Observing and representing: The history of the senses

Observing and representing: The history of the senses


Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

BA Arts and Culture/MC

Maastricht University

Course planning group:

  • Dr. Alexandra Supper (DSS, coordinator)
  • Dr. Anna Harris (DSS)
  • Dr. Annelies Jacobs (DSS) Dr. Jack Post (LK)
  • Dr. Jo Wachelder (History)

in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Karin Bijsterveld (DSS), Dr. Joeri Bruyninckx (DSS), Drs. Odin Essers (UL), Prof. Dr. Cyrus Mody (History), Drs. Mirko Reithler (DSS) and Sjoerd Stoffels

Intended learning outcomes (more on programme level)
Learning objectives (course specific)

  • Becoming aware of the complexity, multi-dimensionality and diversity of sensory experiences
  • Reflecting upon the relationship between the senses, from an anthropological, historical and philosophical perspective
  • Training in doing ethnographic research and integrating the results in an academic paper
  • Becoming acquainted with discourse analysis, and practicing the historical contextualization of ethnographic research
  • Studying how users apply media to record, represent and transform sensory experiences
  • Analyzing how ideas and opinions about observing and representing are connected to societal, political and artistic practices
Objective statement (course description)

Observing and representing are fundamental activities. Perception self-evidently forms part of life. Bodily experiences are on the basis of daily practices. Without representation, communication becomes almost impossible. Because of their naturalness, observing and representing seem deceptively simple. We are so confident about them that perhaps it seems strange to devote a course to this topic. But what is basic and simple proves to be at the same time fundamental. For anyone who takes the time to examine his or her observations, and the way we record, represent and communicate them, a fascinating world opens up, a world that is too extensive and profound to get to the bottom of in one course. On top of that, the technological development of media continuously creates new practices and offers new possibilities to share experiences. As a consequence, anyone who will be engaged in new media will continue to explore the themes dealt with in this course throughout his or her career.

Type of course :

Content and skills course

Target group :

Bachelor students

Pedagogical approach:

Problem-based Learning


In order to approach the ostensibly simple, but actually complex, theme of observing and representing, this course is divided into three parts, each with a separate goal. In- between the three parts, which follow the usual PBL-approach of pre-discussion, independent reading and post-discussion, we will conduct two research intermezzos. Each of these intermezzos has a different format: while the first is based on group work followed by a presentation of your findings, the second one takes the form of peer feedback on a research outline.

The first part dives immediately into multi-sensuous daily life and addresses methods to study the multi-dimensionality of experiences. For that, we start with anthropological and historical studies dedicated to the senses in society and/or daily routines. Although for centuries scholars considered sight the privileged sense, over the last decades anthropologists have revealed the relevance of the other senses for daily life. Historians, in turn, have elucidated that the relative importance given to hearing, smell, touch and taste has changed tremendously over time. After the first part of the course, you will have insight in the multidimensionality of experiencing the world, and in the methodologies anthropologists and historians apply to study the senses, e.g., hearing, touch and smell, in society.

The second part of the course is of a more reflective nature. It discusses the relationship between the different senses from a more abstract point of view. Not all senses seem to be equally important. A blocked nose will noticeably reduce your enjoyment of a meal. But everyone will regard blindness as a more severe handicap. In this part of the course, we go back in time to classical antiquity and the eighteenth century. The mutual relationship between the senses is already reflected upon for centuries. In the first part of the course, it has become apparent that the appreciation of the different senses has changed over the course of history. Yet the scholarly reflection upon the (relationship) between the senses has developed as well. The media available, of course, are highly relevant to understand that development. This part of the course will give particular attention to aesthetics and artistic practices. At the end of the third part you will have gained insight how the production and evaluation of works of art and/or specific genres is connected to ideas about the relationship between the senses and available media.

The last part of the course addresses how manufacturers and institutions configure users, while, conversely, these users can appropriate media. Media are not neutral. They shape and color what is observed and reported in very specific ways. Media create communities, from which others are excluded. Some characteristics of media are already dealt with in previous courses, as e.g., Network Society, which introduced exclusion various theories to analyze the relationship between technology and society. In this course we will zero in on two specific aspects of media: the circulating of the unknown and how media actively mold the observation and what is observed. Although several assignments in this part of the course depart from nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century innovations in media, the literature indicated suggests drawing a connection to current digital culture.

