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Foundations for an anthropology of

the senses

Constance Classen

Premisses visual perception (Ritchie, 1991, p. 195). Such

basic differences in the divisions of the sen-
The fundamental premiss underlying the con- sorium recognized by different cultures suggest
cept of an ‘anthropology of the senses’ is that the extent to which perception is fashioned by
sensory perception is a cultural, as well as a culture.
physical, act. That is, sight, hearing, touch, taste There are many ways in which sensory
and smell are not only means of apprehending perception may be imbued with cultural signifi-
physical phenomena, but also avenues for the cance. The senses themselves may each be
transmission of cultural values. Here we refer linked with different trains of associations, and
to such characteristic modes of sensory com- certain senses ranked higher - in value than
munication as speech and ~
others. Particular sensations-
writing, music and visual Constance Classen holds a doctorate from a red colour, a foul odour,
arts, and also to the range of McGill University, Montreal. Her Mon- a sweet flavour - may have
values and ideas which may treal address is 602 CBte St. Antoine, symbolic value in different
be conveyed through olfac- Westmount, Quebec, Canada H3Y 2K7. contexts. Sensory meta-
tory, gustatory and tactile She has undertaken field research on phors - as when one says of
ethnomedicine in Northwestern Argen-
sensations. tina. Her current research centres on the
an idea that it stinks - may
Given that perception history of the senses in the West. She is be used to convey meaning
is conditioned by culture, it the author of Inca Cosmology and the through evocative sensory
follows that the ways in Human Body (1993). Worlds of Sense: referents. Not all cultures
which people perceive the Exploring the Senses in History and will make use of all sensory
Across Cultures (1993) and Aroma: The
world may vary as cultures domains to the same extent.
Cultural History of Smell (1994), co-
vary. This variation, in fact, written with David Howes and Anthony Christian mystical culture,
is true even as regards the Synnott. for example, is charac-
enumeration of the senses. terized by a strict asceticism
Within Western history we of the body coupled with a
find, aside from the customary grouping into rich sensuality of the spirit, whereby the divine
five senses, enumerations of four, six or seven is conceptualized and mystically experienced
senses described at different periods by different through a wealth of sensory symbols. It is the
persons. Thus, for example, taste and touch are task of the scholar to uncover the distinctions
sometimes grouped together as one sense, and and interrelationships of sensory meaning and
touch is sometimes divided into several senses practice particular to a culture. In order to do
(Classen, 1993a, pp. 2-3). Similar variations in so the scholar must not only look at the practi-
the enumeration of the senses can be found in cal uses to which the senses are put - for every
non-Western cultures. Ian Ritchie writes that society will make practical use of all of the
the Hausa of Nigeria, for example, recognize senses - but at the ways in which different
two general senses: visual perception and non- sensory domains are invested with social value.

ISSJ 1W1997 0 UNESCO 1997. Published by Blackwell Puhlisherc, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 IJF, UK and 350 Main Street, Maldcn, MA 02148, USA.
402 Constance Classen

