The Senses and the Meanings of Modernity in East Asia




Reflecting recent shifts towards the study of embodied cognition, the senses have re-emerged as objects of inquiry that span the arts, humanities, hard and social sciences. Awareness of historical sedimentation and cultural entanglement-in-the-world, however, can often be missing from current work on affect, sensing and embodiment that assumes unchanging bodies and universal subjects.

This project proposes the senses as a framework for reconceptualising the social, cultural and technological histories of modernity in East Asia. The senses let us think beyond established disciplinary divisions, such as those between modernism as a network of aesthetic practices and the material developments characteristic of modernity. They can help us challenge the deterministic narrative of imported Western technological inventions transforming a social field from the outside and restore subjective and social agency to the histories of media in East Asia. Border-crossing forms of knowledge are urgently needed in East Asian Studies as China, Japan and Korea continue to be studied separately, each positioned into a linear teleology of modernization, with Western experience as the norm.

How did older modes of perception and the inherent intersubjectivity of certain sensory experiences encounter the monadic, self-contained subject demanded by capitalist modernization? How did cultural practices and critical discourses in China, Japan and Korea respond to the new domination of the eye? Do we find only resistances and tensions or are there resonances and alignments between the non-visual arts and the dominant visual regime? Can approaches centred on the senses help us scrutinize the juxtapositions between ‘high’ art, music and literature, and burgeoning mass visual and auditory cultures? Do we need a rigorous historical anchoring of these explorations or should we look for perspectives that cross not only geographies and disciplines, but also time periods?

Publications and outputs

‘The Senses and the Meanings of Modernity in East Asia, 1890–1945 and beyond’: an interdisciplinary workshop at SOAS, University of London, 18 June 2018. 

Hayter, Irena. 'For the Eyes Only: The Sensory Politics of Japanese Modernism', Bunron – Zeitschrift für literaturwissenschaftliche Japanforschung, 4 (2017), 125–48.

Hayter, Irena. 'Figures of the Visual: Japanese Modernism, Technology, Vitalism', positions: asia critique 25: 2 (2017), 299–322.