Monday, December 21, 2009

The Pendock Paradox: Round 2


My previous post (“The Pendock Paradox”) drew a lot readers, including Neil Pendock himself, to whom I give a tip of the hat for passing along Turin’s acknowledgment that he doesn’t work blind.

It also drew some thoughtful comments from Rita who blogs at Left Coast Nose. Take a look now—they are definitely worth reading. My hunch is that she speaks for a lot of webby perfumistas. 

Rita raises a lot of good points. In response, here’s a few of mine in no particular order.

On subjectivity in sensory evaluation: Smell is experienced personally and subjectively but it can certainly be measured objectively. For example, which sample smells stronger? Which sample smells more citrus-like? Which wine is oakier? Which has a longer finish?

The appropriate level of oakiness in a chardonnay is a matter of aesthetic principles on which there is much debate. In contrast, there is very little debate over how much oak there ought to be in a dessert wine. How much oak you like in your chardonnay, and how much the Smiths across the street like in theirs, is a matter of personal preference. De gustibus and all that. However the oakiness of a chard or the citrus in a cologne are objective and measurable perceptual features.

On what we expect of a critic: He should be able to detect and report the chief perceptual features of the wine or perfume and be conversant in the aesthetic norms of composition. He should be able to tell us that Eau de X is a typical floral aldehydic, for example, or a typical floral aldehydic with some unusual features, ones that even “break the rules” in an aesthetically satisfying way.

On how we select our favorite critics: We calibrate our perceptions and preferences to theirs. You may find that Bob X prefers chardonnays you find over-oaked so you discount his opinion accordingly. If his tastes are totally uncorrelated with yours, you ignore him. As Rita points out, many people find Robert Parker not to be a useful guide to the Burgundies.

On the rhetoric of perfume reviews: Regardless of the justness of a critic’s verdict, his review can be written well or poorly. Here, perhaps, is where Rita and I part company. I find “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste” to be the pinnacle of idiocy. Sure, the writing is frolicsome and inventive; but it’s also self-consciously twee and Just. Too. Much. As sensory description it is worse than useless—it leaves the gullible reader thinking he knows what Diorella smells like. The bait in the rhetorical trap is obvious: what sophisticates we must be that we are able to discriminate “new” and old fur coats by nose, or to arrange the universe of mint toothpaste from “very creamy” to less so. I know, I know, some people can read 1,500 such bon mots and lust for more. Me, I’d try a handful then go stick a finger down my throat.

On what perfume bloggers should aspire to: By all means go ahead and write about perfume any which way you like. Snark it up, play it straight, I’m not going to cramp your style. The proof of the pudding is in your site meter. I would submit, however, that the bitch-niche is pretty much full, as is the twee imagery + name dropping niche. What’s open? Illuminating perfumes for the non-fanatic. Show them how a particular scent wears in real life, how it measures up in olfactive performance, what interpersonal impressions it creates, and how it compares to similar smelling fragrance at different price points. Which brings us to a related point:

On the importance of comparison: The flight-of-fancy review (with or without knowing allusions to particular French perfumers and esoteric molecules) makes comparison next to impossible. Toothpaste-on-new-fur-coat is single use imagery that can’t be extended to another perfume. The very idea is ludicrous: Please rate this fragrance “1” if it smells exactly like minty creamy toothpaste on new fur, “2” if it smells somewhat like minty creamy toothpaste on new fur . . .

Shared standards of evaluation make the larger conversation possible. Otherwise it’s Internet cacaphony: toothpaste and fur coats versus “caressing and slightly venomous” white notes, ad infinitum. Do we have to go all 11-point Likert Scale formalistic about this? Not at all. At Left Coast Nose, Rita herself provides a quirky metric that orients the new reader to her conceptual range and personal style at the same time:
LeftCoastNose Rating System

***** Transcendent; extraordinary; a revelation
**** Flawless at every stage; distinctive; an avatar
*** Yummy; the right scent for a certain mood
** Kinda good (or) "weird but worth it"
* Eh
0 (No Stars) Handle bottle with tongs
On the Value of Blind Evaluation: It keeps you honest. It produces unexpected contrasts. It focuses your attention on the juice. It’s fun.

