Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016



Nature and Culture. Subject and Object. Mind and Body. High and Low. These trite, contrasting, and time-honored pairs that still influence our way of thinking, and often crop up in our language, seem to dissolve like mist in the sun when we turn to Taste and wonder what it is, where it resides, and how this “sense,” which has not always received the respect it deserves, actually works. There was, it must be noted, a current of Aristotelian thought—especially in its medieval revisitation—that raised Taste to a cognitive sense par excellence in virtue of its mixing with the object that, incorporated into the subject, can be discovered in its “true” and intimate essence. However, the vast majority of thinkers, not necessarily of Platonic ancestry, preferred to focus on the distal senses, sight above all, on the assumption that distance guarantees objectivity of judgment more than nearness does. To this, certain preconceived notions of a moral order were added, given the idea that the body, with its material instincts, is in itself dangerous, and that the senses that most forcefully engage it—the senses involved with touching—are the first to be mistrusted.

This distrust is not unwarranted because Taste, when thought about too much, can truly be revolutionary. It can undermine beliefs, certainties, and classifications—whatever human thought feeds on. The mechanism of perception can be described on the physiological level, which involves the individual with his or her sensations. It can be narrated historically, as Jean-Louis Flandrin did for the first time, reconstructing the “structures of Taste” in a collective key, that is, the trends, the choices that prevail in this or that society (open also to anthropological considerations). However, to hold together the complexity and many facets of this phenomenon, which is at the same time cultural and biological, individual and collective, ephemeral (because it exhausts itself in the act of eating) and stable (because it refers to socially shared values), it is necessary to rethink and revise quite a few parameters of our way of thinking. Nicola Perullo has been working on Taste for years and has finally decided to place it in the seemingly awkward dimension of marginality, laying claim, however, to a centrality of marginality that, besides constituting the specific character of Taste, seems to be a privileged (rather than embarrassing) and heuristically extremely interesting venue for rethinking the familiar concepts that we normally use. In this sense, thinking about Taste can indeed become intellectually revolutionary.

In this new book, Nicola Perullo outlines a theory of experience as a specific dimension of the aesthetics of Taste. Of Taste as an aesthetic relationship that indissolubly binds together the leading characters (the eater, what is eaten), but also the link between biology and culture, and the connection between gesture and thought.

I am a historian, hence hardly qualified to introduce an essay of such a strict philosophical nature as Nicola Perullo’s. However, he has made it clear himself, albeit between the lines, that he intends to address a wider public and not just his direct colleagues (who can engage in a deeper reading and follow up on all the bibliographic references embedded in the exposition). The discussion thus proceeds with clear and accessible language, which is not just a rhetorical choice. It is also a project of philosophical thought—as I just said—founded on experience, which by definition belongs to everyone. Thinking about the not always obvious meanings of what we do, the often implicit notions that preside over our small daily choices, the depth of ideas that always accompany actions, is an exercise I find ethically as well as scientifically exemplary. It means recognizing the depth of each of our actions, even if it were a nonaction, or the indifference that constitutes a possible way of relating to food, which according to Perullo deserves no less attention than the pleasure principle, or the desire to know. This is why I like this book. This is why it reminds me of the way in which I, too, try to proceed when I write and speak about food (even though I start from different perspectives and use other methods): thinking and encouraging thought about the importance of things that seem small, but that contain the world, or at least reveal our relationship with the world (and with ourselves, since we are part of the world). Eating is easy, though not always. In any case, it is anything but trivial.

Massimo Montanari