Erica Fretwell, "Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling" (Duke UP, 2020)


We so often take our senses as natural, but perhaps we should understand them as historically situated. Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race and the Aesthetics of Feeling (Duke University Press, 2020) allows us to reconsider the history of psychophysics and psychology through the lens of sensory studies and to rethinking science in the context of racial capitalism. Breathing new life into nineteenth century psychophysics, Erica Fretwell presents a history of how science, technology, and literature came together to both reinforce and challenge racial boundaries. 

While each central chapter of Sensory Experiments deals with the recognized five senses, Fretwell also writes short intervals, or what she calls intervals, on the synthesis of particular senses (for instance, color and sound or mouthfeel). The synthesia assumed in these intervals challenge the hierarchy of senses often assumed by scientists during this time period. Through examining these scientific models of sense and sensitivity, Fretwell provides the reader with the nineteenth and early twentieth century evolutionary frameworks of Lamarckism and Darwinism, alongside Galton’s eugenics program. Fretwell contrasts these theories with psychophysics, including the spiritually motivated psychophysicist, Gustav Fechner, as well as many media and literature that focuses on sensitivity. Spirit photography provides one such example, a visual medium intended to provide some healing to family members who lost loved ones during the American Civil War. Through these images sight is transformed into a sense of loss; this was particularly the case for white bodies, which were more likely to have their pictures taken and more likely to be seen as “particularly capable of feeling loss.”

To help us understand the racial politics of sound, Fretwell not only turns to the nascent field of psychoacoustics led by Hermann Helmholtz, but also the utopian fiction stories of Pauline Hopkins and Edward Bellamy. Each of these writers thought that differences in tonal sensitivity renders difference as racialized, and thus promoted segregated forms of social harmony from the most sensitive, civilized ear to the least sensitive, “primitive” ear. Meanwhile, inventions in chemistry and manufacturing of perfume performed functions of designating socially appropriate odors, which often segregated individuals by race and gender, while at other times challenging such segregation. In her taste chapter, Fretwell positions gastronomy and culinary science as ostensibly racial uplift projects. This can be further seen in Fretwell’s discussion of the racial framing of sweetness and black cake (the latter of which is taken up in the work of Emily Dickinson). In her penultimate chapter, Fretwell explores the relationality of touch through some of Helen Keller’s biography. While figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois thought that Keller could be an example of going beyond the sight of racial differences, as Fretwell points out, Keller, a deaf-blind woman, was actually attentive to the sensation of racial difference. In the Coda, Fretwell implores humanities and social science scholars to think about the historical dimensions of our sensory experiences. Overall, Sensory Experiments delivers a much needed history of senses that can provide important context for the racial politics of today. 

C.J. Valasek is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology & Science Studies at the University of California San Diego. CJ’s research interests include the history of the human sciences, the influence of the behavioral sciences on medical practice and health policy, and digital wellness culture.

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Chad Valasek

C.J. Valasek is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology & Science Studies at the University of California San Diego.

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