Science and the Senses: Deviation

The cerebral comedian Steven Wright tells an anecdote about meeting a woman in a bar, who fends off his advances by criticizing his mismatched footwear. “She said, ‘You’re wearing two different-colored socks.’ I said, ‘Yes, but to me they’re the same, because I go by thickness.”  

I love this story. Whenever I teach a course on the senses, I tell it to my students to capture the role that categories of difference play in both our individual perceptions and our social interactions. They love it, too, though often they can’t figure out exactly why. I tell them that, for me, the anecdote is an ingenious rejoinder to the idea that there is only one way to know your socks—and, perhaps less obviously, that there is only one way to perform sartorial savoir-faire. Socks chosen or recognized by visual means rather than by tactile means may be a social convention. That, however, does not make its operation neutral. Rather, it is an affirmation of the power of visual epistemology over other forms of embodied knowledge-making. The power we give to the visual as an adjudicator of the culturally normative is always a choice and never merely a fait accompli.

Socks. Photo by David Serlin.

In these moments, I ask students to consider that Wright is pointing to what I call discrepant sensorialities. This phrase deliberately invokes the concept of discrepant modernities, which, as scholars like Charles Taylor (1999) and Lisa Rofel (2001) suggest, indicates the coexistence of multiple and incommensurate modernities. Similarly, discrepant sensorialities argues for the coexistence of multiple embodied or sensorial modalities. Taken together, these complementary concepts help to reorder an understanding of modernity as the result of a dominant sense modality (e.g., vision) that produces and defines the modern subject. Whereas sight and sound have been claimed as instrumental forces in the production of modernity (Crary 1990; Thompson 2002), a theory of discrepant sensorialities calls attention to the tacit privilege extended to seeing and hearing in the operation of sensorial systems. Meanwhile, such a theory goes beyond the romantic appeal of synesthesia, with its seemingly exotic intertwining of the senses, to insist on the routine operation of coexistent and interdependent sensory modalities in making of modern subjectivity (see Campen 2008).  

Scholars and activists in the field of critical disability studies have much to say regarding discrepant sensorialities and, for that matter, the causal relationship between the senses and subjectivities. Within critical disability studies, modern subjects are regarded as the esteemed products of an Enlightenment-derived hierarchy of the senses, with vision, hearing, and mobility at the top and tactility and olfaction at the bottom (Palassmaa 2005). As a result, the autonomous operation of modern subjectivity is itself based on an able-bodied fantasy of autonomy that reifies liberal subjectivity (Breckenridge and Vogler 2001). People with low vision, for instance, routinely rely on a combination of modalities—from olfactory input to tactile navigation to the verbal descriptions of both intimates and passers-by—to negotiate the environment. And while the verbal may hold a certain discursive authority, it is also true that descriptions may complement, jostle with, or even be contradicted by the touch of a surface, a distinct smell, or the sensory impressions produced through the interpenetration of immediate sense encounters with memory (Titchkosky 2011; Ahmed 2006). Thus, critical disability studies routinely challenges the notion that modernity and the modern subject can be discussed in the singular or along an axis in which disabled and able-bodied are binary terms (Garland Thomson 2011; Serlin 2006).  

In addition, critical disability scholars, like their counterparts in cultural anthropology, are also wary of the critical allure of the ostensibly lower senses, especially smell and taste, as examples of fetishizing non-Western or otherwise alternative epistemologies. This is a position that can, at its most exploitative, be complicit with high modernism’s search for the authentic or, worse, the primitive (see Torgovnick 1991; Seth 2016). Critical disability scholars resist the temptation to recover or reclaim the uniqueness of sensory impairments, which is their way of acknowledging that discrepant sensorialities are practiced, both deliberately and indiscriminately, by subjects across a taxonomic spectrum of ability. Indeed, many critical disability scholars have adopted the concept of cripistemology (McRuer and Johnson 2014) in order to make the case for discrepant sensorialities as fundamental to understanding disabled personhood. Cripistemology characterizes an episteme made possible and forged through one’s own subjective relationship to disability, especially as mediated through overt identification with and reclamation of the pejorative term “crip.”

From a critical disability perspective, one could argue that a theory of discrepant sensorialities is related to forms of (creative) improvisation, rather than forms of (routinized) habitus. A relationship between discrepant sensorialities and the tools of improvisation makes sense if one attends to how a person with a disability negotiates her or his environment—especially when that environment is invariably planned, built, and maintained for able-bodied subjects. I submit that such forms of improvisation and/or negotiation are central to any attempt to rethink the relationship between the role of the senses in the making of subjectivities, especially since the senses in all their jagged, imprecise, asymmetrical dimensions teach us how deeply distributed and inextricably interdependent our sensory interactions are. A theory of discrepant sensorialities is one way to capture the collective and messy aggregate of cultural encounter and intersubjective exchange between and among multiple agents and, indeed, multiple organisms (Diprose 2002; Barad 2007). In this way, working with and through the concept of discrepant sensorialities has implications that go far beyond thinking about touch or smell as forms of sensorial compensation for the disabled.         

In the crucible of cripistemology, as in that of discrepant sensorialities, modern subjectivities are produced not in the absence of disability or by banishing disability from the center to the margins, as if possessing a subjectivity were a badge that can only be worn by the able-bodied subject. Rather, a cripistemology may be forged proactively out of the negotiations that take place between individuals and the multiple, overlapping, and even dissonant sensory modalities through which they experience the world. In this way, a theory of discrepant sensorialities can be part of a larger critical project that seeks to destabilize bodily norms and to dismantle the fantasy of liberal ablebodied personhood. Like Wright’s anecdote about the thickness of socks, its purpose is to draw attention to the invisible privileges of normative practice.    


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