Divided Ends and Interdisciplinarity: A Literary Medical Humanities Response to A Sensory History Manifesto

by Dr Marie Allitt

To present a manifesto for a sub-field within the huge expanse of history, especially one which touches so many other fields, there is a momentous challenge. It is necessary to define the sub-field (in this case, sensory history), while also demonstrating that it does not exist in a vacuum and instead works closely with other fields and disciplines. This might be the problem with the title of ‘manifesto’. Mark M. Smith’s A Sensory History Manifesto (2021) does not feel like a manifesto: from this label, I had expected suggestions for a radical and re-vitalising method or use of sensory history, and in turn, development in sensory studies. A manifesto suggests momentum and movement, but this is slightly subdued.

Manifesto is a misnomer, however the book might be a useful primer to those embarking on the field and looking for some initial analysis of key research. Sensory history continually rubs shoulders with medical, environmental, social, economic, and (post)colonial histories, to name only some of the additional fields. Much like these, sensory history is huge, but might look from the outside as if it is niche and limited. In A Sensory History Manifesto, we get a very good overview of the field—which reiterates that it is now mature and influential—but begs some questions about how it might work with and alongside other disciplines and fields. 

I approach this response from two positions: as a literary studies scholar, and a medical humanities researcher, with interdisciplinarity at the heart of my work. I won’t pretend to be an expert in sensory history, but my research over the last eight years has focused on sensory experiences, informed by sensory histories and sensory research. What I might personally see as shortcomings of this book, especially from the mislabelling of the ‘manifesto’, presents an opportunity for sustained consideration of disciplinary boundaries and interdisciplinarity, especially how different disciplines talk to and about one another. What might sensory history look like if it is not just in sight of other disciplines and disciplinary methods, but actively working with, among, and alongside?

Sub-headed ‘Interdisciplinarity’ in the third, ‘Future,’ chapter of the book, Smith presents some brief examples of interdisciplinary working, but these are mostly sub-fields of history, or already significantly overlapping. Smith offers the valuable insight that sound studies would benefit from more consideration of music and integration of musicology, while also offering fleeting comments on the integration of literature and the history of emotions. However, what I don’t see is awareness for actually working with other disciplines. Is this surprisingly brief interlude on other areas (it would not be wholly accurate to call these examples disciplines or the work as interdisciplinary) a conscious attempt to stay strictly within the sensory history field? Or is it the case that the field is unsure of how to do that interdisciplinary work? 

The choice of language reveals much about the attitudes to other disciplines and interdisciplinarity more broadly. Are the disciplines in dialogue, collaboration, or exchange? Is there co-creation and co-production? Is there equal partnership, interrelation, or hierarchies? The Manifesto talks of ‘dividends’, ‘value,’ and ‘production’–it clangs with the sound of a coin-bulging purse. ‘What are the dividends of attending to smell, sound, taste, and touch and bringing these senses into conversation with conventional “eyewitness” testimony?’ (40), Smith asks in the second chapter under the sub-heading ‘Dividends’. We often speak of what might be gained from a certain route of analysis—I use it myself—but the rhetorical tic of ‘dividends’ begins to grate, and is indicative of how relations between some disciplines are often viewed. This is most discomforting—at least for me—when he addresses, briefly, literature. 

Scholars of literature have much to offer here. Historians are sometimes hesitant to borrow heavily from literature in their search for sensory evidence, not least because such evidence can court a presentist or ahistorical conceit, one in which the sounds of the past serve largely to animate the present without the sort of heavy contextualization historians usually demand (75). 

To be fair this is one of the few instances that recognises that another discipline/field might have something to offer, rather than be mined, but its subsequent statement is troubling. When Smith states that the hesitance is to ‘borrow heavily from literature’, does he mean from literary works (ie. primary texts, novels, poems, etc), or does he mean literary analysis? If the former, does he mean that literary scholars might provide supplementary knowledge to help historians access more sources? I respect the effort to recognise one’s limitations in skills and knowledge, but am wary that literary insight might be instrumentalised rather than fully integrated. 

