Micrology of Odor in Religion v. II

I don’t pretend to be a biblical scholar, and this is not an article or book proposal on a sociology of religion. The paragraphs below are occasional reflections where I attempt to illustrate ambiguity or problems of interpretation. I don’t intend to offend but by bringing out such mentions of odor I’ve come across. A representation of religion is rooted in carnality in the sense that it it’s the lowest or most offensive opposite. And of course that is why the rejection or condemnation is so formidable and long lasting.  However, I have used non-religious sources to illustrate this point. One might say that these are an uncharacteristic micrology.

Opium of the People

From Karl Marx’s most hated quotation:

“Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

From Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” Introduction “Speech for the altars and hearths” in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, International Publishers, New York, 1975, page 175}

For Marx at this point, religion is a complement and consolation in reaction to history’s current configuration.  Read carefully, the sentences state that religion is a means of expression and protest. It makes ‘spirit’ possible in a heartless and spiritless world.  Second, a rhetorical relationship between aroma and opium is there.  The aroma of religion is in the air. Religion has the aroma of opium.  Now, is opium a narcotic or a pain killer?  Using ‘opium,’ seems incongruous with the other ideas or just an ill-conceived choice of words to follow ‘aroma.’  The phrase “of the people” could be read as “for the people.” That might be more plausible depending on what the German phrase is, which I haven’t had time to consult.  “For the people” might switch the valence from people accepting to be duped by religion to a veil cast by political and social institutions for the purpose of preventing people from learning the truth about their circumstances.  The complex nature of religion is a way for people to find themselves along with real political and economic change or, even, revolution.

But what if Marx had not used the word “opium?” Would any other odor be less dismal or, instead, sacrosanct? What if the aroma of religion were gardenias, lilacs, onions, garlic, garbage, sewage, roses, pine trees, fresh bread, newly mown grass or hay, cilantro, dead fish, curry, oranges, or the Cedars of Lebanon?  What about the Amorphophallus titanium at the climax of its rare blooming?

What does an odor mask, at the altar, whether of incense, fresh flowers, or Christmas trees?  Of course, the “rose” has a great deal of symbolic weight in the Bible and Christianity.  But if Marx had written instead:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the rose of the people.

That seems to confound his meaning as well as that of the significance of the “rose” in Christianity.  A rose can mask bad odors too. A rose aroma, associated with the thorns of the State, might have been more appropriate than the smell and effect of opium.  A rose smell would have lulled people into a pleasant delirium of the senses too.  Would then a ‘rose by another name’ smell as sweet?

Odor of Absolute Knowledge

Absolute knowledge of the Hegelian model is elusive either because it either exceeds the grasp of thinking and history or is veiled from sight or smell.   That is, one can’t obtain Absolute Knowledge or wouldn’t recognize it if one did.  What is the tell-tale sign of the trail of Absolute Knowledge after Hegel?  In his impressive history of the interplay of theory and praxis, (Lobkowitz, Theory and Practice: The History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx, 277) calls this the “opiate of Absolute Knowledge…”

He argues that Left Hegelians’ search for Absolute Knowledge yields a definition of practice as the exercise of self-consciousness to identify their own critical escape from religion and underscore the hope that one-day humanity may develop a critical consciousness.   Whether in publications or in solitary exercises of critical thought, while attending to signs of history manifesting Absolute Knowledge, they doubted efficacy of political engagement. Lobkowitz suggests that the atmosphere of this position is an opiate clouding better thinking about praxis.

Lobkowitz picks up Marx’s phrase to characterize the “Left Hegelians” predecessors of Marx.  Chronologically in texts, the opiate of religion follows the “opiate of Absolute Knowledge” but both address religion as a barricade to social and historical development. In this case, the opiate applies to reliance on self-conscious critique or the rumblings of history.  Salvation comes from humanities’ escape from religion.   Even then “Spirit” lifts the veil and shows the way.  Spirit’s vision must be manifested by being externalized in the consciousness and critique.

At the end of Hegel’s “Phenomenology,” the externalization of Spirit takes shape in movement from self-consciousness to time, space, and History.  “Externalization” (A.V. Miller; trans. 492) is also “kenosis.”  A brief search of definitions yields definitions including “emptying oneself” and “abasement”  A Catholic definition is that In Christ’s “kenosis” “He freely subjected Himself to most of the pains resulting from bodily exertion and adverse external influences, e.g. fatigue, hunger, wounds, etc.….Besides, He could prevent their disturbing the actions of His soul and His peace of mind.” –(http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08617a.htm)  If one were to imagine the most base result, that would give off some kind of odor.

