chapter
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Introduction: ways and meanings

The ways we use our senses, and the ways we create and understand the sensory world, are shaped by culture. Perception is informed not only by the personal meaning a particular sensation has for us, but also by the social values it carries. We are perhaps best able to recognize this in the case of sight. Along with its physiological and practical importance, sight has a high cultural value in Western society. It has been exalted as a ‘noble’ sense and associated with both spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. The traditional link between vision and knowledge was enhanced when books and paintings became more commonplace after the Renaissance, and by the invention of photography and film in the nineteenth century. With the advent of televisions and personal computers in the twentieth century even more of our information about the world came to us through our eyes. It is not only how, and how much, we see that is shaped by culture, how-

ever, it is also what we see. The subject matter of paintings reflects not only the preferences of artists and patrons, and not only the reigning artistic conventions, but also particular ideologies that support – or sometimes challenge – the social values and hierarchies of the day. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger argued that the convention of perspective, developed during the Renaissance, contributed to the growth of individualism in the West by centring everything on the eye of the observer. ‘The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God’ (Berger 1972: 16). The viewer becomes the unique centre, pried loose, as it were, from the hierarchized, communal structure of the medieval social order. Photographs, while appearing more value-neutral than paintings, also carry

cultural messages by capturing certain scenes and leaving others unrecorded, or by portraying subjects so as to convey notions of power or weakness, amity or aggressivity, attractiveness or repulsion. Studies on bias in media photography have shown, for example, that in The New York Times foreign perpetrators of violence are consistently represented as more explicitly violent than US perpetrators. This fosters perceptions of foreigners being aggressive and dangerous (Fishman and Marvin 2003). In 1990 the Royal Ontario Museum came under attack by community groups for displaying colonial photographs that showed Africans as subservient to and dominated by Westerners without sufficient

critical commentary or contrasting imagery. The assumption of some visitors was that the museum was upholding the racist values of the colonial era (Butler 2007). There are many instances of the apparent objectivity of photography being used to advantage by propagandists to influence the perception of events (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). What is true of sight is also true of hearing. Like sight, hearing has a strong

association with the intellect. This is due to the importance of speech as a means of communication. In fact, for many centuries the ability to hear and to speak was taken to be the prime indicator of an ability to reason. For this reason, the deaf were long treated as mentally incompetent in Western law and society. Even aside from speech, sounds have meanings that can only be fully

understood within their particular cultural context. Music is perhaps the best example of this. Certain themes will evoke particular concepts and emotions due to their cultural associations. To give a basic example from the modern West, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March instantly conjures up images of marriage for most hearers while Chopin’s Funeral March evokes funereal thoughts, even among those who are unaware of the titles of these pieces. (This ability of music to evoke old associations and create new ones is, of course, central to cinematic scoring.) A non-Westerner, however, could listen to these pieces without any such associations. Similarly, a Westerner listening to, for example, the music produced by the Desana people of the Colombian rainforest would have no cultural associations beyond, perhaps, ‘exotic’ or ‘tribal’. However, for the Desana, different musical sounds and melodies carry definite meanings. In the case of one type of flute music: ‘The melody is said to be of a merry kind and is associated with the image of a multitude of fish running upriver to the spawning beds. The vibrations produced by the sounds are said to trigger a message which refers to child-rearing’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1981: 91). These are instances of sounds being invested with cultural significance, of ‘ways of hearing’. During a recent seminar on the History of the Senses at the University of

Toronto, a graduate student interested in the auditory mix of European and indigenous ‘soundways’ in colonial Canada asked whether certain reactions to music are not universal. Doesn’t a pounding beat always evoke a physiological response of excitement? Perhaps it usually does, but the degree of excitement will vary from one culture to another and from one period to another according to how accustomed people are to hearing such music and what it signifies for them. For example, in the 1960s the driving beat of Beatles’ songs was often experienced as highly disturbing and attributed a vague cultural association with ‘savagery’. Today, when early Beatles’ songs seem rather charming and innocent to many people, it would even be possible to use one as a lullaby. Our ways of hearing that music have changed. Particular practices of looking and listening are also shaped by cultural fac-

tors. In the modern classroom, the ability to remain still for long periods of time solely looking and listening is a prerequisite for academic success. In cultures in which education is a more active process involving all of the senses

and bodily movement, looking and listening would only be one part of the educational process (see Bateson and Mead 1942 on kinaesthetic learning). In eighteenth-century Paris, going to the opera to listen to the music was

thought to be decidedly gauche. ‘There is nothing so damnable,’ one nobleman declared, ‘as listening to a work like a street merchant or some provincial just off the boat’ (cited in Johnson 1996: 31). The assumption was that upper-class Parisians were so familiar with musical conventions that they need scarcely attend to performances. What required listening to and watching instead were the conversations that took place and the appearance and movements of the fashionable crowd. The invention of the telephone, the radio and sound-recording devices

enhanced both our power of hearing and the number of things to listen to. Such modern media of communication as film, television and computers bring both sight and sound together to present sensorially-limited but culturally and psychologically powerful representations of the world. Indeed, so accustomed have we become to audiovisual representations that we almost take this pairing of sound and sight as given in nature, rather than by culture and technology. Olfactory-visual or audio-gustatory pairings would hardly seem as convincing. That sight and hearing, the two most highly valued senses in the West, are

mediated by culture may perhaps be readily appreciated. The notion of ‘the period eye’ and ‘the educated listener’ are commonplace. To what extent, however, can the senses of touch, taste and smell model and transmit cultural values? This is a subject that has been far less often considered, primarily because cognition is not usually associated with the ‘lower’ senses in modern culture. Indeed, one clear sign of the cultural importance of sight and hearing in our society is the sheer volume of academic and scientific work dedicated to the exploration of these senses compared to the vastly-reduced interest in the study of the other senses. To what extent are touch, taste and smell worthy of extended cultural

consideration? We know they are of great practical importance and that they afford us sensations of pleasure and pain, but they are typically represented as subjective and private – chacun à son goût. Do they have any cognitive value? Can thought be based on tactile sensations, for example? For most of Western history the standard answer would have been no. A person born blind and deaf was generally ‘supposed incapable of any understanding, as wanting all those senses which furnish the human mind with ideas’ (Rapalje 1887: 3). We now know, however, that this is incorrect. As the deaf-blind Helen Keller famously demonstrated in the early twentieth century, it is possible to experience a socially and symbolically-meaningful world through touch, smell and taste alone and to communicate and think using tactile sign language. There is no reason to think that this ability to transmit and receive ideas

through the so-called lower senses is restricted to those who lack the senses of sight and hearing. In fact, it is the contention of this book that ideas are communicated through sensory impressions all the time. There are

culturally-modulated ways of touching, tasting and smelling and culturallymeaningful textures, tastes and smells. Within every field of social endeavour, explicit or implicit significance is ascribed to different sensations and sensory practices, whether visual and auditory, or tactile, olfactory and gustatory.