AADS Speaker Series: Atmo-Orientalism and Olfactory Aesthetics
Hsuan L. Hsu
This talk will consider the long history of "atmo-orientalism," a simultaneously atmospheric and sensory mode of racialization that apprehends Asian immigrants as deviant assemblages of bodies and air. Shifting focus from the racialized body to the racialization of trans-corporeal exchanges between bodies and air enables us to better understand how the concept of race adheres not only to bodily phenotypes but to modes of environmental relation. It also underscores how olfaction functions as a visceral, biochemical, and critically understudied medium of racial differentiation. Tracing atmo-orientalism back to nineteenth-century public health discourses, legislation, and popular literature, I analyze representations of Asiatic odor that associated Asian bodies with the dehumanizing effects of capitalist modernity. I then consider a range of Asian diasporic works that challenge this pattern of olfactory racialization, including fiction by Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far) and Larissa Lai, as well as art installations by Anicka Yi and Beatrice Glow. In these works, smell functions not as a sign of individual or cultural deviance but as an index of infrastructural violence, a materialization of imperial and colonial violence, and a vehicle for cross-racial intimacy.
Hsuan L. Hsu is a professor of English at UC Davis and author of The Smell of Risk: Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetics (NYU, 2020), Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain's Asia and Comparative Racialization (NYU, 2015), and Geography and the Production of Space in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Cambridge, 2010). He is currently writing a book about Air Conditioning for Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.