Shoes and the language of space

The other day I attended a lecture by Albert Postma (University of Utrecht) hosted by the Psychology Dept. at Northumbria Uni.

Prof. Postma’s group works on spatial language in blind and sighted people. In the talk, he focused on the terms that people use to indicate the position of two objects relative to each other. He introduced us to experimental data that allowed him to explore whether the two groups use language differently, i.e. whether they used abstract relational terms or whether the use of language was intrinsically related to the object.

It was all very interesting but the bit that got my attention was the beginnings of a discussion about shoes. In one of their experiments the researcher, Marijn Struiksma, had a series of feely boxes each with a shoe and a ball in different positions relative to each other and she then asked participants to describe their relative positions. One of the academics in the audience asked a question about whether the experiment was skewed in some way because the sighted participants would have been used to seeing shoes whilst the blind people would be more used to feeling them.

I think the academic was wrong…

Most people put their shoes on every day in an act that they barely think about. Most sighted people know their shoes by hand and foot, in a manner that is probably as haptic as someone who is blind. For me, this opens up the idea that we know some objects by hand, others by eye and some by a mix of the two. Postma’s closing point was that the modality which we engage with the world shapes the way we think our way about the world and thereby language we use to describe those spaces, so perhaps our spatial language changes as we move from space to space.

I was reminded of my grandma, who was of that generation that kept the front room for best – it was never actually used, only dusted, until the day she was laid in state there – so her experience of that room was primarily visual. I suspect that her experience of her kitchen was thoroughly haptic (full of textures, smells and processes). I imagine that, could I go back and ask her, I would find that her spatial language changed from something abstract and relational to something intimate and proprioceptive as she move from one to the other.

Extrapolating a little further: Maybe certain objects work because their haptic qualities are part of these sensually rich networks of remembered experience that make up every domestic space. It seems that quite a bit of the work on the role of objects in relationships focuses on signifying objects or memory objects, i.e. objects that sit within a network of (remembered) personal relationships and meanings (e.g. photos, tokens and mementos), but perhaps these objects and networks are not necessarily the same as those sensual objects and networks of (remembered) spaces that we live within on a daily basis.

If that is the case then it says a lot about the provocative objects we choose when we work with people.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, Objects, Perception. Bookmark the permalink.

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