Hearing Scents, Tasting Sights: Toward a Cross-Cultural Multi-Modal Theory of Aesthetics

Part III: Sensorial Investigations

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Part III: Sensorial Investigations
Let us now consider another non-Western aesthetic practice which gives the lie to the assumption that "Odors display taste properties but do not elicit auditory or visual sensations" (Stevenson and Boakes 2004) - namely, the Japanese incense-guessing game or "way of incense" (kōdō).7 Osborne (1984) refers to this game approvingly as a way of cultivating the ability to make "fine discriminations within a narrow range of sensory quality," which is so important to art appreciation. He characterizes it as involving "the competitive discrimination of scents of the incense type." As we shall see, however, this characterization is altogether too unisensory since the trick to this game lies in crossing sensory borders.
Hearing Scents: Japanese Incense Ceremony
The history of incense in Japan is as old as that of Buddhism, since the two were introduced from China together in the sixth century. To this day, Buddhist monks use incense to sacralize a space, as a vehicle of prayer, and as an aid to concentration. However, incense may also be enjoyed without any religious purpose, in which case it is called "empty burning," a pastime which became especially popular among the aristocracy during the Heian period, who delighted in compounding incense and then guessing the ingredients when burnt. The "way of incense" proper was codified in the fourteenth century, with different schools devising different rules. The tea ceremony (shoji) and the art of floral arrangement date from the same period. All three constituted essential accomplishments of the courtly class. The ceremony was taken over by other classes in subsequent centuries, but then fell into desuetude in 1861, only to be revived as a Japanese family game in the twentieth century.

Originally the grading of incense was by country of origin, since jinko (aloeswood) from various parts of the world differed in quality: Manaban (from the Malabar coast of southern India) was the coarsest and Rakoku (from Thailand) among the finest. There were six such categories in all. In the fourteenth century a gustatory lexicon was devised for grading purposes.

Sweet Honey or syruplike


Sour Unripe fruit aroma

Hot Spicy aroma

Salty Marine, ozonic or

perspiration aroma

Bitter Medicinal aroma
This gustatory ordination of incense makes sense, as Stevenson and Boakes would be quick to note, since the senses of taste and smell are so integrally linked. But the matter does not stop there, since this categorization also added a class dimension. The scent of Malanban, for example, is considered sweet, unrefined and rather gritty whence the characterization of its demeanour as "The Coarse Peasant," while the aroma of Rakoku, which is pungent and bitter, has the demeanour of a warrior and is known as "The Samurai."

Probing further, we discover that the Japanese do not smell or taste the woodsmoke but rather, as the saying goes, "listen to the incense" (ko wo kiku). Various explanations have been offered for this turn of phrase. One authority notes that it translates the original Chinese phrase wen xiang, the pictograph for which resembles a person kneeling to pray and meditate. Another suggests that "listening" more aptly conveys the concentration that is involved in kōdō than a term such as "smelling" (or merely "hearing"). Yet another authority stresses the cosmological dimension: everything is fragrant, like incense, in Buddha's world, including his words or teachings, which are therefore to be scented as well as heard. Finally, it is significant to note that many forms of the game involve the recitation or composition of poetry, and thus implicate the verbal arts.

The visual and haptic senses also play a role in odour-appreciation Japanese-style: the former in the way calligraphy is used to record the contestants' guesses and the latter in the way the master of ceremonies, the tabulator and all the contestants adopt a kneeling posture for the duration of the game. The ostensibly restricted role which the visual and haptic senses play in the practice of kōdō (e.g. having to kneel still, not being able to see the jinko since it is concealed in envelopes) is counterbalanced by the degree to which these senses are extended in the imagination. Consider the variant of the game called "Shirakawa Border Station," where the poem by the same names provides the ceremony with its structure - or rather, its map. The idea is to retrace the long journey (370 miles) from Kyoto to Shirakawa which the poet Noin (who lived during the late Heian period) undertook by foot, taking two full seasons to complete.
I left the capital,

Veiled in spring mist

An autumn wind blows here,

At Shirakawa Border station

The protocol of the game is as follows:

Step 1. The master of ceremonies informs the guests that the three pieces of incense are called Mist in the Capital, Autumn Wind, and Shirakawa Border Station. Guests listen to the two sample incense pieces, Mist in the Capital first, and Autumn Wind second (Shirakawa Border Station is not circulated during the tryout phase.)

Step 2. The master of ceremonies shuffles the three pieces (one each of Mist in the Capital, Autumn Wind and Shirakawa Border Station).

Step 3. After the burning of each incense piece, guests indicate their listening by writing down the names of the incense on the tablet provided (Morita 1999: ...)

Another variant is called "The Three Scenic Spots." In this game, one imagines a boat ride to each of the three famous sites: Matsushima (an archipelago), Amanohashidate (a white spit of land covered in pine tress) and Itsukusjima (with its famous Shinto red gateway).

