From the sanitisation of 18th-century French streets, through oxygen bars in contemporary cities to digital scratch and virtual sniff, Jim Drobnick's The Smell Culture Reader provides a fascinating journey through the pleasures and pains of one of the most neglected senses in contemporary cultural studies. Indeed, this collection of essays provides more than enough evidence that smell, as well as being a biological sense, is "subtly involved in just about every aspect of culture, from the construction of personal identity and the defining of social status to the confirming of group affiliation and the transmission of tradition".
One strength of this collection is its resolutely interdisciplinary approach. Here, neuropsychology and evolutionary biology nestle alongside anthropology, history, sociology and geography as well as perfumery, healthcare, architecture and political activism to name a few. Despite this diversity, however, what emerges is a deftly worked and subtly shifting confluence of thinking from which smell appears as a deservedly particular and dynamic field of play. As such it will prove important to those working in anthropology and sociology particularly, as well as anyone interested in sense and its cultural, historical and spiritual significance.
With such an array of different materials (Marcel Proust, Helen Keller and Oliver Sacks share this space) it might have been tempting to produce an historical chronology or to divide the essays into disciplinary domains.
Instead, Drobnick elects for conceptual divisions that bring the disparate perspectives alive. The first part, "Odorphobia", addresses the fear and stigmatisation of smells on a global scale, while "Toposmania" examines the spatial realms of smell, from ambiance to sacred ritual. "Flaireurs" delves into the neurological and cultural terrain of memory, affect and identity, and the fourth part foregrounds perfumery, biophysics and health.
"Scentsuality" focuses on body odours and pheromones in the realms of sexuality and gender; "Volatile art" provides a picture of the aesthetics of smell; and the final section deals with "Sublime essences" and their roles in meditation, divination and asceticism.
Any number of possible combinations or routes can be taken through the book, including globalisation and multiculturalism and the role of olfactory processes in defining the "other" against norms emphasising the sanitation of smell. The Reader offers case studies and theoretical frameworks exploring and unfolding: immigrant lives; cultural links between odour and morality in Papua New Guinea; "Fragrant signals and festive spaces of Eurasia"; "Perfumeros and the sacred use of fragrance in Amazonian shamanism" and scents in Arab-Muslim and Hindu societies.
The study of emotion and the senses is growing in its own right as well as in relation to what it offers to subjects from neurology to cultural studies, and the possibilities of linking the two. Even economics, marketing and the study of commodification require an understanding of an industry that is not only booming but also drifting into many other product markets. The perfume industry's future is assured as we increasingly define ourselves and even personality types and social status by scent signatures.
Against such a backdrop, this is indeed a timely collection.
The Smell Culture Reader. First Edition
Editor - Jim Drobnick
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 430
Price - £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 9781845 202125 and 202132