The Ethics of Smell: Corporeal Porosity and the Embodiment of Care

Sunday, 2 July 2017 6-minute read

The aspect of office politics that I find most frustrating is people’s attitude towards food, particularly food that has a strong smell. I am reminded of an episode of the Improbable Research podcast on smelly people in the office, in which Marc Abrahams and Nicole Sharp discuss a 2015 paper titled ‘Smell Organization: Bodies and Corporeal Porosity in Office Work’ by Kathleen Riach and Samantha Warren. For the most part, the paper is concerned with the practical management of an organisation, examining the ways in which smells are controlled in an office space so that they are neutral and the least disruptive. This empirical study relates to much wider ontological questions of how relations between people are mediated through the body and through bodily functions, and broader ethical questions of what implication these relations have in terms of the ways bodies care for each other. The term they use, ‘corporeal porosity’, can be quite useful in thinking of the ways in which bodies — whether they are human or non-human — relate to each other. Moreover, Riach and Warren’s emphasis of smell not just as a ‘sense’ but as an element of an ‘experiential system that summons us to the world so that both the world and our selves are constituted through this experience’ (790) can offer a new way of thinking through these relations which are otherwise predominantly conceptualised as tactile, ocular or acoustic.

The philosophical background to Riach and Warren’s paper is that of a concern with embodiment. In her landmark book on body image, Gail Weiss traces this concern with embodiment back to the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a line that passes subsequently through the works of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler (see Weiss 2). Weiss’ goal is to situate notions of body image within embodied existence, a project which is subsequently taken up by Thomas Csordas, particularly in his 2008 paper ‘Intersubjectivity and Intercorporeality’. For Weiss, embodiment is ‘intercorporeality’, or a relationship between different bodies, because the very nature of being embodied entails interactions with other physical bodies (5). Csordas takes this further by suggesting that intercorporeality is ‘a mode of collective presence in the world’ (117). It is through our bodily interactions with other individuals that we can know and relate to them. Essentially, if for Weiss embodiment is intercorporeality, then for Csordas intercorporeality becomes the basis of our intersubjective knowledge and encounter with each other.

Smell, for Riach and Warren, is crucial to how we understand intercorporeality. Smell is an index of micro-processes within the human body, such as secretion or excretion. When a body smells, these internal processes seep outwards, thereby rendering the boundaries of the body porous and indeterminate (Riach and Warren 790). This is the basis of what Riach and Warren term ‘intercorporial porosity’. Smell, being an ephemeral phenomenon as well as one of the most primitive sense of the human body, can permeate different bodies and serve as a new dimension of intercorporeal encounter. Attention to smell can provide a ‘fuller, more sensual human explanation’ of the micro-processes that constitute embodied experience (Riach and Warren 805).

In the last chapter of Body Images, Weiss gestures towards an ethics of embodiment. In response to ethical frameworks that reify reason or the mind from the body, she advances what she terms ‘bodily imperatives’, or ethical demands that are placed by bodies on each other throughout the course of daily existence through their complex physical and emotional relationships (5). This ethics of embodiment, for Weiss, derives from a longer tradition of an ethics of care, which she sees as distinct from a the dominant notion of ethics as justice (see Weiss 136). Thinking of these bodily encounters through smell means being attuned to the subtle internal workings of a body in ways that might not be apparent on the surface to sight or hearing alone. It entails a level of encounter with and immersion within another body that is visceral and pre-linguistic. It also suggests a way of caring for another entity in a way that is empathetic and sensitive towards the individuality of its being as well as the deep textures of its embodiment.

This notion of intercorporeal porosity through smell becomes especially striking when considering the relation between humans and non-human bodies. While these examples are anecdotal, there nevertheless is some significance in thinking of them as ways in which smell can be the basis of a significant experience on which one can base relationships: domestic cats, for example, prefer sleeping in laundry baskets because used clothes smell of their owners. Dogs, similarly, feel happy at the smell of their owners, and a study by Gregory Berns et al published in Behavioural Processes claims that the scent of the owner activates their reward response. The porosity of bodies — of humans and their pets — reflects what Donna Haraway terms a relationship of ‘significant otherness’, a relationship of care, co-constitution, historicity and complexity (16). One can say the same about larger, macroscopic ecosystems in which the flourishing or decay of different bodies can be registered through smell: the stench of decaying bodies or environmental pollution, the smell of certain flowers or plants. Of course, one irony remains that the human capacity for smell has not developed as much as other faculties owing to how the domestication of animals throughout human evolution essentially outsourced this faculty to a different species. This sense of smell reveals the depth to which different species are entangled. It might be revealing to think about relationships between different beings within the ecosystem through bodily imperatives, especially considering how porous these bodies to each other because of how smell permeates through them.

The same sense of porosity holds true for when we imagine encounters with other cultures. It is no surprise that the pungent smell of food in neighbourhoods, communal spaces and offices is simultaneously the subject of great derision by those unwelcoming to immigrants, and also a trope evoked by diasporic writers in nostalgia for their home. Moreover, certain expectations of olfactory control — opening windows if one is cooking anything pungent in the office, maintaining a neutrality of odour in order to allow for uninterrupted work — speak towards certain subtle cultural tensions wherein certain kinds of foods or diets are seen as strange or exotic, or even unwelcome, or a biopolitical regime which emphasises capitalist production at the cost of flattening individual differences. However, because it is diffused through air, smell resists and permeates through the physical and imaginary boundaries drawn between people and communities, thereby rendering these borders porous whether the people involved like it or not.

Works Cited

Abrahams, Marc. ‘Smelly People in the Office.’ Audio podcast. Improbable Research., 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Jun. 2017.

Csordas, Thomas J. ‘Intersubjectivity and Intercorporeality.’ Subjectivity 22 (2008): 110-121. Web. 2 July 2017.

Berns, Gregory S., et al. ‘Scent of the Familiar: An fMRI Study of Canine Brain Responses to Familiar and Unfamiliar Human and Dog Odors.’ Behavioural Processes 110 (Jan. 2015): 37-46. Web. 2 July 2017.

Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003. Print.

Riach, Kathleen and Samantha Warren. ‘Smell Organization: Bodies and Corporeal Porosity in Office Work.’ Human Relations 68.1 (2015): 789-809. Web. 2 July 2017.

Weiss, Gail. Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.