The question arises: Why all this emphasis on travel? Perhaps it is because the aroma of incense transports you, literally. Also of note in this connection is the fact that it is easier to summon a visual image of a place to mind when you catch a whiff of some scent (e.g. that of fresh-mown hay) than it is to summon a scent to mind when staring at a postcard of a landscape (e.g. of a field of fresh-mown hay). Kōdō capitalizes on this asymmetry in the cross-modal activation potential of the senses of sight and smell, and by so doing enriches the field of vision without detracting from the pleasures of olfaction. Thus, Osborne is partially correct when he says that the incense ceremony cultivates the capacity to make fine discriminations within a narrow range of sensory quality (i.e. smell), but it would be more correct to say that it fosters the ability to forge intersensory connections.

Tasting Sights: Hindu Gustatory Cosmos
Where is theatricality located in the body? asks Richard Schechner in "Rasaethetics." This section reviews Schechner's comparison of the Indian and Western theatrical traditions which are shown to locate theatricality in very different senses.
Synaesthetic Cosmos of the Desana Indians of Colombia
Perhaps the most notable practitioners of what I call "cultural synaesthesia" (Howes 2006a) are the Desana people of the Colombian rainforest. 8 For the Desana all sensory phenomena are interconnected, a perception heightened by their ritual ingestion of hallucinogenic plants. According to their understanding of the nature of the cosmos, the Sun gives life to our world by infusing it with "colour energies". Each of these colour energies embodies a different set of values and potentialities. Red, for example, exemplifies the power of female fertility. Everything in the world contains a combination of these colour energies, which may be visible, as in the colours of flowers, or invisible, as in the rainbow of chromatic energies said to animate human beings. (Only the shaman is able to perceive the latter with the aid of the hallucinogenic vine and his special rock crystals.)

These life-giving colours form a primary set of sensory energies for the Desana. Secondary sets consist of such phenomena as temperatures, odours and flavours. Odours are believed to result from a combination of colour and temperature, flavour, in turn, arises from odour.

The Desana understanding and use of these sensory phenomena or qualia is complex and extensive. As regards odour, the Desana are extremely attentive to the odours in their environment, calling themselves "wira," which means, "people who smell. They hold that each individual has a "signature" odour. This underlying odour can be altered by changes in emotional states, by lifecycle changes such as pregnancy, or by changes in diet. Tribes or extended kin groups are said to share a similar characteristic odour which permeates the area they inhabit. Even when this living space shows no sign of human habitation, the tribal scent is said to still be present. In fact, when travelling through their rainforest environment, the Desana will continually sniff the air in order to detect the scent of the peoples inhabiting the region, as well as the odours of different Amazonian animals and plants. As the Desana move through the environment they say that they lay down what they call "wind threads," or scent trails, which can, in turn, be discerned by other people and animals.

Odours for the Desana are not simply indicators of presence, however, or of emotional state or dietary preference. Like colours, odours are believed to embody key values. One particular odour associated by the Desana with a range of items including deer and palm trees, for example, conveys the notion of male fertility. The odours of certain kinds of ants and worms, by contrast, are associated with feminine forces. Such perceived olfactory similarities make possible a variety of ritual substitutions. During certain ceremonies, for example, ants or worms may symbolize women, whose odour they share. They also necessitate an utmost attention to olfactory interrelations, as it is considered highly dangerous to combine odours (or colours) embodying contrasting forces indiscriminately. This is particularly emphasized in Desana cuisine in which great care is taken to blend food odours harmoniously, not in order to create pleasing dishes, but so as to preserve the proper order of the cosmos.

Desana artefacts, in turn, also contain multi-sensory meanings. The values associated with a Desana basket, for example, are manifested not only through its colours and patterns, but also through its texture, its odour and even though the flavour of the particular vines of which it was made. (This, by the way, serves as a good illustration of how much sensory and aesthetic meaning may be suppressed when a multisensory artefact is turned into a purely visual display in a Western museum (see Classen and Howes 2006).)

The intensely multi-sensory nature of the Desana cosmic model means that every floral aroma, every bird song, every flutter of a butterfly suggests a particular cosmic value to the Desana and may be grouped together with other similar values in order to create a sensorial classificatory system which cut across species' boundaries. The synaesthetic nature of the Desana cosmos, means that one sensory phenomenon readily suggests another phenomenon in a different perceptual field, if not a whole train of sensations. An odour will bring to mind a colour; a colour, an odour, along, perhaps, with a temperature and a vibration. A particular design or arrangement of colours used in Desana art, for example, will evoke odours, flavours and other sensations customarily linked with those patterns and arouse of host of related cosmological values. A good example of this is the synaesthetic associations the Desana make with a certain kind of flute. The sound of the flute is said to be yellow in colour, hot in temperature and masculine in odour. The vibrations it produces are said to remind people of correct child-rearing practices. I should emphasize that these synaesthetic, multimodal, associations are culturally shared and not simply the idiosyncratic perceptions of any particular individual. This form of synaesthesia transcends the domain of the neuropsychologist and involves those loops through the body, the environment, and the social world discussed earlier.

