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Making Sense of the Sensorium

Guest post by Kate Herrity. Kate researches prisons and has an interest in sensory criminology. Kate's prison soundscapes made during her doctoral research, Rhythms and Routines: Sounding Order and Survival in a Local Men's Prison Using Aural Ethnography (University of Leicester), can be heard here. Kate tweets at @KateHerrity.



“I'm very glad you asked me that, Mrs Rawlinson. The term `holistic' refers to my conviction that what we are concerned with here is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I do not concern myself with such petty things as fingerprint powder, telltale pieces of pocket fluff and inane footprints. I see the solution to each problem as being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole. The connections between causes and effects are often much more subtle and complex than we with our rough and ready understanding of the physical world might naturally suppose, Mrs Rawlinson” ----- Douglas Adams Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

I’m an academic, a criminologist focusing on prisons research. I'm also dyspraxic. This means I tend to experience the world as a maelstrom of sounds, colours, and textures. This sensory information is a challenge to process. Bright lights and sharp sounds heighten my disorientation and difficulty making my way through space. Keeping track of legs and arms while in motion requires consuming levels of concentration. Floundering in real time as I attempt to impose memory to get from here to there – using sound for primitive echolocation in a clumsy attempt to forecast coming obstacles. This outward chaos echoes the indistinct, interconnected blurring mass of ideas, sensations, feelings. Sitting down to work, to make sense of this overwhelming sensorium, means gearing up to wrestle a many-tendrilled beast of distractions. I cast blindly for the words to explicate this confusion of sensorial input, to impose some form and order.


In new and hectic environments, I experience this sensory overload as physical discomfort. Loud, sudden sound stings my ears, freezing my thoughts. I recoil from bright light which dazzles and discombobulates. I avoid touching and being touched in unfamiliar surrounds lest its novelty proves too intense and jars with my attempts to navigate space. I constantly try to maintain a smooth projection of normality, as I balance unruly limbs and focus thoughts all the while under the threat of halting disruption by the addition of one curve ball, some new and unanticipated thing; an innocuous instruction or request.


Visiting prison for the first time as a library assistant, the sensory experience of this alien space lodged deep in my memory. Over ten years on (and having returned to this particular prison on a couple of subsequent occasions) I revisit that same sensation by degree entering this closed and secret place as a researcher. The sounds, smells, and institutional hues intensify with each new creaking and clanging of an unlocked gate. Within the prison’s central control point, dizzying spurs (landings) stretch upwards and around in a sharp symphony of disorientating shouts, cries, bangs and jangles…Overwhelmed by this swirling soundscape, I lose all concentration.


What can this auditory deluge tell us about what it means to exist in prisons? How does it affect people and shape relationships within these most peculiar spaces? I feel through the inarticulable sensory fog, this thick plate glass, this just-too-much for words to convey sensory experience of this social world, and fight to impose some sequence on this blurry collection of stuff. By focusing less on these distant, blunt-wordy tools, and more on the feelings, sounds and senses they can capture, the chaos calms. The sensory overload is partially abated and I can begin to discern a story through the “fundamental interconnectedness” of all these things:


Now… where was I?