This essay was originally delivered as a lecture in March 2017 at artistic perfumery conference Esxence in Milan, edited for publication on Scent Art Net
What is shock in perfume? This lecture will dissect the mechanics of shock in philosophy and in practice and then reassemble their meaning and relevance for perfumery. Through an extended comparison with cinema, we will question how and why shock tactics work before speculating if their implementation could usher new frontiers for perfumery.
From this framework, we will be attempting to answer the following two questions as they relate to artistic experience and creative development processes, perfumery included:
- Firstly, how do you determine shock (what is it, how is it done, and why)?
- Secondly, and even more importantly, when is shock meaningful as opposed to meaningless?
We begin by considering what theoretical models we can look to for understanding the mechanism of shock, followed by an analysis of how contemporary cinema has utilised shock (and why film theory can aid perfume theory) and, lastlty, how shock manifests itself in perfumery.
The premise of this investigation is that shock is able to achieve things and evoke reactions in powerful ways that affect genuine change in personal opinion, artistic culture, and societal politics. Shock more often than not is polarising and, paradoxically, it can be very complicated for an individual to resolve their feelings about a shocking extreme, whether that be something they’ve seen, an act they’ve been involved in, or indeed something they’ve smelt. However, it is the inherent uncertainly of shock that makes it so interesting and so impactful when experienced. Although the process of deciding your reaction to a shocking event will likely involve a conscious fluctuation between acceptance and rejection, toing and froing between fear and excitement, society usually will end up prescribing shock in the very end as absolutely okay or absolutely not okay and deserving of punishment, whether this be imprisonment, emotional detachment, or creative dismissal. It is this dynamic that we are scrutinising today.
Shock as either genius or degenerate was aptly explored by Gaia Fishler in a short think piece on her site The Non-Blonde where she states,
Is Shocking de Schiaparellistill as shocking today as it was when the perfume launched in 1936-7? What is a shocking perfume, anyway? My guess is that anything heavy on civet still makes people take a step back and make that face (Joey Tribbiani’s “Who Farted!” is a good approximation), and Shocking is certainly a civet bomb. Then there’s the honey note that not everyone tolerates, and the general heaviness of spice, opulent flowers, and the kind of musk you rarely smell anywhere nowadays. Does it shock me? Not any more than looking at the marvellous surrealistic designs of Elsa Schiaparelli does. I find them exquisite and fabulous; the same goes for perfume.
Fishler’s decoding of her olfactory experience can validly stand for the process by which meaning is constituted for shock in general, passing through ethical filters to finally be heralded as either sensationalist or as epiphany.
In this respect, shock value can be conceived of as a sequential uni-directional process comprised of two mandatory stages – first, the right environment must materialise to generate a shock reaction, and second, that shock reaction is dealt with by the mind to be awarded categories for reception (which can range from awe to disgust to love to terror or a combination of all, but very rarely neutrality). The semiotics of shock reveal a dichotomous pathway with the source material either designated as detritus or deified as its antonym which is genius. The pivotal issue for someone designing a shocking artistic or sensory or product experience is how to guide the consumer’s reaction and reception of the material so that the shock generated is interpreted as intelligent, worthy, and directional. The mezzanine conclusion we can reach though, however shocking subject matter is culturally termed, is that the philosophical and psychological mechanics by which shock works herald it as a stage-gate portal, functioning as a possible opening to new and undiscovered ways of thinking and means of doing, offering the promise that if the right balance, intention, and execution is reached, one can achieve a form of enlightenment.
A similar sentiment is shared by Jamake Highwater in his text The Mythology of Transgression where he proposes,
Major contributors in almost every field (for better or worse – whether it be art, homicide, science, religion, warfare, or politics) have been made by mavericks, loners, misfits, oddballs, and nonconformists … greatness has regularly been viewed as a sublime affliction … a malady that provides an amplitude of vision not available to those who conform to society’s rules.
