment. In other words I argue that being underwater calls for, and results in, different ratios of sense, for perception to be effective. A significant portion of sensuous scholarship has emerged as a reaction to the hegemony of vision being considered the ‘superior’ and ‘rational’ sense.  Consequently, since the ‘sensual turn’, academics have been keen to address this bias by studying the other senses, and for the most part, ignoring vision. Studying the senses is a complicated task, particularly when considering that most sensory processes occur beyond the threshold of consciousness. Equally the fleeting and continual nature of sensory perception means that even if sensations do become ‘felt’ they are often quickly forgotten. And, even if they are remembered, communicating them in words can prove difficult.
Of late, geographers like Hawkins (2010), Rose (2007), and those working more specifically on visual culture and visual methodologies (Sobchack 1991; Marks 2000; Sobchack 2004; Pink 2006) are keen to reconfigure the theorisation of vision so that it is not seen as a distancing sense and further that it can enhance our understanding of the other senses. It is this aspect of vision which is considered worthy of exploration for the purpose experimenting with methodology, as the senses are always acting as a perceptual whole (MacDougall 2006). Consequently, integrating visual technologies (and in the case of my paper sound) into the methodological process not only allows for the study of vision itself, but this also offers a gateway to the other senses.
SD: You interpret your role of researcher as somebody who ‘orients’ participants ‘to that which might usually remain unsaid’ – could you explain what you mean by this and how it differs from more ‘traditional’ approaches?
SM: This phrase comes from Blackman and Venn’s (2010) Body & Society editorial on ‘affect’. In the paper I argue that the kind of sensuous, affective detail that I am trying to ‘get at’ is often difficult to remember and talk about, for example in interviews, questionnaires or focus groups. By giving research participants the opportunity to see themselves on screen, I believe the footage provides a stimulus for them to remember what happened and how they felt previously, at a time when they couldn’t communicate in words. As I argue in the paper “videography then can ‘flesh out’ reflective descriptions of events, providing the researcher and the participants with an opportunity to talk through and point out significant and specific sensations, emotions and connections, interactively”.  In a sense the film prompts discussion rather than (or in addition to) a questioning researcher.
SD: How successfully (generally speaking and in your own research) can an audiovisual medium such as videography represent other sensory modalities? And can you tell us more about recent criticisms and defences of visual methodologies in the social sciences?
SM: Like any methodology, there are limitations to methods that employ audiovisual technologies. In my research, the most significant concerns were framing and editing. Clearly with only one videographer filming up to 6 divers, not everyone could be captured in every shot. Equally what is seen on the screen represents more accurately my view than the participants’. Similarly, I was the one who chose what footage to edit out before replaying it to the participants (time constraints didn’t allow for screening every moment of each dive). Thus there are considerable ‘gaps’ between the real-time experience and that which is re-viewed. However, videography doesn’t take anything away from the original experience, it captures two (vision and sound) sensory cues  that, as Rose states, are more capable of touching the participants in ‘different registers’ (2007: 240). Following on from old negative occularcentric connotations associated with sight (particularly it’s supposedly distancing characteristics), there has been a stigmatization of visual methods as being inherently disembodied (Jameson, 1998). Furthermore critics of visual methods have argued that they privilege vision (and sound), in comparison to text, which treats all the senses equally (Howes 2003). On the other hand whether theorising from a Deleuzian (Marks 2000), phenomenological (Spinney 2006), non-representational (Crang 2003) or feminist (Rose 2007) standpoint there are still those who demonstrate the potential of the visual to instigate perception in other sensory modalities. Pink (2006) for example, acknowledges that even if vision is not the most efficient means for ‘accessing’ other sensory modalities, that is not to deny that it can do so, thus she argues it is about making the most out of the technology/equipment we have to work with.
SD: Finally, what are your post-PhD plans? How are you going to follow up this research, and what theoretical areas are you considering exploring next?
SM: At the moment I’m just concentrating on finishing my PhD!  I would like to carry on working in a research environment when I’ve finished. I would be keen to go into more detail on the topic of technological mediation of memory. Or, on a completely different tangent, I would like to pursue, as yet unexplored, interests concerning dive tourism and its impact on marine ecosystems, with regards to conservation/management.
Baron-Cohen, S. and Harrison, J. 1997. Synaesthesia. Oxford, Blackwell.
Crang, M. 2003. “Qualitative Methods: Touchy, Feely, Look-See?” Progress in Human Geography 27(4): 494.
Hawkins, H. 2010. “‘the Argument of the Eye?’ the Cultural Geographies of Installation Art.” Cultural Geographies 17(3): 321.
Howes, D. 2003. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Cultural and Social Theory. Ann Arbour, University of Michigan Press.
Leder, D. 1990. The Absent Body. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
MacDougall, D. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses, Princeton University Press.
Marks, L. 2000. The Skin of the Film. London, Duke.
Pink, S. 2006. The Future of Visual Anthropology: Engaging the Senses. Oxford, Taylor Francis.
Rose, G. 2007. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. London, SAGE Publications.
Sobchack, V. C. 1991. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton University Press.
– 2004. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, University of California Press.
Spinney, J. 2006. “A Place of Sense: A Kinaesthetic Ethnography of Cyclists on Mont Ventoux.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24(5): 709.

Photo: Stephanie Merchant

Stephanie Merchant is a research student in the Geography department at the University of Exeter. She is in the process of writing her PhD thesis, titled ‘Submarine Geographies: Technology, Nature and the Body’. Since starting her research she has become a keen diver and a professional underwater videographer. [email:]
Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society
And go here to see some of the footage from Stepanie’s research


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