When we examine the meanings associated pations, its divisions, hierarchies, and inter-
with various sensory faculties and sensations in relationships. Hence, insofar as the senses may
different cultures we find a cornucopia of potent be likened to windows, this analogy should be
sensory symbolism. Sight may be linked to rea- understood to rest not so much on their
son or to witchcraft, taste may be used as a imagined capacity to admit physical data in a
metaphor for aesthetic discrimination or for sex- transparent fashion, as on their role in framing
ual experience, an odour may signify sanctity perceptual experience in accordance with soci-
or sin, political power or social exclusion. ally prescribed norms.
Together, these sensory meanings and values The second assumption that has impeded
form the sensory model espoused by a society, the development of an anthropology of the sen-
according to which the members of that society ses is the one which holds that, in terms of
‘make sense’ of the world, or translate sensory cultural significance, sight is the only sense of
perceptions and concepts into a particular major importance. This assumption reflects the
‘worldview’. There will likely be challenges to bias of Western culture in favour of vision.
this model from within the society, persons and Sight is held to be the most important of the
groups who differ on certain sensory values, senses and the sense most closely allied with
yet this model will provide the basic perceptual reason. We can find this bias in favour of sight
paradigm to be followed or resisted. already in ancient philosophy. Aristotle, for
example, considered sight to be the most highly
developed of the senses. However, while vision
Conceptual impediments was usually considered the first and most
important of the senses, it was still the ‘first
The anthropology of the senses has had to over- among equals’ (Classen, 1993a, pp. 3-4; Syn-
come three prevalent assumptions in order to nott, 1991).
establish itself as an alternative approach to the Sight came to distance itself significantly
study of culture. The first is the assumption that from the other senses in terms of cultural impor-
the senses are ‘windows on the world’, or in tance only in the eighteenth and nineteenth cen-
other words transparent in nature, and therefore turies, when vision became associated with the
precultural. Considering the amount of attention burgeoning field of science. The enquiring and
paid in recent years to the different ways in penetrating gaze of the scientist became the
which the human body is socially constructed, metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge at
it is surprising that the senses should still be this time (Foucault, 1973; Le Breton, 1990).
thought of as purely biological in nature. The Evolutionary theories propounded by prominent
senses, in fact, are as regulated by society as figures such as Charles Darwin and later Sig-
most other aspects of bodily existence, from mund Freud, supported the elevation of sight
eating to aging. Social codes determine what by decreeing vision to be the sense of civiliz-
constitutes acceptable sensory behaviour at any ation. The ‘lower’, ‘animal’ senses of smell,
time for anyone, and indicate what different touch and taste, by contrast supposedly lost
sensory experiences mean. To stare at someone importance as ‘man’ climbed up the evolution-
may signify rudeness, flattery or domination ary ladder. In the late nineteenth and twentieth
depending on the circumstances and the culture. centuries, the role of sight in Western society
Downcast eyes, in turn, may suggest modesty, was further enlarged by the development of
fear, contemplation or inattention. such highly influential visual technologies as
Sensory perception, in fact, is not simply photography and cinema (Jay 1993; Classen,
one aspect of bodily experience, but the basis Howes and Synnott, 1994, pp. 88-92).
for bodily experience. We experience our bod- As a result of this Western emphasis on
ies - and the world - through our senses. Thus vision, a description and interpretation of a
the cultural construction of sensory perception society’s visual culture (such as may be seen
conditions our experience and understanding of in artefacts or styles of dress) is often as far
our bodies and the world at a fundamental level. as anthropologists will go in search of ‘sensory’
The sensory model supported by a society meaning. The anthropology of the senses, how-
reveals that society’s aspirations and preoccu- ever, argues that we must try to understand the

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Foundations for an anthropology of the senses 403

