Sensing Cultures: Cinema, Ethnography and the Senses

David Howes, Concordia University


The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

If a revolt is to come, it will have to come from the five senses!
Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth


Anthropology has been concerned with issues of the senses and sense perception since its inception. W.H.R. Rivers’ role in the 1898 Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait was primarily to coordinate a wide range of experiments involving such apparatuses as Lovibund’s tintometer, the Müller-Lyer illusion, Zwaardemaker’s olfactometer, Politzer’s Hörmesser (for measuring auditory acuity), various taste solutions, an algometer (for determining pain thresholds), and so forth. The objective was to find out whether the senses of “primitive man” were keener than those of “civilized man,” as the anecdotal reports of various missionaries and other travellers had suggested. The way Rivers put the purpose of the experiments to his research subjects was as follows: 1


The natives were told that some people had said that the black man could see and hear, etc., better than the white man and that we had come to find out how clever they were, and that their performances would all be described in a big book so that everyone would read about them. This appealed to the vanity of the people and put them on their mettle (Rivers 1901: 3).


French anthropology of the late nineteenth century was equally preoccupied with the measurement of the senses of the “savage races” (Dias 2004). Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, it was in order to explore certain questions having to do with the psychophysics of vision that the young Franz Boas first went to the Arctic to study the Inuit. Once there, he converted from psychology to ethnology (much like Rivers did in the course of the Cambridge expedition) but his interest in perception persisted. Boas’ first published paper was a piece called “On Alternating Sounds” (1889) which concerned the “mishearing” of sounds in a foreign language as a consequence of the speaker “apperceiving” them in light of the known sounds of his or her own language. “Sensory Anthropology” thus has a long history. One could say that all anthropology was sensory anthropology, in the beginning.


This focus on gauging the senses was eclipsed in the early decades of the twentieth century by a new focus on social organization or “function.” The functionalist paradigm was in turn eclipsed by a new focus on “interpretation” in the 1970s, under the influence of Clifford Geertz. Geertz famously introduced the notion of the culture of a people as “an ensemble of texts,” which the anthropologist “strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (Geertz 1973: 452). The idea of cultures “as texts” and so of “reading culture” flourished for a spell and then morphed into the paradigm of “writing culture” in the mid-1980s as anthropology came to be redefined as a “process of textualization” (Clifford and Marcus 1986). This turn ushered in a heady period of experimentation with different styles of writing that persisted into the twenty-first century (Howes 2003: ch. 1).


The 2007 Beyond Text? conference heralded the arrival of a new model for anthropological understanding, which could be called “sensing culture.” This arrival marked both a return to anthropology as it was in the beginning – when sensation, not interpretation or textualization, was the primary object and means of inquiry – and a radical departure from the prevailing paradigms of anthropological theory and practice. Hence the excitement that suffused the atmosphere at Beyond Text? – the sense of something new unfolding. The number of registrations far exceeded the organizers’ expectations, and many had to be turned away. But the organizers should not have been surprised. The time had come for taking stock of the senses.


The Consolidation of Visual Anthropology

What put the senses (back) at the heart of anthropological inquiry? The return of the senses was partly a reaction against the excesses of textualism.2 Things had gotten to the point where some theorists seriously thought and wrote as if il n’y a pas de hors-texte (“there is no outside-text”)! Thus, in “Post-modern Ethnography,” Stephen Tyler proclaimed that “Perception has nothing to do with it” (the “it” being ethnography):


An ethnography is no account of a rationalized movement from percept to concept. It begins and ends in concepts. There is no origin in perception, no priority of vision, and no data of observation…[An ethnography] is not a record of experience at all; it is the means of experience. That experience became experience only in the writing of the ethnography. Before that it was only a disconnected array of chance happenings (Tyler 1986: 138).


This banishment of “perception” and “experience” in the name of “text” and “narrative” (or “discourse”) was bound to precipitate a counter-reaction. But the Beyond Text? conference did not just put the logocentrism and the privileging of writing within mainstream anthropology into question. Deconstructive it was not. Rather, what the conference signalled was the consolidation of visual anthropology and the positing of “the model of the viewfinder” (in contrast to “the model of the text”) as a paradigm for anthropological reflection.


Intimations of this revolt against the tyranny of the text had been building for some time. In “Iconphobia,” Lucien Castaing-Taylor cried out against the denigration of film by the likes of Maurice Bloch and Kirsten Hastrup, extolled the “apparent affinity of film with life itself,” and went on to advance the idea that “ethnography can itself be conducted filmically” ([Castaing-]Taylor 1996). True to his word, in 2006, Castaing-Taylor established the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University. Its mandate:


[to promote] innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography. It uses analog and digital media to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world. Harnessing perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities, the SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose. Most works produced in the SEL take as their subject the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human and animal existence.


In The Ethnographer’s Eye, visual anthropologist Anna Grimshaw proposed a novel reading of the history of modern anthropology as a succession of “ways of seeing.” She begins by analyzing the distinctive “visions” of Rivers and Malinowski, which she relates to different trends in Modernist art and cinema. In the latter half of the book, she discusses the cinematic and epistemological breakthroughs made by a series of ethnographic filmmakers from Jean Rouch to the team of Judith and David MacDougall.


