The Neutral - 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

The Neutral
Third Mode of Access: Indifference

The analysis of the modes of access to gustatory indifference brought to light numerous variants. However, they all have one common trait: indifferent experience to taste lies within an anonymous backdrop, a “generalized buzz” in which the foodstuff loses the sharpness of its qualitative outlines and turns into neutral matter. The category of the neutral has attracted the attention of many philosophers. The neutral is the expression of an elusive experience, very difficult to grasp and to define. For our subject, it is enough to recall two main interpretative lines, one that sees the neutral as a “horizon of meaning” indispensable to perception and even to living (this is the position of the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot), and one that sees it as a specific and historical determination of thought, provisional and to be overcome (although for different reasons, this idea was proposed by philosophers such as Emmanuel Lévinas and Luce Irigaray). Our perspective runs transversally across these two options, for in aesthetics of taste as relation all experiences have multiple possibilities and, consequently, they may express different values. Gustatory indifference is no exception. As the examples above have shown, there are cases of perfectly fitting and appropriate indifference, but also cases that manifest incoherent and deficient attitudes. Regarding food, we cannot endorse the idea that indifferent neutrality is the highest experience, because that would mean refusing the aesthetics of taste as the environmental perception of differences that promotes the capability of enjoying quality, through experiences of pleasure as well as functional and formed knowledge. At the same time, we cannot endorse the idea that—to put it bluntly—without tasting there is no eating. To give an example. The Belgian philosopher Luce Irigaray argued, in a book with the same title, that “to speak is never neutral,” meaning that language and thought are outcomes of gender, theoretical constructs oriented by the constructors’ gender. In particular, Irigaray declared—thus presupposing that knowledge is the result of conflicts of forces, and then the expression of the prevalent power—that Western thought and language constituted themselves through male categories from which the founding hierarchies of classical philosophy derive. She mentions the advantage of theory over practice, of reason over passion, of the distal senses over the proximal senses (Irigaray 1985). The argument raised by Irigaray benefits our discussion regarding taste and gastronomy. Do they express gender rules? It is difficult to deny completely. But if, to paraphrase the title of Irigaray’s book, we were to ask whether “eating is ever neutral,” we could not give an answer in absolute terms. The relationship between food, cooking, taste, and gender cannot be denied; and this also explains the subordinate nature of home cooking as mainly women’s business, and the ennoblement of “artistic” gastronomy and cuisine as mainly men’s business, but that is another story I cannot tell here. However, the subject I propose here is not limited to this specific determination of the perceptual experience of food.

Observation shows us foods that lead to less marked gustatory approaches. These foods develop less oriented experiences, that is, experiences less committed to cultural taste and perhaps even to less intense pleasure, and more commensurate instead to experiencing the neutral. The most basic and simple foods such as water, bread, milk, wild herbs, and so on are of that kind. Obviously, I am not suggesting that these foods are without taste; neither do I claim these foods to be “simple” in ontological terms. Making good bread is anything but simple, and eating good bread can be a wonderful gustatory experience. When I write “simple” I refer to the perceiver’s perspective in terms of taste experiences. In other words, I only want to point out the greater propensity some foods possess for entering into a less oriented and marked relationship than other foods such as wine or fine dining creations usually require. Please mind the italics; my aim is to remind us of the environmental occurrences of eating and tasting. Generally the qualitative parameters of taste are intensity, strength, flavor complexity, and their subsequent elaborations. It is within this grammar of taste that the paradigm of gastronomy as value and culture has grown. A “new gastronomy,” however, stemming from an aesthetics of food as an ecological experience, can accept the challenge of also embracing a less intense, less powerful, less complex taste in its domain. Let’s take water as maybe the most relevant example. According to the Chinese sage Laozi, water comes closest to the “way,” the tao (Jullien 1998). Water recalls neutrality as the background of immanence, as the possibility of life itself. On the dietary level, it refers to gustatory indifference, not because it cannot express different aesthetic and nonaesthetic properties—qualitative differences in waters regarding both chemical composition and sensory perception do exist—but rather as the vital element par excellence, the main component of our bodies and of the entire ecological system in which life on earth appeared. In a phenomenological sense, water easily induces an inattentive perception—remember “reception in distraction”—that does not focus on qualitative nuances. Water attracts an indifferent and nonaesthetic perception. In this sense, it is the exact opposite of wine, even if Barthes suggested the historically correct opposition of wine and milk, two liquids that have never been mixed. The recent fashion of water-tasting courses along the lines of wine-tasting courses was a bit of a stretch, and explains the reason for their failure, just as the existence of “water menus” in some gourmet restaurants often elicits indifference. If wine is a strongly culturalized artifact, the expression of choices and styles, as well as a dispensable adult beverage, considering water in the same way and turning it into a matter of expertise and specific knowledge really seem irrelevant, by comparison, in most daily experiences—maybe even an offense to sensitivity. No one feels ignorant or inadequate for not being “proficient” in the taste of water. Only with a focused and finalized perceptive effort could we prepare ourselves for the gustatory and qualitative description of water in everyday circumstances. Again, this is not always true and de jure: there can be specific occurrences in which we realize the bad taste of one water or the good taste of another. And of course, this argument does not apply to professionals in water analysis for health, hygiene, or sales and marketing reasons. They have a different scope and another perceptive project.

