Thursday, May 22, 2008

SNIFFING AND SAVORING constitute not only a fundamental route to sensory awareness
of our environment, but they also contribute to defining the quality and character
of people, places, and events, as illustrated by Tom Robbins in the lines above.
Despite their significance in our lives, however, smells and tastes are a neglected
subject in aesthetics.1 This stems from the belief that these senses are improper
objects of aesthetic appreciation, a belief that can be traced in part to the philosophical
legacy of a distinction between the higher and lower pleasures. A more
general reason for the neglect of these senses arises from the predominance of the
visual in aesthetics and more widely in human experience. In this chapter I want to
put things right and assert the legitimacy and importance of smells and tastes in
aesthetic appreciation. I shall argue first that they can be appreciated as having aesthetic
qualities in themselves and they meet the conditions of inclusion in the aesthetic
domain set out by traditional aesthetic theories. That domain, normally
reserved for high art and the beauty or sublimity of nature, can be expanded to
include olfactory and gustatory experiences. But I shall argue that our appreciation
of smells and tastes involves valuing them on an instrumental level as well. In our
everyday experience, smells and tastes enable us to understand our environment
and find meaning in it, to orient us in it, and connect us to it.
Some Distinctions
I begin with an analysis of smells and tastes. My account here is drawn mainly
from the late Frank Sibley's lengthy and detailed analysis presented in a paper on
the aesthetics of smells and tastes.2 Like Sibley, I concentrate mainly on smells.
Much of what we commonly call tasting is, more accurately, smelling. Smell is
physically defined by receptors in the nose, combined with the olfactory nerve.
Taste is physically defined by receptors in the tongue, or taste buds. By these
physical criteria, smell is the more important sense, since our sensation of what
comes into the mouth is perceived also through olfactory receptors. Furthermore,
the nose is typically a more sensitive receptor than the tongue, so all in all, smell
is doing most of the work. But the two senses also work together.3 We can still
discern the difference between the two senses, and one way to do this is according
to their function. Smell is the sense that involves sniffing or breathing through the
nose, while taste is the sense that involves savoring—eating, drinking, and the
There are different kinds of smells and tastes—the taste of milk, the aroma of
coffee—but within kinds, Sibley makes a useful distinction between the particular
and the general. Particular smells and tastes are particular instances of them—
the taste of this particular cup of coffee, or the smell of a particular persons sweat.
The "general" category refers to the general smell or taste associated with something
or the generic category of the particular, for example, the taste of Earl Grey
tea, rather than this particular cup, the general smell of sweat, as opposed to a particular
person«. In many cases it will be hard to distinguish general categories.
Against Sibley, one could argue that the general/particular distinction is
unfounded. It might be claimed that there are only particulars because there are
no common characteristics to create such general categories. Indeed, most of the
examples I give here will be of particular instances of smells and tastes. Nevertheless,
the distinction is a useful one even if it does not hold categorically. We can
usually discriminate between different tastes of water in some sort of way and at
the same time discern the taste of water generally. One taste of water is chlorinated,
another brackish, yet we still recognize the water-taste they both belong to
and can distinguish that water-taste from a milk-taste. The use of general categories
does not entail that there is some essential taste to water or to milk but only
that we can reasonably identify a generic taste. Even if we wanted to develop an
essentialism of smells and tastes, it would be very hard to come up with the
appropriate descriptions. Like faces, smells and tastes are easily recognizable, yet
the essence of them is very difficult to put into words. These modes of sensory
perception are less developed, which is one reason why most people do not have a
rich vocabulary for describing them.
A second useful distinction made by Sibley is between single and mixed smells
and tastes. Single smells or tastes are simple, where only one smell or taste can be
discerned, and where a smell or taste is not distinguishable into separate or different
ones. Two examples are the taste of salt or the taste of lemon. Mixed smells and
tastes involve compounds, where more than a single smell or taste is discerned.
