Mark M. Smith: Interviewed about his book about "sensory history"





How do the five senses affect our experiences, and how have they informed the course of history? Mark M. Smith, a historian at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, explores those questions in his new book, Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History (University of California Press/Berg Publishers, 2008). Nothing less than an overview of the history of the senses from antiquity to the present, Smith's latest work seeks to deepen our understanding of social and cultural history through attention to the sensate. He spoke about his work in a recent e-mail conversation with The Chronicle Review.

First things first: What is sensory history?

Sensory history considers not only the history of the senses but also their social and cultural construction and their role in texturing the past. It deals with the way that people thought about the senses, the cognitive processing of their sense perceptions, but it takes seriously the full social and cultural context of those experiences. Sensory history strives for the broadest possible framing. It stresses the role of the senses — including sight and vision — in shaping peoples' experiences in the past and shows how they understood their worlds and why.

You teach in South Carolina, and much of your work deals with antebellum Southern history. Is sensory history particularly relevant to that time and place? Did your interest grow out of its importance in that era?

My particular interest in antebellum Southern slavery grew out of my interest in the history of race, class, and political economy, and I wrote my first book on the history of time consciousness in the antebellum South (Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South, University of North Carolina Press, 1997). While researching the book, I came to appreciate just how important not only the sight of clocks and watches was to the formation of Southern time consciousness, but also the central role played by the sound of time on Southern plantations.

From there, I became much more sensitive not just to evidence indicating how people saw the world, but the importance of hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching to the elaboration of all sorts of Southern social relations, broadly construed. In a way, I doubt if I'd be so keenly interested or invested in sensory history without having become an historian of slavery and the Old South at the University of South Carolina....


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