In the case of the MacDougalls, Grimshaw traces how their film style evolved from “observational cinema” (e.g. To Live With Herds: A Dry Season among the Jie , 1971) to “participatory” or “conversational cinema” (e.g. the Turkana Conversations trilogy), hence a shift “from vision towards voice,” then “a return to a preoccupation with vision” and “observational cinema” in Photo Wallahs (1991), a film about the history of photography in a Himalayan resort (Grimshaw 2001: 138, 145). In its concern with evoking an indigenous aesthetic, however, the latter film did not look back so much as forward to the next phase in David MacDougall’s film career, which is best described as “sensational cinema.”


What makes David MacDougall’s more recent work, such as Doon School Chronicles (2000), so sensational is its focus on “aesthetic features” (in contrast to the theme of the “seasonal cyle” or that of “conversation” in his and Judith’s earlier work).3 This film about the renowned residential boys’ secondary school situated near Mussoorie in the foothills of the Himalayas highlights the “social aesthetics” or “culturally patterned sensory experience” of school life, including “the design of buildings and grounds, the use of clothing and colors, the rules of dormitory life, the organization of students’ time, particular styles of speech and gesture, and the many rituals of everyday life that accompany such activities as eating, school gatherings, and sport” (MacDougall 2005: 98). All of these “aesthetic features” are held by MacDougall to be influential in their own right, and not simply “the symbolic expression of more profound forces (such as history and ideology).” “What is interesting sociologically,” he writes


is the extent to which these aesthetic patterns may influence events and decisions in a community, along with the other more commonly recognized social forces of history, economics, politics, and ideology. All these forces are, of course, interconnected, but it it often seems that the aesthetics features of a society are too easily assimilated into other categories, to such a extent that they become invisible or ignored (MacDougall 2005: 98).


In 2005, MacDougall came out with The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. This book sets out the socioaesthetic theory that informs Doon School Chronicles, and also makes many robust claims for the sensuous in anthropology, with film being the primary medium for conveying sense experience. For example, the second chapter is entitled “Voice and Vision.” It consists of a sustained reflection on the contrasts between text and image, narrative and film, with respect to conveying and fostering the analysis of complex social events. Not surprisingly, in view of his métier, MacDougall comes down firmly in favour of film. This is on account of film’s intrinsic multimodality. However, as can be seen in the following passage, he remains conscious of the experiential limits of film even as he extols its sensory extensivity relative to the printed page:


… one of the distinctive things about film is its routine mixing of different modes of thought and perception. There is a continuous interplay among its varied forms of address – the aural with the visual, the sensory with the verbal, the narrative with the pictorial. There is a semblance of this interplay in literature, as well, but it is actually a construction of the writer’s and reader’s imaginations, since the actual form of address, words on a page, remains constant. Although films still have a comparatively limited experiential range (one does not smell the flowers in a film, or speak with others, or touch, or feel touched), they do offer the spectator some insight into the integrated and often confusing social reality faced by the protagonists. Writing can provide the jolt of a physical encounter, but films provide a flow of sensory (and other) experiences that requires considerable application to derive from writing (MacDougall 2005 : 52).


What is noteworthy about this passage is its cross-modal reflexivity – that is, its second order reflections regarding the sensory/experiential range of the medium of film (in contrast to the medium of writing) and the idea of “interplay.” 4 For MacDougall, visual anthropology is sensory anthropology.


The same opening towards the other senses can be observed in Anna Grimshaw’s work. The Ethnographer’s Eye was the first book in visual anthropology to theorize the epistemological possibilities of “visualizing anthropology” in a comprehensive way. In her subsequent work, though, visualization has increasingly come to mean the sensualization of knowing and of how anthropologists ought to communicate what they know. Thus, in the “Introduction” to Visualizing Anthropology, “visualization” is defined as “going beyond the narrow concerns of ocularity to investigate ways of knowing located in the body and in the senses” (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2005: 2). Or again, “questions of the visual” are to be “interpreted broadly as about embodied and sensory-based ways of knowing” (Grimshaw 2005: 25). Using a camera (i.e. practising observational cinema) instead of a pen is important to her because of the way it “positions oneself differently in the world,” and enables a shift from the conventional “word-sentence to an image-sequence approach” to knowledge production. (Grimshaw 2007: 199). Sarah Pink makes a similar case in The Future of Visual Anthropology: Engaging the Senses (Pink 1997) and Doing Sensory Ethnography (Pink 2009).


Ways of Sensing

The new visual anthropology – that is, visual anthropology since the sensory turn discussed above – involves treating film (and photography) as “primary documents,” as it were, rather than secondary to, or illustrative of, the arguments of some text (Grimshaw). It also involves treating such forces as “history” or “ideology” as internal to the aesthetic, or “interconnected” with the aesthetic, rather than constituting some deeper, “more profound” reality (MacDougall). Some might see this development, this “aestheticization” of anthropology, as a reductive move when compared with the focus on social organization in social anthropology proper. Others (myself included) will see it as testifying to the indissociability of “the social and the sensible” (Laplantine 2006), and so to the social pre-formation of the senses. As Constance Classen observes in “Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses”:


sensory perception is a cultural, as well as a physical, act. That is, sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell are not only means of apprehending physical phenomena, but also avenues for the transmission of cultural values. … Given that perception is conditioned by culture, it follows that the ways in which people perceive the world [that is, the ways in which they know how to use their senses] may vary as cultures vary (Classen 1997: 401).


