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Book, HSP Issues

The Aesthetics of Space

We boast that we have conquered matter, and forget that it is matter that has enslaved us—okakura

Children are taught to value specific approaches to sensory life that are highly regimented by our cultural rules. Indeed, psychologists have established that we have specific social norms and languages related to our use of time, space, touch, gesture, postures, faces, paralanguage and fashion (Nowicki and Duke, 1992)[i]. These norms are formulated in our aesthetics, understood to be the sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste  (Zangwill, 2008)[ii].

If the web of social conventions contained by the aesthetics of media is easily acknowledged, it works synchronically with the narratives that exist within other areas of representation (Deleuze, 1968)[iii]. The notion of aesthetics refers to a broader set of values and believes of a given group that propagates through multiple systems of representation (Kelly, 1998)[iv].  One area of our culture we often do not associate with sensory aesthetics is our use of space.

Space has had a special place in our societies.  Before societies imposed order upon their environments, there was an invisible order, “flow”. While it may appear chaotic, this “flow” has its own order which can only be experiences, not seen. For Deleuze and Guattari[xi], the earth is a perfect example of this flow as it is always in flux: the wind and rain, and other elements continuously affect it. Space is essential to the senses as it can promote or decrease our ability to sense “flow”. A natural space, even if invisible to de-sensitized humans, is what they refer to as a smooth space:

“ [Smooth space] is explored without calculation, without being quantified, it is constituted as a body of “rhyzomatiques” which are explored in the moment of travelling.  (…) Smooth space must be embarked upon a tactile encounter with sound and color(…) The nomadism which belongs to a traversal of smooth space amounts to an activity of following the flow of matter, tracing and crossing smooth space. The space of nomadism is tactile, haptic, sonorous.” (West-pavlov, 2009, 182)[v]

This smooth nomadic space is the medium of “difference”, which according to Gilles Deleuze is core to our “being” (Deleuze, 1968, p. 39), In Difference and Repetition[i], Gilles Deleuze sets forth difference as being the multiplicities of transformation that reside alongside the actual. These creative differences are the change in all changes, the process that continues across time, repeating itself differently through novel transformations set out on alternative trajectories.

Difference is not about making a difference between two things, in opposition and contradiction. Instead, Deleuze defines difference as a concept that has freed itself from similarity and contrary, a concept of difference that resides alongside the actual. Difference refers to a real system of differential relations that creates actual spaces, times, and sensations. It resides in multiple, alternative realities that only exist in space and cannot be represented:

Representation fails to capture the affirmed world of difference. Representation has only a single center, a unique and receding perspective, and in the consequence a false depth. It mediates everything, but mobilizes and moves nothing.” (Deleuze, 1968, p, 56)[vi].

Our body and senses are the only conduit to  reading this “difference” since it can only be experienced. But over time, the establishment of representation, as the main form of perception, has made us give priority to the senses that were central to its development. As R. Acscott explains, while: “Aristotle identified just five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Neuroscience provides a further six: pain, balance, proprioception, kinaesthesia, sense of time, and sense of temperature.”(Ascott, 2010)[xiv].  These additional senses are those essential to sense and process inputs emanating from space and perceive the invisible flow of “difference”.

Philosophers are not the only ones to understand this smooth space as a medium of communication. Slowly, science is not only re-discovering a much broader array of senses, it is also beginning to re-discover the fullness of space.

Quantum Space

Space is richer than we think and quantum physicists have now demonstrated that space is not empty. Dr. Wilson and his team at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, claimed to have conjured up light from nowhere simply by squeezing down empty space (New Scientist, Nov 18, 2011, p 18)[xv]. That would be the latest manifestation of a quantum quirk known as the Casimir effect: the notion that a perfect vacuum, the very definition of nothingness in the physical world, contains a latent power that can be harnessed to move objects and make things.

Scientists know that each living being has energy fields, which influence perception and its adaptation to the environment.  Physicist Dr. Sean Carroll[xvi], explains that the discovery of the Higgs boson particle takes us to the edge of a new world because it confirms the principles of field theory. Field theory is one of the dominant dialectics of our era. According to Carroll, the Higgs boson is a vibration in a field. All particles are vibrations within fields. The simplest forms are the electric and magnetic fields. These fields extend through space, they pull and send out vibrations through space that we perceive as particles.  The Higgs boson particle is unique because it is a vibration within a quantum field.

The difference between quantum states and classical states of matter is that classically, materials exhibit different phases, which ultimately depends on the change in temperature and/or density or some other macroscopic property of the material, whereas quantum phases can change in response to a change in a different type of order parameter (such as magnetic field or pressure).

When space is empty the Higgs boson is still there. We are moving through Higgs fields that affect the features of our particles. Since particles are vibrations then our body exchanges vibrations with everything within the environment. Physicists are hoping so: “ If our favorite models of dark matter are correct, then the way that ordinary mater that makes up you and me interacts with dark matter is by exchanging Higgs bosons”(Carroll, 2012)[xvii].

