Sensing The Past

There is a very interesting post over at Boston 1775 on recent studies of the colonial experience and Revolution that focus on how people sensed their environments.  It’s a relatively new trend that although raises some interesting epistemological questions offers a unique perspective on some important historical questions.  I thought it might be useful to mention Mark M. Smith whose work is relevant to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and nineteenth-century America generally.  He is the author of three book, including Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South and Listening to Nineteenth-Century America.  His most recent book is titled How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses.  I’ve read the last two.  Here is the description from Listening:

Smith explores how northerners and southerners perceived the sounds associated
with antebellum developments including the market revolution, industrialization,
westward expansion, and abolitionism. In northern modernization, southern
slaveholders heard the noise of the mob, the din of industrialism, and threats
to what they considered their quiet, orderly way of life; in southern slavery,
northern abolitionists and capitalists heard the screams of enslaved labor, the
silence of oppression, and signals of premodernity that threatened their vision
of the American future. Sectional consciousness was profoundly influenced by the
sounds people attributed to their regions. And as sectionalism hardened into
fierce antagonism, it propelled the nation toward its most earsplitting
conflict, the Civil War.

As to the challenges that historians face in utilizing the sensory world to understand change and other analytical issues Bell briefly quotes from a review by John Demos which appeared in the London Review of Books:

One can discern, in each case, a sensory element; but its significance is more a
matter of context than of cause. At the very least, one would need a way of
measuring the sensory against the political, the material, the ideational and so
on, in order to make the case.

There is, finally, a conceptual difficulty
lurking beneath the surface of Hoffer’s entire project. The ‘report of the
senses’ can never by itself achieve motive power, whether in the lives of
individual persons, or in the histories of groups. That comes only through
further steps of processing: steps that involve both cognitive assessment and
(for lack of a better term) emotional charging. . . .

Demos may be right regarding his assessment of the sensory in arguing that it only provides context rather than any insight into causation, but this may have more to do with the limits of our ability to interpret the past than the physical/psychological truth about how we interact with our environment and process sensory data.  I assume this is what he means by suggesting that we need a way to "measure" the sensory with the political, etc.   

Demos’s second point – if I understand him correctly – is that the sensory cannot in and of itself lead to action.  This is the old Enlightenment view that draws a sharp distinction between the external world and the processing that takes place in the brain once that information is received through the senses.  Demos seems to believe that only with some kind of "cognitive assessment" will the sensory be shaped in such a way that it brings about some kind of action/behavior or report.  The problem is in trying to pin down what Demos means by cognitive assessment; more than likely he means something along the lines of rational thought or decision making.  There is an obvious weakness in this view: if we pay careful attention to our daily routines we notice that most of the time we are not consciously assessing our environment.  Most of the processing – for lack of a better word – is automatic.  Now you could argue that some type of processing is still necessary; however, it may look nothing like Demos’s "cognitive assessment."  I still think that Demos’s point can be applied to our epistemological limits in assessing historical action.  While the sensory may indeed have causal properties we are not able to translate them into a causal explanation.

1 comment… add one
  • Kevin,
    Along these lines, though much older, you might be interested in _History of Bourgeois Perception_, by Donald M. Lowe.



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