values of the various senses within the context in the 1970s by Clifford Geertz, who wrote:
of the culture under study and not within the ‘The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts
context of the sensory model of the anthropol- . . . which the anthropologist strains to read over
ogist’s own culture. This means attending to the shoulders of those to whom they properly
the meanings encoded in all of the senses. Such belong’ (Geertz, 1973, p. 452). Anthropologists’
attention can uncover a wealth of sensory sym- use of this approach across cultures means not
bolism previously overlooked by scholars and only that Western textual ideologies are applied
can reveal hierarchies of sensory values differ- to non-Western, non-text-based societies, but
ent from the visually dominated Western order. also that the dynamic multisensory dimensions
Focusing on the visual (or the audio-visual) of culture are suppressed or transformed in
elements of culture to the neglect of other sen- order to make of culture a static, visual docu-
sory phenomena can furthermore introduce a ment which can then be read using the tools of
rupture in the interconnected sensory system of textual criticism.
a society. This occurs most notably with arte- Ironically, the third obstacle hindering the
facts, which are frequently abstracted from a development of an anthropology of the senses
dynamic context of multisensory uses and comes from the work of certain academics who
meanings and transformed into static objects for have challenged the hegemony of sight in cul-
the gaze inside the glass cases of museums or tural studies. These academics have suggested
within books of photography. Navajo sandpaint- replacing or supplementing visual models of
ings, to give an example, are much more than interpretation with models based on speech and
simply visual representations for the Navajo. aurality. Marshall McLuhan (1962) and Walter
Sandpaintings, which are created in the context Ong (1967), notably, argued that the sensory
of healing ceremonies, are made to be pressed model of a society is determined by its techno-
onto the bodies of the participants, and not logies of communication. According to this
simply seen. From a conventional Western per- theory, literate, and particularly print, societies
spective, picking up sand from the sandpainting emphasize sight due to the visual nature of
and applying it to the body ‘destroys’ the paint- writing, while non-literate societies emphasize
ing. From the Navajo perspective, this act ‘com- hearing due to the auditory nature of speech.
pletes’ the painting by transfemng the healing For the latter, consequently, the notion of a
power contained in the visual representation to ‘world harmony’ is more appropriate than that
the patient’s body through the medium of touch. of a ‘worldview’ (Ong, 1969).
According to traditional Navajo religion it is, While such approaches have helped pre-
in fact, sacrilegious to preserve a sandpainting pare the ground for an anthropology of the
untouched: such an act of visual hubris is said senses by proposing alternate sensory paradigms
to be punished by blindness. The interest of for the study of culture, they have one major
Western art collectors and scholars in the visual drawback from the perspective of sensory
designs of Navajo sandpaintings, however, has anthropology. This drawback is that they do not
led to a number of attempts to permanently allow for sufficient variation in sensory models
‘fix’ this ephemeral art form in the manner of across cultures. In terms of the McLuhanesque
Western paintings. Such attempts include photo- theory which links perceptual models to media
graphing sandpaintings, gluing them onto can- of communication, the sensory combinatories of
vasses, and preserving them in airtight glass culture are much too complex to be stereotyped
cases. The tactile element of the sandpaintings as either auditory or visual according to the
is thus suppressed and receives little or no atten- dominant mode of communication. The oral cul-
tion in scholarly interpretations of the works ture of the Hopi of Arizona, for example, places
(Gill, 1982; Parezco, 1983). an emphasis on sensations of vibration, while
The visualist preoccupations of many con- that of the Desana of Colombia highlights the
temporary academics are evident in the extent symbolic importance of colour (Classen, 1993a,
to which ‘writing’ or ‘reading’ and ‘texts’ have pp. 11, 131-34).
been employed as models for culture and cul- Furthermore, the oral/literate model of cul-
tural analysis. Within anthropology this literary- ture tends to assume that the different senses
minded approach to ethnography was fostered will possess the same social values and have

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404 Constance Classen

Bushman of South-West Africa with his granddaughter. Photograph taken by h e L.K. Marshall expedition. Peabody Museum of Harvard
University, Smithsonian Institute

the same social effects across cultures. Thus senses holds that universalist sensory models of
societies which give priority to sight (pre-emi- culture, whether they be visual or auditory, text-
nently the West) will be analytic and concerned based or speech-based, must give way to cul-
with structure and appearance, for such is the turally-specific investigations of particular sen-
nature of sight. Societies which give priority to sory orders.
hearing, in turn, will be synthetic and concerned One of the primary concerns of the anthro-
with interiority and integration, such being the pology of the senses is to go beyond the audio-
nature of hearing. The vision which is deemed visual and recover the senses of smell, taste
rational and analytical in the West, however, and touch as subjects of serious inquiry. The
may be associated with irrationality in another reluctance of late-twentieth-century anthropol-
society, or with the dynamic fluidity of colour. ogists to examine or recognize the cultural
In the light of such potential cultural differences importance of smell, taste and touch is due not
in sensory meaning, the anthropology of the only to the relative marginalization of these