This category is interesting because it locates the complexity of what we experience
through the nose and mouth. The soft drink Sprite seems to be a mixture of three
tastes—the fresh citrus of lemon and lime with the clean, slightly salty taste of carbonated
water. The smell of raspberry yogurt combines the creamy smell of yogurt
with the sharpness of raspberry. Although we sometimes find it hard to identify the
complex mixture of a smell or taste, I suspect that most are mixed. Certainly it is
possible to discriminate the various mixtures there are. Some mammals can discriminate
with precision the blend of smells in the scent of a particular person,
some humans can distinguish every individual scent in an aroma or fragrance, and
even machines can make such distinction- relatively accurately.4 An admixture of
tastes may also create a whole new single taste altogether, which makes the distinction
between single and mixed somewhat less sharp.
Defending Smells and Tastes as
Objects of Aesthetic Appreciation
With some idea of the subject matter of smells and tastes, I now turn to objections
raised against smells and tastes within philosophical aesthetics.5 Most of
these criticisms come from the modernist tradition, typified by Kants aesthetic
theory. My strategy here is to argue that smells and tastes can meet the objections
of this tradition, on its own terms, even if the tradition itself too narrowly defines
the proper objects of aesthetic appreciation.
One general reason why smells and tastes have been neglected in philosophical
aesthetics stems from their association with that which is base. They are associated
with the body and with nonhuman animals and relegated to the realm of
the crude, so-called lower pleasures. This first prejudice stems from the long
philosophical tradition of making a distinction between the lower and higher
pleasures, a distinction closely tied to mind-body dualism, which holds that the
mind is distinct from and has more value than the body. The lower pleasures associated
with the body are eating, smelling, sex, and other bodily functions such as
sweating, while the so-called higher pleasures are associated with the mind and
the intellect. One early source of this kind of thinking is Plato. In Phaedo, for
example, the bodily pleasures are considered an obstacle to achieving truth and a
desirable afterlife.6 This idea is continued famously by Mill: "It is better to be a
human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than
fool satisfied."7
Despite recent emphasis on the body by phenomenologists and some postmodern
thinkers, the prejudice continues, no doubt supported by the conventions
of everyday life. Many societies in Western culture still dictate that smells and tastes
are baser pleasures. For example, smelling socks is considered unseemly and rude—
perhaps because our behavior is compared to nonhuman animals. Add to this that
we mask natural odors such as sweat with perfumed scents. Another convention
that supports the prejudice is our criticism of people who are overinterested in eating
and drinking, except when raised to an intellectual art or connoisseurship,
which combines smelling and tasting with thorough and refined knowledge.
The prejudice against smells and tastes has also found its way into the art
world. Combined with the fact that sight is our dominant sense, smells and tastes
have had no role to speak of in the history of art. Still life is one genre of visual art
in which the other senses are played on, but it is still obviously visual even if some
paintings make one's mouth water. It is possible to find olfactory descriptions in
literature and many writers regularly use smell and taste descriptions—Proust and
Joyce are prime examples.8 But on the whole the literary imagination tends to be
a visual one. A particularly relevant exception is Peter Süskind's Perfume: The Story
of a Murderer, the story of a perfumer who lacks any personal scent, yet who has
an extraordinary sense of smell that leads to his demise.9 The novel describes a
rich olfactory world, using smell to build an image of the central character and
the way that his nose constructs the environment around him.
In the other arts, some contemporary works have made progress toward
expanding the use of the senses, with installations or sculptures that might include
rotting vegetables, blood, or chocolate. In Finland, Helsinki's contemporary art
museum has an installation with twenty-nine ceramic pots on a long table, each
containing a different scent. Appreciating this art work requires a lot of sniffing and,
if you like, checking each scent against a guide with information on each pot.10
One way to defend smells and tastes against the lower/higher pleasures objection
is to argue that the distinction itself is untenable. This argument would begin
by attacking the outdated and challenged belief in mind-body dualism. While I
cannot present such an argument here, it is worth pointing out that although
recent materialist theories in the philosophy of mind have seriously challenged
the mind-body split, their influence on aesthetic theory has been slow.11 Two
other brief points may suffice to make some headway against the entrenched view.