How do you blind yourself? With post-it notes and a willing spouse, neighbor, drunken stranger, whomever. Do it at a perfume party. Like Neil Pendock says, Perfumes are for the People.

Finally,

On the phenomenon of ‘Fume Porn: Nice one. I wish I had thought of that.

24 comments:

chayaruchama said...

I've held back from commenting , but enjoyed both days' thoughts...

Personally, I prefer the snark-free zone.

I find that it requires more ingenuity and concerted effort to
describe without bashing.

And I am saturated with the puerile antics of many critics.

I adore blind sniffs.
Anything that keeps us honest is
A-I in my book ;-)

Olfacta said...

Late to this party but:

-snark is what the team Luca/Tania does. It's hard to be snarky about fragranced water, easier to be so about the person or company who developed it. (In the LT universe I'd much rather be Calice Becker than Mona di Orio.) Wit needs a target. Smelly water, as a target, is just boring and doesn't sell books or newsletters.

-don't you think there is a certain preaching-to-the-choir quality about most of the perfume blogs and reviews? The general public, imho, doesn't give a rat's ass. This, along with art, is pretty much at the pinnacle of anybody's needs hierarchy, which is to say, completely irrelevant, but hey, so what.

-I'm going to try some blind sniffing. I will probably humiliate myself in front of the choir. Will Lady Stetson beat the latest gotta-have-it niche offering? Stay tuned!

The Left Coast Nose said...

Morning, Avery—

Thank you for the terrific, spirited response to my extended comment. A few points, in some kind of semi-order:

You are the perfect person to ask this of: Is smell objective? I was under the impression that some people can’t smell certain things (like the little old ladies who don’t smell cat pee—hoarding ensues.)

You say it can be “measured”—by a machine, I’m guessing? But, in people, once a scent is registered by the brain, then what happens is the human part: attraction, revulsion, connotation, memory. That’s where scent gets interesting—where does it take you? What does it “say”?

For some people, it says…. A bunch of elements they can list, like vegetables in a stew. They either like or they don’t. Voila—their review.

Now, I don’t care much for that kind of reviewing—the scent notes, in most cases, are “helpfully” provided for you by the perfumer. (Unlike wine—that is an expected function of the reviewer: to give you impressions—totally subjective impressions: “A whiff of blueberries, wet stones, and uncooked spaghetti.”) (Whoops—is this a snark-free zone or not?)

For other people, the stew takes them places, either back in time, or somewhere else in their imagination. You may choose to follow them where they go—good writing will help with that.

Or, what I think you seem to be saying is, you may choose to stay home, sniff things blind, (with help—good suggestion), and then rank things: I like “X” best, “Y” next, “Z” should never have been born. Is that what you want? I guess there’s room for that, but that’s not what I’m going to get out bed to read every morning.

I try to write reviews, and cherish the ones that are written well, in the second school. I don’t care to be told “what’s in there,” and other people’s sets of stars or points, or whatever, can only be modestly useful in helping to pick out which one in a sea of scent to try.

So back to the nub: the mint paste+ fur coat connotation, which you hate, and I love, and I will defend on two points:
1) When bunches of things put together make other things, that is alchemy in my book. That’s what artists who are deeply skilled at their craft can deliver. Paint on canvas applied to reveal people, sounds strung together to evoke emotion—that is good stuff. If Roudnitska was able to mix “Sicilian lemon, basil, honeysuckle, peach, and vetiver” together and get something that gives the “impression” of mint paste + fur coat (for Burr, and for others as well), well, then Bravo.
2) Mint paste + fur coat is too twee for you, too “much.” Alright. Reasonable people can agree on this matter of taste. But I know when I came to perfume, it was the power of strong images that captivated me. Burr writes “Carnal Flower” is “a tuberose that comes at you holding a baseball bat in one hand and a raw steak in the other.” How many times have I used that line at cocktail parties to explain my fascination with perfume? I’m not going to love every over-the-topper—some descriptions—and connotations—will fall flat for me, but I’ll keep reading just the same.
3) Here’s an unannounced third point: language aside—isn’t giving the reader a sense of “how a particular scent wears in real life, how it measures up in olfactive performance, what interpersonal impressions it creates” exactly what “mint paste + fur coat” provides? I’m reading your criterion for a good perfume review, but I don’t understand how that differs from what you want.

