We live in a competitive sensory environment. This environment is saturated with alluring, proliferating and intense sense experience as technologies provide access to things previously beyond human perception. Bodies are cultivated to be aesthetically appealing and optimally available to the senses for commercial, medical and security purposes. The marketing of consumer goods continually appeals to taste, touch, vision, hearing, and smell, compelling other practices to engage our senses in what David Howes describes as a “hyperaesthetic culture.” This issue of Transformations examines hyperaesthetic culture and its reconfiguration of our sensory experience. In doing so, it brings together analysis of new sensory technologies with discussion of the senses’ role in the modulation of affect and our spatio-temporal experience. The problems and potentials for subjectivity generated by sensory technologies, and strategies for critical thought in such an environment are also explored.
In the first paper “A Critique of the Hyper State: Aesthetics, Technology and Experience,” Melanie Swalwell introduces a recurring theme of the ambivalence of hyperaesthetic culture. She links the intensification of sensory experience promised by advertising for media technologies and smart drinks to the rise of a broader discourse regarding the “hyper state.” This state sees the subject as forever able to incorporate new sensations and experiences in a project of self-maximisation, whether in leisure or work. This discourse of overstimulation and its technologies are ambivalent because they can engender new possibilities for subjectivity as well as be employed instrumentally. Swalwell suggests that Raymond Williams’s notion of “experience” as “trying something” or “experimenting” is useful in theorising aesthetic engagement in this environment.
The articles by Kaima Negishi and Enrica Picarelli examine instrumental uses of the senses in work and leisure contexts respectively. In “Smiling in the Post-Fordist ‘Affective’ Economy,” Negishi analyses how Smile Scan machines are used to assess and improve the naturalness of service workers’ smiles so they have a greater affective impact and optimise their affective bond with the customer. Discussing Smile Scan’s use in Japanese transit workers and noting that the face “is where most expression and communication of affect takes place,” Negishi shows how affective bonds between workers’ and customers’ bodies are used to encourage positive affects in customers and so modulate behaviour. The styling of workers’ bodies is perceived and responded to non-consciously by customers, enhancing other kinds of communication. Thus the sight, sound, smell and taste of workers’ bodies are harnessed by a post-Fordist economy.
Picarelli’s article “Sensory Regimes in TV Marketing: Boardwalk Empire’s Chromatic Enhancement and Digital Aesthetics” analyses HBO’s hyperaesthetic use of digital colour. Here the term hyperaesthetics refers to both an approach to digital design as discussed by Peter Lunenfeld, and a marketing strategy of sensorial mobilisation as theorised by David Howes. Picarelli observes that as an approach of consumer mobilisation, digital colour provides a cohesive identity across the television series and its associated multisensory products and promotions, such as whisky and clothing. It also aims to ensure that a series is received well by encouraging affective bonds between viewers and the series even before the series has been broadcast.
Returning to the notion of the ambivalence of hyperaesthetic practices, Erika Kerruish’s article “Benjamin’s Shock and Image: Critical Responses to Hyperaesthetic Culture” explores the space for critical thought within hyperaesthetic culture. Benjamin’s understanding of the experience of shock in the modern city draws out the relationships between memory, sensation and reflection, explaining how overstimulation can disrupt critical reflection. Yet he also sees the terms of critical thought as found within the sensory technologies and practices of one’s time, which makes his work especially relevant to analysing hyperaesthetic culture. In particular, Kerruish discusses how the notion of the dialectical image models sensory-specific critical thought by showing how visual culture configures the spatio-temporal relationships between ideas.
In his paper “Flying Objects, Sitting Still, Killing Time,” Chris Schaberg highlights the distinctive temporality emerging from the oddly motionless experience of aeroplane flight. He notes similarities between the experience of waiting to fly and flying itself, which are apparent in the parallels between aeroplane seating and airline waiting room seating, and their representation in literary and popular culture. In seeking to save time by travelling by air, the shorter travel time becomes intensified, something to be endured. The difference between flying and waiting to fly is eliminated. Schaberg writes that “[a]ir travel exposes timesaving and wasted time to be bound in a tight knot,” as seen in the portrayal of “humans as objects sitting still.”
