The Nix Sense

I have been told that I have an unusually keen sense of smell. This seems to be a genetic trait that runs in my mother’s side of the family, and I credit both my mother and her mother with shaping my “smell-aesthetic” from a young age.

I do feel that our culture’s investigations of smell fall short of the attention we give to our other senses. Most discussions of perception that I’ve encountered have tended to be heavily visual-aural biased. Without categorizing this as cause or effect, I would like to point out that these are basically the only two senses that can interact with the plethora of electronic thingamajigs that surround us and have so revolutionized the act of perception (with honorable mention given to devices like the Playstation DualShock that make a token effort to interact with our sense of touch). Let’s also not forget that even the Sixth Sense, which isn’t even real, somehow nevertheless had an entire Hollywood movie made about it. So it’s clear to me that the sense of smell has been given short shrift during the march of civilization.

Part of the problem is that, in my opinion, most discussions of smell tend to be “Zoroastrian,” which is to say that they are dualistic, and we are generally content to simply define smells by the categories of “good” or “bad” (Thus Smelt Zarathustra, if you will). Interestingly, the definitions of good and bad as relates to smell is generally oriented by the human oral-anal axis, with the smells relating to consumption being deemed good, and the smells relating to excrement being regarded as bad. (For some reason, flowers, which you can’t eat, are also considered as smelling good, but I think we can all agree that flowers don’t actually smell good, and their supposed good smell was probably instilled in the unsuspecting public by a PR campaign stipulated by a clause of the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty aimed at increasing tulip exports to the United States).

All human senses have been affected by the development of technology. However, the technology we create is only as inspired as the underlying cultural aesthetic allows it to be. In the case of vision and sound, technology has complemented the existing aesthetic theory for those senses to create a flowering of visual-aural expression. With smell, however, my strong impression is that the main effect of modern technology has merely been to suppress the smells that we consider “bad,” and also create artificial replacements for the smells that we consider to be good. For better or for worse, the sense of smell never came into its own as a medium of cultural-expression through technology, and the only example of such a thing that I can think of is those weird scratch-n-sniff cards that you got as a kid—hardly haute couture.

I work in an office in Downtown Minneapolis. Something that recently struck me is just how few smells that I encounter in my daily life. Everything around me is created to be as odorless as possible. A modern office space is an absolute dead zone in terms of smell. Even when you step outside, smells of any sort are increasingly hard to come by. Smokers, usually a reliable source of odors (which are, in violation of my oral-anal theory, an oral intake that is generally considered to be a bad smell) are increasingly contained in balkanized enclaves so the smell of tobacco smoke is increasingly hard to come by.

For me, smell is strongly intertwined with a sense of place, so a town that is devoid of smell also seems to be lacking a certain vibrancy, or joie de vivre. One of my favorite things about traveling is encountering the particular smell that a place has. I have visited New York City three times now, and the thing that sends an electric tingle through my body and imbues me with a sense of arrival each time is not the bright city lights or the army of yellow taxicabs, but that peculiar, not entirely good smell that pervades the subway stations.

One of the first places I traveled to on my own was Istanbul. Of course I had learned all about the city on the internet before going. I had seen pictures of the buildings, looked at the maps, and learned how to say a few things from a Turkish phrasebook. But, on a breezy January morning, as I stepped off the tram that took me to the Sultanahmet mosque, I was floored by something unexpected—the smell of burning charcoal. On every street there was someone selling chestnuts roasted over a coal fire. And it felt like everything I had read about Istanbul before that moment, and every picture I had seen, was wrong somehow, or presented on false pretenses, because it left out the electric feeling of that charcoal scented winter air. The charcoal smell tinted everything else that I perceived there, from the sight of the minarets towering above me to the sounds of street vendors yelling “Buyurun! Oturun!” That smell will always be central to my idea of Istanbul.

It makes sense that we would drive smells out of our urban areas. It’s accommodating of everybody, and it’s probably an effect of creating efficient technologies that both replaces older, smellier technologies while still driving out/away the smells that were present in a place before humans arrived. But something about living in a smell-free world seems shallow and depressing to me. My sense of smell encounters almost nothing unexpected in my daily life, and I get the feeling that as the 2D virtual world of screens becomes richer, the 3D real world around us grows flatter. Pretty soon they will be one and the same thing.

In the midst of all this, I guess it could be a good thing to seek out activities that allow you to be exposed to a variety of smells—smells that, be they good or bad, hopefully have the ability to increase your sense of being. Some good ones that I’ve found are; traveling (and this reminds me of Paul Theroux, who observed that all travel is also a form of time-travel), walking as opposed to driving, working on my car/motorcycle, and being out in nature.

Have you encountered any interesting smells recently? If so, please let me know.