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  • The Challenges of Sensory History
  • Emma Widdis
Matthew Romaniello and Tricia Starks, eds., Russian History through the Senses: From 1700 to the Present. 320 pp. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. ISBN-13 978-1474263139. $114.00.
Claire L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, Community and Soviet Identity, 1917–1991. 310 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017. ISBN-13 978-1501713668. $49.95.

We know how it works: historians concern themselves with empirical things; scholars in other disciplines—literature, visual culture—concern themselves with the more tenuous evidence provided by cultural texts. As such, historians have the stronger claim to knowing the lived past. So have our disciplinary distinctions long been articulated. Yet recent years have seen the intensive development of new kinds of histories: histories of the emotions and histories of the body, for instance, and (still more recently) even histories of the senses.1 What evidence can there possibly there be for such histories? How can the intuitive, often incommunicable, responses of bodies in the past be recuperated for scholarly analysis?

These are questions of which scholars of the senses, of "sensual culture," are very much aware.2 Yet for all its challenges, the attempt to access sensory [End Page 199] experience—to understand what the world feels like (or felt—or indeed smelled, sounded, or tasted—like) for people distant from ourselves in time or place—remains a primary ambition in contemporary scholarship across diverse disciplines: anthropology, history, geography, and cultural studies. It is an attempt to amplify our understanding of both past and present, to see human life as lived not just through the mind but also through the body. Scholars of the senses take as their starting point a deceptively simple assertion by the French historian Lucien Febvre, made as early as 1942, that "a series of fascinating studies could be done on the sensory underpinnings of thought in different periods."3 Febvre's assumptions are clear: how people sense the world (through the body) shapes the way that they think; and sensory experience is not innate but shaped by society and environment. Thus any study of human life, of society, should include the study of sensory experience. Scholars must enter a domain that has traditionally seemed inaccessible to analysis.

Studies of the senses and the "sensory" have proliferated in the last three decades. Historians, however, were by no means the first to this party. The true pioneers of sensory studies were—and remain—anthropologists: notably Constance Classen, Paul Stoller, and David Howes, among others.4 Following Febvre, these scholars of "sensuous culture" view the human senses as socially conditioned, and sensory experience as contingent on context. In the words of Howes,

Sensation is not just a matter of physiological response and personal experience. It is the most fundamental domain of cultural expression, the medium through which all the values and practices of society are enacted. To a greater or lesser extent, every domain of sensory experience, from the sight of a work of art to the scent of perfume to the savor of dinner, is a field of cultural elaboration.5

Arguing that Western culture—and Western scholarship—has been shaped by an over-insistence on the visual as the primary sense, Howes and Classen and their fellow anthropologists emphasize in particular the need for a study of nonvisual senses: taste, hearing, smell, touch. These "proximal" senses, they [End Page 200] suggest, act as a membrane between the personal and the social, the communicable and the incommunicable.

What, though, does this mean for the historian who wishes to access a sensory experience of the past? Following Lucien Febvre, Alain Corbin was the first pioneer in sensory history: his book The Foul and the Fragrant (1982) took up Febvre's call for a study of social mentalities and developed it into an enquiry into sensibilities.6 Corbin set out to write histories of the "sensible," to account for how the world was sensed, or felt, in the past.7 The challenges facing the historian are multiple, however. Where the anthropologist can engage with his subjects in the present, for the historian the evidence is transitory and unreliable.8 Worse, as Corbin notes, and as historians...


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