Dialectical Anthropology

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 125–135 | Cite as

The history of sensibilities: Of the standard of taste in mid-eighteenth century England and the circulation of smells in post-revolutionary France

  • David Howes
  • Marc Lalonde


We have presented a somewhat different picture of the “sensory profile” of the mid-to late-eighteenth century than is found in the work of so renowned an historian as Michel Foucault.49 According to Foucault, sight is the dominant (and dominating) sense of the modern ara; we live in a “society of surveillance.” In his account, there has been a steady progression in the power of the gaze to organize both knowledge and society since the Enlightenment. It was the reorganization of the space of the prison, hospital, and workplace in accordance with the “principle of individualizing partitioning” under the “scrupulously ‘classificatory’ eye” of the master-disciplinarian that crystallized this tendency and laid the foundations for the scopic regime of contemporary Western society.50

The evidence presented here concerning taste in England and smell in France suggests that Foucault's preoccupation with the visual may be misplaced. Rather than a steady progression or intensification of sight, we have glimpsed some of its vicissitudes relative to taste and smell. The question which this alternative picture raises is whether it was visuality that created the individuality of modern society,51 or merely cemented a change that was effected by other sensory means. Sight is eminently capable of structuring a field and of distributing objects or individuals within that field. But it is not as discriminating as taste or smell. We suggest that it was the enlistment of the latter senses, with their power to attract and to repel as well as to make distinctions, that helped catalyze the novel distribution of individuals into classes, as opposed to estates or ranks, that distinguishes the modern from the premodern era. Having done their work, the affective senses could recede again, leaving the job of policing the new boundaries to sight.


Modern Society Western Society Steady Progression Contemporary Western Society Alternative Picture 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Howes
  • Marc Lalonde

There are no affiliations available

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