Seeing is not knowing. Participant Sensations.

What if we want to do more than just look?

by Beatrice Balzarotti

A few days ago, I was in London and I was walking on sand. I was at the Tate Art Gallery walking in Hélio
Oiticica’s Tropicalia, an installation created for the purpose of trying out living experiences and poetic encounters. This is participatory art, that puts the focus on visitors, transforming them from observers into participants, in a landscape where they can wander across sand and gravel, search among the leaves for objects and thoughts, tropical sounds and makeshift shacks. The first time that the artist presented this work was in Rio in 1967, when he wanted to tackle “the problem of the image”, his way of describing the saturation of imagery created by the mass media that conveyed the cliché image of Brazil as one big tropical paradise.


The problem of the image. The world view, the dominance of sight in our Western system of symbols. We
interpret the world as a visual spectacle and very often neglect the other sensory experiences that reality has
to offer us. Scrolling Culture is looking, looking again, scrolling quickly without lingering, searching for
emotions that are never just as we want them to be. So we start all over again.
But it was not always like that. When the ancient Romans used the verb sāpere, the meaning they gave it
was not restricted to “being knowledgeable”, but also to “tasting”, “savouring” and “having an odour”. They
had a conception of knowledge that went beyond mere observation: man was not just a spectator, but a
participant in an all-embracing experience. Senses on fire! Ready to perceive reality.


Sight is the last of our five senses to achieve completion: our other senses develop far earlier and
accompany the human child from the very beginning of life. Take our sense of smell, for example: it already
comes alive during the first months of our mother’s pregnancy and is actually more highly developed in
infants than in adults.
It is through our sense of smell that we achieve the most immediate perception possible of our surroundings.
Quite unconsciously, what we breathe and smell influences how we construct ourselves and our world: just
think of all the factors that impact on whether we accept or refuse other people. Or, more romantically, how
we choose the person we love: a choice of the heart that is often also a choice of the nose.
Kissing is also a sensory, cultural issue. In Thailand and in many other countries in Asia, kissing also entails
sniffing each other: part of the act of kissing involves delicately pressing the nose against the other person’s
cheek and breathing in deeply.


Sensory anthropology develops towards the end of the eighties, thanks to David Howes, to investigate these
pratices and to interpret cultures as ways of perceiving the world: questioning and modulating our own
models of perception and establishing relations between them and those of other cultures.
Among the Desana people who live in the Amazon rain forest in Colombia, for example, knowledge is
identified with the verb mahsìri yìri, which can be translated as “feeling is knowing is acting”, while the
opposite is inya mahsìbiri, which means “seeing is not knowing” (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1981: VII). The metaphor

of the Enlightenment, marking the advent of confidence in reason as the “light that illuminates the darkness”,
is turned on its head in these societies: seeing is not a synonym for knowing, but the opposite, and the
fundamental sense for interacting with others and with the world is the sense of hearing.
This is the sensory heterogeneity of the world: different senses, different worlds.
Sensory processes contribute to creating our identity; they give meaning to reality and it is through them that
we interpret the world: since perception is subject in part to cultural and social influences, our interpretation
of the world is also pieced together from sensory mindsets modelled by our socio-cultural context. According
to Le Breton:


“There is the forest of the mushroom picker , the rambler, the forest of the fugitive […] the forest of lovers
[…]. A thousand forests in the same forest, a thousand truths about the same mystery […]. There is no
single truth about the forest, but a multitude of perceptions based on perspectives, expectations and different social and cultural backgrounds” (Le Breton 2007: XII).


Refusing all universally-inclined models, be they visual or not; approaching other perceptive mindsets free of
all preconceptions; breaking free of the visual and aesthetic canons imposed by modernity; agreeing to
accept challenges: as in Tropicalia, participating emotionally, letting ourselves be human. And feeling.


Mi piace il verbo sentire…
Sentire il rumore del mare,
sentirne l’odore.
Sentire il suono della pioggia che ti bagna le
sentire una penna che traccia sentimenti su un
foglio bianco.
Sentire l’odore di chi ami,
sentirne la voce
e sentirlo col cuore.
Sentire è il verbo delle emozioni,
ci si sdraia sulla schiena del mondo
e si sente…
Alda Merini

I like the verb ‘sentire’ …
hearing the sound of the sea,
smelling its odour.
Hearing the sound of the rain that wets your lips,
hearing a pen that draws feelings on a sheet of
white paper.
Sensing the smell of the one you love,
Hearing his voice
and feeling it with your heart.
Sentire is the verb of emotions,
we stretch out on the back of the world
and we feel …
Alda Merini

Translator’s note: the Italian verb “sentire” is maybe most accurately translated into English as “to sense”, but in practice it relates to most of our human senses and is used with extreme frequency and ease in everyday Italian. According to the context, it can mean to feel, to hear, to smell or to taste: there is simply no single equivalent in English with the capacity to encapsulate such a broad range of human sensations. It is maybe indicative of the meaning of this short piece that the one human sense it does not convey is that of sight.
– Howes D., The variety of sensory experience, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1991
– Gusman A., Antropologia dell’olfatto, Laterza, Roma 2004
– Le Breton D., Il sapore del mondo, Cortina, Milano, 2007
– Matera V., Antropologia delle sensazioni, in La ricerca folklorica N° 45, Grafo, Brescia, 2002
– Ong W.,World as a View and World as a Event, 1977
– Reichel-Dolmatoff G., Brain and mind in Desana Shamanism, in Journal of Latin American Lore, VII, 1981
A cura di Beatrice Balzarotti