It must be noted, however, that the Desana do not themselves understand their synaesthetic world view as a cultural construct, but as plain reality. What is more, the Desana have their own theories of neuropsychology, and their brain science is highly aesthetic. The right hemisphere of the brain, they say, is concerned with practical and biological matters. This hemisphere is known as "existence-first". The left hemisphere has as its sphere divine, abstract ideals and is called "abstract-first". The right hemisphere perceives different sensory phenomena, the left translates them into underlying moral values. In another image, the brain is conceptualized as a buzzing beehive, with each hexagonal compartment containing honey of a different colour, flavour or texture and relating to a different area of human life. As with the synaesthetic associations they reflect, such cerebral models are not the domain of specialized individuals, but are generally shared among the Desana.

As regards art, its primary role among the Desana is to employ iconic images in diverse sensory fields in order to assist individuals to be "in tune" with the vibrating energies of the cosmos and the values these represent. Art, in fact, is a means of transcending the everyday realm of practical affairs and uniting oneself with the abstract ideals of the divine realm. The more sensory channels are involved in the process, the more complete the transcendence.

With the Desana we seem to have come as far afield as possible from Western notions of aesthetics and perception and entered a completely foreign realm or "different reality." Yet parallels may be found. One might think of the multi-sensory visions of the medieval mystics or of nineteenth-century efforts to create an "omniart" which would engage all of the senses (see Classen 1998). Within the field of science there is the enigmatic "pyschophysicist" Charles Henry who worked at the turn of the twentieth century. Sometimes known as the "Symbolist scientist" for his influence on the Symbolist art movement (see Argüelles 1972), Henry argued that all of life was governed and unified by underlying cosmic "rhythms." Henry held that, as the cosmos itself was a unified whole, divisions and oppositions between the fields of science and art were artificial and counterproductive. Indeed, the highest goal of art, according to Henry, is to employ iconic images which will put people in touch with the basic rhythms of the universe and, by integrating all their sensory faculties, enable them to achieve a state of transcendence.

While the means by which Henry arrived at his "scientific aesthetic", and the values he associated with different sensory phenomena, would no doubt be alien to the Desana worldview, nonetheless some correspondences are definitely there. Which leads me to think that, when looking for bridges between science and aesthetics, as well as for relationships among the senses, one might be well advised to look not only across cultures but also at marginalized ideologies and practices within the West itself.

Part IV: Toward a Cross-Cultural Multimodal Theory of Aesthetics
In this essay I have described how, in modern Western culture, there is a strong tendency to separate the senses for scientific and aesthetic purposes. In many non-Western cultures, by contrast, the emphasis falls on the intersection of the senses, or transmutation of one modality into another. I have further suggested that any theory of aesthetics, if it is to hold cross-culturally and not merely pertain to the West, will necessarily be multimodal, and that the same goes for any scientific theory of perception. Recent advances in neuropsychological research on the multisensory organization of the brain lend support to the latter proposition, up to a point. We have further seen that when a cross-cultural dimension is added to this theory, our comprehension of the multisensory organization of the brain stands to be increased a hundredfold, if not more, as a consequence of the revelation of all sorts of heretofore unsuspected cross-linkages between the senses in cultural practice, such as hearing scents (kōdō) and tasting sights (rasa). These practices represent so many "loops through the environment" (in Kirmayer's terms) or ritualized "extensions of the senses" (to borrow McLuhan's phrase) in the same way that television, for example, represents a technological extension of the senses of sight and hearing.

Prior to this conference on "Making Sense of Art, Making Art of Sense," I held a dim view of neuropsychologists ever being able to imagine (never mind simulate experimentally) all of the possible interconnections of the senses that current research in the anthropology of the senses has brought to light and thus suggests may be latent in the human condition. This dim view was based on my perception of the absence of any meaningful cross-talk between the two disciplines. Now, after having seen Charles Spence perform on opening night, I have a much brighter view. In his presentation together with Heston Blumenthal, as in the many ingenious experiments he has conducted in his Cross-Modal Research Lab, Spence has been systematically trying out every conceivable permutation in the kaleidoscope - or better, collideroscope (to borrow another McLuhan expression) of the sensorium. Indeed, Charles Spence strikes me as the Futurist scientist of our day, just as Charles Henry was the Symbolist scientist of his own time, with the difference that Spence is more interested in patterns of inteference (than correspondence) and in the modulation (as opposed to the harmomization) of perception across the modalities.9 The impressive scope of Spence's research into the multisensory integration of the brain (see e.g. Spence and Zampini 2006; Spence and Macdonald 2004) leads me to think that he has brought us to the brink of a revolution in the sensory sciences which is as radical as the revolution in linguistic science inspired by de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (1915), again with the difference that Spence's research crosses modalities whereas de Saussure confined his attention to the registration of discriminations in a single sensory field - namely, the sonic.