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Foundations for an anthropology of the senses 405

senses in the modem West, but also to the gery or of desensualized conceptual systems.
racist tendencies of an earlier anthropology to The objective of the anthropology of the senses,
associate the ‘lower’ senses with the ‘lower’ however, is neither to assume that smell, taste
races. As sight and, to a lesser extent, hearing and touch will be dominant in a particular cul-
were deemed to be the predominant senses of ture, nor to assume that they will be marginal,
‘civilized’ Westerners, smell, taste and touch but to investigate the ways in which meanings
were assumed to predominate among ‘primitive’ are, in fact, invested in and conveyed through
non-Westerners. each of these senses. Once free of the Western
Many early scholars were interested in prejudice against smell, taste and touch as ‘ani-
depicting the ‘animalistic’ importance of smell, mal’ senses, the fact that the Sereer Ndut of
taste and touch in non-Western cultures. This Senegal have a complex olfactory vocabulary
trend is already evident and widespread in the (Dupire, 1987) or that the Tzotzil of Mexico
eighteenth century. In his study of aesthetics, describe the cosmos in thermal terms (Gossen,
for example, Friedrich Schiller stated that ‘as 1974), no longer appears a telltale mark of ‘sav-
long as man is still a savage he enjoys by agery’, but rather a sophisticated cultural elabor-
means of [the] tactile senses [i.e. touch, taste ation of a particular sensory domain. Indeed, to
and smell]’, rather than through the ‘higher’ neglect to investigate such elaborations of the
senses of sight and hearing (Schiller, 1982, p. ‘proximity’ senses is often to practise reverse
195). Using somewhat coarser language, sensory discrimination by disregarding a body
Edward Long, an eighteenth-century ‘authority’ of symbolism considered of prime importance
on African slaves, stated that Africans’ ‘facul- by a society. Even those societies which minim-
ties of smell are truly bestial, nor less their ize the importance of these senses may never-
commerce with the other sexes; in these acts theless be found to utilize them to convey
they are as libidinous and shameless as mon- social values.
keys’ (cited by Pieterse, 1992, p. 41). In the The sensory anthropologist attends to the
early nineteenth century the natural historian role of odours, tastes and tactilities - as to the
Lorenz Oken postulated a sensory hierarchy of role of sights and sounds - not as evidence of
human races, with the European ‘eye-man’ at evolutionary status, nor as picturesque detail
the top, followed by the Asian ‘ear-man’, the such as may be found in a travel guide, but as
Native American ‘nose-man’, the Australian essential clues to the ways by which a society
‘tongue-man’, and the African ‘skin-man’ fashions and embodies a meaningful world.
(Gould, 1985, pp. 204-205).
Primed by such ‘sensist’ lore, the anthro-
pologist Charles Myer was surprised to find Groundwork in the field
when he set out to explore the importance of
smell among the inhabitants of the Torres A number of different people have been influ-
Straits at the turn of the twentieth century that ential in the development of the anthropology
‘the people of the Torres Straits have much the of the senses. It is beyond the scope of this
same liking and disliking for various odours as article to trace all the predecessors in the field
obtains among ourselves’ (Myers, 1903, p. 185). (one could follow the subject back to the
Nonetheless, Myers suggested that the strong ancient fascination with the different sensory
power of evocation which odours held for the lives of diverse peoples (Classen, 1993a, p. 3))
Islanders provided ‘yet another expression of or to refer to all the scholars who are currently
the high degree to which the sensory side of making contributions to it. What will be
mental life [as opposed to the rational side] is presented here is a brief summary of the role
elaborated among primitive peoples’ (p. 184). played by some of the major contributors to
Consciously or unconsciously, contempor- sensory anthropology in shaping this new area
ary anthropologists have compensated for the of research.
sensory racism of many of their predecessors As mentioned above, both the media
by downplaying or ignoring the role of the specialist Marshall McLuhan (1962; 1964) and
‘lower’ senses in nowWestern cultures and his student Walter J. Ong (1969; 1982) were
highlighting the importance of audiovisual ima- important prototheorists of the anthropology of

