Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Essen Non Est Percipi
Third Mode of Access: Indifference
Indifference to taste can take on different meanings and result in different attitudes. As we will see below, there is chronic indifference but there is also circumstantial and appropriate indifference—one could even call it “necessary”—to the unfolding of experience, so as to make it an aesthetically legitimate modality. I already stated that there is a very close relationship between indifference and nutrition in the fabric of everyday life. Before tackling the meaning of indifference to taste, then, I need to propose a few more specific considerations regarding the concept of nutrition.
We should first highlight that nutrition is not nutritionism. The latter corresponds to the paradigm according to which the individual nutrients in a food determine its overall nutritional value and (to many) its value in general. The underlying idea is that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts; to know the real essence of food, this position assumes, one should start from its single components. Instead, the position that I defend takes nourishment itself as a value, restoring it to its rightful horizon of complexity and beauty, and not reducing it to a mere sum of nutritious ingredients. And yet, this almost trivial truth about the value of nourishment is often masked by the assumption that it is necessary to “dress” taste with the outfit of culture in order to give dignity to the alimentary act. To argue that humans do not only eat and that food is not only nourishment is certainly a truism, but it is equally a truism to remind ourselves that humans must eat and that food is, first of all, nourishment. The only way to escape banality is to explore deeply the intrinsic philosophical value of nutrition and feeding. Emanuel Lévinas—highly influenced by Jewish thought, in which the importance and the enjoyment of food are fully legitimated, and in general play a more important role than in the Christian tradition—was the only philosopher of the twentieth century to have conceived nourishment as an essential structure of intentionality. According to Lévinas, the most appropriate image of the intentional structure of experience is someone eating bread. We have already mentioned the passage in which he states that we do not eat to live, but rather eat because we are hungry, and now we can connect it to our new acquisitions. This statement emphasizes how the primary nutritional expression corresponds to a conatus, a vital impulse that is not “just” hedonic either, but even more basic; it is the desire for life, and life is relationship with the other. Ingesting food, that is, assimilating energy for maintaining biological balance and the functioning of the metabolic processes, thus means to desire, in a full and complete sense.
In the mid-nineteenth century another German philosopher, the well-known Ludwig Feuerbach, formulated a thought that has become almost a platitude in everyday language, but is hardly ever used by philosophers—“Der Mensch ist, was er isst” (“Man is what he eats”). The phrase is a play on words that only works in German, between the verb sein, “to be,” and the verb essen, “to eat,” which sound the same in the third-person singular. The statement appeared in a review of the treatise Lehre der Nahrungsmittel für das Volk (The theory of nutrition for the people) by the Dutch physician and physiologist Jacob Moleschott. In this work, Moleschott tried to explain the importance of eating and drinking for human beings in terms of psychophysical units on a materialist base. Feuerbach pointed out that the treatise provided philosophy with the tools for overcoming the Platonic, idealistic, and dualistic assumptions about reality, and that food provided the most important theoretical argument for proving the bond of mind and body on a scientific basis. Although Feuerbach’s suggestion remained largely ignored by the Western episteme (Shapin 1998), it nonetheless shows that sometimes even philosophy has recognized the centrality of food, without falling back on elevation strategies. Again, the crucial issue here is to go beyond—or rather to deconstruct—the opposition between nature and culture. Food is even philosophically important before its fragmentation into social, anthropological, historical, economical domains, and the like, because food expresses a primary aesthetic (in the sense of aisthesis) input. On the one hand, “man is what he eats” asserts the impossibility of reducing food to a purely immaterial good; on the other—and here lies the kernel of my argument—eating (essen) does not totally correspond to enjoying or even tasting the food being eaten. The two perceptual experiences are different, as is easily observable from the point of view of the eater—from the “knowing from the inside” perspective we assumed from the beginning of this essay. According to our experiential and ecological approach, perceiving food does not correspond to perceiving the taste of food. These two different modes of perception represent different possibilities or affordances because of the ecological relationships between the human being qua organism (not a “higher being by divine right endowed with taste”), the food object qua additional organic system, and the context in which this relationship happens. If we accept this paradigm, the ontological hierarchy between taste and nourishment is rejected and, along the same line, the paradoxical and misleading position that tries to elevate food to the realm of “immaterial culture” is rejected. The political purposes of this elevation are clear and understandable: they intend to protect and value food cultures, against the risk of their collapse into mere material necessity. At the same time, we should also consider the reciprocal risk. Think of UNESCO 2010 awarding the status of “intangible” World Heritage to certain food “categories” such as the Mediterranean diet and French cuisine, because they are immaterial goods. Just as culture is not the spirit above the body, taste (that is, good taste, cultivation, the mark of civilization) is not above nourishment. The “essence” of food consists in its being for consumption and all that remains is the continually renewed relationship we have with it, in the great chain of energy transformation that unites biological, chemical, and physical facts, together with psychic and social facts.
