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Representation and the Senses

Representation and the Senses

Our understanding of the senses has been greatly impoverished by our contemporary notion of representation. Much has changed in how we understand representation since its inception. The idea of representation was developed during ancient Greece time. Aristotle’s perspective encompassed each senses as a specific mode of representation, verbal, visual or musical, which are natural to human beings and necessary to our learning and to “being” in the world (Vukcevich, 2002)[i].

While Artistotle considered representation to be grounded in our senses, another perspective became dominant in western culture, which eventually lead to the suppression of our senses. Another Greek thinker, Parmenides of Elea believed our world to be a world of appearances in which one’s sensory faculties lead to conceptions that are false and deceitful. These ideas strongly influenced the whole of Western culture as they became essential to Plato’s perspective. Plato believed that representations create worlds of illusion leading one away from the “real things”(Hall, 1997)[ii]. Instead of understanding our “being” as constructed through our senses, Plato considered such representation as something that needed to be controlled and monitored due to the possible dangers resulting in its ability to foster antisocial emotions or encourage the imitation of evil (Mitchell, 1990)[iii].

With Plato, social norms began to replace our senses as central to our understanding of the world and ourselves, a perspective which opened the door to the colonization of our  sensorial “being” by the social values of the dominant group of the time.

As Plato’s notions propagated through our civilization, so did his ideas about representation and social order. As societies evolved, so did the need for control over flows of actions: ”The prime function incumbent on the socius, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flows exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated”(Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p.33)[iv].

Sensory Life as a Female Domain to be Controlled and Dominated

At this time, another change took place, which removed the senses from our understanding of ourselves, the removal of female knowledge from thoughts. Until the age of Plato, women participated in healing practices. In very ancient Greece, 400 BCE, at the time of Hippocrates, one of the most famous ancient healers, women such as Artemisia were respected healers. One hundred years later however, Greek culture marked a significant departure from prior cultures by eliminated the importance of “females” in culture.

As a more patriarchal system of government and politics developed, women were increasingly restricted from every aspects of public life, including healing. Their main function became the reproduction of children, especially of sons. While all sons would be raised within the family, ordinarily only one daughter, at most, would be reared. The others would have a life of slavery, prostitution, or both (Pomeroy, 1975)[v].

Such a devaluation is clear in Plato’s Republic, in which women are considered degeneration from perfect human nature:

It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls. Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are ‘cowards or [lead unrighteous lives] may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation’. This downward progress may continue through successive reincarnations unless reversed. In this situation, obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man” (Plato, Timaeus 90e)[vi].

By 300 BCE, women were no longer allowed to be practicing healers. For instance, Agnodice, an Athenian who wanted to be a doctor, could only do so disguised as a man.  These show a significant shift in thinking towards sensory life. Senses, like emotions, were and are still culturally understood as being female characteristics. As women’s knowledge began to be devalued in western society their importance was denied.

This principle was reinforced centuries later by Descartes’ famous sentence: “I think therefore I am”.  Descartes separated our body from our mind and turned us into thinkers who developed the scientific method of seeing the world and developing knowledge. We were to stop being in the world, watching it from our minds’ eye. We were to stop “sensing” and only accept reality that emerged from rational, demonstrable “facts”, thinking and objectification surpassed intuition and sensory knowledge.  We were to know instead of to be.

Ever since Descartes, western society has been plunged in a “Cartesian anxiety” (Bernstein, 1983), an examination of the world as separate from ourselves based on the use of scientific methods that should be able to lead us to a firm and unchanging knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. A culture that positioned our embodied sensory nature as a  “salvage” self, that needed to be disciplined and eradicated by the disembodied intellect.

Each on of us is exposed to many Cartesian representations of ourselves, via family, work, school and/or other important communities in our lives, all of which have been so far tied to specific physical spaces such as the home, school, church, etc. While our personal life may have been influenced by many different cultures, our society has a few cultures in common, the one accessible via and its myths.


[i] Vukcevich, M (2002). “Representation”, The University of Chicago.

[ii] Hall, Suart (1997). Cultural Representations and Signifying Practice, Open University Press, London.

[iii] Mitchell, William, T (1990). “Representation”, in F Lentricchia & T McLaughlin (eds), Critical Terms for Literary Study, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[iv] Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1994). What is Philosophy? Continuum. Columbia University Press.

[v] Pomeroy, Sarah, B. (1975). Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves: women in classical antiquity. Schocken Books.



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