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Boasian Soundings

An Interrupted History of the Senses (and Poetry) in Anthropology

David Howes, Clifford Geertz, Roseline Lambert


Pages 473 - 487



This essay traces the long, if interrupted, history of the life of the senses and poetry—the most sensuous form of writing—in anthropology. It begins by documenting the fascination with the measurement of the senses of the “‘savage races’” in the British and French anthropology of the late nineteenth century. It then delves into the rupture with psychophysical methods of investigation introduced by the great pioneer of American anthropology, Franz Boas, and how his example inspired a new focus on the cultural logistics of sensation that is apparent in the work of his students—Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir. Significantly, all three of these sensuous scholars also experimented with writing poetry. There followed a dark period during which the interest in sensation was eclipsed by a new focus on interpretation—or treating cultures as ‘texts’ to be ‘read’, following Clifford Geertz. Interest in the senses and sensation was further sidelined as a result of the mutation of the idea of ‘reading culture’ into ‘writing culture’, following James Clifford and George Marcus, and the redefinition of the anthropological endeavor as a ‘process of textualization.’ The prevailing notion of textualization was woefully prosaic. Then, as the new millennium dawned, anthropologists awoke from the sleep of the senses, and the focus shifted from representation to sensation (again)—that is, from ‘writing culture’ to ‘sensing cultures.’ The method of sensory ethnography, which depends on ‘participant sensation’, emerged as the method of choice, and this shift tied in with a revalorization of poetry. This article includes an unpublished letter by the late Clifford Geertz by way of rejoinder, which casts the textual revolution in anthropological theory in a different light, and a letter by the poetanthropologist Roseline Lambert that extolls the virtues of poetry as sense-making practice.

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