Scent can be weaponized. It can be violent. I’ve been learning a lot from talks hosted by The Institute for Art and Olfaction—about the ways colonizers wipe out native smells and impose their own smellscapes, from Hsuan L. Hsu’s Experimental Scent Summit talk “Decolonizing Smell.” About the ways that the unfamiliar smells of an othered community are so often used to dehumanize and justify violence against them or to deny them access, from Nuri McBride’s class “Xenophobia: An Olfactive History of Otherness.” And from Aleesa Cohene, I learned about Skunk: scent made into a powerful weapon. It is touted as “less lethal” and more humane, but it also inflicts unique psychological, social, emotional, and neurological damage upon its targets. And of course, it maintains the cycle of othering—an entire group can be sprayed with the persistent stink of Skunk, marking them, robbing them of dignity, and potentially justifying further violence against them.
Rose. In all honesty, I prefer to eat or drink my roses rather than wear them as perfume. These are two of my favorite roses: rose black tea and ferni, an Iranian or Afghan dessert made with rice flour, milk and, often, rosewater and cardamom.
I don’t generally wear rose-forward perfumes—or many floral perfumes at all—because I don’t feel like myself in them. But I will say that Masque Milano Love Kills captured my affection recently with its lychee and petals opening that reminds me of rosewater desserts. (Love Kills was also nominated this year for an Art and Olfaction Award—congratulations, Masque Milano and perfumer Caroline Dumur!).
If you had to pick your favorite rose smell—whether it’s a perfume, something to eat or drink, or your own rose garden—what would it be?
Malted chocolate, orange lollipops, caramel, brie cheese, horse barn/manure, maraschino cherry, coconut sunscreen, jasmine—these are smelling and tasting notes I wrote down during a honey tasting this week led by Carla Marina Marchese, a honey sensory expert and founder of the American Honey Tasting Society, in an online class through The Institute for Art and Olfaction.
Marchese led us through a sensory analysis of five honeys, all complex and very different from one another. As part of the sensory analysis, we looked at the color, consistency, and texture of each honey; the smell intensity and facets; and finally, the taste. Taste, texture, and smell are all components of flavor.
Before we opened the honey jars, we did a fun exercise demonstrating how essential olfaction is to flavor. We plugged our nose and tasted an unlabeled substance. It had the texture of granules and the taste was sweet: sugar. Then we unplugged our noses and tasted again: cinnamon sugar. The taste of cinnamon was undetectable without our sense of smell.
Have you noticed that everyone seems to interpret smells differently? You’re not the only one. I love this excerpt that The Institute for Art and Olfaction shared recently, from an upcoming essay by founder Saskia Wilson-Brown:
“The increasingly fractured significance we apply to scent means that when our personal experiences, memories and preferences are expressed in smell, they are often done so through an uneasy combination of assumptions. “Timeless” meanings (“Frankincense smells holy!”) are assumed to be general understanding, and specific individual perspectives (“The smell of chocolate cake reminds me of my childhood summers in the south of Vietnam”) are assumed to be relatable.
Thus a young trans woman in Atlanta can perceive the smell of rose as a meaningful signifier of her feminine identity, while a Somali scholar in Dubai can concurrently ascribe to it the symbolic meaning of traditional hospitality. An elder from a Canadian First Peoples tribe can understand sage in the context of medicine and healing, while an affluent banker in Hong Kong can understand it as a luxury object in the form of a refreshing room spray.
The meaning of any given smell is heterogeneous; as Derrida would have it with language, so it is with scent. Traditional understandings, fragmented as they already are amongst cultures and epoch, are further splintered with every personal memory, micro-niche, trend, marketing pitch, and emotional analysis. In our globalized world everyone can see or experience everything, and everything means something to everybody. What this means for people working with scent is that, in fact, nothing means one thing to everybody (at least not without a hefty dose of contextual information). Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning. And therein lies the primary problem when working with scent.”
—Saskia Wilson-Brown, The Institute for Art and Olfaction
“Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning.” What do you think?