Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Can We Talk? About Perfume?


What is the Language of Perfume?




Perfume is made to wear, just as food is made to eat. However, there is an important distinction between the two: people must eat to survive. Perfume, in contrast, is a luxury product with which the vast majority of human beings past and present have very little experience, if any at all. Most everyone can smell scent and appreciate the olfactory beauty of a field of lavender or a grove of orange trees, just as they can appreciate the sight of those things. But the practice of perfuming oneself arises only in rather complex cultural contexts.

Created scents, or perfumes, like the combinations of sound known as music, are infinitely nuanced and not limited to the objects delineated by us as numerically distinguishable denizens of reality. In nature and in society, scents occur in groups and layers and can be partitioned in various ways, but often they are not, although particularly striking scents become instantly recognizable intersubjectively and can serve as evidence of the presence of a thing. The scent of a cigar lingers for hours in a hallway though the person who puffed on it disappeared long before. The scent of smoke really does signal the likely presence of fire, and natural gas is made by its providers to waft of a rather acrid odor precisely so that people will notice it before they succumb to its deadly effects.

Like burning cigarettes and car exhaust, cough drops and cheese really do have scents. Cherry cough drops smell different from honey lemon cough drops, and some people will know that swiss cheese has a different scent from that of cheddar. True epicureans may even be able to distinguish Jarlsberg from Emmental by scent alone, and yet they may agree that “cheese” in general has a scent which binds various cheeses together more than any of them is bound to anything else.

The same thing happens with perfume, of course. Untutored perfume enthusiasts may rave that a perfume smells “just like Chanel no 5! even though it contains no aldehydes and in fact smells nothing like it at all to someone with a wider range of experience with perfumes. But sophisticates and dilettantes alike probably can all agree that composed “perfumes” have a smell which makes any two of them closer to each other than either is to the scent of cheese. I am talking here not about facsimile scents such as produced by the house of Demeter, but perfumes composed so as to stand out as distinct from the smells occurring in nature or in human society. (The recently launched perfume Eau de Pizza Hut apparently does not really smell like Pizza Hut, but that's another story.)

We manage somehow to talk about perfumes by appealing to a combination of mutually familiar scents in nature and makeshift fictions devised largely for marketing purposes. In order to sell his perfume to a client, who will then hopefully produce the creation for general consumption, a perfumer must seduce the prospective buyer through the use of provocative metaphors. It will not do to leave it at “this is a beautiful perfume.”

The perfumer needs to weave a story to convince the prospective producer of the perfume that it meets the producer's own criteria for what constitutes beauty. It is also necessary, of course, that the client actually like the scent and believe that others will too, but the perfumer may offer an appealing framework of metaphors through which to understand the new creation and the sorts of images and feelings it is intended to evoke.

The perfumery business has developed in a certain direction in recent decades, with fewer and fewer independent perfumers working in their own atelier-businesses, and more and more contractual arrangements being struck between self-appointed creative directors—often themselves working under the aegis of a large corporation—and the noses whom they enlist to realize their dream. When a perfumer is not given complete creative license but issued a brief of conditions to be satisfied, then it is the perfumer who must produce a scent which somehow reflects the metaphorical dictates of the client. Miuccia Prada, for example, apparently dislikes dirty, skanky scents, which is why all of the members of the Prada Infusion series, created for Prada by Daniela Andrier, smell clean and elegant.

Because the language in which we discuss perfumes was essentially invented by perfumers and their collaborative marketers, it is not really feasible to think about perfume without its attendant scaffold of concepts, including what have come to be termed “notes”. To talk about notes is not to talk about ingredients. In a few cases, perfumers have “shown their cards,” so to speak, by brazenly disclosing that minimalist perfumes such as Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 and Molecule 02 essentially comprise iso-E-super and ambroxan, respectively. In such cases—Juliette Has A Gun Not a Gun is another minimalist ambroxan perfume—the notes are identified as ingredients. But those are exceptions to the general rule.


