Sensory

Synesthesia X1 – 2.44: The dream of individualised synaesthetic experiences

Guest post, by Dr Feng Zhu

This blog post refers to the Synesthesia X1 – 2.44 device, a work by Tetsuya Mizuguchi (an iconic figure in computer games [1]) to consider how artistic visions of individualised synaesthetic experiences are shaped by, and could also be outside of, the logic of individual consumption and self-perfection.

Picture2.pngFigure 1. The Synesthesia X1 – 2.44. Photo by Ako Suzuki on Twitter

My starting point is his Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) 2019 (Kyoto, Japan) keynote, in which Mizuguchi explained a particular, enduring, and singular vision that he had held all his life. Mizuguchi is obviously a highly celebrated figure in computer games, having worked on the hugely influential Sega Rally Championship (1994), Sega Touring Car Championship (1996), and Rez (2001). But his keynote was notable for entirely circumnavigating his role and expertise in the development of these games; talking about that would undoubtedly have been much welcomed by all the game scholars in attendance. Instead, he went about explaining that what had spurred him to work on these games, and on other past projects, was a particular, enduring, and singular vision that he had held all his life. That vision being one of a teleological, technological progression in our art and entertainment towards synaesthesia and towards multimodality. Synaethesia is the so-called ‘blurring’ of the senses, in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Multimodality is simply the way that different forms of expression typically combine in any act of communication. That is, the dream is that of the promise of total (technologically induced) immersion in which all the senses chime harmoniously with each other in the unfolding of the peerless total artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk).

Picture3.pngFigure 2. Tetsuya Mizuguchi, photo from Fandom.com

In interviews, Mizuguchi has emphasised that he is driven by a quest for something more than subjective taste that decides whether a creation is good or not, but by “something more in relation with human nature, a field where I could do some research… I chose Sega because it was using new technology and I was able to study things like human movements.”[2] In this, we can detect the familiar narrative that posits the Star Trek Holodeck as the pinnacle of media-entertainment achievement. However, Mizuguchi is interested in more than just scales of simulation or representational fidelity, but in what might be called a ‘science of the senses’ (evoking the non-subjective dimension of his phrasing). That is, ways of bringing our senses into harmony through synaesthesia. Running swiftly through a history of art in his DiGRA keynote that featured the Bauhaus and Futurism, it is clear that he saw various movements as having dreamed of synaesthesia as the aesthetic experience par excellence.

This interest explains his move, in 2014, to become the CEO of Enhance, Inc., Enhance/Synaesthesia Lab: a company dedicated to the exploration of synaesthetic experiences. It has already produced the “Synesthesia X1” – (now v.2.44), to much acclaim. The device consists of a chair with 44 vibrating actuators in a carefully calibrated space. The user is apparently made to feel as though they are wrapped in a world of sounds, lights, and vibrations; even the temperature is part of the experience. Youtube videos of people using it abound, but convey little of what they actually experience [2]. In a CNN interview, a reporter talked about how his experience saw him transported to an idyllic desert island – a product of his imagination in response to the sensory stimuli of the Synesthesia X1. He reported feeling relaxed but also energised afterwards.

Picture5.pngFigure 3. Synesthesia X1 – 2.44 by Synesthesia Lab feat. evala (See by Your Ears) was on display at the Media Ambition Tokyo 2019 on February 21, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images for Media Ambition Tokyo

Mizuguchi is a huge believer in the capacity of technology to overcome existing difficulties. He happily proclaimed that the X1 was not possible even 5 years ago. Curiously though, he spoke little about the reasons for the Synesthesia X1 taking the shape that it did, of the political potential of the technology, about the ways in which it might contribute to the formation of our subjectivities. This vacuum has been filled instead by myriad claims concerning the effects that have been attributed to the X1: that it shows benefits ‘like meditation’, that it was more refreshing than sleep, and that users ‘felt better and had more energy’ afterwards. These statements position the Synesthesia X1 as a sophisticated health tool for individuals. It is easy to imagine that it will be used by wealthy professionals to unwind, in a more efficient fashion than any other means available, after a demanding day or week at the office, for example. That is to say, there is little to stop this so-called pinnacle of the science of the senses being used instrumentally, for nothing more than to make the individual more productive, to make working conditions more tolerable. Indeed, that may form the lodestone of its market appeal. Needless to say, if the health claims are fair, then those with access to the X1 have a notable advantage over those without. One can envisage a high-powered lawyer using it to sustain a 100-hour working week.

