Visual culture versus tactile culture

I took a course once on the "anthropology of the senses", and the basic premise of the class is that different cultures conceptualize the senses differently. And this changes how they experience the world. The class also looked at some recent scientific studies of brain function, which show that the idea of 5 discreet senses is incorrect. Sensory data goes into the same place, and affects the interpretation of each other. The book I remember the best from that class was called "The book of skin" and it described the way the skin has been thought of in different cultures. This involves everything from tattooing to piercing, but also the symbolic and metaphorical ways scars and moles and other marks on the skin have been expressed in language, writing, and images. The book argues that in modern western culture, individuality is directly related to understandings of the skin not only as a boundary but also as the thing which carries our individual life history. Each scar becomes an episode in a narrative of our life. The book argues also that children's fascination with scabs is in fact a child's first understanding of the passage of time. In checking their own skin daily for changes in a scab, they witness the affect of time.

One thing I disliked about the book was the emphasis on skin as a visual platform. Even though the book discussed that other cultures do not think of the skin so much as a surface as an organ or sensory apparatus, the author seemed himself unable to come to terms with the tactile function of skin. Only in the discussion of tattooing did he give serious consideration to the idea that it is not the visual pattern that matters, but rather the ability of a tattoo to elicit a sympathetic sensory response in another human being, who recognizes the extreme pain endured to produce the image, that makes tattoos meaningful.

One of the things I am arguing in my dissertation is that Settlement and Commonwealth period Icelanders were more tactile and less visual, and I believe the same is likely true of Viking Age Scandinavians.


Lissy said…
My dissertation is also about the disjuncture between literary culture (the world we write about) and material culture (the world we actually live in).

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