Cultures of Sense, Cultures of Movement – conference report

Post written by Theresa Harada

Conference Report – Cultures of Sense Cultures of Movement, ANU, 3-4 Feb, 2014.

The Australian National University School of Sociology along with the Canberra New Critical Theory Group and the IAG cultural Geography Study Group hosted a conference to examine the roles of sense and movement in contemporary sociological and cultural geographical thought in Canberra last week.  The theme of the conference attracted a multi-disciplinary group of scholars from near and far, including visitors from the UK, Canada, Belguim and New Zealand, and a local cohort from ANU, UNSW, the University of Melbourne, Monash, Newcastle, Canberra, Deakin and Federation University. The University of Wollongong was well represented with six presenters across a range of subjects but all with an interest in how the ‘affective turn’ in social theory has renewed attention to the human body as a locus of sense making.

The papers all addressed issues around how we come to understand the world through touch, taste, smell, sight and sound. Thomas Birtchnell (and John Urry) had the audience considering cargomobilities and how factory-based manufacturing, lengthy supply chains and containerized shipping has created new and largely overlooked global mobility flows. Thomas brought up some interesting issues around how carrying goods or ‘cargo’ has historically been linked to particular social identities, for instance the comb-seller or the plate-seller, and how communication and technologies have erased such specific and individualised practices. It raised questions around the social meanings of a future of production and movement of material goods.  Geogine Classen’s presentation was also from an historical perspective, centred on the sensory experiences of mobility in Settler Colonial Society. Georgine considered how the sensory experiences of movement by bicycle or car forged new knowledges and affective relations with place, self and others through the landscapes of early Australia.

Professor Gordon Waitt encouraging the audience to sniff their arms and smell themselves.

Professor Gordon Waitt encouraging the audience to sniff their arms and smell themselves.

Gordon Waitt had the audience sniffing their arms as he considered the implications of the touch, sight and smell of sweat. Gordon argued that the affective qualities of sweat evoke pleasurable, disgusting or shameful affects which are significant for how people understand themselves as relational subjects. The heat wave conditions of the Canberra conference were a perfect backdrop for thinking about bodily smells, the residue or sight of sweat, and in Gordon’s words ‘what sweat can do’.

There were methodological presentations from David Clifton and Charles Gillon. David considered how mobile methodologies, in the form of small, light-weight sound recorders, might give insights into the reasons that marathon running and running festivals are increasingly popular in Australia and world-wide. David suggested an attention to the mobile body to understand why, despite the medical discourses which highlight the potential health and injury risks of this type of exercise, runners continue to run.

Charles considered how the materiality of a new beach-side housing estate in Sydney might have implications on the decision to purchase in this location. He considered how he might access the affective dimensions of beach-side living by combining participant data with his own ethnographic reflections.

Charles Gillon presenting.

Charles Gillon presenting.

And finally, my own presentation focused on how we might develop methods that help to capture the movement of affect through an attention to sound. In collaboration with Michelle Duffy (Federation University) and Gordon Waitt, I suggested the technique of visceral mapping as a first step towards better utilising sound as a methodological tool for gaining insights to the affective dimensions of car-driving.

There were many excellent presentations and papers that really addressed how bodily senses are implicated in producing knowledges of the world, for me there were several standouts. Lesley Instone and Affrica Taylor both addressed human-animal interactions and how these might be considered from a point of view other than the exclusively human. These were warm, amusing and thought-provoking papers which were very well received by the audience. I also enjoyed Michelle Duffy, Candice Boyd and Michelle Lobo’s presentations which focused on the affective qualities of sound. Michelle’s presentation took a visceral approach to consider how sound allowed particular affective and emotional relations with place through a sound art piece created by a group of children in a peri-urban town in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Candice attended to the nonrepresentational geographies of sound by considering the affirmative qualities of graffiti in ‘Drain art’. Michelle Lobo’s paper focused on how the sensual qualities of music and place worked to bring indigenous and non-indigenous bodies into closer relation in a night-market in the top-end of Australia.

Theresa Harada presenting.

Theresa Harada presenting.

There were a number of excellent theoretical papers that addressed the themes of the conference from various disciplinary standpoints as well as several papers from practitioners outside of the academy. In all, the diverse group provoked thinking around the possible synergies between sociology, geography and the cognate disciplines and initiated some important conversations around on-going issues and contemporary debates. This conference was generously sponsored by the Institute of Australian Geographers and organised by David Bissell, Maria Hynes and Scott Sharpe. The conference was a premium example of the high standard of scholarship within Australia and testament to the thoughtful organisation that goes into making such meetings successful conferences.  I am sure that the attendees all enjoyed the conference as much as I did for the stimulating papers, networking opportunities and convivial atmosphere regardless of the fickle and rather inhospitable Canberra weather.

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