I think the notion of shock fits perfectly with Highwater’s description of those remarkable individuals who bring about change and modulate their fields to new innovative territory. I wish I was able to attend Christophe Laudamiel’s presentation yesterday; perhaps he could be called a maverick? And I sure there was at least some element of shock in what he was saying to call for shifts in the way perfumery is seen and smelt.
This makes shock highly relevant for fragrance as a means to innovate. I am here representing myself but I can also comment as someone from inside a brand as well as outside as an informed consumer that innovation and surprise remain the most important and elusive goals for the fragrance industry, much of that coming from niche, artistic, and artisanal brands represented here at Esxence. Esxence therefores takes on greater and greater importance as the years go by for defining business and creative direction in perfumery, with there never being a more exciting time for change, challenge, and experimentation in the fragrance industry, and I truly believe we are experiencing a critical time in the history of perfumery. There is a real opportunity to play with shock and transgression in fragrance to call forth reactions that gain emotional buy-in for consumers. One of the drives of this talk is to encourage fragrance brands to engage with the notion of shock to innovate and experiment with new olfactory territory. However, it is necessary to find the right mechanics so olfactory shock gets interpreted the right way (as epiphany, innovation, artistic genius) and not the wrong way – (sensationalism, abject, useless). Not that we have the key today to the shock mechanic but, yes, I do believe that you can pertinently contain and guide shock value in the olfactory sphere through consideration of the following three prerequisites of shock which I will return to at the end of the talk: context, transgression, and metaphor.
I’d like to put some open questions to the audience:
- What is the most shocking thing you can think of? [that you’re willing to share]
- Do you feel you have to hold back in some way when thinking of shocking extremes?
What is particularly intriguing and useful about shock is that it is implicating – when people admit to being shocked or they voice a sense of shock, or a shocking idea or experience they’ve imagined, it somehow implicates them in that shocking experience or event, and therefore represents a powerful tool for supra-personal engagement. I think people often hold back their responses because shock will side, in general, towards a sense of perversion both bodily and spatially. Shock is distinctly different from surprise – surprise represents momentary difference but is immediately resolved; if shock is resolved it doesn’t exist.
What else can we gleam about the nature of shock from its life cycle? Now we’ll take a little tour through some contemporary issues to illustrate.
For one, context is important to shock, often demonstrated through a displaced relationship to expectation.
Above is a screenshot of a video uploaded by the pornography website Pornhub just after the UK voted to leave the EU, entitled in capital letters, ‘Dumb British blonde fucks 15 million people at once’. It’s PR genius, with even the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail (images below) covering the site’s subversive humour. What I thought was interesting about this story is the possibility that, upon clicking the video’s title and deducing its content, a Pornhub user could be more shocked by Boris Johnson’s face than some of the lewd acts they were intending to watch. This demonstrates perfectly that shock is not innate to objects and acts but requires their culturalisation to shock to become offensive by defying expectation and displacing their relationship with context.
A well-known example is that of a woman’s nipple only becoming shocking when fully put on display and registered by viewers; somehow it is deemed by western culture to be fine for a breast to be exposed and shown in full form whilst the nipple is covered by a few fingers, for example, even though it is very clear that the nipple exists, and is there in front of us, and that the image is trying to rouse our vision of a nipple. I fully recognise that this is sexist and I don’t agree with the notion; but it holds true in many countries and reflects how important context is for inducing shock reactions.
Olfactory shock in context is also explored in Neville Morley’s writing on ancient Rome in the 2015 book Smell and the Ancient Senses, declaring that ‘the strange thing is that the Romans themselves apparently failed to notice [the stink of their city], or at any rate to comment on it … Despite the widespread ancient belief in the dangers of foul smells as the source of disease, the city is not identified in these terms’, going on to note that ‘filth consciousness’ and sensitivity to particular odours vary over time rather than being fixed across cultures. Context changes shock.
The meaning of shock can also oscillate between extremes. Dark humour is the best example of this. I’m not sure if you know Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, but in the UK he is best known for his controversial, often extremely offensive jokes that straddle the line between reprehensible and hilarious. Let’s watch a short clip now featuring one of his borderline gags:
The whole crowd was laughing; the joke is funny because of its absurdity and his dry dead-pan delivery. However, analysis shows the subject matter to be deeply disturbing – about necrophilia, bestiality, and paedophilia. That said, somehow the comedian has managed to use the mechanism of shock on ethically dubious content to create a moment of comedic brilliance in his auditorium.
