May 18, 2017

A Sensational, Sensory Journey Through History

When we are children, we learn early on that we have five senses. After this fact is established, we most likely go about our lives, assuming that things like touch, sight, and smell are historical constants. For Carolyn Purnell—writer, historian, and Oakwood social studies teacher extraordinaire—a curiosity about the senses and the potential evolution in their perception and utility over time led her to ask a fascinating question: how has the way we think about and use the senses differed over the ages?

Her answer to this question is her recently released book, The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses, published this February by W.W. Norton & Company. In this work, described by author Peter S. Onuf as an “insightful survey of the ways Enlightenment thinkers made sense of their world [that] offers exciting new perspectives on how we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch our own … a dazzling debut by a talented young historian” and “a fun, historical page-turner filled with one awesome vignette after another on the curious social behavior of the day” by Booklist, Carolyn examines the intriguing (and sometimes peculiar) “history of sensation.” Focusing primarily on the 18th century, she investigates the way that historical developments and theoretical schools of the time led to changes in people’s everyday sensory experiences.

Fascinated with Purnell’s book and the “sensational” picture it paints of Enlightenment culture and philosophy, our very own Laurie Lew—Oakwood Secondary School librarian and English teacher—sat down with Carolyn for a thoughtful dialogue we’d like to share with you. Enjoy this opportunity to not only learn about a truly unique subject but also get a glimpse into a great Q and A session between two highly esteemed Oakwood faculty members.

Carolyn Purnell

Laurie: This is certainly one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read, full of odd characters and curious practices. It’s a bit like a visit to the museum of Jurassic technology and quite unlike conventional histories. In the introduction, though, you characterize the book as sensory history. Maybe you can say something about the kind of history you’re doing and how you got started on the project.

Carolyn: Sure. When I say that I research sensory history I often get blank looks. The way to think about it is considering changes in perception over time. We take for granted that if you use your iPhone, you’re engaging with the world in a different way than before you had that iPhone. Your tactility has changed. You get phantom vibrations in your pocket.

We very readily understand that that affects the way that we understand the world around us, but we don’t tend to put that back in the past. We don’t tend to think about how technology affected perception. We don’t tend to think about how people might have thought about sensation in different ways. Really, what I’m doing in the book is just thinking about how people lived their daily lives in a different time period and how different forms of perception would have affected their daily lives.

The way I got started on the project is it came out of my dissertation research and a course that I taught at Sciences Po in Paris and at the University of Chicago on sensory history. My kids just asked really great questions about why this stuff mattered and how it changed the way we think about the world. I thought it would be relevant and interesting to a larger audience and just started organizing that material.

Laurie: It certainly feels relevant to me! How does your interest in the history of daily life inform your teaching?

Carolyn: I think, at least when I was in high school, I assumed history was really boring and it was just a series of names and dates and big wars and politicians. I think, by introducing the kids more to daily life, to forms of culture, and to the ways that their bodies matter, and to all of these minute interactions that make up our daily lives, I think that it gets them really interested in culture and makes history more alive for them. It shows them that the past can be really relatable.

In terms of the actual teaching, I often try, for every historical period that we look at, to incorporate something about the food that people ate or the music they listened to or the art that they looked at, just to give the students more of a sense of culture and how different people in the past experienced entertainment and love and all of these kinds of things that are very relevant to their lives now.

Laurie: You write that one of the pleasures of doing history is recognizing or trying to understand how the past is both similar to and different from the present. Reading your book, it’s easy to recognize the similarities.

Your chapter on the self-made man, for example, describes some projects for self-improvement through diet that are remarkably prescient. Theories linking red meat consumption to angry rages, theories that recognize the value of vegetables, the dangers of fatty foods. Are these schemes any different from our own faith in exercise and blueberries and quinoa?

Carolyn: I think they’re definitely linked, but there is something slightly different about the 18th-century idea of the connection between food and diet and one’s personality. They had a much stronger sense of correlation between these things. We might think that if I eat way too much cake it’s going to make me feel sluggish and bad. We understand that.

I probably don’t think it fundamentally alters my personality or who I am beyond that one moment, though, whereas in the 18th century they did tend to think that you could alter your personality and temperament through the things you consumed. Drinking coffee can make you more intelligent or drinking lemon-flavored beverages was supposedly good for the imagination. Certain other foods can make you more sociable and chatty.

They actually really understood these things, not just in terms of physical health, but in terms of emotions and personality as well. They had a much more direct sense of how these things affected our temperament and personalities. It could be pretty immediate. There’s a story about a young boy who drinks way too much coffee and he can’t get it out of his system fast enough, and it ends up driving him crazy. You do something wrong one day and it affects the rest of your life. I think we don’t have that same sense with quinoa or blueberries.

Laurie: No, but I was hoping that drinking a lot of coffee would make me more intelligent. It’s been my approach.

Carolyn: Within moderation [laughs].

Laurie: Let’s talk a little bit about differences of smell and hearing.