Task 1 – Everyday life, identity and the senses

Assessment of learning:

In the first intermezzo, you will conduct auto-ethnographic experiments; that is, you will stimulate your own senses and investigate the effects of media in representing and communication. This intermezzo is called “Bombardment of the senses” and consists of concrete assignments with the aim of making you more aware of your own senses, the media available to record and communicate perceptions and the many possibilities of media in our days. The course aims not only at dealing with observing and representing from a theoretical point of view, it also wants you to experiment with the senses yourself. Since communicating and comparing the outcomes of the experiments gives additional insights, it is advised in this intermezzo to work in groups of two to three students. This intermezzo offers five assignments, addressing each of the five senses. Choose one of them and report the findings of your group in the next meeting.

The second intermezzo helps to prepare you for the challenging requirements you will have to meet for your final paper in this course. Finding a topic that deals with the relationship between the senses and media, formulating a research question about this topic which can be studied with the help of ethnographic methods, doing the research, analyzing the materials you have collected, contextualizing them historically and referring to relevant academic literature is not an easy fit. To help you do it well, in this intermezzo we invite you to outline your research plans and receive (as well as give) feedback on them.

The exam consists of a final paper (3500 words) about the theme of observing and representing, in which you should pay attention to the relationship between the senses. The paper should be written individually and dedicated to a specific case of your own choice, enabling you to treat the different senses, their relationships and the media available for registration and communication. The choice of the case is completely yours! Please mind the following conditions:

  • The case should not have been dealt with in detail in the assignments or main course materials. That means that you should not simply replicate was has been addressed in the course materials, but use them as a starting point for further investigation.
  • Your discussion of the case should pay attention to sensory experience and the relationship between different senses. While not all cases have to explicitly discuss all five senses, the focus on the relationship between different senses implies that you need to engage with more than one sense.
  • The paper contains original ethnographic research, conducted by yourself. Make sure to document your observations through media such as text, images or sound recordings. You may upload your documentations to media such as YouTube, Flickr, Soundcloud, etc.
  • The results of your ethnographic study should be placed in historical context with the help of primary or secondary historical sources.
  • The paper should refer to at least five sources from the bibliography listed at the end of the course book. They should be meaningfully integrated in your paper.
  • The paper should refer to at least three relevant academic texts (journal articles, chapters in edited volumes or academic books), which are not treated in the discussion of the assignments. (Specific articles from edited volumes listed as a whole are permitted as possible sources in this category.)
  • Pay attention to the role, possibilities and limitations of media in representing and communicating sensory observations.

Mind that the paper should have a specific focus and make an argument, including an appropriate introduction and conclusion. The assessment form which will be used in assessing your paper is included at the end of the course book.

Effect (witness account, evaluation of the course)
Additional biblio sources

Task 1 – Everyday life, identity and the senses

  • Classen, Constance (1993). Worlds of Sense: exploring the senses in history and across cultures (pp. 79-105). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Law, Lisa (2001) Home Cooking: Filipino Women and Geographies of the Senses in Hong Kong. Cultural Geographies, 8 (3), 264-283. [Alternatively, you can read the slightly abridged version of the same article:

Law, Lisa (2005). Home Cooking: Filipino Women and Geographies of the Senses in Hong Kong. In David: Howes (ed.), The Empire of the Senses (pp. 224-241). Oxford/New York: Berg.]

  • Pink, Sarah (2004). Home Truths: Gender, domestic objects and everyday life (pp. 9-23 as well as either 61-80 or 81-100). Oxford/New York: Berg.
  • Rhys-Taylor, Alex (2013). The essences of multiculture: a sensory exploration of an inner-city street market. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 20 (4), 393-406.
  • Trapp, Micah M. (2016). “You-Will-Kill-Me-Beans: Taste and the Politics of Necessity in Humanitarian Aid.” Cultural Anthropology, 31 (3):412-437.