Usually, in identifying notes, perfumers are not disclosing ingredients, although it is true that all-natural perfumers may be keen to fully list, to the best of their ability, all ingredients on the labels of their creations so that consumers can see which specific chemical substances are found inside the bottle. Marketing and labeling are distinct activities, of course, but in marketing an all-natural perfume, the list of ingredients itself becomes a selling point to those consumers who have decided to make a conscious and concerted effort to avoid poisoning themselves. Far more often than not, however, in both mainstream and niche perfumery, notes are in fact no more and no less than metaphors.

All of this makes it seem rather curious to me that some people—most vociferously and visibly, Chandler Burr, and I am not at all sure whether anyone else agrees with him—should decry, in public displays of apparently righteous indignation (he studied under Luca Turin...), attempts to have meaningful discussions about perfume in terms of notes as somehow insulting to perfumes and their creators. I'm inclined to think precisely the opposite: to claim, as Burr does, that the language of visual arts is the best or most desirable language of discourse to use in coming to terms with perfume would seem to imply that perfume is somehow parasitic on the other arts, when in fact it is entirely independent and sui generis.

No one would use the language of music theory to talk about architecture, and to attempt to do so strikes me as a category mistake. Do buildings have “keys” and “tempos” and “time signatures” and “movements”? Those terms can be applied metaphorically, I suppose—metaphors are infinitely applicable to anything—but to have a meaningful discussion about architecture with other people, rather than simply talking to oneself, it seems best to use the language which has developed along with the enterprise of architecture itself, by the very people who know architecture best: architects.


One can, if one so desires, label Guerlain Jicky as a work of Romanticism; Givency L'Interdit as Abstract Expressionism; Clinique Aromatics Elixir as a product of the “Early American” school; Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir as a work of Industrialism; Thierry Mugler Angel as an example of Surrealism; Issey Miyake L'eau d'Issey as Minimalism; Estée Lauder Pleasures as Photo Realism; Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue as Kinetic Sculpture, Prada Amber as Neo-romanticism, Hermès Hermessence Osmanthe Yunnan as a work of Luminism, and a perfume created by Daniela Andrier for Martin Margiela, Untitled, as an example of Post-brutalism. Why not?

Yes, indeed, one can apply language to anything in any way one likes. However, if one is simply making up the terms as one goes along, appropriating the well-developed discourse of an entirely disparate enterprise in a vain effort to come up with something new to say, then one will end up occupying a rather solipsistic space. Why? Because the art critics who are experts on the various schools of visual art have developed their language and criteria of critique in a particular context to which perfume simply does not belong, and they may or may not have any personal interest in and knowledge of perfume.

At the same time, from the other side, perfume enthusiasts—both perfumers and consumers—may in many cases be altogether ignorant of such movements in visual art. To expect them to become versed in the theory of another, rather erudite discipline before they're able to say anything meaningful about their direct experience of perfume seems dubious, to say the least.

The truth is that perfume lovers have come to their knowledge of perfume through their personal experience of perfume, to which the terms of visual art may or may not bear any relevance. If people are to have meaningful discussions about perfume with other people, they must together accept the terms of the debate rather than simply submitting to the proclamation of a single man that a completely foreign set of concepts and labels are the best way to discuss perfume.

The terms Romanticism, Abstract Expressionism, Early American School, Industrialism, Surrealism, Minimalism, Photo Realism, Kinetic Sculpture, Industrialism, Neo-Romanticism, Luminism, and Post-Brutalism are all a part of a discourse which applies to a particular range of human activity. In order to succeed at hijacking this theoretical apparatus and applying it to perfume, one would have to simultaneously convince the art theorists and the perfumistas that they are all completely wrong: in the former case, for “failing to see” that, appearances notwithstanding, perfume is akin to the visual arts; in the latter case, for “failing” to use the prescribed language of visual art in talking about perfume.


I have noticed recently that many bloggers seem to be supportive of Chandler Burr's efforts, having apparently been hoodwinked into believing two manifest falsehoods. First, perfumistas continue to labor under the misconception that to deny that perfumery is an art is somehow to pay it a grave insult, when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth. To claim that perfume is a product of design is to appreciate the cultural context in which it arises and to acknowledge that, if not for business interests, we could have no knowledge of or access to perfume. To own that perfume is a product of design is to affirm what most everyone already does, that “Perfume must smell good,” just as as “Food must be edible.”

