Summary

Keywords

  • “miasma,” a leading theory of illness in Europe/US in the nineteenth century, wherein illness was transmitted by odor. For Corbin, the prevalence of miasma theory dovetails with the eventual control of odors in public space. (Hence, the English notion of going to the country or sea to “breath the airs.”)

Notes

  • Smell is subject to a see-sawing “appreciation” and “depreciation” in the philosophical and scientific registers of Euro-modernity (6); Corbin offers stereotypes (as do most smell studies scholars) for why: smell is sensual and full of lust; sniffing is an animal behavior; ephemeral senses cannot produce intellectual thought; and most importantly: “If olfaction were his most important sense, man’s linguistic incapacity to describe olfactory sensations would turn him into a create tied to his environment” (6)
  • Smell “reveal[s] a basic failure at the level of social education”; to become civilized is to distance oneself from that which smell does best (7). Yet smell is undoubtedly still integrated into daily life, especially as the first sign against pollution and danger (7). Smell also seems to have some kind of immediate affective purchase on the subconscious, viz. smell’s purported access to memory (7–8).

  • Corbin accounting Enlightenment theories of air: ultimately air is the fluid that holds all other fluids and activities in the body in balance; this was also the moment of realizing that air was a mixture of things rather than a unified elemental substance; particularly interesting: “Many thinkers attributed to air the transmission of magnetic particles, even of vague astral influences” (12).

  • The “archaeology of miasma” is fascinating insofar as it links the bowels of the earth, e.g. mines, to the production of toxic and infectious miasma (22–23). Fascinating links here to Parikka’s Geology and Mumford. Toxic gas escapes from “fissures, faults, and imperfect joinings” (23).
  • This is all part and parcel of a shift that Corbin notes from air as life-preserving to air as a vehicle for decomposition and decay.
  • Mines, dumps, and other industrial sites are the hearts of toxic stench; they are also some of the only places allowed to smell, and as such become synecdochic for smell more generally in a de-odorized society (24). Miasma theory engenders an “anxiety” that responds well to regimes of control (25).
  • Media production seems central to different kinds of chemical refuse (27);

  • The rise of public health thus entails de-odorization, thought the same process as disinfection (90). “Absence of odor not only stripped miasma of its terrors; it denied the passing of life and the succession of generations; it was an aid to enduring the endless repeated agony of death” (90). This means: de-odorization “conceals the evidence of organic time.”

Archive

  • Corbin is an historian in the Annales school, an influential group of French historians in the 1980s who stressed long-term social history as part of doing historiography (thanks Wikipedia).
  • Philosophers against smell: Plato, Kant,