Task 2 – Multi-sensuous methodologies

  • Harris, Anna and Marilys Guillemin (2012). Developing sensory awareness in qualitative interviewing: A portal into the otherwise unexplored. Qualitative Health Research, 22 (5), 689-699.
  • Howes, David and Constance Classen (n.d.). Doing Sensory Anthropology. Retrieved from http://www.sensorystudies.org/sensorial-investigations/doing-sensory anthropology (In the final part, entitled “A Paradigm for Sensing”, you can skip sections 3, 4 and the final sections from 8 onwards.) and selected readings by Sarah Pink – either:
  • Pink, Sarah (2009). Doing Sensory Ethnography. London/Thousands Oaks: Sage. or both of the following texts:

Pink, Sarah (2004). Home Truths: Gender, domestic objects and everyday life. Oxford/New York: Berg, pp. 25-40.

  • Pink, Sarah (2007). Walking with video, Visual Studies, 22 (3), 240-251.

Background Literature:

  • Howes, David (2005). Empire of the Senses: The sensual culture reader. Oxford/New York: Berg.
  • Ingold, Tim (2004). Culture on the ground: the world perceived through the feet. Journal of Material Culture, 9 (3), 315-340.

Advanced Literature:

  • Howes, David (2011). Reply to Tim Ingold. Social Anthropology, 19 (3), 318-322. Ingold, Tim (2011). Worlds of Sense and Sensing the World: a Response to Sarah Pink and David Howes. Social Anthropology, 19 (3), 313-317.
  • Ingold, Tim (2011). Reply to David Howes. Social Anthropology, 19 (3), 323-327.
  • Richardson, Ingrid and Larissa Hjorth (2017). “Mobile media, domestic play and haptic ethnography.” New Media & Society, 19 (10), 1653-1667.


Task 3 – The dominance of sight?

  • McLuhan, Marshall Herbert (1994 [1964]). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Cambridge, MA [etc.]: MIT Press (especially pp. 22-32).

Plus three of these texts:

  • Classen, Constance (1993). Worlds of Sense: exploring the senses in history and across cultures (pp. 15-36). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Geurts, Kathryn Linn (2003). On Rocks, Walks, and Talks in West Africa: Cultural Categories and an Anthropology of the Senses. Ethos, 30 (3), 178-198.
  • Korsmeyer, Carolyn (1999). Making Sense ofTaste: Food and Philosophy (pp. 11-37). Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  • Parisi, David (2008). Fingerbombing, or “Touching is Good”: The Cultural Construction of Technologized Touch. Senses & Society, 3 (3), 307-328.
  • Rice, Tom (2008). “Beautiful Murmurs”: Stethoscopic listening and acoustic objectification. Senses & Society, 3 (3), 293-306.
  • Roberts, Lissa (2005). The death of the sensuous chemist: The ‘new’ chemistry and the transformation of sensuous technology. In D. Howes (ed.), The Empire of the Senses (pp. 106-127). Oxford/New York: Berg.
  • Sterne, Jonathan (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (pp. 1- 19). Durham & London: Duke U.P.

Background Literature:

  • Jay, Martin (1994). Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (esp. pp. 1-82). Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Task 4 – Media and representation

  • Hall, Stuart (1997). The Work of Representation. In Stuart Hall (ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (pp. 13-64). Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Sage.

or the same chapter from the newer edition:

Hall, Stuart (2013). The Work of Representation. In Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon (eds.), Representation (pp. 1-47). Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Sage.

  • Mitchell, W.J.T. (2005). There Are No Visual Media. Journal ofVisual Culture, 4 (2), 257- 266.

Auto-ethnographic research:

  • Ellis, Carolyn, Tony E. Adams and Arthur P. Bochner (2011). Autoethnography: An Overview. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1). Retrieved from: http://www .qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

Task 5 – Creating and crossing boundaries in art

  • Campen, Cretien van (1999). Artistic and Psychological Experiments with Synesthesia, Leonardo, 32 (1), 9-14.
  • Ione, Amy & Christopher Tyler (2004). Synesthesia: Is F-Sharp Colored Violet?, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 13 (1), 58-65.
  • Mitchell, W.J.T. (1987). Iconology: Image, text, ideology (pp. 95-115). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. [= The politics of genre: space and time in Lessing’s Laocoon, Representations, 6 (1984), pp. 98-115]

And at least one of the following texts:

  • Bello, Patrizia di & Gabriel Koureas (2010). Art, History and the Senses. Farnham England/Burlington USA: Ashgate.
  • Gage, John (1999). Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (pp. 247-253; 261-268). London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Jones, Carolyn (ed.) (2006). Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art. Cambridge Mass. The MIT press.
  • Maur, Karin von (1999). The Sound of Painting: Music in Modern Art. Munich/London/New York: Prestel Verlag.
  • Pickering, Andrew (2010). The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (especially pp. 39-41, 73-89). Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.

