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Abstract

The relationship between smell and politics could appear obscure; and yet, when it comes to smell, questions about freedom and constriction, social and ontological mingling or distinctions, clearly arise. In this paper, I will especially focus on the domain of food as a clear example for describing some of the political ambivalences characterizing the sense of smell. The aim is to pave the way for a more detailed ‘sociopolitical aesthetics of smell’ to come. I will stress epistemological and social features of odors in order to highlight their ambivalence in knowledge and community life. Perceivers and odors will emerge as mingled bodies, highlighting an ongoing process of material as well as emotional affection. Moreover, I will present some relevant examples of smell as social status symbols in relation to the aesthetic values linked to class hierarchy. Consumerism and scented goods will be lastly discussed in order to shade light on contemporary perceptual phenomena and their role in the socioeconomic dimension.

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Testo integrale

Smell: Epistemological suspicion and social relevance

  • 1 Kant 2006: 50 (§21).
  • 2 Ivi: 50-52 (§22).
  • 3 Id. 2007: 158 (§53).
  • 4 Id. 2006: 51 (§22).

1As it is well known, Kant considers smell the least free of the senses due to its resistance to and independence from rational control.1 If the convivial dimension of a meal does not hinder each diner from freely deciding what and how much to taste, smell, on the contrary, can neither be dosed as desired nor avoided, since it is triggered only after inhaling the molecules.2 The same applies to personal perfumes: whereas visual arts permit to choose whether to be exposed to their stimuli or not, scented objects such as handkerchiefs radiate olfactory impressions which compel to perceive them.3 Smells are therefore pervasive, indiscreet and authoritarian, and they cause immediate reactions of either pleasure or disgust. Furthermore, Kant adds that, while the former is quite occasional, the latter is more frequent since malodorous elements prevail over the fragrant ones, “especially in crowded places”.4

  • 5 See Korsmeyer 1999.
  • 6 For olfactory philosophical models, Jaquet 2010; see also Perullo 2018, 2020.

2The Kantian interpretation is part of that Western epistemological and aesthetic model that has also been defined as ‘hierarchy of the senses’ which are ranked into higher ones (sight and usually hearing) and lower ones (touch, taste and smell). I will briefly recall this theme, yet widely discussed,5 in order to enter my argument. In short, this hierarchization depends on the presumed level of cognitive objectivity of each sense. If sight and hearing provide reliable information because they are less ‘contaminated’ and ‘lowered’ by the subjective and purely emotional response of the perceiver, the so-called lower senses do not ensure universal but only individual and uncertain knowledge, claiming a closer relationship, if not an intertwining, between subject and object. Although prevalent, such model has however been questioned by several philosophers through overturning or leveling the epistemological and, consequently, the aesthetic order of the senses.6 In the history of philosophy, telling examples of such opposite models are manifold; let me consider two of them.

  • 7 Condillac 1930: xxxi.
  • 8 Nietzsche 2007: 88.

3On the one hand, Condillac gives smell a prominent position through the celebrated statue’s case in his Treatise of Sensations (1754). The statue, human-like, endowed with a soul but without ideas, is firstly equipped only with smell precisely because, as stated by Condillac in the very premise,“of all the senses it is the one which appears to contribute least to cognition of the human mind”.7 In so doing, namely building his epistemological system on the most difficult precondition to start with, Condillac’s thesis is consistently substantiated. On the other hand, Nietzsche draws a different conclusion attributing precisely to smell the ability to perceive more reliable and deeper truths than those graspable by other senses: “My genius is in my nostrils”,8 Ecce Homo reads. As a matter of fact, it is not without significance that expressions such as ‘having a (good) nose’ for something, refer to intuitive sensitivity and cognition. A further correspondence can be found when considering sagacity’s etymology: from the Latin sagire, ‘to smell, have a fine spirit’, it witnesses the link between the sharpness of smell and perspicacity.

  • 9 See Rindisbacher 1993 for a study of smell in European literature.
  • 10 See Kluck 2019; according to the author, the episode of the madeleine allows to develop a phenomeno (...)
  • 11 Although present since its origins, part of the most influential philosophy (as Platonism and some (...)

4Other conflicting and notably aesthetical considerations can be traced. If its material, elusive and volatile nature undoubtedly plays a fundamental role in the general mistrust of (the sense of) smell, it is also true that such unintelligible feature widely contributes to its great evocative power, as suggested by literature.9 Connected to memory, olfactory sensations act as associative elements: Proust has famously shown that smell is the means through which involuntary memory sprouts, that is, the unexpected resurfacing of distant memories as the same aroma occurs.10 However, smell is also crucial in nutrition and mating, so much so that the connections to the latter can be alternately interpreted either as further reasons of suspicion of smell, or as an acknowledgment of its undeniable importance. If, according especially to a certain Western prominent position, food, like sex, is a ‘minor’ issue of philosophy and aesthetics,11 it is nevertheless essential at least for the very possibility of living and, ultimately, of thinking itself.

  • 12 Pliner, Salvy 2006: 75-92. For a panoramic cultural elaboration on the nexus between smell and risk (...)
  • 13 Given the wide range of literature on this topic, cfr. e.g. Kolnai 2004, where the author stresses (...)
  • 14 Interestingly, in German ‘jemanden nicht riechen können’, literally ‘not to be able to smell someon (...)
  • 15 Plessner 1970: 62. Here, Plessner and Condillac share the same opinion even if the latter explicitl (...)
  • 16 Plessner 1970: 62.
  • 17 Ivi: 50.
  • 18 Simmel 2009: 557. For an original elaboration of these topics, cfr. Carnevali 2020: in particular 1 (...)

