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Reflection 2: Sensual purgatory September 26, 2011

Posted by HSDC in Uncategorized.

The association of smell with breath, spirits, sanctity and other “supernatural” elements was a connection that I personally never made. I do not know exactly why I never thought of it as such, maybe it is the technological culture that we live  in or maybe it’s my non-religious nature but whatever the reason the articles did a wonderful job of displaying how people in the past and even today still draw this connection. The Classen article discussed the connection of scents with sanctity and sainthood in western culture, while the Parkin article took a more general look at what different cultures consider smell, wind and air.

Classen did a wonderful job of giving examples of how smell in western culture, particularly with a Christian focus, has connected fragrance and divine sanctity. Many examples were given of how people that were in a state of pain and discomfort gave off a pleasant fragrance due to their connection with god; in fact he even connects sainthood with the notion of sweet smells. I found it particularly interesting how evil spirits are connected with foul smells and thus fearing sweet odours as the bishop of Tournai wrote “…fragrant with a wondrous odour of sweetness…and I know by experience that demons dread it exceedingly” ( Classen 1998:39). These sweet odours were thought to somehow embody some kind of divine power, so far so that people even thought that they possessed healing abilities , as the story of an anosmia  nun notes “On kissing the saint’s foot, however, she recovered her lost sense and was able to experience the same fragrance…”( Classen 1998:40). I find this particularly interesting in that the sense of smell was returned not by smelling the fragrance of the divine person but buy kissing, or in other words through touching. As in many of the examples the fragrance of the three women was noted but in many cases a need to touch the person was also implied, such as touching the hands of Lydwine or kissing Teresa’s foot, as if smell and touch somehow play a dualistic role in the sanctity experience. Whatever the case the article works well displaying the connection that smell bears with ones spirit and soul.

Furthermore the second article discusses how other cultures view smell as an agent of wind and air carrying spiritual properties. Breath in this article is discussed with great detail, in that it is not simply used for the uptake of oxygen but instead is a divine property “The movement of wind and breath is in all such cases brought by divine inspiration” (Parkin 2007:540). The most fascinating aspect of this article is how it draws upon the importance of smell in connecting the tangible and intangible, therefore since odours can enter the body through breath, they in turn embody this spiritual connection. To elaborate smell becomes this medium to make the invisible visible by being able to sense spirits in the form of smell and colour (smoke). Another important thing to note was how smells are able to give wind and spirits very human properties “…smells also waft on winds independently of human intervention, they do indeed escape human control. Like wind, smell resembles and partakes of spirit and of life itself” (Parkin 2007:551). I find this notion to be very interesting since it is a very unique way to describe the properties of smell in a religious fashion as opposed to the scientific one that would be present in western culture describing particle movement. In short the articles both discussed the importance of smell and all the connotations it can hold due to its almost intangible nature “The common association of odour with the breath and with the life-force makes smell a source of elemental power” (Classen 1998:60).

Reflection 1: No Discipline Left Behind September 19, 2011

Posted by HSDC in Uncategorized.

The senses are more than individual receptors; they are intertwined and capable of being active even when not in direct use.  The two articles that were read for this week had great insight into the role that the senses play in the hard sciences. The Myers article showed how something as technical and regimented as protein modeling can actually utilize the senses a great deal. The senses work to intimately connect and entangle the modeler with the model.

Moreover the Latour article actually goes into how we should discuss the senses and what the body and mind actually are,  he uses a very simple definition for the body “an interface that becomes more and more describable as it learns to be affected by more and more elements”( Latour 2004: 206). I found this definition to be quite profound because when thought about it is quite remarkable, everything the senses do is to interpret a contrast and thus to learn and interpret it in one’s own way. For example within the article he discusses the training of the smell sense to measure perfumes more accurately, or in part activate the nose to new smells. In this example he explains how being able to contrast a broader range of smells somehow makes you a “nose”. I like this terminology because it makes a clear statement about society, how anyone that can use their senses to  a greater degree is somehow acquiring that body part.  Within the article he played with the idea of calling a person a “nose” but this extends beyond smell, people that taste wines have a more “refined palate” as if they have somehow acquired it, people are also said to have a “trained eye” however it is not the eye that is able to see with greater ability it is the brain that has learned to better contrast what it is seeing. New senses are not being acquired, we are simply learning as latour states “He has taught them to be affected, that is effected by the influence of the chemicals which, before the session, bombarded their nostrils to no avail-“(2004:207).

