Richard Prince: What kind of sex do you like?
Vito Acconci: The kind in which two people use every part of their bodies and every secretion of those bodies and every level of pressure those bodies can exert.
Here is the truth: people smell. Here is another truth: no one likes to talk about it. The smell of sex is a unique, definitive characteristic of the act — yet even Vito Acconci, the great transgressor, leaves it out. “Secretion” edges towards it, but scent is conspicuously absent in his description of fucking.
Sometime in the month after Occupy Wall Street grew roots in New York, I met a friend for a drink. “Poor residents of the streets that border Zuccotti Park,” he said. “They have to deal with that terrible smell.”
To raze the Occupiers in this way was not original. Around that time, Libertarian and writer John Stossell was asked on Fox News’ Your World segment whether Occupiers were violent. His response was: “I don’t like those people, they smell bad, but they haven’t committed violence really yet.” At a GOP forum, Newt Gingrich suggested Occupiers “take a bath.” MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski said Gingrich’s comments made her “skin crawl,” yet went on to suggest that Gingrich was the one who needed to wash.
There are few more effective ways to delegitimize a person or group than to say they smell. It hurts in a way that attacks on appearance or behavior cannot. To cry “smell” also holds sway over the other senses: people who smell are probably not nice to look at, and almost certainly not worth hearing. The insinuation, if not the forgone conclusion, is that people who smell are not intelligent, not adhering to the social contract, not of worth.
However, it is pointless to pretend Occupy was odorless. The park was cleaned daily and the personal hygiene of participants is not being called into question, but variables (the food cooked, the weather, the size of the crowd) gave rise to variable smells.
Smell, as opposed to scent (which suggests something perfumed or otherwise pleasant) traditionally implies a certain lowliness. The Kantian hierarchy of sense ranks “subjective” smell below sight, hearing and touch, which serve to connect us to the objective world. To be guided by one’s sense of smell is almost as bad as being smelly. Dogs rely on smell and dogs give off smell. It’s primal and, depending on the context, offensive. But dogs also demonstrate another crucial capacity of smell that moves the sense from a personal to a spatial dimension: marking territory. Dogs claim space in a powerful, guttural and collectively recognized way. They can demonstrate presence in multiple places simultaneously. They piss and it means something.
Smell’s capacity to function as a mobile signal in space is compelling. Its invisibility, its lack of immediate materiality, is key: eyes can close and ears can be plugged, but smell is pervasive and potentially unstoppable. Odor, according to Michel Serres, is always composite. It is the manifestation of multitudes; a literal symbol of chaotic union: “The smallest point of a rare apex, a highly complex compound, a blend of a thousand proximities, unstable knot of capricious currents, an aroma comes about like an intersection, or confusion, we do not smell simply, pure odors… The sense, therefore, of the confusion of encounters; the rare sense of singularities: our sense of smell slides from knowledge to memory and from space to time — no doubt from things to beings.”
While it would seem obvious that protest benefits from streamlining, from refinement and certainty, these times continue to call for an alternative. Decentralized methods of organizing, fluid and ever-evolving, are both valuable and relevant. The use of smell to take ownership of space, especially of sites of protest, is worth exploring — or at least worth acknowledging.
I am trying to point towards smell’s insurgent possibilities. It knows no boundaries and is therefore a threat. It differs to the other “subjective” sense, taste, and also to touch and sight, as all three are contingent on the recipient’s permission. It is different to sound, too, because it is a function of tangibility and must ultimately arise from, or lead back to, a solid form.
The great hope for any protest is for it to spread in a manner that cannot be contained. Smell is always already doing this. The smell of a protest, smell within space, is not to be disregarded or sneered at, but utilized. Defend it. Celebrate it. Inhale.
Published in Issue 4 of The Commonplace, a special edition of Fulcrum, the Architectural Association’s weekly, on the occasion of the 13th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, 2012.