(Uuuughhh... I wanted this to be shorter...)

The Left Coast Nose said...

Finally—two hollers out to Olfacta—I got “fume porn” from her—I wish I had thought of it, too!

And I don’t know about “the public” caring, but Barbara over at Yesterday’s Perfume is writing a book now making the observation that perfume-hounds are popping up all over the place—it is a small but growing phenomenon, and every time you turn on your computer, there’s another blog with another fume-head spouting about scent. I wonder if we’re like the far-flung crew dreaming of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Are aliens trying to communicate to us through our noses? Avery—you can play the government scientist who coordinates contact played by Francois Truffaut.

Happy holidays-
Rita

moongrrl said...

In the new paperback edition of The Guide, it's in the FAQs that they don't work blind.

Avery Gilbert said...

Chayaruchama:

"Saturated with the puerile antics" is a nice way to put it. After their 1.5 kilo-snark bitch fest the authors of Perfume have pretty much levelled the village.

The idea of blind sniffing has struck a chord both here and on the thread over at Basenotes. Maybe I should start selling blindfolds with a "Sniff it blind" logo . . .

Avery Gilbert said...

Olfacta:

Yes, there's an element of perfume bloggers preaching to the choir--something true of enthusiasts in any subject. For all I know there are probably flame-wars among Hummel figurine bloggers.

Whether today's voices evolve into something the larger public wants to listen to is an empirical question. I think it could happen but these are early days. A lot will depend on presentation.

For example, the decision to package the Turin/Sanchez collection of reviews as "the definitive guide to the world of perfume" was a commercial masterstroke. It promised one-stop enlightenment and consumers swallowed the premise big time.

Avery Gilbert said...

Rita @LeftCoastNose:

When I say "measure smells" I mean quantify the perceptions of the human nose. Is it strong or weak? (That's measurement with a two-point scale.) How strong does it smell from 0 to 10? (An eleven-point Likert scale.) And so on.

Modern experimental psychology got its start doing just this sort of thing in Germany in the late 1800s. It goes by the pompous and slightly disturbing name of "psychophysics." Inter-personal difference at the perceptual level (blind spots) are usually smaller than those at the preference level.

You and I agree on the stylistic limits of reviews that just recite "notes." (Some wine writers fall into this too.) It's part of what I call the industry's Ingredient Voice in my book.

The new thinking among smell scientists is that we perceive "odor objects" rather than collections of "notes." Being able to break a bouquet down into individual floral notes, for example, takes experience or training. Something we can't assume the general public has.

On writing styles: if crazy verbal imagery makes a point, fine. Minty toothpaste on fur doesn't tell me squat about the fragrance but it says plenty about the critic.

Possible role models for perfume bloggers: Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher (another couple!) review wine for the WSJ. They use a clear, simple, non-numerical rating system. They review flights of wine such as "California Zinfandels under $20". This enables them to detect trends in wine-making style, relate this to value for the consumer, and to render judgements on individual examples within a category of wine.

You can see where this is headed. Why not a blind review of "recent Orientals under $65"? There may be none worth recommending, or the category may be undergoing a rebirth of creativity. Either way, it's worth reading about.

Who will step up to the plate?

ChickenFreak said...

Count me in as another lover of the word images. As an example, you could explain Bond No. 9 Chinatown for pages, describing the notes, their relative strength, when they appear, and so on, and not begin to communicate what Luca Turin communicated with "the exact spot where the smell of floor wax meets that of ripe peaches".

That description tells me what it smells like - no, not precisely, not enough to have me buying a bottle blind. But it gets me closer than a list of notes could, no matter how carefully described.

And it gives me a context for what I'm smelling. Whether it should or not, the context affects my reaction to a fragrance. With no context - when my reaction is just "what _is_ that?" without any answer at all - I have trouble fully enjoying the fragrance.

As another example, iris root, when I first experienced it, smelled to me like pencil erasers. I first tried Love in Black at this time, so to me Love in Black will forever be pencil erasers, hazelnuts, and violets. That brings up an image of me eating a bag of hazelnuts at my desk in second grade. And there's a tiny vase of violets on that desk, and that turns me into Frances in _Bread and Jam for Frances_. Love in Black is therefore forever a childhood-whimsical scent for me, no matter what it was intended to be. If I had smelled it after I could recognize iris root it would occupy an entirely different slot in my perfume world, but I didn't, so it doesn't.