5As it has been argued, smell also prevents from ingesting toxic substances: the smell-driven food neophobia is caused by olfactory suspicion of new odors due to their potential risk;12 and suspicion may lead to disgust, a very important aesthetic category.13 On the other hand, smell also triggers pleasure and desire towards nutritional and/or salutary sources, inducing cravings and food appreciation. The same occurs when considering interpersonal dynamics; yet, even in this field, smell is ambiguously Janus-faced: one side aggregating, the other separating. As in a magnetic field, smells are forces of attraction and of repulsion. If pleasant body odors usually stir infatuation or benevolence, bad smells are, on the contrary, pretext for hatred, exclusion and discrimination.14 Here lies smell’s power in social organization. Actually, odors, like tastes, arouse idiosyncratic reactions with different degrees of intensity. In his Laughing and Crying (1941), Helmuth Plessner acknowledges a “stronger and more differentiated affective resonance”15 to taste because of its immediate expressivity due to mouth and cheeks mobility. Nonetheless, he notices that “still there is wrinkling one’s nose in disgust, disdain, and scorn”16 through which humans – efficaciously albeit wordlessly – suggest to others the affective qualities of a situation.17 Because of this, smell perceptions, even if difficult to verbalize, open a narrative dimension, which is focal in political life. As stated by Simmel, “the social question is not only an ethical question, but also a question of the nose”.18

  • 19 See Plato 2000: 55, 373a; cfr. Detienne 1994: 61 sgg.
  • 20 Plautus 1888: v. 273.
  • 21 Montaigne 1965: I, §LV, 228.

6Let me make some examples to further emphasize the ambivalence of smell. In many fields such as art, aesthetics, religion, and morality, smell oscillates between the highest refinement and the crudest vulgarity. Nowadays, the appreciation of niche perfumery, as well as food/drink tasting, enhance smell as an instrument of expertise and a means through which ‘good taste’ can be acquired, while lingering on unpleasant odors represents a lack of decency. Even the scent of holiness and that of corruption are none other than sensitive signs of human souls, which reveal themselves by assuming, as the case may be, positive or negative values. A sulfurous vapor announces the Devil, the offensive odor of Christian Hell inflicts on the damned a punishment no less severe than the others; on the contrary, Mary, Christ and the Paradise are associated with pleasing – usually floral or spicy – scents. However, it is curious to notice the concurring correspondence between overuse of perfume and debauchery of customs. Incense, perfumes and delicacies represent dissoluteness and effeminacy, like in the Republic, where Plato praises for frugality disapproving an eastern and luxurious way of life;19 also Montaigne in his Essays, quoting Plautus,20 states that “the most perfect smell for a woman is to smell of nothing”.21

  • 22 Le Breton 2017, chapter 6.
  • 23 Marginal in Western artistic tradition or explicitly neglected in aesthetics (see Hegel 1988: 38-39 (...)
  • 24 Rancière 2013: 39.
  • 25 Although not concerned in perfumes, the Simmelian analysis of adornments implicitly offers many ins (...)

7The overview of considerations reported so far introduces the (explicitly as well as implicitly) political nature of smell. According to some anthropologists, every social group has its own (c)osmology and smells express shared values but also lead to disagreements and biases.22 However, there is a more radical aspect of the political value of smell it is worth hinting at. Since air is essential for breathing and smelling, and since it cannot be parceled out, it turns out to be the ‘public good’ par excellence; precisely to this shared and collective space, thanks to which life is continuously renewed, smell belongs too. Hence, for its very preconditions, an aesthetics of smell23 seems to be inherently political. Smells clearly ask to reflect on what Rancière calls “distribution of the sensible” since, to use his terms, a common world “is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and ‘occupations’ in a space of possibilities”.24 In ancient times, powerful persons (emperors but also nobles) used to radiate intrusive fragrances, exactly in order to master more volume than that occupied by the body.25 Odors acted (and even do now) as an extension of authority and dominion; they result to be claims of a presence: olfactory removal or strengthening have inevitably an effect on their sources. Thus, the question of political power inherent in the sense of smell can be put as follows: the systematically confined smell is the symbol of an abuse, the denial of an existence that demands its own dimension in the public world.

Olfactory identity and alterity

8Before getting into the core of the sociopolitical aesthetics of smell, some preliminary observations on identity and alterity are worthwhile. Let us start considering the ‘identity’ of smells on an ontological level.

  • 26 Plato 2008: 64.
  • 27 ivi: 65.
  • 28 Schmitz 2019.
  • 29 Serres 2016: chapter 3, “Tables”: in particular 157-173.

9From a material point of view, as stated by Plato in the Timaeus, “every scent is a ‘half-breed’”.26 This is due to the dimension of human scent-veins, which are not large enough to host earth and water, and too large for fire and air. It follows that, in their pure forms, elements cannot be smelled, and that scents are the result of an ongoing process of mingling (e.g. decomposition, vaporization, etc.) between different substances. Hence, odors “occur in an intermediate stage”,27 being themselves a mixture, that is, a hybrid; to use Michel Serres’ words, smell is the sense of singularity and confusion, not only with regard to olfactory stimuli, but also to the bodies that perceive. Like Plato, Serres believes that simple or pure odors cannot be smelled; because of their fleeting nature, they are differential. Ephemeral traces intermingled with the environment, smells also mix with the perceiver’s body, tracing perceptual maps – or, using Hermann Schmitz’s terminology, “felt-bodily islands”28 – that resemble an “unstable moire”, that is, corps mêlés.29

  • 30 Rousseau 1979: 156

10On closer inspection, such mingling also concerns the attitude of the smeller; that is to say, different levels of reality and experience coexist, constantly hinting at each other. An ever occurring shift between space and time, past and future, feelings, knowledge and imagination constitutes the very essence of the sense of smell. Observing in children an olfactory obtusity, Rousseau draws the conclusion that smell “is the sense of imagination”.30 Odors would affect more the imagination than the sense since they are per se feeble, but they can become very compelling if combined with passions and emotions.

