Translating the senses (Pretentious prose, Part II)

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jan 28, 2015

The ideas behind this post are still vague phantoms that refuse to take concrete form, but as I tell my students, writing is often a good way of thinking ideas through. What I am trying to think through here is the concept of ‘translating the senses.’ The fact that we should be paying attention to other senses than the visual is fairly well-established in anthropology and related fields, even if it is perhaps more honoured in the breach than otherwise.


What are the implications, if any, of describing sensory experiences in written (or verbal) terms? Put in such stark terms, this may seem like an obvious, and trivial, point. How else are we to communicate? (I am leaving aside issues like films here, since they remain a relative minority in terms of presenting anthropological knowledge.) We do it through texts, and presentations, and sometimes, images, as video or pictures on powerpoint. But even in the powerpoint presentation, words accompany the image, either spoken or written on the screen.


David Howes (2003) has written on how the textual turn in anthropology helped move our focus away from the senses to writing. Yet even in talking about the senses and the sensual in anthropology, we overwhelmingly turn to writing. Unless we take up publishing anthropology as Pat the bunny-style books (an idea I think has much to recommend it!), our engagement with the senses must remain mediated. At best, we can draw in sight and sound in video or performance, but taste and smell, the remit of wine-tasting, and historically viewed as ‘lesser’ senses by Western philosophers, must remain senses at a distance.


Similarly, Paul Stoller in his The taste of ethnographic things, says that anthropologists should ‘describe with literary vividness the smells, tastes and textures of the land, the people, and the food’ (1989: 29). Yet he seems unaware, or at the very least, unconcerned, that his call to action relies on a term – vivid – that, when linked to the senses, is most often linked to vision. (This is also the oldest attested use in terms of the senses.) In other words, when describing smell, taste and touch (texture) Stoller is discussing them through an appeal to vision.


Does this actually matter? I’m not sure yet, although I do think it bears more thinking about. If it does matter, there are two points I’d make. The first is simply to be aware of it. I’m advocating here something akin to the self-reflexive moment in anthropology. While it did have its extremes, it also made us all be much more aware of how who we are – white middle-class male, rich South Asian female, or whatever – affects the anthropology we do and write. Similarly, perhaps we need to be a bit more aware of not only the senses, but how we write about them. That is why I have stayed with ‘translating the senses,’ rather than ‘mediating the senses,’ which in some ways is a more direct concept. Translation can be done literally, but then it is often done poorly. It is as much, if not more, of an art than a science. So too is – or should be – translating the senses.


The second point that such translation leads me to think of is the topic of my last post, the sometimes pretentious prose of wine terminology. Taste and smell, it is often claimed, are relatively vocabulary-poor fields in English. Thus we tend to describe a smell or taste in terms of one we expect people to be familiar with: the classic ‘it tastes like chicken.’ One complication with wine (although I expect it isn’t just with wine) is that this is difficult to do, particularly if you are trying to break down the smell or taste into components, to convey more information. Another complication is that wine is a very mutable substance. Not only will a wine change from vintage to vintage, but a single wine will change in aroma and taste over the course of a few hours. There are family resemblances, but wine is not like Coke. To convey the experience of drinking a particular wine is thus an exercise in evocation. It is about translating the senses, but it is also, at some level, about translating emotions and affect. This is where the pretentious prose comes back in. In describing a wine as smelling of pencil shavings, I’d suggest, the writer is not only trying to describe a smell, but also perhaps (and probably not consciously) a vague memory or affect. Perhaps it might be useful to think of this ‘extra bit’ as a version of Gernot Böhme’s ‘atmosphere’ (1993). But that is a topic for another post. I’d like to close this one by going back to pretentious prose. Yes, some wine descriptions are indeed pretentious. Of those, a subset probably do deserve to be mocked. But I think a majority come across as pretentious because the reader / listener hasn’t really been receptive to what information – about taste, smell, affect, atmosphere, whatever – the description is trying to convey. I would suggest as an exercise the next time you drink a bottle of wine, see if you can find a wine-tasting note on-line, and read it and think about while trying a bit of the wine. You may decide that yes, it’s pretentious nonsense, but you may also decide it has changed for the better, even a little, the way you think about wine.



Works cited


Böhme, G. 1993. ‘Atmosphere as the fundamental concept of a new aesthetics’ Thesis Eleven. 36: 113-126.


Howes, D. 2003. Sensual relations: engaging the senses in culture and social theory. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.


Stoller, P. 1989. The taste of ethnographic things: the senses in anthropology. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.


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