10 – 11th June 2019: Empire and the Senses

Human and non-human bodies have always been immersed in a sensory world of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations. In the long twentieth century, these have been enmeshed with power by enacting hierarchies of the senses themselves (sight being the most superior followed by sound, smell, taste and so on) which in turn were used (i) to perform distinction across race, caste, class and gender hierarchies (black and brown/Dalit/working-class/menstruating women’s bodies have often been described as “dirty”, “smelly”, “noisy”) and (ii) structure technologies (such as audio and video media (gramophone, cinema, radio etcetera)).

University of kent

In particular, colonial actors have participated in both being variously described as “exotic”, “unusual”, or “disorienting” by the colonisers to distinguish a “civilised self” from a “primitive other” or by being introduced to new sensory regimes through the technological. Their sensual experiences could be mapped onto hierarchies of power and control which contrasted the sights and sounds of civilisation with the “savage sensualities” of indigenous cultures.

Senses could confirm and feed into the cultural landscape of difference on the one hand, but could also be profoundly disorientating for individuals in the colonial sphere, and as such held the potential to break down the social and cultural hierarchies which empire relied upon for its ideological and conceptual survival.

In this workshop we will trace the ways in which peoples in the past have tried, failed, and/or succeeded to use their senses in order to make sense of empires and imperialism, including the neo-colonial and how colonies have both succumbed to and resisted these impositions of Western knowledge, imperial meaning, and colonial power.


Our discussions may explore these issues through three big questions:

  • In what ways were hierarchies of power mapped onto a sensual experience of colonialism and cultural otherness in the histories of imperialism?
  • How do we approach a history of the senses, and what does a sensual history contribute to our understanding of empire?
  • Can a multidisciplinary perspective give us a new way to make sense of these questions and their potential answers?


Exploring the cultural landscape of colonialism through the everyday, quotidian, but ambivalent experience of colonial actors in colonial contact zones is crucial to our understanding of colonial history, and more importantly how hierarchies of power, negotiation and resistance operated in colonial spheres.


The workshop will take place on 10-11 June 2019 at the University of Kent, Canterbury campus. We invite 400 – 500 word abstracts to be submitted by 30 April 2019. We intend to publish the papers selected to participate in the workshop. Please send the abstracts and a brief bio note (max. 100 words) to [email protected] and [email protected].