This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Workshop gives ‘lower’ senses their due

Humanities Institute honors work of UB philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer

Published: April 24, 2008

Contributing Editor

More than 75 members of the academic and larger Buffalo community were in the audience last week when Carolyn Korsmeyer, professor and former chair of the Department of Philosophy, was honored by the UB Humanities Institute for her outstanding work in aesthetics, a discipline one speaker called “the Rodney Dangerfield of philosophical sub-fields.”

“Bodily Senses: A Cross-Disciplinary Conversation on Taste, Smell & Touch,” a scholar session on April 16, featured guest speakers who pointed in particular to Korsmeyer’s defense of the importance of the “lower” senses—taste, smell and touch—to the aesthetic experience.

Carrie Tirado Bramen, associate professor of English and executive director of the institute, called the event “an interdisciplinary symposium at its best.”

The talks were followed by a lively and intelligent discussion about art, disgust and the genuine, moderated Tim Dean, assistant professor of English and director of the institute.

Speaker Susan L. Feagin, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she specializes in aesthetics, situated Korsmeyer’s work in the wider field of philosophy to explain why it is unique and important.

The major philosophical fields of ethics, epistemology and metaphysics deal with right conduct, the nature of knowledge itself and the ultimate nature of being and the world, respectively.

Aesthetics, on the other hand, is a sub-group of axiology, which itself is a sub-group of ethics. It mucks about in sensory values informed by sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; in other words, in values deriving from the body, as opposed to the mind, a fact that grounds it at the bottom of the philosophical hierarchy.

Feagin, editor of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, pointed out that the body and its senses—not coincidentally associated with aspects of gender and sexuality—historically have been given short shrift.

She pointed out that Korsmeyer, however, not only takes up a defense of the cast-off lower senses themselves, but delves into the question of why sensory input from these sources disgust us, holding that this knowledge can deeply inform our aesthetic understanding. She is, in fact, presently at work on a book tentatively titled, “Encounters with Disgust,” a study of disgust as an aesthetic response.

“Korsmeyer will tell you that the lower senses offer a way to complicate the aesthetic experience by making us examine those experiences usually denied in philosophical discourse,” Feagin said, adding that she asks us what aesthetics would look like if we didn’t prioritize vision, for instance, but instead placed the highest value on our experience of smell or taste.

“She doesn’t ask that the sense hierarchy be reversed, but that the hierarchy itself be amplified so that our experience of what we smell, taste and touch can be ‘heard,’” Feagin said.

The second speaker, Janet Lyon, associate professor of English, women's studies, and of science, technology and society at Penn State, went further, applying Korsmeyer’s observations to the intersection of aesthetics and disability studies.

Lyon asked the audience to consider how a re-thinking of what we find aesthetically unacceptable might also alter our perception of disability and the experience of the disabled.

She discussed challenges posed by autistic Amanda Baggs, a woman who performs an alternative language (in a prosthetic voice), trying “to explain her world and her language of sensation, but …must do so by funneling that language through the tiny neck of a tiny bottle labeled ‘English’”

Baggs’ frequent sniffing, licking and touching of everything around her issues a deliberate challenge to those who would find “unaesthetic” her extensive use of the “lower” senses to gather information from the world, offers one answer to the question posed by Korsmeyer.

Bramen quotes a comment made by Baggs in her much-publicized You Tube video: “My language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in constant conversation with every aspect of my environment.”

Baggs’ life and work, said Lyon, radically inverts and re-emphasizes the importance of certain sensory knowledge and modes of expression.

Bramen says Korsmeyer’s writing and Baggs’ controversial work ask a variation of the same question from different locations: “What does art look like that is based on the lower senses, that rejects the ‘neurotypical’ world of vision and instead includes all of the senses?”

“Several people approached me after the session hoping that this would be a regular event,” Bramen said, “and it will.

“Those present last week participated in the beginning of a new tradition for the Humanities Institute, a symposium to be held every spring that will feature the work of a prominent UB senior colleague in the humanities.”

Korsmeyer is the editor of “Aesthetics: The Big Questions,” co-editor (with Peg Brand) of “Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics” and the author of “Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy.” Her 2004 book, “Gender in Aesthetics: An Introduction,” offers both an introduction and an overview of this important contemporary subject that has yet to be fully discussed in philosophical aesthetics.