Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Pleasure as Nature in Culture
First Mode of Access
The naked pleasure of food, testified by the need and desire for raw tastes, hunger, and pure delight, is an aesthetic value that emerges from a complex and multifaceted network of experiences and relationships. According to our pragmatic and relational aesthetics, such an aesthetic value reveals the link between the two opposite poles of nature and culture. Pleasure is needed for enjoyment and, at the same time, enjoyment of a necessity. Naked pleasure is a perceptual experience driven by impulses and needs that are not governed by conscious intentions. Moving toward more complex cognitive levels—those of the adult world—pleasure gets dressed, becoming codified, and taste becomes specified. In other words, we can define taste as culture. In the context of adulthood, the occurrence of naked pleasure will express a different need, that of the recuperation of a previous level of experience. Following the Vichian idea of the recurring cycle, we can perceive in this idea the resurgence of nature in culture.
Many years ago, a famous wine producer told me a story. He was convinced that “good” was a universally appreciable category and to test his hypothesis he conducted a little experiment. A lover of great French wines, he took a few bottles of a famous premier cru Bordeaux, poured it into plain bottles—the same ones used at the company cafeteria—and served it to his employees. According to him, the result was unequivocal: everyone noticed a big difference in the wine and appreciated the novelty, even asking him for more over the next few days. The people unknowingly involved in the manufacturer’s experiment had experienced adult pleasure, “directly” without a safety net. Beyond the actual veracity of this story, the anecdote is significant because it allows us to formulate a question for further exploring the relationship between nature and culture. Is gustatory pleasure universally perceivable? The point here is twofold. On the one hand, we need to ask the question as to whether it is necessary to have certain skills (as was said in the eighteenth century, “good taste”) in order to experience a sensorial pleasure. The wine producer’s experiment aimed at showing that enjoyment can also be experienced by people with no special knowledge of that object, or rather at demolishing the opposite theory, namely, that skills and culture are necessary in order to appreciate the good (or the beautiful). The problem, however, is that this example pertains to wine, an object strongly characterized in adult and cultural terms (there are societies that do not drink wine, or only drink wine marginally, though it seems that wine is becoming more and more globalized). And I assume that quite different questions arise with chocolate or other less specific and more elementary foods. Wine is usually taken as a paradigm for gastronomic expertise, but to what extent can we totally accept this assumption? Even if cultural knowledge is important for the appreciation of artifacts—apart from discussions here about the nature of such artifacts as wine—the question is whether aesthetic pleasure as naked enjoyment is possible from the perspective of the perceiver, before knowledge of any sort. This is a central issue in the history of modern aesthetics: let’s have a look at two key moments.
The French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Dubos in his Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting and Music (originally published in France in 1719) offered an interesting answer: “Do we ever reason, in order to know whether a ragoo be good or bad; and has it ever entered into any body’s head, after having settled the geometrical principles of taste, and defined the qualities of each ingredient that enters into the composition of those messes, to examine into the proportion observed in their mixture, in order to decide whether it be good or bad? No, this is never practiced. We have a sense given us by nature to distinguish whether the cook acted according to the rules of his art. People taste the ragoo, and tho’ unacquainted with those rules, they are able to tell whether it be good or no” (Dubos 1748, 2:238—39). According to Dubos, the perception of pleasure but at the same time what is needed for the appreciation of the quality of an artifact and an artwork cannot be reduced to rational analysis or the culture possessed by the observer, and the gustatory pleasure of food falls within this framework. Dubos, one of the founders of the “aesthetics of the beholder” (that is, of aesthetics that consider the public’s judgment as central to the qualitative evaluation of a work), uses ragout as an example. In fact, for Dubos, taste—both a bodily sense and an immaterial and vague capability—enables us to orient ourselves in aesthetic evaluations, and to recognize and appreciate the good and the beautiful. If we assume that Dubos is right, and if then aesthetic judgment (“this is a good ragout”) does not depend on the previous knowledge of rules, a fortiori this will hold for aesthetic pleasure. This is why such a pleasure may de jure be experienced by everyone. The argument, though, does not imply that naked pleasure is without context. Interpersonal relationships, family imprinting, individual style, and the specific environment in which an experience takes place produce specific differences that explain both agreements and disagreements over gustatory perceptions. Nor does the theme ignore the difference, in terms of intensity and awareness, between the experiences of pleasure undergone by skilled or ignorant persons. Perhaps Dubos’s position corrects the wine producer’s radical approach that is so difficult to wholly support: if, theoretically, a pleasure can be experienced by all, this, in fact, is not always the case. This correction brings us closer to the thesis of the aesthetics of taste as experience and relationship.
