Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Compulsive Indifference and Atmospheric Indifference
Third Mode of Access: Indifference
A different kind of gustatory indifference can be found in an early story by Italo Calvino, “Theft in a Pastry Shop.” It is the story of three poor petty criminals, in the starving postwar Italy of the last century, who one night rob a bakery. While the gang leader—dubbed Dritto (that is, Clever)—does not care about the wide array of sweets they find in the shop, the other two, Gesubambino and Uora-uora, cannot resist the temptation to gorge themselves on pastries, cakes, sugar, and candied fruit, thus jeopardizing the outcome of the robbery. Having just climbed in through the window, Gesubambino “flung himself at the shelves, choking himself with cakes, cramming two or three inside his mouth at a time, without even tasting them” (Calvino 1984, 100, my emphasis). In this scene, the indifference is the unintended and almost paradoxical result of such a violent impulse for the cake merely as a sweet item, such that it becomes undifferentiated and produces the loss of flavor. It is a compulsive indifference that can be caused by factors such as hunger or, in contrast, too much food. How many people do not taste anything anymore because they have already had everything and have tasted too much before? Here we have a very different kind of relationship with food from the one presented with Amélie Nothomb’s novels. Also there, in fact, the encounter with food led to an experience that focused only on one quality of the object, its being sweet, but the sweet encounter provoked intense pleasure and not undifferentiated assimilation. Of course, these different experiences can be explained in reference to the different contexts: whereas the three poor thieves of Calvino’s story are, in fact, destitute and hungry, Amélie is at home in a rich and comfortable environment and hunger is of no or little importance to her gustatory experience.
One might wonder about the extent to which indifference can be seen as an aesthetic experience. Until now, I have argued that taste experience is aesthetic in two distinct senses: the first inherent in hedonic impulse and pleasure variously declined, and the second inherent in knowledge as an intentionally acted upon perception. Both cases give rise to a multiplicity of performances and satisfying relationships. I called these systemic structures aesthetic relationships. How does indifference fit into the picture? As a matter of fact, the experience of indifference I described above is not an aesthetic experience in the strict sense, but rather an experience that outlines and punctuates true aesthetic relationships. In the perceptual flow of human existence, the relationship with food is undeniably dominated by experiences of indifference. For this reason, they have aesthetic legitimacy. Even in a developmental and adaptive key, it would not be possible to always maintain a high threshold of attention. Reception in distraction thus seems to be a necessary condition of the “gustatory” experience, and in many cases distraction and attention alternate within the same environmental scenario. Imagine, for example, being at a dinner attended by various people, some of whom are wine experts while others are not, and all meet for the first time. Everyone is sitting at the same table and, after having introduced themselves, the guests begin talking and getting to know one another. The conversation on different subjects is accompanied by the dishes and bottles of wine that receive varying attention. The experts will be more likely to perceive attentively than the nonexperts, of course, but this will also depend on their involvement in the conversation, on the level of interest generated by the food, and on other factors. Perceptual indifference is, in fact, a kind of setting, a background noise from which something can always arise, as in the phenomenon known as the “cocktail party effect.” This time imagine being in a room full of people and you are talking to a friend. Suddenly, someone who is in a distant corner of the room says your name. Now your attention is captured, and you might be surprised to have caught your name in the middle of all that noise. The “cocktail party effect” is explained by the sciences of communication with the notion of “salience,” that is, the perceptual filter that allows selectively paying attention to what emotionally or intellectually moves us (Burnham and Skilleås 2012). As becomes clear in these examples, indifference is also a useful device in ordinary ecological relationships. It is precisely for this reason that it is necessary to locate and understand this attitude with respect to the acts of eating; in everyday life, feelings or perceptions are rarely exclusive.
Here are two more examples to illustrate with new nuances the picture outlined above. The first comes from another contemporary American writer, Chuck Palahniuk, notable for a phenomenological and amoral attitude toward his characters and for his ability to avoid any distance between the everyday and the exceptional. In his novels this often takes on monstrous, unhealthy, and borderline features. A passage from his fifth novel, titled Lullaby and part of a series (together with Haunted and Diary) that the author has called a “trilogy of horror,” sums up a context where food plays an essentially mechanical function and gustatory perception has no chance of emerging: “Nash is eating a bowl of chili. He’s at a back table in the bar on Third Avenue. The bartender is slumped forward on the bar, his arms still swinging above the barstools. . . . Somebody in a greasy apron is face down on the grill among greasy hamburgers. . . . And Nash looks up, chili red around his mouth, and says: ’I thought you’d like a little privacy for this.’ . . . He digs the spoon into the bowl of chili. He puts the spoon in his mouth and says, ’And don’t lecture me about the evils of necrophilia.’ He says, ’You’re about the last person who can give that lecture.’ His mouth full of chili, Nash says, ’I know who you are.’ He swallows and says, ’You’re still wanted for questioning.’ He licks the chili smeared around his lips and says, ’I saw your wife’s death certificate.’ He smiles and says, ’Signs of postmortem sexual intercourse?’ . . . ’You can’t kill me,’ Nash says. He crumbles a handful of crackers into his bowl and says, ’You and me, we’re exactly alike’ . . . Nash jabs his spoon around in the crackers and red and says, ’You killing me would be the same as you killing yourself.’ I say, shut up. ’Relax,’ he says. ’I didn’t give nobody a letter about this.’ Nash crunches a mouthful of crackers and red. ’That would’ve been stupid,’ he says. ’I mean, think.’ And he shovels in more chili” (Palahniuk 2002, 233—35).
