Sunday, December 03, 2023

What the Nose Knows: On Chantal Jaquet's Philosophie de L'Odorat


I am a follower of Chantal Jaquet's work. I have read her works on Spinoza with great interest, and have also been a big fan of her work on the concepts of transclass and nonreproduction. I have also read her little book on the body. In short, have read most of what she has written, but I have been very reluctant to pick up her book on smell, Philosophie de L'odorat. I met her once, and we talked about her book, her interest in the arts and aesthetics of smell, and all I could think was that I was glad that she was interested in it, but I could not imagine being interested. I just did not find smell that interesting."You do you," I thought as I listened to her explain Kôdô, the Japanese arts of scents, secretly wishing she was writing another book on Spinoza. 

I was less than a hundred pages into her book when I started to change my mind. The first thing that strikes one about Jaquet's book is its utter thoroughness, a consideration of smell in history, philosophy, and literature. Smell may be overlooked in our culture, but Jaquet has not overlooked any reference to smell. Since there is little written about smell, even in philosophical books dedicated to the senses and sensory knowledge, Jaquet begins with the question of that omission. What can we conclude from the absence of smell as an object of philosophical inquiry? A beginning of an answer looks to the history of the marginalization. The most classic example, found in antiquity, is that smell is excluded because it is inferior in humans. As Aristotle writes,"We have next to speak of smell and taste, both of which are almost the same physical affection, although they each have their being in different things. tastes, as a class, display their nature more clearly to us than smells, the cause of which is that the olfactory sense of man is inferior in acuteness to that of the lower animals, and is, when compared with our other senses, the least perfect of Man's senses." The idea that smell is not important because we as humans lack it as a sense repeats again and again in the history of philosophy, eventually even gaining its evolutionary explanation in Darwin and Freud. Smell ceases to matter as human beings stand upright and away from the world of scents.

Jaquet raises two objections to this claim. First, the inferiority of the sense does not justify its exclusion. Human beings have worse hearing than dogs, and worse sight than hawks, but that does not lead us to dismiss those senses. Moreover, as is often the case with humanism, the concept of the human is situated at once above and below animals. Human beings are said to be deficient in smell, unable to smell what a dog notices, but are also in some sense above other animals in their appreciation of smell. Only humans have an aesthetics of smell, have flowers and perfumes. Which brings us to Jaquet's second objection, it is not entirely clear that our smell is entirely deficient. Human beings are unique in that we can smell and and taste at the same time due to the connection of nasal passages to the throat--connecting two senses and transforming our experience of both. It is possible that the dismissal of smell is as much of a cultural issue as a natural one. For this second point Jaquet looks to different cultures where smell is not devalued, and even the infamous example of the wild child of Aveyron. Children raised outside of our society demonstrate abilities of smell that we would think impossible. Viewed from this perspective the human sense of smell is not so much a natural deficiency but a cultural one. Humanity's sense of smell is not naturally deficient, but much of culture, especially in the modern west is predicated on a denigration of smell.

As a true Spinozist Jaquet spends time investigating the relationship between infants and smell. Infants are at the border between the natural and cultural dimensions of smell. Children do not naturally have the same tastes and judgements regarding smell as adults. This leads to one of the most amusing paraphrase of Spinoza's remarks about the relative nature of aesthetic judgement. As Jaquet writes,

"The categories of dirt and stench, cleanliness and a good smell, are pure social constructions, ingrained habits which are not however unbreakable. The dirty and the clean, the fetid and perfume, are an effect of fictive ideas which do not express the essence of things but our manner of being affected...Spinoza underlies the relativity of these categories which are not part of the properties of things, but of modes of thinking which emerge in the comparison between the different ways that things touch and act on each other, which varies according to the difference of bodies, the constitutions and encounters. The proof this is, as Spinoza says, "For one and the same thing can be, at the same time, be good, and bad, and also indifferent" (IVPref), he gives the example of music but it can be transposed to smell. Thus the odor of excrement is good to infants, bad to adults, and to the anosmic neither good nor bad." 

Smells and the sense of smell, are often a border phenomena, placed between human beings and animals, but also placed at the divisions within humanity. Colonial accounts are filled with discussions of the foul smells of the other, racial hierarchies and divisions often entail smell as a regime of disgust and disdain, and even gender has its own economy of smell. Jaquet has some amusing passages in which she discusses the asymmetrical gender expectations of smell, women are construed to be in need of perfumes in order to be considered attractive or even feminine while men are pretty much allowed to stink. Smell is a marker of exclusion and power. As Jaquet writes,"All of these olfactive figures of racism, of sexism, and of xenophobia demonstrate that odor functions as principle of discrimination and exclusion to the extent that acceptation and integration of the other pass through deodorization as a kind of purification." 

I am not going to try to sum up much the rest of Jaquet's massive book on smell which covers everything from literary representations of smell, in Proust, the history of the aesthetics of smell, from Kôdô in Japan, and the perfume industry in the west, and philosophers on smell from Condillac to Nietzsche. What emerges is a philosophical consideration of smell as precisely that border between nature and culture, identity and difference, self and other, passivity and activity. Reconsidering smell then makes it possible to rethink what it means to be human and what it means to be social, drawing our attention to the relational aspect of our identity and subjectivity. 

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