Irene de Craen

We Have Never Smelled Modern

‘Smell reveals the artificiality of modernity; it shows following Latour that we have never been really modern (1993). The modern project to create a pure, rational order of things is undermined by the sweet smell of decomposition which continuously escapes control and regulation.’ (Urry, p. 395)


Air purification of the sewer at the Leidsebosje, ca. 1930 - Air purification of the sewer at the Leidsebosje, ca. 1930. Source: Amsterdam City Archive

Our relation to smell is generally one of distance and disinterest. The modern (western) human prefers life to be deodorized. Our bodies are shaven and perfumed, and foul smelling industries have been moved to less populated areas. But this relationship to odours has not always been like this. For ‘[i]n any given era, the meaning and significance of particular sensory experiences are determined by the philosophical, linguistic, and cultural systems through which they are produced and represented’ (Cowan and Steward p.2). The book The Foul and the Fragrant by Alain Corbin traces the changes of this attitude through French culture in order to find the causes for our present-day ‘anxieties about the unwholesome’.

Western society has devalued the sense of smell since the Ancient Greeks when Aristotle ranked the senses and privileged sight above all others. But perhaps an even greater devaluation of smell took place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when ‘[t]he philosophers and scientists of that period decided that, while sight was the pre-eminent sense of reason and civilization, smell was the sense of madness and savagery. […] Modern humans who emphasized the importance of smell were therefore judged to be either insufficiently evolved savages, degenerate proletariat, or else aberrations: perverts, lunatics or idiots.’ (Classen, p.4) Ironically, the moment when science discovers new theories of infection and disease, it is the ‘animalistic’ nature of smell – as a sense that can warn us of danger – that stands at the basis of the modern urban reorganization of space. 

According to Corbin, this change of our tolerance for foul odours takes place quite suddenly in the middle of the eighteenth century, and ‘well before industrial pollution accumulated in urban space.’ (Corbin, p.56) The scientific theory of the time that asserts disease and even death are caused by foul odours, played a crucial role in this. Odours therefore came to be associated directly with death, and so logic follows that the smells of corpses and cemeteries were among the first to cause a sense of disgust and fear. But new sensibilities also formed about other aspects of everyday life such as the presence of mud on the streets, a change that even seemed sudden and unwarranted to a contemporary observer: ‘One might think hearing the complaints that are mounting daily, that the roads were always clean in the past. However, the truth is that people did not even think of complaining in earlier times.’ (Ronesse, quoted in Corbin, p.59-60) From the streets and public spaces, the war against the foul moved to more private arena’s such as the home and our own bodies. The smell of feces and therefore the handling of human waste became of special concern. Combined with the slow formation of a centralized state, the treatment of excrement became a private affair as the edict of Villers-Cotterêts literally ordered everyone to ‘look after their own shit.’ (Corbin, p.60

As cities grew, the amounts of excrement and other waste grew too, as well as the concern of what to do with it. With this, it became more and more important to have a civic strategy to control foul odours. But besides the public health benefits, ideas on deodorization of cities were also in motivated by ‘a utopian plan to conceal the evidence of organic time, to repress all the refutable prophetic markers of death: excrement, the product of menstruation, the corruption of carcasses, and the stench of corpses.’ (Corbin, p.90) Stench and foul air, were combatted through the paving roads in towns and villages as well as inside peasant homes. ‘Plastering, coating, painting, and whitewashing walls, vaults, and woodwork provided a positive armor against miasma.’ (Corbin, p.91) Following these developments, cleaning the streets became a daily requirement, the city of Paris even held a competition for cleaning the streets in 1779. (Corbin, P.92) Interestingly these new tasks were soon allocated to the poor, homeless or incarcerated, setting an association with dirt and the lower classes or with people living somehow ‘outside society’. Slowly the low tolerance of foul odour shifted from the biological to the social, as the smells of poverty became somewhat of an obsession. With this, smell became connected to someone’s identity and of course, social status. (Corbin, p.142-143) Something our present day perfume industry still uses to market their expensive products. Different professions were allocated different levels of foul smell. Prostitutes and ragpickers were considered particularly foul smelling, as was the sailor who was unable to escape the foul smelling ship: ‘“His customs are debauched; he finds supreme happiness in drunkenness; the odor of tobacco, wedded to the vapors of wine, alcohol, garlic, and the other coarse foods that he likes to eat, the perfume of his clothing often impregnated with sweat, filth, and tar make it repulsive to be near him.” The stench of the sailor, “robust and libidinous,” condemned to long continence or masturbation, added a strong spermatic secretion to the effluvia.’ (Forget, quoted in Corbin, p.147)

Whether on our streets, in our homes, or on our bodies, stature and progress became acutely associated with the complete absence of bad smell. Corbin shows that this deodorization of our societies is a result of several aspect connected to our thoughts on what it means to be modern: scientific (health) research, growing individualism, and capital gain motivated by the possible monetary advance from waste recycling. (Corbin p.114-121) The question remains however, whether we have truly been able to rid ourselves and our society of bad smells? Or is this yet another modern myth that fits our narrative of a well-ordered, progressive, capitalist society, for ‘[f]oul-smelling rubbish appears to threaten the social order, whereas the reassuring victory of the hygienic and the fragrant promises to buttress its stability.’ (Corbin, p.5) The fact is, as the introductory quote to this text also tells us, smells can only escape our control to a certain extent. Our cities are full of ‘unintended smells’ from the garbage we try expose of, to our own bodies that sometimes escape our control. Covering this up as we might with chloride or perfume, it is a fact of life that we smell, and therefore we have never, and will never truly smell modern.