Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Entry #20: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

tautology, tautological

I used the term tautology recently, in an exchange with my perfume pal Bryan Ross (From Pyrgos) in the comments on a recent post. He had invoked "The Law of Aspen", and I attempted to offer counterexamples, which he indicated were also covered, which led me to retort that the "law" sounded more like a tautology to me. So what is a tautology? 

It is a statement which is logically true. It cannot be false. Here are a couple of examples:

Perfume is perfume.

Either a liquid is perfume, or it is not perfume.

In thinking about logical form, it may be easier to substitute letters for the propositions, so that one does not get distracted by the meanings of the terms. I admit that in recent decades professional philosophers went a bit crazy with their symbol-mongering, probably because they wished that they were mathematicians, or maybe because the more they obfuscate their thoughts, the less accessible they become to general readers, who then leave the philosophers all alone in their little intellectual ghetto to talk to one another and twiddle their thumbs. Anyway, here's the symbol form of the above two statements:

P = P

P v ~P

I doubt that anyone will take issue with the first of the two statements, but one might wonder whether something could be "neither-nor". Maybe a liquid is neither perfume nor not-perfume. Most terms which we use do however work, since the two choices are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. There is no logical "sort of". The important point is just to decide what you mean by "perfume", then see whether a proposed liquid is subsumed by that definition or not. Either it is, or it is not. 

There are plenty of truisms, which seem in reality to be true, but it is not a matter of their logical form. It's instead a contingent matter, having to do with the way the world happens to be.

Perfume should smell good.

Perfume is to be worn.

When examples of unwearable juice are adduced, usually they are still considered to be perfume, just bad perfume, but they do seem to conflict with the truism that "Perfume is to be worn," which should perhaps be modified to read:

Good perfume is to be worn. 

That sounds like a truism, but even that might be false. Some people may prefer to hoard their perfume to sell at a later date, or perhaps they don't want to squander it on less-lofty occasions, so they wear it only to special events or around certain people.

Getting back to "The Law of Aspen", the idea, as I understand it, is that a cheap-o perfume such as Aspen survives only because it smells good. My problem with that statement was that there could be other reasons why such a perfume survives, and if it is true that every perfume at the drugstore which continues to sell does so because some people think that it smells good, then the "law" starts to sound more like a tautology to me. Are there really no counterexamples? Perhaps I've misunderstood the explanatory work done by this alleged law? 

I recently saw a line-up of "Smells Like" knock-offs at the drugstore, and I noticed that all of the testers were empty. I smelled a couple of the nozzles and found that they did smack of the famous perfume which they were explicitly mimicking: Angel, Chanel no 5, Euphoria, and others. Then I started to think about why those perfumes continue to sell, especially in an era where online perfume discounters abound, and most mainstream perfumes can now be found for a fraction of MSRP. Does "The Law of Aspen" apply to this case? Or is the explanation for the success of the drugstore knock-offs instead simple human ignorance?


  1. Based upon people I know, there are different motivations. Some want "something new," while others only want to buy "name brands" or "top designers." Still others will say they want "a fresh floral" or something along those lines. I really don't care. If they ask me for advice I'll give it to them, since they know that it's' my hobby and if they wanted advice from me they would not be bashful about asking. Why do people go to see "Rock Part 82" or whatever when they disliked the previous sequel? One can go on and on, of course, but there is likely some truth in the idea that some olfactory concoctions do "hit the spot" on some mass level, though in other cultures it might be perceived as awful and marketing may have made its "best seller" status possible. If it makes me feel ill a few minutes after I've sprayed it on, that's going to be determinative for me.

    1. Thanks, bigsly. I wonder whether all of our tastes are not conditioned, and virtually any taste might be acquired. Think how different perfumes today are from the now-infamous 1980s scents. Or take patchouli and tuberose, which from what I understand were considered in the early twentieth century appropriate only for brothel-type settings.

      My distinct impression is that most of the "mass level" appeal of fragrances is caused by associations insinuated in our minds through marketing. It could simply be Pavlovian, involving the association of the thought or anticipation of a pleasant sensation (say sexual pleasure) with a perfume. We see this all the time in advertising, with sexy models (often scantily clad--if not naked) posing with perfume bottles.

