Sensory Experiments

Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling

Book Pages: 336 Illustrations: 26 illustrations Published: October 2020

Author: Erica Fretwell

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Science and Technology Studies > Feminist Science Studies

In Sensory Experiments, Erica Fretwell excavates the nineteenth-century science of psychophysics and its theorizations of sensation to examine the cultural and aesthetic landscape of feeling in nineteenth-century America. Fretwell demonstrates how psychophysics—a scientific movement originating in Germany and dedicated to the empirical study of sensory experience—shifted the understandings of feeling from the epistemology of sentiment to the phenomenological terrain of lived experience. Through analyses of medical case studies, spirit photographs, perfumes, music theory, recipes, and the work of canonical figures ranging from Kate Chopin and Pauline Hopkins to James Weldon Johnson and Emily Dickinson, Fretwell outlines how the five senses became important elements in the biopolitical work of constructing human difference along the lines of race, gender, and ability. In its entanglement with social difference, psychophysics contributed to the racialization of aesthetics while sketching out possibilities for alternate modes of being over and against the figure of the bourgeois liberal individual. Although psychophysics has largely been forgotten, Fretwell demonstrates that its importance to shaping social order through scientific notions of sensation is central to contemporary theories of new materialism, posthumanism, aesthetics, and affect theory.


“With precision, writerly grace, and great analytic power, Erica Fretwell uses the backstory of psychophysics to map out the contradictory ways feeling subjects came to be thought in the nineteenth century. This is a uniquely strong book, anchored in exacting historical, theoretical, and exegetical scholarship. It stands to make a powerful intervention into nineteenth-century literary studies and especially into science studies, critical race studies, and biopolitical critique.” — Peter Coviello, author of Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism

“Historicizing the intersections among nineteenth-century conceptions of materiality, race, and aesthetic experience, Erica Fretwell produces a wide-reaching framework for understanding the stakes of sensory experience. The result is a rigorous historical approach to nineteenth-century science and culture that underscores efforts to ‘educate’ or ‘civilize’ the senses. This brilliant, original, and important book will make waves in race studies, sensory studies, American studies, the history of science, and American literature.” — Hsuan L. Hsu, author of Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain’s Asia and Comparative Racialization


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Erica Fretwell is Assistant Professor of English at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. New Sensation  1
1. Sight: Unreconstructed Body Images  35
Interval 1. Colorful Sounds  79
2. Sound: The Acoustics of Social Harmony  87
Interval 2. Notes on Scent  124
3. Smell: Perfume, Women, and Other Volatile Spirits  131
Interval 3. Olfactory Gusto  167
4. Taste: Scripts for Sweetness, Measures of Pleasure  174
Interval 4. Mouthfeel  213
5. Touch: Life Writing Between Skin and Flesh  221
Coda. Afterlives and Antelives of Feeling  257
Notes  265
Bibliography  298
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-1093-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0986-3