“I see”, said the blind man who could not talk: Knowing the sensory world

Often, as Western speakers, we say ‘I see’, when what we really mean is, “I understand”. It’s just another of the many dead metaphors we kick around. When I was child, I had a friend who would take such a pronouncement of “I see” as an opportunity to interject with “…said the blind man who could not talk”.

While my childhood friend intended this a nonsense quip, her joke highlights an important question: how is it that an individual might ‘see’—that is, understand—their environment and cultural world through different faculties of sense, particularly if those senses are not, as Western thought would have it, primarily linked to sight or sound? 

Western philosophical and theory has often undervalued embodied perception as individualistic, internal, static, and a-political, while also viewing the senses as contrary to culture (Geurts 2002; Howes 2005), and place as a mere blank page upon which the ‘cultural text’ may be written (Howes 1990).  However, over the past two decades, paradigms of embodiment, the sensory and emplacement have gained increasing traction in  social theory (Howes 1990; Howes 1991; Synnott 1993).

Many anthropologists now consider embodied perception to be both the producer and the product of culture: the senses are, through cultural milieus inter-subjective (Csordas 1993; Geurts 2005), fluid (Howes 1991; Synnott 1993), hierarchized (McLuhan 1961/2005; Classen 1999), and culturally regulated (Howes 1991). The body, through sensory perception, is therefore the primary medium of consciousness (McLuhan 1961/2005; Howes 1991), socialisation (Howes 1991; Classen 1999) and being-in-the-world (Csordas 1993). It is through the body that we ‘make sense’ of place by understanding it, while also making ‘sense-of-place’ by forming meaningful attachments to space (Casey 1996; Feld 1996).

  The paradigms of embodiment and the sensory thus represent a theoretical shift towards a view of mind, body, and culture as unified. When we add place into this mix, we see, through the paradigm of emplacement, that the mind, body, culture, and place are deeply interconnected (Howes 2005).

How then, might a blind man understand the world and then relay his knowledge if not through sight and speech? The Ongee people of the Andaman Islands, for whom the world is constituted through the olfactory, would suggest he smell (Pandya 1990); The Suya of central Brazil who consider ‘hearing’ synonymous with ‘understanding’, would say he listen(Howes 1991); while the Cashinahua of Peru would declare that ‘the hands know’ and that he should touch (Classen 1999).

To know the world is to do so through the body. But the ways one uses the body for knowledge is culturally mediated. I see can just as easily be replaced with any other sense and still mean understanding.

Gérard de Lairesse-"Allegory of the Five Senses" 1668

Gérard de Lairesse-“Allegory of the Five Senses” 1668

NB: I almost titled this “why sensory anthropology is awesome”…

I’ve barely done the subject justice in my little rambling… check out this fantastic website for more info http://www.centreforsensorystudies.org/

Works cited (and a few others that are just a tad awesome):

  •  Casey, E. (1996). How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: Phenomenological Prolegomena. In S. F. a. K. Basso (Ed.), Senses of place (pp. 13-53). Santa Fe: School of American Research.
  •  Classen, C. (1999). Other ways to Wisdom: Learning through the senses across cultures. International review of education, 45(3/4), 269-280.
  • Csordas, T. (1993). Somatic Modes of Attention. Cultural Anthropology, 8(2), 135-156.
  • Feld, S., and Basso, K. (1996). Introductions. In S. F. a. K. Basso (Ed.), Senses of place (pp. 3-13). Santa Fe: American Research Press.
  •  Geurts, K. (2002). Culture and the Senses: Bodily ways of knowing in an African community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Geurts, K. (2005). Consciousness as ‘feeling in the body’: a West African theory of embodiment, emotion and the making of mind. In D. Howes (Ed.), Empire of the senses. Oxford: Berg.
  • Howes, D. (1990). Controlling Textuality: A call for a return to the senses. Anthropologica, 32(1), 55-73.
  • Howes, D. (1991). To summon all the senses. In D. Howes (Ed.), The variety of sensory experience. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Howes, D. (1991). Sensorial Anthrology The variety of sensory experience (pp. 167-700). Toronto: University of toronto Press.
  •  Howes, D. (2005). Introduction. In D. Howes (Ed.), Empire of the senses. Oxford: Berg.
  •  McLuhan, M. (1961/2005). Inside the Five Sensorium. In D. Howes (Ed.), Empire of the senses (pp. 43-55). Oxford: Berg.
  • McLuhan, M. (1962). The Glutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  •  Ong, W. (1967) The presence of the word: Some prolegomena for cultural and religious history. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  •  Pandya, V. (1990). Movement and Space: Andamanese cartography. American ethnologist, 17(4), 775-797.
  • Porteous, J. (2006). Smellscape. In J. Drobnick (Ed.), The smell culture reader (pp. 89-107). Oxford: Berg.
  • Synnott, A. (1993). The body social: symbolism, self, and society. London: Routledge.