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Touch, Smell, Taste. An Aesthetics of the Anesthetized Senses
Philosophy has relied on the traditional primacy of the visual (and partially acoustic) experience in Western metaphysics and considered the senses of touch, smell, and taste inferior, mere bodily and therefore “secondary”. These senses were twice “anesthetized” in the modern West: They were considered unable to produce art forms; and the process of civilization was not interested in their education, which led to their physical underdevelopment. The academic “silence” on touch, smell, and taste is due to the absence of a specific sensory education, to the terminological imprecision concerning their experience, as well as to culturally deep rooted preconceptions. The scientific investigation of these senses began recently and still lacks a general theoretical foundation. Guided mainly by phenomenological theories, but taking also into account recent studies scattered in disciplines like biology, psychology, psychoanalysis, urbanism, cultural and historical anthropology, art history, etc., the present work attempts to undertake a comprehensive philosophical analysis of the haptic, olfactory, and gustatory experiences and to work out an aesthetics of their artistic forms. The research sets forth the idea of grounding the art theory on “aisthetics” and on the anthropology of the senses and argues the necessity to extend the realm of aesthetics to configurations addressed to all senses, including design, urbanism, perfumery, and gastronomy. To summarize, aesthetics should perform a “cultural turn” and become cultural and environmental.
The present research carries out phenomenological analyses of the experiences of touch, smell, and taste, partly in contrast with sight. Particularly they stress on the contribution of these senses to the constitution of the personal identity, on their social functions (to ground communities, but also as means of social distinction), and on their ethical implications (tactfulness, flair, sagacitas and sapientia referred initially to touch, smell, and taste). There is also discussed the usual association of the “secondary senses” with women, children, non-Western “primitives” and with the fascination of exotic places. Despite various difficulties in working out an aesthetics of touch, smell, and taste (due to their affective, subjective, ephemeral, and synesthetic character, etc.), upon closer inspection the distinction de jure between “aesthetic” and “non-aesthetic” senses proves to be untenable, and the demarcation line between art and non-art (the aesthetic border) to be relative to the cultural field in which our experience is embedded. Extended analyses deal with the suggestion of haptic qualities in the fine arts, with tattoo, dance and with the artistic experience of the blind people. Smells are either indirectly evoked in painting or are present as such in contemporary installations, in synaesthetic art forms (garden, architecture, urban “smellscapes”, avant-garde experiments, etc.). The objections of the philosophers against an olfactory aesthetics were invalidated by perfumers in their writings, while the gastronomical styles and the various manifestations of Eat-Art actualize in two most different manners the aesthetic potential of the sense of taste.
Patina, atmosphere and aroma were related originally with the experience of touch, smell, and taste, but they turn out to be relevant also as general aesthetic values. Since their subject is partly pre-reflexive, pre-intentional and collective, such phenomena represent a challenge to the classical phenomenological theory. The specificity of touch, smell, and taste impacts also the theoretical discourse: their tendency to synaesthesia makes inevitable the use of metaphors, while their essential temporality is most accurately reproduced in a narrative manner. Moreover, the experience of these three senses rehabilitates non-semantic criteria of the aesthetic experience, particularly sensibility. Sensitiveness refers not only to receptivity and vulnerability, but also to sharpness and tactfulness, designating generally the aptitude to apprehend fine differences in the realm of perception, feeling, and interpretation. Finally, sensibility is emphasised as a basic condition of the aesthetic experience and even as the primary foundation of an aesthetics of the “secondary” senses.