To Secretions Magnifiques. The use of shock in product design is beneficial for instilling intrigue that requires analysis and generates dialogue for a brand that can be a valuable social and artistic asset. Katie Puckrick’s YouTube review of Secretions Magnifiques is legendary in status, and is worth watching for the sheer variety of responses and similes she proposes for the scent; even though she is in dismay at what she is smelling, and doubtless would not buy a bottle from this review other than for reference, her video serves to represent the explorative culture of fragrance criticism to seek out and understand the jagged, unbalanced, and weird in fragrance architecture in which shock plays a great part.
It is important to note that the reception of shock is not always tied to its original intended meaning. On the scatophilic 2007 pornographic meme ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’, the internet phenomenon where two pornography stars engage in sexual activity whilst defecating in a cup and on each other, Helen Hester writes, ‘Despite any original intention, however, ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ did not gain its notoriety by eliciting arousal from the wider public. In becoming viral, it transcended its primary pornographic usage to function as a rather different form of entertainment, and disgust, rather than arousal, become the chief draw for many viewers’. Don’t worry, the video we’re about to watch is not the original footage itself, but the most famous reaction of an elderly lady encountering the material for the first time.
What I find telling about this clip is that whilst the woman was clearly shocked by what she was seeing, she still didn’t stop watching and could barely look away, revealing another pivotal quality of shock being its addictive pull.
In her 2010 book on the Dada and Fluxux art movements, Dorothée Brill explores the generally accepted notion that shock is always a symptom of transgression; that something has to take place to induce shock, and that taking place involves the notion of movement across boundaries into the opposite of acceptance and comfort, often rationalised as guilt and sin. Shock therefore can be considered incidentally bound, meaning that its existence is qualified on acts and incidents. Shock cannot just appear but must take place. We can call this the spatiality of transgression. She comments, ‘[shocking art works] all share an act of transgression of some kind, a transgression – as I would argue – of either moral or artistic values’. Take the experimental contemporary artist Paul McCarthy, for example, and the giant Christmas tree that looked like a but-plug, erected in the centre of Paris (shown below). For many, this was a transgression of both moral and artistic values – the offended would proclaim, why should this be considered art and why should I be subject to such a public reminder of profanity?
Built within Brill’s theory is the perhaps surprising idea that fictional and real-life transgression can result in the same feelings of shock, and that formal aesthetic transgression only can also give rise to a feeling of shock. She proposes that ‘works such as Demoiselles d’Avignon [and] Fountain (below)… caused a reaction of shock due to their utter disrespect for the principal guidelines and values of artistic creation’ before suggesting that the deepest underlying reason for the response of shock to these art works, and any given situation, is what she calls ‘the shock of senseless’ explained as follows,
I do not conceive of the shock of the senseless as an approach altogether different from the shock of the new, but rather as a more appropriate description of the same artistic procedure. By this I mean that it might not be so much the fact of something’s being new that causes the reaction of shock, but the fact that what is new is perceived as senseless. In other words, the new does not shock because it is new, but because it does not disclose its potential meaning, thus depriving the recipient of the capacity to explain and thereby justify a work’s creation.
I find this elucidating in two respects. Firstly, it provides a theoretical framework to understand why aesthetic strangeness can be truly shocking and doesn’t necessarily have to transgress moral or ethical boundaries but only artistic ones. Secondly, it legitimises the hypothesis that whilst shock can certainly uphold both formal and metaphorical transgressions at once, shock cannot take place if it is purely metaphorical. By this, I mean that the witness to shock must feel some sort of transgressive resonance in the real world, in mundanity, in the everyday, in the tangible, rather than only in a world of ideas. Evil, as the ultimate cosmic metaphor, will only shock if made senseless through earthly embodiment, imbuing neutral forms with pain / fear / turmoil-causing potential. As a (binary) concept in and of itself, there is nothing inherently shocking about evil.
