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  • Shannon Bontrager

Sensual Empires: Britain and America in India and the Philippines, Book Review of Empire of the Sens

The five senses helps us navigate nature but, according to historian Andrew J. Rotter, they can also help us construct an empire. Rotter is the Charles A. Dana Professor of History and Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University. His book Empire of the Senses: Bodily Encounters in India and the Philippines uses sensory history to compare the British and American empires side-by-side. Oxford University Press published the book in 2019 and they did a lovely job in producing a sensory experience for the reader. High quality paper and a dust cover with an attractive but calming green hue and two evocative images that would make for fine memes of the book in social media. Much work goes into designing covers and OUP artists did well to create a book with colors and lines that speak to organization and innovation.

Organization and innovation is what describes the content as well. Rotter was inspired by sensory historian Mark Smith, who has done much to take the ideas of French historian Alain Corbin and apply them to the American context. Corbin’s examinations of perfume and bells in nineteenth century France laid the groundwork for a whole generation of sensory historians and Smith’s recent The Smell of Battle and the Taste of Siege--a sensory history of the Civil War--places him in this genre. Recently sonic history and aural studies including deaf studies have attempted to accentuate the ear’s role in a historical genre that, at least since the Enlightenment, has tended to privilege the visual power of the eye. Recovering the history of the other non-visual senses is sometimes posed as a critique of enlightenment histories. Histories that privilege the senses that do not rely on the eye are often very difficult to write because primary sources such as newspaper accounts or journal writers do not often take the time to fill their accounts with such descriptions. But doing the hard work of finding sources with sensory information is important to history. Not only does it allow us to recover histories that Enlightenment historians have neglected in their obsessed pursuit of the visual, but humans interpret the environment through the five senses. All five are necessary to make sense of the world and as new discoveries in how human memory works suggests, our minds uses these five senses interdependently to understand social constructions of reality and to make memories.

See the complete book review for free at the History News Network.

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