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BookReviewEssays

The Essence of Aroma
The Essence of Aroma
Book Review Essays The Essence of Aroma STEPHEN A. TYLER Rice University Aroma: The Cultural History

STEPHENA. TYLER

Rice University Aroma: The Cultural History of SmeU. Constance Clas-

sen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott. London: Rout- ledge, 1994.248pp.
sen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott. London: Rout-
ledge, 1994.248pp.
This is a fascinating book that deserves to be read by all social scientists and
This is a fascinating book that deserves to be read
by all social scientists and especially by anthropolo-
gists. It is a strong corrective to the metaphor of sight
as the sense of reason. Despite-or perhaps, because
of-its power to evoke vivid memories and strong
emotions, the sense of smell has been systematically
excluded from the realm of reason and has instead
been associated with savagery, idiocy, bestiality, and
other symbols of lower or reduced mental function.
The essence of aroma is its shifting or, as the authors
say, its "boundary transgressing" character. Aromas
do not convey direct structural information about the
shape, form, and discreteness of entities and, thus,
confound the seemingly foundational idea of a "thing"
or "object" as a bounded, apparent entity. An interest-
ing ambivalence, however, emanates from this deni-
gration of the sense of smell, for we also speak of
aromas as essences, a word derived from Latin essere
("to be") and implying the idea of inner or inherent
reality. Since the essence of smell is the real, it thus
marks a direct contrast with vision that does not re-
veal the real but only shows the outer appearances of
beings.
Things were not always thus, and in the first part
of Aroma the authors seek to recover the cultural role
of odor in Western societies. Before the revaluation of
sense that began the modern period, the world of ol-
factory interiors was accorded an important place in
thought, literature, ceremony, and daily life. The smell
of things in antiquity was often a more important clue
to their state of being than any outward appearance.
Good soil, for example, was thought to have a particu-
lar aroma, and illness, love, death, and sanctity could
be determined by their characteristic odors. Important
ceremonies were sanctified by the use of incense, per-
fume, and nectars. Scents derived from aromatic
plants were used in healing, and the odors of food
were thought to have medicinal properties.
Throughout the Middle Ages, aromas continued to be important but were often given dualistic meanings.
Throughout the Middle Ages, aromas continued to
be important but were often given dualistic meanings.
Early Christians, for example, associated perfume and
incense with Roman decadence and pagan sensuality
and idolatry, and even though the bodies of saints
were thought to exude a mystical fragrance (an odor
of sanctity), evil persons carried with them the "stench
of moral corruption." Medieval cities were noted for
their malodorousness, but foul odors were not univer-
sally condemned. The smell of honest labor was better
than the aroma of a perfumed sinner. Nonetheless, it
was thought that the plague was in the poisoned air of
the cities, and the putridity of plague victims seemed
to confirm odor as the pathogen. Plague-corrupted air
could be combated by fumigation with other benefi-
cial, usually pungent, aromatics. Pomanders (oranges
stuck with cloves), handkerchiefs saturated with per-
fume, and nose bags of herbs and spices such as laven-
der and garlic were common prophylactics against the
plague. Medieval homes could be incredibly foul. Dirt
floors were littered with refuse, whose odor of decay
combined with the reek of chamber pots and slop pails
to create a "noisome stench" that could be remedied
by the use of fragrant flowers and herbs. Floors were
sprinkled with rose water or strewn with thyme and
basil, and nosegays of marjoram and sweet william
were advantageously placed throughout the house.
Herbs and spices continued to be widely used in cook-
ing, but Puritans objected to the use of such "sensual
stimulants." Similarly, although fragrances were gen-
erally thought to be therapeutic, Protestant reformers
and Puritans condemned their use because they con-
tributed to vanity and licentiousness and, moreover,
could be used to disguise the smell of inherent corrup-
tion.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, various reform
movements sponsored by the enlightened bourgeoisie
had set about the task of deodorizing society. Sanita-
tion systems and personal and civic hygiene were dedi-
cated to creating a kind of olfactory neutrality. The
poor, in particular, were targeted. Their lack of per-
sonal hygiene was a mark of their moral inferiority. As
bathing became more frequent among the upper
classes, their use of perfume declined and perfume
American Anthropdogist 98(3):617-649. Copyright 0 1996. American Anthropological Association
American Anthropdogist 98(3):617-649. Copyright 0 1996. American Anthropological Association