The constraints placed upon contracted perfumers are such that they are tasked with producing creations which satisfy the values of other people, not the creator him- or herself. If this enterprise can be said to be art, then it is a deeply coopted form of art. Why not simply acknowledge, then, that contracted perfumers are in the business of design? Just as the people who write advertising copy for companies are not, strictly speaking, literary writers, not all perfumers are olfactory artists—in fact, most of them are not. But perfumer is not a dirty word or a term of derogation.



To return to the basic confusion here, it simply does not follow from the fact that “Perfume is good” that “Perfume is art.” The value of perfume is an independent question from its status as a conceptual object. This is what the art critics and sophisticated perfumistas who scoff at Burr's ambitious and arguably befuddled initiative already know. Those bloggers who deride the art critics as somehow benighted in their failure to appreciate the artistic quality of perfume are in fact the ones who would seem to be confused.

If they actually knew what the terms Luminism, Photo Realism, and Kinetic Sculpture meant, in the deep way in which people who have dedicated their lives to learning about art have done, then they would recognize immediately that Burr's appropriation of this discourse constitutes no more and no less than a long series of category mistakes. Burr may have successfully linked himself with the “pro-perfume” camp, but one can be “pro-perfume” without being pro-Chandler Burr. The fates of the two are not linked, as much as he may wish for them to be.

My primary concern here is not with the economic implications of selecting a set of best-selling perfumes to essentially market in a new way by labeling them masterpieces. Suffice it here to make a simple economic observation: that every bottle of Light Blue or Pleasures purchased by a consumer in response to having learned that those perfumes have been exalted as masterpieces by someone who seems to be situated so as to competently make such claims, is one less bottle purchased from an independent house. Consumers have finite wallet shares.

The second falsehood seemingly embraced—whether wittingly or not—by anyone who supports Burr's initiative is that, up until now, both perfumistas and perfumers have somehow been confused in making use of the language devised by perfumers themselves in order to communicate with one another and their clients about perfume. In fact, Burr himself erroneously conflates ingredients and notes, as is illustrated by this excerpt from a New York Times piece (in which Burr is quoted) on "The Art of Scent" exhibit:


"I am completely opposed to this idiotic reductionism of works of olfactory art to their raw materials, which is as stupid as reducing a Frank Gehry building to the kind of metal, the kind of wood and the kind of glass that he used."

Burr may know a lot about the business of perfume (which, to be honest, makes me wonder how he of all people could believe that client-contracted perfumery is art), but simply to repeat over and over again that a perfume such as Diptyque Eau de Lierre is “an extraordinary work of photorealism,” and that perfume is art because it is a product of artifice, is not enough. Dryer sheets are a product of artifice. Are they then works of art, too?

Unfortunately for Burr, his greatest virtue, the ability to persuade people to believe in him enough to invest in him, is also his worst vice. It was Burr himself who proposed the very idea of the Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design, with none other than himself as its curator! If the package is pretty, that's all well and fine, but if this ambitious initiative is to survive, there must also be something inside. It's hard to imagine that many art critics are going to embrace with starry eyes Burr's makeshift apparatus and his slapping onto perfumes decreed by him to be masterpieces (and produced by his funders) of labels seemingly pulled out of a hat.

In order to succeed in this venture (and it is, let us be frank, a business venture), Burr's having persuaded perfume companies to donate to his cause will not alone suffice. He must also somehow wipe the theoretical slate clean of both the history of art and the history of perfume, and that, far more difficult task, would seem to be altogether beyond his means.


20 comments:

  1. AWESOME Shera!!! I await part 2 with bated breath!!

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    1. Thank you, Couture Guru! The sequel is coming your way soon! ;-)

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  2. Very interesting article. Art is not like math or computer science, it is flowing ... stretching the boundaries. Think outside the fragrant box and discover yet more.

