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Accounting for the Unseen

One tendency in the anthropology of the senses writ large has been the attempt to fashion new vocabularies or taxonomies for sensory experience. Some such attempts have sought to account for novel genres of sensing — and account in both senses of the term: to narrate and also, sometimes quite literally, to count senses. One of the pitfalls of such accounting on the narrative side can be the trap of telling stories about fully closed and coherent cultures possessed of sensorial categories untranslatable into others (the sort of hypostatized view of “culture”  that such anthropologists as Lila Abu-Lughod have warned against). On the quantitative side, there arises the vexed question of what it means to count senses — to posit five, six, or even N senses — and of whether counting actually does more than simply reify the very category of sense.                                                                                                                                                                     David Howes’s September 17 paper for “Sensing the Unseen,” “How Many Senses Are There?” called attention to the social and historical particularity of enumerating senses, giving us some useful history of the coming-into-being of the notion of five senses (complementing such studies as Connor, Steven. 2005. “The Menagerie of the Senses.” Lecture delivered at the sixth Synapsis conference, I cinque sensi (per tacer del sesto), Bertinoro, Italy, 1 September. In his talk, Howes reported that recent biomedical research has forwarded the possibility that there may exist some 36 distinct sensory modes. What to make of a claim such as this? Certainly one must not take this figure at face value; it assumes, to begin, that “sense” is a general category. The question should rather be: why count? Howes spoke eloquently against the “natural history of the senses” model in his talk, suggesting that any scientific claim about senses and their number must be embedded in a cultural framing of what “senses” are taken to be in the first place.

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