on Sensory Experiments

May 2021


In late April, graduate students Max Laitman Chapnick (Boston University) and Allison Fulton (University of California Davis) met on their haptic Zoom screens with Associate Professor of English Erica Fretwell to discuss her recently-published book Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (October 2020, Duke University Press). As Fretwell defines the book's central concept in her Introduction, psychophysics was “an experimental science that tested people’s subjective responses to auditory, gustatory, olfactory, tactical, and visual stimulation” developed by a cluster of German practitioners between 1840 and 1880. While the experimental methods of psychophysics’s investigation of the senses weren’t translated until later, the ideas entered the milieu of American literary culture throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, from gothic depictions of phantom limbs following the Civil War to the materiality of Hellen Keller’s biographies.


Like the various interfaces of body and mind she describes, Fretwell’s text discusses the way literary sensation admits a confluence of empirical measurement and subjective inner life. Her readings center on key authors, embodied genres, and literary genres: Mumler’s realist spirit photographs, Pauline Hopkins’s and Edward Bellamy’s utopian soundscapes, Kate Chopin’s scented desires, Emily Dickinson’s lawless black cake recipes, and Hellen Keller’s tactile autobiographies. But each chapter also expands beyond its authorial and generic focus gesturing toward a broader corpus with readings of an amputee’s profile, Dickinson’s letters to her friends, and Keller’s publication processes.


In a lively hour of conversation, Fretwell covered everything from her method for putting this book together to the general and specific interventions her scholarship proposes. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Max Laitman Chapnick (MLC): How did this project begin? Where did you first come across psychophysics as a discipline?

Dr. Erica Fretwell (EF): Psychophysics came quite late to the game. While I was writing the dissertation, I was thinking about social life as an affective theme organized around attachments, identifications, and disidentifications that unfold across political and aesthetic registers at the level of the everyday. I’d initially been drawn to Du Bois’s question: how does it feel to be a problem? This is a very canonical question in American literature and letters and it's a question that is sort of atmospheric; it's not directly stated.


It was a very serendipitous unearthing of psychophysics. I was teaching a graduate course at my current institution on literary and feminist science studies and we were reading media studies scholar Jonathan Crary. He mentioned psychophysics in Techniques of the Observer and it was one of those ‘Aha’ moments. Once I started reading Gustav Fechner and Hermann von Helmholtz (the founders of psychophysics) and some of the scholarship around them, everything really settled.


I think this process reproduces the way in which psychophysics itself circulated in the nineteenth century. In a sense, my experience totally coheres with the archive itself, which was that psychophysics was, more or less, also in the air. There were particular vocabularies like thresholds and wave intensities for thinking about the senses not as a general sensorium but as the material or physiological distinctiveness of each particular sense. I didn't know that I didn't know about psychophysics, precisely because of the way it had a spectral yet felt presence in the archive. I want to underscore, especially for graduate students, that it was not at all clear to me what exactly I was looking for.


MLC: Both Fechner and Helmholtz are written in German, with translations of their work coming much later. How much German do you know? If not, what’s it like doing archival research in a language you’re not familiar with?


EF: I don’t know German, so that was severely limiting. I was dependent upon transcriptions and translations. To circle back to the first question, part of why we don't know psychophysics is because some of these books either still aren’t translated today or have been translated but were published at a moment when people weren't really reading them. And it's always been understood that psychophysics is just the precursor to psychology, so why do you really need to read it anyway?


Again, just to be utterly transparent, this is a tenure book. I did not have time to hunt down someone who could translate for me. I want to underscore that there's the big idea version of how I came to these ideas, but there are also material realities that I was up against. I hope that we all as scholars can be a bit more forthright that there are limiting factors in play when we're doing research.


Allison Fulton (AF): What changes were made while turning the dissertation into the book? Two of the book chapters appeared as articles first, so what was the process of integrating those?

EF: The structure of the book reflects, more or less, the structure of my dissertation. I decided, again not knowing what I was doing or why, that each chapter would focus on one sense. The Dickinson chapter and the Keller/Du Bois chapter were the two that had appeared years earlier as different articles in J19 and American Literary History. The Dickinson article and the Dickinson book chapter, I think, are the most unlike. The Keller/Du Bois article and the Keller/Du Bois chapter fairly resemble each other; the chapter is an expanded version of the article with a bit more archival and conceptual footing in light of psychophysics because both of these essays came out pre-psychophysics framework.


