Thesis ID: CBB103244065

How a Whale Becomes a Molecule: A Geography of Modern Olfaction (2023)


This dissertation, How a Whale Becomes a Molecule: A Geography of Modern Olfaction, argues that the sense of smell is a material relation and that it evolves through a set of geographic processes in distinct places and times. I follow the transformation of ambergris, a whale metabolic aberrance, into its chemical articulation, Ambroxan, to show how an evolving political economy mobilizes epistemic practice, iteratively conditioning the nature of olfaction. I explore the modern sense of smell as an ensemble of human industrial affective processes: first in the context of American imperial whaling through which marine life becomes entangled within several scales of commodity rendering, then through the embodiment of ambergris in practices of social-spatial hierarchy relative to both hygiene and class in 18th and 19th century France. I then focus on the translation of these imperial and industrial values into a consolidated olfactory paradigm wherein ‘the nose’ in the perfume industry deciphers and authorizes material identity, creating the possibility for chemical fungibility. In showing how the processes of rendering ambergris are coterminous with knowledge systems that rationalize, commodify and reproduce it, I posit that 1. objects are assembled through the distinct practices and are inseparable from the political life in which they’re embedded, and 2. that ‘the nose,’ in its geographic instantiations, is produced as a stable arbiter and means of knowing the world, and is conscripted to connect objects in the world in a certain way. I show that there is no essential object or character to things and that material affects are objects in flux, whether squid spawn or fossil fuel and their reverberation depends on the durability of bodily affects alongside the material, semiotic codes into which they are trained.

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Authors & Contributors
Smith, Mark M.
Baert, Barbara
Hoffmann, Beata
Jenner, Mark S. R.
Jones, Ryan Tucker
Read, Sophie
American Historical Review
Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Environment and History
History of the Human Sciences
IEEE Technology and Society Magazine
University of South Carolina
New York University
Columbia University Press
Pennsylvania State University Press
University of Washington Press
Senses and sensation; perception
Smell; olfactory perception
Taste; gustatory perception
Time Periods
18th century
19th century
20th century
Early modern
17th century
21st century
Great Britain
United States
Pacific Ocean
Soviet Union
California (U.S.)

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