The above reasoning does not underestimate water, rather the opposite. Water is a primary pleasure and can also be great when we are dehydrated. But the typology of this pleasure is different from that of wine or adult foods; it is a more neutral pleasure and less prone to specific attention. The pleasure of water is normally a haptic pleasure, having to do with lips, throat, and tissues and only occasionally the recognition of specific flavors. Similar considerations that should always be evaluated case by case with respect to every single experience lived and to every single ecological perception may apply to “simple” and “basic” foods that refer to the deeper biological stratum of human evolution, such as milk, grains, and some vegetables.

An original elaboration of Chinese thought can be found in the philosophy of the French sinologist François Jullien. He developed an aesthetics of taste based on the category of blandness (Jullien 2007), which has some points in common with the perspective of indifference I propose here. According to Jullien, the bland (which in his system does not correspond to the neutral, but for our purposes we can ignore this difference) indicates the overcoming of every single radical inclination and is a kind of equalizer of all flavors expressed in its midst, where they stop opposing one another. In this sense, blandness is the most difficult “flavor” to perceive, because it is a backdrop, a vague, rarified, and faded sensation and its paradigm is water. As I have already mentioned, the grammar of Western gastronomy—a Eurocentric, Mediterranean-centric, even Franco-centric grammar until a few years ago—has instead been strongly bent on depreciating every “bland” perception, which is neither intense nor strong or complex. The Western gastronomic model is that of variety, diversity, and intensity. Whatever does not fit in it is usually considered less “interesting” and less “complex,” and, into this context, whatever is “less” converges on the neutral and its experiential relative, indifference. In Under the Jaguar Sun, “bland” was the epithet that Olivia used for her husband, accusing him of being incapable of feeling life’s nuances strongly and powerfully. (In Italian, when something does not interest us, or we are not passionate about it, we say that it is “tasteless.”) However, in the contemporary adventures of dressed taste, it is possible to come across a different and freer paradigm, in keeping with a more comprehensive evaluation of the neutral. In recent years, some new trends in fine cuisine and cooking seem to be moving in this direction with simpler dishes, easier ways of tasting them, and a more “relaxed” approach even to fine dining.

I feel that it is important to repeat once more that such a theoretical framework is not a defense of the neutral or the bland tout court; instead, it provides a clarification of the experiential potential that might originate from the neutral and the bland in given contexts. In fact, the neutral often expresses the ideology of nutritionism: supplements and functional foods that have neutral taste since their synthesized components are without flavor. And this ideology is in turn tied to food production of very poor quality that delivers almost tasteless foods, badly grown or bred to minimize costs and maximize profits. Thus, in many cases indifference and neutrality do not represent an opportunity to be seized, most obviously with the expression of production and taste standardization. The aesthetics of taste as an ecological relationship therefore suggests paying careful attention and discussing each case individually.