Every act of sensing has a social lining, as well as a psychological and a physical lining. There is no “innocent eye,” or ear, or nose, etc.; there are only “period eyes,” and ears, and noses, etc.. To put this another way, the senses – including their “extensions” (McLuhan 1964) in the form of video cameras or audio taperecorders and other such technologies of registration – have become both the object and the means of anthropological inquiry (see Robben and Sluka 2007: Part VIII).


Conceiving of media as “extensions of the senses,” after McLuhan, underlines both the rootedness of the media in bodily praxis and the way in which the senses “mediate” experience.5 The body and senses, as conditioned by culture, are humanity’s “first and most natural technical object, and at the same time technical means” (i.e. first technologies) — as Marcel Mauss (2007: 56) famously proclaimed in “Techniques of the Body.” Conversely, cultures consist of so many “ways of sensing” (Howes 1991; Finnegan 2002; Howes and Classen 2013), and the primary task of anthropology is to analyze how people make sense of the world – that is, how they construct “worlds of sense” out of the ways in which they know how to use their senses (Classen 1993). François Laplantine puts this point well in his definition of ethnography as a form of participant sensation in Le social et le sensible: introduction à une anthropologie modale (recently translated into English under the title The Life of the Senses):


The experience of fieldwork is an experience of sharing in the sensible [partage du sensible]. We observe, we listen, we speak with others, we partake of their cuisine, we try to feel along with them what they experience (Laplantine 2015: 2; see further Robben and Slukka 2007).


This idea of ethnography as sensing,6 or “feeling along with” people, which is so fundamental to the anthropology of the senses (see Geurts 2002), also has a political dimension, for if the sensorium is a social formation, it follows that the perceptual is political. The ostensible immediacy of sense experience must not be allowed to distract us from its constructed character (Wolff, this volume). As Classen observes, when we examine the meanings vested in different sensory faculties and sensations across cultures:


we find a cornucopia of potent sensory symbolism. Sight may be linked to reason or to witchcraft, taste may be used as a metaphor for aesthetic discrimination or for sexual experience, an odour may signify sanctity or sin, political power or social exclusion. Together, these sensory meanings and values form the sensory model espoused by a society, according to which the members of that society ‘make sense’ of the world, or translate sensory perceptions and concepts into a particular ‘worldview.’ There will likely be challenges to this model from within the society – persons and groups who differ on certain sensory values – yet this model will provide the basic perceptual paradigm to be followed or resisted (Classen 1997: 402).


Taking stock of the senses thus involves recognizing the intrinsic sociality of sensation, or what Laplantine (2015) calls “the politics of the sensible.”


Critical Faculties

I have suggested that the 2007 Beyond Text? conference was a watershed moment in the history of anthropology because it was the first conference to be explicitly and wholly dedicated to taking stock of the senses in anthropology. It took place at the University of Manchester in association with the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, widely recognized as the world’s leading centre for visual anthropology for over 20 years. The conference was not solely dedicated to visual anthropology, however. Equal billing (or almost equal billing) was given to acoustic anthropology, or “acoustemology” in Steven Feld’s felicitous phrase (see Part .?. and the accompanying DVD). This embrace of the auditory further grounded the conference’s claim to being about sensory anthropology, since both acoustic anthropology and visual anthropology, as manifestations of “the sensory turn,” are tributaries to the field of sensory anthropology.

The other crucial component of the subtitle of this conference and book is “critical practices.” There is a tie-in to Manchester here, as well, because Manchester could be seen as the birthplace of the anthropology and history of the senses as critical practices. I was alerted to this during a soundwalk around the campus of the university led by Rupert Cox. In the course of the walk, Rupert pointed out the Ducie Arms. Friedrich Engels was once a patron of this pub (it may even have been his favourite pub). The son of a wealthy German textile industrialist, Engels was sent by his father to Manchester in 1842 to learn the family trade. He remained there till 1844. It was during this period that he wrote the book that would later be translated into English under the title The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. It documented the penury, mortality, insalubrity and sensory deprivity of the life of the labourer, based on personal observation and archival research.


Engels’ entrée to the underside of English society was provided by the “fiery” Mary Burns, a 19-year old Irishwoman who worked in the Engels’ family factory. “Burns introduced him to the city’s working-class districts, where Engels said the filth and stench were so bad it would be ‘impossible for a human in any degree civilized to live in such a district’” (Gabriel 2011). Burns remained Engels’ muse, and live-in lover, for the ensuing 20 years. (Engels, the “reckless bachelor,” refused the bourgeois trappings of marriage as a matter of principle).


Engels’ sensory ethnography of working class life (the first of its kind) touched a responsive chord in the young Karl Marx.7 The two had started corresponding in 1842, and Marx published a number of essays by Engels in the journal he edited. They finally met face-to-face (in Paris) in November 1844,8 shortly after Marx published his own blistering critique of the alienation of the senses under industrial capitalism – namely, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. If “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present” (Marx 1987: 109), then 1844 marked the nadir of that trajectory. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx describes how the senses of the worker, living amidst “the sewage of civilization,” are debased and deformed until he loses all notion of sensory refinement and “no longer knows any need … but the need to eat” (1987: 117). The senses of the bourgeoisie were also affected by the scourge of capitalism, since the bourgeoisie had to forego sensory enjoyment (the dance hall, the theatre) in the interests of capital accumulation (see 1987: 118-9). If a revolt was to come, it would come from the senses.