The final two papers emphasise how sensations are embedded in social and conceptual contexts. The relationship between the sense of pain and visual sense is examined by Anthony McCosker in “Pain Sense: Nociception, Affect and the Visual Encounter,” in which he revisits the ideas of early twentieth century neuroscientist Charles Sherrington via the work of Gilles Deleuze. McCosker points out that pain’s affective force lies in a combination of elements, including the perceiving subject, the causal object, nerves and their impulses, and synaptic processes. Exploring such an integrative understanding of pain highlights similarities between the experience of pain and seeing another’s pain. Considering the relationship between images of vulnerability and the “integrative ecology” of pain suggests that the circulation of pain images in media and visual culture has social implications.
In the concluding article “Formatting the Senses of Touch,” Mika Elo explores the ambivalent role in digital technology’s haptic appropriation of things and events. In line with Derrida and Waldenfahls, Elo observes that touch is a pathic sense that goes beyond straightforward tactility so that “although touching might aim at haptic appropriation, something inaccessible and withdrawing, even untouchable remains inherent to the touched.” Using Freud’s notions of denial and isolation, Elo shows how this pathic dimension is negotiated and controlled by the touchscreen through the isolation of the body’s operative gestures into functional units. In this process tactility is prioritised over touching and its affective and social dimensions.
A Critique of the Hyper State: Aesthetics, Technology and Experience
Hyperaesthetics is, amongst other things, a discourse about the nature of experience. During the mid-1990s, such a discourse about hyperaesthetic experiences appeared in advertisements for a range of media and other technologies. The ads promised that use of the particular products would result in extraordinary and intense sensory experiences. This article unpacks this cultural rhetoric about the intensification of experience, drawing out some of its ambivalent characteristics and possibilities. On the one hand, it notes the instrumentality of the “hyper state” and discusses the characteristics of the hyper subject that is engendered by this discourse on experience. On the other, it recovers an alternative conception of experience, after Raymond Williams. Noting the term’s complexity, Williams wrote that experience was “once the present participle not of “feeling” but of “trying” or “testing” something,” that is, of experimentation.
Smiling in the Post-Fordist “Affective” Economy
This article examines the event of smiling in the context of post-Fordist capitalism. With the growing significance of service workers in the contemporary Western economy, many businesses today are putting more emphasis on their training processes and the discipline of their workers to act more affectively towards their customers. One of the techniques that the service sector is promoting is smiling. Smiling generates affective atmospheres and engenders an affective bond between interacting bodies. Inflecting the bodies of service workers and transforming them into “affective workers,” service providers are able to achieve a great degree of control over their customers. One example of this is a railway operator in Japan, which has employed a device called the “Smile Scan.” This technology measures workers’ “smile degree” and attempts to make their smile more “natural” and augment its affective efficacy. Drawing on this technology, this article argues that transit workers modify their smile in order to animate the corporeal capacities of the customers in a way that dissipates particular undesirable affective flows of energy and permits more positive affects to take hold of their bodies. Through the generation of “affective smiling,” transit workers are able to exert disciplinary power over passengers and to transform their bodies. However, in contrast to the substantial amount of academic work that has analysed the current post-Fordist economy with reference to the biopolitics of exclusion, this article takes up the notion of productive disciplinary power to explicate the enabling function that this “technology of self” potentially brings forth. As such, I highlight the dynamism of affective energy, which is capable of re-forming and connecting our bodies to shape a collective.