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406 Constance Classen

the senses. In The Presence of the Word Ong the valued domain of culture, and the associ-
stated that ‘cultures vary greatly in their exploi- ation of women and children with the suspect
tation of the various senses and in the way in domain of nature. Seeger further found the Suya
which they relate their conceptual apparatus to to emphasize the social importance of speaking
the various senses’ (1967, p. 3). The conclusion and hearing, while linking sight with anti-social
he reached was that ‘given sufficient knowledge behaviour such as witchcraft. He argued that
of the sensorium exploited within a culture, one the importance of aurality was evident in the
could probably define the culture as a whole in lip and ear discs worn by Suya men, an instance
virtually all its aspects’ (1967, p. 6). While of body decoration serving to remind individ-
Ong, like McLuhan, was primarily concerned uals of the proper sensory hierarchy (see further
with formulating distinctions between oral and Turner, 1995; Howes, 1991, pp. 175-78).
literate (or ‘visual’) societies, nevertheless state- The influence of LCvi-Strauss and McLu-
ments like the ones above encouraged other han can be discerned as well in the work of
scholars (such as Edmund Carpenter, 1972; the ethnomusicologist Steven Feld (1982; 1986;
1973) to explore the whole of the cultural sen- 1991; Keil and Feld, 1994), which examines
sorium. the role of sound in the classificatory thought
Within anthropology, Claude LCvi-Strauss and performance art of the Kaluli of Papua
was an important forerunner of the anthropology New Guinea. As with Seeger on the Suya, Feld
of the senses. He was responsible for introduc- determined that hearing, rather than sight, is the
ing the notion of the ‘science of the concrete’, sense of greatest cultural importance for the
according to which the ‘savage mind’ draws on Kaluli, providing a model for aesthetic
the sensual properties and contrasts of things expression, social relations, and the orches-
to construct an ordered universe (LCvi-Strauss, tration of the emotions. Neither Seeger nor Feld,
1966). Inspired by the synaesthetic ideals of however, base the importance of aurality among
the nineteenth-century Symbolists, LCvi-Strauss the peoples they have studied on the fact that
pioneered the study of the sensory codes of these peoples belong to non-literate cultures (as
myths. The key LCvi-Straussian text on this would McLuhan and Ong). In each case, the
score is a short section in the first volume of justification for the primacy of hearing is found
Mythologiques entitled ‘Fugue of the Five Sen- within the society in question, and not within
ses’ (LCvi-Strauss, 1969). There he traces how a generalized paradigm of oral versus literate
oppositions between sensations in one modality, cultures (for related studies see Laderman,
such as hearing, may be transposed into those 1991; Roseman, 1991; Peek, 1994).
of another modality, such as taste, and in turn The phrase ‘the cultural anthropology of
related to various conceptual oppositions - the senses’ was coined by the historian Roy
life/death or nature/culture - and to their Porter in his preface to The Foul and the Frag-
attempted resolution in mythical thought. LCvi- rant: Odor and the French Social Imagination
Strauss did not, however, make the transition by Alain Corbin (1986). The anthropology of
from analysing the sensory codes of myths to the senses did not, however, arise as a distinct
analysing the sensory codes of culture as a field until the late 1980s. In 1989 Paul Stoller
whole. His interest, indeed, lay more in tracing published The Taste of Ethnographic Things:
the operations of the mind than with analysing The Senses in Anthropology. Referring to the
the social life of the senses. work of such predecessors in the area as LCvi-
Influenced by both McLuhan and LCvi- Strauss, Ong, and Feld, Stoller argued that
Strauss, Anthony Seeger (1975; 1981) examined ‘anthropologists should open their senses to the
how the Suya of the Mato Grosso region of worlds of their others’ (1989, p. 7). Stoller
Brazil classify humans, animals and plants called for the production of ‘tasteful’ ethno-
according to their presumed sensory traits. As graphies with vivid literary descriptions of ‘the
regards humans Seeger found, for example, that smells, tastes and textures of the land, the
the Suya characterize men as pleasantly bland- people, and the food’ (1989, p. 29). In order
smelling, while women and children are deemed for anthropologists to achieve this, he cautioned
to be unpleasantly strong-smelling. This charac- that they must reorient their senses away from
terization is due to the association of men with the visualism of the West and towards the sen-

