Olfactory Report 5: Scent as Protagonist * Catherine Haley Epstein

If you are reading this, you likely do not need convincing that indeed, scent is a protagonist in our lives, our society, and our world. We follow it everywhere, watching how it creates change and makes gorgeous metaphors for things – haunting, beautiful, and terrifying. Just as music and visual art can have an active role in changing our perceptions, so too does scent.

While scent is invisible, it is intrinsically related to gender, race, politics etc.. We see it in movies, where it lays bare the foreigner in the room, or in a recent eulogy when someone rightfully accuses an entire flock of civil servants as odorous. Two books published in the last few years have constructed theories around scent as a function of alienation and oppression, denunciate the history and practice of using scent to delineate race or class, and are grandchildren of sorts to the popular The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination by Alain Corbin (who first wrote critically about the West’s attitudes toward smells and their meaning):

The Smell of Slavery: Olfactory Racism and the Atlantic World, by Andrew Kettler

The Smell of Risk: Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetics, by Hsuan L. Hsu

While I read Hsuan Hsu’s book because it is centered around aesthetics and that’s my jam, I own Andrew Kettler’s book and will read it as well. That said, philosophically, it’s hard for me to continue to conceptualize slavery as something that exists in the past – it still exists, it just has a different name with different masters and a new smell. Kettler’s book is well researched though and a strong foundation for understanding the intellectual arguments around scent and colonization. Here’s how One of my favorite anthropologists, David Howes, endorsed Kettler’s book:

The Smell of Slavery is a monumental contribution to critical race studies and the history of the senses at once. It exposes in excruciating detail how African bodies came to be attributed an inherent pungency and infectiousness as part of a dialectical process which also positioned white bodies as pure and deodorized. No study better exemplifies how race is made, not given, and the role of capitalism in transforming African subjects into objects of commerce through olfactory othering.…. By sensing between the lines of racist tracts, Andrew Kettler also brings to light an ‘African olfactory’ of resistance to white domination and the denigration of olfaction that is deeply inspiring.’ David Howes, Professor of Anthropology, Concordia University

Some words to share from Hsuan Hsu’s book are descriptive and important to consider. Just as “Oriental” is a term people wish to strip from the cannon of French perfume due to its outdated, romanticization of materials and culture, Hsu coined the term “atmo-orientalism” to describe framing Asiatic subjects in terms of noxious atmospheres. In his book he cites multiple examples, including an art project that labeled New York’s City’s “smelliest blocks” which were mapped around Chinatown in New York. The artist was not local to the area and maleficence was not the intention; however, it could be translated as a microaggression, according to Hsu’s theory. He describes atmo-orientalism as a “discourse that organizes political and cultural power, by tethering olfactory perception to racial difference.”

It is important to note Hsu’s lineage of critique includes Edward Said from the 1970s, who also deeply criticized the artworld for the fetishization of Asian cultures in his book “Orientalism”.

As always, scent is at the forefront of revolution, where it may be used to ignite social change. Scent is neither decorative or a luxury: it is a human response to economics, politics, and philosophies of right now. It is an essential part of our daily lives and may not be considered just dessert to be enjoyed after a main course. Scent is powerful, we need to listen to it.

screen shot from CNN, a video still of Al Sharpton doing the eulogy at Daunte Wright's funeral.Below is an excerpt from the eulogy of Duante Wright, who called his mother before being pulled over by a cop last month in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Duante was worried he was being pulled over for the air freshener that may have been impeding his view in the rearview mirror. The police shot and killed Duante shortly thereafter. In this passage police become the dialectical-odor of the scent of justice: a red flag of danger in the air if ever there was one. Police should not be ideologically opposed to justice, though their fumes are and our society is in peril because of it. Here’s Rev. Al Sharpton at Daunte Wright’s Funeral Service in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 22, 2021:


“You thought he was just some kid with an air freshener, he was a prince and all of Minneapolis has stopped today to honor the prince of Brooklyn Center. One [relative of Wright] said, ‘Well, they said they saw some air fresheners in the back of his car.’ Well, air fresheners is to keep the bad odors out.” Well, we come today as the air fresheners for Minnesota, we trying to get the stench of police brutality out of the atmosphere. We’re trying to get the stench of racism out of the atmosphere. We’re trying to get the stench of racial profiling out of the atmosphere. We come to Minnesota as air freshness because your air is too odorous for us to breathe. We can’t breathe in your stinking air no more.”

There is a group on Instagram leading the charge on shifting terms in the fine fragrance world. You can follow them @futureolfactives. The group is described as, “An intersectional collective created to increase the visibility and foster the growth of underrepresented BIPOC members of the fragrance community.”

—About the Author—

CATHERINE HALEY EPSTEIN is a multi-disciplinary artist, award-winning writer, designer, and curator. She wrote a book titled Nose Dive (2019) which explores the intersection of creativity with the science and anthropology of scent. She is the co-founder of the Odorbet, a growing vocabulary for our noses which resides online and in a growing database offline for now. Articles of note include “Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent”, Temporary Art Review (2016). She writes about contemporary art and practice and culture at her platform Mindmarrow. She conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, advises companies on scent-related projects, and continues to collaborate with artists and writers on unique initiatives that explore intersections between art and other disciplines. She is currently a candidate for her master’s at Northwestern University. You may follow her on Instagram @mindmarrow, or email her at catherine@mindmarrow.com with questions on the nose front, or if you are interested in contributing to the Olfactory Report!

Read Catherine’s previous Olfactory Report, “Aperture,” which celebrates less well-known regions of the scent industry.