- In Classen we find some of the classic ways of talking about smell. It’s immaterial, undertheorized, linked with experience and emotion (2). There’s also a linking of smell to kinds of regression, whether to infancy or the animal.
- We come to know smell through analogy rather than having a formal grammar a la color (3). Since we don’t have a robust technical apparatus, we need to resort to description and memory: “Nor can odours be recorded: there is no effective way of either capturing scents or storing them over time. In the realm of olfaction, we must make do with descriptions and recollections” (3).
- Smell is devalued thanks to philosophical work on sensation in the 18th and 19th century; “sight was the pre-eminent sense of reason and civilization, smell was the sense of madness and savagery” (4).
- There’s so little really on smell that the same examples come up again and again. Süskind’s Perfume, for instance (4).
- Smells are “dangerous to the established [Western] social order” b/c they provide access to interiors rather than surfaces (4–5). This is an interesting distinction to make w/r/t mediation, which has a similar tension b/t surfaces and interiors (think screen essentialism and media archaeology).
A brief history of smell:
- antiquity: smell corresponds to literary metaphor [think w/ the Japanese court for a moment, even though it’s the Greeks]
- middle ages: smell becomes important to spiritual and curative powers; smell as medicine or plague [think of the management of smell in the Plague years through the doctor’s mask]
18th centuries: smell moves into “sentiment and sensuality” cf Corbin.
- The movement of smell from healing to sickening to sensuality is fascinating (82–83). Smell became unhealthy under deodorization campaigns; hence perfumes went from being essential to health to impossible bourgeois. Ephemerality is also seen somehow as extravagant.
- WWI also sees the decline of smells within the highly technologized home: “flower shows could not compete with the cinema” (84); the “widespread deodorization of public and private space.”
Germ theory extinguished scientific interest in smell classification (89); smell neither produced knowledge nor could compete w/ other sensory pleasures.
- Cultural research demonstrates that there’s no “natural” to likes and dislikes to odors; they are completely embedded in cultural contexts (104).
- Impoverished Western vocab for smell doesn’t bear out in other cultures; many other languages collapse smell and taste (109–10); smells are still often conjoined with the smell of a thing, rather than as an abstract concept (like color) (112); Classen et al. argue that in the absence of language, one must turn to practice. (113)
Osmology/cosmology is also interesting to set alongside the idea of the environmental (is there something also here w/r/t Yuk Hui’s cosmotechnics?) (116).
- Smell and political power: “In keeping with the modern regime of olfactory silence, the centre (the power elite) governs from a position of olfactory neutrality” (161).
- Section on class and ethnicity from pp. 165–69; “Often, however, a given ethnic or class odour is considered not just to be due to the consumption of particular foods or to perfume practices, but to be somehow intrinsic to the group, a characteristic trait as inalterable as skin colour” (165). Stink = racism, classism. The ideal (white, wealthy) body is utterly deodorized, with exceptions for an appropriate amount of feminizing perfumery.
“Smell pollution” in urban space (169); industrial spaces get a pass from smell regimes (170); difficult to define “smell pollution” b/c of a lack of measurement. “The smell is tolerable for those who are accustomed to it and have a profit to make out of these malodorous businesses. For those who are not and do not, however, it can be unbearable. This conflict of interests often arises in areas which are both industrial or agricultural and residential” (171). These companies can be forced to deodorize or develop methods for covering up their smells.
- Commercialization and smell (180). Again, think of my bubbles example, there’s a range of affective qualities added to products that exist purely to manage affect: “Such techniques of olfactory management are not limited to toiletry products. Fragrances added to products such as detergents and house paints give a wide range of commodities an olfactory aura. These added aromas carry meanings of status, of freshness, of effectiveness, without in any way being necessary to those products’ actual performance” (180).
- Fascinating re: copyright: “Interestingly, despite their enormous commercial value, product scents do not technically constitute property under the law. This makes it possible for competitors to reproduce the aroma of a successful commodity in an imitation product” (182).
- Would be worth thinking about the kinds of gendered circulations of how smell crops up in advertising, although I assume there’s no smell-of-computing advertisement.
- Big biopolitics flag: “Odours, in fact, are increasingly being promoted as behaviour modifiers” (196).
Archive and Context
- Classen is a cultural historian who’s a major figure in sensory studies.