vol iii: the social olfactory

1. Often, smell can feel like the last sensory frontier. Still a little visceral, still less explored—and exploited—than its other, far more interfaced and corporatised counterparts. When we talk about scent, too, we tend to turn to the natural as a means to efface the natural—sea breezes and floral bouquets to mask perspiration and cooking smells. But then there’s indolic smells, or those fetid-sweet, narcotic compounds found mostly in white flowers like jasmine, nargis, tuberose and honeysuckle. Seductive as they might be, there’s something in them that’s a little bit putrescine, cadaverine. The smell of something rotten in the social factory.

And then there’s Proust. To paraphrase contributor Francisco Salas Pérez, we’re tired of madeleines, and of Western civilisation’s reductive straightjacket of smell and memory. What else can smell do? How do we hack into audiovisual hegemony? What other new olfactory disciplines might emerge?

2. In this volume, smell pervades and lingers like heat—in the hazy fetor of a rural Irish landfill, in the quiet occultism of a fermenting Malagasy corpse, in the atomised, repetitive paranoia induced by burning toast, in the crystalised disappointments that follow one man through his life. Sometimes it rolls off the sweaty, porous borders of Empire, as a vehicle for racism and xenophobia and as a means of sanitation and surveillance. Elsewhere, smell works to debunk liberal axioms of recycling and development aid with psychogeographic takes on the souk in Nyala, Sudan, and Detroit’s Little Hungary.

A further set of pieces considers the biochemical science of scent and our olfactory system—all too easy to take for granted, yet nearly impossible to electronically replicate. Olfactory archaeology is mobilised to reveal architectural and sociohistorical traces, traversing time and geography. And completing the sensory fan dance is a look at the perfume industry’s gendering of leather, and how it works hard to hide the human—and animal—body.

3. Aya Al-Kadhimi’s design for this volume continues to interrogate the printernet, with a foray into gridded social media and hover effects. And as befitting a volume dedicated to smell, we wanted to explore articulations of scent, too. Print nostalgists often rhapsodise about the musty, vanillic aroma of decomposing lignin, the polymer responsible for yellowing pages and that old book smell. Others cite the crispness of a fresh newspaper, and fingers blurred with ink. Reading with e-ink and backlit displays, however, has so far proved to be a largely anosmic experience. What will the pixels of tomorrow smell like?

—The Editors


  • Khairani Barokka—Can the Subaltern Smell: The Olfactory Other
    Transnational olfactory stereotypes in Indonesia, India, South Africa, and the USA

  • Ali Boggs—The Corpse
    A dead girl in Madagascar, an old pastis-soaked Belgian, and the loose skin of overripe peaches

  • Suzanne Fischer—Smell H-I-S-T-O-R-Y: A Guided Tour of the Smell Exhibition
    In the coming age of olfactory archaeology, a speculative tour of the museum of tomorrow

  • Adam FlynnUnder the Iron Snout: a First Take on Olfactory Imperialism
    Drug-sniffing dogs, fermented fish and mosquito repellent in Vietnam, the Stasi’s smell archives, People Sniffing, and strategies to survive smellveillance

  • Mary-Jo Gillian—Heap
    A residency in a rural Irish landfill, the filamentine heat of rotting matter, the intimacy of olfactory community

  • Pavel Godfrey—Sensation, Memory, and Place in Delray, Detroit
    Post-industrial detritus in Little Budapest, a carbonaceous cocktail of respiratory illnesses and mnemocide, exploding the neoliberal myth of recycling

  • Barbara Herman—An Ode To Bodies: Peau d’Espagne
    The gendering of leather perfumes, and the hidden, abject animal body at its origin

  • Anne Elizabeth Moore—Fake Snake Oil
    Smell, trickery, and xenophobia in Marfa, Texas

  • Kristine Ong Muslim—The Proustian Phenomenon
    A missing dog, the assertive scratchiness of lemongrass, the stench of river water, the frowning fustiness of mothballs

  • Charles Reid—Nietzsche and the Electric Nose
    The laziness of Nature, synaesthesia, and building an electric nose

  • Erika Renedo Illarregi—Smell Portraits
    How might a smell be archived like a polaroid or instagram?

  • Adam Rothstein—The Olfactographic Capacities of the Human Brain
    Smelling the traces of architecture and mapping odourous urban geographies

  • Francisco Salas PérezImpeccable Tenderness
    Papayas in Xalapa, the displaced remembrances of diaspora, and escaping the Proustian straitjacket

  • Manuel Schwab—Petroleum, Frankincense, and Myrrh
    A souk in Nyala, Sudan, a lake of petroleum, and the carnivorousness of the development-industrial complex

  • Mark West—The Smell of OCD
    The insidiousness of burning toast, and the creeping doubt of OCD

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