Um... what was my point? My point was that I do not, and never will, evaluate any scent objectively. There will be pictures, of my own creation or someone else's. So a person who can describe the scent objectively actually does less for me, in terms of judging whether I'd like to try the scent, than a person who can draw a good word picture for it.

And, well, “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste” actually communicates a lot to me. :) I'm assuming something like, but not identical to, those notes that smell like the chemicals used to treat leather, and some animalic notes, some freshness, some mint, maybe a bit of something that resembles the chemicals used to treat new fabric (the silk lining for the fur coat), and the presence one of the many ways that a fragrance can smell "creamy". Maybe some powdery notes, for the fur, maybe not. Anyway, it sounds fascinating, and I can't imagine an objective notes-based description that could appeal to me nearly as much.

Ines said...

This has turned into a very informative and enlightening discussion.
Recently I had a discussion with myself on objective thinking. I don't think I can do it and here I agree with ChickenFreak, I will always search my memory for scents I recognize from somewhere, and create associations. And if it's connected to sth I have fond memories of, it might not be an objectively good fragrance but to me it will smell delightful and happy. :)

Avery Gilbert said...

ChickenFreak:

Quick, check you ankle, I think you just stepped into another rhetorical trap. "The exact spot where the smell of floor wax meets that of ripe peaches."

The exact spot? Not six inches to the left? Ripe peaches, not too firm or slightly overripe? Floor wax--as if it's a Platonic ideal and not, as it was historically, scented with "melange", the dregs bucket from the fine fragrance wing of the perfume house.

Look, I like context too--in fact I think olfactory cognition is largely about trying to place smells in a meaningful context. As a review style, I find that a little of this coloratura goes a long way.

Thought experiment: take ten unlabelled perfumes including powdery, animalic, leathery and minty ones plus Diorella. Have people indicate which one smells like toothpaste on fur coat. Do you really think they'd point to Diorella? If not, what use is the imagery?

Avery Gilbert said...

Moongrrl:

Thanks for pointing that out. Obviously it's a question that has occurred to a lot of people.

Avery Gilbert said...

Ines:

Good/bad, like/dislike, right for me/wrong for me are subjective. And there's nothing wrong with that--we all have our preferences.

Minty is objective; it's a reference we can share. "Smells like the organic toothpaste in my aunt's summer house on the Cape" may be accurate but it's not a shared reference.

Apprentice perfumers are encouraged to use their personal associations as an aid to learning all the raw materials. But that's not how they talk to each other.

In fact, for the most part they talk by reference to other perfumes: "It's like Happy with a peppery drydown" for example. Not very romantic but economical and precise.

ChickenFreak said...

> Ripe peaches, not too firm or slightly overripe?

This sounds like you're arguing that "ripe peaches" is not descriptive of a scent. But I think that I must be misinterpreting you on that, because scent is one of the ways that ripeness is determined, and peaches do smell like, well, peaches. So "ripe peaches" certainly seems to be a meaningful phrase that can legitimately used to describe a scent.

You don't like the whimsical word images. But the whimsical word images still contain information, like "ripe peaches". That information isn't negated by its association with the whimsey.

So if you're arguing that you don't like the style of these reviews, then - well, there's no argument. You don't like them. I do. There's no need for an argument on matters of taste.

If you're arguing that the style of the reviews makes them inherently uninformative, then I don't agree. Ripe peaches is ripe peaches.

Perhaps you're arguing that the style of the reviews makes ambiguity more likely. For example, you said:

> The exact spot? Not six inches to the left

To me, "exact spot where A and B meet" means that notes A and B are balanced, that neither is clearly dominant. If the review _said_ "The scent of ripe peaches and the scent of old-fashioned paste floor wax are both present, neither dominant over the other", then, yes, that would be less ambiguous.

But we'd be losing the imagery, and I value the imagery. For me, the imagery isn't just an added trimming, it actually provides more information. It tells me how the reviewer interprets the mood and feeling of the scent, what that list of notes really adds up to for them. And for me, that's information.

