The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt and My Chemical Self On Vacation

From Notes from the Archivist

I’m laying on the beach with nothing between my body and the grainy mud and sargassum on the shore. I’m prickling from a sunburn all over, but the ground is cool. I flip over to lay on my back, with wet, brown leaves glued to my stomach like stinking bandages. A preservation program. It smells like rotten eggs and I mostly have the beach to myself. Tourists stopped coming to Daytona Beach a while ago because of the lingering seaweed and plastic blob, known as the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt. It’s 5,000 miles across and could be seen from space, if people could still see things from space. The smell is awful and it burns your eyes and sinuses until you eventually get used to it or just leave. There were reports on the local news that it was home to a flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus.

All the mom-and-pop restaurants and tacky souvenir shops filled with t-shirts and gator heads dotting the boardwalk closed up after the second or third summer of it, and now what’s left are mostly abandoned monolithic hotel chain highrises and the scaffolded shells of ill-fated condo construction projects. Stubborn, sun-leathered locals still live in bungalows as close as a half-mile to the shore, and the trailers edge closer in, patching the dunes with newly laid and dangerously angled concrete slabs.

I keep thinking of this essay my internet friend shared with me. He is a perfumist who lives in the Greater Orlando area, who I have never met in person.

From Creating Spices For the Mind[1]:

Given the importance and complexity of olfactory perception,
it is possible to hypothesize the existence of what can be called
“the human chemical self,” which is fundamentally different in its
function from what is generally understood by a “human (or “physi-
cal”) self” as constituted by the data provided to the mind by the
distance-based sensory modalities of vision, hearing, and touch.
This proposed chemical self, in order to be complete, should have
its own mechanisms of communication with the world, just as it
should have its own value system and even its own memory. The
so-called Proustian effect – when one has a strikingly totalizing
recollection of a particular episode of one’s past after encountering
the associated odor many years later – can only be explained by the
existence of memory mechanisms in our body that somehow con-
stantly record chemical characteristics of our environment.

My chemical self, also an archivist, is constantly recording the characteristics of our environment. My chemical self communicates and has their own value system… I wonder what my chemical self remembers about the internet. What about their proposed evolutionary function, to identify what around them is Not Them? Did I smell the internet without distinction from my own body odor, and connect the strange tangle of human consciousness, AI, scam, porn, shitpost and advertisement as something that has arisen within myself, for lack of a stranger’s scent-marker?

Smells appear to suspend the basic function of language – that of
primary naming – which makes olfactory references serve as kinds
of voids in language’s signifying fabric. Language can only process
the olfactory by referring to its material sources, the smell-emitting
objects, such as in “the smell of carrot, sea, my mother’s hair, etc.”

The hydrogen sulfide released from the sargassum smells like rotten eggs. There is no referent for the scent of my mother’s house. A dangling signifier. I am making use of my childhood acclimation to living around terrible smells to take advantage of the mostly clear beaches.

I am thinking about the Western project of deodorization that began during the Enlightenment, and carried through Modernism a sensory hierarchy that prioritized vision, and encouraged the secretivity of our fugitive chemical selves. I inhale deeply and let myself taste the rotten egg smell on purpose. The notability procedure for my body archive has more to do with the inevitability of things than some predetermined value of them.

I remember my internet friend, Carter Weeks Maddox the perfumist, wrote about how Horkheimer and Adorno missed out on the fact that the perfume industry also created mass media. Carter said they were too traumatized by what they’d witnessed in Europe to think about the real parameters of what constitutes the culture industry. He’d typed the paragraphs out on his Instagram story and I had to hold the slides down with my thumbs to read the long blocks of text.

Someone farther down the beach has a boombox and is blasting familiar reggaeton hits from years ago. El Alfa, Bad Bunny and Tokischa. I love the repetitive bass and the collage of references to dancehall riddims in Dembow, especially. Another living archive. An anchored signifier, and pulsating signification. Little waves are pushing up closer and closer, until there’s cool water all around me. On the breeze the scent of sunscreen momentarily masks the sulfur. I’m happy to hear this music and feel the ocean.    

The sun is setting and a half a mile up the beach is a lionfish food truck. I can smell the hot oil mingling with the stench in the air and my stomach is gurgling. You can stand and watch them skin and clean the fish while you wait for their Floridian ceviche or a deep fried filet on a soft bun. Poisonous spines pointed safely down on the cutting board. Three quick cuts with a sharp knife. Beneath the pectoral fin, down to the belly, and another shallow cut just deep enough to split the skin all the way down right beneath the poison spines to the tail. A last cut below the belly. A yank and the skin peels off revealing buttery tissue beneath. Flat knife, parallel to the cutting board, fileting the meat just skimming the ribs. Fresh pink bloodline.

I keep walking up the beach in the dark, still tasting lionfish and tonguing bits of cilantro off my teeth. I haven’t been to a dentist in many years and I am anxious about the plaque buildup under my gums. Another collection entered into the Archive. I take a gulp of beer from my thermos and swish it around in my mouth, like Ke$ha in that song “Tik Tok” from 2009.

I can see a pink neon sign that looks like it’s floating right over a sandbar farther out. I wade out to get closer, parting the slimy clumps of leaves with my fingers spread wide. I touch something cool and smooth with my foot. The sand is covering a tile step. I’m overwhelmed by the smell of popcorn and perfume. Another step up and I’m standing in the entryway of a Claire’s on the sandbar. The storefront windows must have been busted out a long time ago leaving a grid of empty steel frames opening into the walls of sparkling, bright tchotchkes.

I’m sitting on a tall stool as the piercer swabs my right earlobe with an alcohol wipe and gently marks a dot in the center with a felt-tipped marker. Now my left earlobe. She loads the gun with a steel piercing stud and raises it up to the side of my face. She tells me to breathe in… and 1…2…3… I exhale to a loud mechanical click and cold pressure on my ear. It stings just a little bit. And then the other one (both entries into my Body Archive.) My eyes are closed and I’m listening to the sound of the waves lapping against the sandbar outside. The sulfur smell is mingling with the mall smell. The new piercing stings as the woman twists an earring backing into the steel post.

I wade back out into the water and towards the shore again.

[1] Maksym Klymentiev (2014) Creating Spices for the Mind, The Senses and Society, 9:2, 212-231

Slide 1 - copy
Image is not available
Like what you read?
Here are two ways to show your support:
Liked what you read?
Here are two ways to support: