How should scholars in the social sciences, humanities, and arts comprehend, apprehend, and represent the domain of the unseen? The unheard? The untouched? The untasted? The unscented? The unknown? The unknowable? These questions — charting a kind of inside-out, afterimaged anthropology of the senses — organized an academic year of conversation in MIT Anthropology. In 2010-2011, the department sponsored “Sensing the Unseen,” a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures, convened with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Meeting monthly, across eight sessions, anthropologists, historians, literary scholars, and others grappled with various “species of the unseen”: the elusive, the invisible, the evanescent, the obscure, the unaccounted, the occult, the uncanny, and the transitory. The first four “species” were keyed to canonical sensory modes: listening, feeling, tasting, and seeing. The others were joined to investigating how unseen forces, magical and technical, are socially measured and managed, at scales from the molecular to the geopolitical.

Speakers, discussants, conveners, and audience members talked through how to portray the-just-out-view, how to listen for presences at the edges of social perception, how to pry into processes difficult to communicate intersubjectively — such as pain or trauma — how to capture evanescent worlds of taste, how to measure or account for processes outside of everyday palpability or scale (e.g., radiation, climate change, global finance). They also asked how to engage spiritual worlds entirely unseen. Ranging across everyday and structural domains, drawing on North and South American, European, African, and Asian case studies, participants attended, too, to how media technologies are increasingly entangled with human sensoria, with effects for how the unseen may be visualized, apprehended, or may yet continue to resist representation.

This “Sensing the Unseen” collection on Sensate revisits and remixes those 2010-2011 conversations (the original organization, along with podcast documentation of the talks, can be found at the Sensing the Unseen website). We, the editors — Emily Zeamer, who served as Postdoctoral Fellow for the series, and Heather Paxson and Stefan Helmreich, faculty organizers of the seminar — asked speakers and discussants to write short pieces reflecting on or extending their newest thinking on the unseen. With the essential help of the Sensate editorial and design team (especially Julia Yezbick), we have tweaked our “species” into new categories. The pieces collected here now travel under these heads:

[Sensing the Unseen 2.0 Special Collection]

Elusive Sounds
Steven Feld
Ernst Karel
Hillel Schwartz

Evanescent Tastes
Rachel Black
Amy Trubek
Brad Weiss

Ephemeral Agencies
David Howes
Sarah Igo
Kathryn Guerts

Obscure Photographs
Karen Strassler
Hanna Rose Shell
Christine Walley & Chris Boebel

Fleeting Experiences
Jimena Canales
Robert Desjarlais

If an “introduction” is a leading-within, this “infraduction” is a leading-beneath, an account of the subterranean connections between the different pieces collected here.


Sensing the Unseen is a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The seminar was held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010-2011.