Olfacta said...

Maybe this is getting into art/science? Imagery voice/ingredient voice? I may not be typical, but as a writer I need something that makes me want to write. That fires up the cylinders, you might say. For those in the hormone-driven years, this is usually some sort of romantic obsession (witness 150 million "love" songs.) For those of us um, past the raging hormones, maybe it's food, wine or perfume. Would it be too much a stretch to call perfume a muse? It is for me.

But, as with romantic obsession, sometimes the result is overblown prose, hopelessly tangled metaphor, or 'fume porn. Sometimes the inspiration brings out references that can be shared or at least enjoyed. Are we critics, or artists? I think that most of the better perfume blogs fall somewhere in between those two.

Nathan Branch said...

I believe that Mr. Gilbert's original (and continuing) point is that information *is* negated by its association with whimsy.

Whimsy is by its nature irrational, illogical and unpredictable, which makes it entertaining, but maybe not the best method for communicating useful information.

The Left Coast Nose said...

@Nathan
Right-- I get Avery's point. I would counter that the experience of smells in general and perfumes in particular, with its powerful connection to imagination and memory, is not rational, not logical, and often defies language.

Which is why for many, bending language is the "best" way to communicate one's experience.

Marlene said...

I think what is seen in the above discussion is a scientific, rational, objective mind, trying to insist that the realm of the imaginary meet the criteria of that mind. Well, it does not, cannot, and will not. It has its own criteria. It exists in an arational, not irrational domain. When I read your (Gilbert's) critique of the "exact spot" all I could think was that here is a scientific mind that cannot enter the imaginary. "We murder to dissect." Those who are using images to review perfume are not trying to be objective. They are using their empathic, intuitive, subjective store of meanings to evoke a shared imaginal world, which of course will have subtle shades of differences among people. But like overlapping circles, there will also be a common ground (which in the realm of the imaginary is shared consensual validity) because as The Left Coast Nose pointed out, ripe peaches do smell like peaches (they do not smell like spoiled peaches or unripe peaches - here we have the overlapping circle again).

As far as reviews are concerned, I think we must ask what we want from them. Do you want objective, scientific knowledge? What readers are you trying to reach? More importantly, in which "world" does perfume belong? that of science or that of art and image? If we measure a perfume and know that the citrus scent is stronger, so what? To what end are we measuring it?

Perfume, for me, is not a scientific world. I doubt that it would have been so passionately and ardently pursued from ancient times, if it were for scientific reasons. The ancients used scent in their worship and as an aphrodisiac; the Romans used it before and after their very public baths. In modern times we use it for seduction, to provoke memory, to refresh, sooth, calm, etc. Images have the power to evoke all of these domains. Objective thought does not; nor should it. It has its own area of application. It should stay there and keep out of the realm of reviews. This is obviously my bias. If some want to do blind reviews, fine. Diversity is always a good thing. But let us not insist that this become the standard for reviewing perfumes

Marlene said...

A few more thoughts about objective knowledge, imagery, and perfume reviews.

Objective knowledge I believe to be analytic. It breaks things down into their parts and in science, these parts are usually facts. But facts, in themselves are not very interesting. To make them interesting and useful, they need to be interpreted and here, even in science, things get a little messier, a little less objective and more subjective, because facts can be interpreted from many different perspectives and from a variety of theories. Hence, the rich and complex dialogues, even violent arguments, that can occur within its many fields of application. To criticize the use of imagery because it is subjective is a little like the pot calling the kettle black. No field escapes the subjective.

I do not think reviewers are conveying information in an objective sense. As others have said, they are attempting to capture the mood, emotion, and feel of a certain perfume. The image does not convey analytic knowledge. It usually is seeking to combine elements into new and originary forms, something that has never before been thought of or occurred in the world: "The exact spot where floor wax meets ripe peaches." The better someone is at creating images that convey meaning or the experience of a perfume, the better the internal coherence their image will have, the less solely personal their image will be, and the wider the readership will be who can comprehend how this perfume might smell, its mood, nuances, etc.

