Associate 2009-10

Martin Fajardo Manalansan


Engineered Scentiments: Smell Technologies and the Modern American City

Professor Manalansan is writing a book manuscript about the cultural politics of smell in contemporary America. He examines three interrelated areas: how scientific research and business ventures create smell-based products and establish meanings around smell; how smell is legislated by city governments as an issue of hygiene, social order, and “quality of life”; and how urban inhabitants experience and articulate smell in terms of aroma products and as environmental conditions in daily life.

For example, the marketing of aroma products suggests that smells are not natural but instead social products infused with class, gender, and ethnic frames of meaning--an air freshener scented as tropical flora allows people to imagine themselves as wealthy tourists in the Pacific islands watching the “beach and the natives.” The “quality of life” campaign under New York City mayor Giuliani criminalized specific olfactory elements such as the smells of garbage and public urination--sensory cultural markers that coalesced around neighborhoods with high concentrations of the working class and racial and ethnic minorities. Targeting the smells provided an entry point for gentrification and economic redevelopment.

In his book, Professor Manalansan argues that these areas come together to provide a situated configuration of norms, techniques, and politics that form a set of cultural standards and meanings. How we understand smell becomes a register for social difference (e.g., ethnic group, economic class) and moral standing and for valuing or devaluing lives, creating social identities, and understanding what it means to be a modern denizen of an American city.

Research for the project involves archival-textual analysis of New York City records and the marketing material produced by smell-technology companies. Professor Manalansan will also visit several smell-technology companies and interview their representatives; and conduct ethnographic fieldwork among New York City residents to learn their experiences around smell products and smell in the city. During his Center appointment, he will complete three of the planned five book chapters.