Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

Symposium of the Senses

Symposium on the Senses
Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

May 28 – June 4, 2010

Congress 2010 of the Humanities and Social Sciences will be taking place at Concordia University, Montreal from May 28 to June 4, 2010. Some 6,000 scholars belonging to over 30 different learned associations are expected. There are a number of symposia, panels and roundtables devoted to humanities and social science-based research on the senses and perception that will be occurring during Congress 2010, such as the Explorations in Sensory Anthropology Symposium hosted by the Canadian Anthropology Society/Société canadienne d’anthropologie (CASCA) – see below. To obtain a list please drop by the Sensory Studies booth, which will be located near the Concordia Bookstore in the Library Building.

Explorations in Sensory Anthropology Symposium (3 panels)
Organized by David Howes, Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University, and

Frances Slaney, Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University

The first-ever panel on the anthropology of the senses at CASCA was in 1989, at Carleton University. Much has transpired in the intervening 20 years. The “sensorial turn” has spread to other disciplines, and within anthropology itself increasing attention has come to be focussed on the senses both as an object and as a medium of inquiry. Where the anthropological discourse of the late 1980s was dominated by the trope of “writing culture” anthropology now is more concerned with “sensing cultures.”

What additional insights into the human condition and social practices or expressive action accrue from this increasingly pervasive focus on the cultural life of the senses? That is the question this symposium addresses. It is composed of three panels. The first panel, “Healing Sensations,” explores how the field of medical anthropology has been sensualised through a series of case studies of the role of the sensate in the aetiology, diagnosis and treatment of disease. The second panel, “Multi-Sensory Aesthetics,” examines how the “sense-abilities” of baristas, boxers, and dancers are formed, and ends by plunging us into the immersive environment of Disneyworld. The final panel, “Contested Sensations” probes the regulation of food colouring, the reality of hallucinations, and the suspect category of the sixth sense.

Panel I: Healing Sensations

Frances Slaney, Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
“Sensing Witchcraft in the Sierra Tarahumara”

This paper explores the sensory signs of witchcraft within a Tarahumara (Rarámuri) community in northwestern Mexico, and describes the extraordinary sensory skills required to combat the work of witches. More than a matter of inter-personal relations gone wrong, Tarahumara witchcraft threatens an entire landscape. Witches confect animate proxies that pervert healthy life.  They send birds across the night-sky to suck blood from people sleeping below and direct pebbles to invade human bodies. Such life-threatening misfits are ambient, loose in a landscape through which subsistence horticulturalists make their lives. Bewitched entities, however, emit sensorial clues that belie their presence: bird proxies hum and the animated pebbles shriek as they plunge into human flesh. Techniques for addressing them require finely honed sensory perception and powerful skills to repair damage and overpower witches.  A shaman’s speech is a sonic force that plays a significant role in this remedial process.

Shelley Snow, Ph.D. Student, Special Individualized Programs, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
Sound Healing:  A Sensory Ethnography of a Method of Healing within Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Sound healing has been practiced in different forms for thousands of years.  In a modern-day instance of its practice in England, the voice is used to direct sound into the body of an individual, to bring about a state of harmony and healing.  This presentation will offer an ethnography of this approach.  The theory behind it involves concepts of physics relating to wave forms, resonance and entrainment. Sound is believed to consist of vibrations that, when applied to a human mind/body system, can favourably impact the vibrational state of that system. Vocal sound healing embraces a sensorium that lies outside that of mainstream health care practice. It is an aural, kinesthetic, embodied approach that often deals with sensory experiences that pertain to  ‘interior perception’.  The senses are an extremely important aspect of sound healing. For these reasons, a sensorial perspective is appropriate to its investigation.

Marieka Sax, PhD Student, Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University.
“The Sensorium of the Limpieza: Ritual Cleansing Baths in Peru”

This paper explores the multi-sensory experience of cleansing baths in Peru as an entry point into the experiential specificity and therapeutic efficacy of ritual healing. Ritual cleansing baths (limpieza) involve the incantation of prayers; rhythmic use of rattles; rubbing of herbs and staffs; bathing in floral or sacred lake waters; proscription of bodily movements; nasal ingestion of tobacco; and oral spraying of floral waters and “sweet” substances. The ostensible purpose of such baths is to cleanse the client of evil (mal) and ill-being, and raise (florecer, “flower”) his/her luck and well-being. What is it about the sensory experience of the ritual bath that makes it perceptually compelling and therapeutically effective?  A tentative response to this question can be framed in terms of the ways in which aural, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and other sensory experiences address and redress the indeterminacy that lies at the heart of the ill-being that is mal.

Amy Leia McLachlan, PhD Student, Anthropology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.
“Bittersweet: Hazard and Intimacy in a Moral Sensorium.”

For Uitoto horticulturalists living in the borderlands of the Colombian Amazon, ordinary sociality depends on the effective rendering of sweet social relations from a universe of bitterly antisocial possibilities.  Human and divine kinship alike must be continually materialized through the transformation of bitter substances (and sensations) into sweet ones, and the incorporation of sweetness as a sensible quality of moral personhood.  In a context where the sensorium is frequently transposed into a moral register, taste qualities both index and transmit the moral qualities of persons, and the bittersweet potentialities of kinship relations are mediated through botanical instruments of moral transformation.  This paper will explore the qualities of sweetness and bitterness from the perspective of Uitoto gardeners – experts in the management of bitter manioc
(manihot escualenta) and bitter feelings alike.

