Merleau-Ponty and digital heritage

I have been reading just a very little Merleau-Ponty and have found some resonance with my recent thoughts about digital media and heritage and culture. Merleau-Ponty talks about the issue of ‘attention’ and the supposition generally held that we have only to pay attention to our senses and the truth of our perception will be revealed. For him, intellectualisation of our senses implies objective understanding of them and this is a problem.

The problem is that we compartmentalise the senses as well as proceed from a biased standpoint – i.e. if we explore something in terms of visuality then we are bound to discover things from this point of view. Scientifically paying ‘attention’ to our vision suggests that we are able to grasp it fully and, what I am getting from Merleau-Ponty, that vision is a discrete and separate sense to any other. In fact our “sense of sight” may involve several things which we do not normally examine in detail; e.g. why do we not think of senses of brightness, colour, movement?

This reminds me of Wittgenstein insofar as we are limiting our potential for understanding our senses. Crudely put, by discussing our senses in terms of only 5 types (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) we limit the language with which we aim to understand the senses. Merleau-Ponty’s comments remind me also of Grounded Theory, because the aim for him rather than paying ‘attention’ to our senses would appear to be to let sensual experiences speak for themselves. Just as Glaser and Straus aimed to avoid confirming the work of past scholars and develop new theory, so does Merleau-Ponty aim to avoid confirming sensual intellectualisation and explore what senses are before epistemological constructions.

This issue is relevant to digital heritage representation because digital media filters and reduces the terms with which we are able to explore cultural phenomena. Indeed, it crystallises phenomena into snapshots, whether passive or ‘interactive’. More importantly, of course, digital media still privileges sight and hearing over the other senses.

My data so far involves stories about Towneley Park which are all-encompassing experiences of space, presence and memory. It seems clear to me that coding my data is analogous to paying ‘attention’ to the senses, while the medium through which these data are expressed and interpreted further forces me to pay attention to the data from the perspective of, mostly, visuality and sound.

It is no surprise that digital representations of human body experiences may lose something in translation. However, if even the development of sophisticated virtual reality hardware and software is to be based on the premise of 5 separate senses, is digital representation fundamentally flawed because it may be built on a flawed intellectualisation of the human condition?