The Sensory Economy

30 August 2018 | Imperceptible changes in everyday aesthesis

Still slightly in advance of the official start-date of my AHRC funded research project, and before I go into the archive, I am trying to clarify my framework. This involves returning to the original description of the project I provided the AHRC and re-examining some of the terms. In the last few blog posts I looked at the concept of innovation. I am now going to turn to a phrase that exercised one of the AHRC reviewers: the “sensory” or “sensual economy”.

Since the last few blog posts have been about the economy (trade and industry), I should point out that “economy” in this context does not mean that. It refers to the management, circulation and distribution of sensory experiences and organisation of the relationships between them. It links together the broad sense of economy as administration and distribution, with the everyday sense of it as thrift / budgeting.

It is connected to Jacques Rancière’s concept of the “distribution of the sensible”, which refers to the social distribution of competencies and “the way in which . . . a social destination is anticipated by the evidence of a perceptive universe, of a way of being, saying and seeing” (Rancière 12). The distribution of the sensible (/ the sensory economy) is about the unequal availability of varieties of sensory and aesthetic experience across social groups.

Questions about the distribution of the sensible and the sensory economy are addressed, but not named as such in work on the senses in social and cultural history (for example in terms of history “from below” as well as “from above”. One of the tendencies in early histories of the senses was towards global or generalizing histories, but others are more specific and differentiated.

In a lovely 1994 essay called “The Memory of the Senses Part I”, C. Nadia Seremetakis writes of how certain sensory experiences (the taste of a peach) that belong to a culture (Greek culture) are affected by larger regulatory frameworks (the European Economic Community regulations relating to food). Seremetakis talks of “a cordoning off of the capacity for certain perceptual experiences in such a manner that their very disappearance went unnoticed” (Seremetakis 2). In particular (and in contrast to Gunning's work on newness and astonishment discussed previously in this blog), she is interested in imperceptible changes, sensory changes that “occur microscopically through everyday accretion” (Seremetakis 3).

Seremetakis also attends to the question of newness and how the experience of the new is “culturally prepared and programmed with the simultaneous fabrication or promise of new sensory powers... promised as substitutions, replacements and improvements of prior sensory experience” (Seremetakis 8).

She provides an account of the Greek roots and meanings of the “aesthetic” . In Greek the word for senses is aesthísis and aesthetics is aesthítiki. Seremetakis shows how the roots of these words link moral sense, emotions and the senses, affective and aesthetic experience (Seremetakis 5). This is important for understanding the culturally specific ways in which Greeks name and experience sensory change. But for me, it is also useful, because this is the expanded way that I am conceiving of sensory experience and aesthetic experience. I want to connect the experience of photographs and taste in photographs, questions of style and aesthetics with other changes in everyday sensory experience (not necessarily visual).

Terms such as economy, distribution, or even acculturation suggest something relatively painless — yet what Seremetakis charts is a deep sense of cultural loss. Similarly, industrial innovation is not always met easily or seamlessly adapted to, even when it sneaks in, as Benjamin and Siegfried Gideon suggested, in the guise of the old (I discuss this in an early essay called “Digital Encounters”).

The new ailments that accompanied innovation (new kinds of labour process, new forms of transport and new consumer technologies) challenged the separation of mental and physical life. Various types of repetitive strain injury and musculoskeletal problems were diagnosed alongside symptoms that seemed to have their roots in various kinds of “hysteria” (including shellshock) and which manifested as physical changes in the body / sensorium. Nostalgia appears in this context not just as a romantic yearning for the past, but as one of the few means of navigating and naming the pain and loss associated with change.


Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics, London: Bloomsbury 2013 (Originally published in French in 2000).

Seremetakis, C. Nadia, “The Memory of the Senses Part 1: Marks of the Transitory” in C. Nadia Seremetakis (ed).The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity . Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.


28 August 2018 | Modernism, Feminism, Technology-in-use

My last two posts on innovation miss out some key ideas which I will discuss briefly here (this is a longer post as I want to move on from innovation!): 1) that innovation is specifically associated with modernity and modernism, 2) that technological innovations are gendered, 3) that an emphasis on innovation in the history of technology is problematic.