At some presses you revise and then no one really looks at the manuscript again in terms of editorial or intellectual intervention. With Duke, in particular, after you revise the readers look at it again as a kind of sign-off reading. Publication timing is really important whether you're on the job market or up for tenure. Waiting for your manuscript to be read a second time can make a difference of another two months or so before it gets officially pushed into press. Once you get in, it's a pretty simple process, but as with any submission, the proposal phase is a fraught and anxious one.

AF: Could you talk about how deep into the spirit photography archive you went and how you learned about the associated photographic processes and experiments?

EF: I’d taken some grad courses that addressed photography. I was really influenced by the work of Laura Wexler and Sean Michelle Smith whose scholarship on nineteenth-century photography has been totally foundational to the field. I knew of spirit photography through their scholarship. Spirit photography is a particular genre that isn't limited to the 1860s, there are other people who take it up later into the nineteenth and twentieth century. But for the purposes of the chapter, I was focusing on the civil war moment and William H. Mumler, who invented spirit photography. I was considering the preconditions for spirit photography’s invention and what made it possible to even think of this particular technology as something that was worth pursuing.


AF: How did you decide to engage with the visual archive of photographs in the first chapter, whereas the rest of the book engages primarily with a literary archive?

EF: The big picture, before I hone in on the particularity of photography, is: what is the relationship between the literary and the non-literary, or the literary and the experiential? I understand photography as I would perfumery or recipes or opera. On the one hand, it’s a kind of residue, or a kind of document. It's the kind of the archival remains or trace of these sensory practices and experiments. At the same time, I don't want to reduce it strictly to some kind of documentary function. I want to make a claim for these media and technologies as aesthetic practices in and of themselves.

William Mumler, Master Herrod with the Spirits of Europe, Africa, and America, c. 1862-1875. Courtesy of the College of Psychic Studies, London, via Sensory Experiments, page 66.

The literary has different kinds of formal contours that produce different aesthetic or political effects than, say, spirit photography. A key concept is Helmholtz’s sign theory of perception, which is that the senses are not static reflections of the world, they're flexible representations of the world. One of the implications, then, is that language and experience, which are typically understood to be completely distinct, are brought into proximity and, in fact, they’re interrelated. Insofar as a sensation is kind of inherently symbolic activity then language and ergo literature is not actually distinct from that experiential kind of ongoing process: a sensation.


In terms of deciding how to focus on photography for the chapter on vision, it seemed to me that Mumler’s spirit photographs came the closest to addressing the Fechnerian, spiritualist understanding of a de-empiricized vision that can't be so easily collapsed into the empiricist protocols of observation and enlightenment. Psychophysics is part and parcel of this broader European and settler North American Romanticism that appropriated Asian and Indigenous philosophies and did so to make a case for universal religious sensibility.


Spiritualism appropriates Indigenous beliefs and practices and combines them with Western empirical methods. Spiritualist metaphysics presents people as without a past, as if the culture that people are connected to does not shape them. The excess of empiricism that spiritualism and spirit photography engages are then produced as ‘mystical’ or ‘occult’. Mumler’s photos directly engage all these issues around vision and visibility. They perpetuate the universalist fantasy of this connection with the dead and with the past. But at the same time, what we see at play is precisely the problem with psychophysics—these fantasies collapse. The capacity of the body to transcend the past is, of course, the white body. Universalism is always actually a settler imperialist white supremacist understanding of these relations between bodies. And I think that's what spirit photography does so well.

MLC: It's very clear to both of us that one of the key interventions is bringing conceptions of race into history of science discourse. But I'm wondering about the converse: how do you see your discussion of psychophysics intervening in questions of critical race theory? How are these conceptions useful for a discussion of race in nineteenth-century America?

EF: One of the ways we can understand psychophysics as intervening in critical race studies is it expands our understanding of processes of racialization by actually contracting how racialization works. It operates not simply at the level of, say, physiognomy or other kinds of embodied practices and postures, but also at the micro-level of consciousness. The conceptual knot of psychophysics is precisely that it’s trying to empiricize something that you can't really measure: you can't empiricize judgments, especially these affective micro-judgments. On the one hand, psychophysics gives us a fuller picture of racialization in the nineteenth century broadly up through today that works at the level of affect and sensory experience, as it is felt. At the same time, what psychophysics also does is offer a more robust vocabulary for a kind of racial phenomenology. Psychophysics offers us a way to understand that race is neither strictly biological, though embodied, nor is it strictly social, though it certainly operates at the level of experience. So, to go back to Du Bois, racialization is felt. It works at this affective reality that's still tethered to the body but not reducible to it.