Kant’s position on this topic was, however, very different, and it contributed greatly to the exclusion of gustatory pleasure, seen as merely sensual (from which “naked” can be seen in a pejorative sense), from the aesthetic domain. According to Kant, there is a radical difference between sensual gustatory enjoyment and aesthetic pleasure. The first is individual, private, and not universal, while the second refers to a common and universal human feeling. The pleasures of eating fall into the first domain because gustatory taste refers only to the physical senses, biological necessity, and human need. Kant rejected Dubos’s and other’s approach to aesthetics because of their lack of transcendental rigor. Kant’s brilliantly famous and very influential move was in fact to introduce a new specific faculty to explain those aesthetic emotions, feelings, and judgments, which did not correspond either to sensitivity or to the intellect, and which he called “power of judgment” (Urteilskraft). According to Kant, aesthetic perception is neither intellectual nor even purely sensitive or emotional. Food pleasure then belongs only to this second domain and is quite distinct from the human desire for beauty and from its universal appreciation. Today, it is easy to object to Kant’s aesthetics with respect to the distinction he drew between sensual enjoyment and aesthetic pleasure, as well as that between agreeable and beautiful. Instead of making technical philosophical arguments (Korsmeyer 1999), however, I would rather focus our attention on simple observation. On the one hand, the appreciation for a food or a drink could be driven by a perception comprising specific skills able to distinguish pleasantness from other qualities (we will get to this issue in the next chapter). On the other hand, an infant’s enjoyment while sucking at her mother’s breast is a necessary and universal pleasure, just as (or perhaps more than) the pleasure derived from a landscape or a work of art. Gustatory pleasure can be an aesthetic pleasure therefore, even if it has different characteristics from visual or auditory pleasure. In the prevalent epistemological and aesthetic model of Western thought, a big obstacle consists in assuming, explicitly or otherwise, that visual perception is the unique paradigm, while contact senses remain marginalized or excluded.
My suggestion is that there is no irreversible route leading from naked pleasure to dressed taste, but rather a continuous and dynamic interaction. With this idea, we can overcome barriers between enjoyment and appreciation, between sensitive pleasure and aesthetic pleasure, and between nature and culture in a pragmatic fashion. Let’s go back then to wine, and once more consider the question of its possible appreciation in terms of pleasure without culture. Wine tasting is, in fact, often seen as the paradigm of expertise, a skill acquired over time through practice. It is much more common to meet someone purporting to “understand nothing” about wine, and with no knowledge of how to appreciate it, than it is to meet someone who makes the same claim about food. We have all eaten since birth, every day, but the same can’t be said for alcohol consumption, which is voluntary and adult consumption par excellence, and in particular for wine, which is not only alcohol but one of its more particular elaborations. However, in this case too, daily observation shows us that taste experiences are differently situated, growing and developing in different theaters of meaning and in different contexts. In some cases, perceptual experience without prior knowledge or specific cultural equipment is perfectly legitimate and can provide the highest aesthetic pleasure. The example of the winemaker who wanted his employees to enjoy a great wine without mediation is part of a very large case record that anyone can substantiate by him- or herself: uninitiated people can easily enjoy and appreciate complex wines. Moreover, this experience of pleasure can also affect those who possess taste skill in order to transit between naked pleasure and dressed taste. Sometimes these two levels are conflicting: we like something that for ethical or political reasons we should not like or, on the contrary, for the same reasons we do not like something that we should like. In other words, quite often, our gustatory perception proposes experiences and relationships that, if carefully considered, take us back to a pleasure we cannot justify on the basis of theoretical or cultural reasoning, referring us, rather, back to our primordial past.