Much can be said about the social transformations and reinforcements that could be effected by technologies like the X1. However, it is not my purpose here to critique Mizuguchi’s work and the Synesthesia X1 on the grounds that it may be politically regressive. There is a certain way of doing this that could merely evince a closed-minded position, one that applies the same evaluative frame to all sorts of complex socio-technical issues with rather predictable condemnatory conclusions. But nor is it my aim to only draw attention to the positive possibilities inherent in the technology, to underscore only its emancipatory or aesthetic potential. It is more interesting to reflect upon the ways in which even far-reaching artistic visions, such as Mizuguchi’s for the Synesthesia X1, are shaped by, but could also in some ways be outside of, a neoliberal logic of individual consumption and self-perfection.

Mizuguchi’s positioning of the Synesthesia X1 in a linear historical trajectory of aesthetic experience was clearly reductive, not accounting for the multitudinous facets of the category of the aesthetic, yet it is also the kind of grandiosity of thinking that tends to motivate auteurs to undertake ambitious projects in the first place. We would do well to excavate the genealogical dimensions of such thinking – the dream of individualised synaesthetic experiences – in order to understand how it arises and to unpack it with sensitivity to its ambivalence and layered complexity. In other words, to follow Foucault’s Nietzschean-inspired analysis in which any given system of thought is shown, by tracing it back, to be the outcome of contingent turns in history, rather than to be thought to be inevitable or to spring unproblematically from identifiable points of origin. What were the confluence of ideas that birthed his dream of the total, technologically facilitated, synaesthetic experience? How did they converge into this particular teleological vision, which undoubtedly has a certain allure to it? In asking this, it is worth remembering that the ensemble of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions etc are what Foucault termed the dispositif (Foucault, 1980). So what can this concept add to understanding of the X1?

Foucault opined that the dispositif is an apparatus of sorts, a formation that has a major function at a given historical moment – it responds to an ‘urgent need’. In this respect, it seems to be highly directed. We can thus consider the ways in which Mizuguchi’s and other similar ideas feed into the production of imaginative and creative hi-tech outputs, for example, in a particularly strategic manner. The purpose, which we can attempt to excavate, may be as banal as that of fuelling or maintaining individualised consumption within an experience economy, according with a neoliberal logic of individual consumption and self-perfection. Or it may be something altogether more complex than that. Yet we should also remember what Deleuze (1992) said about Foucault’s concept of the dispositif: that each dispositif is defined in terms of its variability and ability to transform itself and to break down in favour of a future apparatus. Thus, in each, it is necessary to distinguish what we are in terms of what we are no longer, and what we are in the process of becoming (as an unfinished and ongoing affair). Contingency and the possibility of transformation are central in Deleuze’s emphasis.

There is clearly a risk in this latter kind of analysis to underscore only the repudiation of universals and the possibility of transformation, so that there seems to be almost no rigidity at all in the lines of force within the apparatus. If setting out to obtain funding for such an ambitious project today, invoking such linear narratives may facilitate interest. Indeed, at each stage of the project, one can envisage the constraints and parameters that operate in these conditions, the ways in which teleological narratives may lend a sense of security to investors and may be imbibed by creators and investors alike such that they become the message espoused at public events. Nevertheless, if the rigidity in the lines of force reveal themselves thusly, then they can perhaps be softened and grounded by a genealogical approach to the dispositif in a way that does not proclaim to be able to transcend it but that loosens the conflux of ideas which otherwise seem destined to be tied together.

Footnotes: 

[1] Who worked on Sega Rally Championship (1994), Sega Touring Car Championship (1996), and Rez (2001)

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CikvSLFAy3E&t=285s

References:

Deleuze, G. (1992). What is a dispositif? (T. J. Armstrong, Trans.). In T. J. Armstrong (Ed.), Michel Foucault, Philosopher: Essays Translated from the French and German (pp. 159-168). New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1980). “The Confession of the Flesh” in Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, pp. 194-95.

 

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