And Why We Care
Astronauts who have done spacewalks return to the airlock to only to encounter a curious (gunpowder, fried steak, acrid, metallic, burnt cookie, ozone) smell on their equipment. People who haven’t been to space find this as an intriguing thing. Seems we love to think about smelling space. I dig the smell of Space question and I think our curiosity over the smell of Space tells us something about our cultural relationship to smell generally and the nature of “air.” Sensing the vast and largely-empty void just may make a place out of space, but in order to get there we’ve got to deal with “air.”
Space is composed of the elements of the galaxy, like Earth, which may “smell” on their own. Yet, it may be the case that particles from space interact with blasts of oxygen upon the pressurization of the airlock, where the particles change and produce smell. But I’m no scientist, and I’m not exactly interested in this approach to the question.
What’s a bit weird about Space and sensations (especially smell and sound) is the question of a medium: Air. In the case of space, there’s no air up there. With its ability to “carry” things like smells and sounds, air is an essential mediator in our experience of the physical world. Yet, assumptions around the nature of air should not be taken for granted. Beyond Space, there is a whole history of interest in “air” and its capacities. I think the smell of Space question has much to do with the what-is-air question.
Much has been written on the ways in which science as dealt with air over time (Adey, Edwards). There is also an array of work concerning the nature of air in terms of its weaponization, in that air comes to carry deadly particles in times of warfare such as deployment of mustard “gas.”(Arbona). Air has a wider place in geopolitical concerns (Williams), it is used as a force against social movements during domestic disputes (Koebler). The question of air may even shed light on employment and emotional labor (Lin).
“Air” is necessary for existence of life and it is harnessed in regimes of death. But it is also central to religious claims about of the universe. See Thomas Hobbes for that trip. Thoughts surrounding the nature of air and smells can’t be covered in a simple blog post, but may be introduced with two examples.
The first of which involves an experiment on unwitting residents of San Francisco in the 1950’s. The U.S. Military induced a “Simulated Germ-Warfare Attack” wherein ships at sea sprayed a bacteria-laden fog in hopes it would be washed ashore into the mouths, eyes, and noses of a population. It worked. Air, or in this case fog, was harnessed in a practice-war with hopes of developing means to disperse agents of death across wide areas.
The second example involves smells, especially the foul stench of rubbish. Corbin looks to the Foul and the Fragrant in articulating an understanding of the “French Imagination.” Scientists in Paris walked the avenues charting olfactory sensations to create an smell-cartography of the city. Ultimately, cultural meaning surrounding smell in this French Imagination came, over time, to represent notions of order and social class. Ever think about how poor people are associated with stench? Or that accumulated trash may resemble a great failure in the promise of a clean, orderly, progressive life?
Corbin highlights, “Foul-smelling rubbish appears to threaten the social order, whereas the reassuring victory of the hygienic and the fragrant promises to buttress its stability” (5). Cleanliness is next to godliness.
To be especially nerdy, we may call such attention to smell and sensations a “sociology of perception.” Surely, the cultural importance placed on the perceptual experience of Space (and fog-warfare and the stench of poverty) shapes a frame through which people see and smell world. With the burnt-cookie fried-steak smells of Space suits, Space becomes a place in the hearts and noses of a people. We come to understand the person (astro-naut) as someone who will indelibly smell their way through the stars..a trip we may join as long as we can smell all along the way.