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Smelling Setting

In Terror from the Air, Peter Sloterdijk characterizes Western modernity as a series of experiments with “air conditioning.”[1] Sloterdijk’s key example, the use of gas weapons in World War I, illustrates the two senses of his term: by engineering breathable atmospheres and moving them around, humans condition the air that in turn conditions human embodiment, cognition, and affect. Sloterdijk argues that, over the last century, the wartime production of fatal atmospheres was reintroduced in more mundane forms across an increasingly fragmented field of everyday spaces. This “micro-climactic ‘fragmenting of the atmosphere’” into stratified breathing spaces—from disproportionately polluted neighborhoods and poorly ventilated tenements to tree-lined suburbs and air-conditioned shopping malls—accounts for some of modernity’s most widespread and insidious forms of environmental inequality (Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, 99). Sloterdijk’s theorization of air conditioning challenges literary critics to rethink setting in interdisciplinary terms that engage with insights from the fields of material ecocriticism, affect studies, critical geography, and disability studies. How do places get into bodies, with or without being noticed? How do differentiated atmospheres differentiate people at the levels of mood, embodiment, and culture? How can literature make atmospheres—along with the processes through which they are engineered and distributed—perceptible matters of concern?[2]

Olfactory Ecocriticism

Both the uneven distribution of air and its gradual, insidious effects on breathers pose obstacles to representation: atmospheres are a potent medium of “slow violence”— Rob Nixon’s term for “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”[3] Widespread across space and time, low-level exposures to atmospheric toxins hover at the thresholds of perceptibility, affecting bodies through chemical routes that are frequently difficult to trace and document. In both toxic and salubrious places, the invisible and intangible, unconscious or semi-conscious quality of atmospheres makes them a powerful means of crowd control. The legal scholar Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos argues that engineered atmospheres call forth an inertial desire to remain immersed. In such cases, “Althusser’s interpellation is atmospherically diffused. No one needs to call us anymore. We do it ourselves (as Althusser writes, ‘freely’), constantly self- or other-checking, being interpellated not through ideology (this has been suffused in atmospherics) but of a constructed, furious desire to perpetuate the atmosphere.”[4] Atmospheres thus produce and sustain differentiated communities grounded in shared conditions of health and vulnerability, or what Priscilla Wald frames as “the epidemiology of belonging.”[5]

Ecocriticism has offered invaluable frameworks for understanding how atmospheric risk factors become perceptible: concepts such as “slow violence,” “toxic discourse,” “trans-corporeality,” and “atmospheric reading” have underscored the vital importance of aesthetic strategies for drawing readers’ attention to invisible toxins.[6] Yet the environmental humanities has largely overlooked the role of olfaction as a means of perceiving, internalizing, and representing differentiated atmospheres. This gap in the research is, in part, the product of the longstanding denigration of smell in Western aesthetics. Involuntary, ephemeral, immersive, corporeal, imprecise, highly subjective, and notoriously difficult to describe, smell is diametrically opposed to Kant’s aesthetic ideals of autonomy and disinterestedness; thus, Kant categorized smell and taste as “chemical” senses with lower aesthetic capacities than vision and hearing.[7] Yet these very characteristics make olfaction particularly well suited to the task of mapping the manifold, uncertain, and trans-corporeal effects of “air conditioning.” Developing an interdisciplinary research focus in olfactory ecocriticism could provide vital tools for thinking critically about atmospheric stratification while engaging with the universal, everyday activity of breathing by which people corporealize the air around them. Smell is not only an important tool of citizen science enabling non-experts to collect information about some (but not all) airborne risks; it also serves as the primary, underexamined vehicle for the transpersonal and spatially mediated “transmission of affect” theorized by Teresa Brennan: “Smell emerges as critical in communicating responses ranging from the aggressive to the soothing; it is also a vehicle for effecting changes in another’s hormonal (hence affective) composition.”[8] A focus on olfaction thus illuminates the biopolitical and affective dimensions of breathing—an involuntary activity that incorporates unevenly distributed material atmospheres into differentiated bodies and populations.

Olfactory criticism requires attention not only to the presence of odors, but to the absences of odor resulting from the history of deodorization in the West. Deodorization campaigns responded not only to the Enlightenment’s rejection of smell as an intrusive, animal sense, but also to the common nineteenth-century belief that odor was a vehicle of disease. Before Louis Pasteur developed germ theory in the 1860s, the miasma theory of disease emergence attributed diseases such as cholera to invisible atmospheric vapors emitted by decomposing organic matter. When the British public health expert Edwin Chadwick declared that “all smell is disease,” he affirmed a model of reform that aligned the health of the nation with the project of deodorizing public spaces. [9] In The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, the historian Alain Corbin details how health authorities employed techniques such as ventilation, paving, drainage, and waste removal to clear the air of European cities.[10] These techniques would soon be supplemented by more widespread efforts to improve personal odors: “Mum,” the first commercial deodorant, was patented in Philadelphia in 1888, and the California Perfume Company, which would be renamed Avon in 1939, was founded in New York in 1896. But this increased sensitivity to bad odors as perceived health risks did not result in uniformly deodorized spaces. Instead, it mobilized processes of differential deodorization as both atmospheric amenities (such as proximity to green space, ventilation, in-home baths, laundry facilities, and hygienic products) and noxious industries (such as waste disposal, manufacturing, and animal rendering) were unevenly distributed along the lines of race, class, and nation.