We can feel these energy flows as forms of communication, just like sharks do with electro-reception. We, like all animals, also produce electrical and magnetic fields signature. These sources of energy travel through the air. These energy flux move away from the source (us), travel in space and bounces off elements in space. It stands to reason that a human standing in the energy wave’s path, is touched and affected by it, just like candles are by electrical or magnetic energy.

This field theory is echoed in psychological theory. Scientists now understand that behavior is derived from a totality of coexisting facts and patterns of interaction between the individual and the total field, or environment. The concept, developed by Kurt Lewin[vii], holds that these coexisting facts make up a “dynamic field”, which means that the state of any part of the field depends on every other part of it.

Space is indeed much richer than we think. Some of us are more physiologically built to read these vibrations. Psychologists have demonstrated that some people, highly sensitive people, sense more than others. Recent research shows that this personality trait marks different functionality of the lower part of the brain, the one responsible for perceptions (UCSF, 2013). Heightened sensory processing is a reflection of sensory giftenedness, the ability to sense the “flow” and “difference” at the energetic level.  In other words, HSP have the ability to sense subtle changes in space that most people do not perceive (Aron, 2010).

This puts them at a great disadvantage in our visual culture, within which space has been colonized and in the process emptied of its richness.

Colonization of space

Space is discursive, akin a media, it is a conduit for meta-narratives and part of relationships of power. Architecture, like media, is constructed in accordance to specific aesthetics that, via the forms of narratives it implies, mirror the dominant societal imaginary of its time.

Within our modern world, space has been transformed into a system of order that devalues heightened sensory skills, body gestures and behaviors that are a response to free flow. Difference became considered an aberration. This shift began with the colonization of space and over time,  space became what Foucault calls a system of discipline:

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre to the periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed amongst the living beings, the sick and the dead – All this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism” (Discipline and punishment, 197, translated by West-Pavlov).

This apparatus of discipline allowed some ideas to come into views, those of controlled representation and excluded others, those of sensorial experiences. In the process of disciplining space, our culture eliminated the nomadic exploration of space by transforming it territories. As we began to create semi-formalized domains out of space, and as we developed a system marked by  pre-formed routes of roads, canals and fences, we eliminated the possibility of the nomadic flow experience. (West-pavlov, 2009, 182)

This marked a deterritorialization of the nomadic experience towards “state” approved. The state and ruling class took control, took order away from the natural self and earth, and replaced the many ancient cultures of natural structures with its own beliefs and rituals.  Pluralism of knowledge gave way to a controlled and ordered colonial and, often, Christian hierarchies.

Scholar Vandana Shiva writes:

under the colonial influence the biological and intellectual heritage of non-western societies was devalued. The priorities of scientific development transformed the plurality of knowledge systems into a hierarchy of knowledge systems. When knowledge plurality mutated into knowledge hierarchy, the horizontal ordering of diverse but equally valid systems was converted into vertical ordering of unequal systems, and the epistemological foundations of western knowledge were imposed on non-western knowledge systems with the result that the latter were invalidated” (Shiva, 2000)[viii].

Such a colonization and control was necessary to condition humans to workplace discipline that depends, since the industrial revolution, on the calculative division of “regulated time-space zones” (Giddens, 1984)[ix]. The sensory experience of space, which was essential to inform us about ourselves and our environment, disappeared from our collective consciousness. Interestingly, the definition of the word “disease” makes this dissociation very appearant. It is defined as “a corporeal invasion of the self, a “thing” lying outside the self that enters to corrupt it” (Gilman, 1985, p109)[x]. This “thing” can be interpreted as the flow of difference. This idea that any influence from the “outside” of us is a pathology has been very detrimental to highly sensitive people, for whom identity is defined through sensing this flow. As spatial perception, quintessential to the natural self, became equivalent to an attack on the disembodied self and eliminated from our aesthetics, their way of being was invalidated. Key to this transformation has been modern medicine.

[i] Nowicki, S. & Duke, M. (1992). Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.

[ii] Nathan, D. O. (2008), Aesthetic Creation by zangwill, nick. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 66: 416–418.

[iii] Deleuze, Gilles. (1968). Différence et repetition. PUF: Paris,  

[iv] ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AESTHETICS / Edited by Michael Kelly.–New York, NY: Oxford University Press, August 1998.–4 vol., 2208 p

[v] West-Pavlov, Russell. (2009) Space in Theory: Kristeva, Foucault, Deleuze. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi.

[vi] Deleuze, Gilles (1994/1968). Difference and Repetition.  Paul Patton, Trans. Columbia University Press: Columbia.

[vii] Lewin K. (1997). Defining the “Field at a Given Time.” Psychological Review. 50: 292-310. Republished in Resolving Social Conflicts & Field Theory in Social Science, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

[viii] Shiva, Dr. Vadana. (2000) “Forward: Cultural Diversity and the Politics of Knowledge.” In Indigenous Knowledges In Global Contexts. Edited by

George J. Dei, Budd L. Hall, and Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[x] Gilman, Sander L. (1985) Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Cornell University Press.



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