In the work of Marx and Engels, sensory critique is the beginning of social critique. The senses are critical faculties, as well as aesthetic faculties – critical to and of the experience of class oppression and exploitation, critical of ideology (e.g. the Protestant ethic), and critical to discerning inequities in the distribution of the sensible. Marx’s critique led him to conclude that the institution of private property was at the root of the widespread sensory deprivation and alienation so characteristic of industrial capitalist society. He also envisioned a future in which “the transcendence of private property [would entail] the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities” (Marx 1987: 139). According to Marx, only through the negation of the dehumanizing regime of capitalist property relations could humankind’s “species being” come into its own:


Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form – in short senses capable of human gratifications, senses confirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being (1987: 108).


Fast forward to 2007 and the screening of a series of advance clips from Cathy Greenhalgh’s film-in-progress Cottonopolis at the Beyond Text? conference. “Cottonopolis” was a nickname for Manchester back in the industrial era. That era is now gone, but Greenhalgh revives it with the aid of archival photographs, and through interviews with former textile workers. They remember the sensory conditions of work in the mills. The film also takes us to Ahmedabab in northwest India, known as “Manchester of the East,” where the Manchester factory system was copied, and where the grueling conditions described by Engels and Marx remain ever present. The viewer comes to see how: “Every organ of sense is injured in an equal degree by artificial elevation of temperature, by the dust-laden atmosphere, by the deafening noise …” (Marx 1954, I: 401-2).


By “following the cotton” (the film also takes us to Lodz, “Manchester of Poland”), Greenhalgh aims to trouble the viewer’s perception of this ubiquitous commodity, exposing how cotton has embroiled the lives of people from around the world in its production. At the same time, through the interviews, she seeks to bring out the “subjective human sensibility” of the textile workers, past and present. One of the more poignant moments in Cottonopolis comes when Shamji Vishram, Kutch master weaver, compares the “song” of the factory powerloom with that of the Jacquard handlooms used by the villagers of Ahmedabab, and the viewer is treated to a glimpse of the rich colours and wondrous patterns of the cloth produced on the handlooms. The textiles produced on the powerloom pale by comparison, echoing the monotony of its “song.” Significantly, Greenhalgh’s film takes not only its subject matter but also its form from the material of cotton. Where an earlier generation of anthropologists would have been drawn to the “text” in textile, Greenhalgh is more interested to explore the “texture” of cotton fabrics, and seeks to emulate this texture through her film style.


Experiments in Seeing

Many of the films screened at Beyond Text? involved experiments in seeing of extraordinary power. Two in particular stood out for me: Black Sun and Christmas with Wawa. In Black Sun, composer-turned-director Gary Tarn takes the viewer inside the mind’s eye of painter and filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert whose world went black following a random mugging in New York. (His eyes were sprayed with paint thinner by one of his assailants.) In the voiceover to the film, de Montalembert relates his descent into darkness in the hours immediately after the attack, and then recounts the long, arduous process of rehabilitating his senses that followed. He describes how he learned “to process sound and texture into a very basic form of sonar’; how “his brain began to compensate for the lack of cortical input by fashioning vivid and at times intensely erotic images in his mind’s eye that he could neither understand nor control”; and, how he taught himself “to write clearly and legibly sometimes continuing past the point of running out of ink” (Pedley 2009). In a supreme act of defiance, within 18 months of the attack, he went on a solo journey to Bali and other parts East. This remarkable journey of discovery, both inner and outer, was partly a quest for a lost lover, and partly to feed his newly attuned senses with the sensations they craved (see de Montalembert 2011).


Tarn does a truly stunning job evoking the sensory world de Montalembert creates for himself (and for the viewer) through the use of grimy yellow filters, computer graphics and continuously shifting camera angles. It is a world both nightmarish and profoundly serene, thanks to the subtle tonal shifts of the score – a “hauntingly abstract” score that, like the visuals, fades in and out repeatedly (Pedley 2009). It bears underlining that the images and sounds of the film intersect with de Montalembert’s narrative, but do not illustrate it. The emphasis is on the interplay of these modalities, which leaves it up to the viewer to forge some kind of sense out of them. Black Sun is a testimony to the art of seeing without light. It is what Classen (1998: ch.6) would call a “lesson in aesthetics from the blind.”


Christmas with Wawa by Jennifer Deger is, on its surface, the homiest of home videos. It is about decorating for Christmas in the Yolngu community of Gapuwiyak, East Arnhem Land with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” and “Christmas Without You” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton blaring in the background. But it is coincidentally about decorating the grave and commemorating the life of the filmmaker-ethnographer’s adoptive aboriginal “brother” (wawa), Bangana Wunungmurra, who had died six years previously. This both subverts and radically expands the Christmas theme: the “joy” of Christmas is preceded by the cultivation of deep sorrow by “worrying” over Bangana’s photograph, stroking it, recalling his presence (making the event into an emotional rollercoaster) and the decorations, while glitzy in the extreme, are also packed with cosmic meaning (flashing Christmas lights = shooting stars = totemic signifier = ancestral power).