If olfaction promises to address some of the aesthetic challenges presented by invisible airborne toxins, it comes with numerous representational difficulties of its own. In addition to being notoriously subjective, smell resists verbal description. Because European languages have an impoverished olfactory lexicon, “nearly all of our odour categories—sweet, pungent, bitter, and so on—are borrowed from a limited selection of taste terms.”[11] At times, the very difficulty of naming odors pushes writers to invent new (frequently analogical or synesthetic) language for describing the indescribable. Atmospheric dispersal and olfactory habituation can also lead writers to underrepresent olfactory sensations, as even unusually intense odors fade into the background. Engaging with olfaction thus requires a method of environmentally “paranoid” reading—a reading practice that assumes the atmospheric porosity of characters and bodies. An olfactory approach to literary setting requires a readiness to read atmospherics materially as well as metaphorically. Yet, because smell is generally underdetermined as an indicator of harm, olfactory reading underscores the material ambiguity of setting as unpleasant smells evoke uncertainties that pervade characters’ interactions with potentially toxic environments. Tracing a text’s dispersed references to olfaction illuminates atmospheric contributions to plot, action, memory, and mood across disparate geographies—contributions that frequently float in the background of our experience as readers.

“Every Crime Has its Peculiar Odor”

Gilbert Holiday, Illustration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” The Strand, December, 1910.

While olfaction (and its apparent absence) plays a quiet but lively role as a visceral aspect of setting across all literary genres, some literary forms are particularly well suited to olfactory analysis. Two forms that flourished alongside the intense industrialization and urban expansion characteristic of Western modernity—detective fiction and naturalism—exemplify contrasting approaches to deodorization. Frequently appearing as an index of crime and corruption in detective fiction, smell frames the detective as a modern agent of deodorization. If detective fiction identifies noxious odors in order to purge them, naturalism diagnoses the social processes that produce stratified atmospheres. Detective fiction and naturalism thus highlight different sides of “air conditioning”: on the one hand, identifying individuals responsible for causing a particular odor; on the other hand, documenting the manifold forms of social harm caused by malodorous atmospheres.

In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), Edgar Allan Poe invented not only the genre of detective fiction but also the now familiar metaphor of detection as a practice of tracking down unusual odors: “The scent had never for an instant been lost.”[12] Arthur Conan Doyle would reproduce this metaphor of scenting so frequently that Mark Twain’s parody of the detective tale, “A Double-Barreled Detective Story” (1902), pits Sherlock Holmes against a more competent detective born with an extraordinary sense of smell. At times, Doyle even literalizes the metaphor (echoing Poe’s use of a toxic candle as a murder implement in “The Imp of the Perverse” [1845]): “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” (1910) involves a West African root whose powder produces both “a thick musky odour, subtle and nauseous” and a fatal sense of terror in anyone who inhales it; in “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” (1926) Holmes deduces that the culprit has begun painting his house in order to mask the residual odor of the gas he used to murder his wife and her lover.[13] Given his focus on attributing odors and their effects to individual agents, Doyle does not pause to reflect on the race and class associations of deodorization implicit in these stories.[14]

“John Archer’s Nose” (1935), the last story published by the Harlem Renaissance author Rudolph Fisher, offers a more contradictory account of the deodorizing detective. In Fisher’s story, Detective Perry Dart is assisted by the acute olfactory sense of his friend Dr. Archer, who eventually connects a peculiar smell in the bedroom of a murdered boy with the “evil-smelling packet” of medicinal roots he saw around a dead baby’s neck earlier in the day.[15] He attributes both deaths to the supposed ineffectiveness of root medicine: had the baby’s parents turned to modern medicine and X-ray treatments earlier rather than relying on “superstition,” the baby would not have died; and had the baby not died, its father would not have murdered the son of his root medicine provider as an act of revenge (Fisher, “John Archer’s Nose,” 186). In a meta-commentary on the importance of deodorization to detection, Archer argues that “Odors should be restricted. . . . They should be captured, classified, and numbered like the lines of the spectrum” (194, emphasis in original). While Archer affirms the deodorizing drive of earlier detective stories (“I daresay every crime has its peculiar odor”) Dart registers how such olfactory tracking might be continuous with earlier forms of anti-blackness: “They used bloodhounds in Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (194). Beneath Fisher’s detective story is a critical counter-narrative about atmospheric stratification; the dead boy turns out to have a terminal case of tuberculosis—a contagious respiratory disease that disproportionately affected African Americans, and one associated with poor conditions of housing and ventilation. It is thus doubly significant that the boy’s killer entered through the building’s air shaft, a common ventilation feature in Harlem that Fisher elsewhere depicted in graphic detail reminiscent of naturalist description: “An airshaft: cabbage and chitterlings cooking . . . waste noises, waste odors of a score of families, seeking issue through a common channel; pollution from bottom to top—a sewer of sounds and smells.”[16]