The other senses have also been associated with the "distasteful" aspects of the
body; sight, sound and touch are all also associated with eating, drinking, sex, and
sweating, so why pick on smells and tastes? Furthermore, not all bodily smells and
tastes are unpleasant: skin smells like milk or honey, hair smells soft and fresh,
kisses are described as sweet.
The claim that smells and tastes belong to the baser pleasures also associates
them very closely with consumption and desire. This has led some philosophers
to argue that sensations cannot be disinterested.12 When applied to aesthetic
appreciation, disinterestedness stipulates contemplation of an objects aesthetic
qualities for their own sake, rather than for some interest they might serve. Eating
and drinking in obvious ways are connected to consumption, and we often want
more of whatever smell or taste we enjoy. But smells and tastes, as well as other
sensations, are not necessarily connected to consumption. The aroma of very ripe
stilton cheese can be appreciated without wishing to consume it (or in the
moments before we do in fact consume it in order to satisfy hunger). The same is
true in the most sophisticated kinds of olfactory and gustatory appreciation, like
wine-tasting, in which only a sip of wine is savored.
The opposite is also true. As activities, sniffing and savoring are not always
appreciative, that is, we may have sensory responses without making any aesthetic
judgments. We may enjoy a walk in the forest for the exercise it brings, only
vaguely noticing the fragrant scent of pine trees. Similarly, when meals are consumed
quickly to satisfy hunger, or during conversation, complex tastes go unnoticed.
On the other hand, sometimes the aesthetic imposes itself: a smell is so
strong we cannot fail to notice it, describe it, and judge it as pleasant or unpleasant.
The strong scent of cedar slows our gait in the forest, or a rotten salad tomato
interrupts the conversation.
Both the appreciative and nonappreciative cases discussed here show that it is
possible to appreciate a smell or taste for its own sake, where we value it for its distinctive
qualities. Like all sense perceptions, smells and tastes can be pleasant to
perception, can be dwelled on in contemplation, have specific and interesting
characters, are recognizable and memorable. They offer an object for sustained
discriminatory attention.13
The association of tastes and smells with the body supports another objection—
that tastes and smells lack the mental component considered essential to
aesthetic appreciation. Traditional aesthetic theories argue that aesthetic experience
involves immediate sense perception but also, importantly, a reflective or
contemplative feature associated with thought and imagination. Lacking this,
tastes and smells are relegated to the realm of mere sensory experience.14
For Kant, tastes and smells belong to the realm of the "agreeable." Ιn his distinction
between the beautiful and the agreeable, the beautiful involves disinterested
contemplation of an objects form or appearance, while the agreeable
involves interest and merely what "the senses like in sensation," and so it is not
disinterested and not contemplative.15 The agreeable also lacks the imaginative
engagement of the contemplation of the beautiful.
These claims rest on a limited concept of aesthetic objects. Kant's view
assumes that there must be something more than mere sensation; there must be
some form or structure in an object in order for it to give rise to an aesthetic judgment.
16 This assumption becomes more explicit when Kant dismisses color alone
as a proper object of aesthetic contemplation, as well as single tones of music. If
smells and tastes lack structure, like colors, they can never be included in the category
of aesthetic objects.
But smells and tastes are more aesthetically interesting than this suggests. Let
me first address Kants claim that smells and tastes have no structure. As shown
above, we find single and mixed smells and tastes, particular and generic ones,
and we can discriminate the different strands of mixed or complex smells and
tastes. The complexity that typifies so many olfactory and gustatory experiences is
evidence of their structure, as illustrated by Hugh Johnson s loving description of
Château Pétrus:
The crop is small, the new wine so dark and concentrated that fresh-sawn oak,
for all its powerful smell, seems to make no impression on it. At a year old the
wine smells of blackcurrant. At two a note of tobacco edges in. But any such
exact reference is a misleading simplification. Why Petrus (or any great wine)
commands attention is by its almost architectural sense of structure; of counterpoised
weights and matched stresses. How can there be such tannin and yet such
Smells too can exhibit structure.18 Perfume—something many of us use everyday—
combines any number of different smells such as spicy, floral or fruity. The
terminology of perfumery draws on the compositional descriptions and terms of
symphonic music such as 'accords,' 'notes,' and 'tones' to describe the character of
a particular scent: "Boronia absolute is a delightful oil rich in violet notes of betaionone.