Lobkowitz writes of the course of the Left Hegelians that until 1848 in “them the general politicization of thought had developed under the unlucky star of Absolute Knowledge.” (209)  Leaving no stone unturned relevant to his criticism, he writes that these “cranks” amount to thirty persons at the most. (216). That Left Hegelians were under the shine for an unlucky star is another metaphor for their limited sense of politics and history.  The star of Absolute Knowledge is unlucky, not a guiding star by which to navigate

In an unrelated but appealing connection here, Adorno exposes the popular version of finding unlucky stars through astrology.  Astrology (T.Adorno, “Stars Down to Earth”) portrays itself as a key to understanding and predicting one’s place in the cosmos.  When newspapers (or now other media) carry horoscopes, then, comfort and hope displace feelings of despair and hopelessness.  Astrology is a sign of and vehicle of reification.

For Adorno, “occult” beliefs and practices – e.g. astrology – embody or spiritualize social and cultural domination and reification. The individual subjective search for meaning is surrendered to the stars and planets.  Adorno writes that followers of occult beliefs find only the “offal of the phenomenal world” outside the configuration of time of birth, place of birth, and positions of the sun, moon, planets, stars, etc.; especially as given in “Christian Astrology” of 1647.  http://www.renaissanceastrology.com/horary.htmlAdorno (174) uses the term “offal” to describe occult followers’ perception of worldly context.  However, I don’t think it is farfetched to think that Adorno feels this way about occult practices themselves.

Offal means the organ parts of animals that are usually undesirable to eat (e.g. lungs, gizzards, livers, kidneys, tongue, or brain) in spite of its appearance. In the U.S. lungs, chitterlings, pork rind, brains, and tongue are parts of the culinary scene. For example, my parents always wanted gizzards and livers from fried chicken.  I met a Norwegian sea captain who left the delicacy of fresh salmon eyeballs for a tasty last bite.  In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom walks through the city with a lamb’s liver in his pocket. Needless, to say Romans found auspices in the entrails of birds. Like opium in the Communist Manifesto, the smell of offal might be the smell of sewage, roses, decay, desirable cuisine, or even the hope of further prosperity.

An individual’s taste affects what is offal and like opium.  Offal has substance that becomes a stink. Whether offal or opium, the odor may be acceptable to some people in order to get some pleasure.  Offal or opium exhibit their own form of thoughtful stimulants. In both cases, the critique of religion falls short of theory and praxis.  Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” (Helen Keller)
The smell of mushrooms in science, religion and “New Thought”

William James uses an interesting phrase of “mushroom knowledge” to color ideas about the proliferation of scientific and empiricism and science. We know that mushrooms have their own moldy smell and taste of earth; however they can be safe in a salad, suspicious as a hallucinogen, and, of course, deadly. They grow from decay in the woods. James’s settings for his analysis of alternative descriptions of traditional science and religion brush up against forest mushrooms probably in his own hiking and camping in spite of his own physical disability. Mushrooms become metaphors only when a cliché rather than mycology is adapted. This is an infinitesimal phrase in James’s work, but a pithy one.

This phrase appears in a lecture about suicide, or rather if “life is worth living.” Both traditional science and traditional religion offer no assurance or comfort to one in despair. James strongly argues and urges that suicide is not the proper or justified (but understandable) response to that despair.   The more science dominates though, the more it cannot acknowledge the depth of other approaches to knowledge.  The more dogmatic religion brushes up against science, the more it infects other beliefs. Both degrade individual hope rooted in different sources of belief and approaches to reasoning.

When James uses the phrase “mushroom knowledge” he must mean that scientific knowledge grows fast and abundant. About the growth of science and scientific information James asks whether it is “credible that such a mushroom knowledge, such a growth overnight as this, can represent more than the minutest glimpse of what the Universe will really prove to be when adequately understood?” (James, William, 1842-1910. Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 488-490, emphasis added).

When James uses the phrase “mushroom knowledge,” this can be interpreted by examine what scientific facts of mushrooms themselves disrupt this cliché. The odors of mushrooms are distinctive.  Varieties of mushrooms are nutritious, hallucinogenic, or deadly. Some of their smells include almonds, raw potatoes, and rotting flesh. http://americanmushrooms.com/odors.htm I think the ones that smell or taste like raw potatoes smell and taste like soil itself.  They grow at varying rates, especially in rotting logs and moist soil.  James’ walks would have taken him past mushrooms.  Mushrooms “prefer dark, cool, moist, and humid growing environments.”   Mushrooms turn decay into nutrition. http://www.bhg.com/gardening/vegetable/vegetables/how-to-grow-mushrooms/dark.   James’ “Pragmatism: A new name for old ways of thinking” does not shy away from examining philosophy and science like examining mushrooms from all their characteristics.  He does his own digging and uprooting the sources of both.  “Pragmatism” is a method and individual aspiration to approximate truth by uncovering what is suitable for life.

