Ways of Smelling: An Interview with Laurie Denyer Willis

Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, licensed under CC BY SA.

This post builds on the research article ““It smells like a thousand angels marching”: The Salvific Sensorium in Rio de Janeiro’s Western Subúrbios,” which was published in the May 2018 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Pablo Seward Delaporte: Many scholars have noted an intellectual bias toward vision in the constitution of the modern European subject. In your article, you refer to “deodorized modernity” and how smell has been “cast as an irrational sense compared to the supposed objectivity of sight.” How did you come to attend, in particular, to smell over other more ostensibly noble or refined senses such as vision and sound? And how did attending to smell help you to advance a phenomenological or feminist theory of the subject that decenters the modern notion of the subject as distant, removed, and contained?

Laurie Denyer Willis: Smell—and its politics—comes up a lot in Rio’s suburbs. In the beginning, though, I wasn’t trying to do anything particularly sensory with my ethnographic work; I was just trying to listen and look around, which I’d been taught was a decent way to start. But see (!), even that, those crucial first steps in our ethnographic endeavor, privilege certain kinds of sensory registers. What if we had to “smell around” instead—if our ideas of participant-observation were more diverse sensorially? Of course, “smelling around” is just as tricky as looking around, because we each have pretty specific ideas and subjectivities about what smells good and bad, or what doesn’t even seem to smell at all.

Trying to smell differently (like we might “listen differently”), then, became a first step in a more sensory—and I think feminist—ethnographic project. But just the first step, because I don’t think that sensory ethnography is inherently feminist or even that paying attention to smell—as opposed to the ocular and oratory—is enough to decenter the concept of the contained and modern subject. Rather, what I think makes my attunement to smell a kind of feminist project is the coupling of smell with the politics of race and space. This means paying attention to the politics of being a particular kind of body (my own, and those of others) imagined in particular ways, in a city that is very much premised on antiblackness, slavery, and capitalism. No other city received more slaves from the trans-Atlantic trade than Rio. Any attention to smell, then, has got to be intersectional too, that is, attuned to flows of power as they work across and within spaces and systems of race, gender, disability, religion, age, and other aspects of our identities.

In a textual and argumentative sense, I often think about Sara Ahmed’s writing on citational politics. “I often think of books as houses,” she writes. “They are built out of stuff. They create room for us to dwell. And I think of citations as bricks. When citations become habits, bricks form walls. . . . Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings.” This article is an attempt to make a dwelling from that wafty thing called smell, to smell differently such that the olfactory becomes a material that can build a different kind of space to dwell within, rather than building another brick wall made only from the sensory registers of sight and sound.

PSD: Scholars of Latin America have long asked what kinds of politics ensue as Pentecostalism becomes a dominant force in the continent, especially among the urban poor. You suggest that the “salvific sensorium” enabled by Pentecostal ways of attuning to the world subverts, if only fleetingly and partially, geographies of waste that naturalize subúrbios as foul-smelling and therefore morally inferior places. The salvific sensorium opens up spaces of “radical hope,” to use Jonathan Lear’s (2008): spaces that, in the midst of ruins or waste, offer a radically different version of the world. What would it mean to attend to the salvific sensorium not only as an affective but also as a political space, where alternative worlds are imagined in ways that might lead to more durable forms of radical consciousness and action?

LDW: I think that what you’re asking me here is if the salvific sensorium can turn into a fully radical racial and class politics, one which might intervene (via political action) on oppressive systems. I am aware of the urgency of this question, especially in Brazil right now, and as it relates to Pentecostalism and the ongoing killing and uses of black life. In my article, though, I am trying to work through a broader kind of politics, by thinking through (and foregrounding) how affective space is political space. And I do so purposefully, not as a way to sidestep discussions of Pentecostalism and politics, but to engage them differently. Affect is political; it is about elation in the body, cruelty felt in the skin, a lingering sense of humiliation that can’t be shaken but creeps and turns your stomach. Affect matters within those structural questions of abandonment, the absence-presence of the state, and the depoliticization of capitalism. Take, for instance, one of the stories I relate in the article: when the smells of hair lotion and food from the suburbs are brought into an elite household, they become a way to access sensations of pride and humiliation, and then defiance, retreat, even dejection. Affect is a way to think through all of this as political—to acknowledge that these sensations are not just singular emotional experiences or individual sensations, but are also political in themselves.

I think paying attention to this bodily and affective kind of politics is important for making sense of why someone might be reluctant to turn the feelings and sensations made possible by the salvific sensorium into a more durable kind of protest, action, or resistance, and why the desire for the divine is so compelling in the first place. The salvific sensorium is a way to speak about the political that is not dependent on a contained liberal subject, or the idea that “the political” takes place in only certain kinds of spaces—like marching on the central plaza. Still less is it about everyday practices of individualized liberal citizenship. This is important because many Pentecostals explained to me—demonstrated, more importantly—that they found a notion of political citizenship and inclusion to be a very much exhausted route in Rio. For many, if citizenship and rights were not being extended to them, if their relationship to the state was defined for the most part by its selective absence and presence, then the spaces they were busy building for themselves were not about correcting that absence or violence, but about creating something of their own: a feeling of hope, apart from (but still tethered to) the state, rather than working toward a normative model of citizenship and state inclusion.

