Visual Tumult

John Demos

  • Sensory Worlds in Early America by Peter Charles Hoffer
    Johns Hopkins, 334 pp, $25.00, December 2005, ISBN 0 08 018839 7

As the long skein of historians’ interest continues to unwind – from its once dominant focus on politics and warfare, to the successively ‘new’ fields of intellectual, social and cultural history – the newest of the new is the senses. Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell: each has a history, and each has beckoned to scholars for at least a decade.

The possibilities for sensory history are nothing if not encompassing. At least three broad lines of investigation readily suggest themselves. The first, and least ambitious, is simply to add a sensory element to studies that are mainly about something else. What did 18th-century New York, or London or Tokyo, look like? (This could be part of a general account of urban class structure in early modern times.) How, exactly, did church bells sound in late medieval villages? (This, for a study of local religious culture.) What was the range of noxious battlefield odours – from decayed flesh, animal or human excrement, gunpowder and so on – accompanying warfare in the early 19th century? (This, for a history of the Napoleonic invasions.)

A second, rather different line of research aims at reconstructing an entire sector of sensory life in the past, in and for itself: the ‘soundscape’ of colonial New England perhaps; or changes in the experience, and social meaning, of smell through 300 years of French history. One can imagine such studies accumulating by the dozen, covering each of the five senses in a broad variety of historical settings; the end result could be a virtual map of sensory life, from some (undetermined) beginning point long ago right up to the present.

Peter Charles Hoffer, one of sensory history’s leading exponents, acknowledges both approaches and, to a degree, tries them out in his own study. But his central aim is something more. He wishes to give sensory experience a dynamic role in history as a whole – to show how ‘sensation and perception might have acted as causes.’ Hoffer’s specific target, in this as in much of his previous scholarly work, is the British colonies in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. His initial hypothesis, and ultimate conclusion, is that ‘the report of the senses was of immense importance’ to the people who lived there and then. However, early America is, for Hoffer, simply a convenient venue in which to demonstrate his much larger conviction ‘that sensation . . . affected some of those great events whose cause and course we historians conventionally attribute to deep cultural structures and overarching material forces.’

He also has a methodological goal. By means of a careful ‘revisiting of historical sites and a rereading of primary source texts to uncover the sensory in them’, he proposes to test, and to model for other historians, a particular form of historical reconstruction. His use of personal, on-site impressions is provocative. In the course of his research he visited numerous ‘living museums’ of life in early America, talked at length with docents and re-enactors, and carefully monitored the ‘report’ of his own senses. While freely admitting the limits of this strategy, Hoffer contends that it captures ‘essential sensory truths’. Try things out on yourself, he suggests, and watch how you react. He describes, in dramatic detail, one exemplary episode from several years past: an evening stroll he took through a field near Salem, Massachusetts, where many ‘supposed bewitchings’ occurred during the famous witch-hunt of 1692. ‘Alone with my thoughts and the night sounds . . . I convinced myself that I believed in Satan and all his evil works . . . The more I threw myself into my fantasy, the more menacing the night became. A dog’s barking nearby [seemed] ominous. The rustle of . . . leaves . . . raised prickles on my skin. Then . . . I imagined . . . that I saw an opaque humanoid shape sliding out from the trees toward me.’ At this point he broke off his ‘thought experiment’ and returned to the security of his parked car; even so, he remained ‘sweating, my breath coming in raspy gulps’ for some minutes longer. Although much of Hoffer’s research involved written documents of an entirely familiar sort, his ‘moment of terror’ there in the field at Salem, together with other such personally experienced ‘moments’, is one of the supports of his entire project.

Hoffer introduces his book as ‘no more than a set of exploratory essays’, and his four main chapters constitute separate essays on a variety of well-known topics. Each one is designed to present an ‘extended sensory moment’, each serves to highlight a different ‘problem’ or ‘question’ related to sensory experience, and each rests on a basis of much careful thought – as well as more than a little imagination. The first essay treats the large and important theme of ‘English-Indian encounters’ in the earliest phase of colonial settlement, with particular emphasis on the famous ‘lost colony’ at Roanoke Island (1586-89) and the subsequent founding of Jamestown, Virginia (1607). The fundamental problem raised in such places was novelty: in short, how to deal with ‘the unexpected, the unforeseen’. Indians and Englishmen lived in radically different ‘sensory worlds’. Indians, for example, were accustomed to a highly refined ‘aural environment’, in which the sounds of things – animals, weather events, ‘ritual speech performance’ – assumed great importance. At the same time, Indians typically experienced all the senses together, in a fully integrated way. The English, by contrast, tended to prioritise sight, while rejecting ‘holistic naturalism’. For them, sensate impressions were, in effect, segmented – ‘individual, precise and set in a particular time and place’.