We’ve come to the film section. I’ll offer a snapshot and overview of contemporary films that have engaged in shock, how they’ve done so, what techniques they are using, what themes they are touching on, and whether or not their reception for me and / or the public has coincided with their intention. Where no appropriate clip was available, I’ve used the trailer if I felt it successfully evoked the sense of shock the film gives. I wanted to craft this comparison with perfumery because film is much more advanced and nuanced when it comes to shock culture and history and can be considered one of the last arts that is still capable of truly shocking the majority of viewers. In addition, cinema share many similarities with perfume, as Chandler Burr has famously explored, including its commerciality, global distribution, emphasis on subjective response, culture of criticism, and inclusion of both high and low forms, that makes it a highly relevant medium to learn from.
Let’s start by watching the the trailer of The Handmaiden, a Korean psycho-sexual thriller from Park Chan-Wook released this year  and 2016’s The Neon Demon by director Nicholas Winding Refn where we’ll see two of the main protagonists encounter each other the morning after literally eating their rival model in a cannibalistic ritual.
I’ve grouped these two films together as I believe they both explore the shock of the sexualised body, objectification, and commodification by so overtly scrutinising and taking pleasure in the consumption of female beauty. With The Handmaiden, although it can’t be seen from the trailer, there is a copious amount of lesbian sex which is the prime generator of shock, explicit and prolonged and out-of-the-ordinary, and by the end of the three hours in the cinema you just want it to be over – it is too much for anyone of any sexuality. On The Neon Demon, Tim Robey of the Telegraph noted that when ‘[the film] premiered in Cannes this May, it gnashed its way to instant notoriety as the most divisive film of the festival: booed and catcalled at the end of its first press screening, but also celebrated as a hair-raising masterwork, dripping with the director’s customary style’. It managed to achieve the same result as Frankie Boyle’s controversial joke earlier in the presentation – to fluctuate from sensationalist to epiphany between audiences.
The next two films I want to contrast are Tokyo Gore Police with The Greasy Strangler. They are both weird, both had terrible reviews, and both split audiences – what unites them is that they explore corporeality and the bodily in excessive and nauseating ways. I would like to offer that Tokyo Gore Police is exploitation trash because it is so aware of being a parody that it loses any sense of reality and the transgression goes so far as to become completely vacuous. However, even though film critic Wendy Ide of The Guardian said that The Greasy Strangler was ‘a film with literally no redeeming features’, I think it straddles that line between darkly comic and truly disturbing through its use of highly metaphorical environments rife for psychoanalysis. In the scene we’re about to watch, the son Braden is asked to make the greasiest breakfast possible for his father:
Moral transgression can be seen in the following two examples, The Exorcist and A Serbian Film. The former has long been held as one of the most shocking films of all time for so incisively dissecting the primal fear of evil and otherness that sees itself embodied in the film’s possessed child; it is also often heralded as one of the best films of all time, not least by world-renowned film critic Mark Kermode. The latter, on the other hand, shares the accolade of most referenced shocking film, but is generally met with dismay. The film is about a retired porn star that goes under the camera one last time with a sociopathic porn director that wants realistic torture porn. The film’s real-life director maintains that it is an extended metaphor for the contemporary Serbian condition. This is illustrative of my point earlier about shock lacking value when purely metaphorical, as most find it hard to justify the political connection with the gratuitous necrophilia, rape, child molestation, and brutality they see on screen.
My last example is David Lynch’s legendary Eraserhead, which can be nicely applied to Brill’s theory of the shock of the senseless. This is probably the most shocking film I have personally ever seen due to its nonsensical otherworldly landscapes, soundscapes, and dreamscapes that always seem seeped in Freudian displacements but never fully disclose their meaning. It is disorientating, confusing, and ugly, and extremely hard for the viewer to decode and repackage. However, in resisting meaning determination so defiantly but maintaining its insistence on meaning, I believe Lynch found a new and highly charged method of exploring cinematic issues that uses shock as a tool to examine transgression in a spiritually uncertain context that interrogates society’s base drives and motivations with inquiries into disclosure, hopeless and disappointment.