An attention to sensory forms of spatial knowledge and religious modes of hope may, therefore, allow us to think about affective space-making as a political project in so-called capitalist wastelands. To do so, though, we might have to let go of some assumptions (or desires) about the forms and temporalities that the political must take.

PSD: All of this resonates with debates in critical race theory about Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism, to which you also refer. You use your concept of the salvific sensorium to argue for a “place of affective optimism inside pessimism and abjection.” The whoosh brought about by the smell of the divine disinfectant can produce feelings of worthiness in otherwise abject subjects. Yet this feeling of worthiness—like the politics of respectability and dignity that have been central to claims made by both African Americans and the Latin American urban poor in the past—is limited in the sense that it does not refuse the dominant order but ultimately seeks recognition from it. As you write, “the salvific sensorium is capacious enough to be open to both optimism and its cruelties.” Could you elaborate on the intervention your argument makes in the debates about Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism? How does the Latin American and, specifically, Brazilian context of race relations extend or challenge some of the assumptions made in these debates?

LDW: Afro-pessimism takes antiblackness as the foundation of the American and capitalist order. This order is fundamentally premised on, and requires, the destruction of and violence against black bodies, a necessity that is both “ontological and gratuitous” (Wilderson 2003, 229). Black optimism has largely been humanistic in orientation, and concerned with correcting black exclusion and suffering. The relation between Afro-pessimism and Black optimism is an ongoing and nuanced conversation about ontology, or “attempting to understand black existence in an anti-black world,” as Calvin L. Warren (2017, 220) puts it. Many scholars and writers, including Warren, enter this conversation not as though it is a debate, but in order to “imagine a suture of this gap between black optimism and Afro-pessimism” (Warren 2017, 220).

An attention to sensory forms of spatial knowledge and religious modes of hope may, therefore, allow us to think about affective space-making as a political project in so-called capitalist wastelands. To do so, though, we might have to let go of some assumptions (or desires) about the forms and temporalities that the political must take.

To be clear, though, I don’t think of my work as an intervention in conversations about Afro-pessimism and Black optimism. I can never do these conversations justice. Rather, these incredibly rich, plural, and diverse conversations inform my work. More than that, they have radically intervened in my thinking and being. In particular, they have shaped my attention to how whiteness operates, organizes, and delimits: today and historically, across suburbs and centers, in anthropology and the ethnographic method, and especially in how sensory regimes unfold and narrate specific spaces.

Warren’s (2018) work is a good place to start reading if you are completely unfamiliar with this conversation. His work lays out the stakes, and he writes in conversation with the poetics and philosophy of Fred Moten. To keep reading from there (which anthropologists absolutely should be doing): the works of Fred Moten (2003, 2008, 2013) on the para-ontology of blackness is critical reading. Then there is Sylvia Wynter (2003) on the problematics of the singular human, and Mia C. White’s (n.d.) spatial theory of love is intimate and beautiful. Ida B. Wells (1900), Frantz Fanon (1996), W. E. B. Du Bois (1998), and Frank Wilderson III (2003, 2010) are foundational to this conversation, along with Hortense Spillers (1987), Saidiya Hartman (2008), Jared Sexton (2011), Amber Jamilla Musser (2014), Christina Sharpe (2016), Achille Mbembe (2017), and so many more.

Anthropologists writing in similar terms about Brazil who I would recommend are Keisha-Khan Perry (2013), Christen Smith (2016), and Jaime Amparo Alves (2018). I taught their three books (along with Deborah Thomas’ [2011] book on Jamaica) together over three seminars with a graduate course on race and Latin America at the University of Cambridge this year (paired with some other key articles). Read together, these books weave a complex and ethnographically rich account of race and Brazil today and historically.


Alves, Jaime Amparo. 2018. The Anti-Black City: Police Terror and Black Urban Life in Brazil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1998. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880. New York: Free Press. Originally published in 1935.

Fanon, Frantz. 1986. Black Skins, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto. Originally published in 1952.

Hartman, Saidiya. 2008. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12, no. 2: 1–14.

Lear, Jonathan. 2008. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Mbembe, Achille. 2017. Critique of Black Reason. Translated by Lauren Dubois. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Moten, Fred. 2003. Into the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

_____. 2008. “The Case of Blackness.” Criticism 50, no. 2: 177–218.

_____. 2013. “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh).” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4: 737–80.

Musser, Amber Jamilla. 2014. Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism. New York: New York University Press.

Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. 2013. Black Women Against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sexton, Jared. 2011. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism.” Tensions 5.0.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Smith, Christen A. 2016. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Spillers, Hortense J. 1987. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2: 64–81.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2011. Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Warren, Calvin L. 2017. “Black Mysticism: Fred Moten’s Phenomenology of (Black) Spirit.” Zeitschrift fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik 65, no. 2: 219–29.

_____. 2018. Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Wells, Ida B. 1900. “Lynch Law in America.” Arena 23: 15–24.

Wilderson, Frank B., III. 2003. “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?Social Identities 9, no. 2: 225–40.

White, Mia Charlene. n.d. “Race, Space, and the Wake-Work of Our Undercommons.” Manuscript in preparation.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” New Centennial Review 3, no. 3: 257–337.