The Apparatus of Sensation

by scholastress

Note: The following was a writing exercise to pull out my very best bad Foucault impression. I think I done good. What? Let’s see your bad Foucault!


If Benjamin’s Chiffonnier were to search through the detritus of our failed media histories of the past half century, he would surely find his fortunes in the dilapidated wonders of the Sensorama.[1] One imagines, between the Ferris wheel and the bumper-cars of some palimpsest California amusement park, a blue arcade booth that solicits its bystanders through an odd address of hypnotic lights and pattern. Permitting only one individual at a time, each curious body is instantiated into an apparatus of near-total address: the hands are curved around a set of handlebars, the legs are mounted around an inclined seat, the head fits into a curved enclosure that swallows its entirety, and the brow is pressed into an iron mask with spring-mounted pads for the eyes which measure and constrain the direction of the gaze. The device, then, begins to enact its sensorium over the enveloped body.[2]


The seat is pitched forward, the handlebars twist and the sum of the visual field is overwhelmed with the three-dimensional sights and sounds of a motorcycle ride through Brooklyn.[3] The body is pitched and rolled in synchronicity to the virtual bike, the rumble of uneven virtual pavement, and the stereophonic kaleidoscope of the New York sound-scape. With exactitude, the smell of pizza is released into the nose as the phantom bike passes a prototypical parlour. While ostensibly at the driver’s seat of this spectacle, the spectator’s hands and arms are moved rather than moving, as if rather than steering the vehicle, the seated body were driven by its machine.

Then- as if through the mercurial logic of dreams- the scene changes. The motorcycle becomes a dune buggy as the sights of the metropolis are replaced by that of the desert, sidewalks dissolve into sand dunes and air is piped ferociously over the skin, simulating the bite of acceleration. This too soon changes. The desert becomes a highway and the spectator is instantiated behind the wheel of a red convertible. A young blonde woman is seated beside this spectacularly transported body, who flirts coyly with the anonymous spectator- a voyeur travelling through someone else’s dream. The titillating conceit of manufactured affection thus disclosed, the last chapter begins: a belly-dancer approaches, ringing cymbals in either ear, smiling while her cheap perfume is wafted into the nostrils.

Morton Hellig’s device, while ostensibly levied towards pedagogical use in industry and defence training, reveals its roots in a political history of spectacle.[4] The inventor, a Hollywood filmmaker and technologist, endeavoured to pursue the aims of cinema to the far reaches of immersion – to not only capture experience, but to assume its control. In sum, “to create an art of consciousness, not just of vision.”[5] Rather than the socialist whole of Sergei Eisentein’s Stereokino, Hellig’s dispositif was rather more individualizing.[6] Unlike the movie theatre, with its catcalls and disruptions, snacks, social intimacies and furtive eroticism, the Sensorama hailed a new form of totalizing spectacle, wrought on and all around the body and to the exclusion of all other forms of relationality.

This apparatus of near total sensation, if one is to take Hellig’s pedagogical claims sincerely, can be understood to inscribe a learned politics of bodily spectatorship. The affective prostitution of the Sensorama‘s women and its automotive pleasures of simulated freedom, present themselves as childishly innocuous, yet patently ideological manifestations of the Hollywood spectacle. As a positive correlation to confined discipline, the anonymous individual in the machine is interpolated into the most revered position in American society: the exhilarated and lustful body of a virile white male. Indeed, in the political sense, we must consider the Sensorama‘s audience as students. “[A] person will have greater efficiency of learning if he can actually experience a situation as compared with merely reading about it or listening to a lecture… if a student can experience a situation or an idea in about the same way that he experiences everyday life, it has been shown that he understands better and quicker, and if a student understands better and quicker, he is drawn to the subject matter with greater pleasure and enthusiasm. What the student learns in this manner he retains for a longer period of time.”[7] Desired and desiring, the body in the apparatus is thus instantiated into an aspirational politics when they are returned to their own evermore docile sensorium with its affective lack.

A geneology can thus be drawn from this off-shoot of cinema to the later manifestations of devices of movement, desire and virtual touch. Abandoning the heterotopic sanctuary of the theatre for the apparatus of sensation, freedom is wrought through a ruse of political instantiation. With motion and emotion ever more constrained to fit within the technological dispositif, the price paid for admission is further reaching than the token inserted into the slot.

[1]Walter Benjamin.  Selected Writings, vol. 4 ed. Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA., & London: Harvard University Press, 1991–1999), 48.

[2]A cursory examination of the device and its mechanism can be obtained in the following clip:

[3]Additional descriptions of the device are afforded by Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality (New York: Summit Books, 1991), 49-53.

[4]“For example, the armed services must instruct men in the operation and maintenance of extremely complicated and potentially dangerous equipment, and it is desirable to educate the men with the least possible damage to costly equipment. Industry, on the other hand, is faced with a similar problem due to present day rapid rate of development of automatic machines. Here, too, it is desired to train a labor force without the accompanying risks.” Morton Hellig, Sensorama Simulator. US Patent 3,050,870. Filed January 10, 1961 and issued August 28, 1962.

[5]Aaron Marcus, “Dead Medium: Sensorama,” The Dead Media Project, Accessed 19 February 2013.

[6]Oliver Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, trans. Gloria Custance (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1995), 155.

[7]Hellig, Sensorama Simulator.