The top note is fresh, the body notes extraordinarily rich and warm."19
The perfumers in Robbins' novel convey the complexity of perfume scents
through metaphorical description:
Tangerine seems to work okay as the top note. It aerates rather quickly, but it
rides the jasmine and doesn't sink completely into it. With a middle note of the
vigor of that Bingo Pajama jasmine . . . what we need is a base note with a floor
of iron. It can't just sit there, though, it has to rise subtly and unite the tangerine
somehow with that bodacious jasmine theme.20
Further evidence of the complexity and structure of smells and tastes can be
found by examining the act of appreciation itself, the best example being in the
principles of olfactory and gustatory connoisseurship. Wine, whisky, and cigar
tastings proceed through careful judgmental steps that take in various qualities of
the subject. For whisky it is color, nose, flavor, then finish, with additional general
notes.21 Cigar tasting begins with the aesthetics' or look and feel of the cigar, followed
by: prelight condition, postlight condition, flavor and strength, aftertaste,
aroma, and general notes.22
In this sort of appreciation discrimination is clearly taking place. But we do
not have to turn smells and tastes into a high art in order to find cases where judgments
are made. Our everyday life is infused with this kind of appreciation, in
appreciating our daily route to work, in choosing the best ingredients for tonight s
dinner, and so on. We find one aroma pleasant, another unpleasant, one taste
interesting, another uninteresting. That we have preferences like these in our
daily lives suggests our ability to discriminate between different smells and tastes.
Clearly, the connoisseurs who have spent the most time and thought developing
their olfactory and gustatory skills are best equipped to make such judgments,
but even when appreciation is less developed, it remains significant and too
often overlooked. In any case, that we do make these aesthetic judgments,
whether shallow or deep, suggests a complexity to smells and tastes that Kant, and
others, miss.
Another reason behind Kant's classification of smells and tastes in the agreeable
is his belief that mere sensations are the subject of individual rather than universal
liking. This claim is a commonly held belief—that we are more likely to
question one's judgment of a work of art than one's preference for strawberries to
blueberries.23 However, if my argument for the legitimate status of smells and
tastes as objects of aesthetic appreciation is accepted, it should follow that they
may also be the subject of aesthetic judgments that are disputable. I would not
argue for strong objectivity in the case of every aesthetic judgment, but at the very
least we can justify these judgments. In the case of smells and tastes most of us
lack the requisite critical vocabulary that enables justification for such judgments.
But once critical abilities are sharpened, it should be possible to formulate justifications,
and thus engage in critical discourse. Proof for this can be found in the
already existing discourse of wine and food criticism, tea-tasting, perfumery, and
other skilled activities that focus on smells and tastes.
The activity of aesthetic appreciation itself also shows that Kant is wrong in
his second claim, that the appreciative activity of smells and tastes lacks a mental
dimension. In enjoying the taste of a particular kind of ice cream, we may be
involved in contemplation; we reflect on the taste, making comparisons, as we try
to approximate where the qualities of the taste fit into our experience, and
whether the taste itself is pleasant or unpleasant. When we call the taste of vanilla
ice cream smooth, silky and mellow, we draw on the concept of smoothness or
perhaps make associations to other objects with that aesthetic quality. Imagination
comes into play here too, since smells and tastes, just like paintings and
poems, evoke images and associations.2 Smells are notorious for bringing to
mind particular times, places, or experiences of the past, so memories may also
become part of the reflective activity. The commonplace aroma of coffee may
conjure up images of relaxing, sitting comfortably with friends at a favorite cafe.
The more basic feelings of pleasure and displeasure are an obvious part of the
aesthetic response to smells and tastes. But emotions, which involve thought, also
get a foothold in olfactory and gustatory appreciation. Smells and tastes regularly
involve emotional arousal, at least as often and perhaps more so, than aesthetic
responses to the visual. To someone who enjoys clean, fresh air, the burning, carbon
fumes of exhaust evoke feelings of disgust and dismay at the prevalence of car
culture. A hot cup of tea makes some people (even a whole nation) feel relaxed
and secure. By contrast, the musky odor of a skunk causes fear in humans (if only
fear of being enveloped in the awful smell).