Christmas with Wawa is an exercise in “participant imagining” which beautifully exemplifies Laplantine’s notion of ethnography as rooted in the “sharing of the sensible.” Rather than document Yolngu aesthetics (as in observational cinema), and rather than invite Yolngu to make their own video (in conformity with the “black hands on camera” edict that had guided her previous work), Deger “takes up video with a ‘Yolngu eye’” (this volume). The video is made “with Yolngu aesthetics”: it is sensitive to “the work of viewing” as Yolngu understand this process (the viewer must “complete” the image, there is a refusal to verbalize meaning, etc.), post-production techniques are used to “enliven” images (mimetic the videdo is not), and the politics of image production and circulation (e.g. respecting local image-rights) are always uppermost in Deger’s mind, even as the video is made for non-Yolngu eyes as well. Christmas with Wawa is an eye-opening example of “intercultural image-work” which at the same time responsibilizes vision, for the most basic point Deger asks us to retain from this experiment in seeing is that “the kinds of creative freedom and experimentation that digital technology enables should not release researchers [or audiences] from the responsibility of critically considering the power relations enacted through the camera and other acts of viewing” (this volume).


The Misperception of the Environment

When I boarded the plane from Montreal to Manchester, one of the questions I had at the back of my mind was whether Tim Ingold would be at the conference, and if so, what effect his critique of the anthropology of the senses in The Perception of the Environment (2000) would have on the gathering. As those familiar with the chapter entitled “Stop, Look and Listen!” will recall, Ingold dismisses the work of Edmund Carpenter and Paul Stoller, Steven Feld, Alfred Gell and Constance Classen – all major contributors to the field of sensory anthropology. Why? Because what they had to say about the life of the senses in cultural context failed to conform to the dictates of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty regarding the “phenomenology of perception” and the psychologist J.J. Gibson regarding the senses as “perceptual systems.” Ingold had also just published a piece called “Against Soundscape” in which he argued that the notion of “soundscape” – coined by the maverick Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, and the inspiration behind many fine works of sensori-social analysis (e.g. Thompson 2004; Hirschkind 2009) – “would be better abandoned” (Ingold 2007a). Evidently, if Ingold’s critiques had any merit, the Beyond Text? conference should never have happened. It therefore behooves us to examine his contrarian position.


Briefly, Ingold’s account of seeing is about the function of sight as a psychophysical process. It is not about seeing as concrete practice – that is, about ways of seeing in all their multiplicity: the look, the glance, the stare, the gaze, the dream; not to mention eyeing, peeking, ogling, glaring, squinting; or – to extend this taxonomy across cultures – the practice of darsan (auspicious sight) in India (Eck 1998), “Rasta Far-Eye” in Jamaica (Homiak 1987), and the like. The idea of style is foreign to Ingold, though he does have a lot to say about “skill.” {Note} Nor does Ingold’s account of the function of sight pay attention to the extension/modulation of seeing via different technologies of registration (painting, photography, cinematography, miscroscopy, ultrasound, the use of hallucinogens, etc.). The idea of mediation is foreign to Ingold, hence his dismissal of the whole field of visual cultural studies (see Ingold in Ingold and Howes 2011: 316-16). Significantly, Ingold has nothing to say about colour (compare Taussig 2009; Classen 1993: 131-4) though he has written extensively about line (Ingold 2007b). This reflects the arch-formalism and tendency towards abstraction of his approach. There is some question as to whether lines are perceived at all in some cultures, such as the Trobriands (Lee 1959), but Ingold ignores this issue.


For Ingold, seeing involves “an experience of light” tout court, just as hearing is “an experience of sound.” De Montalembert’s account of the experience of seeing without light gives the lie to this prong of Ingold’s argument. However, even if one were to accept Ingold’s premise that seeing is conditional on light, the fact is that the experience of light (and shadow and darkness, I would add) is conditioned by culture, and imbued with social values. Consider the value attached to “shimmering” light in Yolngu culture (Deger 2007), or the preeminence of hygge (a warm, cozy light) in Danish culture (Bille and Sørensen 2007), the salience of shadows in Japanese Culture (Tanizaki 1977), or the socially transformative role of electric light in Western culture (Schivelbusch 1989). None of these instantiations of the materiality of light and vision in different traditions matter to Ingold (materiality being another of his bugbears). Why? Because he insists, following Merleau-Ponty, on the “prereflective unity” of the senses and, following Gibson on their “interchangeability.” According to Ingold, vision, understood as “a mode of active, exploratory engagement with the environment … has much more in common with audition than is often supposed, and for that matter also with gustation and olfaction” (Ingold in Ingold and Howes 2011: 314; Ingold 2000: ch. 14). Only in the most abstract (and uninteresting) sense is this proposition true. Of course all the senses are “active, exploratory modes of engagement with the environment.” This goes without saying. The real question is how, and a moment’s reflection reveals how seeing an apple, for example, is a very different experience from tasting an apple: in seeing, the objecthood of the apple is preserved whereas in tasting an apple, subject and object become one; it is possible to feel, but not see, an apple in the dark, and so on. What is more, while the senses often work in concert, they may also conflict, as in the case of a stick in water which looks crooked to the eye but feels straight to the touch.


