Friday, January 15, 2021

When Life Doesn’t Smell Right


It is encouraging to see that there are still some people around who are interested in propping up one of the five senses that is normally pushed aside in the technological transformation of society.  In terms of smell, not only is it not important in the interaction between humans and machines, but its use is being further diminished as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic.  It is hard to smell when one is wearing a mask much of the time.  And loss of smell is a distinguishing symptom among many people who contract Covid 19.

So the Odeuropa project could hardly come at a better time. It is a project being developed by some scientists and historians to recreate the aromas, the scents, the odors and the stenches that inhabited Europe between the 16th century and the early 20th century.  Everything from the scent of perfume to the stench of waste products.  Smells have not been discussed much in the narratives of historians and the ethnographies of cultural anthropologists that I have read.  It’s always the events and the thoughts as conveyed by sights and sounds.  What these modern investigators of Odeuropa are trying to put out there is that smells have played a more important role in human experience than has been previously admitted by social scientists.

Smell is a more grounding sense.  Not as grounding as touch, but much more grounding than sight or hearing.  And yet as life has become increasingly mediated as a result of modern technology, because modern technology has not found a way to easily replicate or utilize smell, it becomes less and less available and more difficult for people to absorb.  People shower constantly because they can’t stand the smell of their own bodies or, for that matter, the smells of bodies of other people.  And yet, because it has been discovered that many people are allergic to perfume and cologne, these people are not using scented chemicals to replace the washed-away body scents and odors.  Such people end up with no body smell at all.  They create an olfactory experiential vacuum.

But I would submit a positive olfactory sensory connection is a sensory connection that helps people to bond with one another.  Just like a strong olfactory sensory connection can help a person ground in his living environment.  Smell is a form of sensory merger.  A person sends off chemical molecules that another person absorbs and becomes one with.  The smell is a part that represents a whole coming together.

People tend to take showers or baths every day now, not only because of concerns about cleanliness, but because they don’t like the way they smell and they are worried that others don’t like the way they smell either.  Life is becoming more mediated not only in terms of visual and auditory life experience, but in terms of olfactory life experience as well.  And the more mediated their life experience becomes, the less people are capable of absorbing those aspects of olfactory primary experience that remain.  People are certainly less tolerant of stench today than they would have been in the 16th century when there was no indoor plumbing like we have today.  But more and more people also seem to be intolerant of the scents of perfumes and colognes.  There are more and more scent-free work and residential environments, because of people who have allergies to what should be considered pleasant scents.  So what would have happened to all the traditional cultures that have used perfume and colognes as a means to compensate for infrequent bathing.

By bathing as often as we do, we turn our bodies into olfactory sensory vacuums.  We avoid one very important way by which people can bond with one another.  Furthermore, very few of us regularly use scented candles or incense as a way to add an olfactory dimension to our living environments.  And when we go outside in urban areas, most of the olfactory stimuli that we encounter are abrasive stimuli: fumes from cars and industrial fumes.  These are truly stimuli that we have difficulty absorbing.

So the olfactory stimuli that we most commonly encounter today are machine-created abrasive stimuli, which, as mammalian humans, we are unable to properly absorb.  Nevertheless, as we try to live with these abrasive olfactory stimuli as well as the vacuum olfactory stimuli from the excessive sanitation we utilize in our daily lives, we develop difficulties absorbing the organic olfactory stimuli we should be absorbing.  So we repress the olfactory stimuli of our own bodies by constantly showering and bathing.  And most of us don’t use scented candles or incense.  And many people today don’t want to use perfume or cologne.

So our access to and our ability to absorb organic olfactory stimuli has been very effectively curtailed as a result of our encounters with modern technology.  We can only hope that the Odeuropa project will give us a new appreciation for the undervalued sense of smell.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow 








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