I will take each of these at a time. On the first point, Tom Gunning, in the essay “Re-Newing Old Technologies”, writes about modernity in terms of “the dazzling experience of the new” (Gunning 43). He is interested in the spectacle that seems to accompany novelty in modernity — in the reception of technological innovation as something astonishing.

This is the shock of the new that wears off quickly, as a new technology quickly becomes something habitual, everyday, even unnoticed (Gunning 39). The initial wondrousness is not a property of the technology so much as a discourse that surrounds it. Gunning writes that “Surprise is learned, fostered and expressed by discursive practices whose implementation brings profit to someone.... Modernity must be partly understood as learning to be surprised by certain [not all] innovations...” (Gunning 44).

Gunning argues “the cycle from wonder to habit need not run only one way” (Gunning 47). Avant-garde aesthetics, particularly the strategy of de-familiarization” practised by the modernist avant-gardes, attempt to keep the newness of innovation alive, not to reinvigorate its economic advantage (though it may) but to draw out its uncanniness, revealing an “address to a previously unimagined future”, a utopian element which is lost as the technology sinks “back into the established grooves of power and exploitation” (Gunning 56).

While innovation may be disruptive, the success of a commodity is nevertheless largely measured by the way in which it settles into the everyday and makes itself at home to the point it is largely unnoticed except when called upon (a recent example might be Amazon’s Alexa). Against this, aesthetic defamiliarization refuses to allow the new to settle in. In echoing the “creative destruction” of industrial innovation, it attempts to prevent the riding-out of crisis by the status-quo.

My second point, that innovation is gendered, refers to feminist studies of technology, which emphasise the discursive and material construction of innovation. As Judy Wajcman summarizes in her essay “Feminist Theories of Technology”, (2010) gender relations not only shape the reception of technology by framing its arrival but are embedded in and embodied by the technology itself . That is, gender relations (indeed all social relations) and technology are mutually shaping (Wajcman 147).

The third issue is to do with the overvaluing of innovation, particularly in the history of technology. In a 1999 text “From innovation to use “, David Edgerton claims that innovation draws attention away from technology in use. He argues that “technological determinism” ought to be called innovation-determinism, “a belief that innovation powered change” as against “the thesis that society is determined by technology in use” (Edgerton 121).

Edgerton says that the bias toward innovation puts too much emphasis on origins, privileges production over consumption and change over stasis (Edgerton 113). It produces a bias towards richer countries and distorts the sense of the time period to which a technology belongs (e.g. associating coal with the nineteenth century, when “in Britain domestic coal consumption peaked in the 1950s” — Edgerton 115). In photography (technology) history too, accounts of the Victorian period and circa 1900 (when the Brownie is introduced) are more common than accounts of the interwar period. The emphasis on invention detracts from adaptations, “maintenance, repair, remodelling, re-use, and re-cycling” (Edgerton 120).

I am hoping to identify how aesthetic norms and technical expertise are built into technical apparatuses, to explore the intertwining of human and apparatus in photography, and to map a relationship between sensual and technological transformations at the level of everyday experience. I need to consider whether this is really about “innovation” as such.

So to my list of points from last week I think I can add:

9. The shock of the new is not to do with the nature of the technology but the discursive framing which accompanies its entry into the world.

10. Modern culture trains us in the reception of innovation: teaching us how and when to be surprised, or astonished.

11. Innovation in modernity is met by the modernist insistence on newness and originality. This can feed into the innovation industry, as its aesthetic or cultural twin, but it can also, challenge the process by which innovations are absorbed into everyday experience.

12. Innovations do not produce changes in social relation after the fact, but are the product of certain social relations and embody social relations and discourses in material, practical form.

13. “Innovation” gives a narrow, and potentially misleading, perspective from which to think through the everyday experience of technologies.


Gunning, Tom. “Re-Newing Old Technologies: Astonishment, Second Nature, and the Uncanny in Technology from the Previous Turn-of-the-Century.” In David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins (eds) Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Wajcman, Judy. “Feminist Theories of Technology.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34, no. 1 (2010): 143-152.