Interesting enough the Myers articles describes how when computer modeler’s actual acquaint themselves with the models over time they are able to feel as if the senses are being engaged even though they are only looking at a visual representation of the proteins being modeled.  The models are actually able to indirectly engage the sensorium “…over time and with the experience of constant interaction with the virtual objects, they eventually acquire a feeling for the tangibility of the digital media.” (Myers 2008: 178). Interesting enough the article goes on to describe the intimate connection the modeler shares with the model that is created “a postdoctoral researcher…expressed concern that his model would be regarded by others as a “static” structure’ rather than, as he described it, a ‘breathing entity’” (Myers 2008:191). I find this fascinating but in all honesty not hard to believe, when we look upon a piece of art, say the statue of David, we are somehow able to imagine the sculptors hand movements and precision, feel the persons soul within the creation. Then why is it so difficult to imagine that a modeler feels the same way about the protein models? Maybe it’s because of the use of computers or because the models all look so similar, I however think it may have to do with how much people are willing to extend the reach of their senses. When a sculptor uses a chisel to carve out a form, there is still close hand to substance contact, however when a scientist uses measuring apparatuses and computers as extensions of his/her senses the connection in our minds is lost somewhere in the mix and we disregard the “human touch”.  In summation the article worked well in conjunction to develop an understanding around what the body of senses really is and how the senses are not exempt from objective science.


works cited:

Latour, B. (2004) ‘How to talk about the body’, Body and Society, 10:2-3, Excerpts: 205-214, 224-229.

Myers, N. (2008) ‘Molecular Embodiments and the Body-work of Modeling in Protein Crystallography’, Social Studies of Science, 38:2, pp. 163-199

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? September 14, 2011

Posted by HSDC in Uncategorized.

If from the readings I have learned anything, it is that the senses are truly indefinable. No one is certain how many senses there actually are, Aristotle categorized the sensorium into the now common five of hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. However “Galen said there were six, Darwin thought there were 12 and Von Frey reduced them down to eight” (Synnott 155). Moreover the matter in which one defines the senses is dependent on a variety of different cultural factors; therefore each person has their own understanding of what the senses are and what they mean.  For example as Cassen states the Hausa of Nigeria recognize two general senses of visual perception and non-visual perception. To me the interesting aspect of this is how different cultures interpret the senses and what they mean that individual. I find that giving the senses a set number based on biological means or otherwise is redundant because what the senses mean and how they are interpreted will keep changing over time. Most likely this conflict arises from the human nature to categorize the world around us, think about it, we divide the world into the animal kingdom, plant kingdom  etc.  What do we stand to gain from this categorization of the senses? Will it somehow bring about a cure for deafness or blindness, probably not yet throughout history humans have been attempting to categorize the sensorium. The importance of the individual senses has varied throughout history “The history of the senses…reminds anthropologists that sensory models are not static, but develop and change over time. Within the West, as noted earlier, a rise can be traced in the cultural importance of sight and a decline in the importance of the non-visual senses from the middle ages to modernity”( Cassen 409).  The senses are vastly important to the human experience, they are our window into the world around us, and as such people view the world differently based on individual cultural backgrounds. Therefore I now understand all that anthropology has to gain from recognizing the importance of the senses and how this realization can help in conducting more informed fieldwork. Anthropologist can now factor in what it truly “feels” like to live in another sensory world.  However it is impossible to classify and accurately record all that the senses do and therefore it just adds to the unique nature of anthropology as a discipline that try’s very hard to be objective but is always susceptible to subjective interpretation. In my mind the issues surrounding the senses, the number of senses, their importance, and their meaning is a matter that is beyond human classification because of the complicated nature of the human brain, the mind resists such simplicity.