Panel II: Multi-Sensory Aesthetics

Florence Figols, Ph.D. Student, Humanities Doctoral Program, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.
“The Senses and Dancing Bodies in Contemporary Dance”

With the fall of figurative/narrative art in the late twentieth century, the human body as subject/object has become in dance the new territory to explore and from which to create. To sense and to feel are now integrated in the training of dancers and are considered to be «the new virtuosity for dancing bodies». The attention paid to sensing weight, playing with tension/release, and feeling the motion of the joints contribute to an enhanced role for kinesthesis and proprioception. But all this activity happens in simultaneity with seeing, hearing and the information that comes with the tactile sense — in other words, with being in the world. To perform is to keep “in touch” with both worlds, inner and outer, proprioception and exteroception, and is to create a channel for multiple connections (self, space, time, among others). This presentation traces how dancers create those connections through the interplay of the senses.

Paul Schissel, PhD Student, Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
“Muay Thai, Exhaustion and the Senses in Sacrifice”

This paper focuses on the predominantly underclass, masculine practice of Thai boxing (muay Thai) in Thailand’s populous, rural northeastern region of Isan. It seeks to convey the particular cultural and material worlds generated by this physically exhausting practice, which crosses the limits of a bounded, physiological self. My inquiry examines the sensory affects, rhythms and familiar movements cultivated in training and fighting. Following the combative exchanges of Thai boxers in the ring, I emphasize the ways in which human motion is characterized by a sacrificial dynamic. Informed by particular Thai notions of corporeality, animality, otherness, time and death, I reassess sensuality as it extrudes from the elusiveness of contact. Of particular interest are the slippery meetings between limbs and materials in the ring: blood, oils, dust, sweat, hair and water. My discussion explores the senses that flourish within these exchanges.

Leanne Davis, Ph.D. Student, Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
“Barista (Sense)Ability in Fair Trade Coffee Consumption”

This paper draws upon my apprenticeship as a barista in a fair trade coffee house. It will examine how the social and sensorial space of the coffee house is produced and negotiated through various practices. My barista performance functioned not unlike a “sixth-sense” of attention to bodily positions, customer taste and my place in relationship to the customers’ sensorial dispositions. This paper will discuss how barista bodies are positioned to respond, and attend, to the crafting of specialty coffee for customers’ sensorial pleasure. My barista-trained extrasensory ability to perceive customers’ needs became more attuned through a synaesthesia of bodily responses to their requests, as well as through my technical and perceptual ability to respond efficiently and with mastery to their sensorial anticipations. I will examine corporeal and sensorial spaces of fair trade coffee consumption, revealing ways that customers consume and enjoy their daily coffee while they negotiate social place in a coffee house.

Constance Classen, Loyola International College, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
The British Museum vs. Disney World: Sensory Display and Experience in the Museum and the Amusement Park

What is the history of the senses in museums? Have museum artefacts always been considered untouchable? Do the static visual displays of the conventional museum have any common ground with the dynamic, multi-sensory rides of the amusement park? This talk will explore the sensory history of the museum in the order to reveal the interactive, sensuous nature of early museum exhibits and their connections with the exhibits and practices of the fair. It will then examine how a number of influential museums, such as the British Museum, have recently made attempts to return to their senses and engage visitors through dynamic multisensory exhibitions and how this development connects contemporary museums with amusement parks, such as Walt Disney World.

Panel III: Contested Sensations

Charlene Elliott, Communication and Culture, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Taste™: A Cultural Legal History of Food, Colour and the Senses

Developments in intellectual property law (and its interpretation) have opened the door for new claims to “ownership” in the domain of food. From the copyrighting of recipes to the trademarking of the “cylindrical configuration” of the Cinnabon cinnamon bun (complete with melted frosting), food and its sensory properties appears to be increasingly governed, channeled and transformed by commercial demands and concerns over competition.

The unique role of colour in this phenomenon has yet to be explored, and this essay traces how food, colour and the law intersect—as well as the significance of the overlap. Specifically, the essay examines the varied and complex ways in which colour tints our edibles, probing attempts at colour control and the often-contested nature of the process. This cultural legal history of food and colour will reveal the central and often fraught role of the law in bolstering—and also shaping—the semiotic, symbolic and cultural meaning of food and hue.

David Howes, Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
“What is the Sixth Sense? The Unnatural History of a Supernumerary Category”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sixth sense as: “A supposed intuitive faculty by which a person or animal perceives facts and regulates action without the direct use of any of the five senses.” This definition does not do justice to the history of this concept, for intuition is but one of the panoply of powers that have at different times been dubbed “the sixth sense” (others include e.g., speech, proprioception and ESP).  The OED definition is also problematic for the way it treats “the five senses” as self-evident while characterizing the sixth sense as a “supposed” faculty, as suspect. The notion that human beings possess five senses is far less settled historically, cross-culturally or scientifically than this definition presumes. By highlighting some of the controversies surrounding the limits of the senses in different historical periods and cultures, this paper seeks to expose the cultural contingency of the Western psychology of perception and open up new avenues for investigation.

Bernhard Leistle, Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
“The Cultural Hallucination”

In my paper I will explore some of the consequences of a phenomenology of hallucinations for an anthropological understanding of cultural existence. Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty, Straus and others I will argue that hallucinations and everyday sensory perception have to be understood not as absolutely separate from each other, but as different realizations of one indeterminate experiential process. A “hallucinatory” aspect can be seen to play a part in every mode of experience, and at the same time hallucinations partake in the dimension of the “real”. In our attempts to understand the culturally other, we tend to approach it as if it were a kind of a hallucination: a reality the other believes in, but which is not “really real”, and therefore has to be explained by the anthropologist. By becoming aware of the hallucinatory dimension of culture in general, I argue, such distortions may themselves become the subject of anthropological explorations.