During the opening decades of encounter, there was a sort of even-up exchange, with both sides gripped by ‘curiosity’ and the ‘wonder’ of the new. But as time passed, ‘mutuality’ was replaced by ‘asymmetry’ and a steadily building ‘contest’ for dominance. Eventually, the English won out; that we know well enough. But what we may not fully appreciate, according to Hoffer, is the extent to which their winning depended on ‘sensory imperialism’. In short, they succeeded (in large part) by forcing their own pattern of sensory experience on their Indian counterparts. How, exactly, did they manage this? By astute manipulation of ‘signs’ – for example, the ‘asymmetrical power’ of words, both heard and seen – and, most especially, by ‘changing the scenery’. They cut down forest, cleared fields, built towns and set up fences, all of which served, in the long run, to disorient Indian peoples and to establish an English-style sensory regime. The English fort at Roanoke, for instance, ‘hurt the Indian eye’; as did their other ways of transforming the landscape.

The next chapter of Sensory Worlds couples two seemingly disparate kinds of event, ‘Indian wars and witchcraft crises’. Their linkage seems a little strained, but with both Hoffer stresses the importance of ‘invisible world’ connections. His focus here becomes things not seen, or heard, or felt – at least not directly – yet still within the realm of human ‘perception’. The early Americans, while struggling to make sense of their recurrent wars with Indians, regularly invoked the supernatural power of ‘providence’, which was as real to them as the earth under their feet. Furthermore, in the intervals between wars they sought to convert Indians to their own religious outlook, including their sense of the invisible.

In their witch-hunts, meanwhile, the same people encountered ‘spectres, demons and ghosts at the edge of the visible spectrum’. Here, indeed, the invisible ‘spilled out into the everyday world’ and posed a direct challenge to their established modes of sensory experience. What to make of the variously appearing spectral ‘shapes’? How to interpret the usually malign, but occasionally healing, touch of supposed witches? Where to position, as part of actual trial proceedings, a cacophony of ‘hearsay’ evidence? In sum: how, under these extraordinary circumstances, to believe the ‘report’ of one’s own eyes, ears and skin?

For witchcraft was at its core a ‘crime against the senses’, a ‘transforming’ of ‘normal perception into abnormal and dreadful experiences’; its typical accompaniments included ‘strange noise, a noxious odour, a fireball’ and other elements of ‘sensory assault’. The resulting ‘sensory anarchy’ was especially disconcerting for elite colonists, including ministers. As they struggled to respond, they retreated step by step from their previously enthusiastic embrace of the ‘invisible world’. Instead, they came to prefer ‘science, reason and experiment over the supernatural’. Thus the Enlightenment was born from ‘a series of sensory crises’.

Hoffer’s third chapter is built around another seemingly improbable pairing, ‘slave revolts and religious awakenings’. What joins these two is the problem of perceiving, and dealing with ‘otherness’. Most obviously, ‘the presence of Africans . . . posed an array of sensory challenges’ to every generation of early Americans. Certainly, in their system of slave labour, ‘colour made all the difference’; you could see a slave, without needing any other cues. This, in turn, went hand in hand with a ‘sensory prejudice’ against blackness.

And because the slaves brought with them from Africa distinctive modes of sense perception they formed ‘sensory communities’ very different from those of their white masters: different looks (clothing and hairstyles), different sounds (drumming and singing). Such ‘visible and audible otherness’ was bound sooner or later to generate conflict, as in the Stono Rebellion (South Carolina, 1739) and the ‘New York conspiracy’ (1741). Careful examination of these episodes reveals that ‘the contest of slave and master was sensory warfare with a vengeance.’ For example, the Stono rebels repeatedly made ‘visual and auditory avowals of their martial ardour’, and, against all precedent, confronted their enemies ‘eye to eye’.

Hoffer makes the long stretch from slave rebellions to religious revivalism with barely a catch of his breath. Revivals, too, were a form of sensory conflict, for revival leaders typically advanced ‘radical’ modes not only of faith but also of sensory experience, including sound (ecstatic preaching), sight (gesture and body language) and touch (healing dramas). All these features were vividly present in the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Predictably, they provoked a strong, ultimately successful reaction from the mainstream clergy. Like slave resistance, revivalism was eventually suppressed – or at least held in check – but both, taken together, left ‘a sensate heritage that a new generation would draw upon’.

The subject of Hoffer’s fourth and final ‘exploratory essay’ is the American Revolution, which he presents as fundamentally a ‘revolution of the senses’. Once again – as with all the previous chapters – readers are made witness to ‘sensory warfare’ – by now, the very terms have developed an annoying echo. His argument about this double revolution, political and sensory, is easy to anticipate – and to restate here. The American ‘patriots’ embodied one style of sensate experience, their ‘loyalist’ opponents another. During the run-up to actual hostilities, a longstanding ‘provincial sensory model’, based on genteel forms of personal and social display, came under increasingly direct attack. The rebels created ‘visual and aural tumult’, with their liberty trees, effigy-burnings, house-attacks, occasional use of Indian costume (think of the Boston Tea Party), and ‘bold, direct and emotional’ speech-forms; the sum of it was a kind of sensory ‘terrorism’.

