An appetizer: The making of (and a sneak preview of) ‘Senses of Cities’

While definitely a pleasant task, editing a volume is, probably for anyone, also a challenge, regardless of his or hers previous experiences with such projects. Nevertheless, the challenge is particularly, well, challenging, if you are – to use the only expression proper for blog – a noob, “fresh.” Like me. Or Sandi Abram, my colleague and co-editor of the collection of essays, Občutki mest: Antropologija, umetnost, čutne transformacije, or, in English, Senses of Cities: Anthropology, Art, Sensory Transformations. We’ve been working on the first volume to be published within the framework of the SENSOTRA project for the past couple of months. For now, only a version in Slovene language is planned, but never say never especially, when it comes to publishing in English in the publish-or-perish-world of contemporary academia.

Well, neither I, nor Sandi are total noobs in the editorial business; we both have some experience with editing scientific journals, myself with KULA – Journal of Slovene ethnological and anthropological association Kula and Sandi with the Journal for the Critique of Science, Imagination, and New Anthropology. Still, working on an independent, self-standing, so to say, monograph is another kind of undertaking altogether. Luckily, though, we have a third editor joining us, someone with a considerable millage in dealing with all sorts of texts, authors of various persuasions and temperaments, shall we say. Perhaps even more luckily we have not needed Rajko Muršič’s expertise – yet (I’m pretty sure we’ll need some of his wizardry in the upcoming weeks, when we’ll start wrapping things up). So far, the editing process went as smoothly as one could hope for: authors sending their contributions well after the agreed-upon deadline, the reviewers likewise being late with their commentaries, authors being unhappy with the reviews they’ve gotten, us being unsatisfied with (some) texts and reviews… In short, everything is as it should be!

While we expected to receive a colourful mix of contributions, as we have in addition to scholars, invited several practicing artists who, each in his or her own way, engage (or in one instance disengage) with the senses, we received a truly kaleidoscopic mix of texts. In the call-for-papers, we wrote that

the book Senses of Cities: Anthropology, Art, Sensory Transformations invites broader reflections on the meaning of sensory perceptions, experiences and memories, reflections on, in short, senses, from the perspective of anthropology, ethnology, ethnomusicology, sociology, philosophy and other related disciplines as well as artistic practices and reflections. /…/ The collection will therefore include selected works by working artists in Ljubljana who, with various techniques and through different media, thematise sensory experiences of the city, senses and sensory transformations. We leave it to the artists to decide what kind of artwork they wish to present, either in the edited volume or online (photographs, poetry, scented slips, textured paper, video, sound compositions, multimedia works, etc. are welcomed).[1]

Now, I must admit a slight disappointment over the fact that only one artist, or rather artistic tandem, decided to provide a primarily non-textual contribution, a photo-essay documenting the changes in and of streets and squares of Ljubljana. Probably, the origins of the “issue” lie, of course, with us, the editors, who were not explicit enough in voicing what we want, but that is perhaps the inevitable outcome when you wish to be as “open” as possible … In any case, I do not intend to speculate (any further) as to why the artists decided the way they did. Ultimately, this does not really matter, as the contributions they did provide proved to be interesting.

Most engaged in a more free-form textual experimentation, combining theoretically flavoured reflections with prose and poetry, dealing with their own works, contextualising them in the processes they deem relevant, while ruminating on these processes “as such.”  While each of the artistic contributions is characterised by its own je ne sais quoi – hence the kaleidoscopic quality of the collection –, what is, nevertheless, in my opinion, shared among them is a keen observational capability, but a capability firmly rooted in present-day structures of feeling (in fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that these were, perhaps inadvertently, employed as a methodology of sorts) and expressed in a contemporary artistic-critical mode. Thus, these texts strike me as both “raw” considerations and as insights into specific ways of thinking-feeling-sensing. However, one article (which its author has yet to submit) will, I am quite certain, standout due to its author’s artistic stance, which could be perhaps best encapsulated by the injunction Artists shouldn’t make people feel, artists should make people think!, and whose mainly (neo)conceptualist work, in a certain sense, disregarded the senses.

As for the more scholarly-oriented texts goes, these, if compared to the artistic contributions, appear somehow bland – at least if read as sort of creative outputs. Of course, their strengths lie elsewhere; they are based on meticulous research, wherein the research was done in several European cities and deals with distinct historical periods. Moreover, these are written in systematic, methodical ways. In short, these papers contributions are “cooked” both in the sense of their subject-matter, ranging from the remembered scents of coffee to student protests provoked by the noise of the traffic, and in the ways in they which deal with it. (Here, a naïve, but ostensibly crucial question comes to my mind: Who or what cooked them?) Apropos these articles, the grounds for describing the collection as kaleidoscopic are disciplinary. As I mentioned above, we invited researchers from anthropology, ethnology, ethnomusicology, sociology, philosophy, history, cultural and media studies and other related fields to contribute to the volume. And, indeed, most – though sadly not all – of the enumerated disciplines are “covered” by at least one contribution. Quite expectedly, anthropology and ethnology lead the way as the most numerously represented disciplines. However, one should not expect to find “pure”, textbook examples of the abovementioned scholarly fields in Senses of cities, at least not in the majority of the texts. Most of them have distinct inter- or transdisciplinary flavour to them.

If the artistic contributions are indeed “raw” and the “scholarly” are “cooked,” the question is, then, what in the edited volume we are preparing is “rotten.” Well, the only thing that comes to my mind that could – and should – be characterised as such is my own contribution, or rather one of my contributions, namely the introductory chapter that I was supposed to draft. Together with Sandi, we discussed what it should deal with, but come writing time my mind and fingers, naturally and accidentally, wandered off into the unknown, outlining something completely different. So, instead of a nice “cooked” introductory course, I am stuck with a “rotten” mush of an abstract. As we are now already quite in a hurry, I should, I guess, try to make the still-missing course – right after I finish this appetizer, of course! If, however, there is something else that we can learn from the French(man), it is that what from one perspective smells like rotting corpses may prove to be deliciously ripe cheese, then, maybe, just maybe, there is still some hope for the “rotten” abstract.[2]

[1] I have somewhat modified the translated segment. One of the reasons being that the semantic range of the Slovene term občutek only partially overlaps with that of the English term sense. The comparison of the two, however, will have to wait for the time being, or until the next post.

[2] I am, of course, refereeing to Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose concept of the culinary triangle I have been refereeing throughout this post (see Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 2013, “The Culinary Triangle”. In Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, eds. Food and Culture: A Reader. Peter Brooks (trans.) (3nd ed.). New York: Routledge. Pp. 40–47.

Blaž Bajič, Post-doctoral researcher, SENSOTRA