In the chapter on Les Halles, the big wholesale market in Paris, you described shopping in the dark, guided only by sound (the vendor’s cries) or smell (the odor of fish). You write that different sensory pathways were required, using sound as a directional marker for example. Can you expand a little bit on this? Did people in the 18th century have more keenly developed senses?

Carolyn: I don’t think they had more keenly developed senses, but I think they were accustomed to using them in very different ways. Maybe the way to think about it is the way they directed their attention. I think they were much more used to operating in the dark without light. I think they were much more used to smelling, before the invention of sewers, human waste in the streets. They were just much more accustomed to different things.

Then there are also technological and architectural developments that required those ways of navigating the city. For instance, streets were a lot narrower back then and the sound couldn’t really escape because it gets trapped between the walls. Even though we might think of the past as not having zooming cars, the sound just actually couldn’t escape. They would have experienced it as very loud and very deafening. There are lots of accounts of people in Paris who were made uncomfortable by the sound reverberating through these narrow streets.

I don’t think it’s necessarily that their senses are more keenly developed in certain ways. It’s just that the built environment was different, and it forced a different kind of engagement than our society’s environment today. A lot of that is based in technology. I think a lot of it is also just cultural norms, what people would have been used to thinking about or focusing on or paying attention to.

In the sources, when people talk about their senses, the stuff that they take for granted doesn’t appear. It’s actually things that surprise them or shock them, so loud noises or funky tastes, things like that. You mostly get those moments of shock and surprise in the historical record.

Laurie: Okay. Like any good historian, you’re careful about over-generalizing, but I don’t have to be. Let me hazard the idea that our own relationship with the senses, say our interest in what we eat and the impact it has on our bodies and a certain kind of aesthetic interest, is primarily organized around self-expression and self-development, while the philosophes were working with an idea of social perfection, with improving society.

Can you comment on that? I was particularly interested in your chapter on blindness and the way 18th century views of social improvement accommodated persons with a disability.

Carolyn: Absolutely. Enlightenment philosophy is very practical and very socially oriented. They didn’t just sit and think and let those ideas drift into the ether. They actually wanted to figure out how they could apply them to making society better.

The chapter you referred to about blindness tells how they imagined that if one is blind then that person’s sensory abilities are redirected to another sense. For instance, if you can’t use your eyesight then you might be more able with your hands or you might have more facility with hearing and so you might make an excellent musician. They actually create schools for the blind that are meant to tap into those skills.

Previously, the blind had been relegated to begging and they were thought to be socially useless individuals. Enlightenment philosophers did not like that conception of disability. They were trying to incorporate people with disabilities into society by training them to work as printers or musicians or have various other occupations that could actually make use of the sensory skills that the blind did have.

All of their ideas about sensation and perfection are ultimately towards a collective goal of bringing everyone into society and making society better through the different kinds of talents that different kinds of people have and recognizing that someone with a disability is not actually dis-abled at all. They have just very different talents that can be used.

Laurie: It’s a very pragmatic, humanely rational approach—but the 18th century, as you describe it, is not just the Age of Reason. It’s an age marked by revolution and the origins of both consumer society and food culture as we know it, our obsession with the visual aesthetics of a meal as well as exotic dining experiences that would put Anthony Bourdain to shame.

I don’t want to spoil readers that pleasure of discovery since those chapters in your book are immensely appealing—and play right into our own food-obsessed culture. But, maybe you could talk briefly about the place of gastronomy in 18th century thought, or the point of gastronomical rules, which were lengthy and seemingly arbitrary.

Carolyn: Yes. The term gastronomy in the 18th century didn’t just refer to food or to eating. They actually saw gastronomy as a science that could open up into all facets of life. The early gastronomical writers would start a treatise with food and end up on dreams and then religion and then the psyche. It ranges widely. They see food as a way to actually understand the wider world.

As you allude to, there are a lot of rules that guide a proper gastronomical dinner. You should carve a chicken a certain way, chew your food a certain way. You can get as specific as how many times you should chew certain forms of food. These rules seem kind of arbitrary but they served a very important social function in the post-revolutionary world.

The general narrative of this history is that, after the French Revolution, social organization moves away from being about aristocratic birth or noble birth and blood and more about financial wealth, class, and social status.

Gastronomy becomes a way that you can mark yourself as a refined individual. It becomes a way that people can look at you and say, “Oh, he knows how many times to chew his food or to be the greatest aesthete. He knows how to carve a chicken the proper way.” It’s a visual cue for people that shows where you fall in the social hierarchy.

These rules, they are arbitrary to a certain point, but they have a very important social function for people. They are really hilarious. I don’t want to make them sound tedious by just talking about their rule nature because they’re pretty fantastic.

Laurie: Speaking of hierarchy, you’re pretty attentive throughout the book in the way that the senses are used to establish or reinforce existing class hierarchies. Also the way certain preferences—your examples are literary fiction, wine, classical music—come to be used not just as markers of class but, more broadly, of good taste. Speaking as an English teacher now, I want to press you a bit on how “taste” becomes a metaphor for aesthetic judgment that encompasses all the senses.

