Losing Our Minds, Coming to Our Senses
By Mehdi Khorrami and Amir Moosavi
Can a text, in its broadest sense, transcend its primary sensory medium and trigger multisensory reactions? Can a painting activate the sense of taste, in addition to sight? Is it possible to see, taste or touch a piece of music while listening to it? The recently published Losing Our Minds, Coming to Our Senses: Sensory Readings of Persian Literature and Culture considers these and similar questions during different periods and across diverse environments.
From a theoretical point of view, this project owes a great deal to concepts developed by anthropologists and cultural historians, who initiated and expanded the field of sensory studies. The fundamental objective of the “sensory turn” and subsequent concepts that emerged from it, has been to underline the importance of enhanced sensory environments and the ways in which individuals and collectives can relate and interact with sensoria.
In conceptualizing the publication and emphasizing mainly literary production we had another objective in mind as well. Literary research premised on sensory studies can provide an alternative to the monopolization of modern Persian literary criticism by socio-political discourses, which generally rely on content-based approaches to construct ‘committed readings’ of literary production. These ‘committed readings’, in our view, circumscribe the significance of the literary by turning criticism strictly into a call to action and by allowing the text to be nothing more than a site of resistance, thus foreclosing opportunities for alternative readings. Sensory studies can challenge the limits of such approaches, and this confrontation takes place primarily through a focus on aesthetics, stylistics, and readings that forefront the formal, literary aspects of texts.
In other words, in the context of Persian literature, the geography of which exceeds Iran’s current borders, modern literary criticism has relied heavily upon (non-literary) concepts derived from systems of thought, ideologies, and social movements. These include socialism, Islamism, Sufism, feminism, nationalism, orientalism, and post-colonialism, amongst other sources, to produce models for reading and judging works of both classical (800–1500 CE) and modern Persian literature. Several critics have employed these methods, at times producing necessary and interesting readings of Persian literary texts and other forms of cultural production. However, these content-based, committed approaches have also produced a somewhat homogenous body of literary criticism that predictably reduces literature and other cultural texts purely to their sociopolitical functions.
A conventional challenge to the methodologies of these reading models could be mounted through the dated yet still extremely useful approach of rhetorical studies. However, this approach, too, has its limitations. Specifically, because of its exclusive reliance on verbocentric devices, this approach is incapable of confronting the idea-based textualism of committed reading models in an organic manner. In fact, for anthropologists in the field of sensory studies, this too has been one of the challenges to forming a strategy to interrogate textualism and/or verbocentrism. Here, the contribution of French historian, Alain Corbin, is most significant. A leading scholar of sensory studies, David Howes, summarizes Corbin’s work as follows:
The writings of Alain Corbin are fundamental to the sensory turn in history. Breaking with the focus on ‘mentalities’ in the work of Febvre and the Annales School, and the focus on ‘discourse’ on the part of Foucault and the poststructuralists, Corbin set out to write a history of the ‘sensible’ (see Corbin and Heuré 2000). The term ‘sensible’ can be loosely rendered into English as ‘the sensate’ or ‘the perceptible.’
For our purposes, anthropological and literary sensory studies converge at the point of the notion of perceptibility. The Russian Formalists’ definition of perceptibility is well-known as accompanying the process of defamiliarization in literature, through which the written word becomes perceptible. Anthropology can add an approach to the literary debate that takes into account all senses. It therefore implies that verbocentric-Formalist defamiliarization cannot move us towards “perfecting our perception” of the universe with which we interact, whether it is l’univers romanesque or a non-literary one. For this purpose, we need literary sensory models – informed mainly by literary studies and anthropology – whose shared central feature is their ability to interact with texts in the context of activating all traditional senses. Indeed, this characteristic/requirement is the most fundamental notion constituting the aesthetics and stylistics of sensory writing and sensory reading, and ultimately challenges the strictures of content-based readings.
With these objectives in mind, we asked the volume’s contributors to use the anthropologically inspired ‘sensory turn’ to approach their topics and texts. In doing so, their chapters in the book demonstrate that close attention paid to the senses – the things we so often look past – reveals a rich world of sensory experiences that both coexist with, and help constitute, other meaning-making elements on which we, as critics, are often more comfortable focusing, such as historical and political context, biography, or patterns of imagery, to name a few. The senses, to quote literature scholar Michael Beard in his eloquent introduction to the volume, have “become the thing right in front of us that we don’t quite see any longer, like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe’s influential story by the same name, the elephant in the room.” We believe he hits the nail on the head when he writes “the project of this book is to restore that balance, to establish building blocks which can help us feel our way toward a criticism which puts the sensory and material world in the foreground” (13).
The result, we believe, is an interesting and diverse array of approaches to literature, media, theater, and film that demonstrates some of the directions sensory studies might go in relation to Persian literature and culture. The chapters tackle a wide range of topics and their lack of a singular, ‘theoretical glue’ warmly nod toward the exploratory and introductory nature of this approach to cultural production from this part of the world. The volume crosses the classical and modern eras of literature and culture and offers a taste of what sensory studies might allow us to do when applied to different forms of cultural production.