      How did Chanel no 5 succeed so resplendently, if not by these associations? Younger people may find something like J'Adore more appealing for the simple reason that Charlize Theron is someone to whom they can relate better than Marilyn Monroe, who by now is a historical figure closer to Elvis Presley than to "cool" contemporary celebrities. Maybe that's why some young women maintain that Chanel no 5 smells like an "old lady" perfume. Marilyn Monroe has been dead for more than half a century!

      Perhaps the example I adduced above of the drugstore knock-offs is not that helpful, since the people who buy them clearly aspire to buy the brand name perfumes but opt for the knock-offs either because they (ignorantly in some cases) believe that they cannot afford them, or else they happen to believe that one should not spend very much of one's wallet share on perfume.

      Either way, it is the name of the original perfume which attracts them, having been exposed to all of its marketing, from which the knock-off then benefits parasitically. I forgot to check the prices on the knock-offs, but if they cost only, say, $9.99, then my above argument sort of falls apart. Even the savviest internet shopper will never find a bottle of Chanel no 5 for $9.99!

      I am quite sure that mass perfume consumption is subject to all of the usual whims of fashion, and people probably do buy based more on associations than on scent. So that's I suppose the point of "The Law of Aspen": if there are no associations, because there is no hype or marketing, then the only thing left is the scent. Still plenty of ghastly perfumes continue to sell at the drugstores, so the people who buy them must not be all that discriminating, and I'd say that the explanation lies therein, not in the quality of the fragrance in those cases.

      Of course, which fragrances fit into the two categories will differ from person to person! Some people apparently enjoy wearing fragrances which strike me as toxic as they induce profound feelings of malaise and even, as you report, illness.

  2. Sher, great post. I don't recall the exact terminology I used, but I believe Sanchez wrote something like, "The only allure the non-luxury perfumes have for the buyer is their smell." Which leads to the issue of tautology - there is a difference between saying something like "perfume is perfume," vs. "some drugstore fragrances sell because they smell good, not because they are heavily marketed or come in pretty packages." From that comes the Law of Aspen, a commentary on the infallibility of perfumes that eschew branding but sell quite briskly anyway, thanks to their adherence to a basic principle: a perfume should, above all, smell good. Can we take "perfume is perfume" and "perfume should smell good" and draw tautological conclusions? You will have to enlighten me on that, it goes far beyond my understanding. If I contradicted the original conversation with any of the above, my apologies!

    1. Thank you, Bryan. I am still trying to decide what to think of the "law" (see my response to bigs, above), but I do aver that you have articulated an interesting distinction. Let's try to parse your formulation logically:

      "Some drugstore fragrances sell because they smell good, not because they are heavily marketed or come in pretty packages."

      That's the explanation, and the statement calling for explanation is this one:

      "Some drugstore fragrances sell despite the fact that neither are they heavily marketed nor do they come in pretty packages."

      So then the question is: Why? Why do they sell? Your liberal reading of The Law of Aspen seems to exclude any other possible explanation, which is why I was accusing it of tautology. I still wonder whether there might not be other explanations, and I think that the law only really works in explaining the profitability of perfumes which one happens to like.

      Assuming that Sanchez denounces some drugstore scents which are also not heavily marketed and also do not come in alluring packaging, she cannot use the Law of Aspen to explain THEIR success. She is, after all, asserting that Aspen is a good fragrance. She cannot use the Law of Aspen to explain the success of a fragrance which she abhors.

      In our previous exchange on this topic, you replied to my expression of consternation that what those fragrances show is that SOMEONE finds them good. But Sanchez rejects relativism (I believe that she did this quite vociferously in one of her Serge Lutens reviews--maybe Serge Noire?). So she does not believe that the goodness of a fragrance is a function of the wearer. She believes that some perfumes are bad and that the people who like those perfumes are therefore wrong. That's why I think that your liberal take, allowing that even fragrances which you consider to be bad, may to others be great--and so are therefore also covered by the Law of Aspen--is not a thesis to which Sanchez subscribes. That was why I thought that the law as stated was false, and that your reading was tautological.

      I realize that The Holey[sic] is riddled with inconsistencies, so maybe I'm just taking Sanchez too seriously here. Well, I'll continue to mull over this one, and I thank you for weighing in again!

