Francine Masiello’s Sensational Sense Work

BY Erin Haar | September 28, 2018 | Writers on Writing

On September 26th, the Townsend Center hosted the first of its seven Berkeley Book Chats this semester, a casual conversation series in which UC Berkeley faculty discuss the publication of their most recent books. The first chat featured Francine Masiello, the Sidney and Margaret Ancker Professor Emerita in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Spanish & Portuguese. Tom McEnaney, Comparative Literature and Spanish & Portuguese colleague and former student of Masiello’s, also joined her in this chat. Together, they discussed Masiello’s book The Senses of Democracy: Perception, Politics, and Culture in Latin America and how the representation of the senses reflects change in culture, politics, and technology. 

In introducing the book, McEnaney highlighted Masiello’s past research. As an academic scholar, Masiello has compared North and South American cultures across hundreds of years, introduced new analytical models regarding Latin America Literature, and re-discovered lesser known works by female authors. These achievements led Masiello to what McEnaney called a “passionate examination” in this book of the relationships between literature, crisis, and sensuality in Latin America from the 19th to the 21st century.  

During the first part of the chat, Masiello discussed how she came to this project. With bright energy, she highlighted her desire to examine why Latin American scholars haven’t taken up the senses as an important topic in the same way European scholars have. She was curious about the role of the senses in democracy, dictatorships, and resistance, and about what happened when Latin American governments relied on the senses to organize discourse. In the book, Masiello coins the phrase “sense work” to refer to texts, art works, and histories “focusing on the technologies and political events that interact with perceiving subjects.” 

As the chat went on,  Masiello discussed the historical events, figures, and works that helped her formulate The Senses of Democracy. First, she illustrated how historical figures affect their regional histories in explaining how and why American and Argentine politicians reacted differently to French sensualist philosophers in the 19th century. From there, she discussed the significance of various features of Latin American culture that manifest in the senses. For example, visual artist Guillermo Núñez painted abstract interpretations of the human body dismembered into pieces, showing his position of resistance against Argentina’s oppressive government near the end of the 20th century. Indeed, the relationships between personal freedom, sensation, and resistance are part of Masiello’s larger argument. Ultimately, she claims that the way sensation is represented in sense work affects the ways in which culture and political systems have shifted in Latin America. 

In sharing her scholarly experience, Masiello kicked off the Townsend Center’s Berkeley Book Chats with an enthusiastic and intriguing start. These book chats will continue throughout the semester on various Wednesdays at 12 noon. The next chat will be on Hertha Sweet Wong’s Picturing Identity: Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text on October 24th. The chats will also be recorded and shared as podcasts, accessible through the Townsend Center’s website. Francine Masiello’s book chat will be available shortly, and consequently, so will her passionate insights about the ways in which sense work has impacted the cultural politics of Latin America.