618 AMERICANANTHROPOLOGIST VOL. 98, No. 3

618 AMERICANANTHROPOLOGIST VOL. 98, No. 3 itself became feminized. The sense of smell came to be

itself became feminized. The sense of smell came to be thought of as feminine and was associated with intui- tion, memory, sentiment, and seduction. Kant, for ex- ample, characterized smell as the most dispensable sense, something unworthy of cultivation or refine- ment. Part 2 of Aroma is a cross-cultural study of "os- mologies," classificatory systems based on smell. The authors explore ways in which time and space can be organized as sequences or landscapes of smell. The Andamanese and the Dassanetch understand the year as a succession of seasonal odors in the cycle of growth and decay. For the Umeda, who live in the New Guinea rain forest, smell is more important than sight as a means of spatial orientation. The Dasana of the Amazon rain forest similarly orient themselves and identify tribal territories by smell. The Dasana system of olfactory classification is intended as a moral sys- tem that groups entities according to cultural values. Osmologies may thus reveal the essential values of a society by the way entities are grouped within hierar- chic systems of aromas. The Suya of Brazil, for exam- ple, have three classes of smells-"bland," "pungent," and "strong," in rank order. Adult men, fish, and in- nocuous plants are in the "bland" category, while old men, old women, amphibians, and medicinal plants are in the "pungent" category, and adult women, car- nivorous animals, and harmful plants are "strong" smelling. Although the smell vocabularies of European lan- guages may be expanded by formulaic compositions such as "the smell of ," or "it's a y smell," as in "it's a doggy smell," not only are they limited, but they are derived from taste terms. In contrast, many non-European languages have extensive smell vocabu- laries that are neither related to terms for taste nor derived by formulaic extension. The Kapsiki of Brazil have 14 independent terms for classifying smells. Europeans also do not differentiate between the acts of inhaling and emitting odors, as do Quechua speak- ers of the Andes. Odor and self-identity are intimately associated, and many peoples reckon that one's identity comes from being able to recognize one's own smell. The authors suggest that personal identity and odor are so closely linked because of the associations among smell, breath, and life. Osmologies are also cosmologies in which the or- der of things is given by the odor of things. The Batek Negrito, for example, have a cosmic opposition be- tween life-giving fragrance associated with flowers, coolness, and the moon, on the one hand, and stench associated with blood, decaying flesh, heat, and the sun, on the other hand.

SEPTEMBER1996

Osmologies relate to other systems of sensory symbolism that link odor and color, odor and taste, or odor and sound. Thus the Dogon speak of "hearing a smell," since both sound and smell travel though air. The Chinese draw correspondences between catego- ries such as elements, odor, taste, color, tone, season, and direction. The element wood, for example, smells like goat, tastes sour, is green in color, has the tone chio, the season spring, and the direction east. The Dasana, by contrast, associate sound, color, tempera- ture, odor, and flavor. Social activities and events often involve ritual, and in many cases these rituals require aromas that surround participants and thus incorporate them in a protective or purified envelope of smell. Some com- mon life events-such as birth, death, and menstrua- tion-may create an inauspicious surround of smell that must be dispelled by antagonistic aromas. Transi- tional life stages are often marked by complex olfac- tory symbolism involving censing, perfumery, mas- sage, inhalation, fumigation, lustration, and anointing. The right odors establish a kind of security during mo- ments of maximum vulnerability in the liminal periods of transition from one state to another. For the same reason, aromas are frequently involved in illness, for odors may both cause and cure illnesses. Herbalists and perfumers in many cultures create aromatherapies in the form of healing scents, vapors, teas, unguents, and fumigants, which are used in the rites of healing. In part 3, "Odor and Power," the authors explore the use of smell as a political vehicle, beginning with the observation that in the modern world, the elite rules from a center of olfactory neutrality, while groups on the periphery of power smell. They argue that, while both men and women may be malodorous, the smell of sweat can sign@ manliness for a man but on a woman the reek of sweat is disgusting. In the West, there is a kind of double bind in which women are either guilty of using scents as a means of enhanc- ing their witchlike powers of enchantment, or they are accused of being witchlike if they do not use scent to disguise their "natural malodorousness." In other words, the essence of woman is malodorous, and that is why women need essences. Class and ethnic distinc- tions involve similar ideas of odoriferousness. Lower classes everywhere "stink," and different despised eth- nic groups have characteristic malodors that both sig- nify and justify their low social status. Any attempt to disguise their "natural" foulness through the use of scents merely confirms their essential corruption. Smell pollution is also evident in the zoning laws of cities that attempt to restrict the location of malodor- ous businesses. A stench, however, does not stink if it involves your profit. Thus, during my first visit to

Houston, I remarked on the reek of refineries but was informed by a bystander, "It

