(…) In our postmodern world smell is often a notable (or, increasingly, scarcely noticed) absence. Odours are supressed in public places, there are no smells on television, the world of computers is odour free, and so on. This olfactory “silence” notwithstanding, smell would seem to share many of the traits commonly attributed to postmodernity. Let us make a comparison.
The postmodern era we live in is characterized by a loss of faith in universalist myths, such as Christianity or Progress, and a corresponding emphasis on the personal and local, on allegiance to one’s own group. The breakdown of social structures, including language, encourages border-crossing (or simply lane-hopping) between such formerly rigid cultural categories as “art” and “life” or “male” and “female”. The past irrelevant , the future uncertain, postmodernity is a culture of “now”, a pastiche of styles and genres which exist in an eternal present. Postmodernity is also a culture of imitations and simulations, where copies predominate over originals and images over substance. The driving power of postmodernity is consumer capitalism, the endless production of goods and their investment with a quasi-religious aura of desirability.
How does smell also exemplify these characteristics? First of all, odours are, by nature, personal and local. This enables olfactory values to be used to reinforce the tribal allegiances of postmodernity, in which the “goodness” of one’s own group is contrasted with the “foulness” of others. At the same time, smells, resist containment in discrete units, whether physical or linguistic; they cross borders, linking disparate categories and confusing boundary lines. Furthermore, smell, like taste, is a sensation of the moment, it cannot be preserved. We do not know what the past smelled like, and in the future our own odour will be lost. While odours cannot be preserved, however they can be simulated. Commercially produced synthetic odours pervade the market place, enveloping consumer goods in ideal olfactory images.
This last point is best illustrated by an analysis of the industry of artificial flavours. the widespread replacement of natural flavours with artificial imitations which we find in the contemporary food industry exemplifies how, Jean Baudrillard’s words, the world has come to be “completely catalogued and analyzed and then artificially revived as though real”. Artificial flavours are created by the synthetic reproduction of individual flavours. the flavorist may thus be regarded as the arch-agent in the process of production outlined by Braudillard where: “The real is produced from miniaturized units… and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times.”
Ironically, in order to create “larger-than-life” savours, flavorists actually reduce the number of components present in the natural flavour. By reproducing only those notes deemed essential to a flavour’s characteristics taste and smell, they are able to produce a heightened sensation of that flavour. Artificial flavours are consequently at once much less than their originals and much more. Our contemporary craving for larger-than-life flavour is reminiscent of the medieval appetite for spices. While spices brought medieval a taste of Eden, however, artificial flavours are reminiscent rather of Disneyland, a synthetic paradise of consumer delights. (…)
In, Aroma – The cultural history of smell, Constance Classen, David Howes, Anthony Synnott
Allegory of the Five Senses, Pietro Paolini