Some conclusions and considerations about how shock has and can be used in scent design. As with the films, I won’t be detailing the individual histories of the fragrances but instead focusing on how they engage with shock as an experiential tool. There is no true answer as to how to predict whether shock will definitely be meaningful for artistic perfumery consumers or not, but it can be proposed, at the least, that shock value is determined by how its execution interacts with the rudiments of the shock mechanic: those being context, transgression, and metaphor, and that meaningful and epiphanic shock value must problematise its relationship with context, clearly force an artistic or moral transgression to modulate away from cultural comforts, and foster deep metaphor but at the same time always keep rooted in the real and every day.
Firstly, and most obviously, purely aesthetic shock can be achieved in fragrance through material overdose. Chanel No 5 is perhaps the most famous example with its unusually high dosage of aldehyde C12 MNA, subverting the floral archetype of the time. What I think made it so successful and genius was the transgressive balance it achieved – it pushed the aldehyde accord just far enough so that it felt radically new and unusual, but not too far so that the classic floral heart was lost. Angel is another scent with high material overdose, this time of ethyl maltol, that found worldwide acclaim with a new scent aesthetic. In an interview I conducted with Ralf Schwieger, the MANE perfumer noted that Angel contains around 0.1% ethyl maltol, which was huge at the time, but La Vie Est Belle increased it to a staggering 4%, a scent considered generic and mainstream by most. This reinforces the importance of defying expected context for shock determination, as even though on paper the latter scent has transgressed olfactory aesthetic boundaries to a far greater degree, the consumer is so conditioned to the profile now that it appears as nothing more than conventional.
With perfume so intimately connected to personal space and indexed to the body, any perversion of that index will likely cause shock, achievable through unusual evaporation curves and / or extreme projection (either extremely diffusive or extremely withheld). Alien is a good example of a notorious scent that still shocks many to this day by its huge trail, and Giorgio Beverly Hills is the touchstone illustration of how high olfactory performance can cause shock for being banned in many Los Angeles restaurants due to its overwhelming volume.
Molecule 01 was shocking because no one knew how to interpret it. At first, the pheromone story did linger; now, that has mostly disappeared in informed markets. However, it is still as shocking today as it was a decade ago for its audacity and abstraction. Being 100% Iso E Super, the way it interacted with the skin and performed as an incomplete perfume was and still is vastly different from any finished scent we see on the market. The abstract in perfume is hard to render as fragrance notes are so intuitively tied to real-life plant sources and evocative of real-like imagery; Molecule 01 removed almost all context for the smeller and functions more as a metaphor for ideality in fragrance than as a genuinely accomplished and fulfilling scent in itself.
Animalics are one of the only ways to engage moral transgression in perfumery. This is reflective of how poor the medium of scent is at communicating reliable and identifiable complex concepts and references; however, due to the still-prevalent cultural body indexing tied to olfactory response (the idea that what you are smelling probably came from a source that smells like that) animalics can indicate a sense of bodily and sexual manipulation that hints at moral transgression when they are overt enough to convey dirtiness or sex itself. Muscs Koublai Khan and Absolue Pour Le Soir are two references that are often credited as having polarising animalic notes and are revered by some wearers as sensual masterpieces that artfully synchronise provocation with beauty, and dismissed by others as imbalanced and crass.
Which bring us on to Sécrétions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange. I personally feel that this scent does live up to the hype it has gained over the years and will go down in fragrance history as being a huge departure from the traditional scent development framework and traditional marketing. What I find remarkable about the scent is how troubled and confused it can make people feel, make people smell things that aren’t there, and at the same time how abstract and removed from conventional fragrance references it is, with the Givaudan azurone overdose key to it all.
The topic was continued in conversation with Thomas Lindet from Etat Libre d’Orange, deep-diving consumer experience with Sécrétions Magnifiques. Find the full video here.