Houston, I remarked on the reek of refineries but was informed by a bystander, "It smells like money to me." Sanitary reform and social reform often go hand- in-hand. Ethnic cleansing is a contemporary example of this relationship. Similarly, in Nazi Germany the so- cial body had to be purified of the "stinking filth" of Jews whose pollution corrupted the social order. We may regard ethnic cleansing as an aberration, but it is only an extreme form of the West's quest for a deodor- ized utopia. The Western ideal of society is one in which everything has been sanitized and sterilized, and all messy and smelly organic processes have been replaced by artificial processes and aromas. The concluding chapter of Aroma presents a dis- cussion of the commoditization of smell. "Olfactory management" is big business. The marketing of deo- dorants and perfumes manipulates the social imagi- nary by creating fantasies of fragrant bodies, kitchens, toilets, room air, auto interiors, clothing, and factories. Deodorize and pe?fume are the watchwords of social

Deodorize and pe?fume are the watchwords of social BOOK REVIEWESSAYS 619 acceptability and success. Natural
Deodorize and pe?fume are the watchwords of social BOOK REVIEWESSAYS 619 acceptability and success. Natural
BOOK REVIEWESSAYS 619
BOOK REVIEWESSAYS
619
acceptability and success. Natural stinks are first re- moved, creating an odor-neutral environment, which is
acceptability and success. Natural stinks are first re-
moved, creating an odor-neutral environment, which is
then perfumed in order to create an artificially fra-
grant environment. The artificial fragrance may even
be marketed as a more powerful natural scent that, for
example, expresses the overcivilized man's repressed
animal sexuality. Many consumer products incorpo-
rate fragrances as part of their appeal, and workers
can be manipulated by air-conditioning systems that
waft energizing or soothing scents throughout a work-
place. So,too, aromatherapy markets fragrances not
for their aesthetic appeal but as a way of controlling
the mind and body.
In the final paragraphs of the book, the authors
correctly observe that smell is the postmodern sense.
"Postmodernity is
a culture
of imitations and simu-
lation where copies predominate over originals and
images over substance" @. 203). It is akin to the olfac-
tory simulacra of synthetic scents and flavors that "are
evocative of things that are not there" @. 205).
A PostmodernRebirth of the Search for Objective Knowledge
A PostmodernRebirth of the Search for Objective Knowledge
ROBERTG. CARLSON Wright State University How Culture Works. Paul Bohannan. New York Free Press,1995. ix
ROBERTG. CARLSON
Wright State University
How Culture Works. Paul Bohannan. New York Free
Press,1995. ix + 217 pp.
The Cmtruction of Social Reality. John R. Searle. New
York Free Press, 1995.x + 241 pp.
In the midst of widespread disregard for the possi- bility of generating objective knowledge, some
In the midst of widespread disregard for the possi-
bility of generating objective knowledge, some social
thinkers have begun to formulate new syntheses that
challenge the uncertainty of our postmodern condi-
tion. John Searle, a philosopher of language and the
mind, and Paul Bohannan are among those who be-
lieve it is worthwhile-if not vital-to synthesize sys-
tematic theories of sociocultural reality.
The primary question that Searle asks is how hu-
mans construct an objective social reality of money,
marriage, property, and other institutions when, at the
level of "brute facts," everything is composed of physi-
cal particles existing in fields of force. Similarly, Bo-
hannan asks "how culture works," a project that is
"akin to the medical profession asking how the human
body works" @. ix). While How Culture Works con-
cerns culture's adaptive and maladaptive character,
The Construction of Social Reality focuses more nar-
rowly on social facts.
For Searle, the mediating links between biology
and culture are consciousness and intentionality, or
the ability of an organism to represent objects and
events to itself. The main structure through which hu- mans collectivelyimpose status and function on
events to itself. The main structure through which hu-
mans collectivelyimpose status and function on things
takes the following form: X counts as Y in context C,
where the relationship between X and Y is arbitrary.
There is no necessary relationship between the physi-
cal characteristics of the X term (like a piece of paper)
and the collectively agreed upon statudfunction of the
Y term (money). It is through the symbolic power of
this noncausal process that humans create institu-
tional reality.
In a basic sense, the move from X to Y is linguistic
or symbolic, because X has no inherent properties to
suggest its Y statudfunction. Since institutional facts
exist by human agreement, there must be some sys-
tematic means to publicly represent the new
statdfunction, and this is accomplished through lan-
guage. Hence, performative speech acts and words are
partly constitutive of social facts.
Most institutional facts consist of collectively
agreed upon rights and obligations attendant to the
new power of the Y status/function. The structure can
be iterated endlessly, because a Y term may become
an X term at another level. For example, "a citizen of
the United States as X can become President as Y, but
to be a citizen is to have a Y statudfunction from an
earlier level" @. 80). The process of iteration consti-
tutes the logical structure of social reality.
The two authors disagree about the role of rules
in human culture. In contrast with Chomsky, Searle