An intense new focus on the social life of the senses is sweeping the humanities and social sciences. This "sensory turn" or rather, "revolution" -- has resulted in a profound disruption to the hegemony which the discipline of psychology formerly exercised over the study of sense perception (Howes 2007). Now, alongside sensory psychology, there is sensory anthropology (Classen 1993, 1997; Geurts 2003; Howes 2003, 2004), sensory history (Classen 1998, 2001; Jutte 2005; Smith 2007, Howes 2008), and sensory geography (Rodaway 1994; Paterson 2007). The sociology of the senses, first suggested by Simmel (1924), has also come of age (Synnott 1993).

As these emergent fields of study take on increasing definition, it is instructive to look back and consider the work of certain earlier theorists of the social nature of the senses, most notably Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. While neither of these scholars is primarily known for their contribution to sensory studies, both made substantial contributions to our understanding of the social determinants of perception. Marx, for example, may be regarded as the author of a political economy of the senses, centring on the alienation of the senses under the regime of industrial capitalism, while Freud invented a libidinal economy of the senses, focusing on the erotogenic zones of the body and the competing pleasures of looking and touching.

The objective of the two chapters which follow is to relate the works of Freud and Marx to current research in the history and anthropology of the senses, and thereby bring their theories up to date. At the same time, we shall be concerned to identify how their ways of understanding the senses were both a product of their respective times, and influenced by their respective sensory biographies.

The idea of "sensory biography" comes from the work of Sander Gilman, most notably his fascinating little study called Goethe’s Touch (Gilman 1988) In that essay, Gilman argues that, while the idea of a social history of the senses has come of age, much of that work has operated from the assumption that the history of all of the senses could be written as part of the history of the mentalité, the historically created consciousness of any given culture. Why not, asks Gilman, also try to understand how central individual variations are in shaping the generalized response of a culture? Whence his study of Goethe’s touch.

While we embrace Gilman’s idea of sensory biography, we are also conscious of its dangers. These are well brought out in the following quotation from Mark M. Smith’s Sensing the Past:

    Depending on the subject under consideration, a sensory biography might quickly become an interior intellectual history project that does not deal with the senses in a fully textured and articulated way. The second danger is that a foray into sensory biography might wrongly posit the social and cultural history of the senses and sensory biography as somehow in tension when, in fact, the tools and insights of social history could be used when detailing how any given individual understood the senses and the context in which he or she lived. Gilman comes perilously near to endorsing such a position when he says that it is not the general setting but the specific individual response, with all its personal idiosyncrasies, that is of real interest in writing a history of the senses. This distinction is both unhelpful and false not least because one cannot measure idiosyncratic sensory understanding without having an understanding of the general sensescape of a society and culture.

With these caveats in mind, I invite you to read the following two chapters:

Freud’s Nose: Toward a Libidinal Economy of the Senses

Marx’s Skin: For a Political Economy of the Senses


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-----, (1998), The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination, London and New York: Routledge.

-----, (2001), "The Social History of the Senses, in Encyclopedia of European Social History, vol. IV, P. Stearns, ed., New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, pp. 355-63

Geurts, K.L. (2003), Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gilman, Sander (1988), Goethe’s Touch: Touching, Sexuality and Seeing, New Orleans: Graduate School of Tulane University.

Howes, David (2003), Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

----- (ed) (2004), Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader, Oxford: Berg.

----- (2006), Charting the Sensorial Revolution, The Senses and Society, 1(1): 113-128

----- (2008), "Can These Dry Bones Live? An Anthropological Approach to the History of the Senses," Journal of American History 95(2): 119-28

Jutte, Robert (2005), A History of the Senses: From Antiquity to Cyberspace, trans. J. Lynn, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Paterson, Mark (2007), The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies, Oxford: Berg

Rodaway, Paul (1994), Sensuous Geographies, London: Routledge

Smith, Mark.M. (2007), Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Touching, and Tasting in History, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Simmel, Georg (1924), "Sociology of the Senses" in R. Park and E.W. Burgess, eds., Introduction to the Science of Sociology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Synnott, Anthony (1993), The Body Social: Symbolism, Self and Society. London: Routledge