Literary Sensory Studies at ACCL Changsha 2019

This year’s conference for the Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature will take place at Hunan Normal University in Changsha July 17-19. Together with eminent scholars Michelle Yeh of UC Davis and Melinda Pirazzoli of University of Bologna, I’m hosting a panel on Sensory Literary Studies.

2096272747_cfc8b757eb_b‘What is that?’ you may well ask… Defining sensory studies, anthropologist David Howes writes that ”sensory studies involves a cultural approach to the study of the senses and a sensory approach to the study of culture. It challenges the monopoly that the discipline of psychology has long exercised over the study of the senses and sense perception by foregrounding the sociality of sensation” (Howes 2013).

What I should like to do, is apply some of the insights from this growing field of research to the study of literature as an important cultural practice where sensory vocabulary and concepts are codified and challenged.

14761272204_9b31c9166b_bToday, the cross-disciplinary field of sensory studies encourages us to acknowledge how “sensory experience is socially made and mediated” and to think that senses are “not simply passive receptors. They are interactive, both with the world and each other” (Howes 2013). By comparing culturally and historically diverse sensory modes and codes, as well as seeking to include internal senses such as sense of pain (nociception), of one’s own muscles and organs (proprioception) and temperature (thermoception), researchers are challenging the conventional pentagonal sensorium.

vintage-eye-examination-posterIn this panel, we want to continue the sensory discussion in the literary arena; to think and talk about the ways in which Sinophone fiction and poetry can portray, disrupt and re-conceptualise sensory experience. Our aim is to start an academic conversation about the possibility of ‘Literary Sensory Studies’ and suggest some of the interesting and fruitful paths such a subfield might take. By bringing together sensory analyses of classical poetry, modernist literature and contemporary fiction, we hope to show the concept’s wide-ranging applicability in terms of literary scholarship.

A Rainy Day in Shanghai

During spring 2017, I spent three wonderful months in Shanghai on a research exchange with Fudan University, which consisted mainly of buying a load of books, reading and meeting people and, last but not least, of walking around the city, absorbing all sensory input to my heart’s content.

As literary researchers, we are in grave danger of becoming armchair Sinologists because our entire field of study is brought to us through text: We can access it anytime from anywhere. So once in a while it’s worth the effort to get out there and experience first hand the smell of steaming baozi, the call of street peddlers among honking cars, the vista of the Huangpujiang and the feel of heavy spring rain that we otherwise only read about.

As you can see from this short film, Shanghai’s cityscape is an endearing mix of new and old, Chinese and European, marked by ubiquitous construction sites as well as the more benign Chinese parasol trees (wutongshu 梧桐树). While aggressive urbanisation is rapidly changing, and to some extend deforming, the city every day, examples of old lilong (里弄) lanes and unique Shanghai style architecture still remain to rejoice in.

Without falling into the trap of Shanghai nostalgia, which tend to idealise 1930s Shanghai as a utopian metropolis characterised by the effortless blending of East and West (in reality, the few percent of the population who were Europeans and Americans lived isolated in their own enclaves, while the considerable number of people from other Asian countries, who called Shanghai their home, are largely ignored in this nostalgic narrative), I still attest that the material cityscape of Shanghai itself can be viewed as an utterly enjoyable living display of historical and contemporary cultural diversity, conflict and curiosity.