In the course of scientific exploration In contrast he states that “the world of physics is probably not absolute, all the converging multitude of arguments that make in favor of idealism tend to prove… “It is a fact of human nature that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes without a single dogma or definition. (James, William, Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 556-557

The other sources of hope are hidden and manifested even in the “crepuscular depths of personality” (James, William, 1842-1910. Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 646-647).  The dominant views of religion and science suppress other expressions of the “spiritual.”  Expressed by a theologian Fechner, James – of whom James is somewhat crucial — describes his view under contemporaneous conditions that “the flowers wither at its breath, the stars turn into stone; our own body grows unworthy of our spirit and sinks to a tenement for carnal senses only.” (James, William, 1842-1910. “A Parallel Universe” (Kindle Locations 150) James states that in the “crepuscular depths of personality” of an individual — and maybe, for James, of a collective memory and spirit — a parallel universe of spirituality persists and resists the gravity of science and religion.

At this point in James’ writing and Joyce’s philosophy are pointers to exploration of consciousness and “mental activity” as well as their association with nature.   Strong’s “brain event” shows the scientific method of finding causality at work. Strong does admire James, but tries to refute this. (C. A. Strong    “A Naturalistic Theory of the Reference of Thought to Reality, “The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 1, No. 10 (May 12,   1904), pp. 253-260, Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.  Jstor: stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2011303,    Accessed: 06-12-2015 17:22 UTC)   Both Henri Bergson and Strong, James writes, “have the hunter’s instinct for the fruitful trails.” In contrast, Radical Empiricism and Pragmatism are aspects of the some method of thinking beyond the borders of traditional science and traditional religion, scientific method and absolutism or logic and feeling.

James cites Fechner’s idea of an “Earth-Soul” (Essays on Radical Empiricism, Longmans, Green, and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London, New York, Bombay, and Calcutta, 1912).  With a bit of mycology, James could have turn the phrase ‘mushroom knowledge” many ways applied to traditional science and religion. For example, science and religion could be deadly: James wrote that “religion is a pathology.”  Radical Empiricism would explore the intricacies of both, but not to arrive at a synthesis, but in order to understand if the

“The health for philosophy is to leave off grubbing underground for what effects effectuation, or what makes action act, and to try to solve the concrete questions of where effectuation in this world is  located, of which things are the true causal agents there, and of what the more remote effects consist…. Causation inhabits no more inquiry equally sublime level than anything else.  It lives in the dirt of the world as well as in the absolute, or in man’s unconquerable mind.  The worth and interest of the world consists not in its elements, be these elements of things, or of conjunctions of things; it exists rather in the dramatic outcome of the whole process and in the meaning of the succession stages the elements work out.”

A Pluralistic Universe, 392, 393

James’ comments about “New Thought” are satirical at best. “Mind” or the “law of association” are caricatures of absolutism.  They are given life by faith and action, but that is not to say have any causal relationship to the “universe.”  They may be useful to give meaning, but not to materialize “cash value.”  Discovery of ‘the Secret’ is a misplace search for a cause rather than a meaning; furthermore it generates its own ‘cash value’ in being a form of usury.  James’ criticizes Royce and absolutism for ignoring the “particulars” of life and activity no matter how seemingly small and smelly.    The name of big causes (in all senses) cling to the abstract when seen in their bloody particulars.

Causes, as anti-slavery, democracy, liberty, etc., dwindle when realized in their sordid particulars. The veritable  cash-value  of the idea seems to cleave to it in the abstract status  Truth at large,  as Royce contends, in his Philosophy of Loyalty, appears as another thing altogether from the true  particulars in which it  is best to believe.  It transcends in value all those expediencies, and is something to live for, whether expedient or inexpedient. Truth, with a big T, is a ‘momentous issue’; truths in detail are ‘poor scraps’ mere ‘crumbling successes.’

James, A Pluralist Universe, 341.


Meaning cannot be severed from the particulars, and ‘mind’ cannot be abstracted from its content and context. We can neither bury meaning in the dirt nor ‘lift up’ its significance in a balloon of abstraction.

Mushrooms turn decay into nourishment. Decay and nourishment, light and dark, can be scientifically investigated for causes. Mushrooms have meaning enough to give credence to a metaphor of knowledge. Mushrooms exhibit a construct of meaning

Odor of Cybernetics

As for Marx, opium induces confusion or sleep, and the contextual habit stemming from many other sources.  Its cloud induces somnambulism as a reaction to life. No matter what the source, information is filtered by the fog. Signs of confusion or sleep occur in the construction of categories into which information systems we attempt to bind them.  Regardless of any system’s formulas, algorithms, automatic edit checks, or “baked in” business rules, choices of reference, operational definitions, disambiguation precede them. In the professional practice of system development, by definition, information that is not bounded by a system is just noise. When “data” is made synonymous with information anything not providing only the minimum clean data to make the system work is still noise. In such a world there is no “feedback.” “Machine learning” is not an appropriate analog due to the organic cause and effect, machines don’t learn when sensors are not built to stream facts.

