Conference Report: ‘Sense Methods: Literature, History and Embodied Experience’

This review is also featured on The Polyphony.

By Rachel Clamp

Institute of Medical Humanities, Durham University

17 June 2022

Conference mind map, courtesy of the author.

Earlier this month, I was delighted to attend the Institute of Medical Humanities symposium ‘Sense Methods: Literature, History and Embodied Experience’ at Durham University. The symposium was designed to bring together colleagues with an interest in embodied experience and the senses to reflect on methodological and theoretical approaches and to provide opportunities for future collaborations.

I should preface this post with a brief disclaimer to say that I am not a sensory scholar myself. I am a third-year PhD candidate in the history department at Durham where I work on the history of plague and plague workers in early modern England and Scotland. I am, at best, sensory-adjacent. I do, however, try to gain access to past experience through my research, and I was keen to learn more about how I could incorporate theories of embodied experience and the senses into my work. Yesterday’s symposium allowed me to think critically about what exactly we mean when we talk about past ‘experience’. What is human experience if not sensory?

Conference mind map, courtesy of the author.

The day began with a rich and thought-provoking keynote lecture from Dr William Tullett in which he argued that whilst we might have succeeded in our approach to exploring and reconstructing smells in the past, we still have much work left to do concerning smell and/of the past. He demonstrated the need for scholars to ‘re-odorise’ the past, to develop an understanding of both the presence and absence of smells and the role of smell in history, memory, and heritage. He showed how the study of historical smellscapes can enrich our understanding of the past, allowing us to ask more difficult questions and make our arguments more interesting and persuasive. He suggested that with training and practice, humanities scholars could learn to smell ‘better’ and that the more we use our noses the more we are able to bring them into historical perspectives.

The remainder of the day consisted of a series of 10-minute ‘provocations’ rather than traditional conference papers. After each provocation, we were encouraged to write down our thoughts collectively and to draw connections between our responses.

Dr Megan Girdwood shared her work on movement and kinaesthesia drawing our attention to the early-twentieth-century researchers Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson to show that the sense of movement extended far beyond the realm of conscious, deliberate motion. Having identified her partner, Anstruther-Thomson, as someone with an especially well-developed sense of kinaesthesia, Lee recorded the minute physiological responses she experienced as a result of engaging with renaissance art.

Lena Ferriday explored relationships between the body and the environment in her provocation on the pedestrian navigation of the Devon and Cornwall coastlines. She illustrated that local residents and those who worked in these spaces on a daily basis had a very different haptic relationship to those who visited the area for leisure. They possessed an embodied expertise that allowed them to walk over difficult terrain more easily, in turn allowing them to guide visitors through the landscape for a fee.

Dr Coreen McGuire investigated the ways in which we measure the senses, once again drawing our attention to the extreme diversity of individual experience. Using the example of a stethoscope, she encouraged scholars to broaden their interpretation of the senses and to look at breath and breathing as an embodied sense. She also demonstrated the importance of the objects used to measure senses for accessing hidden histories.

Paula Teixeira Moláns explored the issue of diversity of experience further by demonstrating the vast diversity of language used to describe sensory perception. She looked at the relationship between semantics and colour, showing that not all languages describe colour, and asked what meaning is left behind when we translate sensory language.

Dr Richard Bellis used the example of the eighteenth-century anatomist William Hunter to demonstrate the extent to which anatomists were required to actively engage with their senses during experiments. Hunter’s method for separating the placenta from the umbilical cord used sight, smell, touch, and even taste to better understand the processes he witnessed throughout the experiment. Once again, we returned to the issue of sensory standardisation. How did all anatomists know that they were experiencing a cadaver in the same way as their colleagues? The answer, for eighteenth century anatomists, lay in religious belief. Dr Bellis highlighted the contemporary belief that, providing an anatomist worked ‘appropriately’, the consistency of sensory experience was guaranteed by God.

Dr Fraser Riddell looked at alternative models for describing sensory experience drawing on neurodiversity studies. If we have established that sensory perception and embodied experience are both deeply unique and personal phenomena, what sensory worlds could we access with reference to neurodiverse experiences? He asked scholars to think critically about the ways in which sensory history has been shaped by neurotypical assumptions.

In reflecting on the day, was struck by the way in which the work of scholars from such a broad range of interdisciplinary backgrounds shard aurprising number of common themes. One way or another, all presentations touched on the idea of the senses as skills that one can develop rather than phenomena that simply happen to a person, of the difficult process of measuring and describing the senses, the need to expand our understanding of what we consider ‘senses’, and the importance of the senses in the construction of knowledge.

In addition, the symposium made it abundantly clear that sensory experience is deeply personal and unique. This can make the process of defining methodologies and approaches exceedingly difficult. The answer, it seems, lies in interdisciplinary research. Only through collaborative, interdisciplinary research can we access the resources, knowledge, and expertise required to tackle the complex questions that sensory studies raise and arrive closer at our collective goal of better understanding the senses and embodied experience.


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