MLC: We noticed this pattern of intersectional readings where you draw out, say, the racism of Bellamy's socialism or the classism of The Awakening. Those readings of figures where, if we're calling them like “problematic radicals,” you're drawing out the problematic side.

EF: Yeah, that's like the story of the nineteenth century, isn’t it?

MLC: Yeah, totally. For example, in your reading of Bellamy, you foreground the Orientalist racism in his dream-visions of Spain. I thought that was a brilliant reading. I’m wondering what’s the purpose of that sort of a reading?

EF: I really take my cues from the objects and the historical framework. In the case of Hopkins, this is a kind of classist account of utopia that’s attracted to a eugenicist logic. She's completely keeping with progressive era African American reformist thought at the time. But what is still at play is what gets called a mystical or transcendent access, this understanding that Hopkins has where acoustics becomes a medium of trans-personal consciousness and connection. Consciousness itself then becomes the material of kinship. It's a model of kinship that isn't strictly biological. It's a sort of dialectical movement, where the further she turns into this kind of transcendent or mystical understanding of kinship as consciousness, the more she is also turning back into a more biological eugenicist framework.


My understanding of nineteenth-century US literature, in general, is that there is genuine radical politics and there's a lot of progressive liberal politics powered by people who, from today's vantage, we can see as ‘problematic.’ That's just classical liberalism; it's that incremental reformist change that doesn't fundamentally change the underlying structures of inequality. Writers like Hopkins and Bellamy are offering really interesting imagined solutions to very entrenched problems and, from today's perspective, aspects of those solutions and imagined worlds are problematic. But that's part of what I think makes them so interesting to think about because these are the problems we still face.

MLC: Moving to the next chapter, we were very curious about the recipes and the cakes, especially because there are references to specific qualities of the cakes. So we were wondering: did you actually bake any of them?

EF: I have only baked Dickinson's version. I remember pulling it out of the oven the first time and—not that it knocked me over—but having that feeling when you are given something that's a little heavier than you anticipate, and your body thinks a little, and you have to gird yourself.


What I realized after the Dickinson essay had been published in J19 and after the dissertation was that Dickinson's recipes were far more conventional than I had initially thought. She models it on fruit cake recipe that was from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824). This actually makes Dickinson’s writing even more interesting because we're seeing a bigger gap between her lawless aesthetic practices and poetics versus the cooking she's doing in the home.

AF: Could you elaborate on how you came to address embodied and lived genres alongside one another? Are they always overlapping or are they sometimes slightly askew?

EF: I understand them as distinct but mutually constitutive structures of relation that can cross cut each other. Even though each chapter is organized around a particular sensory genre, it's not necessarily organized around a literary genre. I don't really name it or underscore it. I didn't put a fine point on it because I had no interest in making a claim for a specific genre neatly lining up with an embodied genre. Hearing does not have a monopoly on utopian fiction, or vice versa.


I came to understand the senses as genres because of the way that psychophysics was atomizing the genres. It’s not to say that pre psychophysics there was just a general sensorium, but psychophysics was really the first to atomize and study them systematically and distinctly. There's a creative energy in the embodied genre and literary genre; they move across but are not reducible to each other. This reproduces the psychophysical body-mind relation in which the mind and the body are not causally related. It’s sort of a Möbius strip. For psychophysics, sense experience is that kind of torque or twist in the Möbius strip where the mind glides into the body, and vice versa. I'm understanding the embodied genre (affect), and then the literary genre (language experience), doing that same sort of movement.


AF: That's a really lovely image to end on. I feel like that helps give a mental picture of what the book is doing as a whole.

Bio: Erica Fretwell is associate professor of English at the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY), where she teaches nineteenth-century U.S. literature, critical race studies, the history of science, and affect theory. She is the author of Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (2020) and is a co-editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Literature and Science (2020). Her essays have appeared in J19 and American Literary History, as well as in the edited volumes Timelines of American Literature (ed. Marrs and Hager) The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Food (ed. Coghlan), and The New Walt Whitman Studies (ed. Cohen). She has written on the television show Dickinson for Avidly, and on the U.S. capitol riots and the history of lynching for Al Jazeera. Her current project, “Out of Print: Haptic Literature in the Age of Craft,” revisits the nineteenth century as a “haptic episteme” through the object-oriented pedagogies, handicraft practices, and fabrications (both literal and idiomatic) that revalued embodied presence as a vector of everyday knowing.