What a properly sensory anthropology calls for is more reflexivity, not less; more attention to relations of “intersensoriality,” not (some putative) unity or interchangeability; and, above all, more awareness of the indissociability of the social and the sensible, not just “the environment.” Ingold naturalizes the perception of the environment. The trick is to historicize it. As Max Horkheimer observed:


It is not only in clothing and appearance, in outward form and emotional make-up that men are the product of history. Even the way they see and hear is inseparable from the social life-process …. The facts which our senses present to us are socially preformed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived and through the historical character of the perceiving organ (Horkheimer quoted in Levin 1997: 63 n. 1).


The reason for Ingold’s obliviousnesss to what Michael Taussig (1993) calls the “particular history” of the senses (in a dig at Diane Ackerman’s (1990) “natural history of the senses”) is simple. Following in the footsteps of his father, the great mycologist Cecil Terence Ingold, he trained as a natural scientist before turning to the social sciences, but remains a natural scientist at heart. As a result, Ingold’s understanding of the social is about as thick, or rather thin, as Margaret Thatcher’s (who trained as a chemist before becoming a politician). During her tenure as Prime Minister, Thatcher famously proclaimed “there is no such thing as society,” and went about dismantling the British welfare state to prove it.9 Ingold has waged an equally relentless attack on “culture.” However, without some knowledge of the cultural modelling of the senses, and how such models mediate social relations and the perception of the environment, many social facts remain inexplicable. Two examples will help illustrate this point.


First, consider the question: Why are there so many Old Masters in the history of Western art (Titian, Rembrandt, etc.) but no Old Mistresses? To answer this question it is necessary to inquire into how the division and hierarchization of the senses intersects with and compounds the division and hierarchization of the sexes. The traditional Western association of the male sex with the “higher,” distance senses of sight and hearing supported the notion that men are naturally fitted for such activities as exploring, ruling, writing and painting, while the association of the female sex with the “lower,” proximity senses of smell, taste and touch relegated them to the home, and made them mistresses of the kitchen, the nursery and the bedroom. Such was the power of this categorization that those women who challenged the sensory division of labour (e.g. by writing or painting instead of cooking and sewing) faced considerable social opprobrium until well into the twentieth century (Classen 1998: ch 3). In keeping with their station, women could engage in handicrafts, and did (Classen 2005: ch 20) but were barred from the so-called fine or “visual” arts.


Second, take the question: Why, during the pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Lord of the Shiny Snow in the Peruvian Andes, do pilgrims bearing flags and holy images always lead the procession and musicians playing flutes and drums bring up the rear? In her sensory ethnography of this ritual trek that involves 40,000-50,000 Andeans annually, Zoila Mendoza emphasizes the necessity of interpreting it in light of the Andean “sensory model.” This model is predicated on the unity of “hearing, sight and bodily movement (kinesthesia).” Pilgrims want to “learn/know through sight [rikuy], while walking with the appropriate accompanying music” (Mendoza 2015: 143). The rhythm of the music helps them move in a coordinated way, each troupe “a solid mass” (which is very important), and to concentrate on the landscape with its many sacred spaces that the pilgrims desire to “see/know” (rikuy in Quechua). When they go part of the way by truck, the experience is less “fun” (vibrant, vital), less memorable, and nor does this permit them to expiate their sins (which can only be done by walking), hence less morally uplifting.


The positioning of the visual and auditory components of the procession is consistent with Andean sensory cosmology, the lineaments of which can be traced back to Inca times: “Sight is associated with the visible, structured past, situated in front of the body; and hearing with the dark, fluid future, situated behind the body” (Classen quoted in Mendoza 2015: 145). Solomon elaborates on this identification of forward space with past time (and hence the affirmation of tradition):


to move forward in space means to continue to be in force, to be alive, vibrant. The Quechua spatial metaphor, while superficially similar to the English idea that ‘to more forward’ is to ‘promote’ (transitive) or to “progress” (intransitive), is actually very different, invoking at the same time a model from the past that must fe followed Solomon in Mendoza 2015: 145).


To conceive of the past as lying ahead and the future as positioned behind goes completely counter to Euroamerican constructions of space-time, and thus exposes the cultural contingency of all such associations. A phenomenologist would be at a particular disadvantage comprehending the Andean repartition of space-time and the senses, due to his insistence on the “prereflective unity” of the senses, which bars him from critically examining any of the sensory biases and preconceptions instilled in him by his own culture. This is why sensory anthropology necessarily parts ways with phenomenology. “I am, at once, my tasting, my listening, and the rest” Ingold proclaims (in Ingold and Howes 2011: 325), generalizing on the basis of his own ontogeny, legislating for all humanity.10


Mixing the Senses

Unlike those whose entrée to sensory ethnography has been through video recording, such as Sarah Pink (2009), or sound recording, such as Steven Feld (this volume), my introduction was through the sense of smell (Howes 1987, 2003). Other entrées to the field include dance, museum objects, and food, to name but a few. For example, Tomie Hahn leads us into the sensory world of Japanese dance in Sensational Knowledge (2007); Sandra Dudley invites us to focus on “experiencing the properties of things” in Museum Objects (2012); and, David Sutton serves up a comprehensive overview of the anthropology of taste and tasting (or “gustemology”) in “Food and the Senses” (2010). It would be interesting to explore how each of these authors’ theory and methodology is influenced by their choice of modality.