Naturalist Atmospheres

Literary naturalism’s detailed renderings of environmental influences on character development and social relations stand opposed to detective fiction’s tendency to localize responsibility in individuals. Like olfaction, naturalism has often been eschewed by critics for its putatively determinist representations of humans as animals or machines wholly swayed by material conditions. As the social critic Max Nordau complained of Émile Zola’s fiction, “The vanguard of civilization holds its nose at the pit of undiluted naturalism.”[17] In addition to tracking modernity’s corrosive effects on morals, naturalism documented diverse processes of “reflexive modernization”—to quote the sociologist Ulrich Beck’s term for modernization’s tendency to propagate unintended and indeterminate environmental risks which then become prominent subjects of anxiety, reflection, and management.[18] In naturalist fiction, smell functions as a complex, imprecise, and frequently marginalized index of noxious atmospheres. Through olfactory representation, readers encounter—often in references too circumstantial and dispersed to make a strong impression—atmospheric influences on characters’ affect, perceptions, bodies, and psychosocial capacities.

Years before Zola popularized the naturalist mode, Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861) deployed techniques and themes that would later be associated with it. Davis’s novella depicts the noxious living and working conditions of a factory town juxtaposed with the slow erosion of workers’ bodies and minds. It opens with two paragraphs devoted to describing the town’s smoky, stifling air: “thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings.”[19] Among the “foul smells ranging loose in the air,” the narrator can detect the scent of tobacco and “a foul vapor hanging to [the] reeking sides” of mules; Hugh and Deborah live in a cellar filled with “a fetid air smothering the breath” (Davis, “Life in the Iron-Mills,” 11, 12, 16). The narrator’s story, which literally coalesces from an encounter with the town’s noxious fog, builds towards a meeting of two atmospheres. When visitors touring the mills pause to consider the spectacle of Hugh Wolfe tending the furnace, an educated and liberal gentleman named Mitchell feels sympathetic towards the ash-covered furnace-tender. Davis characterizes Mitchell in atmospheric terms, contrasting his “air” with the fetor of the iron mills: “About this man Mitchell hung the impalpable atmosphere belonging to the thoroughbred gentleman”; “Bright and deep and cold as Arctic air, the soul of the man lay tranquil beneath” (29, 36). Because we internalize our accustomed atmospheres, Mitchell carries a prosperous “air” even in the uninhabitable space of the iron mills. Despite his sympathy for Wolfe, an atmospheric differential dissuades Mitchell from turning back to assist the laborer: “There hung about the place a thick, unclean odor. The slightest motion of his hand marked that he perceived it, and his insufferable disgust. That was all” (38). When Wolfe later dies in jail, a fragrant odor shifts the novella towards its hopeful conclusion. A Quaker woman enters the cell with “a vase of wood-leaves and berries, and placed it by the pallet, then opened the narrow window. The fresh air blew in, and swept the woody fragrance over the dead face” (61–62). The fragrance of the unpolluted countryside—and his subsequent burial “out where t’air blows”—may symbolically deodorize Wolfe’s soul, but they simultaneously accentuate the atmospheric stratification at the heart of Davis’s novella (62).

Whereas detective fiction tends to associate smells with specific effects (such as death or disgust), naturalist novels register the intermittent and uncertain nature of olfaction—the way smells come and go amid the rhythms of our exposure and attention. In The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair details the demoralizing and frequently debilitating experiences of immigrants working in Chicago’s meat factories.[20] Sinclair’s oft-quoted account of the immigrants’ approach to the meatpacking district describes a striking range of olfactory responses:

