This blog post is based on readings from the Journal of American history, September 2008, Volume 95, issue 2. If you've not read the round table discussion from that particular issue, you should. Due to the very nature of responding to such a lengthy bit of reading, this blog post is long. In the middle I slip into a somewhat academic response format, but I don't think it should be too jarring. It might, indeed, be somewhat of a nice distraction from my typical rambling style! Enjoy!
The first thing that I want to talk about (I know, I'm writing), is the idea that we do not live our lives with a single sense. You smell your food and wine. You see your family and friends, or the road in front of you as you drive. You hear your radio, music and the sounds of the keys typing under your fingers. You taste the air around you or the water you drink.You touch things to learn about them, and you feel your way when it's dark. You don't think about any of this. You just do it.
I find it interesting that we, as individuals, do not miss our senses until they are missing. But historically, we ignore our senses as being something untrusted and fallible. We do not historically care to record our perceptions, instead preferring to move into a world where we attempt to use what we call facts to guide our understanding. This beckons problems in interpretation because we do not make decisions based on facts. People make decisions based on what they think is correct, which is often impacted by our senses.
As the example, when you go to a banquet, you smell the roast duck and become enticed. You find out that the roast duck is gone and settle for a pork-chop. When you finally find a seat, it's next to a man who has not bathed for a while and is eating a rather foul cut of flounder. Your senses have taken you on an emotional roller coaster that may impact your future. This scenario is much like the one mentioned in The Nose Knows: The Sense of Smell in American History by Connie Y. Chiang. She talks about the progression of the conflict between inhabitants in the Sea side town of Monterey over the smells generated by the fishing community. It is eventually decided that the sardine smell is acceptable, while the squid smell is aberrant. The Chinese community of Monterey is pushed aside while the industry of sardine canning is elevated to an acceptable accommodation between money and smell.
Can we truly understand the flooding in Edgecombe county in 1999, or the disaster in New Orleans during the hurricane Katrina disaster, without thinking about the smells?
Taste too is an important factor in our history. The now (unfortunately) ubiquitous head of iceberg lettuce, as we are told by Gerard J. Fitzgerald and Gabriella M. Petrick inIn Good Taste: Rethinking American History with Our Palates , is a matter of historical taste. Post World War families wanted to be able to eat vegetables on a yearly basis, and Californian grown iceberg lettuce provided that taste people were looking for during the long winter months. It slowly worked its way into American cuisine to become the only lettuce many families ever eat!
In case you are misunderstanding the importance of taste, I would challenge you to do the following exercise. Do not buy processed food for a month. Find a way to eat all fresh, home-made foods from scratch. Then, go to a chain restaurant that you frequent and try their food. You will be surprised at how bad it tastes to you! I know this because I am a vegetarian and rarely eat foods that are prepared by someone else at a great distance. When I have gone out to eat, I typically find myself searching for food that might be fresh, and might be real. Before I was a veggie, my wife and I were already from scratch kind of people, and often found ourselves ill after eating out. This is really a big part of the history of taste. Our culture has been so drastically altered by what we allow ourselves to eat that one could come to the future from 50 years ago, only to find it impossible to eat much of our cuisine! This may seem a bit hyperbolic, but consider what Fitzgerald and Petrick discuss about the drinking of soda, (pp. 401-403) In the 1960's, mothers would not allow their children to drink soda at dinner time. "One woman even stated derisively: "I'd probably be ready to shoot myself at the very idea of serving any soft drinks with dinner." This visceral reaction to drinking soda with meals made it clear that soda was incompatible with dinner from organoleptic and cultural perspectives" (p 402). Would those women be able to eat at any of our modern eating establishments? Could she fathom allowing Pepsi or Coke to be served at her dinner table?
Taste is an important factor in how things changed and how things are already changing again, based on what we choose to eat.
Smell and taste are not the only senses which need consideration. Touch, Sight and Hearing are also very important. What did it sound like in your house before you were born? If you are a parent, what did it sound like in your house before your children were born? I cannot imagine how I would feel to not have my toddler son running around the house on a Saturday morning, searching for his shoes. What did it sound like, on the spot you are sitting, 50 years ago? 100? What about 1000 years ago? Would you have heard natives from your land talking? Would you have heard bugs chirping, or birds singing? Would you feel cold? Warm?
Consider, if you will, Hearing American History by Richard Cullen Rath.
"In my own work, the more I sought out aural belieft in the seventeenth and early eighteenth cenmries, the more I found: thunder given priority over lightning, bells over steeples, oaths over signatures, hearsay over eyewitnessing, and saying over writing" (p. 421). This statement strikes me as ironic, given that it is in a written-text journal. Here, you are reading a blog. As I said earlier, I am intentionally 'speaking' to you. This is for two reasons. First, I think it's a neat idea, and secondly, I'm reading about reading as a conversation with the author for another class.
