Monthly Musings: Discordant – Why Pessimism is Okay and History Matters, September 2017

Discordant: Why Pessimism is Okay and History Matters.

This post is a reply to In Defence of Gabrielle, which is an objection to my earlier post: The Chanel Problem (In Reference to Gabrielle by Chanel). I am holding this as an academic exercise; a dialectic process, and therefore it goes without saying that there are no hard feelings. Furthermore, there is sufficient reflexive material here to deem this a musings post. True to the style of the musings format, I am not cleaning up the syntax or flow of this post: it is a true stream of thoughts and an uncensored reply, done over a continuous 3 hour period.

It is a source of tremendous excitement to see that I have an objector to my position(s) raised in my Chanel Problem’ post. I feel like a true academic, finally able to experience and engage in the back and forth objection and reply process in response to a thesis that I have proposed. Dialectic. Yay!

Nevertheless, I continue to offer no apologies, I am a reviewer. My role is contained in the title I have imposed upon myself. It has always rubbed me in a funny way – I have never been marketable. I have always confessed fallibility. And I am as transparent as I can be. What has taken my fancy as a reviewer are the deeply entrenched problems faced in this field. Objectivity’s infectious relationship with presupposition is one problem I have addressed abundantly. Distinction (a Bourdieusian pun) is the other. Distinction, in this instance, has two meanings. Firstly, judgements of taste need to be justified. In order to do so, the sources of taste must be explored, but until then it remains a sociological and aesthetic question. Secondly, I am interested in the intuitive pull. Why is Angel, Mitsouko, and No.5 lumped together and set apart from fragrances like Sauvage, Champs Élysées, and (pertinently) Gabrielle? The demarcating line is fuzzy. I suspect that it will forever be fuzzy, but the absence of a sharp line does not make the distinction unworkable, because we can identify clear cases on either side of the divide: Creed’s Love in White (groan) and Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (grin) are two popular clear cases. We know which side of the boundary line to place Feminite du Bois and L’Air du Desert Marocain, but why? Any talk of clear cases and boundary lines hints at some weakly realisable objectivity – perhaps a shared, universal taste? Or a certain significance? … I digress …

This is what Olfactics is all about. This is a philosophy blog using fragrance as the facade. 

So, why pessimism? It is a workable standard, and any talk of the past and/or the future (incl. history) matters. I feel history plays a tremendous role in this exercise of reviewing, insofar that it’s an important criterion when making judgements. We cannot have an ‘anything goes’ mentality. History is tantamount for history is context. Context is (demonstrated to be) unavoidable. Hence explains why I believe Chanel has “done this to themselves”. They are tantamount to their history and need to account for their actions in light of this.

This is where I have faced passionate retort. I believe it is a double-edged sword. I made “snide insinuations” about the size of Chanel’s fields of tuberose and their status in the luxury sector because Chanel champions themselves above everyone else based on these facts. Consider the former. Step into their boutique. Chat with their salespersons. Read their training manuals. Ask to see their coffret of singular notes and isolated accords. Notice that there are special Grasse ingredients and ordinary non-Grasse materials. Do what Perec did so well. Question everything. Ask if there is a reason – a larger, grander motive behind it. I can assure you – very little is arbitrary. Everything is organised chaos. Chanel has an image – it is of luxurious best. It ties with fashion, and so it must be considered as a collective unit. It is timelessness in tandem with reinvention. It is high class. Perfume is high class.

It is this overt proclamation of positive luxury, of privatisation (Bourdieu deems this to be a marking feature) and absolute care, that means no brand is innocent. It’s these very practices and measured operations that Chanel perform which lock them into this class defined by its tastes and styles, for taste cannot be separated from performance. The meaning of a scent isn’t contained solely in the perfume bottle, it doesn’t stop nor did it begin there. That is why I so clearly pointed out that my Gabrielle piece was not a review. Most crucially, then, I can draw the conclusion that when Chanel produces a product not adhering to the logic of the brand’s distinct system, I may then start to write not-so-approbative pieces. This is the best justification I can offer at this time.

Le sociologue français Pierre Bourdieu.
1993. Paris. photo: Leonardo Antoniadis

I am not going to explore the idea raised regarding the mythical/legendary narrative contained in the Chanel canon (No. 5 and Chanel’s life course was mentioned), for I did not ever raise this nor use it as grounds for criticism. My reference to No. 5, No. 22, etc.., is based on the scents themselves. Stylistic features. My omission to mention market response: “it is intentionally composed as such so what does that say? Why aren’t we talking about that instead …?” was clearly not in the scope of my enquiry. The paragraph “Gabrielle herself was a failed cabaret singer…” discusses a Chanel narrative (which is tied with aspects of its marketing) that I did not criticise. I criticised Chanel’s scented history, not her own history. I deliberately suspended judgement and consciously decided to leave that for a proper review. And so, on that basis, I refute it thusly. *scrolls down*

That line of objection leads me to believe that my point has been missed; the nuances of my discourse have been neglected. Gabrielle was a hinge for a broader discourse on the way context shapes everything. It was about everything other than the smell of Gabrielle. Gabrielle’s innocuous smell was given merely a simple sentence and what I thought was a rather humorous analogy to bread. Gabrielle was used in reference – I could have substituted it with Boy or L’Eau with little difficulty. Of course, Gabrielle is pretty. I am not punishing the perfume (internal logic). I am punishing Chanel (external logic).