Bateson has his own allusion to opium.  He sets the stage for what cybernetics and ecology are not. Nevertheless schizophrenia is still an option with the introduction of opium.  Discerning what is ‘real” is disturbed by conflicting messages conveyed as truth.  The question floats to the surface of what ‘reality’ a person finds preferable. Somnambulism is one option.

Similar to what Marx remarks about religion, evaluation of information technology performance is shadowed by such a pervasive atmosphere. A system’s performance is gauged by seconds (or less) a transaction or response to a command occurs.   The quality of the data needed for that response is assumed.  — unless automatic edit checks are built into the application.  It is safe to say that a system might function in the darkness.

A fundamental contradiction is that providing or receiving unchecked data might close scrutiny of data, especially when combined with equally unchecked data. Breathing or taking the opiate of technology might make the clouded atmosphere even more deceiving.

In cybernetic ecology an intoxicating atmosphere with no feedback is bad enough, but what happens with contradictory feedback?  Without feedback habits or patterns would not be habits or patters, random movement or action.  Taking a cybernetic approach, systems without feedback are not systems are all. Evanescent, memories. On the surface it appears to be a misguided attempt to explain cause and effect.

Comparing it to other of his arguments it is about habit. But   people in habits in context and contexts have habitual forms and actions (events). In both instances, “feedback” is one effect that perpetuates habits.

McLuhan, in Guttenberg Galax, writes that “Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.”  Like Bateson, McLuhan quotes Russell’s remarks on category mistakes, in the same context as Bateson,  and how that describes the logic of schizophrenia.   The “logic” of schizophrenia severs any bounds of truth.

The proliferation of media particularly depends on these category contradictions.  It is important to note that this is about the long transition from “oral” to “visual” forms of representation and information. A revolution in visual literacy turned on printed Pushed further and further, cybernetics transforms electrical pulses to visual effects that people consume and provide their feedback with demands for more.

The opium of the masses continues to be the utopian opium of cybernetic connectivity. When combined with technology forms of opium, people’s habitual somnambulism, at least seen in public, dominates streets, sidewalks, intersections, restaurants, Opium, for Marx and Bateson, forms a smoke screen inhibiting insight to one’s habits and their sources.  For Marx the effect of opium is in the air, and could be caused by other intoxicating smells.  For Bateson opium veils understanding by inducing a habitual use of vacuous categories, which pretend to define a concept via tautology.

Schizophrenia is embedded – like journalists are “embedded” [in bedded] with war – any path to truth, or even logical interpretation.

Sweet Odor of God

My personal attachment to an odor of religion I would like to say is a mixture of dust in the wind charged by the sun, or the decay of old books, or the burnt flesh of cattle (Texas style). Which is the predominant one? As I have circumnavigated I have passed by them all, and all are biblical. However, for me, all of these lead to the barbeque of “burnt ends.

Leviticus begins with the frank instruction about how burnt flesh brings a “sweet aroma to the Lord.”  The burnt offering as accepted brings ‘an atonement on behalf of the worshipper” and “atonement is reconciliation with God.” [The Orthodox Study Bible, Leviticus, 1: 1, p. 89]  A tiny search for more detail from Jewish sources yields the following:

The mammals and birds that may be eaten must be slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law. (Deut. 12:21). We may not eat animals that died of natural causes (Deut. 14:21) or that were killed by other animals. In addition, the animal must have no disease or flaws in the organs at the time of slaughter. These restrictions do not apply to fish; only to the flocks and herds (Num. 11:22).

Ritual slaughter is known as shechitah, and the person who performs the slaughter is called a shochet, both from the Hebrew root Shin-Chet-Tav, meaning to destroy or kill. The method of slaughter is a quick, deep stroke across the throat with a perfectly sharp blade with no nicks or unevenness. This method is painless, causes unconsciousness within two seconds, and is widely recognized as the most humane method of slaughter possible.

Another advantage of shechitah is that ensures rapid, complete draining of the blood, which is also necessary to render the meat kosher. Overview of Jewish Ritual and Prayer, and Meat Science Kosher and Halal

Kosher barbeque is on the menu in Kansas City.  Kosher ingredients and contest procedures are listed at Kansas City Kosher Barbeque Championship Certainly here the “sweet odor” of barbeque  brings people together: “The goal of the competition—beyond creating a time and space where people can come together—is to educate the Kansas City community about the meaning and deeper significance of ‘kosher.’”