This dialogue takes place in a bar where the narrator, the reporter Carl Streator, discovers some uncomfortable truths about a physician, John Nash, a necrophiliac murderer. During the confession, Nash is constantly eating. The continuous assimilation of food marks the rhythm of the story but no gustatory perception ever comes into play. Taste simply does not exist here. This attitude of indifference corresponds neither to contingent distraction as seen in the novel by DeLillo nor to the compulsive indifference in Calvino’s story, but to something that could be defined as atmospheric indifference: the characters’ emotional states and behavior are swallowed up by a neutral and contagious environment that absorbs and discolors everything. The meal is consumed at a crime scene, and this is not without importance; in any case, a salient gustatory perception would seem inappropriate and out of place in this context. The entire novel is permeated by this atmospheric quality, and this is of exemplary interest here. The work of Palahniuk is exemplary also with respect to a certain type of food habit. It is no coincidence that the chili and hamburgers mentioned in the text represent typical ordinary food that is better suited to careless and distracted consumption than to dedicated and refined perceptions. In Palahniuk’s fiction food is often used in an “antigastronomic” relation, as we can see in his most famous novel, Choke, in which the main character, Victor, stages numerous choking episodes in restaurants in order to obtain the money necessary to care for his sick mother from the customers who save him and are touched by his circumstances. But Lullaby also contains references to food that go in a controversial direction. An exchange between a character called Oyster and Carl Streator is particularly interesting. Oyster is an orthorexic: he professes a militant and ethical attitude to taste, because he is a vegetarian who pays attention to the quality of food and its impact on the economy and society. “To me, Oyster says, ’The only power of life and death you have is every time you order a hamburger at McDonald’s.’ His face stuck in my face, he says, ’You just pay your filthy money and somewhere else, the ax falls’ ” (100). In the discussion, the narrator defends a point of view much more in line with the novel’s poetics and claims the right to a naked, uncritical, and even willfully ignorant pleasure: “Oyster and his tree-hugging, eco-bullshit, his bio-invasive, apocryphal bullshit. The virus of his information. . . . After listening to Oyster, a glass of milk isn’t just a nice drink with chocolate chip cookies. It’s cows forced to stay pregnant and pumped with hormones” (157—58). This case illustrates another aspect of food attitudes: laying claim to a noncultivated and uncritical pleasure that develops on the inside of atmospheric indifference. On closer inspection, this approach seems to correspond largely to the mass food habits in our society: the removal of any care and attention to food—from production to eating—due to disaffection brought about by too much food. The ensuing pattern of enjoyment related to the product as a pure commodity, cheap and easy, always available, does not ask for any effort (note Streator’s contempt, in the passage quoted above, for the “virus of his information”). This has nothing to do with the naked pleasure that surprises and promotes change, psychic evolution, and meaningful relationships. In that case, the lack of information was part of an experience oriented to deepening enjoyment, restoring it to childhood strength. Something completely different takes place in these scenes, where the characters do not contemplate the taste of food as a device for creative exploration.
The atmospheric indifference to taste can emerge in still different contexts, where food plays a fundamental role as an instrument of quality performances associated with the body and its public representation, particularly in sports (bodybuilders and professional athletes, but also amateurs) as well as fashion and the entertainment industry (models, actors and actresses, public “faces”). Often in these experiences the approach to food is merely nutritionist. Eating is seen as the pure assimilation of substances and food is consumed—occasionally together with supplements and nutraceuticals—with great care with respect to its elementary quantities, but with total indifference to its taste (Parasecoli 2005). Eating becomes extremely important as a vector of the body’s desired development, in terms of physical appearance. In a seemingly paradoxical manner, however, here food is purely vicarious, it is subject to a “Promethean” determination that utilizes it at will, it does not benefit from the assignment of any value in itself and is wrongly believed not to have the least effect on the processes of pleasure, knowledge, and intellectual happiness. In this particular situation, atmospheric indifference to “gusto” becomes the apology of an instrumental and dualistic conception. The body, which is merely an external representation of “beauty” as appearance and adherence to the paradigms of a social consensus in use in a given context, needs food. The psychic and emotional interiority activated by the enjoyment of taste is removed with often devastating consequences.