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Sensing presence: conceptualizing the visceral

What does it mean to ‘go with your gut?’ ‘Feel it in your bones?’ or react to something ‘viscerally’? (Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy 2010, 1273)

The visceral is, according to Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy (2010), the realm in which bodies register physical and emotional energies in relation to external stimuli.2 They posit that the

visceral refers to the realm of internally-felt sensations, moods and states of being, ... born from sensory engagement with the material world.... visceral refers to a fully minded-body ... capable of judgment. (Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy 2008, 462, emphasis in original)

These “internally-felt sensations, moods and states of being” procure more conscious awareness of our environments from the inside out (also see Brennan 2004; Protevi 2009; Staiger, Cvetkovich, and Reynolds 2010, for similar arguments). This is not to say that energetic environments, or “affective atmospheres” (Anderson 2009), determine human action. Rather, surrounding energies mediate bio-social responses to external stimuli as visceral pulls affect our emotional realities based on previous experience and history, be it personal, social, cultural, or political. Acting as a bio-social processing station for affective knowledges, the visceral allows us to feel spaces in order to sense—and make sense—of the tangible and intangible worlds around us.

For Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy (2008), the five senses are central to understanding how representational and more-than-representational knowledges are translated into bio-cellular awareness. “Sensory organs,” according to the academic duo, “provide mechanisms for visceral arousal through affective relations with the material world” (463). Memory, they argue, is integral to visceral cognizance:

The sweet taste of ice cream is not decidedly uplifting for all minded bodies; rather, memory, perception, cognitive thinking, historical experience, and other material relations and immaterial forces all intersect with individuals’ sensory grasp of the world, complicating one’s visceral [read: bio-social] experience of the ice cream. (Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy 2008, 465, emphasis added)

Our senses play an integral role in the psychological and physiological processes that re-constitute—and are constituted by—our memories and inform our subjectivities. A certain smell, for instance, might transport us back in time to our grandmother’s kitchen or childhood home. Directing us to recall past times and places, the senses trigger visceral arousal and more conscious awareness of feelings, or moods, associated with certain people, places, and states of being. Memory not only informs our senses; it plays an integral role in the manipulation of our sensory experiences of the material and immaterial worlds.

When an earthquake shook the East Coast in August 2011, for example, workers across New York City chose to evacuate skyscrapers rather than remain inside to avoid fallen building debris (Seelye 2011). As this counter-intuitive evacuation suggests, city residents psychologically and physiologically processed building tremors not as seismic-related aftershocks, but as past trauma. Here, memories of 9/11 profoundly shaped present-day emotional responses to tectonic stimuli. Conflating then and now, here and there, self and other, city residents responded to this environmental threat as if it had been an extension of the World Trade Center attack. Intuitively experienced and instinctively responded to as a continuation of past events, this impending trauma—perceived or real—was located, for city residents, in the gut.

The city’s emotional reactivity to the earthquake can be understood through the visceral registries posited by Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy in which memories (of past trauma) accrued through representational and more-than-representational experiences activate bio-social triggers. As they acknowledge, “In the visceral realm, representations join and become part of old memories, new intensities, triggers, aches, tempers, commotions, tranquilities. In the visceral realm, representations affect materiality” (Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy 2008, 467, emphasis added). As past memories of trauma are triggered by present-day events or present-day events are recalled in relation to past traumas, trauma reveals itself as both affective truth and manipulation.

This section situates the viscera’s role in enabling the intra- and interpersonal transmission of trauma affectively across time and space. Simultaneously discursive and material, conscious and unconscious, collective and individual, cognitive and embodied, viscerality offers creative possibilities for theorizing trauma’s ability to shape corporeal knowledges and present-day emotional landscapes vis-à-vis affective heritage. If the formation of cultural memory at the 9/11 Memorial Museum is to be gleaned through feeling, as the chapter’s opening quote by current 9/11 Memorial &

Museum President and CEO Alice Greenwald suggests, what are the social, cultural, and political implications of “learning through the heart”? How, for instance, is the creation of a ‘feeling memorial’ at the World Trade Center integral to shaping post-9/11 subjectivities? I offer the following field observation as one example.

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