Third Mode of Access: Indifference

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

Third Mode of Access: Indifference

Since in eating pleasure and necessity go together, we fail to discern between the call of necessity and the seduction of pleasure.


And now, a dramatic turn of events: the third mode of access to gustatory experience appears to be its negation. After pleasure and knowledge, we have to face indifference toward taste. In the architectonics of food aesthetics, this connects to our thesis: the mindful comprehension of eating experiences comes by way of understanding their entire ranges and processes. Tasting is an activity that is a counterpoint to other oral activities such as breathing, talking, and even eating without tasting. In other words, our experience does not consist of a texture comprising seamless gustatory acts. Taste experiences alternate with other, even more frequent non-taste-related ones, according to a rhythm that is discrete, not continuous, even when they involve ingesting food. However, in the ecological and systemic perspective advocated here, these different experiences are related to one another and often intertwined.

By “indifference toward taste” I mean neither disgust nor abstention from food. In this chapter, the indifference will have nothing to do with ascetic aversions to food, or with the huge problem of eating disorders codified by medicine and psychology. Gustatory indifference is not the indifference to food so masterfully described by Kafka in “A Hunger Artist.” Here the main character practices the “art of fasting,” staging performances of hunger until the surprise ending, in which the hunger artist says that the real reason for his fasting is that he never found food he liked. Gustatory indifference is simply the experience of eating without any attention to the tastes of food or to the act of tasting itself. This is a mainly privative attitude, a nutritional passivity due to a lack of care and perceptive attention toward what is being ingested. It was this attitude we came across in Amélie Nothomb’s The Character of Rain, where Amélie kept eating the same food with complete indifference for the first two years of her life while feeling like a passive tube.

Looking carefully at this kind of carelessness, one can discover interesting facts and create new connections that allow overcoming old prejudices with respect to eating. The first prejudice calls upon Brillat-Savarin: according to his conception of gastronomy—which has become the most influential one—eating with indifference would seem to be characteristic of a certain animal attitude. For the author of The Physiology of Taste, “Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating” (Brillat-Savarin 2009, 15) and “the real enjoyment of eating is a special prerogative of man” (54). The “supremacy of man” establishes an anthropocentric doctrine of taste. And the French gastronome goes on, “[Man], king of all nature by divine right, and for whose benefit the earth has been covered and peopled, must perforce be armed with an organ which can put him in contact with all that is toothsome among his subjects. The tongue of an animal is comparable in its sensitivity to his intelligence. . . . Man’s tongue, on the other hand, by the delicacy of its surfaces and of the various membranes which surround it, proves clearly enough the sublimity of the operations for which it is destined” (54—55). In Western philosophy the difference between man and animal is characterized by various oppositions, for example, that between response and reaction (human language elaborates responses to external stimuli, animal vocalizations are only reactions). Within this strong and axiological hierarchy, we can also play the opposition between human taste as a social and cultural mark and mere animal nutrition. But the anthropocentric view about taste makes incorrect scientific assumptions and leads to philosophically incorrect theses. Today ethological and zoosemiotic research tends to prove the existence of animal taste preferences for some species (Martinelli 2010). Building upon Darwin, evolutionary aesthetics takes into account the existence of basic protoaesthetics, which includes not only the primary ability of being able to choose an appropriate object but also that of enjoying it.

The anthropocentrism of taste marks an erroneous ideology of gastronomy as good taste, which would radically distance itself from its nutritional bases, an exclusivist hierarchy that is not adequately supported. An aesthetics of taste that also pays attention to the experience of indifference adopts an oblique strategy to combat and overcome these hypostatized dichotomies. Taking care of our nutritional needs does not mean limiting these to the animal basic level. It is instead the first and necessary step to correspond to the original aesthetic input, even when it is not consciously fulfilled. If taste is not of interest, the eating experience happens differently. The food eaten is met differently than a “tasted object” is. Addressing indifference thus helps us cultivate awareness of a more open gastronomy, a gastronomy that is willing to accept differences in taste as outcomes of ecological variations rather than as radical oppositions.