I like Sensing the Past for its survey quality, and I’m glad I read bits of it a bit early. It helped provide context for names, like McLuhan, which popped up in classroom conversation.* Yay, interdisciplinary enrollment!
Discussion of aural geography was interesting, particularly in the urban context, with the attendant issues of class. I was reminded of an NPR story wherein the health of a rain forest could be assessed after listening to a thirty second recording. The parallels emphasize the biological nature of humans, and the ways in which the artificiality of the built environment is (at least on some axes) an artificial distinction.
Smith talks about the performative nature of sound, partially in opposition to other means of communication (42). I’m not entirely sure I buy that; at a minimum, I don’t think it’s uncomplicated. Yes, there is clearly a performance aspect to sound. But it’s different depending on context. The active, critical reception† of a musical performance is not like the approach to routine verbal communication. I feel like this is a good place to tie in Blue Jeans and the concept of the ordinary, though I think it becomes a bit more slippery when the ordinary behavior is divorced from a material object. (At least, a little more slippery in my brain.) Furthermore, I don’t buy that, say, writing is non-performative. The message is tailored for a specific audience; it may be a straightforward transmission of information or intentionally provocative; pseudonymity may further complicate the interaction between writer and audience, etc.
Similarly, I questioned assertions of the subjectivity of odor (71). How does one really assess the objectivity of sensory input across a population? Is that question better dealt with by neurologists or philosophers? Is it possible that perceptions of subjectivity are due to inadequacies of language, or is that the same thing in the end? Does a gender binary come into play? Vision is masculine, scent is feminine; the masculine is also spiritual, scientific, objective, whereas feminine is corporeal, emotional, and subjective…but does that give rise to a chicken-and-egg problem, in which gendered assumptions may drive perceptions, rather than the other way around?
Implications for an analysis and history of the quilt, and the design of the exhibit, are ambiguous. The objects are all of recent enough vintage that I don’t think we need to worry too much about drastically different sensory relationships at the time of their creation and use (which is not to downplay differences between eras, but a bunch of sensory milestones—the Protestant Reformation, the beginnings of the Enlightenment and the Modern—comfortably predate our period). Due to practical material constraints, we can’t use the objects to engage all the senses. But even if we can’t make explicit use of the full range of visitors’ senses, I still think it’s helpful to keep in mind the many ways in which humans do interact (with varying degrees of consciousness) with objects. If nothing else, Smith’s book highlights the importance of considering historical actors’ sensory interactions with these objects, and their environment in general. It will also give us a more nuanced understanding of the limitations of the object-in-a-case mode of exhibit, and hopefully we’ll be able to find ways to compensate.
* It also helped give me a sense of where I’d need to situate a potential project, which still seems interesting but less doable in the timeframe.
† Smith pings James H. Johnson to discuss the evolution of a new type of hearing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. I could not help wondering if Mary Gentle was pinging the same source in The Black Opera, shifted to her fun alternate Italy. (I’ll cosign all the problems raised in this review, but aspects of the book were sufficiently entertaining to distract from the objective failings and earn the “fun” designation.)