Illinois State University
We have a sense of what democracy looks like. We might also have a sense of what it sounds like. Now, what does it smell like? Such a question has become less facetious than it once might have been. As readers of this blog know, a proliferation of scientific studies on “embodied cognition” have highlighted the sometimes subtle, sometimes crude ways that various sensations prime us to think and feel in particular ways, evoking memories and generating expectations about persons, objects and situations. Holding a cold beverage makes us less trusting of a stranger, looking at a waterfall or smelling a citrus aroma makes us more generous, what have you. As philosophers attuned to affective dimensions of thought have long argued, political judgments rest not only on ideological commitments, but also on multiple, interactive sensory framings. By implication, any struggle for collective self-determination must be waged not only over what we believe or desire, but how we are made to think and feel, that is, over the techniques of our ideas and sensibilities. What pass for political “ideologies,” of course, have always involved the full range of human senses (think drumming and incense, or mom, apple pie and Chevrolet). Today, likewise, multiple senses are the target of orchestrated campaigns on the part of political and commercial elites. Currently, some of their would-be advisors are cheerfully instrumentalizing the findings of the aforementioned sciences under the banner of “multisensory marketing.”
On its own terms, multisensory, or ‘MM’ marketing aspires to a multivalent context management of commercial (or political) messages by utilizing not only text and sound, but also texture and scent. The engagement of multiple senses has become imperative, marketers argue, to compete for our attention, thoughts and desires in an increasingly saturated multimedia environment. This does not necessarily entail smell-o-vision or Odorama, though such techniques have their new, digital counterparts. As they understand, the synaesthetic character of thought ensures that words and images evoke imagined tastes, textures and odors. Generally, advertisers use these insights to prompt consumption and overwhelm second thoughts, or as they put it, “competing messages.” Admittedly, their programs can be laughable. One press release marketing the approach (summarized by a “futurist consultant” with a college background in English and Philosophy) enthuses: “Aging baby boomers could be a particularly ripe demographic for multisensory marketing. Not only do many boomers regard small indulgences as part of their routine self-care, but as boomers age they will require stronger sensory inputs.” Everyone, don your noise-cancelling headphones. Really, it may help preserve what’s left of your hearing.
Multisensory techniques have already found their way into political campaigns. Most recently, the Times reported the use of a scented mailing by a New York Republican gubernatorial candidate that reinforced its negative message (“something really stinks in Albany”) with an odor of rotting garbage. For a case of political aromatics less gross – in both senses of the word - consider the 2007 South Korean presidential election, where the smell of victory took on a literal sense. As Reuters reported, “A team of supporters of presidential frontrunner Lee Myung-bak has been secretly spraying a perfume called "Great Korea" at his rallies. He will send volunteers to voting booths on December 19 to ensure the same scent is drifting through the air… ‘It will remind people of the identity of Lee Myung-bak. The concept of the perfume is hope, victory and passion,’ said Oh Chi-woo of the conservative Grand National Party's culture and arts team.” Far ahead in the polls approaching the election, Lee Myung-Bak won handily. Nobody attributed his victory to the campaign’s devious aromas, the effect of which was not tested in any case. In the New York case, it remains to be seen who will come out smelling clean. Nonetheless, these cases remind us once again that political and commercial elites are working hard to manage the multisensory cues that shape our perceptions and judgments. If citizens are to take responsibility for the latter, they will need to fight for power over the former.
What does such a fight look, sound or smell like? For some hints, we might turn first to Walter Benjamin. In the early twentieth century, Benjamin witnessed the commercial and political education of the human sensorium by institutions and technologies such as shopping malls, radio and film. The results were not happy (he was a Jewish Marxist writing in Germany between the World Wars, the second of which he did not survive).
Still, he argued that new technologies of cultural production not only shatter traditional cultural meanings but also have the potential to democratize them. For him, this meant that people might take an active role in deciding what meaning to give to words and images torn from traditional contexts and distributed across the globe. That is, they should become “producers” not only of material goods and services but also of meanings and perspectives. Benjamin therefore paid specific attention to techniques that reduce collective agency of this kind. In particular, he criticized the use of captions in photography and sound in film to control the cognitive and emotional context of reproducible images. In a letter to his friend Adorno, he declared the introduction of sound in film “reactionary.”
That was then. Imagine what he would have made of, say, a screening of Transformers in THX stereo. Remember those noise-cancelling headphones? Not that we should merely adopt a defensive posture. To contend with these olfactory and auditory incursions we cannot simply put our hands over our ears, or hold our noses. Certainly, there should be some regulations. U.S. election laws may even need to be updated to restrict olfactory electioneering. But the aim cannot be to prevent sensory priming altogether, as if one might stop the offending bias by sterilizing the political realm of tone, smell and color. In the absence of sensory cues, we do not become rational but disoriented and bored.
That said, what is the smell of participatory democracy? Might we prime ourselves to adopt critical and creative perspectives, paradoxical as that may sound? Benjamin thought so. To this end, he promoted experiments with new media (film and radio in particular) to facilitate a reflexive and collaborative response to commercial and political messages. Some recent studies suggest certain kinds of stimuli might be of assistance in this regard. For example, certain colors (blue) may enhance creative insights. Studies with scent seem to have yielded less certain conclusions thus far. In any case, the point is not to replace public debate with aromatherapy but rather to bring insights concerning embodied cognition to bear as we criticize and experiment with the sensory methods already being employed by our would-be handlers. Before you vote, ask yourself where that smell is coming from.