Science and the Senses: Betrayal

From the Series: Science and the Senses

Photo by Jean Bernard.

Taking up the invitation to engage with the senses, several paths are already evoked in the introduction to this session written by Marianne de Laet and Christy Spackman. One would invite us to take the complex of the senses as an object of study in itself. Another would be to (re)validate the senses as tools in scientific research. Here we can find examples in the literature, such as Evelyn Fox Keller’s (1983) account of Barbara McClintock’s intuitive approach to science, what she calls a “feeling for the organism.” Think, too, of Francis Crick’s account of perceiving the double-helix shape of DNA with the help of LSD.

These versions of accounting for the sensorial assume that the senses carry knowledge. We propose a different tack, wondering not so much what the senses can do to knowledge, but rather what knowledge does to the senses. Thinking about the role of the sensory in the sciences suggests more or less direct translatability of the sensorial—or, to put it in positivist language, of sensory information—into knowledge. Yet, as we know, translation is a betrayal. Attending to what knowledge does to the senses allows us to bring forward the complexities of such translations/betrayals.

Two lines of thinking about sensing and knowing inform our reflections. First, we detour through medical anthropology to attend to the senses of the patient in pain. A foundationalist approach to knowledge assumes that patient experience translates unproblematically into knowing; the experiencing patient, after all, knows (about) her body. Yet experts find problems with patient accounts: information may be indistinct, incontestable but uncategorizable, authentic but meaningless in medical discourse. Relating experience to knowledge, Jeannette Pols and Maartje Hoogsteyns (2016) propose a distinction between “having lived through” and “having experience with.” Rather than focusing on the person who lives through a condition, focusing on processes of articulation and the achievement of a common vocabulary undermines the notion that the senses are irremediably first-person and thus impossible to share.

Second, we borrow from what has been called the sociology of attachment in attending to becoming affected. Recording what it is and takes to be affected, Emilie Gomart and Antoine Hennion (1999) offer an empirical, practice-oriented account of sensing and feeling that examines how to become affected by and with an object. The question here is not just what becomes of knowing bodies when the senses are engaged, but also what becomes of the senses as they are affected and effected by their environment. In other words, how do sensing bodies learn to sense? How do they become sensitized?

With these two approaches in mind, we explore two cases of the traffic between sensing and knowing. In a discussion of pain care, we argue that experiencing pain is not just about being a passive subject whose knowledge comes by “living through it.” Rather, the experience of pain is sprinkled with tensions and difficulties in translating feelings and sensations into words. The second case concerns excretion, where the mundane function of bowel movements invites us to ask how we do, might, or perhaps ought to mobilize the senses when digesting and excreting are rife with processes that happen far away from our awareness, in regions where sensing is deliberately suppressed.

Living with Pain

In developing knowledge of their pain and how to live with it, patients with chronic pain interpret external knowledge through bodily sensations and bodily sensations through external knowledge. The challenge of translating pain into language dominates the literature, which all too often champions Elaine Scarry’s (1985, 172) claim that “pain destroys language.” Yet interviews that one of us (Maja) conducted with health-care providers and pain experiencers invite us to question this popular conflation of misunderstanding and inexpressibility. Rather, we can consider how experiencers attempt to know pain through language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein imagined language as “carv[ing] up our sensory life into intelligible experiences” (Sullivan 1995, 12). Language thus generates distinctions and implications as it forms. We see this when a health-care professional coaxes language from a pain experiencer, trying to move from the phrase it hurts to adjectives that describe, differentiate, distinguish, and layer pain. Such articulation, as Bruno Latour refers to it, not only allows us to consider how language communicates and enacts pain; it is also a tool that layers the experience, such that the body “learns to be affected by hitherto un-registrable differences” (Latour 2004, 209). Like the training of noses in the perfume industry pain discussed by Latour, experiencers become sensitive to layers of difference, distinguishing subtle shades of and variations in pain.

Indeed, Latour goes further, arguing that the articulation of perfumes does something to the odors themselves. Here, we suggest that developing a language of pain can influence a person’s pain. The process resembles Stefan Hirschauer’s (2006, 427) description of wine tasting. The taster develops a new vocabulary to overcome an initial “speechlessness . . . retrospectively reconstructing a subject matter.” In much the same way, the pain experiencer develops a vocabulary of categories and patterns to describe an overwhelming onslaught of pain. While both the wine connoisseur and the casual drinker might become light-headed, the former will experience layers of taste that the latter will not. Similarly, chronic and acute pain experiences differ greatly; the knowing of pain changes with experience.

Learning to be affected is not only driven by language. Pain care often relies on developing a sensitivity to the painful body, to the work of predicting and mediating pain. In order to rewire patterns of persistent pain, the pain experiencer is asked to push the boundaries of their pain: to move, but just a little, not too much. A first step in these pain-care regimes is to teach an awareness of the body, for “in sharp contrast to medical knowledge, bodies are both the problem and the instrument to diagnose the nature of the problem” (Pols 2014, 82). Yoga for pain, for example, teaches breathing as a means of cultivating bodily awareness. Here, we are reminded of Emilie Gomart and Antoine Hennion’s (1999) music amateurs, who condition themselves to appreciate music. So, too, do the methadone users that Gomart and Hennion describe; rather than active or passive takers, they become agents who allow themselves to be affected by the drug.

