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The Power of Smell in American Literature

Odor, Affect, and Social Inequality


Daniela Babilon

Offering a thoroughly new approach to American literature, this book examines the literary representation of smell regarding its impact on establishing and subverting power structures. Although smell carries an enormous affective potential, it has been largely – but unjustly – overlooked in literary and cultural studies. Through her innovative close readings of works by authors such as Melville, Whitman, Equiano, Wilkins Freeman, Faulkner, Morrison, or Ellison, the author shows how smell stereotypes are used to discriminate against people and how odor references serve to undermine oppressive power structures. For this purpose, the author traces the cultural history of odor and combines insights from fields such as critical race, gender, intersectionality, trauma, and affect theories.

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1 Odor and Order: Theoretical Frameworks


1 Odor and Order: Theoretical Frameworks

As introduced above, in literature, smell references are frequently used in processes of othering. Because it is so constitutive of the present study, the following will briefly explain the concept of otherness, or ‘the other,’ primarily conceptualized from a perspective of postcolonial studies since this is the field in which otherness was first and most thoroughly theorized. While otherness seems to structurally necessitate a binary opposition—such as the typical postcolonial dichotomies between center and periphery, or self and other—the existence of a pure binary opposite to ‘the other’ is widely refuted. The aspects of hybridity and transgression will therefore be discussed alongside ‘the other.’ Moreover, this chapter will introduce affect theory, the abject, and the multiple characteristics of smell which are relevant for this study.

1.1 ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them?’ The Concepts of Otherness and Hybridity

Jean-François Staszak’s definition of otherness constitutes an informed approach to the concept. According to him, “[o]therness is the result of a discursive process by which a dominant in-group (‘Us,’ the Self) constructs one or many dominated out-groups (‘Them,’ Other) by stigmatizing a difference—real or imagined—presented as a negation of identity and thus a motive for potential discrimination” (Staszak 43). He thereby emphasizes the discursivity and hence the constructedness of the concept, as much as he underlines the interwoven power imbalances that connect to otherness. The repeated essentialization of the concept (usually by the...

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