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Seeing is Believing?

by Dave Hsiung


Alumni who come back to campus often ask if I still do things the way I did when they were in class.  Yes, I still assign J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors for “Twentieth Century American Wars,” but I have dropped David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride from “The American Revolution.”  (I’m not giving up on Fischer, however, because his follow-up book, Washington’s Crossing, appears on the Spring 2011 syllabus.)  And yes, I still talk about “freedom from” and “freedom to do” in HS 115, but this semester I added a new topic to that course—sensory history.

I was inspired to do this after reading Atul Gawande’s fascinating article, “The Itch,” in The New Yorker, 30 June 2008.  How do we know if something is cold, sharp, or hard?  Most people would say that our nerve endings pick up the feeling and transmit the message through our spinal cord to our brain.  In this theory, perception is reception (of nerve signals).  But if this is the case, then how can we explain sensations in phantom limbs?  Some neuroscientists argue that perception is the brain’s best guess at what is going on, a guess built upon previous experiences and learning.  In this interpretation, perception is not reception, but inference.  Sensory perception, therefore, involves not just a biological act, but a cultural and historical one as well.  What is hot or cold, bright or dark, grating to the ear or melodic, depends on the person, the time, the place, and the person’s society. 

Applying sensory history to HS 115 helped students understand in new ways some of the main developments in American history.  Consider the growing sense of an American identity among colonists during the 1700s.  Before this time, “comfort” in England and America meant emotional, moral, and spiritual well-being when facing hardships; if you felt lonely or degraded, then you felt “discomfort.”  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this understanding changed as Americans came to associate comfort with touch; if a house was neither too hot nor too cold, or if your clothing did not bind, then you were “comfortable.”  Now consider the context of the 1760s, when tensions grew between Great Britain and the colonies.  Some Americans criticized British vices, especially their love of luxury items, as leading to moral corruption.  George Washington for one argued that Americans ought to wear homespun, those coarser handmade clothes, to demonstrate their virtue and simplicity.  By paying attention to sensory history, we understand that colonists would distinguish themselves both visually (homespun clothes looked different) and by touch (the fabric was rougher, but American skin, toughened by its higher morals, could withstand it).

Slavery also played a key role in early American history, and sensory perceptions help us understand the selling of slaves.  Traders tried to trick buyers by making the slaves look healthy; to make the skin shine, they greased faces with “sweet oil” and washed bodies in “greasy water.”  Buyers, however, knew that “seeing” was not “believing.”  In fact, according to the complete English phrase, “Seeing is believing, but feeling’s the truth.”  We go to the grocery store and look for ripe fruit, but to make sure don’t we touch them to gauge firmness?  Slave buyers did much the same.  In one account, a buyer went up to a slave woman and put his hand over her heart.  He felt a bunch of rags.  The woman had consumption (tuberculosis) and the trader tried to cover up her sunken chest by stuffing rags under her clothing.  The buyer suspected something was wrong and resorted to tactile verification. 

To learn more about sensory history, you could start with Mark M. Smith, Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History (University of California Press, 2007).  For a narrower focus on American history, the September 2008 issue of the Journal of American History has a set of six related essays.  The information on the slave market comes from Smith’s essay in that issue: “Getting in Touch with Slavery and Freedom,” pp. 381-91.  When students learn that buyers put their hands all over the slaves’ bodies, and when they think about how such touching would constitute such an act of violation today, they “feel” the slaves’ inferior status and understand one specific cultural context of the past.  It’s an effective way of understanding “the truth.”