A final objection, suggested already in my discussion of Kant, is the claim
that smells and tastes are not easily specifiable as aesthetic objects. Of all the
senses, sniffing and savoring offer us the most fleeting experiences. Smells come
and go in an instant, tastes leave us soon after food is consumed. Compare this to
the fact that art objects are more permanent: paintings sit on the walls of galleries
for years, waiting to be contemplated at ones leisure. Even the moving images of
films are there to be revisited, and in the age of videos, we can freeze-frame parts
of films for careful aesthetic attention.
The points already made concerning the role of reflection, imagination, and
emotion should suffice to show that smells and tastes can be the subject of aesthetic
appreciation, even if they are not like more traditional objects that sit in
galleries. We can identify, individuate, select, and revisit smells and tastes; they
can be localized and specified, even if they are not as sustained as other aesthetic
objects. Besides, other sensations such as sounds are fleeting too, yet we consider
combinations of them to be worthy objects of aesthetic appreciation. The aesthetic-
object objection rests on a rather outdated notion of the nature of aesthetic
objects. If an aesthetic object cannot be temporary, then on this view it is difficult
to see how the natural environment could ever be aesthetically appreciated appropriately.
One of the things that makes our experience of environments so rich and
dynamic is the very transitory quality of them, such as changes in weather and
light, or the effects of growth and decay.
Smells and tastes meet the strict modernist criteria of what counts as an
object of aesthetic appreciation. Moving critically beyond modernism, some contemporary
aestheticians argue that a key feature of aesthetic appreciation is cognition.
Many contemporary art works demand conceptual reflection rather than
sensuous or formal appreciation. Can smells and tastes meet this new condition,
given the view that they lack content, refer to nothing beyond themselves, and
thus are devoid of meaning for interpretation?25 I have shown that emotional and
imaginative associations accompany olfactory and gustatory experiences, but can
these kinds of perceptions involve meaning? Carolyn Korsmeyer argues that
smells and tastes are primarily valued as aesthetic objects in virtue of the insight
and meaning discovered through their appreciation; rather than being merely
sensuous objects, smells and tastes are also denotative. Foods in ritualistic settings,
for example, a harvest festival, are the clearest cases, but we also find meaning in
everyday appreciation:
Routine uses of foods also may bestow upon them certain expressive properties.
Chicken soup is a home remedy for illness in a; number of cultures. There may
be some medical reason for this. . . . Such palliative features are not likely to be
part of the immediate experience of the soup, however, and more relevant for
expressive properties such as "soothing" and "comforting" that are exemplified
in chicken soup is the very fact that it is a home remedy and means that one is
being taken care of.26
The value of Korsmeyer's argument is twofold, first because it sets out some good
reasons for the cognitive value of smells and tastes, providing another reason to
hold that smells and tastes are proper aesthetic objects; and second, it shows that
smells and tastes have instrumental value. In the next part of the chapter I show
some of the ways in which smells and tastes are valuable everyday resources, not
specifically because of their cognitive value, but in virtue of how they place us in
our environment.
Smells and Tastes in Everyday Life
The olfactory and gustatory experiences of everyday life constitute two sensuous
dimensions of our environment. They help to situate us in it, and at the same
time to orient us in various parts of it. J. Douglas Porteous points to this in his
comparison of sight and smell-
Vision clearly distances us from the object. We frame 'views' in pictures and camera
lenses; the likelihood of an intellectual response is considerable. By contrast,
smells environ. They penetrate the body and permeate the immediate environment,
and thus one's response is much more likely to involve strong affect.27
Porteous goes on to discuss the significance of smell to understanding place:
The concept of smellscape suggests that, like visual impressions, smells may be
spatially ordered or place-related. It is clear, however, that any conceptualization
of smellscape must recognize that the perceived smellscape will be non-continuous,
fragmentary in space and episodic in time, and limited by the height of our
noses from the ground, where smells tend to linger.28
Despite the impermanence of smells, they can environ us. They enable us to discover
meaning in the places and situations in which we find ourselves; through a
particular kind of aesthetic orientation we both interpret and understand our surroundings.
