Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Shannon Lecture: Writing Sensuous Histories

This Friday, 28 September, sees the first in this year's series of Shannon Lectures, organized and hosted by the History Department at Carleton University.  This year the theme is Making Sense: History and the Sensory Past.

“Writing Sensuous Histories”
Constance Classen

September 28, 3:00pm, 303 Paterson Hall, Carleton University

The senses are cultural, as well as physical, in nature. This is most evident with such auditory and visual modes of communication as speech and writing, music and visual arts. However, it is also true of the so-called lower senses of touch, taste and smell. How we touch, what we eat, and the uses we make of scents are shaped by, and in turn communicate, personal and social meanings.

The cultural dimension of perception is indicated by the differences that exist in the ways the senses are employed and valued across cultures. What is true across cultures is also true of history: different periods developed different ways of sensing and making sense. Even something as apparently basic as the number of the senses varies across periods and places.

To uncover the cultural history of the senses, therefore, we must not only look at what psychologists tell us about how the senses function, or at the practical uses to which they have been put, but at how they were understood and experienced. Relying heavily, as we do, on written texts, this presents difficulties for historians. How may we recover past sensations from lifeless texts? And how may we supplement texts with hands-on research?  While engaging in such an archaeology of perceptions is challenging, the end result is the creation of sensuous histories which both bring the past into full-bodied life and reveal the worlds of meaning embedded in our perceptual worlds.

Constance Classen is a writer and researcher based in Montreal. She has a Ph.D. from McGill University and has held fellowships at Harvard University, the University of Toronto, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. She is the author of numerous essays and books on the cultural history of the senses, including The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch (University of Illinois Press, 2012) The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination (Routledge, 1998), Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and across Cultures (Routledge, 1993), and Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (Routledge, 1994, co-authored with David Howes and Anthony Synnott). Classen is also the editor of The Book of Touch (Berg, 2005), one of seven books in the Sensory Formations series from Berg Publishers of Oxford, and a founding member of the interdisciplinary Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, which is dedicated to promoting research on the social and aesthetic life of the senses. She is currently editing a six-volume series on the history of the senses for Bloomsbury Publishing and is the principal investigator of a research project on art, museums, and the senses.

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