Edgerton, David. “From innovation to use: Ten eclectic theses on the historiography of technology.” History and Technology, an International Journal 16, no. 2 (1999): 111-136.

Innovation as Fetish Object

26 August 2018 | David Harvey and Key Points on Innovation

David Harvey’s 2014 book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism provides a useful critique of some of Schumpeter’s core assumptions, which I am using to help me think through the concept of innovation. He argues against the emphasis on competition in the Marxist and Schumpeterian accounts, because capitalism tends toward monopoly —companies try and protect their competitive advantage through patents, confidentiality and monopoly (Harvey 93). He argues that there is a “cultural” preference for increased productivity and efficiency (and hence increased profits) and that product innovation can be a means to acquire “monopoly profits” and, via patents, “a monopoly rent” (Harvey 93).

In the case of Ilford: as both David Edgerton and Michael Pritchard discuss, between 1918 and the mid 1930s, Ilford Limited absorbed most of their competitors until their only large remaining competitor was Kodak Ltd. the British subsidiary of Eastman Kodak. By the late 1930s, the two firms combined had 90% of the market (Edgerton 1988, 113). Against the emphasis on the firm and the entrepreneur, Harvey points to the role of the state in innovation, including the military, but also the legal system, inland revenue, customs and excise, etc., and collaborative research and development between government and industry (Harvey 93). Again we can see this in the photographic industry: e.g. state support for the development of panchromatic plates in WWI, the use of import quotas and duties during and after WWII to favour ‘strategic’ and modern industries including the manufacturers of photographic film (Edgerton 1988, 112).

But one of the key things I get from Harvey is that technological innovation has become an industry in itself, concerned with producing “generic technologies” (Harvey 94). Thus, “Technological innovation became a fetish object of capitalist desire” (Harvey 95). Against the conventional view of technologies as necessary improvements related to customer demand or desire, Harvey argues that consumers are often reluctant and have new technologies and products foisted on them (think of the emphasis on “upgrading” in phones, computers and so on). Just as all innovations beget more innovations (as Schumpeter recognised), technologies set in motion more problems and more opportunities for further technological solutions. Citing Schumpeter’s phrase “gales of creative destruction”, Harvey says: “The question always to be asked is: who gains from the creation and who bears the brunt of the destruction” (Harvey 98).

So — here is my understanding of innovation based on my reading so far:

1. Innovation should be distinguished from invention (Schumpeter).

2. Innovation can be (/is?) destructive (Schumpeter)

3. Innovation does not necessarily result from competition between firms (Harvey, contra Schumpeter).

4. Innovation does not necessarily result from/ rarely results from entrepreneurship (numerous writers).

5. Innovation proves profitable in itself and has led to an innovation industry (Harvey).

6. The drive toward innovation may be cultural / ideological (rather than envisaging the rational economic actor of neoclassical economics) (Harvey).

7. Innovation’s economic advantage is brief as it produces imitators, but it also produces bandwagon effects, and more innovation (sometime called innovatory bunching or clusters) (Schumpeter / numerous writers).

8. Innovation is not necessarily a positive value, not only because it is destructive but because it is often unwanted / coercive (Harvey, contra Schumpeter)


Harvey, David. Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Edgerton, D. E. H. “Industrial Research in the British Photographic Industry, 1879-1939.” In Liebenau, Jonathan (ed) The Challenge of New Technology: Innovation in British Business since 1850, 106-134. Aldershot: Gower, 1988.

Pritchard, Michael. The Development and Growth of British Photographic Manufacturing and Retailing 1839-1914. PhD dissertation, De Montfort University, 2010.

Excursus into Economics

25 August 2018 | Understanding Innovation in Schumpeter's Economic Theory

I have been reading some economic theory and economic history to try to understand the meaning of “innovation”, particularly, about the economist Joseph A. Schumpeter, whose book The Theory of Economic Development was published in German in 1911, and in English translation in 1934.

It makes sense, I think, to use his definition of innovation as a social activity with a commercial, economic function and purpose (whereas invention or discovery can happen without regard to this), and to apply the concept of innovation, as he did, not only to products and technologies, but to new combinations of resources and technology, new processes and markets, the exploitation of new raw materials or intermediary products (such as chemical compounds), and the development of new ways to organize the firm.

