The politics of perception: sensory and social ordering
How are the senses used to order society? While the role of the senses in other social ﬁelds, such as art or medicine, may seem fairly obvious, the domain of politics can appear too bound to ideas and institutions to have much to do with sensory perception (see Panagia 2009). Yet, as the quotes above indicate, and the discussion below will show, the senses do come into the matter, and in very important ways. The phenomenon of nationalism, for example, can never be adequately
comprehended simply as an adherence to certain political ideals or social communities. It is always at the same time an attachment to particular tastes, smells, sounds and sights, which themselves carry cultural values and personal memories. However, while a few authors are attending to the subject (i.e., Edensor 2002, Trnka et al. 2013), the conceptual cupboard of many works on nationalism is entirely bare when it comes to sensuous considerations. The social control of perceptibility – who is seen, who is heard, whose pain
is recognized – plays an essential role in establishing positions of power within
society. Such control is exercised both oﬃcially and unoﬃcially, and determines not only who is perceived, but also how they are perceived. Renaissance sumptuary law, for example, dictated what colours, fabrics and styles of clothing were reserved for the elite. Even when apparel is not legally regulated, diﬀerences in clothing may serve as customary ways of marking group distinctions such as gender, class, ethnicity, and occupation. Such systems of sensory classiﬁcation are fundamental to upholding social divisions and hierarchies, as well as to constructing ethnic identity. Although the importance of sensory markers and practices in systems of
social categorization is less recognized today, they have not lost their relevance. Indeed, many ongoing struggles for social reform have prominent sensory dimensions. These include the ﬁght for women’s voices to be heard in politics, the battle to end social discrimination based on skin colour, the quest for greater access for persons with disabilities, the endeavours to have alternative sexual orientations recognized, and the struggle for greater legal and cultural weight to be given to animal sentience. While at ﬁrst glance social and political issues might seem to have little to do
with the life of the senses, a second look reveals how deeply they are intertwined. Sensory ways, models and metaphors inform our notions of social integration, hierarchy and identity. The senses are directly put to political ends through acts of marking, excluding, punishing or exalting particular individuals and groups. The following pages discuss a range of historical, cross-cultural and contemporary concepts and practices concerning the role of the senses in social ordering to reveal the insights oﬀered by a sensory approach to political culture.
Tactile rites and sensory symbols