Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mark Smith on Sense History

Heather passes on Mark Smith's new essay on sensory history. An excerpt here and a link to the larger piece. Smith is professor of history at the University of South Carolina and current president of the Historical Society

Mark M. Smith, "The explosion of sensory history," The Psychologist (October 2010)

Can we really understand how people in the past perceived their world in sensory terms? Can we ever reach an understanding of what, say, 18th-century Australia sounded like? What smells meant to 18th-century Parisians? How touch functioned in 19th-century America? Or can we ever uncover the meanings of taste in a pre-refrigerator age? A growing number of historians, myself included, believe they can. And their arguments are indebted, in no small part, to some of their historically minded colleagues in psychology.

Albeit in tongue-in-cheek fashion, I’d like to take issue with the very title of this section of The Psychologist. Put simply: I wonder whether just looking back – that is, trying to understand the past through the eyes – is really enough to uncover the full sensory texture of history. Is it even up to the task of explaining why certain things happened and when? Many historians – and, I might add, psychologists – would answer that no, ‘looking back’ is not sufficient to explain either the past or behaviour in the present. Just looking – without touching, tasting, smelling and hearing – impoverishes our understanding of the past generally and denies us access to all sorts of culturally and historically specific understandings of what the past meant to particular people and constituencies at specific points in time.>>>

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