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Foundations for an anthropology of the senses 407

sory landscapes of other cultures (see further concerned with tracing the influence such variations have
Fabian, 1983; Tyler, 1987). In his work among on forms of social organization, conceptions of self and
cosmos, the regulation of the emotions, and other
the Songhay of Niger, Paul Stoller explored the domains of cultural expression . . . [It] is only by
importance of such aspects of Songhay culture developing a rigorous awareness of the visual and textual
as perfume, sauces and music (Stoller and biases of the Western episteme that we can hope to
Olkes, 1987; Stoller, 1989; 1995). As regards make sense of how life is lived in other cultural settings.
(Howes, 1991, p. 4)
perfume, for example, Stoller describes in rich
detail a ceremony by which a Songhay woman Howes has employed this approach to
offers up fragrance to the spirits (1989, pp. examine and compare the sensory models of
128-29). Such description gives the reader a Dobu and Kwoma society in Papua New Guinea
taste of Songhay sensory life. (Howes, 1992) and to explore the elaboration
A similar descriptive or evocative approach of olfactory symbols and rites across cultures
to the anthropology of the senses has been taken (Howes, 1991, pp. 128-47; Classen, Howes and
by C. Nadia Seremetakis (1991; 1994) in her Synnott, 1994). In the former work Howes
work on Greece. Seremetakis has employed analyses the social significance of diverse
multisensory imaging - the taste and feel of a Melanesian sensory practices, such as the use
peach, the smell and texture of grandma’s of oil to give the body a brilliant shine, the
dress - to bring to sensory life her memories employment of scents of mint and ginger in
of childhood in rural Greece: love magic, the bobbing motions of the dance,
The grandma sits on a wooden stool . . . Her face dark, and the aural power of names. Throughout his
her hair tied in a bun, her hands freckled and rough. writings, the emphasis is on tracing the cultural
The child slips into her lap. It is time for fairy tales.
Slipping into her lap is slipping into a surround of
interplay of the senses, as opposed to treating
different smells and textures, sediments of her work in a given sense in isolation.
the fields, the kitchen, with the animals. (Seremetakis, For my part, I have followed the approach
1994, p. 30) of David Howes in my examination of sensory
Seremetakis states that her aim in undertak- models across cultures and in Western history.
ing an anthropology of the senses is to recover In Inca Cosmology and the Human Body
the ‘often hidden sensory-perceptual dispo- (1993b) I explored the way in which the Incas
sitions’ of traditional societies and thereby ordered the cosmos and society through sensory
recover the memory of culture embedded in symbols, and how this order was disrupted and
personal recollections and material artefacts reconfigured at the time of the Spanish Con-
(1994, pp. X, 9-12). quest. In Worlds of Sense (1993a) I attempted to
At the same time as Stoller, Serematakis demonstrate the potential breadth of a sensory
and others were developing an evocative anthro- approach to culture by applying it to a range
pology of the senses in the United States, a of subjects, from the shifts in sensory values
group of scholars in Canada were exploring which have taken place at different periods of
how an anthroplogy of the senses might help Western history to the diverse sensory priorities
to uncover the symbolic codes by which of various non-Western societies. Most recently,
societies order and integrate the world. The I have examined the historical embodiment of
members of this group, based at Concordia Uni- gender ideologies through sensory codes such
versity in Montreal, include David Howes as the masculine gaze and the feminine touch
(1988; 1991), Anthony Synnott (1991; 1993), (Classen, in press).
Ian Ritchie (1991), and the author of the present Aside from the persons mentioned above,
paper (Classen, 1993a; 1993b). David Howes a number of anthropologists, while not strictly
described the approach of this group in the situated within the anthropology of the senses,
introduction to the book he edited in 1991 have made valuable contributions to the field.
entitled The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Three such anthropologists are Allen Feldman,
Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses: Robert Desjarlais, and Michael Taussig. In his
studies of the politics of violence in Northern
The anthropology of the senses is primarily concerned
with how the patterning of sense experience varies from
Ireland, Yugoslavia and the United States, Feld-
one culture to the next in accordance with the meaning man (1991; 1994) has powerfully illustrated
and emphasis attached to each of the senses. It is also how the senses may be employed as media for