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    1. Thank you, Ursula, and welcome to the salon de parfum! I agree with you: art appreciation is not a matter of calculation or logic! Nor is it taxonomic! ;-)

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  3. Hi there, well written, very thought to the end -- like. On arch and music I'll ask so who knows a lot about arch theory and report back. I wouldn't bet on that. In fact, arch criticism often uses the lang of literary criticism.
    Most people will tell you that art is -- in their view -- superior to design. However, I don't agree, because good design accompanies me all through the day. It has to be beautiful and functional. I think design is a lot more important to our daily lives than most people are willing to acknowledge. I'd say even more than art is.
    If you haven't read "What I Loved" by S. Hustvedt you really have to do so, because she makes some very very interesting points (and observations) about art (or the art scene). (I'll not say more otherwise I spoil the story.)
    I also read most of your blog entries as the struggle to find an appropriate language for perfume criticsm. I think what makes it so difficult is the fact that we know so little about the making of it. The production process is somehow mystified ... as if there was something to hide. I have the impression that in any other art form given we -- in theory -- understand the making of. Which doesn't make us great artists.
    Which gets me to sth else. "Lohnabfüller" are companies that mix ingredients for clients (according to the client's recipe/formula) and pack them. Lohnabfüller mix a lot of things such as cosmetics, detergents, certain kind of pharmaceuticals. A small compamy that cannot afford their own lab, mixing facilities and bottling machines resort to the services of these companies or sometimes bigger companies that just don't want to invest. It's fairly wide spread. What always suprises me with niche companies is: who actually mixes and bottles these perfumes? Because if cosmetics and pharmaceuticals are produced this way, how come perfume's not? It's not very likely to me.
    On Jarlsberg and Emmental: we usually have both in the fridge. I'll do the test sniffing and report back :)))))
    Ein gutes neues Jahr, die Sonnenblume (Girasole).

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    1. Herzlich Willkommen, meine liebe sokratische Schwester Girasole! Die Sonne scheint heute! Vielen Dank für alle diese schöne Wörter!

      I am so glad that you made this point about the importance of design to our lives. Design is soooooooo important to our lives--it surrounds us; it's ubiquitous! Every decision is in some sense a matter of design...

      With regard to your point that our ignorance of the arcane workings of perfumers is part of the problem here: yes, I think you are right. We seem to romanticize the work of perfumers. I don't know whether you saw my post on the PBS Nova miniseries "The Mystery of the Senses" (it's listed under the reviews), but it is very revealing in this regard, showing the back and forth between a perfumer and a client, and also graphically illustrating that the perfumers who create scents for toilet bowl cleaners and shampoo are doing precisely the same thing.

      Even more revealing might be a step-by-step observation of a perfumer as s/he creates a new scent. If it looks a lot like preparing a fine meal, then I think that the "perfume is art" camp will need to either broaden their umbrella to include chefs as artists or else admit that the work of the perfumer is not qualitatively distinct from that of chefs and other producers of consumable goods. That doesn't make it any less valuable to our lives...

      Your point about die Lohnabfüller fits right in with the revelations behind the scenes at IFF and also the glimpse which that same short film offers into the fragrance factories where everything is mixed together. If you have access to Netflix, you might want to take a look at the film, although it will only confirm your beliefs.

      I'll definitely add that book to my reading list--thanks very much for the recommendation!

      What's the verdict on Jarlsberg and Emmental?

      ;-)


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    2. But isn't great design a form of art? FLW's Falling Water, a Stickley cabinet, Guerlain's Mitsouko? I care more about the end result than the intent of the creator or the process.

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    3. Great question, Anonymous! Thanks so much for weighing in!

      You are pointing the way to an excellent response to this entire debate, namely: What's in a name?

      What, precisely, is supposed to turn on the labels which we choose to slap upon perfumers and their creations? They are going to continue doing what they are doing, and we are going to continue wearing perfume. What matters, in the end, is that we love perfume, when we do!

      I should add, however, that I do believe that when people exalt themselves as objective experts on matters of taste, they end by serving as product shills: in the case of perfume, they effectively tell (ignorant) consumers to buy some fragrances and shun others. But I'll be touching upon that issue more in part 2...

      Thanks again for stopping by, Anonymous!