Background Literature:

  • Campen, Cretien van (2007). The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science. Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press.
  • Cytowic, Richard E. (1998). The Man Who Tasted Shapes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Kandinsky, Wassily (1927). And, Some Remarks on Synthetic Art. In Lindsay, Kenneth C. and Peter Vergo (Eds.) Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art (pp. 706-717). New York: Da Capo Press.
  • Wallenstein, Sven-Olov (2010). Space, time, and the arts: rewriting the Laocoon. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture,Vol 2 (2010), Online retrievable at: http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/article/view/2155
  • Ward, Jamie (2008). The Frog who Croaked Blue. Hove, East Sussex/New York: Routledge.

Further documentation:

A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, retrieved January, 14, 2015 from

http://artandolfaction.com/projects/past/a-trip-to-japan-in-sixteen-minutes- revisited/

The Flicker (Tony Conrad, 1966). Excerpt retrieved January 7, 2016 from


Task 6 – The sensory qualities of video?

  • Marks, Laura U. (2002). Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (pp. ix-xvii; 1-20; 113-159). Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Meigh-Andrews, Chris (20142). A history of video art (pp. 105-115, 132-167). New York etc.: Bloomsbury.

And one of the following texts:

  • Furlong, Laura (1983). Notes toward a history of image-processed video: Steina and Woody Vasulka, Afterimage December 1983, 12-17. Retrieved January 14 2015 from http://www.vasulka.org/archive/4-30c/AfterImageDec83%285001%29.pdf
  • Gagnon, Jean (2006). A demo tape on how to play video on the violin. Art Journal, 65 (3), 70-81.

Background Literature:

  • Sobchack, Vivian (2004). What my Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh. In Vivian Sobchack Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (pp. 53-84). Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.


  • Video accompanying Furlong, Gagnon and Meigh-Andrews: Steina Vasulka (1978).

Violin Power, http://vimeo.com/33471337

  • Images and videos accompanying Marks (2002): Dave Ryan – Haptic Nerve https://vimeo.com/22618948
  • Brothers Quay – Institute Benjamenta (trailer)


  • Brothers Quay – Street of Crocodiles (excerpt)


Task 7 – Multisensory exhibits

  • Bijsterveld, Karin (2015). Ears-on exhibitions: sound in the history museum, The Public Historian, 37 (4), 73-90.
  • Classen, Constance (2007). Museum manners: the sensory life of the early museum, Journal of Social History, 40 (4), 895-914.
  • Griffiths, Alison (2006). They go to see a show: Vicissitudes of spectating and the anxiety over the machine in the nineteenth-century science museum, Early Popular Visual Culture, 4 (3), 245-271.

Plus at least one of the following texts:

  • Candlin, Fiona. (2006). The Dubious Inheritance of Touch: Art History and Museum Access. Journal of Visual Culture, 5 (2), 137-154.
  • Clintberg, Mark (2014). Where publics may touch, Senses & Society, 9 (3), 310-322.
  • Huhtamo, Erkki (2017). Museums, interactivity, and the tasks of “exhibition anthropology”. In O. Grau (ed.) with Wendy Coones and Viola Rühse, Museum and Archive on the Move. Changing Cultural Institutions in the Digital Era (pp. 65-82). Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter.
  • Smith, Mark (2012). The garden in the machine: Listening to early American industrialization. In T. Pinch and K. Bijsterveld (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (pp. 39-57). Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Witcomb, Andrea (2014). ́Look, Listen and Feel ́: the First Peoples exhibition at the Bunjilaka Gallery, Melbourne Museum, Thema, 1, 49-62.