This orientation, an olfactory geography that changes according to
place and focus, has various overlapping levels, which I shall discuss in turn.
Familiar and recognizable smells are key to habituating us in an environment,
to making us feel at home. This is true even though we so quickly adapt
and habituate ourselves to smells that we experience regularly. The smell of a person
or a house or the smell of a city are all smells which become so familiar that
we hardly notice them anymore. And the fact that we do not notice them just
covers up the fact that they remain crucial in our feeling of a sense of place. After
being away from a place or a person for awhile, the smells are more noticeable
when you return, which signals a feeling of being at home, or in other contexts, a
comforting feeling of familiarity. Such familiarity through smell is one feature
that grounds a sense of place.
The flip side of familiarity is unfamiliarity. Smells are important here too—
they alert us to the strange, to what is dangerous, and make us feel alien to a
place.29 New houses or other strange places have different, new smells. Often
there is pleasure in the unfamiliarity, in the freshness of something experienced
for the first time. Less pleasurably, smell enables us to discover problems in our
surroundings—the sulphuric smell of gas leaking, the suffocating smell of smoke,
the smell or taste of rotten food, and the stench of disease or death.30 In his illuminating
history of smell in French society, Alain Corbin cites the eighteenthcentury
fear of the cesspools of excrement that collected in urban centers. The
source of the stench would have been something very familiar, yet in great quantities
it became something strange, harmful and fearful:
Thouret noted that exposure to air and sunlight rendered the faecal matter
spread out in the Montfaucon basins innocuous, as was proved by the transmutations
in the smells. If old excrement proved dangerous, it was because it had
become "alien to ourselves, our food, and our furnishings" by an interplay of
"decompositions" and "recompositions". It had lost the odor of the body. It had
We are typically attracted to things with pleasant odors and detracted from
things with unpleasant odors. Sometimes the response is an immediate one—some
smells just are repugnant, such as the smell of almost anything decomposing
(autumn leaves being a nostalgic exception). The negative value we assign to the
source of the smell follows the immediate response. But we also judge olfactory
experiences as negative because of what we associate with them or know about
their source. The smell of an animal decomposing is unpleasant and somewhat
strange because it is associated with death and our fear of it as something we want
to avoid (a fear also played out in terms of a fear of the unknown). The meanings of
smells and tastes are thus closely tied to the judgments we make about them, and
the environment in which we find them. In this way, smells and tastes play some
role in determining our likes and dislikes, or what we value in our environment.
The familiarity and strangeness of smells and tastes contribute to our ability
to use these senses to identify and recognize aspects of our environment. Along
with our other senses, smell enables us to identify and individuate objects, particular
places, and whole environments. I can tell the difference between two similar
bath towels—one clean, the other dirty—not by how they look, but by the contrast
in their smells. Moving outdoors, one fundamental way the urban is distinguished
from the rural is by the different smells associated with each. In the city it
is the heavy smell of fog, the earthy smell of rain on pavement, and the noxious
fumes of exhaust. In the countryside it is the green smell of new-mown hay, the
pungent, sweet smell of manure, and the spicy smell of burning wood. Each identification
of a smell or taste provides a description under which we understand
things in our environment or the particular environment as a whole.
Turning once again to a literary source, James Joyce creates rich images of
urban places like Dublin through sensory descriptions in his various novels.
