Antti-Ville Villén is Professor of the Cultural Study of Music at the University of the Arts Helsinki, Finland. He is currently realigning his research from music-centred issues to broader questions of multimodal and multisensory epistemology. His recent publications include a Finnish-language article about smells in wildlife films, and the monograph The Popular and the Sacred in Music (Routledge, 2022). He is spending two Terms at CRASSH, finishing a monograph manuscript entitled Introduction to Olfactory Cultural Studies.
One evening in early March, whilst stumbling back to my unnamed college from an unnamed public house, along a fairly lively road, I was struck by what I perceived as a scent of horse manure, next to a residential mansion of sorts. The stroke stopped me, physically, to think why would I have such an olfactory sensation right then and there; the issue for me is not whether my smelly encounter can be forensically proven, but of the cultural associations of the perception or impression. For some reason, one of the first thoughts that hit me involved the film Gone with the Wind, and the young daughter riding her pony to her own demise – ite est, is this what had taken place in the affluent Backs of Cambridge?
Or could it have been that some mounted police had passed by? This would have been my immediate association in my home country and city, Helsinki, Finland, where it is not uncommon to witness such action, especially when public demonstrations are taking place. Were this the case, the question remains: why? The presence of mounties is, I think, nevertheless highly unlikely since I did not see any manure on the street.
Third, I thought of the film cycle Back to the Future and its obsession with manure pouring over one singular character and his time-shifting incarnations. Given his cinematic literalisation as a ‘shithead’, one is compelled to reconsider the gendered and racialised aspects of odours and olfaction. In more than one way, the character epitomises toxic white masculinity, well before any such theorisation surfaced, not to mention the continuing academic neglect towards such artistic representations and their implications. Furthermore, one might consider the comical implications at stake, or, how funny it would be to have, say, an elderly African-American drag king in the cinematic scene instead?
Fourth, I finally got to my college flat, without any further olfactory ado. Yet this in its own right raises the question, why (not). Had I really managed to disregard the subtle sweetness of marrowing leaves on the road, or the muddy moldness of the dirt in the ditches? Or, had I really managed to clean my flat so that it induced no olfactory sensations whatsoever as I walked in?
Luckily enough, I can not only smell but I can also read. Thus I can learn, on the basis of The Smell Culture Reader, for instance, that the olfactory tends to be discussed in terms of fear or distrust, dubious morals and belief systems, each linked to particular places, types of people and forms of expression. To get a whiff of, say, a ‘classic’ perfume branded by a footballer of a certain fame, is to get classy with sporty associations void of pungent sweat regardless of their ‘pitty’ origins. I can also attest to this on the basis of my own, well let us say, less classy olfactory performances, with and without branded perfumes.
Yet I have to wonder. All living organisms emit compounds that can be detected as smells. A stone does not smell; only what happens on it, or how it reacts chemically to and with other substances. So why to suspect the odours in question, or, rather, olfaction in general?
To smell, in both senses of the word, is human through and through. Anyone who has lived in the vicinity of a paper mill or sulphuric geothermal activity knows how the smell is not only money, that is, livelihood, but becomes the people. Excrement is, by definition, not smelly but something separated as waste by an organism – as a rule, a member of a species does not use its own excrement as nutrition, which is why, in general, it is perceived as smelling bad. Human beings, in general, tend to forget this, due to their assumed position at the top of the food pyramid. A distinct form of this forgetfulness is the reported military hazing of recruits to, literally, ‘eat shit’.
Assumed position, indeed, as in less deodorised environments the signature fragrance worn by the hairless ape might yield dramatically undesired outcomes. In the jungle, the unprepared human will be eaten. Less mythoromantically, the waste materials of human bodies exude odours of their own, which people often try to cover with stronger aromas, either by scratching a match or pouring perfumes. The importance of fragrances has been discussed also in relation to breastfeeding, mate selection, and inciting memories. Alongside heavy industry, agriculture produces environmental odours, and often individual households have their olfactory characteristics. The different scents of flowers may be utilised in communicating one’s feelings or that a seasonal festivity is approaching. The olfactory crucially affects also the gustatory: the food tastes different with nostrils closed. It has also been reported that the smell of skunk can be, not just irrelevant, but pleasant.
I would call for opening your nostrils, were I a politician. To call nonetheless betrays the sensory hierarchies at play, by foregrounding the sense of hearing. A sensorially acute reader can pick up formulations or terms such as ‘struck’, ‘film’ and ‘see’ from above. The last of these is the most detrimental, in its suggestion of seeing being equivalent of understanding.
Where I live, and as a relatively ‘normal’ in terms of sensory reception, apart from being strongly myopic and (pathologically) deuteranopic, I consider a multisensory approach to knowledge production not only appropriate but necessary. Instead of digital immersion, at issue is – in many ways, a return to – physical and personal touch, again in both senses of the word, and crucially by acknowledging the chemistry between and all around us. Thus the politician in me would urge everyone to dig deep, get close and nose around.