Space Agents: A Spatial Theory of Scent

For the rest of our taxonomic class, the mammals, perhaps the most prominent faculty in organizing social relations spatially is that of smell. However, thanks to our advanced mental and verbal faculties, we evolved from relying primarily on scent to communicate and demarcate territory, developing the study of that realm of our interactions into “spatial theory”, and leaving behind any reference to our original “primitive” spatial-organizing faculty of smell. This evolutionary perspective remains a major source of anxiety about scent, reminding us of our “primitive” origins, and a reason for relegating it to the fringes of our cultural discussions.

(Written for Cipher journal)

Western culture has had a visual bias from its very foundations in classical Greece. Plato assigned the sense of sight as the “foundation of philosophy” which would lead to “God and Truth”.[1] And Aristotle adopted a clear sensorial hierarchy: “At the top were the senses of sight and hearing, whose special contributions to humanity were beauty and music… at the bottom were the animal senses of taste and touch, which alone could be abused, by gluttony and lust respectively… in between was smell: it could not be abused.”[2]

The revaluation of the senses that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries only further devalued smell in the contemporary West. Philosophers and scientists of that period praised sight as the “pre-eminent sense of reason and civilization, [while] smell was the sense of madness and savagery”.[3] Kant did not even discuss the sense of smell in his aesthetics, deeming it a “coarse sense”. In fact, smell was especially problematic for him due to its ambiguous position of being simultaneously the “most unproductive” among the senses, as well as the “most necessary”.[4] As a result, he relegated it to the “level of brute as opposed to aesthetic sensation”.[5]

Kant, however, touched on a fundamental aspect of smell, namely that it is the only sense we cannot voluntarily turn off. We can shut our eyes, cover our ears, or eschew touching or tasting; but we smell constantly with every breath. As Patrick Süskind put it so eloquently in his novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer:

People could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother to breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent enters into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate.[6]

It is precisely this inevitability of smell and its strong emotional evocation that often caused it to be portrayed as ‘base’, and one of the ‘lesser’ senses. In his book Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory, David Howes observes that the senses of sight and hearing have always been traditionally associated with “civilized behavior” and “intellectual activity” in European culture, while the three remaining senses of taste, touch and smell are often comprehended vis-à-vis “animality”.[7] For instance, he states that Marx ranked touch, taste and smell as “primitive” senses in comparison to the more “civilized” senses of hearing and sight.[8] However, sensorial practices and beliefs of several non-Western societies reveal that the senses do not always work within Western models, where sight and hearing tend to be regarded as the dominant and rational faculties.[9]

Another problem that has kept smell out of cultural discourse and spatial theory is the difficulty of its semiotic legibility. Aside from our limited vocabulary when it comes to smell, odor presents a different mode of communication from those we’re used to, be they verbal or visual. In 1921, Starbuck rationalized that sight and hearing avail themselves to “readier introspection” as they, by virtue of being “describable”, are hence more “convenient as… mechanism[s] of discourse”.[10]

Unlike words, scents offer a primary form of experience; they occur “in between the stimulus and the sign, the substance and the idea… It is for this reason that matter and meaning become, in a sense, ‘miscible fluid’ insofar as smells are concerned, which is an abomination from the perspective of the (always detached) semiotician. This establishes precisely the irrelevance (or whatever other) dichotomy the semiotician might seek to impose.”[11] Since smell is not semiotically detached — i.e. there is no semiotic divide between the signifier and the signified — it is ill suited at best to the mediated format of language, despite the vividness with which smell can be experienced and remembered.[12]

Cultural producers, however, are coming to realize that even though smell may be a language we’re unaccustomed to, it nevertheless has its own potentials and potencies. In his article “Odours and Private Language: Observations on the Phenomenology of Scent,” Uri Almagor argues that, instead of being independent entities, odors are “highly contextualized concepts” where their meanings are to be understood through a “culturally inscribed context”.[13] He suggests, scents function as symbolic representations where they are linked to “cultural mode[s] of perceived meaning”.[14] Similarly, Georg Simmel in his essay “Sociology of the Senses” hones in on the fact that “the olfactory sense is already adapted to short distance by comparison to sight and hearing” to argue that “the social question is not only an ethical one, but also a question of smell [eine Nasenfrage]”.[15]

It is this socio-ethical question of smell that brings us back to its centrality in spatial theory. Smell is unique in its spatial politics, sharing certain aspects with the two “higher” senses of sight and sound — such as the ability to function at a certain distance from the source (so I’ll refer to this grouping as the “remote senses”) — while sharing other aspects with the two “lower” senses of taste and touch — such as the ability to affect the body physically (so I’ll refer to this grouping as the “intimate senses”). Let’s start with the latter grouping first.

The intimate but transgressive nature of scent is such that, even when intended for personal bodily use, it transcends the bounds of the self and potentially affects the other in a physical way. This, coupled with the inevitability of smell due to its entwinement with breathing, aligns its body politics in some ways with that of taste and touch. For instance, the main claim to regulating scent is its potential to cause allergies (skin and respiratory), something that is common with the intimate senses but not the remote ones.