Objective scrutiny is not the only door to knowledge. It is one door, one domain. There are others, such as the domain of the imaginary. Each has its own set of criteria and its own understanding of what constitutes the type of knowledge most conducive to its subject matter. In this case, facts or images. But I think I've come full circle here and am led back to the questions I asked in my last post. For what purpose is a perfume review written, etc.

Avery Gilbert said...

Chicken Freak:

Re: "ripe" peaches and "exact" spot.

I was trying to point out how this reviewer uses pseudo-precision for rhetorical effect. Like the toothpaste on an "old" fur coat example. It sounds minutely calibrated but it's empty imagery. It's more about the reviewer's self-regard than about the fragrance.

Avery Gilbert said...

Marlene:

“Perfume, for me, is not a scientific world.”

No kidding.

“The ancients used scent in their worship and as an aphrodisiac.”

Okay. Suppose a scent pleased the gods or got women horny. Don’t you think your typical ancient would try his damnedest to record and preserve the exact formula? Of course he would. He wouldn’t go all “empathic, intuitive, subjective” and ponder the limits of “shared consensual validity.” He would weigh the grains of musk, count the seeds, check the clarity of the oil. Perfume has always been about science—a lot depends on it, including good harvests and pussy.

My recommendation is that you not subject your “imaginal world” to a tour of a perfume house. Your “overlapping circles” might not be able to encompass formulas weighed to the milligram and costed out to the penny, gas chromatographs for quality control, mass specs for molecular analysis (“murder & dissection”), robotics for small sample preparation, LAB instruments for color control, viscosity meters, etc. Oh—and we measure all those subjective impressions from actual people and do statistical analysis on the results before the client even smells the juice.

It’s all rather linear and unromantic and . . . left-hemisphere.

Marlene said...

We are talking about perfume reviews and what type of language is appropriate to them, not perfume formulas and how they are kept. It is irrelevant in this discussion as far as I am concerned. It would be ludicrous of me to deny that one must write out the ingredients of a perfume or be concerned with how harvests of relevant resources turn out, etc.

As far as your "gas chromatographs for quality control, mass specs for molecular analysis, robotics for small sample preparation," etc., I have the same thing to say. This is not relevant to a discussion of what type of language is appropriate for a perfume review. Moreover, there are many perfumers who do not work for houses but on their own, privately, and they do not use this type of paraphernalia. You might want to speak with them about their creative process. I think you might find that it is all rather non-linear, involving both the right and the left hemispheres in a dialogue.

ChickenFreak said...

> Re: "ripe" peaches and "exact" spot.
>
> I was trying to point out how this reviewer uses pseudo-precision
> for rhetorical effect. Like the toothpaste on an "old" fur coat
> example. It sounds minutely calibrated but it's empty imagery.
> It's more about the reviewer's self-regard than about the
> fragrance.

I disagree that these are examples of pseudo-precision.

"Ripe peaches" means... ripe peaches. Not underripe, not overripe. Grocery shoppers have a very definite meaning for that phrase. And ripeness is reflected in, among other things, scent.

And there can be dominant and subordinate notes - for example, tuberose is dominant in Fracas. Or there can be balanced notes, where a group of notes appear with no one of them being dominant. That is a concept that has a fairly precise meaning.

Now, "exact place" may not mean balanced notes. That's the ambiguity that I spoke of. But ambiguity is not what you're talking about here.

Moving on to the fur coat, it's interesting that you switched from a new coat to an old coat. I assume that you don't see a difference in scent between the two, while in the nose of my imagination, they smell very different.

The gas chromatographs and robotics mentioned in your other post wouldn't dispell my intuitive reaction to perfume, no. Not any more than the fact that scientific and engineering care goes into creating paints would make me reject painted art as being inherently without meaning.

Or the knowledge that a field of sunflowers was planted to produce cooking oil would make me reject the fact that the field is also beautiful.

Or the fact that a structural engineer is needed to keep a structure on its feet would make me reject the beauty of a well-architected building.

Science, art, and beauty are not mutually incompatible. And art and beauty, to me, are not judged exclusively on objective criteria. A well-crafted piece of art can be terribly boring. And, less frequently but still possible, a sloppily crafted piece can be wonderful. Reviews that focus purely on the details of craftsmanship will miss this.

Marlene said...

Beautifully articulated, ChickenFreak.