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408 Constance Classen

Haute couture, Christian Dior, Paris 1997. Daniel Simon/Camma

Foundations f o r an anthropology of the senses 409

political terrorism and for ‘cultural anaesthesia’ - ier periods of Western culture than it is now,
the use of sensory techniques and technologies non-Western cultures in which the sense of
to distort and efface instances of political viol- smell is important today represent an earlier
ence. In Body and Emotion Desjarlais (1992) stage in the scale of sensory and social evol-
has explored the sensory aesthetics of pain and ution. To make this assumption is to harken
healing among the Tibetan Yolmo Sherpa in back to the old days of anthropological thought
order to present an ‘embodied’ analysis of when the cultural transition from smell to sight
emotional and physical suffering and the ritual was deemed to accompany the transition from
cures used to treat them. In Mimesis and Alter- savagery to civilization. The history of the sen-
ity Michael Taussig focuses on ‘understanding ses in the West must not be considered a yard-
mimesis as both the faculty of imitation and the stick against which to measure the sensory
deployment of that faculty in sensuous knowing, development of other cultures. Each society has
sensuous Othering’ within European history and its own trajectory of sensory progression and
Latin American colonial and postcolonial cul- change.
ture (1993, p. 68). These three avenues of The broad range of applications for a sen-
research illustrate the range of subject-matter sory analysis of culture indicates that the
amenable to a sense-based investigation. anthropology of the senses need not be only a
‘sub-field’ within anthropology, but may pro-
vide a fruitful perspective from which to exam-
Directions ine many different anthropological concerns.
Just as the anthropology of the senses is not a-
The anthropology of the senses has parallels in historical, for example, neither is it a-political.
many fields of the social sciences and humani- Indeed, the study of sensory symbolism force-
ties. Within sociology Anthony Synnott, among fully reveals the hierarchies and stereotypes
others, has been concerned with examining the through which certain social groups are invested
sensory codes of the contemporary West, from with moral and political authority and other
the symbolism of perfumes to the tactile intri- groups disempowered and condemned. The use
cacies of childcare (Synnott, 1993; Classen, of skin colour as a mark of discrimination is
Howes and Synnott, 1994). A sensuous geogra- well known in many societies. Within the West,
phy has been elaborated by Yi-Fu Tuan (1995) olfactory codes have served to support the ‘frag-
and Paul Rodaway (1994). Historians such as rant’ or ‘inodorate’ elite and stigmatize such
Alain Corbin and Roy Porter have delved into marginal groups as Jews and Blacks. Among
the cultural shifts in sensory values which have the Dassanetch of Ethiopia similar codes serve
taken place at different periods of Western his- to distinguish ‘superior’ cattle herders from
tory (Corbin, 1986; Porter, 1993). These parallel ‘lowly’ fishermen (Classen, 1993a, pp. 79-105).
investigations help to supplement and inform Sensory codes are likewise employed
the anthropology of the senses, placing it within across cultures to express and enforce gender
a multi-disciplinary movement to explore the divisions and hierarchies. Anthony Seeger, as
life of the senses in society. noted above, has shown how the Suya nega-
The history of the senses, for example, tively characterize women as ‘strong-smelling’
reminds anthropologists that sensory models are in relation to ‘bland-smelling’ men. Women are
not static, but develop and change over time. furthermore associated with disruptive touch by
Within the West, as noted earlier, a rise can be the Suya while men are deemed to possess
traced in the cultural importance of sight and a superior powers of hearing (Seeger, 1981). In
decline in the importance of the non-visual sen- the West, women have traditionally been asso-
ses from the Middle Ages to modernity (Classen ciated with the ‘lower’ ‘sensual’ realms of
1993a). During this period, traditional sensory touch, taste and smell, the realms of the bed-
concepts such as the odour of sanctity largely room, the nursery and the kitchen. Men, on the
passed away, while new concepts such as photo- other hand, have been linked with the ‘higher’
graphic truth were introduced. Nonetheless, ‘intellectual’ realms of sight and hearing, the
anthropologists should not assume that, because sensory domains of scholarship, exploration and
smell, for instance, was more important in earl- government (Classen, in press).