"According to Ong and Goody, if we want to know what oral culture was like, we need only find pristine oral cultures in the present that have not been influenced by print cul-
ture" (p. 424). This brings to my mind the Georgian music culture, which to my knowledge is not being explored in modern American research, which is really a shame. The Georgian culture, especial in regions like Svaneti, is still very far behind modern culture. This is one of those places where people still practice ancient time passing techniques such as singing while riding or riddling through the winter. (Ori ov de li a)
"But where Europeans heard messages directed to themselves, Native Americans interpreted natural sounds as intentional acts of intelligent heings not necessarily intended for humans" (p. 427). Is it mere coincidence that I am repeatedly reminded of J.R.R. Tolkein's critiques of modern society while reading these articles? Perhaps, given enough time, I could find a corrolary for each of these points in The Lord of the Rings. The triliogy is, after all, a very long wish for things past and a yearning for a day when all of the industry that has impacted our world was gone.
"Acoustic spaces are not merely instrumental, as most often they are shaped to control the sound of the voice, whether acoustical tiling to keep modern workplaces quiet, or the carefully designed reverberation qualities of an opera house" (p. 428). Here I think that Rath hits upon a very controversial idea of today. We are forcing ourselves to be more isolated in our experiences of sonic events. We have our I-Pods, our headphones and our personal audio labs. Our offices are insulated against sound, and our classrooms are asked to be quiet. Our Opera houses are becoming desolate places in some areas and live music is moving far away from the delicate sonorous musings of intellecutalism. The controversy I am thinking of today is this: Does 'canned' accompanyment for an opera bring the same experience as a live orchestra?
This stands by itself: "Modernity began to have its own sound, a neutral, echoless acoustics In which sounds could be amplified and carefully controlled" (p. 430).
"Understanding how people heard their worlds in the seventeenth century opens up new possibilities for understanding people in the past on their own terms. The sociology of speech and hearing in the eighteenth century sheds light on the role of print culture and the emergence of American identity" (p. 431). I agree with this, but how do we uncover what people spoke like 200 years ago, let along 400 years ago? Would we understand Shakespeare talking to his friends? What about George Washington Giving orders, or General Lee commanding his troops?
When we examine touch more closely with Mark M. Smith, we find that touch is a visceral idea. "Tactility informed antebellum antislavery sentiment emotionally and intellectually. Masters were brutal because they laid hands and whips on slaves; slaves were vulnerable because their skin and nerve endings were not their own" (p 389). This is a description that we don't want to know. Modernity doesn't want to remember, I don't think, the physical brutality of what slavery was. It may not have been the absolute cruelty of all slaves, but the fact that these slaves could not control their own bodies because of their owners causes a response in our psyche.
For the sake of going on too long, which I fear I already have, I think we can examine the final sense. This sense that is not completely forgotten, but it is generally mistrusted. James W. Cook helps us to understand the slippery nature of sight, and how it's trusted higher than some other senses, but is still greatly mistrusted and ignored. For the perfect illustration of how slippery our perceptions of sight may be, think only of the magicians you have seen. You see them do the impossible, you want to believe them, but you know it's not true. It's a slip of light and a slime on your perception.
With sight, the visual sense, we must be careful to remember what we see. We must also remember how this perception has changed through history. "Among the many fine histories of Western industrialization, Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey (originally published in German in 1977) stands out for its sharp insights into how new transportation systems led to a recalibration of human perception by creating more "panoramic" views of the passing landscape" (p. 435). This is exactly what I was thinking as I started reading this article. I was, in fact, thinking about all the gang signs one sees on the train ride to NYC. How will this visual landscape change in the next 10 years? Will gangs become less prevalent? Will they be more prevalent, leading to a complete adjustment to our social and economic mores?
Over all, I have adjusted my thinking about the senses very much the same way I did when I read the book, "Dune" by Frank Herbert. When you read Herbert's masterpiece, you suddenly become conscious of your need for water. You think about taking a sip from a cup, only to greedily drink the entire amount. You become desert thirsty, while still in your own home. The same is true of history. When we can incorporate the senses, much as these authors have shown, we can become more a part of the historical landscape. We can feel more of what is happening and how we should push towards those goals.
The recent development of including senses in history, I think, will increase student drive to understand where we have been and how we are headed to the future. I feel that the desensitisation of historical analysis has been a major factor in the removal of history from many people's radars.
I hope you have found this interesting, if not brief.