  • 31 Bachelard 1989: 118.

11What said so far seems to highlight an ontological ungraspability of smell, or even, that it manifests itself through representing its irreducible relational and mingled core. This is also very present in Bachelard, not only when he suggests considering smells as the first testimony to our being blended with the world,31 but also, inspired by an aquatic rêverie, when he writes:

  • 32 Id. 1983: 7. For mythology of mint in the ancient Greek world, see Detienne 1994: 72-98.

Thus, the odor of water mint calls forth in me a sort of ontological correspondence which makes me believe that life is simply an aroma, that it emanates from a being as an odor emanates from a substance, that a plant growing in a stream must express the soul of water… If I were to relive in my own way the philosophical myth of Condillac’s statue, which finds its first world and primitive consciousness in odors, I would have to say, “I am, first of all, the odor of mint, the odor of mint water,” instead of saying as it did, “I am the odor of rose”.32

  • 33 See Porteous 1985.“Smellscape”, coined by human geography for the intertwining of spatial and olfac (...)

12This takes us to investigate two inversely mirror-like directionalities of the very act of smelling: the transitive one, ‘to smell’ meaning to detect an odor, and the intransitive one, to diffuse it. Both the perceptual capacity and the emanation tone vary from individual to individual because of manifold habits such as hygiene and diet. On the one hand, olfactory receptors seem to be activated according to the substances by which they are usually stimulated; on the other hand, a person’s peculiar smell is deeply determined by the food they eat: in addition to the thermoregulatory function, sweating expels through the skin some waste substances introduced with food. The individual ‘olfactory signature’ emerges from a broader social and political context, since customs and the environment shape the olfactory horizon of reference.33 If, according to Aristotle, men are by nature political animals and they participate to political life since they speak, we argue that, prior to encoded language, humans are politically involved qua smelling beings (emanating/perceiving), regardless of their formal recognition as part of it, as citizens.

  • 34 Fischler 1988: 275-292; Montanari 2002.
  • 35 Gusman 2004: 70-89.
  • 36 Cfr. Howes 2008.

13In this sense, the bond between food and (the representation of) identity plays a considerable role. Geographical origin, social status, ethical and health reasons are among the most influential aspects on which food choices, by identifying individuals and societies, are based.34 At the same time, identity is defined by the alterity it excludes; identity and alterity generate processes of mixture as well as of distancing. This is testified by olfactory initiation rites to which some populations subject the ‘Other’;35 ritual baths and re-odorization (through aromatic fumigations, food consumption, etc.) aim at precisely eliminating the differences of those who are about to be absorbed into a new group identity. Washing and scenting affect both the physical and spiritual level, as clearly shown by baptisms, ablutions and the use of incense during passage rites.36

  • 37 Herz 2008: 87-88.
  • 38 See Tellenbach 2013.
  • 39 Köster et al. 2014.

14Let us consider another relevant issue for the identity/alterity topic. Consubstantial with breathing, the sense of smell is potentially always active (even though, as some scholars argue, human smell seems inactive while sleeping),37 but, in order to avoid even harmful saturation, it keeps some stimuli below the threshold of conscious perception. It is called ‘olfactory adaptation’ or ‘fatigue’ which implies that, once accustomed to an odor, one ends up perceiving it no more. One’s home scent strikes when one has been away for a while, then it fades; the smell of ‘homeland’ becomes salient in the memory of the exiled and the emigrant. The same goes with personal odor: nobody perceives what normally emanates from their own skin, and becoming lucidly aware of it can be symptom of psychic disorders.38 Hence smell, as has been shown, is meant to detect change rather than identification.39

  • 40 Horkheimer, Adorno 2002: 151.

15The connection between olfactory perceptual awareness and a kind of ‘friction’ between the outside and the inside, is a key point in smell detection. Recalling Plato’s suggestion and applying the same logic, we can suppose that, in order to be able to perceive a smell, the perceiver has to be at (material) variance with the perceived, at least at the very beginning. Immediately after, though, as noted by Horkheimer and Adorno, “of all the senses the act of smelling, which is attracted without objectifying, reveals most sensuously the urge to lose oneself in identification with the Other”.40 These considerations clearly open up to the political issue. In fact, the idea of ‘purity’ fades, being smells and bodies ever changing mixtures. In other words, when it comes to smell,‘identity’ and ‘alterity’ are very slippery concepts.

16Although no community is likely to be fully aware of their own olfactory identity, this can, however, be inferred from the narration another community supplies, with far from harmless consequences. In the United States, for instance, garlics was a common epithet for Italian immigrants who had imported the traditional widespread gastronomic use of garlic. Intermingling with the distrust of a particularly closed ethnic group, garlicky scent took on a derisive value, contributing to acts of discrimination. In Poland, the same smell was used in an antisemitic key – bad smell and antisemitism is a recurrent connection throughout history, think of the so-called foetor judaicus.

  • 41 Bérillon 1915a, 1915b.