A full hour before the party reached the city they had begun to note the perplexing changes in the atmosphere. . . . [A]long with the thickening smoke they began to notice another circumstance, a strange, pungent odor. They were not sure that it was unpleasant, this odor; some might have called it sickening, but their taste in odors was not developed, and they were only sure that it was curious. Now, sitting in the trolley car, they realized that they were on their way to the home of it—that they had travelled all the way from Lithuania to it. It was now no longer something far-off and faint, that you caught in whiffs; you could literally taste it, as well as smell it—you could take hold of it, almost, and examine it at your leisure. They were divided in their opinions about it. It was an elemental odor, raw and crude; it was rich, almost rancid, sensual and strong. There were some who drank it in as if it were an intoxicant; there were others who put their handkerchiefs to their faces.[21]

Despite this initial uncertainty, and despite the ease with which these odors fade to the background as characters become habituated to them, Sinclair later describes odors and associated particulates in more definite terms as air sickens characters, causes them to cough or choke, and suffuses their lungs with dust. Odors take on a life of their own, debilitating the bodies and psychosocial capacities of their breathers:

For the odors in these ghastly charnel-houses there may be words in Lithuanian, but there are none in English. The person entering would have to summon his courage as for a cold-water plunge. He would go on like a man swimming under water; he would put his handkerchief over his face, and begin to cough and choke; and then, if he were still obstinate, he would find his head beginning to ring, and the veins in his forehead to throb, until finally he would be assailed by an overpowering blast of ammonia fumes, and would turn and run for his life, and come out half-dazed” (Sinclair, The Jungle, 129–30).

Later, when Jurgis attempts to choke the supervisor who raped his wife, Sinclair suggests a continuum between suffocating atmospheres and physical violence as more than a half dozen men stop him by “chok[ing] the breath out of him” (153).

The detective story and the naturalist novel present air conditioning, respectively, as a strategy for policing criminality and as a systemic technique of structural violence. In these texts, olfaction functions either to intensify deodorization by tracking down suspicious odors, or to expose the processes of differential deodorization that organize capitalism’s unevenly developed geographies. The olfactory ambivalence of “John Archer’s Nose” looks forward to the convergence of these forms in the genre of hardboiled crime fiction, wherein detectives discover the extent to which moral and material pollution extend from putative criminals to the social order itself. The diametrically opposed odors of an orchid greenhouse and oil sump holes in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) and the pungent, physically irritating chemical smell that suffuses the South Chicago industrial setting of Sara Paretsky’s Blood Shot (1988) attest to the increasing legibility of the detective as yet another agent of modernization’s risks: like Poe’s poisoned candle, the hard-boiled detective illuminates only through her complicity with the proliferation of atmospheric toxins.


[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009), 20.

[2] For a fascinating reflection on the atmospheric nature of film as a medium, see Louise Hornby, “Film’s Atmospheric Setting,” also published in this cluster.

[3] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.

[4] Andreas Mihalopoulos-Philippopoulos, Spatial Justice: Body, Lawscape, Atmosphere (London: Routledge, 2014), 136.

[5] Priscilla Wald, “Imagined Immunities: The Epidemiology of Belonging,” in Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 29–67.

[6] See Nixon, Slow Violence, 2; Lawrence Buell, “Toxic Discourse,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 3 (1998): 639–65; Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 2; Jesse Oak Taylor, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), 7.

[7] See Jim Drobnick, “Toposmia: Art, Scent, and Interrogations of Spatiality,” Angelaki 7, no. 1 (2002): 31–47, 32.

[8] Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 10.

[9] Edwin Chadwick, quoted in Richard Schoenwald, Training Urban Man: A Hypothesis about the Sanitary Movement,” in The Victorian City: Images and Realities, vol. 2, ed. Harold Dyos and Michael Wolff, (London: Routledge, 1973), 669–92, 681.

[10] See Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[11] Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (London: Routledge, 1994), 109.

[12] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Vintage, 1975), 158. Nineteenth-century deodorization campaigns were also figured in the language of detection: see Melanie Kiechle, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).

[13] Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, vol. 2 (New York: Random House, 2003), 482.

[14] On race and olfaction, see Mark M. Smith, How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (Chapel Hill: University Press of North Carolina, 2006).

[15] Rudolph Fisher, “John Archer’s Nose,” in City of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher, ed. John McCluskey, Jr. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008), 187.

[16] Rudolph Fisher, “City of Refuge,” in City of Refuge, 38.

[17] Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York: D. Appleton, 1895), 13.

[18] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (London: Sage, 1992), 21.

[19] Rebecca Harding Davis, “Life in the Iron-Mills,” in Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories (New York: Feminist Press, 1985), 11–65, 11.

[20] On debility and the somatization of environmental risk factors, see Jasbir Puar, “Prognosis Time: Towards a Geopolitics of Affect, Debility, and Capacity,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 2 (2009): 161–72, and Jina Kim, “Cripping East Los Angeles: Enabling Environmental Justice in Helena María Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came With Them,” in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, ed. Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 502–30, 510–16.

[21] Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (New York: Signet, 1960), 29–30.