      As for your final question, can we draw conclusions from tautologies? Afraid not. That's why many people find logic so boring, because it does not really tell you anything that you did not already know. From a contradiction, say "p & ~p", everything follows. From a tautology: nothing!

    2. The original statement includes the phrase, "because they smell good," . . . doesn't that answer the question as to why they sell? And if my reasoning excludes variables, then it can't possibly be tautology, can it?

      I have to mention that I think the parameters for the discussion are a little exaggerated. There actually aren't that many drugstore perfumes in the U.S.A. There is (in my area) strictly Old Spice, Aqua Velva, Skin Bracer, Clubman, Brut, Afta, Aspen, Tabu, Vanilla Fields, Emeraude, Stetson, English Leather, Canoe, and Preferred Stock. Good luck finding anything else on the actual store shelves. The rest are behind locked glass and usually surpass $10 an ounce in price, which lifts them clear of the "drugstore scent" label. Things like Shalimar EDC (not by Guerlain btw), all sell for around $40 or $50 a bottle. So when you mention that there are "plenty of ghastly perfumes continuing to sell at drugstores," I wonder which ones are the ghastly ones? The commonly-shelved fragrances above are, with the exception of Emeraude, Afta, and Preferred Stock, pretty widely considered "good," quality-wise. Things like the entire Jovan range and Prince Matchabelli scents . . . I actually consider them a subset of niche, not drugstore. K-Mart sells some of those at higher prices.

      That's why I thought your original contention about the Law of Aspen was a little theoretical - it suggests that these fragrances smell bad, yet sell like hotcakes because people don't know any better. Built into that is the theory that people who buy them are so disinterested and ignorant that they've never smelled anything better than Old Spice and Aqua Velva (hard to prove). Also in there is the assumption that the drugstore moniker covers a huge swath of cheap fragrances, when in actuality I think it really only covers maybe fifteen or twenty here in America, and perhaps another five or six from Europe (Tabac comes to mind - widely considered a classic).

      Your point about Sanchez is murky here. Unless Sanchez came out and specifically said that she thinks certain perfumes suck and those who wear them are wrong, I can't help but think that you're reading into something she wrote, finding maybe some inconsistencies in her thinking, and drawing a conclusion based on an educated guess - which in itself is not a bad thing to do! I'd have to take a look at the specific points of interest in Sanchez's writing and cross-reference her thoughts to draw the same conclusion. I'll look for Serge Noir in the Guide tomorrow and see if I can piece that together.

      The point about Sanchez and Aspen however . . . Aspen smells good. It succeeds because of it, and despite having no marketing apparatus beyond its packaging. The fragrances that Sanchez asserts smell bad are usually mid-priced (sometimes luxe), and I cannot think of any other instances where she craps on anything in Aspen's price-range, and geared to Aspen's demographic (teenage to middle-aged men).

      If she abhors a fragrance, she may abhor it because it genuinely smells awful. She has kind words for other cheapies like Stetson and Sex Appeal. She seems to take issue with sloppiness. Sanchez doesn't like Charlie, as I recall. Charlie has been around for a long time and sells well. But Charlie, unlike Aspen, has about twenty-five flankers. She dismisses it based on its crudeness ("galbanum gamely standing in for class" reads to me like a criticism of formula decisions, and not the basic framework of the perfume, which she likens to the lauded vintage Vent Vert). So Charlie remains in production because its sisters are collectively bringing in enough money, and Sanchez marks her opinion's territory in an analysis of its credibility as a serious middle-class business-wear option, which after all was the type of demographic Charlie was intended for.

      It gets tricky!

    3. Thanks so much, Bryan--so many excellent points here! Thanks also for the list of drugstore scents and a fair assessment of what is going on there at CVS. You are right: there are a bunch of perfumes locked behind glass--all of the standard mainstream designer fragrances with any history are there. Good points about Jovan and some of the others, too.

      Charlie is a perfect example of the problem I found with the Law, but I find your explanation plausible.

      I'm off to the bath and probably bed, but I'll definitely look over your many insights tomorrow once I've recaffeinated.

      Sweet scented dreams!!!! (Not of Emeraude--just saw your review! ;-)


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