Seeing is believing, but feeling’s the truth?

Sensing the Past: Seeing Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History by Mark M. Smith was a welcome conversation on not only the history of the senses, but also an argument that sight as the prevailing sense of “premodern” living falls short when considering social and cultural contexts of sensory contribution to history.  To be reflexive for a moment, I am particularly engaged in the topic of sensory processing because I have a preschool-aged son on the autism spectrum who has challenges making sense of sensory input and staying regulated.  Because of our experience, I come at this reading with a strong feeling about the sensory system in that it is a team– that all senses depend upon each other to function well in society and to offer the brain, as Plato might argue, “as close to the truth as possible.”  I found that Smith did not discuss senses in entirety; he misses for instance, proprioception– which has to do with sensing one’s own body, motor planning, and general body awareness– and their impact upon how we see, smell, taste, and hear.  Smith is absolutely aware of limitations in his study and historical studies of sense in general, as he states on page 117-118, “…we will not possess a full understanding of the evolution of the senses and the changing nature of sensory hierarchies until historians produce work that tackles all the senses.”

Continuing with Plato and delving into the chapter on Seeing, I’m not sure I totally agree with the idea that Plato’s works argue most strongly for vision as a useful sense.  Remembering the Allegory of the Cave, I feel like Plato suggests we can’t know the truth of anything from how we understand it– essentially it seems that Plato says our senses and our biases color our knowledge of truth so much that we cannot see anything as it truly is.  How is that relying on vision?

I found the chapter on Touching to be a great read. Smith discusses on page 94 that touch could be harder to put in historical perspective and argue about because it is not as specific as seeing and hearing, and I definitely identify with that concept.  It follows that touching involves all that the skin can do, including “skin sensitive” activities of sin, and even faith.  It was hard for me to connect touching to faith; I wonder if faith really fits in with tactile input or if there is a sense we are neglecting to understand.

The sections on Sight and Hearing spoke to me in specific reference to the dolman due to their tie between the visual sense of fashion and the auditory quality to music.  I found Smith’s discussion of quietude as a means of power for slaveholders to be very interesting– the thought that keeping your slaves quiet and working was the ideal sound.  This sparked a thought for me that the use of visual sense could become more powerful in a time of quiet– when we are using silence as power over others, can they speak better with what they show us visually?  If so, perhaps Miss Hassler used the dolman to speak for her when she needed to be silent, such as during the opera, or before the music began and after it stopped.  Essentially, what I would argue, is that this visual item was key to asserting social status at an auditory event.  The dolman speaks to a larger trend noticed at the Academy of Music in that the place is often used for fashion events and shows.  Considering the senses, I found myself stuck on that irony– that a place devoted to sound is used for visual illustrations of elite culture.  Thinking about the impressive aesthetics of the Academy itself, this makes sense.  However, as Smith wrote, “Silence occupied an important– and telling– place,” I considered another question. Was it the Academy or Silence which allowed for the dolman to be used as a status item?

I am truly looking forward to discussing Smith’s conclusion, especially about living history in Colonial Williamsburg and sensory relativity, in class.  I agree with all of the shortcomings Smith mentions about a place like Williamsburg, but I wonder, how can we as historians make it more accurate (most things can always progress and improve), and if we cannot, can we at least see the educational value despite limitations?


Mark M. Smith. Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s