To put that in perspective, allergy is a category where the major offenders are ragweed, dust mites, animal dander, mold, grass and tree pollen. However, as opposed to food allergies — like those to lactose (in milk), gluten (in wheat), or peanuts — regulation in the case of fragrance does not entail the listing of ingredients for people to determine suitability based on individual sensitivities. This is partly due to the reluctance of the industry to disclose ingredients (“trade secrets”), since olfactory compositions, unlike other artistic and intellectual ones, are not subject to copyright protection.[16]

However, another reason is that what we apply can be inhaled by others, fragrance is treated more like second-hand smoke. But it is important to note that even second-hand smoke — which is arguably far more deleterious, but has a much stronger and more organized lobby, than the vast majority of fragrant substances — is still allowed in open public spaces and in private by choice.

As for the remote senses of sight and sound, smell — despite its aforementioned semiotic limitations — shares a communicative aspect, a role it plays far more prominently in our mammalian ancestors. This has put smell recently in the realm of regulations that rule communicative expressions. Let’s consider two of these: veracity and freedom of expression.

The veracity aspect is becoming more apparent as scent has been featuring increasingly in the realm of marketing in recent years. While the content communicable through scent can never be of the same specificity of language, marketers are realizing that smell can be a lot more effective and affective on a deeper, more subliminal level. For instance, say you’re in a mall and you’re getting hungry; signage may try to grab your attention as hard as it could, but it would never be able to compete in its draw with the smell of fresh bread wafting from around the corner. Traditionally, that smell is part of the product, the process, and the attraction. But with technological advances, it is now possible to manipulate ventilation to amplify the effect of smells or even to artificially pump smells that are not organically part of the product.

As such, people are invariably coming around to the need for regulating this realm of communication. And here, as in other areas of regulation, cultural differences start rearing their heads. For instance, in the US — with its spirit of “individualism” and “freedom of choice” — the realm tends to be less regulated (or more innovative, depending on how you look at it) compared to Europe, where the “protective” role of the government is more accepted and the “veracity” of olfactory advertising is mandated, especially for gastronomic businesses.

The freedom of expression aspect rears its head, on the other hand, in the politics of the workplace. In recent years, there’s been a noticeable rise in regulating scent at work under the rubric of “occupational health and safety”. However, it is interesting to note that such regulation tends to focus primarily on applied scents (perfumes, air fresheners, etc.) rather innate ones (food, body odor, toilet odors, etc.). The logic seems to be that applied scents could expose involuntary subjects with “environmental sensitivities” to substances they may be allergic to; whereas innate ones may be “inconvenient” but not “hazardous”, and therefore more appropriately the purview of a delicate HR talk than regulation.

Similar to dress code and the regulation of sound at work, smell thus becomes yet another frontier for the assertion of individual identity against the homogeneity of corporate culture. And as such, it is fraught with almost as much tension as the animal assertion of territory through scent marking. The perfume industry emphasizes the role of fragrance as seduction, a come-hither beckon. But what about its more “primitive” use to delineate the boundaries of our personal space, the “if you smell me then you’re in my space” warning (with its implicit “my space, my rules” sequitur)?

We are, in the end, sociopolitical animals. We may have evolved from urinating on rocks and trees to mark our territory, but in many ways we still employ scent to exert influence over our sociopolitical territory. All animals may smell, but some animals smell more intelligently than others.


[1] Anthony Synnott, “A Sociology of Smell,” The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 28:4 (1991): 63.

[2] Ibid., 439–40.

[3] Constance Classen, David Howes & Anthony Synnott, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (London: Routledge, 1994), 4.

[4] Annick Le Guérer, Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Power of Smell, trans. Richard Miller (Random House, Inc., New York: 1992), 174.

[5] Paul Stoller, The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 8.

[6] Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Vintage International, 2001).

[7] David Howes, Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2003), 4–5.

[8] Ibid., 230.

[9] Kelvin E. Y. Low, Scents and Scent-sibilities: Smell and Everyday Life Experiences (Cambridge: Scholars Publishing, 2009), 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Classen et al., 26, 135.

[12] Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Random House, 1990), 6.

[13] Fiona Borthwick, “Olfaction and Taste: Invasive Odours and Disappearing Objects”, The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 11:2 (2000): 133.

[14] Uri Almagor, “Odours and private language: Observations on the phenomenology of scent,” Human Studies, 13 (1990): 186.

[15] Georg Simmel, “Sociology of the Senses,” in Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings, ed. Mike Featherstone and David Frisby (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 118–119.

[16] David A. Einhorn; Lesley Portnoy. “The Copyrightability of Perfumes: I Smell a Symphony”. Intellectual Property Today. April 2010: http://www.iptoday.com/issues/2010/04/the-copyrightability-perfumes-i-smell-symphony.asp