As time passed and passions deepened, elite colonists, including a good many who had joined the revolutionary side, became fearful and began to draw back. It thus fell to the Founding Fathers to scale back the ‘revolutionary sensory model’. In response to ‘sensory overload’ they assayed a broad-gauge ‘desensitisation of discourse’. The Declaration of Independence is a prime example (and result) of that process: it is eloquent but abstract, containing ‘nothing for the imagination – no colour or motion . . . One cannot smell or touch or taste natural rights.’ The eventual result was yet a third sensory regime, reflecting the ‘new . . . canons of republicanism’, as expressed in plain speaking, simple dress, moderate demeanour, unaffected manners and other outward signs of inner ‘virtue’.

What are we to make of all this? There is no doubting Hoffer’s good intentions, his extensive research, his fine powers of argument and his eloquence. But are his claims about early American ‘sensory worlds’ persuasive? And how does the overall enterprise of sensory history fare in the light of those claims?

Take the matter of settlers and Indians encountering one another, and Hoffer’s view of the impact of ‘changing the scenery’. When trees were felled and fields planted, what, in fact, did it mean for Indians? A central consequence – the central consequence? – was surely, and straightforwardly, material: the steady disappearance of an ecosystem in which native peoples had long gained their living. They had less and less opportunity to hunt, for example: game animals vanished along with the forest. Change in sensory experience may have proved unsettling; but one suspects that its importance was secondary – if not incidental. One wonders, too, about the larger concept of ‘sensory imperialism’. No doubt all European colonisation of the Americas was deeply imperialist – witness the recurrent warfare, the engrossment of land and other natural resources, the exploitation of native labour, and quite a lot more. But how high up, among these various kinds of ‘asymmetry’, should one rank the sensory?

Versions of the same question can be directed at other parts of Hoffer’s analysis. Recent studies of witch-hunting have uncovered powerful evidence of social and economic conflict, fears of Indian attack and other such forces at work behind the specific accusations and trial proceedings; ‘sensory anarchy’ doubtless prevailed, but at what level of causal significance? Slave rebellions may well have exposed a clash of sensory norms, but were they not, in the first instance, desperate struggles against unbearable personal oppression? Religious revivals certainly fostered new modes of worship with vivid appeal to the senses; but did they not, most of all, express widely felt needs around faith itself? And as for the American Revolution, can its sensory dimension reasonably be accorded equal status with the political and social ones?

In sum, Hoffer’s attempt to elevate the causal role of sensory experience falls short, even for the events and trends on which he chooses to focus. One can discern, in each case, a sensory element; but its significance is more a matter of context than of cause. At the very least, one would need a way of measuring the sensory against the political, the material, the ideational and so on, in order to make the case.

There is, finally, a conceptual difficulty lurking just beneath the surface of Hoffer’s entire project. The ‘report of the senses’ can never by itself achieve motive power, whether in the lives of individual persons, or in the histories of groups. That comes only through further steps of processing: steps that involve both cognitive assessment and (for lack of a better term) emotional charging. The fundamental sequence runs from sensory experience, through cognition and emotion, to behaviour. It is, above all, emotional energy that drives specific human actions – the energy of fear, joy, anger, surprise and a handful of other ‘primary affects’ (in various compounds and combinations). Hoffer gives barely a nod towards this crucial aspect. To be sure, the phrase ‘sensation and perception’ appears throughout his pages, but only in a brief endnote does he address the distinction between the two. ‘Sensation,’ he writes there, ‘is the immediate encounter with sensory stimuli; the secondary processing I call perception’ (the italics are his). Again: though ‘secondary’ in time-sequence, this processing is absolutely central; without it, sensory ‘reports’ would be meaningless. And without the energy supplied by affect, the processing itself would be empty and inert – at most a kind of record-keeping. Hoffer does from time to time make passing, almost inadvertent, reference to emotion – for example, in his suggestion that the colonists’ fort at Roanoke ‘hurt the Indian eye’. But such casually framed allusions do little justice to all that was (at least potentially) involved. Emotion seems, on the whole, a missing link in Sensory Worlds in Early America.

Fortunately, as sensory history gains momentum, another trend, ‘emotion history’, is rising as well. Though less advanced, and very much needing its own forms of conceptual clarification, it too seems likely to catch on. When (or if) the two can be married – sensory history with emotion history – both sides will have much to gain.