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Reviewed by:
  • The Senses in Performance
  • Adrian Curtin
The Senses in Performance. Edited by Sally Banes and André Lepecki. Worlds of Performance Series. New York: Routledge, 2007; pp. xi + 216. $110.00 cloth, $33.95 paper.

This book marks an intervention by theatre and performance scholars into the burgeoning, interdisciplinary field of "sensory studies," which evaluates the role and function of the senses in cultures, societies, and histories. The "sensory turn," if one may call it that, recognizes that sensory perception is not simply physiological or given, but is, rather, constructed and acquired and therefore a historically and sociologically contingent phenomenon. The senses inflect, and are inflected by, culture and society; they are the means by which we come to know and derive meaning from the world around us, other people, our bodies, and ourselves. The senses, moreover, are political, and we ignore them at our peril.

In their introduction, Sally Banes and André Lepecki make the case for the historicity of perception and of the sensorium, and for what they call the [End Page 317] "performative power of the senses": the way in which the senses operate in concert with social and cultural factors to constitute systems of power via "sensory disciplining" or "sensory dissent" (3). They argue that despite the fact that a whole plethora of sensorial information in performance has been "discarded, unnoticed, and poorly documented," the senses in performance are a site of "critical and performative power," and that performative practices are "privileged means by which to investigate processes where history and body create unsuspected sensorial-perceptual realms, alternative modes for life to be lived" (3, 2, 1). Performances of the senses reveal histories: "they propose practices, privilege materials, mirror social conditions, and implement techniques" (2). The remaining seventeen essays in this collection aim to elucidate the chiasmic relationality (in deference to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenology recurs throughout) of the sensorial and the performative, the creative activation of the senses, and the theoretical and methodological challenges that these endeavors prompt.

The book is divided into four sections: "Theory and Practice," "History" (i.e., analyses of historical movements, productions, and entertainments vis-à-vis the senses), "Contemporary Performance," and "Case Studies," although some essays traverse and blur these categories. The essays, most of which are newly composed, are short but incisive and treat a wide range of material, from the sensorial feasting of early Tudor entertainment to the staging of food in modern restaurants and theatres. Other topics include the creative use of the olfactory in theatrical performance, the significance of kinesthesia and cross-cultural models of the senses, an investigation of the embodied work and sensory experience of the actor, the staging of sensory overload in the theatre of Putu Wijaya, challenges posed by Artaud's "anatomy," and a host of essays that document and consider sensory experimentation in contemporary theatre and performance.

Standout chapters include those written by Richard Schechner and Stanton Garner, whose respective essays perhaps best illustrate the provocatory power of the senses for theatre and performance scholars. Schechner outlines an aesthetic based on Indian rasa theory ("rasaesthetics") that departs from the "rationally ordered, analytically distanced" panoptic of a Western aesthetic that is founded on the theatron. Rasaesthetics is attuned to "gut" experience, to the performance of the "snout-to-belly-to-bowel," and is an open, combinatory theory that works to extend pleasure. Schechner utilizes neurobiology, in particular work done on the enteric nervous system, to show that the gut is a second "brain" of sorts that may convert "gut feelings" into expressible emotions, similar to the rasic system of response. Schechner proposes that rasaesthetics be used to study performance that engages visceral arousal and experience; he sends out a "general invitation" for an investigation into "theatricality as orality, digestion, and excretion, rather than, or in addition to, theatricality as something only or mostly for the eyes and ears" (25).

Garner's essay challenges histories of theatrical realism and the avant-garde by examining the "dialectic of sensory activation and repression," which, he argues, is inherent to realism (118). Countering the belief that realism forecloses the theatre's sensory channels of address, and that sensory experimentation in the theatre was the sole...


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pp. 317-319
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