Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Dressed Taste, Image, and Representation
Second Mode of Access: Knowledge
In the first chapter, I discussed the fundamental relationship between pleasure and images. The image is the sensory form of every living action, and therefore also of taste perception. A specific triangulation emerged from that mode of access: perceiver and perceived were connected through a medium that intensified, clarified, or let pleasure express itself as “naked.” Taste as dressed and codified knowledge has an equally stringent relationship with images, although expressed differently. Just think of the education of taste, of recipe books, or of the endless articulations of the expression “taste is culture” in the mass media (websites, blogs, and television). Gustatory perception is the direct experience of food, therefore a strategy that boosts the aesthetic relationship by drawing on one’s embodied capacity and expanding it, but, as with pleasure, the triangulation with images and representations is unavoidable.
In Calvino’s story, the relationship between taste perception and visual representation is explicitly advocated. Even though it only points in one direction, thirty years after its first publication, it still contains many useful insights and deserves to be discussed. The savory, aromatic, and haptic experience is seen as a viable and concrete alternative to the static nature of the visual image as it is commonly misunderstood and lived in ordinary experience. Calvino compared the “real” journey to the visited country, as physical ingestion through taste, to the technological and reproducible image-simulacrum of television. However, the issue is not as simple as it seems, and it is the author himself who reminds us of this in another passage of Under the Jaguar Sun: “I concentrated on devouring, with every meatball, the whole fragrance of Olivia—through voluptuous mastication, a vampire extraction of vital juices. But I realized that in a relationship that should have been among three terms—me, meatball, Olivia—a fourth term had intruded, assuming a dominant role: the name of the meatballs. It was the name ’gorditas pellizcadas con manteca’ that I was especially savoring and assimilating and possessing” (27). This passage clarifies that the image is not reducible to its bloodless stasis. The bond between taste and language refers here to the acoustic image of the name “gorditas pellizcadas con manteca,” but its power holds also with respect to visual perception.
In television and cinema, and especially with the explosion of the web over the last decade, we have become witnesses, on the one hand, to a proliferation of food- and taste-related content, conveyed by the visual image, and, on the other, to its progressive virtualization. Food has become a commanding and almost overpowering presence in communication as an expression of the most diverse meanings. And this fact is accompanied by its symmetrical counterpart, the growing interest in visual cuisine and cooks corresponds to the decrease in active cooking. It is as though what Heidegger said about the destiny of modern metaphysics were true for gastronomy too. To paraphrase “The Age of the World Picture” (Heidegger 2002), I would say that today we live in the age of the Food Picture, of food reduced to image and simulacrum. Thus, every day we experience the risk—as was already exposed by Roland Barthes (Barthes 1997)—that the gustatory haptic experience in vivo could move to the visual field and be replaced by it. We live in a paradox; while pictures, news, and even food objects proliferate, we are losing our grip on real things, we are losing experiential and life awareness. With respect to taste, this process derived also from what Walter Benjamin named—referring to works of art—reproducibility. According to Benjamin, art has lost its “aura,” its uniqueness, its hic et nunc (Benjamin 2008) as a result of advanced reproduction technologies. Benjamin’s thought developed from a reflection on the “new arts” of that time, photography and film. Similarly, one may argue that the experience of taste has lost the uniqueness of its unrepeatable experience as a result of being reproduced in increasingly sophisticated ways in photos, videos, and movies. However, it is undeniable that there is a fundamental difference between gustatory and (mere) visual perception of taste, due to the material incorporation and assimilation of food. How do things really stand here? The relationship between the experience of eating and its narration through images cannot consist in either a reduction or an adaption of the former to the latter. Instead, we should speak of a translation, even more precisely of an active correspondence between two ontologically different yet intertwined levels. Nothing is more different than eating as compared to watching others eat or contemplate dishes, but since taste is a multisensory perception, sight is a very important influence. That said, it is also undeniable that in everyday life the risk of a virtualization of taste exists and produces different bad practices, such as criticizing and condemning cuisine and chefs using “hearsay” and things “seen,” especially online, as well as the power of marketing trends, which produces a trivialized uniformity in judgment and appreciation.
A positive dialogue between taste experience and visual experience does not ignore the necessity of a pictorial dimension of gustatory perception, from naked pleasure to dressed taste. Along these lines, gustatory imagery was compared to theater, as a scene comprising many heterogeneous elements such as muscle movements, gestures, facial expressions, and words. It is very telling that some authors have compared this need with a prosthesis that weakens the importance of taste with respect to sight and hearing, those autonomously symbolic and expressive senses (Leroi-Gourhan 1964—65). But now, on the contrary, also from recent cognitive and psychological research, we can see this as an asset: taste always confronts us with a complex multisensory field, so much so that other scholars have even tried to establish correspondences between the gustatory and the visual qualities of a dish.
The representational need of taste can be understood both as a mental induction to taste and as its condition of access. For instance, a name or a word may produce—or bypass—the taste of food (the name of the meatballs in Calvino’s story) because words have to do with the mouth. Words and writing condense taste and image into the imaginary, of course without reducing the real meatball to its sound or its description. Taste perception always signals a surplus of the signifier (food “in itself,” while we assimilate it in the concrete relationship) with respect to the signified (its expression and its expressibility). But words and, even more, visual representations have great power. They induce and arouse revulsion and prevent access to certain experiences, as demonstrated by many experiments regarding the conditioning of perception (Taylor 2004; Gueguen 2010). Each verbal or figurative sign refers to a specific horizon of gustatory expectation that activates channels of attention. Chefs are clearly well aware of this, and they sometimes devote much time to the multisensory construction of their dishes, with particular attention not only to appearance, but also to names.
Real gustatory experiences possess a regenerative potential for human existence, having to do with a cultivation of the awareness of one’s body and sensitivity. Taste as embodied knowledge can be an effective critical instance for a renewal of deeper experiential modalities. Exploration via dressed taste and the development of specific codes of expression is a thrilling way to access aesthetic experience according to Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun. But, simultaneously, taste can be an ally of the superficial leveling of a vilified feeling devoid of meaning, as the increasing power of media shows us every day. During the same period of Calvino’s story, the philosopher Michel Serres issued a warning in his essay “The Five Senses”: “The victory of reason: the only taste an apricot has is the taste of the word ’apricot’ passing over the lips” (Serres 2008, 233). Taking the approach of taste as knowledge and culture should promote critical and wise attitudes, but that, unfortunately, is not always the case.