17In that sense, associations between food odors and racial hatred are abundant. The Japanese address the term bata kusai, ‘stink of butter’, to Westerners; many vegetarian populations attribute a rancid smell to those who consume meat; the Middle Eastern groups are commonly given an acrid tang due to spices. Such observations played a prominent role in ‘scientific racism’. In 1915 the French physician and nationalist Bérillon tried to demonstrate the inferiority of the ‘Germanic race’ by citing its alleged bromhidrosis (foul-smelling body odor) and polychésie (literally, excessive defecation) due to its innate polyphagy combined with a diet rich in vegetables such as cabbages and in animal fats (sausages, lard, etc.).41

  • 42 Bloch 1978: 96-97.
  • 43 Marinetti, Fillìa 2020, extremist banquet.
  • 44 Ivi, heroic winter dinner.

18If smell expresses and shapes the relationship between (temporary) identity and alterity, it is also necessary to consider its ability to corroborate or even arouse a political attitude. On the one hand, as Ernst Bloch wrote, the Nazis would stink not only of urine and stale air, but also of blood and of the atrocities they perpetrated; they would exhale, in short, their own ideology.42 On the other hand, a telling example is offered by Futurism which, as it is well known, devoted great attention to cooking as a form of synesthetic and multisensory art. In the Manifesto della cucina futurista by Marinetti and Fillìa (1931), smells play a notable role. If well matched, they would favor the aesthetic appreciation of the meal, and moreover they would act as both physical and mental nourishment, fueling imagination and creativity. In the extremist banquet, for instance, no food but only perfumes are served, satisfying the hunger of the guests who had been fasting for two days.43 The evocative power of smells is also widely exploited by Futurism: in the heroic winter dinner the diners, warlike soldiers, have to defend themselves from the outpour of typically decadent perfumes (rose, jasmine, honeysuckle, etc.) by wearing a gas mask.44

  • 45 Liuzza et al. 2018.
  • 46 Kant 2006: 50.
  • 47 In his Emile (1762), Rousseau states: “The sense of smell is to taste what sight is to touch. It an (...)
  • 48 This is also due to the “power of deodorization” and purification of fire, as suggested by Bachelar (...)

19A biological link between political orientation and sense of smell has even been hypothesized: conservative tendencies and authoritarian attitudes would be attributable to the innate propensity for olfactory repulsion.45 And indeed, the sense of smell performs its conservative (in extreme cases, xenophobic) function by acting as a sort of “taste at a distance”: 46the sense of smell anticipates – foretastes, according to Kant but also to Rousseau47 – eventually jeopardizing a wider integration. It is no coincidence that smell and contagion have been closely related since ancient times. The very term malaria – in Italian, ‘bad air’ – testifies to the (partly denied by modern science) belief that diseases were carried by miasmas. Conversely, burning balsamic essences, especially during epidemics, responded to the need to disinfect the air by perfuming it.48

Some examples of the social-aesthetic status of smell

  • 49 Freud links it to the disgust due to organic repression (Freud 1962: 46n, 47, 53). Horkheimer and A (...)

20Although social identity can also be conceived as the result of choices that overcome any inheritance, the historical and biographical origins tend to characterize the olfactory representation of a person throughout their lives. The social hierarchy responds to a spatial metaphor – top/bottom, high/low – which is also related to the sense of smell. In quadrupeds, the proximity of the nose to the ground has been explained by evolutionary theories in relation to the functions it performs. In this context, the gradual atrophy at the expense of human smell has also been associated with the acquisition of the upright posture, essential to humans in their becoming rational and endowed with logos.49 Here, then, is another reason for the underestimation of smell: what is below would be animal and instinctual, pure nature; on the contrary, what is above would be human and intellectual, civilized and cultural. If the lower classes, thus, embody the materiality and immanence of life, the upper ones symbolize disembodiment, the detachment from necessities and the development of science, art and knowledge. Where matter undergoes processes of degradation, the spirit is immune. The former putrefies giving off mephitic smells; the latter, being always fresh, is fragrant.

  • 50 Corbin 1986: 142-160.
  • 51 Orwell 2007: 198.

21However, it should be pointed out that, as with taste, even the narration of aesthetic values concerning smells has been historically dictated by those holding power. In the 18th century and onwards, with the rise of the bourgeoisie, olfactory accusations towards subordinates became cliché.50 In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, a strong supporter of the socialist cause in spite of his social origin (the family was part, as he used to repeatedly remark, of the ‘lower-upper-middle class’), attributes to the education imparted by and to middle class the deep-rooted conviction, even among children, that “the lower classes smell”.51

  • 52 Gadda 2017: 128.

22In contrast and symmetrically thanks to social novels, the olfactory dimension of working-class life became an instrumental topos the aim of which was to describe its conditions, concurrently denouncing the élites. The smell of dirt and sweat can be used as a metaphor for the industriousness and the dignity of a humble origin, but also, as Gadda suggests, “a premeditated ostentation of poverty, a demonstration of trade unionism”.52 Let’s give a very recent cinematographic example. In Parasite (2019, directed by Bong Joon-ho), the antithesis between the above/wealth/fragrance and the below/poverty/stench is pivotal in order to convey the economic tensions of South Korean society. Rich people live in airy villas on the hills; they are odorless or pleasant-smelling. On the contrary, poor people find their ‘natural’ position underground, in narrow basements; their bad smells convey destitution, being unbearable for those who are affluent.

  • 53 Calvino 1981: 64.
  • 54 Ibidem.
  • 55 Ibidem.

