Monthly Musings: In Response, July 2017

Before I even dare utter the word justified in this musings, let me just address something I egregiously forgot to do in June’s post!

It’s been one year since the musings format first launched, and as you’d expect from anything me, it’s a glorious mishmash – sometimes fiercely intellectual, sometimes fiercely casual, and often loaded in language – but, always, undoubtedly an extension of my thoughts on the topic of fragrance. Sometimes the thoughts work. Sometimes they do not. Alas, even if I am thoroughly falsified I am still happy to have engaged with an audience and have my work published openly.

Things on the blog are a bit slower in this half of the year – my excuse is simple – philosophy took up a considerable chunk of my time last semester at university, and philosophy readings are often digestible in a single sitting (they are not, however, easily digestible!). This semester is all about the social sciences, and there is a lot of reading to do – namely because I find they’re always disagreeing with each other and there’s always a counter-position to be held. Polemic is the word, yet it makes the academic process of synthesising quasi-antithetical positions a real pleasure; in other words … that grey area. 

Philosophy hasn’t gone into hibernation, no way! Philosophy of Science is this semester’s focus, and the segments focusing on objectivity and value are really tickling me. They are tickling me so much that I have noticed that much of the public discourse I have engaged with lately (Facebook, namely) on fragrance and fragrance judgement refer back to the principles laid down in this class.

I have some examples I wish to share with you, and hence why I have titled this month’s musing In Response, for I am generally responding to a question in these instances, and will form July’s musings with auxiliary comments added here. They have been edited for cleanliness.

Why share these? I am never inactive when it comes to fragrance, I am just… elsewhere! I also think it would be a mighty shame if these thoughts and replies got lost!

The Temptation of Adam, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1551-2 

Someone had asked about why individuals are keen to lump fragrances together which have similar notes or are in the same category, and then assume if one is a love, then all will be a love. My response:

“I think when judging a scent and a collection of works (and determining if it is a love or a hate), it becomes very difficult to look at a perfume without then looking at a whole coherent web of other works also. I think that is why people might say: “Oh, you like L’Heure Bleue? Then you must love Une Fleur de Cassie, Farnesiana, and Après L’Ondee”. I feel this is also based on the assumption built and promulgated by Michael Edwards (which I always write about on my blog), in which similar categorisation often means a uniformity of taste and thus ‘love’.

One always neglects that whilst scent is a spectrum that becomes a wheel, (…) seemingly similar fragrances (category/notes) are differentiated by the way a sole fragrance is a combination of a unique collection of notes all with a very specific dosage.”

Inspiration: Duhem-Quine Thesis – You can’t look at and critique a thing in isolation, but only ever as something within a coherent web of other relevant things. 

Note: I feel like Dr. Phil when I write like this.

A public question arose of whether or not a gay narrative could and ought to exist in perfumery. My response urged towards more neutral topics, but it seems a relativistic path could be taken quite easily. 

I had asked the question if LGBT+ context within fragrance would have an impact on what might be critically said of it. I then replied to the very same question:

“It’s a really tough question for me. Based on my experience alone, I am rather disenfranchised from the ‘gay experience’ (I use that term with some trepidation). I would find most of these popular concepts are at odds with the way I might personally hold LGBT+ culture under my own relative conceptual scheme.

I am a bit eliminative – I feel a ‘gay’ culture could be dropped entirely. Drag, for example, is a performative act, and I feel the only reason why it’s associated with LGBT+ culture is because it so happens that gay men tend to do it. Historical significance for gays, however, is another matter entirely (This seems to mimic an earlier argument from this year that historical perspectives are subjective, and need to be rejected to make objective[-ish] judgements).

I feel similar considerations underscore the problem of diversity within the community.

I feel a move for more neutral and cognitive concepts in perfumery is desirable – as niche often presents. Art in themselves. Think Hermessence, Frederic Malle, or Mona di Orio’s works.

The problem nevertheless is that I don’t want to diminish the power of fragrance to convey a meaning and narrative, and hence why I am finding this topic challenging.”

Perfume as inherently queer – a later question on the same forum asked if perfume was, in fact, inherently queer. 

“I think perfume can not and does not contain any of that meaning in itself. What you label as queer, or an act of defiance (by wearing Poison), is mistaken, for I feel you are actually talking about dosage.

If you wore the same suit to work, but wore dabs of Poison rather than a great mist of it, the meaning is changed in a way … It shows restraint in a way … clearly contrasting the bombastic scented drag you mentioned.

