Brown Bag Lecture: Chemical Freshness, Chemical Fetish: On Toxicity and the “New Car Smell”

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Date: October 22, 2013
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Nick Shapiro

Throughout Shapiro’s fieldwork on domestic chemical exposure in the United States, the “new car smell” or simply the “new smell” was the primary idiom through which research participants expressed awareness to indoor air. This talk tracks the historical development of the new smell, its economic logics, and its phenomenology that belies embodied apprehensions of toxic injury. While the chemical bouquet of the new car smell was born out of post–World War II car fervor, it is now applied to a broad range of synthetic products and has been spun off into “new smell” colognes, candles, and upholstery sprays. The new car smell imbues potentially harmful exposures with pleasure. Fixation on the new smell as an index of exchange value masks the chemical exposure that the aroma also indicates. Such smells are commodity fetishes as their sensuous aspects, their chemical substance and its molecular effects on the body, are obscured by their “supra-sensible” value (Marx) and as a result produce “habitual submission” (Debord).

Shapiro is a doctoral candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Oxford. Beginning in November 2013 Nick will take up a five-year research fellowship at Goldsmiths College in London. He works at the intersection of anthropology, citizen science, environmental health, and critical theory. His studies revolve around indoor air quality in the United States.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

For more information, please call 215.873.8289 or e-mail

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