Olfactory and gustatory qualities evoke an intimate feeling of the places visited in
the daily lives of the two main characters in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus and
Leopold Bloom. Gustatory qualities are especially significant to Bloom's character
and his routines. Blooms visit to Davy Byrnes restaurant involves detailed, rambling
descriptions of the pleasures and displeasures of his experience there:
Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust
pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of wine soothed his
palate. Not logwood that. Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off.32
He has a special liking for "the inner organs of beasts and fowls" and "Most of all
he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly
scented urine."33 Bloom also dwells on his wife's scents and wonders about his
own—a way of identifying her and to some extent himself in relation to her.34
Smells and tastes also have significance in understanding places that differ
culturally. There is some evidence to show cultural differences in olfactory perception
itself as well, which is connected to the variety of smells and tastes associated
with a particular culture. Paul Rodaway provides a clear example of this, also
in an urban setting:
public spaces in the older part of traditional Arab cities—such as Marrakech,
Fes, Kairouan and in particular the souk market areas of Arab cities—have far
richer positive smellscapes than the modern Western city. The streets of cities
such as New York and London can often have quite a negative smellscape of traffic
fumes, whilst the enclosed shopping malls and department stores are a mixture
of zones of relative odourlessness and areas of pungent 'staged' smellscapes,
such as the perfume of beauty products counters. The traditional Arab souk, a
maze of narrow passageways, small openings and stalls and workshops has a far
richer odour of the products sold—from live animals to leather and cloth—and
these smells seem to mingle with great abandon.35
Given that smells (and tastes) play an important role in everyday experience,
olfaction (and to some extent tastes) also contributes to identifying and recognizing
people and places in cultures other than our own. An unfortunate and sometimes
sinister implication is that this often leads to racial and ethnic stereotyping.
Classes too have been distinguished by olfactory criteria. George Orwell's
essay on the unemployment and poverty of Northern England's working class earlier
this century, The Road to Wigan Pier, evokes strong images of the hardship
and squalor of day-to-day living, and working in the coal mines. He reflects on
the common belief that "The lower classes smell," and his remarks are telling.
Orwell argues that this belief is at the heart of class distinctions, given how fundamental
physical feeling is to likes and dislikes. Even if the lower classes do not
actually smell, the belief that they do contributes to their oppression, for they are
believed to be inherently dirty.36 This indicates the centrality of smells to daily life
not only in the way smells affect our perception and treatment of others, but also
in the way that smells reveal the conditions and circumstances of practical living
in what we eat, where we work, and how we bathe.
Another striking way our noses facilitate recognition and identification is
through olfactory memory. This dimension of memory is especially robust and
lasting, and many physiological theories have been put forward to show that our
memory is better through the nose than through the eyes. It has been claimed, for
example, that olfaction bypasses the conceptual part of the brain, the neocortex,
whereas sights and sounds are do not. The result is that odor-related memory is
more immediate, and called up more directly than memories connected to sight
or sound.37 Our ability to recognize a smell at some time in the present is dependent
upon having had a past experience of the generic category of that smell.
In the present, our everyday recognition of various features of the places we
live and work comes through smells. Consider the following smells. In the house:
kitchen—warm baking bread, rich red meat, gas oven, grease; bathroom—soap,
perfumes, hamper, water. In institutions: library—dust, leather; hospital—sharp
disinfectant, sanitized surfaces, illness, urine. In natural environments: sea—salt,
fish, sun-scorched sand; mountains—damp, cold stone, dark earth, fresh leaves.
These examples show how olfactory memory operates to recognize and recall
smells we associate with types of environments, but it also gives us the extraordinary
capacity to call up very specific memories. A single whiff offers a door of
recognition into a moment from the past. One of my strongest olfactory memories
comes through a particular seaweed soap. The smell is of sand, salt, and rotting
seaweed, which takes me back to carefree, childhood summers spent at the
beach in North Carolina. The emotional quality of olfactory memories can be
quite strong; with childhood memories it is typically sentimental and nostalgic,
with other memories it may simply leave one feeling despondent. Olfactory
memory also recalls moments or stretches of time, acting as a historical record of
smell experiences that provide a more fluid reference point for orientation to our
environment. A particular smell is associated with a particular time in our lives or
particular smells with times of the day or the year. The morning is the sweet smell
of dew on grass; the winter is the smell of snow muffling other smells with its
crisp, white scent.
Much of my discussion has focused on the idea of individuals experiencing
their environment. So far I have said nothing about human bodies, but the same
environing roles of smell and taste apply in this most intimate of environments.