Perfume can indeed emphasise, contrast, stick a finger up to, or even reject gender entirely – but in order to satisfy that, perfume alone is necessary but not enough. It needs something more.

Photo by Dior

Inspiration: Meaning and language; externalism/internalism; sociological theories; gender and queer theories.

My final comment on this thread looked at the example of Poison and how it may be influenced by other structures and the concept of frameworks of analysis.

If Poison ‘represents’ a decade of big hair … can that representation be met when Poison in smelled in isolation? How would one know that if presented with the scent on a blank blotter? It is deemed subversive not because of its composition alone, but because associations maintained in marketing and macro structures.

That is what I am pushing here, and that is why as a reviewer I am cautious of what framework I use to critique a fragrance. It is the problem of context v. style.

Inspiration: Structuralism; content analysis; historical perspectives.

Like the ‘gay narrative’ question, a similar response was given towards the question of why some scents smell young. Unsurprisingly, it falls back into context.
Note: This was written before Gabrielle was released.

“I think young scents are *largely* a highfalutin myth. It’s all context.

Take Chanel: Allure (1996) -> Chance (2003) -> Gabrielle (2017).

These three scents reflect taste based on context and the zeitgeist of the time. Coco (1984) and earlier works reflect that period of taste. I am increasingly finding it hard to draw a line that delimits ‘young’ and ‘mature’.

Inspiration: Issues in demarcation; categorisation; necessary critera.
This particular post inspired a line of thought which consequently charged a lot of later writing. 

8 thoughts on “Monthly Musings: In Response, July 2017

  1. Very interesting post, Liam! I have to admit that there is at least one fragrance blog that I feel is unnecessarily and insistently gay. I say this as an older gay man (one who has no personal use for drag, as it happens).

  2. Interesting musings this month. I have never before come across anyone other than myself who has had an eliminative attitude about gay culture. You are a clear an unusual thinker. Id like to hear more fully your thoughts on the subject. A fragrance blog is probably not the place though.

    • Thanks for reading. I arrived at my position when I realised that I didn’t exactly adhere to the dominant narrative. Any sub-culture has its divisions and its blurred lines, and I just find it infinitely more useful to eliminate the concept rather than try to forcefully fit in. If you would like to chat further about this sociological position, feel free to get me on any of my social medias.

  3. I agree with Dónall, that a post on your thoughts of gay culture would make for good reading. Intellectual mind candy for me.

    Exploring perfume through words is a lot like writing about ethnographic experience; fieldwork. A lot of parallels are there. Does one take a phenomeological approach? If so, what value adding will this give to the reader? The reader will bring their own subjective thoughts, inexperience, tainted steteotypes and so forth to one’s words.

    I am making a huge assumption here, but odds are that your PhD topic will be related to perfume and your quest to understand it objectively. I am looking forward to reading it. I truly am. This jaded brain wants some definitive arguments to support my idea that if it smells good, wear it.

    You are a continual breath of fresh air.
    Kate xx

    • Hi Kate,
      We can surely talk about this in person when I see you next, which I hope will be soon!

      I did a whole semester looking at methods of data-gathering, which included ethnography. You arrive at the conclusion that even the most banal observation statements are laden with presuppositions and commitments; they are theory-dependent. I am currently drafting my mid-semester essay on the topic of theory-dependency – completely accepting that it is unavoidable, but in no way ‘bad’, as long as the right theory is adhered to. Perhaps this completely goes against my strong form of objectivity, but we can surely try to reach a neutrality of sorts… If you are interested, I could share this short essay with you when it is complete.

      My thesis surely seems to be heading towards that direction. Objectivity and value-judgments seem to be the recurring theme in my expositions.

      Hope you’re enjoying the Tauer.
      -Liam x

  4. You have been doing a lot of musing this month Liam! I was writing up Gabrielle last night and thinking of you as the review is gleefully subjective. I was in love with the scent long before I sniffed it because if how it was being branded. Even receiving the package gave me a little dopamine rush… When a company like Chanel launches a product it is about so much more than the juice. The positioning of the product in the market – i.e. the categorization of it as “young”, is surely all about maximising profit, but is significant to consider since this does affect the wearer’s experience of the scent. There’s a tribal element to fragrances, a sense of belonging and self-identifcation caught up in the wearing and part of that comes from branding and marketing. Not sure my position on the kinsey scale entitles me to comment on how that interacts with queer culture but the armchair (for me) sociology of it intrigues me…

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