For Schumpeter innovation results from an “entrepreneurial function”. Entrepreneurs set themselves against existing knowledge, routines and habit, and he presents them as more talented and creative than ordinary managers, and distinct in their role from capitalists or financiers. I suspect that Schumpeter’s theory plays well with individuals who fancy themselves as creative risk-takers!

In fact, Schumpeter viewed the whole development of capitalism as dependent on innovation and his theory of capitalism is inseparable from his conservative / right-wing politics. For Schumpeter, innovation is a process tightly linked to what he calls “creative destruction” — a term that describes the process by which innovation “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” (Schumpeter cited in Elliott xx). This rocky process allows capitalism to ride or at least survive, periods of depression and economic crisis. Politically, though he shared with Marx a dynamic, evolutionary model of capitalism, where Marx attended to the destructive human cost of capitalism, Schumpeter saw the pain of creative destruction as nevertheless leading to greater relative equality and social benefits.

Schumpeter’s politics, or the politics of “Schumperterians”, matters for my study, because I need to know what it might mean to claim that Ilford Limited was “innovative” or not in the 1920s and ‘30s. I need to know more about the role of the concept of innovation in the larger context of political and economic thought. Certainly, there are Schumpeterian elements to the new right. Recall how Thatcherite and Reaganite politics viewed capitalism as dynamic and mythologised the entrepreneur; the neoconservative theorist Francis Fukuyama also drew on Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction. We can find the Schumpeterian notion of the heroic entrepreneur institutionalised in government and policy, especially in schemes and competitions by governments and regions to encourage and reward entrepreneurship with the belief it will stimulate economic growth. This emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation has crept into universities too.


Schumpeter, Joseph A. The Theory of Economic Development. London: Routledge, 2017 (originally published in German in 1911).

Lloyd-Jones, Roger, and Merv Lewis. British Industrial Capitalism since the Industrial Revolution. London: Routledge, 2014 (originally published in 1998).

Elliott, John E., ‘Introduction to the Transaction Edition’, in Schumpeter, Joseph A. The Theory of Economic Development. London: Routledge, 2017 (originally published in 1983).

Beginnings and Returnings

20 August 2018 | Aesthetics, Industry and Innovation in Twentieth Century Photography: The Ilford Archive

I guess one way to begin is to return. I have started my project (ahead of the official start date and my archival work) by re-reading two PhD theses from de Montfort University: Michael Pritchard’s “The Development and Growth of British Photographic Manufacturing and Retailing 1839-1914” which was completed in 2010. and Nicolas Le Guern’s “Contribution of the European Kodak Research Laboratories to Innovation Strategy at Eastman Kodak”, awarded in 2017 . Neither is directly about my subject: Pritchard’s study ends at the point where mine begins, and Le Guern is centred on Kodak, not Ilford, but both are useful in terms of context and historical background. Other work I am re-reading at the moment include the writings of David Edgerton and Sally Horrocks, both working in business and economic history, who deal directly with the British context and with Ilford Ltd.

Another way to begin, and something I am doing at the same time, is to start to sharpen my terminology. In my AHRC application I wrote that I would be investigating “practices of technical innovation in the work of the Ilford Ltd”. I think “innovation” is a term that needs some unravelling: first because claims about innovation are entangled with claims about social and technological change and questions about technological determination; and second, because understanding innovation necessarily also involve considering the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge.

Le Guern’s thesis (which I am turning to first as one of the very few studies on innovation in the photographic industry) frames some of these studies of scientific knowledge-production under the rubric of “laboratory studies”. I am not yet sure to what extent my study of the archival material is a kind of laboratory study, since ultimately I am more concerned with the spread of practices out into the world, into everyday experience and photographic practice.

Le Guern also points out that in economics literature, innovation is distinct from invention and is much more to do with the introduction of new products, or techniques or forms of organisation after their invention (which means that it is as much to do with business structures and models as practices in the lab). It relates to the decision to adopt, put into production and market an invention.