Smells and perhaps tastes too help to establish our own identity and to recognize
the identity of other people. For all sorts of reasons humans have body odors. They
originate in our apocrine glands, which are found on various parts of the body,
including the face and armpits. The fat in hair absorbs odors, and what we eat
affects body odor (brunettes are said to smell different from redheads, meateaters
different from vegetarians).38 With this range and change of bodily smells, it is not
surprising that we can recognize the smell of a particular person, especially someone
we know well, and guess something about their habits, based only on scent evidence.
For people with no olfactory perception, or "anosmia," the delights of food
and the characteristic smell of a loved one are painfully missed.
The experience of smells and tastes in relation to other people as well as to
other things in our surroundings may involve a relationship of reciprocity.
Another sense, touch offers the clearest case of this since whatever you touch is
somehow touching you back. Taste involves touch, too, as we place food or other
things in our mouths. When in close proximity to others, we smell their odor and
they smell ours. Kant s views on this topic are disappointingly narrow, but consistent
perhaps in their prudishness. Smells are the "most expendable" of the senses,
and he argues that they repel us from things because most smells are unpleasant.
He prefers taste because it promotes "sociability in eating and drinking."39 Kant
may be right about the centrality of taste as a social sense, but he ignores the environing
quality of smells. The potential for promoting reciprocity indicates how
these senses can establish a special sensory relation between ourselves and our
The individual also experiences herself or himself and has an identity in their
environment. The olfactory geography of each persons body constitutes one
dimension of bodily knowledge, and it is fundamental to charting the territory of
our own bodies. The habituation with our own smells means that we do not
overtly notice these smells, but our recognition of them becomes clear when we
notice that something has changed. Unfamiliar smells on our bodies may be due
to something we have eaten, someone we have been with, or because of illness or
disease. Strange or new smells on our bodies confuse ourselves and others who
know us.
Personal style is to some extent an olfactory matter. We are accustomed to
how we fashion ourselves in visual ways: makeup on our faces, the adornments of
jewelry, our choice of clothes, the bodily shape we present or aim for. We are also
accustomed to the way we look at ourselves, as much as our consciousness of how
others see us. Smell functions in these ways too. A personal style is created with a
favorite perfume, and we cover up odors like sweat or garlic breath with scents we
and others prefer to smell on our bodies.
I have tried to show why smells and tastes ought to be included in the subject
matter of aesthetics. They deserve appreciation in their own right, but they are
significant too because they orient us in our environment and contribute to
meaning and value we find in it. In environmental aesthetics aesthetic sensitivity
depends upon transcending the limits of visual dominance in aesthetic appreciation,
and reaching beyond the limits of the walls of an art gallery. This involves
exploration using all the senses. If developing aesthetic sensitivity generally is a
worthwhile activity, which I think it is, then becoming skilled in olfactory and
gustatory perception should be part of this. I would like to conclude by suggesting
a few ways in which we might develop these senses in aesthetic appreciation.
First, be aesthetically sensitive: make an effort, break conventions, sniff your
food, savor the smell of a friend, and describe what you smell to someone else.
Practice identifying smells and combinations of them; as you eat a meal at a
restaurant, try guessing the ingredients. Aesthetic sensitivity is a skill, and so like
any skill it needs practice and habit to develop. Second, build a smell and taste
vocabulary. This vocabulary is quite poor in most of us, but having it can open up
a new sensory world by giving us the ability to express what we experience. Porteous
suggests some useful ways to do this. Explore and describe smellscapes and
tastescapes instead of landscapes. Describe smell events and smell marks. Discuss
ways in which you might play the role of a nosewitness instead of an eyewitness.
Instead of hearsay, explore the idea of nosesay. Practice nose-training and work out
descriptions for what you discover. Generally, try to describe every smell or taste
event you encounter, avoiding visual terms. Developing an aesthetic sensitivity
for smells may have some real benefits: the possibility of more intimate aesthetic
experience of our everyday environment and the possibility of finding more
meaning in it.
Earlier versions of this chapter were delivered to the Society for Philosophy and Geography
at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division meeting, December 1997, and
the Stapledon Society at the University of Liverpool, February 1999. I thank audiences at
these meetings, an anonymous referee, and the editors for their helpful comments.


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