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Looking but not seeing

An analysis of the relationship between language and perception
20 November 2013

In our modern, western society, sight is by far the most dominant of the senses. Other senses, such as hearing and taste play a much smaller role, including in the language we use to understand and approach the world around us. PhD student Piet Devos (himself without sight) examined the relationship between language and sensory perception. His research involved analysing the work of two avant-garde poets, who attempted to subjectify sensory perception around 1920. Devos will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 28 November.

The Chilean Vicente Huidobro and the French Benjamin Péret were two men with a mission. Between 1920 and 1930, these two self-assured poets, who belonged to the European avant-garde, challenged the prevailing view that the senses provided the observer with an objective perception of reality. Their experiments with new language forms were designed to show that by definition, our senses give us a subjective view of reality. They drew inspiration from film, cubism and the sexual liberation generated by Freudian psychoanalysis. It was their intention to use language to distort the way we perceive and experience space, architecture and our own bodies.

Seeing and not seeing

Almost a hundred years later, this theme is just as topical to researcher Devos. A rare condition of the retina caused him to lose his sight at the age of five. This has a clear impact on his research, and vice versa. ‘I know what it is to see and not to be able to see. My thought processes are still visual, but I am also more reliant on language. Perhaps this makes me more keenly aware of the line between language and sensory perception. The conclusion of my research is something that I experience regularly myself. Everything we see, hear and feel does not only depend on our body, but also on the cultural-historical circumstances in which we live and perceive.’

The power of language

Language and perception are the only tools we have to explore, recognize and give meaning to the world around us. When combined with sensory perception, language can be influenced by different shades of meaning and distortion. Devos: ‘Although sensory perception is highly personal, we are able to share and recognize our perceptions via language. But language does more than just make this possible. Language constantly structures, selects and updates the way we perceive and approach the world. This isn’t necessarily innocent. Our western tradition and language have a strong bias towards seeing, at the expense of feeling and hearing.’

Powerful images

Devos experiences this himself on his travels and in his day-to-day life, and even encountered it during his research. Devos refers to a photo of the poet Péret taken during the Spanish Civil War: he is posing with a gun in his right hand, while stroking a cat with his left. ‘It’s an image that portrays visions of pleasure, freedom, politics and violence, to name but a few. All the experts are familiar with this image. The image that is; not the photo. Strangely enough, the photo has never appeared in print.’

Curriculum vitae

Piet Devos (Belgium, 1983) trained as a translator of Spanish/French and studied Literature. He will be awarded a PhD on 28 November 2013 by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen with a thesis entitled: Talend Lichaam. De visuele en haptische waarneming in de avant-gardepoëzie van Huidobro en Péret . His supervisors are Prof. Hub. Hermans and Prof. G.J. Dorleijn. Last year, Devos worked on the book Architectuur door andere ogen (published by De Kunst), and appeared as a guest on television programmes including De Wereld Draait Door.

Last modified:11 January 2018 11.33 a.m.
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