Sensing the woodlands with a psychic medium who has impaired vision

Portrait showing [sychic medium Amanda scanning her hand over a tree

Psychic medium Amanda sensing the “energies” of a tree

I am really looking forward to presenting my paper ‘Perception, the environment and the uncanny: Sensing the woodlands with a psychic medium who has impaired vision’ on the ‘Uncanny Landscapes’ panel that I am coordinating with Professor Jon Mitchell at the  ‘Wild or domesticated – Uncanny in historical and contemporary perspectives to mind‘ conference, 20-22 September 2016, at The House of Science and Letters in Helsinki, Finland.

This promises to be a very unique, interdisciplinary conference addressing experiences and phenomena recognisable as “uncanny”, “supernatural” or “abnormal” within the context of their happening. This conference demonstrates that definitions of “normality” and “pathology” are culturally variable and approaches the ways in which science, medicine and religion play roles in distinguishing these definitions. This conference interrogates notions of the human mind to ask whether this can encompass “uncanny” or “supernatural” experiences appropriately.

The ‘Uncanny Landscapes’ panel addresses the context of the uncanny as experienced through people’s embodied engagements with landscape. It acknowledges recent shifts in approaches to landscape in social and cultural sciences – from objectifying approaches to landscape as representation or as a base upon which humans live and act, towards recognition of an unfolding, “more-than-human” environment that we are part of. It broaches questions about how “uncanny” experiences or phenomena in (or of) the landscape introduces new questions and challenges our existing methodological, analytic and theoretical tools. We address the potential of recognising the landscape as ‘subject’, raising questions about its capacity to generate the uncanny. You can read the full panel abstract here.

 

My paper abstract

Perception, the environment and the uncanny: Sensing the woodlands with a psychic medium who has impaired vision

This paper presents ethnography exploring the sensuous perception of English woodlands for a psychic medium named Amanda, who has congenitally impaired vision. This case study is part of an ethnography investigating the sensory perception and experience of the woodlands for walkers who have impaired vision, in the South Downs, England (2012-2014). I propose that the uncanny experiences Amanda described as a psychic medium and that I experienced in her company provides opportunities to reflect on anthropological conceptions of the environment, and the methodological, analytic and theoretical tools available for investigating uncanny experiences in natural environments. Walks through the woodlands with Amanda were characterised by uncanny experiences. I recount some of these uncanny experiences, describing her embodied and sensuous engagement with the woodlands as a psychic medium. I propose that these accounts of uncanny experiences within and of the environment contributes to theoretical (and therefore both methodological and analytic) reformulations of the environment beyond that of an objective back drop to human activities and extends to what Abram referred to as a ‘more-than-human-world’. This ethnography describes an environment sedimented with feeling tones of past activities that are sensed as “energies”, with which one can interact and alter. Thus, the environment is identified as processual, imbued “energetically” with, and altered by, human activities. Yet, there is also a sense of agency or subjectivity of the environment, which Amanda recognised as changes in the weather, and the feel, sounds and motions of the environment. Suggesting that the environment embodies these “energies” with some kind of agency. I consider how anthropological approaches to the environment have principally been concerned with the human perceiver and the environment as affording perceptual experience (following Gibson 1979), identifying the human-centric dynamic implicit in this. Reflecting on the anthropological opportunities and limitations for investigating the environment and uncanny experiences, I open questions for ways forth. This paper is situated in a sensuous anthropology of the environment and explores sensory perception through embodied methodologies of apprenticeship

 

Keywords: Sensuous experience, uncanny, embodied methodologies, vision impairment, environment, extrasensory perception.

If you are interested in where this panel takes us, please keep an eye on my forthcoming blogs.

 

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EASA Biennial Conference 2016: Doing ethnography through the body

I am very pleased to be presenting my paper ‘“Blind people need to teach sighted people how to listen”: ethnography through the body in an anthropology of sensory perception’ at European Association of Social Anthropologists 14th EASA Biennial Conference, ‘Anthropological legacies and human futures’, 20-23 July 2016, Milan, Italy. This is part of the panel ‘Doing ethnography through the body’, convened by Lorenzo Ferrarini (University of Manchester) and Nicola Scaldaferri (University of Milano).

 

Paper abstract:
Ethnographic investigation of the perception of people who have impaired vision reveals both the applications and limitations of an ethnography through the body in attempts to comprehend the lifeworlds of others. I present my ethnographic fieldwork that explores the perception of the environment for vision impaired walkers in the activity of recreational walking in the South Downs, Sussex, England. Through a case study methodology of walking with eight people as their sighted guide over the course of two years (2012-2014), I embarked on an ethnography through the body in which I became apprentice in their activities of perception. These were activities in which walkers were consciously engaged, including seeing, “seeing in the mind’s eye”, listening, feeling, and techniques of walking. I describe how I became an apprentice in learning to echolocate, using this example to recount how this method opportuned shared experiences and references points that deepened the study. However, fully sighted myself, this was fundamentally limited as I could not experience the sensory perceptual activities to the depth of their abilities. Through this example I consider the implications, advances and limitations of ethnography through the body, whilst proposing this method as fundamental to studies of an anthropology of perception. This work is situated within an anthropology of skill, which articulated by Ingold (2000) has been followed by a generation of anthropologists studying perceptual enskillments and practices, largely through methodologies of apprenticeship (including Downey 2002, 2005; Grasseni 2007; Gunn 2007; Lund 2005; Willerslev 2007).