23This modeling of the social olfactory identity in comparative-vertical terms can also be configured as an intertwining of relationships on a horizontal plane. An interesting case can be found in If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. In a tavern patronized by laborers, the protagonist witnesses a dialogue between drunks: an old alcoholic jailer tells of a wealthy girl who visits a prisoner every week. Once the meeting is over, she “comes out with the stink of jail in her elegant clothes”,53 while prisoner’s jailbird’s suit is scented with the lady’s perfume. “And I’m left with the smell of beer” – the jailer concludes – “Life is nothing but trading smells”;54 life but also death, as pointed out at that point by a gravedigger: “With the smell of beer I try to get the smell of death off me. And only the smell of death will get the smell of beer off you”.55

  • 56 John: 12, 1-8.

24If death is a social leveler, the same cannot be said for burials and funeral rites. Indeed, in and after the passage from life to death, smells have been fundamental not only since ancient times but also in many cultures worldwide. As they ascend, aromas connect the earth to the sky, and make the social importance of the deceased perceptible to those who are still alive; the more fragrant a ceremony is, the more influential and/or wealthy the person has been in life. Think of Mary of Bethany who poured about a pint of pure nard, a very precious fragrant oil, on Jesus’s feet, foreshadowing his death.56 Again, in the Hindu funeral rites (antyesti, ‘last sacrifice’), the olfactory sphere intertwines with spiritual as well as social instances, the latter being the result of a millenary and still latent ‘caste system’: sandalwood-scented pyres for the upper classes whereas, for lower ones, fainter aromatic substances. As evidenced by places of burnt offerings, each emanation is functional to propitiate divinities. In Italian, incensare, which etymologically means ‘to burn resins, incense’, has also taken on the meaning of ‘to praise, to flatter’: in a proportional relationship, the more intense the flattery, the more generous the benefit.

  • 57 In Salted Codfish Mont Blanc Style recipe, he warns to be fully attentive during the preparation wh (...)
  • 58 Ballerini 2003: lx.
  • 59 Franke 2003: 425-426; adding “You [Kitty] wouldn’t believe how much kale can stink when it’s a few (...)

25However, in the inquiry of food/smell as status symbol an apparent exception can be highlighted: the middle-class, status in-between, historically associated with deodorization and dissociated from food odors. Foodstuffs bourgeois housewives prepare for the household are meant to be delicate, as Pellegrino Artusi’s famous cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, shows.57 According to medical theories of that time, each social class has a peculiar stomach which, depending on its digestive capacity, not only corresponds to a distinguishing taste, but also prescribes more or less refined and intense flavors.58 The poor, on the other hand, although having little or no food, (strongly) smell of it: of the aforementioned garlic, but also of onion and of cabbage, being the latter, as previously seen in relation to Germans, a humble ingredient present in many typical dishes such as pickled kale (alias Sauerkraut), from whose offensive smell Anne Frank confessed to protect herself with a handkerchief soaked in prewar perfume.59

  • 60 Montanari 2008: 58-59.
  • 61 For an introductory and historical overview on truffle, Nowak 2015.
  • 62 Demagogy, published anonymously in “Avanti!”, Piedm. edition, “Sotto la Mole” editorial, October 10 (...)

26Actually, throughout the Middle Ages, food itself suffered from social discrimination based on its position in the environment: hegemonic classes deserved high-placed foodstuffs (i.e. fruits, game birds); underclasses, to the contrary, low-placed ones (i.e. tubers, vegetables).60 With a quite incisive exception: the truffle, ‘callosity of the earth’ (from Latin expression terrae tuber).61 Since the antiquity, its strong smell has precisely distinguished rich tables; nevertheless, truffle has an intrinsically ambiguous status. As shown by Moliére’s Tartuffe ou l’Imposteur (1664), ‘truffle’ has become synonymous with ‘simulator, hypocrite’ and the so-called social climber. Moreover, from a strictly political perspective and according to Antonio Gramsci, Tartufo is the conformist, the pietist who makes the socialist coincide with the demagogue; Tartufo thus “modifies the vocabulary and determines a certain fortune to words”,62 even rehabilitating what is politically incorrect. The analogy seems to rest on the inconsistency not only between appearance and aroma, but also between origin and social position actually held by such mushroom: even if subterranean, truffle is an icon of opulence.

  • 63 Čechov 2015. Patchouli was an annual crop in Russia, used by many French perfume companies. When sp (...)
  • 64 A commonly used textile by both country gentlemen and workers.
  • 65 Dickens 2002: 52.

27What has just been mentioned reveals many correspondences with the social figure of the parvenu. As to truffles, a social limbo hosts the newly rich: though becoming wealthy, they have still started from the bottom. A variant of the upstart is the snob, pretentious ‘cobbler’ which is said to have his ‘nose in the air’, to be ‘toffee-nosed’ or ‘sniffy’. In both common sayings, nose is concerned while smells omitted; Italian, on the other hand, renders the ‘snobbish attitude’ with an expression that can be translated as ‘to have the stench under the nose’, conveying a generalized and deep repugnance. Considering the recurrent inclination to an excessive use of (inelegant) perfume by the enriched, they seem to be somehow repulsed by their own original smell. In the first act of The Cherry Orchard (1903) by Anton Čechov, the aristocratic Gaev scornfully remarks that Lopachin, the parvenu, is vulgarly Patchouli-smelling.63 To give another example, Mr. Pumblechook is satirically presented in Dickens’s Great Expectations as symbol of the commercial classes in which the very personality traits (ways of being and appearing) revolve around the acquired prosperity. Pip, the protagonist, at some point draws an analogy – a kind of ‘ontological correspondence’ à la Bachelard, or an olfactory/phenomenological association – between the corduroys64 worn by Mr. Pumblechook and seeds, Mr. Pumblechook’s trade, discovering a “singular affinity”65 between the two elements so that he hardly knew which was which.

