June 1, 2017, by Stephen Legg

Reading Group: Sensory History

  • Tim Edensor, ‘The Social Life of the Senses: Ordering and Disordering the Modern Sensorium’ in David Howes (ed.), A Cultural History of the Senses in the Modern Age, 1920-2000 (Bloomsbury, 2014)
  • Rebecca P. Scales, Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Chapter 2 ‘Disabled veterans, radio citizenship, and the politics of national recovery’ (I have also attached Chapter 1 ‘Radio broadcasting and the soundscape of inter-war life’ for broader context – reading optional)
  • Lauren Janes, Colonial Food in Interwar Paris (Bloomsbury, 2016), chapter 5 ‘Food and Taste at the Colonial Exposition of 1931’

This reading group was hosted by James Mansell from the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham, who co-directs the Nottingham Sensory Studies Network and has published widely on history research into the senses, especially sound. He suggested the three readings, which provide ways into thinking of the interwar from a sensory perspective. James opened by pointing out the paucity of literature on the interwar period and the senses; most works either addressed century long phenomena or provide more general and systematic overviews (to which Edensor’s piece is an admirable exception in focusing on the 20th century). This is in spite of the significant technological advances in this period which altered various sensory-scapes, not least the increase in radio broadcasting and ownership from the 1920s.

Scales’ work goes some way to addressing this short fall, examining the new sound of new technologies (not least motor traffic and the crowd in cities) but also the complicated biology of hearing, through her chapter on disability and the radio. Similarly, Janes’ chapter brought the sense of taste to historical analysis, also emphasising how sensory experience creates difference; not here through the receiver (the disabled body) but through what was being represented, namely colonial territories. The Colonial Exposition of 1931 in Paris brought the geographies of overseas possessions into the French capital through variously successful food halls and parlours, accompanied by faux bazars, minarets and street scenes, bringing the broader performativities of dance, dress and visual representation into view.

We had a wide-ranging discussion which was a testament to the richness of the texts discussed. The question of post-war deafness and disability raised issues for Mike Heffernan of inter/nationalism that chime with the broader research project, namely: international conferences of deaf societies which invoked debates about the aristocratic lineage of oratory and the democratic and moral symbolism of deafness in the international age; and theories which speculated about the ability of differentially industrialised working class populations to withstand the soundscapes of war. The readings also provoked a methodological discussion, which lies at the heart of all historical sensory studies, regarding the (ir)recoverability of sensory experience from the archive. Janes’ chapter on food demonstrated this clearly, the majority of the chapter exploring representations of food, its origins, and its consumption, with relatively little material addressing the experience of tasting food. Lucy Veale suggested similar findings from her research on the ‘Weather Extremes’ project with Georgina Endfield, noting that diary entries were rare on the sensory experience of weather, and that they tended not to focus on the senses but on intermediate emotions.

Another broader debate touched on historical senses and nostalgia: do we presume that in the past people experienced more intensely than they do now? Steve Legg related this to debates in cultural geography about whether “landscape” was always an inherently nostalgic subject of research, mourning the passing of a geography presumed to be overrun by globalisation, modernisation, and industrialisation; there were also hints in the literature of a postcolonial geography of sensory nostalgia, in which the bustling Indian bazar is contrasted to the sterile western shopping mall, which underplays the order of public space in many of these bazars and the sensory management and stimulation of Euro-American shopping spaces. Whilst some theoretical guides to sensory studies insist that the senses (or our desire to study them) do not require psychoanalysis, James Mansell suggested that the sort of culturally and historically situated research we propose should interrogate how sensory environments were deliberately created in conferencing spaces in response to technological, cultural and political change, which presents opportunities for both heightened and dulled senses that are neither in decline or dominance.

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