Scent of Self and Others

Food for Thought

I had scarcely considered the nuances of fragrance until Alex introduced them to me. I participated in three of his meticulously orchestrated sampling sessions. The following is my takeaway from today’s session.

There isn’t just one person in you who evaluates perfumes, but six at least. Firstly, when you wear a scent before stepping out into the world, you—represented as (s) in the diagram—are not the only person who will smell it; you also anticipate its reception by others—represented as (o).

Furthermore, in each person, there are three registers: The Symbolic denoted by S(), the Imaginary denoted by I(), and the Real denoted by R(), making up the six evaluators: S(s), I(s), R(s), S(o), I(o), and R(o).

At the level of the Real, we are unconscious of what is happening. For instance, your R(s) might be lured into a Subway by the aroma of baking bread, oblivious to the scent’s sway over your cravings. Likewise, an individual’s reaction to your fragrance—drawn or repelled—may occur without a conscious acknowledgment of the scent’s role.

Shifting to the Imaginary, memories wield significant influence. You I(s) might choose a fragrance that evokes the image of a deep forest, while another in the same room might associate it with the image of his grandmother. This layer of perception is unpredictable, as the imagery a fragrance summons is deeply personal, steeped in one’s history, and can vary dramatically between I(s) and I(o), shaped by diverse cultural backdrops.

At the level of the Symbolic, the scent itself is no longer significant, like the difference between a sign and a signifier. Consider the act of wearing perfume itself, which carries its own symbolic weight—a ritual not universally adopted, especially among men. Here, you S(s) consider the implications of your scent choice and its perceived messages to others S(o). A well-known fragrance, such as Chanel N°5, introduces a narrative of its own. The naming of a perfume, like “French Lover,” prompts reflections on the cultural implications of wearing a French scent versus, say, an Italian one.

Whether you are conscious or not, the complex interplay of these six spectators is unavoidable.