Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Oder of Youth

Groucho Marx put it very nicely: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana." In both cases, the hidden ground or invisible environment is an olfactory one--our sense of smell receives messages and information about what to approach and what to avoid, influencing what and whom we are attracted to and repulsed by.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man Marshall McLuhan wrote the following in his chapter entitled "Clocks: The Scent of Time":

The most integral and involving time sense imaginable is that expressed in the Chinese and Japanese cultures. Until the coming of the missionaries in the seventeenth century, and the introduction of mechanical clocks, the Chinese and Japanese had for thousands of years measured time by graduations of incense. Not only the hours and days, but the seasons and zodiacal signs were simultaneously indicated by a succession of carefully ordered scents. The sense of smell, long considered the root of memory and the unifying basis of individuality, has come to the fore again in the experiments of Wilder Penfield. During brain surgery, electric probing of brain tissue revived many memories of the patients. These evocations were dominated and unified by unique scents and odors that structured these past experiences. The sense of smell is not only the most subtle and delicate of the human senses; it is, also, the most iconic in that it involves the entire human sensorium more fully than any other sense. It is not surprising, therefore, that highly literate societies take steps to reduce or eliminate odors from the environment. B.O., the unique signature and declaration of human individuality, is a bad word in literate societies. It is far too involving for our habits of detachment and specialist attention. Societies that measured time scents would tend to be so cohesive and so profoundly unified as to resist every kind of change. (p. 200 of the critical edition)

McLuhan referred to media as "extensions of man," and perfume originally was an extension of body odor, especially necessary for those poor unfortunates who had none. No odor means no common scents. It also means no identity--I stink therefore I am--and McLuhan in his later work noted that violence is a response to loss of identity. In the present olfactory context, this point is imaginatively illustrated by the Patrick Suskind novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (the movie adaptation having been released this past January).

In traditional cultures, certain scents were associated with the sacred, and were only used in sacred spaces and on sacred occasions. Likewise, certain scents were reserved for priests or kings, just as the color purple was reserved for royalty at one time. In ancient Israel, when the people clamored for a king, Samuel bestowed this royal status on Saul by anointing him with a special oil, and later he did the same for David--the chosen one becomes the anointed one. The Hebrew word for anointed one is meshiach, from which we get messiah, which was translated into Greek as christos, which also means anointed, from which we get via Latin the word christ, the title Jesus Christ meaning Jesus the Christ meaning Jesus the Anointed, not to mention the act of christening, where water is substituted for oil.

In other words, in Judeo-Christian tradition, we are saved by the smell! It's no laughing matter, as our efforts to produce an odorless society through ventilation/air conditioning systems and deodorant/antiperspirants turns out to be just another facet of secular humanism and the technological society. Post-colognialism? Such non-scents!

The Anointed One is supposed to deliver eternal life, either up in heaven (Christ) or here or Earth through the resurrection of the dead (Meshiach). While technology cannot accomplish this, we apparently have taken a step in that direction with a product called Timeless View™. Developed by a physician (a member of what amount to the contemporary priesthood that we turn to in times of trouble) named Alan R. Hirsch, an expert in "The Science of Smell," and the founder and director of The Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, Timeless View™ is referred to as a "Youth Perception Spray" for women only.

So, it's not quite the fountain of youth, just a spritz. According to the copy on the webpage, "During a preliminary clinical study, this patent-pending body spray made women seem an average of six (6) years younger than their actual age." I suppose that the unusual number of years, 6, makes the claim seem more legitimate than it would otherwise be (but say it three times fast and see what slouches your way). Anyway, the ad goes on to list the reasons why women want and need to look younger than they actually are, and all the things they do to achieve this goal:

Why You Need It

Have you ever tried to look younger than you actually are?

Of course you have. Every woman has tried to alter her appearance to affect the perception of her age.

And why not? Looking younger gives you advantages in life. Men find younger women more attractive. Younger women tend to be taken more seriously at work. You can probably think of a dozen ways in which appearing younger would help you to get what you want out of life.

Society places a high value on youth, which is why you may have tried:

• Young, “hip” clothes
• Hair coloring
• Dieting to lose weight
• Botox injections
• Other “youthening” techniques • Teeth whitening
• Anti-wrinkle creams
• Anti-aging vitamins
• Cosmetic surgery
However, did you notice something similar between all of those options? They are all supposed to affect how young you look.

But there’s more to age than just what you see.
Actually, this is an excellent insight, and McLuhan would certainly approve of this effort to break free from western culture's profound visualism. In this vein, the ad goes on to say:

Can You Smell Younger?

For years, Dr. Hirsch has studied the effects that the other four senses have on human perception and behavior. Specifically, he has found that specific smells can alter learning speed, memory recall, perception of body weight, gambling behavior and even sexual arousal.

Recently, he discovered a unique combination of scents that also can affect the perception of age.

During a clinical study, Dr. Hirsch found that men perceived women who wore certain scents to be an average of six (6) years younger than their actual age.

Curiously, these specific scents did not alter age perceptions in women viewing men or women viewing other women. Currently, Dr. Hirsch is conducting follow-up research to fully explore this age-perception spray for all conditions.

Even better, this unique blend of scents has been concentrated into an easy-to-use body spray called Timeless View.

So there you have it, not quite heaven, but maybe nirvana--I wonder if it smells like teen spirit? Anything to recapture that youthful odor, to be adored, no matter how arduous.

So, Tony Soprano is the "chosen one" of the Cosa Nose-tra. And using the scent of time to predict the future was the province on the prophet Nosey-stradamus. Victory through nasal power! Are you becoming incensed with me?

All right then, I'll end by mentioning that my first scholarly publication, which I produced a long, long, time ago although it smells like just yesterday, was "Media and the Sense of Smell," a book chapter that was included in the anthology Inter/Media: Interpersonal Communication in a Media World (2nd ed.), edited by Gary Gumpert and Robert Cathcart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 400-411). And when it was reprinted in the third edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 428-438), I had my second scholarly publication.

And I know of at least one media ecologist, Steve Reagles, who has investigated this topic in great depth in his doctoral dissertation.

As for the future, who nose? Smell ya later!

1 comment:

charlene said...

I was recently thinking about this... the sense of smell is one of the only senses that can't really be projected through this virtual media... It is a sacred sense.

Then a few days later I saw an ad for an episode of My Name is Earl, that it was going to be shown in "Smell-o-vision", where viewers would get game cards and could scratch and sniff strategically placed products, like OREOtm cookies.