culture & senses

Special Issue: Cultures and Senses in Latin America

Gabriela Coronado (Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney)
Paul Allatson (International Studies, University of Technology Sydney)

Deadline for submissions: 1st July 2011 (publication date early 2012)

Academics rarely reflect on the role the senses play in culture in Latin America, as in all cultures, and how they affect people’s everyday life. People take for granted the ways they learn from their early years to interpret surrounding meanings, how they continuously use their cultural sensorium to understand reality and connect it with bodies, minds and souls. Everyone carries these habitual, unnoticed forms of perception into their adult life. But when people interact with others from different cultures, in other places and with diverse social histories, surprising and puzzling differences and similarities may emerge, associated with different uses and meanings of the senses. In such intercultural exchanges self awareness is especially likely to trigger a deeper understanding of how people and cultures sense, and make sensed sense of, the world.

The dominant Western tradition of knowledge about the senses has privileged the importance of the five canonical senses, sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and amongst these sight has been privileged over other forms of perception for interpreting the surrounding world. This 'hegemony of sight' (Howes 1991) represents modern society as essentially voyeuristic. However, an increasing number of scholars offer convincing evidence that different forms of perception exist among different cultures, and different weight is given to other senses alongside or instead of sight (Classon 1993; Guerts 2002). Kathyrn Guerts, for example, identifies sensory orders, or sensoria, that do not conform to what she calls the “Western European/Euro-American folk ideology of the senses [that] limits sensory modalities to bodily functions by which the mind can obtain knowledge of the external world” (2002). Rather, sensoria are systems of “sensing” or “bodily ways of gathering information” by which a particular people knows itself as a community and develops a shared cultural identity (2002).

Deterministic and essentialist representations of culture fail to recognise the role the senses-culture nexus plays in contemporary society. This ignores the interdependence of different senses and the dynamism of cultures arising out of continuous exchanges among them. Consequently they miss the changing role of the senses in constructing the meaning of the biological and social elements of our world, our ways of connecting or differentiating from each other. As in most contemporary societies, shaped by dynamic movements of peoples and meanings, in Latin America intercultural exchanges are part of everyday life. This offers an opportunity to reflect on the way in which Latin Americans from different countries sense the world.

Even though Latin American countries share cultural forms derived from common colonial backgrounds and languages it is important to recognise the diversity of cultures in the continent. Along with what is common, each Latin American country and its constituent groups (indigenous, migrant, rural-urban, regional, classed, racialized) have different social histories, cultural features, and ways of perceiving and interpreting the world. An important aspect of these differences lies in how specific cultures use the senses to relate, interpret and understand surrounding reality. For example anthropologists report that Indigenous peoples in the Americas may perceive the world through other kinds of senses, such as the temperature of bodies and surrounding objects and beings. Cultural differences in the value of some senses, such as smell, also influence the ways people from different cultural backgrounds interact, welcoming, tolerating or rejecting others.
The relevance of the senses for defining Latin America’s differences and has not been fully acknowledged, and this represents a gap in cultural understanding. In that framework we would like to move away from a determinist understanding of the cultural sensorium and explore the complexities of the multiple, dynamic interconnections between cultures and their cultural sensorium. As a point for reflection we propose the existence of sensorial matrixes as part of the deep cultures (Bonfil 1987) of Latin America. Such sensorial matrixes can be seen as a key site where different cultures influence each other in intercultural dialogues. In these exchanges cultural sensoriums can have continuity while being simultaneously transformed. The challenge is to explore the relationship between cultures and senses, in contexts in which different cultures interact to create new forms of sensing the world, using new and old ways to apprehend reality.
In this special issue we invite academics from different disciplines (e.g. anthropology, communications, literature, cultural studies, media studies, language studies, psychology, art) to reflect on their areas of inquiry and contribute to the understanding of the complex ways people from Latin America have made sense of their realities in the past, and make sense of them in the present, through different sensorial means in various intercultural contexts. By drawing on different perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches our aim is to expand the understanding of the cultures and identities of Latin America, their commonalities and differences, through researching cultural sensoria and their role in constructing/transforming how Latin Americans sense the world.

To guide this exploration we ask some questions:
• How do we become aware of our cultural sensorium?
• What other forms of perception define the worldview of cultures in the Americas?
• How do different cultures of the Americas construct their identities through the senses?
• Has intercultural dialogue between European and Indigenous cultures defined different countries' identities?
• Has the global context transformed Latin American forms of perception?
• Is there a common cultural way of sense making in the Americas? In each country?
• Is the cultural sensorium different now than in the past?
• Do cultural sensoriums transculturate when peoples move across borders in the Americas?

Through these and other questions we invite academic and creative contributions exploring different ways of making sense of complexities of senses, cultures and identities in Latin America. Contributions will form the basis of a special issue of PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies and, it is hoped, a book proposal with a US publisher. Essays should not exceed 8000 words, including notes and references. Essays should be sent to: and

Bonfil, Guillermo (1987) México profundo. Una civilización negada SEP/CIESAS Foro 2000, México.
Classon, Constance (1993) World of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures. London, Routledge.
Guerts, Kathryn Linn (2002) Culture and the Senses: Embodiment, Identity, and Well-being in an African Community. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Howes, David (1991) The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses. Toronto, Toronto University Press.


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