In smell’s shadow: Materials and politics at the edge of perception

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4 Scopus citations


This article examines the politics of smell at the edge of perception. In January 2014, the municipal water supply of Charleston, West Virginia was contaminated by an under-characterized chemical, crude MCHM. Even when instrumental measurements no longer detected the chemical, people continued to smell its licorice-like odor. In a space where nothing was certain, smell became the only indicator of potential harm. Officials responded by commissioning state-funded sensory testing of crude MCHM to determine its sensory threshold. Via the critical passage point of sensory science, some instances of embodied attunement were allowed to enter into the evidentiary regimes of perception, while other, similarly trained moments of attunement were excluded from the process. This, I show, produced knowledge about the spilled chemical that maintained the systems that contributed to the spill in the first place. Drawing on new materialist thought, I riff on biology and ‘transduce’ the ephemeral phenomena of smelling crude MCHM into a new medium: Rather than thinking of smell as a volatile molecular material (an odorant), I show that consideration of smell as a manipulable object that one can imagine as having tangible substance and shape offers a way to experiment with disciplinary forms. I suggest an alternate future, where sensory science acts to record sensory labor that produces facts about collective experience that cannot (easily) travel through current systems, a process that is one possible way of beginning to unravel entrenched systems of toxic harm.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)418-439
Number of pages22
JournalSocial Studies of Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020


  • disaster
  • expertise
  • olfaction
  • sensing
  • sensory science
  • water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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