This perceived devaluing of the literary is not wholly surprising: as a literary researcher whose work regularly draws upon knowledge, skills, and methods of other fields and disciplines, I often have to defend my credentials and the purpose of my interdisciplinary approaches. In literary studies we are not always good at articulating what it is we do or what we might bring to conversations, but we do bring distinct skills to the table and to collaboration. It is disappointing then, that Smith does not acknowledge the skills and critiques of literary studies, and suggests that literature uses sensory knowledge and history as a garnish. 

The language used around interdisciplinarity is important, especially if there are multiple scholars and expertise in conversation. This speaks to some of the wider concerns and challenges of interdisciplinarity. While it is still considered an influential, though increasingly meaningless, buzzword in the academy, most discussions of interdisciplinarity quickly run into the language of transaction and added value that is less about bringing together skills and methods and more about bolstering the work’s significance. Part of the challenge with interdisciplinarity is confusion over boundaries, where one discipline begins and one ends: the reality of course, is that such boundaries are fluid and often fictional. We have more in common than we might expect. 

This emphasis on boundaries also brings up a key area within sensory scholarship. Much of the work still to be done in both sensory history and sensory studies is to be aware of intersensoriality and cross-sensoriality—where senses cross, mix, entangle, merge, and potentially frustrate. The mingling and crossing of senses can be hard to demarcate or separate, but can reveal significant aspects of the senses and sensing. The focus in chapter two, on the significance of Abraham Lincoln’s hands offers some preliminary, and fascinating, insights into the commingling of the senses. This discussion—which privileges the visual as a way to access the haptic—is a great example of the multiple layers of analysis which might be a model for sensory engagement in other contexts, and a useful example of bringing separate senses into conversation with one another. In order to uncover these discrete experiences, we need a greater focus on the bodies that do the sensing. The nose of yesterday may not be the same nose as today, but grounding sense experience in the body—and crucially different bodies—is vital. Sensory history must attend to the body, and therefore explore differences in the sensate and how senses are put to different use. Granted, this is a subset of sensory study, and is by no means the only or obvious focus. That I could not find the body in this book also tells me that subjectivity is subordinated in the bulk of sensory histories, which is contrary to my own method of sensory analysis which centres subjectivity, alongside rhetorical strategies and emotional repertoires. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Smith does not like the immersive, multisensory approaches to history in heritage spaces, but there is much to be gained from creative, experimental, immersive, and interactive ways of doing history. I concur with Jonathan Reinarz, that the interaction of academic history with the heritage sector and public engagement is breaking down boundaries, and embodied, interactive, immersion is an important way of educating the public. There is room for improvement, but that does not negate efforts of before. A dismissal of the playfulness and innovativeness of using senses in multiple contexts also misses the opportunities of experimental and creative histories, for example, using creative writing to better understand a specific sensorium of a time and place. This seems an obvious area in which creative approaches, reinforced by interdisciplinarity methods and modes, might successfully collaborate to explore aspects of sensory history. 

It would be fair to say that I was unlikely to be impressed by this book, and that what I am looking for would not come out of a discussion on sensory history as opposed to sensory studies. My sense, and my hope, is that sensory studies has a better appreciation for how the strict historical view might work with the more forward-facing, pedagogical, creative, and cross-disciplinarity of sensory research. It seems that sensory history and the more inclusive sensory studies, have divided, and different, ends. 

Marie Allitt is an Early Career Teaching and Research Fellow in Twentieth Century Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Her research on modern and contemporary literary medical humanities and medical life writing often draws on the history of medicine and human geography, as well as literary studies and critical medical humanities. Her first monograph, Medical Caregiving Narratives of the First World War: Geographies of Care will be published with Edinburgh University Press in 2023.  

Marie has been a co-investigator on the Wellcome small grant project ‘Senses and Modern Health/care Environments: Exploring interdisciplinary and international opportunities’ 2019-2022, and on the Wellcome Discretionary Award, ‘Thinking Through Things: object encounters in the medical humanities’ 2019-2021.  

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