Smell is typically screened out of ethnographic films. Every film must have a soundtrack, but no thought is given to providing a smelltrack. In some cases this is fortunate, for example, films having to do with sheep. But the absence of smell can lead to the misperception of the environment if one is not careful to compensate intellectually, particularly in the case of those cultures which attach a lot of significance to the wind and breath, such as the Ongee of the Andaman Islands. Smell is not dispensable for the Ongee: it is the very essence of life and identity. It is also the means by which the Ongee navigate their environment and tell which month it is: their calendar is “a calendar of scents,” as Radcliffe-Brown (for all his obtuseness to most questions of aesthetics) once observed (Classen, Howes and Synnott 1994: 114, 143-5).


I took a kōdō kit with me to Manchester because I wanted to make a point about how olfaction can serve as a vehicle for the imagination no less than film.11 Kōdō, sometimes referred to as the “Japanese incense-guessing game,” is actually a highly ritualized practice that is comparable to the Japanese tea ceremony in terms of its intricacy. Like the tea ceremony, it has its own paraphernalia: censer, metal tongs and chopsticks, charcoal, white ash, ash press, mica plate, etc.. The aromatic woods – which are extremely expensive and graded by taste, interestingly – are not burnt, only heated atop the mica plate so as to release their aroma. The ceremony involves the host introducing the guests to the selection of incenses he or she has chosen for the match, by circulating them, one at a time, in the censer, then mixing up the order, and circulating the censer again. The guests write out their responses using a calligraphy set.


There is a way of smelling. It is called “listen to the incense” (ko wo kiku). It involves clasping the censer in one hand, cupping the smoke with the other, inclining one’s head while bringing the censer up to one’s nose, breathing in, and then turning one’s head to one side (so as to continue breathing without disturbing the ash in the burner) as one concentrates on trying to identify the aroma. This action is repeated three times. The concentration involved is more like listening than hearing, whence the expression “listening to the incense”. This expression, like the custom, is not simply metaphorical, however. There is an underlying trace of synaesthesia, which comes from the sensory cosmology of Buddhism (one of Japan’s national religions): in Buddha’s world everything is fragrant, like incense, including the Buddha’s words or teachings, which are therefore to be scented as well as heard.


There are different versions of kōdō. In some, it is simply a matter of discriminating and naming the scents correctly. In another, the scents are keyed to different passages in The Tale of Gengi, a classic of Japanese literature. Most versions have to do with travel. Each incense is associated with a different place, and to smell the incense (correctly) is to be imaginatively transported to that place.In Japan, scents take you places, unlike in the West where they simply trigger memories (the so-called Proust Effect). Smell operates outwardly instead of inwardly (see further McHugh 2012). In any event, the important thing to retain from this is that fragrances can serve as an alternative medium to photographs as regards imagining distant places.


Kōdō is an example of a technology of perception which extends the nose in the same way the audio tape recorder is an extension of the ear, or the viewfinder on a camcorder is an extension of the eye. Each technology opens up some aspects of the sensory world to our attention while occluding others. “The medium is the massage,” as McLuhan would say. This book comes with a DVD, which is well worth a look-hear. Ideally, it would also come with an assortment of objects, which one could manipulate, sniff and chew on.12


Every culture embodies a different mix of the senses in its subjects. The task of the anthropologist is to learn how the senses and sensations are distinguished, valued and combined on a cosmological, social and individual level. How then to communicate this knowledge? The consolidation of visual anthropology and the recent rapprochement between art and anthropology (Schneider and Wright 2010) have opened up many exciting new sensory avenues for the production and communication of such knowledge, without completely supplanting text, which continues to have its uses. The trick, as always, is to work out the best mix.



This essay appeared as chapter 9 in Rupert Cox, Andrew Irving and Chris Wright, eds., Beyond Text? Sensory Anthropology and Critical Practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. For the definitive version of this chapter and the full list of works cited please refer to the published version. I wish to thank the conference organizers, Rupert Cox, Andrew Irving and Chris Wright for the invitation to present a plenary address at the Beyond Text? conference, and to offer this commentary on film.