  • 66 Petronius 2012: 101, 34; putidissimi, “intensely malodorous”. Nevertheless Trimalchio, taken by an (...)
  • 67 Part of the “Living made easy” series (January 1830), Science Museum, London. See Drobnick 2006: 34 (...)

28Besides, the very archetype of the parvenu, the freedman Trimalchio, cannot go unmentioned. In Petrionius’s Satyricon, Trimalchio’s personal odor is never described but it is somehow overcome by the most luxurious foods and balm scents. During the feast, being asked why each diner has been allotted a table, he explains it is due to servants’ (very bad) smell,66 thus despising his own social background. Throughout history, the upstart has roughly maintained the same traits. Thomas McLean’s strip “Charity tubes”,67 a satirical illustration of London in the midst of the first industrial revolution, depicts laborers inhaling some smoke coming out of pipes guarded by a man wearing a livery. As explained by the caption, this would be a charitable act: the philanthropists, enriched thanks to the machinery, offer the scent of their rich tables.

29The paradox is evident in an act of uncharity which rather becomes a form of torture and ostentation. Smell, as a social symbol, nourishes the self-satisfaction of those who emanate it, but not the bodies of those who smell it. Thus, a sort of olfactory egalitarianism comes into being: where, on the one hand, the taste of food is exclusive (to eat and savor it one must possess it); on the other hand, food scents, as they spread – we will resume this point later –, can be potentially experienced by everyone. Perfume itself has the primary purpose of being smelled by others rather than by the wearer. If smell is, therefore, an effective social marker since it is elitist but not enough to prevent its language from being shareable, a possibility for a social – and not individual – characterization of its aesthetic also arises.

Smells of consumerism

30The relationships between food, smells and social status partake in the ecopolitical structures of the occurring context; the examples are manifold. Coffee and cocoa, at length luxurious colonial goods, have become mass products after the increase in production and transport. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as a result of scientific and technological industrial development, coffee and cocoa scents have been artificially synthesized and massively associated with consumeristic places and goods. Even the value of truffle scent has partially changed. Its synthetic variants have certainly vulgarized its status, while always enriching what they are associated with. ‘Truffled’ foodstuffs, in which the quantity of actual truffle is very poor, are sold at a price that is even ten times higher than the non-flavored versions.

  • 68 Classen, Howes, Synnott 1994: 181, 197-200.
  • 69 E.g. Peeko’s advertisement in The New Yorker, October 15, 1932: 65, cited in Murdock 1998: 92.
  • 70 Ruppel Shell 1986: 79; cited in Classen, Howes, Synnott 1994: 197.

31The selection of intensive production resistant plants and animals has had many consequences on food aromatic profile. In addition, the spread of ultra-processed and prepacked foods has had deleterious effects on flavors, along with their commercialization on a global scale due to which long-lasting storage periods and long-distance transports are required. Chemical industry has thus acquired a fundamental role by developing synthesis techniques capable of reproducing aromas in labs.68 As early as American Prohibition (1920-1933), industrial alcohol was added with flavors miming, for instance, gin, rum or vermouth scents.69 Since the 1950s, food industry has begun to make extensive use of flavoring mixtures not only to intensify food sensory profile, but also to give it the characteristic scent of an ingredient that is actually absent: as an International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. head flavorist once stated, “I think it’s the best blueberry flavor that’s ever been made. And there’s not a scrap of blueberry in it”;70 another extreme case is that of some vegan ‘bacon’ seasonings.

  • 71 Howes 2005; see also Lipovetsky, Serroy 2013.
  • 72 For deodorization, Corbin 1986: especially 89-110.
  • 73 This request is often explained by growing scent sensitivities and various disorders. As its websit (...)

32Hence, far from being an age of olfactory silence, capitalism implies not only a general aesthetic overstimulation, or hyperesthesia,71 but a real olfactory congestion with anesthetizing results72 – the typically urban and modern aesthesiological dynamics, in Simmel’s terms “intensification of nervous stimulation” (die Steigerung des Nervenlebens). Interestingly enough, an increasing number of activists is nowadays adhering to different movements such as the ‘fragrance-free’ or ‘scent-free’ ones, which fight for banning perfumes and chemical scents in commercial good and public spaces.73

  • 74 Lucretius 2007: IV, v. 694, 119.
  • 75 Holmes 2017: 279, 98-99.
  • 76 Minkowski 1999: chapter x, Se répandre (l’olfactif).
  • 77 Lindstrom 2005: 100-105; 2009: 53-56.

33Nietzsche’s hypothesis mentioned at the beginning of this paper would therefore seem to be denied: smell, far from being the sense of intuitive truth and depth – a position also to be found in Lucretius, who maintains that smells “emanate and withdraw from the interior of objects”74 –, would rather be one of the privileged domains of deception. Many of the companies that sell flavored food and, above all, food-scented inedible items boast the accuracy of the similarity between their products’ flavors and the corresponding ‘real’ ones. Homologation evidently plays on several levels here: food standardization involves a progressive uniformity of its smells, which are then industrialized. Nonetheless, considering their chemical compounds and recipe, synthetic food flavors can be either extremely simple or complex: if a plausible apple flavor can be synthetically recreated by dosing at least twenty-six different compounds, a combination made by just three odor molecules is enough to give the idea of pineapple.75 The important point here is that the emanation surrounds an element; as Eugène Minkowski suggests, smell has the peculiar dynamism of se répandre,76 of spreading out. Hence, olfactory dimension is manipulable. If bread smell hovers around a supermarket, it will be assumed that it comes from bread itself. It is precisely this misunderstanding, or quite literally qui pro quo, ‘scent marketing’ is based on, that is, a set of promotion strategies through spatial aromatic propagation or flavors addition to goods.77 Indeed, the use of smells in marketing has more than a few advantages. Among many, aromas, especially artificial ones, are cheap and deeply affect consumer behavior. Then, if used correctly (normally meaning in congruence with the environment or according customers’ expectations), aromas increase the perceived quality of goods they are associated with. At the same time, however, smells have some disadvantages. Odorous molecules chemically occupy more or less persistently a volume of air. That is to say, olfactory compounds tend to blend, eventually giving rise to unpredictable or unpleasant smells. Scents have therefore an unavoidable duration.