This paper has also attempted to recuperate the original idea behind the "science of sense perception" as defined by Baumgarten. We have seen how his notion of aesthetics as the perception of "the unity-in-multiplicity of sensible qualities" can be expanded through a consideration of the aesthetic practices of a range of non-Western cultures, while in the West this concept has been whittled down to fit within the discrete fields of painting, music, poetry, etc.. Here too, however, some of the more innovative practices of contemporary art show signs of recovering the sensory plenitude that Kant sought to suppress.10 I think of two works in the "Art & The Senses" exhibition curated by Francesca Bacci: Oswaldo Macia's "Smellscape" which translates the route described in Jules Vernes' Around the World in 80 Days into scents in a manner reminiscent of the Shirakawa Border Station version of the Japanese incense ceremony; and, Helen Ganly and Heather Peers' "The Radcliffe Camera as a Celebration Cake and Its Workbook," which, when properly savoured, recalls to mind the practice of tasting sights which is so central to the Indian theatrical tradition. It is true that neither of these installations is as interactive or transformative as the non-Western examples to which I compare them here, nor are they rooted in social practice (that is, in a particular lifestyle or culture), but they do open the perceiver to the experience of intersensoriality, and therein lies their value.

What is more, the works by Macia and Ganly and Peers help attune us to a different way of perceiving art, of which art historians should take note. Rather than conceive of themselves as students of "visual culture," art historians ought to expand their frame of reference to include the "sensual culture" of which the visual is but one dimension. Our appreciation of the art of the Symbolists or Futurists stands to be enhanced considerably by adopting such a multimodal approach, as Classen (1998) has shown. And even the drive toward abstraction in the art of the later twentieth century is best understood using a multimodal approach, given that the impetus behind many of the earliest (and still finest) instances of non-representational art (e.g. the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky or Georgia O'Keefe) was the aspiration to create "visual music."11 This brings me to my final point: when doing art history, whether one's passion is for painting or music or architecture, etc., it is surely advisable to cultivate (at least) two senses, rather than one.

I wish to thank my research assistant, Elena Papadakis, for supplying me with many sensational sources, and Constance Classen and Andrew Irving for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper. I am especially indebted to Francesca Bacci and David Melcher for organizing this conference, and creating such a stimulating forum for the exchange of ideas. This paper is based in part on research made possible by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

1. Classic information theory remained blind to modulations of this sort due to the assumption that such "interference" simply constituted so much "noise."
2. In the version of McGurk's experiment with which I am familiar, the research subject watches a dubbed video of an actor's face pronouncing syllables. The seen lip-movements alter which phoneme is heard for a particular sound (e.g., a sound of /ba/ tends to be perceived as /da/ when it is coupled with a visual lip movement associated with /ga/). In this instance, the response to the multisensory signal is new, qualitatively different from the response to either of the unisensory components, and thus demonstrates emergence.
3. The ethnomusicologist Steve Feld once remarked to me that limiting synaesthesia to those who are congenitally susceptible to this effect would be like restricting music to those with perfect pitch. It cannot be so confined.
4. Ramachandran et al are not alone. There is but one reference in the whole Handbook of Multisensory Processes to cross-cultural variation in the modulation of perception: apparently, the McGurk effect is significantly weaker in Japanese than in American perceivers (Bernstein et al 2004: 207).
5. Or even earlier periods of Western culture. For example, a form of audio-grapheme synaesthesia has been described for the Renaissance: "In a person's handwriting, Erasmus claimed, he could hear that person's very voice" (Smith 2004: 28).
6. That is, proximity of brain areas would no longer be the determinative criterion (pace Ramachandran et al), as indeed it is not given all the evidence of cross-modal activation, feed forward and back-projection processes that has begun to emerge.
7. This account of the Japanese tea ceremony is based on personal experience and the folowing key sources: Morita (1999), Pybus (2001), and Bedini (1994)

8. This account of the Desana sensory order is woven together from the analyses presented in Classen (1993), Classen, Howes and Synnott (1994), and Howes (2003)

9. Post-Futurist would perhaps be a more fitting appellation.
10. If you think the critique of Kant presented here is overly harsh, see his withering critique and dismissal of any aesthetic vocation for the senses of smell and taste (Kant in Korsmeyer)
11. The history of synaesthesia in art and music since 1900 is traced by Brougher et al. in Visual Music (2005); for a multisensory critique of their argument see Howes 2006b.

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