JMC Fellow Carolyn Purnell’s New Book Reviewed in the WSJ

JMC Fellow Carolyn Purnell has released her book, The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses, about the history of the human senses through the Enlightenment. 

“The Stench of Progress”
By Mark Smith, for the Wall Street Journal


Think of Carolyn Purnell’s study of the senses in the long Enlightenment (roughly 1690 to 1830) as a critique of the 17th-century play “Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority,” a popular comedy attributed to Thomas Tomkis and first published in 1607. In “Lingua,” the senses, personified onstage, jostle for position, each claiming more authority than the other. But when all is said and done, the established sensory hierarchy still holds, and Visus—sight—remains “confirme[d] as irrevocable.” In the coming centuries, sight’s reign over the so-called lower, proximate senses of hearing, smell, taste and touch continued, thanks to the proliferation of print, the emergence of perspectival art, and the development of eye-empowering technologies such as spectacles and telescopes. Thus was the Enlightenment made synonymous with “light” and modernity tethered to “ocularcentrism,” or the rule of the eye.

Ms. Purnell disagrees. In “The Sensational Past,” she aims to show, courtesy of Enlightenment intellectuals, that truth and knowledge were not constituted only through vision. Building on a body of work by sensory historians that is now well over two decades old, she maintains that the other senses mattered a great deal and “focuses more on the interconnection and mutual participation of the senses than on their battles with one another.”

Ms. Purnell points out, for example, how certain aspects of 18th-century Parisian life diluted the importance of sight. This was, after all, a time before widespread street lighting, and, as such, activities in markets (notably Les Halles) were guided as much by sound and touch as by eyes that struggled in the near dark conditions. Natural light governed the lives of working people, principally because candles were expensive. Night workers—such as baker boys known as “bats,” who worked in cheerless basements—learned to rely on their other senses, most notably touch. Patrons frequenting the markets also found sight less than reliable when it came to buying food. Smell and touch were the more trusty sentinels here; the murk of the markets meant that the color and health of fruits and vegetables simply could not be assessed visually. Hearing also augmented squinting eyes in the markets. Sounds, calls, shouts and noises helped map the spaces and also ascertain prices.

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