Carolyn: How taste becomes a metaphor for aesthetic judgment appears originally as a series of examples in philosophy, actually, in a branch of philosophy called sensationalist philosophy, which has to do with how our knowledge is derived from sensation.

Taste is one of the first metaphors that they use to refer to one’s aesthetic abilities, because it was seen as being one of the primal senses, something that humans had from their earliest moments when we had to decide whether something was going to be helpful or harmful to us.

If something tastes bad, we spit it out. We think it’s poisonous, and because this is supposedly one of the most foundational senses, they then think that it can be expanded to encompass a lot more of human experience in general, that it’s a good stand-in for explaining how humans come to discriminate between things that give pleasure and that give pain.

It is interesting to me that it’s about taste and not about the other foundational sense of smell, which they see as the other discriminatory element. I think it’s because taste involves contact. It involves bringing something into contact with oneself with ingestion.

I think that, really, that’s what you were supposed to do with art. That’s what you were supposed to do engaging with art, to really put yourself in contact with it. I think taste served both of those functions, to refer to subjectivity and connection with an object, but also it was a foundational human experience.

Laurie: That’s fascinating but since I’m trying to acknowledge the scope of your book and hit all the senses, let’s move along to sight and the importance of color. I was fascinated by the way you linked visual aesthetics, politics and issues of class. Setting aside Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe and her role as a tastemaker, I wonder if you could comment more generally on the political implications of color in revolutionary France, which seemed far more complex and interesting than, say, Donald Trump’s red tie.

Carolyn: Yes. They were decidedly more complex and interesting. In revolutionary France, every color indicated some kind of political stance. The reason that color becomes so powerful in this period is because it’s a way to instantly recognize someone’s allegiances.

If they’re wearing a cockade or a little ribbon that’s red, white and blue, you immediately recognize that they’re a revolutionary. If someone is wearing an all-white ribbon it means they support the monarchy. If someone is wearing green, it means they support the Comte d’Artois (the grandson of Louis XV), so they support aristocracy.

Essentially, these color cues become ways to pick up on people’s internal allegiances. They become visual signifiers of something more internal. As the revolution goes on, of course, it becomes less and less acceptable to wear white or green or any of these aristocratic colors. It actually became law that you had to wear a tricolor cockade, the red, white and blue.

That actually led to a lot of problems because with dye techniques at the time, the dyes weren’t always color fast. There are notorious stories of people getting caught in the rain with their cockades and the dyes get washed out and they become white. Suddenly you’re left standing with a monarchical symbol in a society that legislates that you have to wear something supporting the nation.

These kinds of color politics were very, very prevalent and very important because if someone saw you wearing white at the wrong time it could actually lead to death. These are very significant indicators.

Laurie: Ah, who knew?

Carolyn: Right. Don’t wear your red, white, blue in the rain.

Laurie: Wear a raincoat!

Carolyn: Right!

Laurie: It’s a commonplace, and it’s one you try and refute in your epilogue, that we live in a visual culture dominated by sight. What can we learn from the 18th century and their interest in a full range of sensory experiences?

Carolyn: I think that, really, what struck me researching and writing the book goes back to one of your previous questions. It’s about the transformative power of sensation. It seems, in one way, very anxiety-inducing to live in a world where a cup of coffee could drive you mad or a color could send you to the guillotine. At the same time, I think it created a real awareness for people of their daily lives, their bodily experience, the things that they were engaging with on a very material level.

If I were to look back and say one thing that they got right in the 18th century, it would just be that awareness and attention to the different aspects of experience and thinking about how those things do affect us and how they do matter and questioning all of those things that we take for granted.

Thinking about how our bodies actually can transform us and how our interactions with the world do have the power to fundamentally change us and who we are, I think there’s something really admirable in that.

Laurie: Indeed there is. Do you have any tips for increasing our sensory awareness?

Carolyn: My tactic was really just to show how bizarre some of these sensory experiences are. I think, by making the familiar unfamiliar it really does help us to recognize all of these cultural norms in a different way. I think it sounds maybe a little trite. I’m not going to tell you to take time to smell the roses.

Laurie: Why not?

Carolyn: Right. Just try to recognize the strangeness in the way that we experience the world and the particularity of the way that we experience the world. Just pay attention. Don’t just gulp down your coffee, think about it. Don’t just put on any old clothes. Think about the color. I think just trying to give richer context to the things that we do every day, I think that would really help you situate your own sensory experience a little better.

Laurie: Well, I think my questions about quinoa and blueberries testify to the success of the book. [Laughter]. Things I took for granted as unique to our culture, our society, were made a little stranger.

Finally, will you be coming out with a scratch-and-sniff version of the book, and when?

Carolyn: I love that final question. It’s so good. No immediate plans for the scratch-and-sniff book. I would love that but also be terrified by it. One time when I was teaching Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant to a class, I brought in deer musk and had them all smell it. They were so repulsed by it and thinking that everyone in the 17th century smelled like that. It just blew their minds.