On external logic, then, Gabrielle is insipid when considered as a part of a bigger picture. It lacks flavour because it tastes of everything else. And so, that introduces your further question: Why should Chanel do better? I shall rephrase that and retreat to a degree of abstraction: Everyone should do better. Why? I direct you to my crucial paragraph; a manifesto. My call to arms:

Is a dichotomy between mainstream and not-mainstream or niche and not-niche useful? Do we put ourselves into a different mindset when we encounter something deemed mainstream?  We cannot do that to ourselves. Eliminate the sharp and distinct categories of high and low, and praise the endeavour of creativity in the infinitude of its forms, regardless of whether the work is from the ghetto or Grasse; IFF or out of somebody’s basement. For groundbreaking is groundbreaking irrespective of anything other than its inherent qualities of novelty, creativity, and how it fits into a context and a narrative. So demand nothing other than groundbreaking, anywhere, for anything other than that is plainly unacceptable.

Why must one settle for lovely?! I am implicitly urging for ruthlessness. Only the groundbreaking shall be praised.

These are the standards I use when evaluating fragrance. Is there any inherent value in being optimistic or accepting of conservatism when reviewers have to make these distinctions between high and low; good and bad? Anything in the middle is the anomaly. Okay is grey. In Durkheim’s useful terms: not quite sacred, and not quite profane; neither groundbreaking nor terrible, and that is why Gabrielle has been reduced to a blot.

Are there implications? Does egalitarianism permit anarchy: an ideal that brands can do whatever they want without consequences? To accept this premise is to undermine the very process of reviewing itself, for reviewers set boundaries. Through consumption of popular taste, we, in turn, become tastemakers. But how do we create taste? Ask oneself: Are you promoting or are you reviewing? What presuppositions plague you? In which way are you laden? Are these problems being remedied?

I have painfully expounded upon what I look for on Olfactics, and so am I wrong for measuring scent under my own relative conceptual scheme? Maybe reviewers are incommensurable against one another, dictated by their own logic (that’s me being diplomatic). Readers know what to expect from me. My audience is a small set of well-tuned thinkers. I want them to taste my tastes through the transparency of my language. And in saying that, if the view is sustained that perfume and taste are this entirely subjective experience, what exactly is subjective anyway? Is it our experience of fragrance? But that is, given qualia-doubts, ineffable and an intrinsically private experience! I can’t ever write about perfume in isolation, because infinite regress or circularity arises – we always talk about an analogous other, an equally ineffable thing. It’s plagued by context. Context is all we can ever champion, and that’s what I talk about. If that’s all there is, what are you talking about?

6 thoughts on “Monthly Musings: Discordant – Why Pessimism is Okay and History Matters, September 2017

  1. Firstly, I know you would never make a snide insinuation Liam, you are far above that – I have seen it elsewhere so please do not think I direct that at you! The issue I see, is that what you perceive as Chanel’s logic is your logic. You claim that history is tantamount for history is context dismiss what you categorize as the “mythology” of the brand. The marketing of Gabrielle is indeed within the scope of your enquiry because marketing, positioning, the experience you describe going into a store, informs the distinction you create for Chanel as “high class”.

    And just as you use Gabrielle, the perfume, as a hinge for your consideration of context, so I used Gabrielle’s early clothing designs and their reception by critics at the time as a hinge for my discussion of who defines “better”? And how? Why is “lovely” something to settle for? A negative connotation? My proposition to you is that Gabrielle can be considered groundbreaking, creative, that it does fit into a narrative about how luxury is being re-defined by Chanel, just perhaps not in a way that aligns with your perception of what the brand should be. What presuppositions plague you?

    Context is indeed everything – in fact in my review of the juice of Gabrielle I suggest the parameters of evaluating it in the context of its contemporary competitors rather than within the lignage of its house. I find this a good exercise to push back from subjectivity a little, although of course we know it is impossible to eliminate.

    I would love to read a review of Gabrielle, in addition to these musings Liam, to find out what your nose perceives within its composition.

    PS I think the line about review vs promote is a bit mean, but I’ll take it on the chin. xx

  2. Also, this! “Ask if there is a reason – a larger, grander motive behind it. I can assure you – very little is arbitrary.” – I challenge you, is there a reason for Gabrielle? What is Chanel’s motive, do you think?

  3. This was a very interesting dialogue. I particularly liked the description of Gabrielle lacking flavour because it tastes of everything else. Surely it would have been possible to create something that managed to be groundbreaking while conveying the return to primal simplicity and authenticity that the marketing seems to suggest. I did like that your discussion was meta to the problems of Gabrielle the perfume though. More please ☺️

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