Friday, May 17, 2013

"Sensual Relations" -- notes on smell reading, long and rambling!

"Take the case of taste. English has four flavor categories, Japanese has five, the language of the Weyewa of Sumba counts seven flavor terms, while that of the Sereer Ndut of Senegal has only three. When it comes to smell, however, the Sereer Ndut recognize five odor categories, the Weyewa note three, the Japanese discriminate two, and English has no precise olfactory vocabulary. The point here is that there is no single evlutionary pattern to be discerned behind these linguistic facts when categorization in various sensory fields is compared." (p. 9)
This quote is among many interesting facts and observations about smell in the book Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory by David Howes. In the follow-up to this text, he suggests that Russians talk about or notice the smells of many more things than Americans -- this is not the same as saying they have more words for smells; it's cultural! He suggests that Arabs are more aware of personal smells, which can lead to cultural awkwardness as they sniff you. And he mentions Arctic tribal trackers who use ALL of the senses, including smell, to follow their prey.

In a long discussion of the senses in the works of various anthropologists, Howes concentrates more on vision and hearing, as one would expect. There are a few interesting smell ideas, though, such as the integration of sight, hearing, and smell in the experience of the Kaluli culture of Papua, New Guinea. In a quote about them, he offers a quote about their experience of "the dense sensuality of evening darkness, with voices overlapping the misting light rains and insects and frogs of the nearby bush... sensually continuous with the smoky aromas that fires or resin torches release into the longhouse and diffuse out into the moist night air." (p. 38)

In fact, he says, the Kaluli have a single verb that means both hearing and smell. Another people, the Temiar of Malaysia, say that people have four souls, including "an odor soul and a shadow soul, which create a kind of bubble around the person." People, animals, plants, and landforms also have a "head soul and a heart soul." These souls play a role in mental actions like dreaming and in sickness. (p. 39)

At one time, anthropologists evidently dismissed smell, taste, and touch as "animalistic" or "exotic" -- but this time is passing, Howes says. Instead of viewing "complex olfactory or tactile codes" as primitive, anthropologists now think that they signal "sophisticate cultural elaboration of a particular sensory domain." (p. 46) Howes suggests that both the different theories and the different metaphorical associations about the senses of different cultures should be respected: "it is not to Western theories and practices of the senses that we should turn, but to the theories and practices developed within the society under study." (p. 54)

Here's an interesting example of an odor with several meanings in different cultures: rot. "The image of abundance in the Massim [Trobriand culture] is that of a village that gives off a rotten stench as a result of all the food that is permitted to rot in its storehouses.... It is not the food cooked for a feast but the food that rots despite a feast -- the conspicuous decay over and above the conspicuous consumption -- that hosts pride themselves on, and that is commemorated in song." (p. 68)

The Kwoma people of New Guinea are the subject of a very long chapter in Sensual Relations. Odor, explains Howes, plays an opposing role to sight in this culture, revealing "identities that visual appearances sometimes mask." My reaction to his examples is that the Kwoma view isn't that different from the view of many people in modern times in the West, but anyway... He offers some myths that show their way of thinking about odors, such as one in which "the human identity of a female flying fox is discovered as a result of the protagonist smelling a breadfruit tree leaf on which the flying fox had urinated. In another myth, a man who used to trick his wives by changing his skin ... has his true identity exposed when the women bring their dogs along with them to the place where they work sago." The dogs immediately know the identity of the disguised man; one can't disguise one's olfactory identity, no matter what appearance one takes.

In real life, says Howes, the Kwoma distinguish many revealing odors about people; they believe that not only other humans but also spirits react to these odors as do "inanimate objects, plants, spears and yams." Odors can be dangerous, or can be enlisted to create strength or defeat enemies, for example among the Kwoma's fifteen varieties of ginger, some can be used to stun the enemy in a raid or for other warlike purposes. (p. 146-149)

In a section titled "The Decline of Smell in the West" Howes has a very jargon-filled description of odors in recent history, as Pasteur and Freud variously redefined smells and their relation to disease. "The net result of these developments was the destruction of the elaborate olfactory semiotics of premodernity and its replacement by an olfactory hedonics -- a simple calculus of relatively pleasing and displeasing aromas and stenches," he wrote. "A significant by-product of this shift was the way in which the nose came to be conceived of completely independently of its function as the smell organ and exclusively in terms of its visual shape in the 'scientific' classifications or races promulgated by Freud's contemporaries." (p. 200-201)

Howes is a co-author of the book Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (on which my notes appear here). In Chapter 3, "Universes of Odour," there is a great deal more about tribal views of smell -- the "osmology" of each culture. The Andaman islanders and their calendar of smells is one of the most interesting (I was so interested that I read the source material, noted here). Besides the Andaman islanders, Classen cites the Dassanetch of Ethiopia, whose calendar contrasts "the smells of burning and decay characteristic of the dry season ... with the fresh smells of new plant growth that arise during the rainy season." (p. 96)

Classen also cites examples of people who smell the scent trails of prey or of other people in the woods. The Umeda of New Guinea can detect a trace of smoke from a campfire far from them in the forest, or can locate a pungent-smelling posssum called a cuscus hiding there. (p. 98)

The Desana of the Amazon believe that "tribal territory is marked out by the scent trails laid down by the people who live there. Each tribe is deemed to emit a unique odour." Their name for themselves is wira which means "people who smell." They also associate distinct smells or "wind threads" with various animals that live in the deep forest or in the open, and can follow their scent trails; they can follow the scent of plants and fruit. They believe that smells are perceived by the whole body, not just the nose. They have elaborate categories of odors that group smells that are related by their location and also "on the basis of their moral significance." (p. 98-100) They have two general categories: good smells and bad smells. (p. 111)

A number of other tribal societies similarly assign names and groupings to sets of aromas that join several types of entities. For example, the Suya of Brazil have a category called "strong-smelling" which includes "adult women, children, carnivorous mammals and birds, harmful plants." Their other categories are parallel. (p. 101) The Serer Ndut of Senegal have five categories that include what we would find incongruous members; for example the category "acidic" includes "spiritual beings, donkeys, tomatoes, certain trees and roots." The spiritual beings belong to this category because of the acrid smoke used in rituals where snakes, associated with them, are chased away. Europeans belong to the category "urinous," while the members of the tribe belong to "fragrant." (p. 103-104) The Kapiski of Cameroon have fourteen classes of smells, though not total agreement among themselves about which items belong to each class, with variations depending on the social status and gender of the person doing the classification. (p. 110-111)

Now I'm even more ready to return my books to the library -- one more to make notes on!

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