“Our goal was to join the material world and the symbolic world,” says Heather Paxson.
“The tendency in our field had been to neglect the body and the senses. It’s all in the head. It was exciting to bring these two together.”
A year ago, she and Stefan Helmreich, both professors of anthropology, launched Sensing the Unseen, a one year seminar that focused on the unseen world — from invisible toxic chemicals to echoes to fleeting tastes — and showed how the intangible world is as real and significant as that which we can see and touch.
“You can’t, for example, fully explain the social world without taking ghosts, saints, or gods into account,” Paxson says. “It’s similar to thinking about how we feel pain, or how we hear things, or how we taste with our tongues. Our usual social theory doesn’t account for everything. We need another language.”
The idea for the event — a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — arose when Paxson and Helmreich, who holds the Elting E. Morison Chair, realized that many faculty members in their department were working in sensory studies.
Open to the public, the seminar met once a month for eight months and drew crowds from across New England, including faculty and students from Harvard, Brandeis, Boston University, Mount Holyoke, and Brown. Each session featured research presentations by scholars from across the country and discussions by local scholars.
The seminar focused on six aspects of the unseen:
The Elusive: Listening
Sound can access that which is out of sight, generating new ways of understanding spaces and places.
The Unaccounted: Measuring
Whether at the nano, atomic, or molecular scale, or at the scale of global accounting — as with climate change or global finance — measurement is a way to bring the unseen into the open.
The Occult: Governing
If governing depends on making social relations legible, what about the realms of ghosts, gods, angels, or spirits?
The Invisible: Feeling
Feeling points to unseen activity inside the body, including pain, trauma, and suffering, and has different meanings across contexts.
The Evanescent: Tasting
Taste is at once physiological and a subjective aesthetic experience.
The Obscure: Photographing
From spirit photography to microcinematography to strobed high-speed snapshots, photography and film make visible that which is unseen.
“How do we understand the way we taste things? How do we learn new tastes?” Helmreich asks. “When I was a kid here in Boston, for example, there was no sushi. And I was taught you couldn’t eat raw food. But tastes transform. How are our senses tuned to new flavors?” He notes that Boston’s New England Aquarium now has an exhibit showcasing the beauty of jellyfish and that this may just be the beginning of these creatures’ appearance in our everyday lives; some scientists speculate that in 20 years many of us will be eating jellyfish because of overfishing of the ocean. How will this previously untasted taste be assimilated by those unfamiliar with it?
Speaking about the invisible, Paxson says, is difficult. “That’s why the seminar was challenging and fun.”
“Sensing the Unseen addressed the many ways we know what we know. But it was not only about grappling with existential questions. Sometimes you could just be trying to figure out why this cheese tastes better than that cheese.”
How do we hear the world? Steven Feld, an anthropologist of music, spoke at the seminar on Listening. He helped the audience understand that music might mean many things cross-culturally. For some, music must be composed. For others, ambient sounds, like flowing rivers, may be musical. During a visit to Ghana, Feld asked local musicians to play instruments along with an audio recording he had made of frogs that live in the sewers of Accra; tuning in to frogs croaking might be a way of hearing the previously unheard.
“It’s not that people can’t physically hear the frogs, it’s just that they can’t understand how to hear them yet,” Helmreich says. “Music keeps changing. And the question is how do people apprehend that? The boundary between music and noise depends on who is listening.”
The benefit of work in the anthropology of the unseen, Helmreich says, is that we can understand how people make the invisible real, and even create new realities in the material world. For example, he says, “the subvisible realm of nanotechnology produces new possibilities for engineering. Novel beliefs in spiritual phenomena can produce new worship practices and new communities of people.”
Paxson adds: “People have long talked about science and religion as ways of making sense of the inexplicable or of the natural world, but one of the things the seminar did was talk about this in terms of people’s everyday lives, and it was great.”