Task 8 – Designing and training the user

  • Goggin, Gerard (2017). Disability and haptic mobile media. New Media & Society, 19 (10), 1563-1580.
  • Goodwin, Charles (1994). Professional Vision. American Anthropologist, 96 (3), 606-633.
  • Mulvin, Dylan and Jonathan Sterne (2016). Scenes from an Imaginary Country: Test Images and the American Color Television Standard. Television & New Media, 17 (1), 21-43.
  • Sterne, Jonathan (2006). The MP3 as cultural artifact. New Media & Society, 8 (5), 825- 842
  • Sterne, Jonathan (2012). MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham: Duke University Press).
  • Sterne, Jonathan and Dylan Mulvin (2014). The Low Acuity for Blue: Perceptual Technics and American Color Television. Journal of Visual Culture, 13 (2), 118-138.

Background Literature:

  • Mills, Mara (2010). Deaf Jam: From Inscription to Reproduction to Information. Social Text, 28 (1), 35-58.
  • Oudshoorn, Nelly, Els Rommes and Marcelle Stienstra (2004). Configuring the User as Everybody: Gender and Design Cultures in Information and Communication Technologies. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 29 (1), 30-63.

Task 9 – Circulating the unknown

  • Dahlgren, Anna (2016). Photography Reframed. Culture Unbound, 8 (1), 3-19.

Plus at least one text from each of the following two pairs:

  • Sekula, Allan (1989). The Body and the Archive. In Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (pp. 343-388). Cambridge Mass. and London: MIT Press.


  • Tagg, John (1999). Evidence, truth and order: a means of surveillance. In Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (eds.), Visual Culture: The Reader (pp. 244-273). London: Thousand Oaks/New Delhi: Sage Publications.


  • Kim, Eun-Sung (2016). The sensory power of cameras and noise meters for protest surveillance in South Korea. Social Studies of Science, 46(3), 396-416.


  • Woo, Jisuk (2006). The right not to be identified: privacy and anonymity in the interactive media environment. New Media & Society, 8 (6), 949-967.

Background Literature:

  • Aubenas, Sylvie (1998). The photograph in print: multiplication and stability of the image. In Michel Frizot (ed.), A New History of Photography (pp. 224-231). Köln: Könemann.
  • Frizot, Michel (1998). Body of Evidence: the ethnography of difference. In Michel Frizot (ed.), A New History of Photography (pp. 258-271). Köln: Könemann.
  • McCauley, Elizabeth Anne (1994). Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris 1848-1871. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • Parry, Eugenia (2000). Crime Album Stories: Paris 1886-1902. Zurich/Berlin/New York: Scalo.
  • Tagg, John (1988). The Burden of Representation. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Task 10 – Recording and copying

  • Barry, Eric (2015). Mono in the Stereo Age. In Paul Théberge, Kyle Devine and Tom Everrett (eds.), Living Stereo: Histories and Cultures of Multichannel Sound (pp. 125-146). New York/London: Bloomsbury.
  • Gitelman, Lisa (2008). Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press.

And at least one of the following texts:

  • Sterne, Jonathan (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (pp. 215-
  • 286). Durham & London: Duke U.P.
  • Thompson, Emily (1995). Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925, The Musical Quarterly, 79 (1), 131-171.

Task 11 – Commercializing the senses

Read at least three of the following texts:

  • Classen, Constance, David Howes and Anthony Synnott (1994). Aroma: The cultural history of smell (pp. 180-205). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Degen, Monica, Clare Melhuish and Gillian Rose (2017). Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy. Journal of Consumer Culture, 17 (1), 3-24.
  • Leitch, Alison (2003). Slow food and the politics of pork fat: Italian food and European identity. Ethnos, 68 (4), 437-462.
  • Paterson, Mark (2006). Digital Scratch and Virtual Sniff: Stimulating Scents. In J. Drobnick (ed.), The Smell Culture Reader (pp. 358-367). Oxford/New York: Berg.
  • Plotnick, Rachel (2017). Force, flatness and touch without feeling: Thinking historically about haptics and buttons. New Media & Society, 19 (10), 1632 – 1652.
  • Symanczyk, Anna (2015). The Sound of Stuff – Archetypical Sound in Product Sound Design. Journal of Sonic Studies, 10. Retrieved from https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/221835/221836/0/0.


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