  1. One wonders whether Rivers’ subjects would ever have consented to participate in these psychophysical experiments had he explained more of the reasoning behind the tests. Rivers subscribed to Herbert Spencer’s theory of mental evolution. Spencer held that “‘primitives’ surpassed ‘civilised’ people in psychophysical performance because more energy remained devoted to this level in the former instead of being diverted to ‘higher functions’” (Richards 1998: 137; see Rivers 1901: 137). It will be appreciated that, given the supposed connection between sensory superiority and mental inferiority, to score well on the tests could only reflect badly on a subject’s “intellectual development” (see further Howes 2012). The whole exercise was rigged from the start.
  1. Some of those in the vanguard of the textual revolution would later come to regret the overwhelming focus on the poetic to the neglect of the aesthetic in Writing Culture, as we learned from George Marcus at the conference. Marcus himself has come round to the senses, as it were. Incidentally, “aesthetic” stems from the Greek aísthēsis, meaning sense perception. It does not simply refer to the beautiful, or to vision, for that matter, but to all the senses.
  1. Doon School Chronicles came out after Judith and David MacDougall parted ways, and after Grimshaw completed writing The Ethnographer’s Eye, so Grimshaw was not in a position to observe the birth of what is here called “sensational cinema.”
  1. To quote from the introduction to the inaugural issue of The Senses and Society: “The senses mediate the relationship between self and society, mind and body, idea and object. “The senses are everywhere” (Bull et al. 2006: 5). In view of this strong emphasis on mediation, one wonders where Ingold gets the idea from that the anthropology of the senses is based on “a representational theory of knowledge production whose walls are set up by the dichotomies between subject and object, between individual and social, and between object and image” (Ingold in Igold and Howes 2011: 314). Clearly, this is a misrepresentation.
  1. My use of the term “sensing” builds on the multiple meanings of the word “sense”. “Sense” includes both sensation and signification, feeling and meaning in its spectrum of referents. For those such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor (1996) who regret the way “meaning” tends to get “linguified” in much contemporary scholarship, the term “sensing” could provide a suitable alternative.
  1. Manifesting a similarly high degree of cross-modal reflexivity, Arnd Schneider writes: “The sensory faculties of looking, listening and feeling that are activated … [by such media as photography, film, and sound recordings] … [and which] sometimes flow separately and at others mix and merge … are important, necessary and alternative means of anthropological knowledge” (sc. both relative to each other and relative to the kind of analysis and knowledge that texts facilitate) (this volume). By contrast, Tim Ingold views all these different modalities as interchangeable, on which more below.
  1. Marx’s denuciation of the alienation of the senses under industrial capitalism also took a page from the utopianist Charles Fourier’s critique of the “sensory ills” of civilization. Fourier, however, went considerably further than Marx in imagining an alternative sensory regime (see Classen 1998: ch. 2). It bears noting that capitalism has changed its tune since the time Marx was writing: in place of disciplining the senses with a view to increasing production the focus now is on seducing the senses in the interests of “leveraging” consumption (see Lindstrom 2005; Howes 2003: ch. 8).
  1. It would obviously strengthen my case for Manchester being the birthplace of sensory ethnography and history had Marx and Engels first met at the Ducie Arms, rather than where they actually met (the Café de la Régence in Paris). History often gets in the way of a good story. Regardless, Engels’ influence can be seen in all of Marx’s subsequent works, beginning with The Theses on Feuerbach written in 1845, where Marx broke with the philosophical materialism of Feuerbach and came to espouse a more historical materialism. Incidentally, I went back to the Ducie Arms after dinner that night to pay my respects to Engels’ ghost. The pub was closed by the time I got there. Not being one to carry a camera, and not even having a notebook in hand, I nevertheless wanted to register the occasion. So I licked the building. For the record, it tasted chalky.
  1. The idea of social organization is muted in Ingold’s work. The social, if it is acknowledged at all, is dissolved into “a field of relations,” and we are admonished to recognize that “relations among humans, which we are accustomed to calling ‘social’, are but a subset of ecological relations” (Ingold 2000: 5). In place of society, Ingold privileges ontogeny: his work starts “from the premise that every living being is a particular nexus of growth and development within a field of relations. Skills of perception and action, I argue, emerge within these processes of ontogenetic development” (Ingold in Ingold and Howes 2011: 314). Ingold’s idea of “the environment” is equally truncated. As discussed elsewhere, his environment is “one in which you can look, listen, and are always on the move, but not taste or smell” (Howes 2005).
  1. This said, I must confess my admiration for the high degree of sensationalism in Ingold’s Huxley lecture, “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived through the Feet” (2004). This is probably because some of the anthropology of the senses has rubbed off on Ingold, just as his critiques have rubbed off on my work.
  1. For a further discussion of kōdō see Howes 2010.
  1. Alternatively, one could seek to create a total sensory environment or “immersive environment,” as such installations are called, like the one Chris Salter and company designed and put on in the Concordia Black Box at the 2011 meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Montreal (see Labruto 2012; Salter 2015). Displace v. 1.0 was more than a son et lumière, much more, with its mix of flavours (in the form of beverages and jelly patties), odour-impregnated walls, blasts of heat, revolving platform, sheets of colured light, fog, and electrifying soundtrack synthesized from the melodies of various amerinidian flutes and percussive instruments. Modelled loosely on the sensory cosmology of an Amazonian society, this installation sought to integrate all the senses, and transpose them in a way that resonated with the “fugue of the five senses” as described by Lévi-Strauss in the first volume of Mythologiques (1969). Its purpose was to attune experiencers (who went through the maze in groups of six, each odyssey lasting 40 minutes) to different ways of using and combining their senses as a prelude to fieldwork – sensorial fieldwork:


    sensorial fieldworkers [should] make the study of the entire sensorium indispensable to other domains of ethnographic inquiry, such as economics or politics … Just as attention to gender and reflexivity is now part and parcel of most ethnographic work, so the entire range of senses should be of similar concern (Robben and Sluka 2007: 388).