A touch of smell, sound and vision

Raquel A. G. Reyes explores the fascinating world of the human senses and their cultural diversity

May 22, 2008

Sensory history explores the role of the senses - sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell - in shaping human experience. It is based on the understanding that sensory perception is historically and culturally specific, bound to particular contexts and permeated by social values.

This book is an excellent introduction to a distinctive style of inquiry and a trustworthy guide to what is now a fast emerging field of study. It presents a wide-ranging survey of recent works, argues persuasively in support of historicising sensory perception and offers a balanced exploration of a diverse range of fascinating studies that illustrate inter-sensoriality - the ways the senses work together - in the production of perception and meaning.

The reader will find the extensive bibliography and index useful and the endnotes informative. The book's flaws are few and more telling of the gaps in the field. More attention could have been given to work on the senses in relation to emotions; the available work on the senses in non-Western societies, little though there is, might have been more profitably mined; and the discussion on presentation and methods of research is on the scanty side.

Mark Smith questions the hegemony of sight and vision in thinking and scholarship. He joins a growing number of scholars, mainly European and North American, who challenge the "reign of the eye" and our entrenched ocular-centric manner of studying the past. The rise of sophisticated visual technologies in science and culture (from the microscope to television) has also played its part in the pervasiveness of sight-led thinking. Sight, associated with cool and detached scientific rationality, argues Smith, has deeply informed our understanding of humanity's progression to modernity.

Smith has organised the book to show the amount of work that has been done on each of the senses. Thus, the first chapter begins with sight and is followed by hearing, smelling, tasting and, finally, touching.

The author's central critique, one that underpins this book, targets the thesis known as the "great divide" that claims the primacy of sight under modernity. Sight, it has been argued, demarcated the lines between the modern and the pre-modern, the latter associated with the so-called cruder, animalistic senses of smell, touch, taste and, to a limited extent, hearing.

If all this seems rather abstract, Smith marshals a rich array of studies to illustrate the sensibilities of diverse cultural contexts and historical periods. Some of his examples are familiar.

Sight, for instance, was important during antiquity when the senses were ranked by Plato and Aristotle, who placed sight above all. Less known is the way sight interacted with other senses in China from the fifth to the third century BCE, or the links between sight and light in Inca cosmology, or how sight, smell and hearing were tightly braided within the sensory cultures of the Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples.

Smith is absolutely right to stress inter-sensoriality and to question the Western social values that distinguish sight as the sense of the intellect. "Lots of aurally inclined societies located intellect in the heard as well as the seen world," he writes, but his examples for non-Western geographical areas are sparse. China, Africa and Latin America are clearly the most researched with regard to aurality, smell, taste and touch, southeast Asia and Japan the most neglected.

I was intrigued by his tantalising but brief allusion to the "Sedang Moi" of Indochina, who apparently believe the ear to be the seat of intellect and reason.

His chapter on tasting is filled with numerous insights into a variety of gustatory worlds and reasonably discusses spice, sweetness and the flavour enhancer MSG. But he might have also mentioned studies on the complex taste-worlds of southeast Asia, or even the relatively recent introduction of such tastes as chilli and chocolate to the region.

Work on the link between sensory perception and emotions is growing, and the history of medicine and religion, as Smith shows, provides some of the most striking examples that show this relationship. However, this topic gets somewhat crushed in the crowd. His chapter on touching, for instance, weaves through examples on the pleasurable and the brutal, the racist and the artistic, but doesn't fully highlight the closeness between tactility and emotion.

Examples outside of the West would not have gone amiss. Historians of Asia and Africa have explored practices such as tattooing and its complex connections between touch, the visual and pain.

Nonetheless, many of the most pioneering and imaginative studies in sensory history undertaken over the past three decades are mentioned, and Smith gives us a most enjoyable tour, from the "drum languages" of West Africa that communicated messages across forests, to the belief of medieval Islamic Arabs and Europeans that the taste of camphor was divine medicine.

Smith has shown how innovative sensory history can and should be. A specialist on slavery in the American antebellum South, Smith has arguably revolutionised the scholarship on slavery with his own work on aurality. Silence, we learn, reverberated through the soundscapes of slaves and slaveholders alike, but the meanings each attached to silence were profoundly different.

Smith is mindful of the challenges sensory history poses. The meanings attached to certain sounds and tastes, and their reproducibility, may now be beyond recovery.

Bound to our own time, values and social contexts, it would be nonsensical to attempt capturing and recreating past sensory worlds without sufficient historical evidence. As Smith writes: "How a lemon tastes is contingent on the tongue doing the licking, its specific history and culture."

Smith writes that sensory history did not set out to challenge established paradigms but developed largely by a kind of scholarly sensitivity to history's sensuous textures, through researchers possessed of fine-tuned antennae for sensory evidence buried in the sources of diverse fields. This rings true, as the burgeoning multidisciplinary body of works makes evident.

Smith's valuable introduction to sensory history shows how the past is indeed a strange country, and never more so than when it is approached through the senses.

Sensory History

By Mark M. Smith

Berg Publishers, 192pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781845204150

Published 31 December 2007

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