In this way, some of the volume’s chapters put the spotlight on the sensoria of well-known, Persian classical poets. M. Mehdi Khorrami’s chapter, for example, in addition to some of Parviz Dava’i’s short stories, examines a well-known ghazal by Hafez. In doing so, he calls for sensory readings of literary texts – that is, readings that focus on rich descriptions of the soundscape, tastescape, landscape, smellscape, and touchscape of their quotidian routes or habitual environments – for readers to achieve a more pleasurable and, in fact, “compelling understanding of literary texts” (27).
Taking sensory studies in a different direction but staying in the same era, Ali-Asghar Seyed-Gohrab’s chapter shines light on Rumi’s explication and perception of the senses, and why he emphasizes, time and again, that the senses should be eliminated to arrive at a spiritual aspiration. In the process, he reveals an entire taxonomy of the senses, much more complicated than the traditional five.
Other chapters trace the use of the senses in the modern prose and poetry of writers like Hossein Abkenar, Elyas Alavi, and Moniro Ravanipour. For instance, Amir Moosavi’s chapter reveals how the senses can be a useful tool for the analysis of cultural production dealing with the Iran-Iraq War, one of the more salient topics in Iranian literature and film since 1979. He narrows in on the use of sound in Abkenar’s dystopian war novel, The Scorpion, using the notion of ‘the belliphonic’ and demonstrating how sound is employed as a trigger for narrative time switches and how war, generally, is represented as sensory overload.
Other chapters examine the senses in Shi’i passion plays, Ta’ziyeh, Persian-language folktales, the radical 1950s newspaper Shuresh, and Forough Farrokhzad’s haunting film, The House is Black. They provide a variety of theoretical frameworks and reading possibilities. Sheida Dayani’s, chapter, for example, puts forward a novel reading, informed partly by Lacan’s notion of joussaince, of Ta’ziyeh, interpreting it through the binary poles of pleasure and pain. In this instance, the analysis focuses on the senses and tight relationship to the body. Neda Bolourchi’s chapter on Shuresh, on the other hand, offers a combination of historical and anthropological elements. She argues that even when we are dealing with text-based materials we have to move beyond sight-centered, traditional readers’ response theories and examine the multisensory environment that a text could produce as well as a multisensory response that it might trigger.
We see Losing Our Minds, Coming to Our Senses as an exploratory first step in introducing sensory studies to the fields of Persian literature and Iranian studies. For our part, we hope to make it a precursor to a much larger, multi-year project with the provisional title of A Cultural History of the Senses in the Persianate World. The final product would be a multi-volume book that traverses across the classical period and into modern times. Each volume would contain detailed examinations of topics such as architecture, literature, medicine, philosophy, religion, and urban spaces – topics that can travel through time and demonstrate the impacts of major socio-political, cultural, and intellectual themes in creating various sensory environments. To define the changing geography of the Persianate Societies, we rely on many concepts of mobility such as cosmopolitanism, contact zones, circuits defined by bodies of water, and religious and trade routes. We hope to involve scholars who can proffer descriptions of a variety of sensoria from different periods and the ways in which individuals and collectives relate to them.
 David Howes, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies (version 1.0 – August 2013)”, accessed February 13, 2022.
 The term ‘belliphonic’, which refers to “sounds, live and recorded, that were connected, through causation or inference, to … war”, was coined by Martin Daughtry in Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma and Survival in Wartime Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). See pages 3-4.
Recent book talks on Losing Our Minds
“Losing Our Minds, Coming to Our Senses: Sensory readings of Persian literature (A Hafezian Banquet)”, sponsored by the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies and the Stanford Festival of Iranian Arts.
“NYU-ISI: Losing Our Minds, Coming to Our Senses: Sensory Readings Of Persian Literature And Culture”, hosted virtually by the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University and the Iranian Studies Initiative (ISI).
Mehdi Khorrami is Professor Emeritus of Persian Studies at New York University. He has written numerous monographs, essays, and book chapters on the rhetorical and aesthetic dynamics of Persian modernist writing and contemporary Persian prison literature. He is the author of Literary Subterfuge and Contemporary Persian Fiction: Who Writes Iran (Routledge, 2014) and co-editor and co-translator of Fayz Muhammad Kātib Hazārah’s Sirāj al-tawārīkh (Brill, 2013–2016).
Amir Moosavi is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Rutgers University-Newark. During the 2020/21 and 2016/17 academic years he was a EUME Fellow, with support from the Volkswagen Foundation. He teaches and writes on modern Persian and Arabic literatures and is completing a book titled Dust That Never Settled: Afterlives of the Iran-Iraq War in Arabic and Persian Literatures. He is the editor of the series The “1979 Moment” in the Middle East on this blog.
Citation: Mehdi Khorrami and Amir Moosavi, Losing Our Minds, Coming to Our Senses, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.05.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/37120