Preventing pain flares and knowing when to rest or push through comes from “knowing the body from the inside” (Mol and Law 2004, 45). This is a knowing that entails a fluid coagulation of combining sensations, words, categories, experiential and practical knowledge, and medical knowledge. Pain experiencers may sculpt pain through medications or exercises, ignore it, or let it wash over them. When the experiencer is framed as active or passive, we forget that persistent pain demands attention and that, through ongoing interaction with it, an expert pain experiencer emerges. Pain, then, suggests that this is not a matter of translating between sensation and knowledge; different ways of knowing pain produce different enactments of pain, which can be both known and felt differently.

(Not) Feeling and Doing the Excreting Body

Like those who experience and learn to know pain through articulation, people experiencing difficulties with their bowel movements must find ways to understand and articulate their sensations in order to respond to them. This became apparent during fieldwork at probiotics companies. Studying the ways in which probiotics promote bowel health, one of us (Justine) became attentive to companies’ efforts to show the effects of the microbial agents in their products.

To gauge the workings of probiotics, one of these companies distributes, with its products, a fifteen-page “experience logbook” to be filled out throughout the period of use. Divided in three parts (before, during, and after usage), the journal serves as a “tool to better judge . . . experience.” After some general questions to do with overall health, energy, sleep, and happiness, the logbook presents a table for grading, on a scale of 1 to 10, frequency and severity of a list of problems: stomach pain and cramps, flatulence, bloating, tummy rumbles, nausea, and burping. The final question asks users to rate their stools on the Bristol Stool Form Scale, a seven-point scale grading the stool from “separate hard lump (very constipated)” to “watery, no solid pieces (diarrhea).” Nothing in the leaflet indicates the ideal consistency of stools, nor what might be considered progress; the questionnaire doesn’t judge. Allowing clients to record differences, to show that something has changed and thus that probiotics have an effect, its purpose is to allow the reader to attend to her own bowel activity.

Attending to bowel movements in such an explicit way is unusual; excretion is done without much consideration. Indeed, the leaflet is designed for people who experience problems with bowel health and are suffering enough to buy probiotics. Unlike pain, excrement is not usually medicalized, nor is it a topic of polite conversation. Excreting is not problematized and articulation of differences in feces or experiences of pooping is not done. Not only is excrement largely taboo (of which we are reminded when native English speakers censor the ostensibly vulgar word shit), there is simply no formal language for it.

This, then, poses problems for the fieldwork Justine is conducting. Practices to do with excretion are not only silenced and made invisible, but also occur or should occur without much notice. Shitting, supposedly, just happens; if all goes well, the experience of digesting and excreting is mostly absent from our awareness, or so the literature suggests (see Leder 1990). Taken as a basic technique of the body like walking or sleeping (Mauss 1934), excreting is hardly understood as an achievement. So it is only in pathological cases of evacuation, as when people believe that they need to use probiotics, that learning to be affected comes into play. For in mundane cases, what counts is how not to be affected, and the achievement lies precisely in learning how not to affect others. But it is this normalization and its attendant concealing of excrement and the bodily sensations that come with it that makes studying excreting practices so difficult, yet so interesting.

Acquiring a body is not only about learning to be affected and effected by things in the world, but also about learning to not be affected by others. It involves learning to become oblivious: to the way your body works, to how many bowel movements you have, to how you clean yourself. Attending to excreting practices, then, offers a different articulation of sensing and knowing. In addition to showing, again, how the relation between knowledge and sensation is not a one-way street, it suggests how, in practice, knowing and sensing might count less than doing.

Rather than illuminating what sensing does to knowledge, these two cases invert the terms of the relationship: they both stress what knowing does to sensing. In so doing, pain and excretion remind us that the senses do not always easily translate into knowledge, thus complicating what sensing involves. No longer simply a way to accumulate more knowledge, sensation becomes one among other practices of learning to become affected, an ongoing and reciprocal transformation of bodies, knowledge, and the sensory. But, as attending to excretion highlights, in some cases, it is the doing that deserves our attention, while sensation and knowledge fade into the background.


Keller, Evelyn Fox. 1983. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Gomart, Emilie, and Antoine Hennion. 1999. “A Sociology of Attachment: Music Amateurs, Drug Users.” Sociological Review 47, no. S1: 220–47.

Hirschauer, Stefan. 2006. “Putting Things into Words: Ethnographic Description and the Silence of the Social.” Human Studies 29, no. 4: 413–41.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “How to Talk about the Body? The Normative Dimension of Science Studies.” Body and Society 10, nos. 2–3: 205–29.

Leder, Drew. 1990. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1936. “Les techniques du corps.” Journal de Psychologie 32: 271–93.

Mol, Annemarie, and John Law. 2004. “Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies: The Example of Hypoglycemia.” Body and Society 10, nos. 2–3: 43–62.

Pols, Jeannette. 2014. “Knowing Patients: Turning Patient Knowledge into Science.” Science, Technology and Human Values 39, no. 1: 73–97.

_____, and Maartje Hoogsteyns. 2016. “Shaping the Subject of Incontinence: Relating Experience to Knowledge.” ALTER 10, no. 1: 40–53.

Scarry, Elaine. 1985. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sullivan, Mark D. 1995. “Pain in Language: From Sentience to Sapience.” Pain Forum 4, no. 1: 3–14.