I would now like to propose a pun. Let’s reverse the famous and immaterialist phrase coined by Bishop Berkeley at the beginning of the eighteenth century, “esse est percipi” (“to be is to be perceived”), making it “essen (to eat in German) non est percipi” a principle that asserts the irreducible materiality of food. The pun then should mean: eating does not correspond to the act of being perceived, in the sense of being tasted. If in the last chapter I argued that dressed taste coincided with a “going toward” the food experience in a deliberate and alert fashion, gustatory indifference confronts us instead with another situation altogether. Of course, food is also symbolic as well as an object of imagination; try not eating while thinking about it or imagining it, or while writing or talking about it. You will easily notice that it won’t satiate you. (When someone who prepares food does not eat it and insists on being satisfied only by cooking it, at times that person is only expressing a request for deferral—to eat later, when the tension has waned—and at other times she might actually be sated, but due to the satiety caused by the olfactory and aromatic stimuli that energized her while preparing the food.) In any case, it is unlikely that Bishop Berkeley had bread or fruit in mind when he formulated his thesis on the nonexistence of material objects and the independent existence of ideas! Irony aside, food really provides insurmountable evidence of the existence of an external world independent of our concepts, ideas, and paradigms, and this is maybe a reason that helps us understand why it has been excluded from most philosophical reflections; edible matter disturbs us because it is irreducible to any colonization by the mind. Beyond the crude spiritualism that refers to the possibility of a spirit that would not need matter, more sensible and sophisticated versions also need to be questioned. They distinguish between the level of “manifest” and ordinary perception and the level of testable scientific reality. Some of these positions, like the one proposed in the second half of the twentieth century by the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, offer a differentiation between the level of ordinary and sensitive experience, erected by way of conceptual schemes, and the level of scientific proof, grounded in scientifically proven theories. The first level corresponds to the perception of a table or an apple in front of us, the second one states that in front of us there is “really” neither a table nor an apple, but an accumulation of subatomic particles or of molecules with certain bonds and a certain spatial collocation. According to this theory, the “manifest image” of the world is “apparent” with respect to the second one, the “scientific image.” We can translate that debate to our issues: a link is possible with respect to the ideology of nutritionism, in which a food is nothing more than a compound of substances—a position that has led some people to think that it is possible to be fed directly through pills containing everything the body needs. It is widely known that such experiments were attempted with astronauts in space in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as with professional athletes, and the results were negative. Millions of years of evolution have literally made foodstuffs indispensable to us in their complete, full, and manifest materiality, in their concrete solidity, not just their components. And one must add—although this does not directly affect our topic—that the same holds for the tables and chairs in front of us. The great scientific projects involving the reduction of reality to a few simple essential components have all failed, leaving it to philosophical theories and scientific programs to understand and explain the complexity instead. This is a key point for the wonderful problem of perception in general and for a food aesthetics in particular, because it undermines the nutritionist objection: the experience of food is not the experience of its components. We do not perceive molecules, but food, even when we don’t eat it attentively.
The indifference to taste must now be placed in this theoretical framework. Normally, we eat and drink using perceptive capacities variable in intensity and attention according to the circumstances. In some cases, the level of attention is so low that it does not elicit an explicit gustatory intentionality, a “focus” on taste as such. Many everyday attitudes concerning food are characterized by what Walter Benjamin called, as we already mentioned, “reception in distraction.” Clearly, this is not an apology for indifference. The aesthetics of taste promotes the value of gastronomy and the attention to the cultivation of taste, through pleasure and knowledge. But since it does so while taking into account the environmental variations according to the ecological situation, it is right to integrate pleasure and knowledge into the general flow in which such devices emerge and develop. John Dewey illustrates this clearly: “We have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment. Then and then only is it integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience. . . . Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience. . . . For life is no uniform uninterrupted march or flow. It is a thing of histories . . . each with its own unrepeated quality pervading it throughout” (1980, 35—36). Dewey wants to emphasize the difference between the aesthetic experience and its indiscriminate flow, but within a continuous chain: if the aesthetic experience grows, it is because there is a vital flow, some kind of background material that makes its growth possible. As a follow-up to the Deweyan idea, we can see indifference to taste as a particular kind of history: On the one hand, it does not belong to the indiscriminate flow of the vital process, since it emerges because eating requires a deliberate suspension of other activities. On the other hand, it still does not rise to the aesthetic experience of taste, but perhaps instead to an aesthetics of hunger. However, if indifference can express, as is often the case, chronic apathy, laziness, a general lack of critical perspective, and the passive lowering of standards, if it can refer to the infectious anonymity of private lives—private comes from the Latin privus, “lacking”—it is just as true that it can also have different and opposite meanings, and even play with the qualitative amplification of the experience as such (there is, in fact, a taste of indifference or, in the words of Baudelaire, a taste of nothing).
For all those reasons, the attitude of gustatory indifference is difficult to address explicitly. In fact, finding appropriate examples has not been easy.