The full list of panel presenters and abstracts can be read here.

 

References 

Downey, G. 2005. ‘Seeing with a ”sideways glance”: visuomotor ”knowing” and the plasticity of perception’, in Harris, M. (ed.), Ways of Knowing: New Approaches in the Anthropology of Experience and Learning. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Downey, G. 2002. ‘Listening to capoeira: Phenomenology, embodiment, and the materiality of music’, in Ethnomusicology, pp. 487-509.

Grasseni, C., 2009. (Ed.), Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Gunn, W. 2007.’Learning within the workplaces of artists, anthropologists and architects: Making stories for drawings and writings, in Grasseni, C.,  (Ed.), Skilled visions: Between apprenticeship and standards. Oxford: Berghahn Books. Chapter five.

Lund, K. 2005. ‘Seeing in motion and the touching eye: walking over Scotland’s mountains’, in Etnofoor, 181, pp. 27-42.

Willerslev, R. 2007. ‘“To have the world at a distance”: reconsidering the significance of vision for social anthropology’, in Grasseni, C., (Ed.), Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards. Oxford: Berghahn Books. Chapter one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncanny Landscapes – inviting submissions

Photograph portraying a dark landscapes of trees

I am very pleased to be coordinating a workshop titled ‘Uncanny Landscapes’ with Dr Jon Mitchell at the conference ‘Wild or domesticated – Uncanny in historical and contemporary perspectives to mind‘ 20-22 September 2016, at The House of Science and Letters in Helsinki, Finland. We are now inviting submissions to present as part of the workshop.

 

Uncany Landscapes Workshop Abstract

This workshop explores the context of the uncanny as experienced through people’s embodied engagements with landscape. The understanding of landscape across the social and cultural sciences has shifted in recent years, away from the ‘objectifying’ vision of landscape as representation, or as a base upon which humans live and act. In its place has emerged a new concern with the materiality of landscape, with landscape as a context through which people live and move, and landscape as an agent or actant . This workshop picks up on this concern with landscape as ‘subject’ to raise questions about its capacity to generate the uncanny.

Across times and landscapes, people have reported uncanny experiences within, and of, landscape. This panel asks, do landscapes have inherent qualities that we experience as uncanny or is this uncanniness a product of our perception of the landscape? What are the theoretical and methodological implications of this question? Further, are these experiences brought about by what we might recognise as the landscape’s inherent “wildness”, or through the process of our dwelling in it? This panel asks whether we can understand landscapes as characterised by certain energies, memories, or affects, which are experienced as uncanny, as people move through them. What are the limits of an approach to landscape that pushes our research towards that which Abram (1997) referred to as a ‘more than human’ world?

We are interested in contributions which explore examples of uncanniness in particular landscapes, or particular environments. We invite case studies of how experiences of the uncanny are evoked or triggered and how these differ across cultural, social and spatial contexts. What kind of methodologies can we use to investigate the uncanny and what analytical tools do we need? How might the theoretical turn to affect be useful in understanding uncanny landscapes? How does one capture or (re)present the uncanny in scholarship and what are the implications of this?

Please send inquiries to Dr Jon Mitchell –  J.P.Mitchell@sussex.ac.uk.

Visit the conference website here.

 

References

Abram, David, 1997, The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage).

 

Symposium: Landscape, Language and the Sublime

Official Landscape, Language and the Sublime image - a landscape painting

‘Landscape, Language and the Sublime’ is a a symposium and creative gathering that held 29-30 June 2016 in at Dartington Hall & Sharpham House, Devon, England. This two-day symposium draws together artists and thinkers from a wide range of disciplines to explore ways in which landscape – and the ways we represent it – connects deeply to our lives and underpins our relationship to the world.

This promises to be a engaging event, with opportunity for interdisciplinary dialogue, explorations of lived experience and creative collaborations. As part of this, I am looking forward to facilitating a participatory walk through the woodlands in which I invite participants to join me in three activities that are designed opportune critical reflection and representation on their own sensory experience individually and as part of a group. Following the walk I will share my ethnographic research conducted with walkers who have impaired vision (2012-2015) through my presentation ‘A world within reach: a sensorial anthropology of unseen landscapes and the experience of impaired vision’, referring back to our experiences during the walk.

A full programme in now available on the symposium website, here. If you cannot make the event but are interested to exchange ideas along the topics, do get in touch through he contact page.