I had been thinking of innovation as a combination of invention and then producing, marketing etc. but I had not consciously made this distinction. This distinction between innovation and invention comes from an Austrian economist, Joseph A. Schumpeter, whose book The Theory of Economic Development was published in German in 1911, and in English translation in 1934. I think it is time for a brief foray into economics.... brace yourselves!

Research talks and workshops

15 August 2018 | New AHRC funded research project starting September 2018

On Monday I sent an email to members of APHE (the UK Association for Photography in Higher Education) offering talks, workshops etc. for PhD and MA students as part of my AHRC leadership project. Obviously there is a limit to the number of these I can do, but I was looking for expressions of interest. One of the aims of to benefit the discipline as a whole and to work with other organisations (including other academic ones) through research networking activities, collaboration and so on. I have several activities already scheduled into the grant application but it occurred to me that there was room for more, especially if I can coordinate these with my travel to archives or museums or other institutions.

I was delighted to get four responses almost immediately, which means I now have four new institutions for potential collaboration, and will get to meet more new researchers in the field and find out about their research. I am scheduling these for the new year (as I have to get some research done first!). In the meantime: this is the new blog, which I will be updating weekly, and I will also be posting brief bits and pieces on Twitter via @henningmc_ and via our research group account @ImageThinking (as I built this blog myself, I haven't managed to enable comment / feedback but you can do this via Twitter or via my university email account).

Aesthetics, Industry and Innovation in Twentieth Century Photography: The Ilford Archive

14 August 2018 | New AHRC funded research project starting September 2018

I have just received the exciting news that I have been made an AHRC Leadership Fellow. This will fund a research project on the work of the Ilford Ltd. photographic company and aspects of photographic culture during WWI and in the interwar period in Britain. It will also enable me to develop my research leadership skills and capacity, by providing masterclasses and workshops for colleagues and postgraduate students in my field, as well as funding an international conference in photography and film studies in 2019.

I am really looking forward to the first part, in which I will work in the Ilford archive, and the second part, where I disseminate the results of my research, collaborate with other institutions and with my wonderful colleague Dr. Junko Theresa Mikuriya, in planning and designing the conference. The AHRC money pays for Theresa's time to organise the conference, as well as for technicians and administrators to run and document it.The conference will try to engage not just with academics, but also with photographic practitioners, archivists and industry participants.

Overall the intention is not only to produce a new body of knowledge about Ilford and this specific historical period, but to develop new methods and theoretical perspectives and to create dialogue, particularly around the relationship between the material-industrial infrastructure of photography and film manufacture, and the intangible and aesthetic aspects of photography and film.

My research explores new aesthetic and technical practices developed in the period between the two world wars, and the impact on the visual, sensual 'economy' of the period. It situates Ilford's work with photographic chemistry in relation to other developments in the period relating to colour photography and photosensitivity, and in relation to changes in photographic practice and style. It looks at how technical and aesthetic developments were designed to address specific problems or needs arising from war and from economic changes.

As part of my literature review, I will be looking at existing studies of photographic companies such as Kodak, Corbis and Polaroid. I also plan to draw on work on the history of the senses. In particular, I am hoping to contribute to new and developing approaches in photography history and photography theory that move away from older analyses of a break between analogue and digital image to a more nuanced understanding of the material, industrial and technological basis of twentieth-century photographic practices. I am hoping to be able to make specific connections between corporate, everyday and avant-garde aesthetic and technical experimentation in photography, and to develop an understanding of how aesthetic and technical expertise embodied by human participants is transferred into technical apparatuses, and re-emerges as human-technical practices.

So this is part of a larger interest in how technical images impact on everyday sensory experience, and in the long technical development of photography. I'd like to be able to account for photography as a technology, without losing sight of questions of aesthetics and interpretation, which tend to be sidelined in historical and social-science accounts of technical change.

The project begins on 1st September 2018 and runs through to Autumn / Winter 2019. I will be providing regular updates on this blog and via the project Twitter and Instagram accounts. If you are interested in following the project, participating in the conference in 2019, or engaging in discussion over issues raised by this research, you can contact me via my university email account or via the social media accounts — details of which will be posted soon!