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410 Constance Classen

Issues of politics and gender are permeated approach is to be able to draw out from a
by sensory values, as are all issues of impor- multiplicity of data an overall pattern of sensory
tance to a culture, from religious beliefs and meanings and relations. Examples of divergence
practices to the production and exchange of from this pattern can and should be noted, but
goods. With regard to the latter, examples should be placed within the context of the main
include the precautions taken by certain New sensory model. To do otherwise would be to
Guinea peoples to avoid offending ‘the sense present a picture of complete sensory diversity,
of smell’ of their garden-grown yams (Howes, in which each individual or group within society
1992, pp. 289-90), the ritual exchange of differ- is presumed to create its own world of sensory
ently flavoured ants (representing different and social meaning without reference to any
moieties) by the Tukano of Colombia (Reichel- shared or dominant system of values.
Dolmatoff 1985), and the concern of Western Anthropologists who investigate more spe-
marketers to imbue their products with exactly cific cases of social sensibilities complement the
the right look, feel and taste to appeal to (and above approach by adding depth and subtlety
manipulate) the consumer’s sensory imagination to its broad outlines. Here the focus may be on
(Howes, 1996). the particular details of one aspect of the gen-
The range and complexity of sensory sym- eral sensory model, or on examples of oppo-
bolism in any given culture means that the sition to that model. For instance, an anthropol-
anthropologist of the senses must decide ogist may explore the role music plays in
whether to explore the general sensory model contributing to the importance of the sense of
of a society or to dwell on one particular form hearing among the Suya, or may examine how
of sensory symbolism. In Goethe’s Touch, San- Suya women, who are excluded from many
der Gilman argued that, in terms of the history musical rites, respond to their marginalized pos-
of the senses, the study of individual cases of ition in the sensory and social order.
sensory formation provides a more fruitful In anthropology, therefore, as in other
approach than trying to undertake a broad disciplines in my opinion, analyses of the gen-
analysis of the cultural sensory order (Gilman, eral sensory trends of a society should be sup-
1988, p. 1). I would argue, however, that both plemented by in-depth investigations of parti-
approaches are necessary. In order to determine cular expressions of sensory symbolism. In
‘how central individual variations are in shaping order for the anthropology of the senses to reach
the generalized response of a culture’ (Gilman, its full potential, however, we will need an
1988, p. l), one must have an idea of what increase in the number of scholars pursuing a
that generalized cultural order is. It is only sensory approach to culture. Judging by the
possible to do so by moving, to some extent, widening influence of sensory anthropology, this
away from the individual and examining the increase is likely to occur. For now, thanks to
role of collective social structures in fostering the work of a group of dedicated scholars, we
certain sensory values. have the tantalizing beginnings of a field of
Anthropologists who undertake to deter- research which promises to make a significant
mine the general sensory model and trends of contribution to our understanding of the elabor-
a society should support their work with charac- ation and transmission of cultural values within
teristic examples of how this sensory model different societies at different periods of history.
operates in particular instances. The goal of this


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