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  4. Dear Shera Pop,

    I appreciate this article! I wonder if you were inspired in particular
    my a recent perfume blog post I commented on in which references to Minimalism and Luminism as styles were made, and I may have misused the term "Luminism". It is a fair criticism that many readers in the perfume company are rather ignorant of the movement referenced. I admit to ignorance, having never (yet) taken an art history class, but I will be more careful to investigate the movement and question what writers are actually saying when they compare some perfume to Expressionism or Rococo.
    I don't agree that using the "inappropriate" language to describe something is a mistake if it a deliberate and thought-out choice. If one can effectively describe a newly-constructed building using the language of music, I find it fascinating. It may not be "correct", it may not be accessible, and it may even "not make sense" but to a few readers/listeners-- but it offers a different way of thinking about/examining that building, and perhaps makes architecture accessible to some savant musicians!

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    1. Dear kastehelmi,

      I did not see that post, but please leave a link, and I'll read it!

      Although it is not expressed above, I do agree with you that using "foreign" concepts in a thoughtful, well-informed way can in some cases illuminate the object. What I deny is that the facile application to perfumes of labels for incredibly complex movements of art with rich histories is fruitful. Try this thought experiment: switch any of the labels with any of the other labels. Does it matter which perfume is called what? I am serious.

      My point, which I suppose is obvious by now, is that I have no idea whom Burr is talking to. I'm happy that he immersed himself in an autodidact crash course in art history to attempt to bring himself quickly up to speed with his new initiative--it's always good to broaden one's horizons--but Burr seems to be talking to himself.

      I actually left a comment at Cafleurebon after watching his YouTube about Diptyque Eau de Lierre, when he kept repeating how extraordinary it was and that it was a work from "the school of photorealism". I wanted to know whether the facsimile perfumes by Demeter are "photorealist" in this sense. No reply, though my question was polite.

      I think that he just doesn't care. He's very good at posing for photo ops and angrily calling people who disagree with him "idiotic" and "stupid", but where's the content to his claims? Where is the discussion? Where is the debate?

      When I visited his website, it just looked like a public relations site for Chandler Burr. Where is he having this discussion, and with whom, if anyone? I would be grateful, actually, to anyone reading this who has a copy of the catalogue and would be willing to scan one or more of the essays as a pdf and send them to me so that I can debate him here. But I'm not about to pay $250 for a vanity press production (or is it just marketing?) and samples of perfumes either already in my collection or available at Sephora—or even CVS! I already have something like five free samples of D&G Light Blue from Sephora. lol

      Thank you for your comments, kastehelmi, and please do leave that link! (-;

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  5. To this article, I can only say: amen. and well done.

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    1. Thank you, Bryan! I re-read your "Perfume as Artifice" last night. Impressive. Let me leave the link for those who missed it:

      http://frompyrgos.blogspot.com/2012/10/perfume-as-artifice.html

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  6. Thoroughly enjoyable read, Sherapop. Looking forward to Part II.

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    1. Thank you so much, Flaconneur! Part 2 will be here soon. It was supposed to be the positive sequel, but the critique has expanded, so I may have to post a part 3 as well. ;-)

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  7. I have just now been able to read this and it was certainly a post I was expecting from you. The question of the language we use to describe perfume is a major problem for me. It makes most discussions on perfume crumble and reach a dead end. On to part 2...

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    1. Hello Christos, and welcome back! Glad to see that you have resurfaced!

      Yes, you know me well enough by now to expect an expansive treatment sometime somewhere of every offhand comment I may make either to a blog post (as I did in this case at Memory of Scent!) or in a review...

      I agree with you that the question of language is indeed key, and I must thank you again for galvanizing me to think much more deeply about what it would mean for perfumery to be one of the arts. Before having read your thoughts on the need for a language, including your astute observation that people have been wearing perfume for millennia yet no such language has ever emerged, I was still unclear about the question and probably guilty (at least occasionally) of the approbative application of 'art' to perfume.

      As you know, Bryan Ross (at From Pyrgos) has also influenced me on this topic, and it's a pleasure to be able to have these discussions with both of you. ;-)

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  8. Hi Sherapop,

    Sorry I haven't read the other comments yet.