Sensory Regimes in TV Marketing: Boardwalk Empire’s Chromatic Enhancement and Digital Aesthetics
Providing a contribution to the growing research on the aesthetics of televisual promotion, this paper offers an empirical investigation of the multisensory appeal of HBO’s marketing of Boardwalk Empire, taking it as an example of a hyperaesthetics strategy of audience capture. To this end, the paper looks at the trailers for the show’s first season, as well as to its titles sequence and character posters, arguing that their chromatic enhancement, obtained in colour grading, invites a sensorial response, also contributing to confer a distinctive identity to its channel. In this light, hyperaesthetics is taken to stand for both an innovative approach to digital design, as maintained by Peter Lunenfeld, and as a marketing strategy of sensorial mobilisation, as theorised by David Howes. A look at HBO’s partnership with Canadian Club Whisky demonstrates the multisensory appeal of Boardwalk Empire’s campaign and its goal to brand the show as a lifestyle event. Even before we consume the actual show, this promotional strategy aims at embedding us within a semiotic and affective chain that prompts a variety of effects. The sensation of unqualified expectation and even excitement that is thus generated points toward marketing’s anticipative logic whereby hyperaesthetics generates affective attachment to as-yet unaired productions.
Benjamin’s Shock and Image: Critical Responses to Hyperaesthetic Culture
This paper argues that Walter Benjamin’s writings are especially relevant to thinking about hyperaesthetic culture. This is because they explain why overstimulating sensory regimes can be problematic, and explore the possibilities for critical thought enabled by technologically mediated sensation. Continuing a form of cultural criticism found in Nietzsche, one which censures sensory regimes that manipulate, shock and intoxicate, Benjamin describes processes of sensation, memory and thought. But although overstimulating sensory regimes disrupt processes of experience and contemplation, Benjamin does not advocate a retreat from the modern, technologically saturated environment, seeing the possibilities for critical thought as embedded in that environment. His work on visual culture shows how a mode of sense experience holds the possibility of revolution and critique. In particular, I examine how the idea of the dialectical image is an example of how visual experience enables a certain mode of cognition. The particular way the dialectical image configures the spatio-temporal engenders a certain kind of critical reflection. Other sensory modes can be read analogously to the dialectical image, and potentially the spatio-temporal configurations of senses other than vision can give rise to specific modes of critical thought.
Flying Objects, Sitting Still, Killing Time
To address hyperaesthetic culture, this essay examines a particular transition zone of contemporary human life: the modern phenomenon of air travel, and how airport and aircraft inhabitance underscore the object-ness of airline passengers. I move between cultural criticism, literature, and visual texts, and I illuminate understandings and representations of the temporal experience of air travel. Specifically, I demonstrate how aesthetic depictions of aircraft seats and airport seats suggest a recurrent contiguity between these two distinct modalities: being in-flight, and being on the ground.
Pain Sense: Nociception, Affect and the Visual Encounter
This paper explores the qualities of pain as visual, sensory, affective and neurophysiological experience. The early twentieth century neuroscience of Charles Sherrington on “nociception” (the perception of pain) and more recent empirical work on empathy and mirror neurons are read through Deleuzian influenced theories of affect to offer a new understanding of pain as visual or sensory encounter. I argue here that nociception describes the biomediation of force, sensation, affect and information that constitutes the productive ecology within which any aversive encounter occurs, including those of our media and audio-visual environments.
Formatting the Senses of Touch
Today, as different sensations and faculties are combined in new ways with the aid of computers, the role of our sensorium and its inner hierarchies seem to be undergoing various changes. In this article I address the role of media in the transformation of experience in terms of sensuous formatting. I study the interplay between new media and sensory experience, focusing on the significance of touch, especially with regard to its sheltering/exposing function. In the experiential horizon of digital culture, the status of touch as a sense is unstable, as a great deal of what we consider real is anything but tangible, even when we find it touching. Therefore one of the key questions of the article is how to relate mediated forms of tangibility to the conceptual, affective and social dimensions of touch or feel. My thesis is that haptic appropriation of things and events that are made digitally accessible makes use of processes that can be explicated in terms of Freudian theory of psychic defense mechanisms. As I indicate, touch plays here an ambivalent role, as it does in Freud’s theory. I also relate these processes of formatting and their ambivalence to what Cathryn Vasseleu calls “formalization of touch” as well as to Samuel Weber’s remarks on various forms of targeting that are deeply rooted in Western thinking. These analyses will find their place in the second half of the article. In the first section I prepare my analysis of sensuous formatting by outlining the multifacetedness of touch. Hereby, my main points of reference relate to the phenomenological tradition, which offers a rich starting point for media theoretical reflection on sensuous formatting.