  • 78 Han 2017: 96.
  • 79 For space reasons, the present paper abstains from tackling the fruitful aesthetic debate on the re (...)

34This brings about a further reflection on the temporal olfactory perception in the running age – in both the meanings of ‘current’ and ‘fast’. If the 20th century has been described as ‘short’, the passage to the third millennium has certainly not reversed the trend; since smell has a certain slowness, this would make it “not adapted to the age of haste”.78 In other words, the sense of smell seems to oppose an idea of chronological time by adhering to one of duration. But time has not always been perceived according to the clock mode: in the medieval calendar, days, rather than being counted, were inscribed in a homogeneous time span, punctuated by festivities which were simultaneously narration, meaning and articulation of the passing of time. In this context, food smells were of fundamental importance as they perceptually represented the characteristic elements of social rites, celebrations and seasons, with their recurring and distinctive atmospheric flavor.79

35Even today, a trace of this model remains in the collective imagination. Scented candles, in which seasonal atmosphere intertwines with its typical foodstuff, are increasingly sold: spiced cookies at Christmas, chocolate when Easter falls, chestnuts in autumn months are just some among many possible examples. We can hypothesize a link between their success and the desire to find a sense of duration (as well as of place) at least in the olfactory home dimension, where artificial food scents would act as a substitute for the whole food experience in a period in which cooking-dedicated time is rather limited. Homesick, a telling brand’s name, sells “Grandma’s Kitchen”, a candle which emulates the scent of warm apple pie with extra ice cream.

36More and more multinational brands and fast food chains sell merchandising flavored with the peculiar smells of their iconic products. This trend began in the 2000s. In 2008 and 2012, for example, Burger King and Pizza Hut launched onto the market two body sprays (respectively, of grilling meat, and of freshly baked, hand-tossed dough). Several and similar cases followed. Since 2016, also KFC has started to commodify its signature spicy chicken fragrance by designing various scented items (candles but also perfumes, sunscreen, nail polish, bath-bombs, fire-logs and even shoes). In 2020 McDonald’s released a set of six scented candles, each smelling like one of the ingredients the famous “Quarter Pounder” sandwich is composed of: 100% fresh beef, sesame seed bun, cheese, pickle, onion and ketchup. With a maximum duration of twenty-five hours, the advice is to “burn together for maximum deliciousness”. Here, where food and its consumption are fast par excellence, smells seem to achieve a strategic slackening which aims at fixating food experience in the sphere of memory and duration.

37Given that currently artificial flavor intensification characterizes mass products, wealthy people demand an opposite olfactory model, that is, an aesthetic sociopolitical identity. Nowadays, well-off people’s food is natural, processed as little as possible, even with respect to aromatic aspects. We are then witnessing a curious overlap between social class and ideological-political identity: the rich and the environmentalists’ diets coincide. In the age of globalization, the idea of ‘good’, in its aesthetic and political sense, is embodied in sustainable and ethical food, without additives and chemical flavorings.

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Note

1 Kant 2006: 50 (§21).

2 Ivi: 50-52 (§22).

3 Id. 2007: 158 (§53).

4 Id. 2006: 51 (§22).

5 See Korsmeyer 1999.

6 For olfactory philosophical models, Jaquet 2010; see also Perullo 2018, 2020.

7 Condillac 1930: xxxi.

8 Nietzsche 2007: 88.

9 See Rindisbacher 1993 for a study of smell in European literature.

10 See Kluck 2019; according to the author, the episode of the madeleine allows to develop a phenomenology of memory (content) and of remembrance (process).

11 Although present since its origins, part of the most influential philosophy (as Platonism and some schools of thought in the Christian tradition) denigrated sexuality and sex-related issues from different perspectives. There are, of course, prominent exceptions; from the various paths of Epicureanism to Nietzsche. Point of reference is obviously Foucault, with L’Histoire de la sexualité (1976-2018). For a contemporary proposal of appreciation of love (eros) as an aesthetic value, see Shusterman 2021.

12 Pliner, Salvy 2006: 75-92. For a panoramic cultural elaboration on the nexus between smell and risk, see Hsu 2020.

13 Given the wide range of literature on this topic, cfr. e.g. Kolnai 2004, where the author stresses the role of smell in disgust.

14 Interestingly, in German ‘jemanden nicht riechen können’, literally ‘not to be able to smell someone’, means that one can’t stand someone else.

15 Plessner 1970: 62. Here, Plessner and Condillac share the same opinion even if the latter explicitly relates its stronger affective contribution to food; see Condillac 1930: 55 sgg.

16 Plessner 1970: 62.

17 Ivi: 50.

18 Simmel 2009: 557. For an original elaboration of these topics, cfr. Carnevali 2020: in particular 154-159.

19 See Plato 2000: 55, 373a; cfr. Detienne 1994: 61 sgg.

20 Plautus 1888: v. 273.

21 Montaigne 1965: I, §LV, 228.

22 Le Breton 2017, chapter 6.

23 Marginal in Western artistic tradition or explicitly neglected in aesthetics (see Hegel 1988: 38-39), smell is central in other cultures (as in the Kōdō, the art of incense in Japan). Nowadays, olfactory arts are achieving greater prominence; Jaquet 2010: chapers 3-4, Shiner 2020: especially 145-251.