    About the Maslov food for survival thing: The majority of people in the richer parts of the world have so much food to eat that survival seems to depend on moderation and sound choices, plenty of diseases stem from too much, instead of being depleted from nourishment (whether certain types of food are more like stuffing/filling then proper nourishment and the depletion of the soil of certain minerals is another debate I think)

    When people crowd together the hunt for a high quality mate seems to get more serious, sex appeal, achieving status as desirable to the sexe of preference, I think that is why I see way more people groomed and dressed up in the city I used to live then I see here in the small village I live in now)

    So in urban society perfume might not be a primary thing needed for survival, one does not die when one is not groomed, but one seems to need to be able to attract a really good mate to procreate with (whether one wants to have children or not, just biologically speaking, since that is what pairing up is good for, survival of the species. Ah and maybe also survival of the individual, since people in healthy and happy relationships tend to live healthier and longer)

    Perfume as in a bottle priced a good couple of bucks, yes, that is luxury to some, however I think of Frazer perfume or bespoke perfume as luxury, I can also scent myself for very little money, but I think this is a definition thing, what IS luxury? Artisan, handmade, handpicked ingredients, like handmade custommade shoes. Most luxury brands nowadays aren't really luxury items anymore, yes they are not on every streetcorner and are high in price, but artisan...? I don't consider anything that falls under the LVMH flag a true luxury item, just high end. Which is not the same to me but now I am repeating myself lol, I just hope I am making sense here/making clear what I mean to say :)

    Having little experience, I think maybe yes with perfumes as in having several fragrances oneself, I think not as in using scented products, or knowing people with a certain signature scent (loads of people seem to have experience with a mother aunt grandma who had a signature scent or at least something on the vanity table for special occasions?)

    Quote "In order to sell his perfume to a client, who will then hopefully produce the creation for general consumption, a perfumer must seduce the prospective buyer through the use of provocative metaphors. It will not do to leave it at “this is a beautiful perfume.”

    YES! That is exactly why I LOVE testing completely blind, no bottle to see, name to read, the nose is unknown, house unknown, just smelling the juice and nothing else!! This is how I fell in love with Rock Crystal by Olivier Durbano. In a blind testing session this was the one I reacted strongly to. It brought tears to my eyes so I bought it instantly! And usually I am very careful, testing over and over to see whether the love will grow or find out it was a temporary infatuation.

    I seem to be drawn to names of perfumes, and I used to be drawn to bottles, always seeking the red, dark red and black bottles in the department store.

    You can imagine I had a hard time making sense of the Parfumerie Generale line with all the same bottles and only numbers on them!! (This was three to four years ago, when I came in contact with niche perfumes for the first time)

    Quote "that the client actually like the scent and believe that others will too" This can be a whole new topic, for who do you wear perfume, do you want others to notice, is it a private pleasure, do you seek approval and from who(m?) do you seek it? A non conformist may think they are wearing it just for themselves, but might just as well seek approval for their non-conformity, like wow that is a very different/odd/ scent.

    I've got to go now, and this is becoming way too long anyway, will report back later, love your website!! A true gem in cyberspace if you ask me!!


    C. about L'AdR


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    1. Hello, crazyaboutlairderien,

      Sorry for the delay in replying to your post, which is bursting at the seams with ideas!!!!

      Let me begin by probing into your assertion that LVMH is not luxury. Aren't they the makers of fine spirits? Why is that not luxury? What about the LV handbags? Aren't they the definition of luxury?

      Please do elaborate on your distinction between luxury and high end! ;-)

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  9. I'll be back later but here http://www.danaspoint.net/ is the website of Dana Thomas, author of the book Deluxe: How luxury lost its luster.

    http://www.amazon.com/Deluxe-How-Luxury-Lost-Luster/dp/0143113704


    Quote: "
    Once luxury was available only to the rarefied and aristocratic world of old money and royalty. It offered a history of tradition, superior quality, and a pampered buying experience. Today, however, luxury is simply a product packaged and sold by multibillion-dollar global corporations focused on growth, visibility, brand awareness, advertising, and, above all, profits. Award-winning journalist Dana Thomas digs deep into the dark side of the luxury industry to uncover all the secrets that Prada, Gucci, and Burberry don?t want us to know. Deluxe is an uncompromising look behind the glossy façade that will enthrall anyone interested in fashion, finance, or culture."

    C about l'AdR

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    1. This is going on my reading list--thank you so much, crazyaboutlairderien!

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