INTRODUCTION TO CONSTANCE CLASSEN BY DAVID HOWES
Welcome to the second lecture in the Sensing the City Lecture series. In this series our aim is to articulate an architecture of and for the senses. That is, we hope to do indirectly, in words, what Mirko and his team have done directly, by means of objects and sensorial displays, in the “Sense of the City” exhibition, which opened this Tuesday.
As I warned you last time, in my preface to Murray Schafer’s talk, much of the content of this series, as of the exhibition, is deeply and explicitly sensuous. Viewer discretion is not however, advised. I repeat NOT. Rather, you should kick your shoes off and get a feel for this auditorium barefoot, or put your ear to the wall and listen to the infrasound of this building - these being just two of the techniques which Murray suggested last week by way of heightening our sensory awareness of, and appreciation for, the polysensoriality of the world around us.
In the exhibition itself, you should take the time to inhale the odour samples in the room dedicated to the smellscape of the city (including the smell of grabage), or put on the headphones to sample the soundscape of Vancouver and New York. And don’t hesitate to get your fingers sticky by touching the patch of asphalt - the second crust of the Earth, as Mirko reminds us. That experience in particular will, literally, pave the way for everything that follows
In tonight’s lecture, following Murray Schafer's overture, we shall plunge deeper into the realm of the senses across time and space, as Constance Classen leads us in an exploration of the changing sensescape of the city from the Middle Ages to Modernity.
Her presentation is going to give substance to Marx’s famous proclamation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he wrote: "The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present."
The implication of this phrase is that the senses are loaded with history. Our perception of the world is never direct. It is always mediated - or in other words conditioned - by culture. The sensorium is a historical formation
I should note at once that Constance is a lot less materialist than Marx. She holds a PhD in religious studies from McGill, and was a senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of World Religions at Harvard for a time in the early 1990sspell. At the same time, she is a lot more sensuous in her approach to historical and cultural analysis than Marx ever was. Let me read you a passage from "Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses" to give you a feel for her way of thinking through the sensorium
"When we examine the meanings associated with various sensory faculties and sensations in different 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."
Whereas Marx focussed on changes in the relations of production, and saw these as the driving force of history, Constance focusses on the changing relations between the senses, and interestingly, shows these to be just as fraught with conflict as the relations between social classes in Marx’s model.
By way of example, consider the wonderful chapter on The Odour of the Rose in her 1993 book, Worlds of Sense. There she records how in premodern times, apparitions of the Virgin Mary were commonly attended by the scent of roses, rose petals were frequently used in cooking, and in that well-known phrase of Shakespeare: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." In modern times, by contrast, many varieties of roses look quite splendid but have, in fact, lost their scent due to selective breeding.
The transformation of the rose from a premodern symbol of olfactory and gustatory perfection to a modern symbol of formal visual perfection, did not go uncontested, however. William Morris, for example, railed against 'the triumph of surface over essence, of quantity over quality,' represented by the way in which showy gardens had come to replace scented gardens in Victorian England. What is more, there is now a movement within horticultural circles to try and breed the scent back into roses.
Constance's history of the rose may be said to index the shifting balance of the senses in Western history - specifically, the visual eclipse of smell, and the eventual return of the repressed.
Constance is a pioneer of both the history and anthropology of the senses. Her books include Inca Cosmology and the Human Body, which showed how the Inca fashioned their empire on the model of the body, and without the aid of writing - an extraordinary feat when one considers that every other great civilization depended on writing to organize its affairs of state.
In 1994 she came out with Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, a book in which Anthony Synnott and I also had a hand, and then in 1998 she published The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination, which includes a fascinating chapter called "A Feel for the World: Lessons in Aesthetics from the Blind". Given the visual bias of our culture, no one thought the blind had anything to teach us about aesthetics, but Constance showed otherwise.
Her latest offering is called The Book of Touch, which was just released in the US last month, and figures as the third volume in the Sensory Formations series from Berg. The Book of Touch is an edited collection, consisting of over 40 chapters and twice as many excerpts. The pieces in this collection, like the beads in a rosary, will enable you contemplate the extraordinary diversity of haptic experience in history and across cultures. 'Get your hands on The Book of Touch,' writes Leigh Schmidt, Professor of Religion, Princeton University: 'Constance Classen has put together a wonderfully varied anthology on the cultural formations of tactility across vast expanses of time and place. Standing as a sourcebook on everything from kissing to healing to wrestling to scratching, it is without rival.'
Phyllis Lambert, Mirko Zardini, members of the CCA and of the public, I present you Constance Classen. (Click here for the Constance Classen lecture).