24 Rancière 2013: 39.

25 Although not concerned in perfumes, the Simmelian analysis of adornments implicitly offers many insights into the sociology and psychology of smell; Simmel 2009: 332-342. Not coincidentally, he states elsewhere that “Perfume accomplishes through the medium of the nose the same thing as jewelry does through the medium of the eye”, ivi: 579.

26 Plato 2008: 64.

27 ivi: 65.

28 Schmitz 2019.

29 Serres 2016: chapter 3, “Tables”: in particular 157-173.

30 Rousseau 1979: 156

31 Bachelard 1989: 118.

32 Id. 1983: 7. For mythology of mint in the ancient Greek world, see Detienne 1994: 72-98.

33 See Porteous 1985.“Smellscape”, coined by human geography for the intertwining of spatial and olfactory dimension, has been then adopted in relation to territory/gastronomy (Dulau, Pitte 1998) and finally entered the lexicon of many other disciplines, from information technology to anthropology. Cfr. Henshaw 2014 and, for a critical view of the “fashion for multiplying scapes”, Ingold 2011: 136-39.

34 Fischler 1988: 275-292; Montanari 2002.

35 Gusman 2004: 70-89.

36 Cfr. Howes 2008.

37 Herz 2008: 87-88.

38 See Tellenbach 2013.

39 Köster et al. 2014.

40 Horkheimer, Adorno 2002: 151.

41 Bérillon 1915a, 1915b.

42 Bloch 1978: 96-97.

43 Marinetti, Fillìa 2020, extremist banquet.

44 Ivi, heroic winter dinner.

45 Liuzza et al. 2018.

46 Kant 2006: 50.

47 In his Emile (1762), Rousseau states: “The sense of smell is to taste what sight is to touch. It anticipates taste and informs it about how this or that substance is going to affect it and disposes one to seek it or flee it according to the impression that one has received of it in advance”, Rousseau 1979: 156.

48 This is also due to the “power of deodorization” and purification of fire, as suggested by Bachelard who points out that a “psychology of primitiveness must devote a good deal of attention to the olfactory psychism”, Bachelard 1964: 103. Also in Foucault 1995: 195 sgg., dealing with plague and panopticism, epidemic olfactory measures are mentioned.

49 Freud links it to the disgust due to organic repression (Freud 1962: 46n, 47, 53). Horkheimer and Adorno add on the same point that “in civilization, smell is regarded as a disgrace, a sign of the lower social orders, lesser races, and baser animals”, Horkheimer, Adorno 2002: 151.

50 Corbin 1986: 142-160.

51 Orwell 2007: 198.

52 Gadda 2017: 128.

53 Calvino 1981: 64.

54 Ibidem.

55 Ibidem.

56 John: 12, 1-8.

57 In Salted Codfish Mont Blanc Style recipe, he warns to be fully attentive during the preparation whose aim is that to remove “its vulgar nature, becoming very delicate and worthy of gracing an elegant table”, Artusi 2003: 115; analogous considerations recur throughout the text.

58 Ballerini 2003: lx.

59 Franke 2003: 425-426; adding “You [Kitty] wouldn’t believe how much kale can stink when it’s a few years old!”, ibidem.

60 Montanari 2008: 58-59.

61 For an introductory and historical overview on truffle, Nowak 2015.

62 Demagogy, published anonymously in “Avanti!”, Piedm. edition, “Sotto la Mole” editorial, October 10, 1917 [my translation].

63 Čechov 2015. Patchouli was an annual crop in Russia, used by many French perfume companies. When sparingly used, it was considered sophisticated; otherwise, in poor taste like cheap cologne.

64 A commonly used textile by both country gentlemen and workers.

65 Dickens 2002: 52.

66 Petronius 2012: 101, 34; putidissimi, “intensely malodorous”. Nevertheless Trimalchio, taken by an empathic impulse, adds that, after all, “slaves are human beings too”, ivi: 159, 71.

67 Part of the “Living made easy” series (January 1830), Science Museum, London. See Drobnick 2006: 343-344.

68 Classen, Howes, Synnott 1994: 181, 197-200.

69 E.g. Peeko’s advertisement in The New Yorker, October 15, 1932: 65, cited in Murdock 1998: 92.

70 Ruppel Shell 1986: 79; cited in Classen, Howes, Synnott 1994: 197.

71 Howes 2005; see also Lipovetsky, Serroy 2013.

72 For deodorization, Corbin 1986: especially 89-110.

73 This request is often explained by growing scent sensitivities and various disorders. As its website reads, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton (Canada) has a “scent-free policy”; https://www.stjoes.ca/patients-visitors/your-visit-or-stay/scent-free-campuses (last visit: 06/01/2021). See also Shiner 2020: in particular 290-292.

74 Lucretius 2007: IV, v. 694, 119.

75 Holmes 2017: 279, 98-99.

76 Minkowski 1999: chapter x, Se répandre (l’olfactif).

77 Lindstrom 2005: 100-105; 2009: 53-56.

78 Han 2017: 96.

79 For space reasons, the present paper abstains from tackling the fruitful aesthetic debate on the relations between smell and atmosphere. For different contributions and a rich bibliography on the theme, see e.g. Griffero, Tedeschini 2019.

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Elena Mancioppi, «Towards a Sociopolitical Aesthetics of Smell»Rivista di estetica [Online], 78 | 2021, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 17 juin 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/estetica/8383; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/estetica.8383

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