Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Regulation Without Rules
The Wisdom of Taste, the Taste of Wisdom
I warned that gustatory wisdom is a general attitude that covers a larger area than wise expertise. Thus, there is more to the wisdom of taste than “being an expert.” This wisdom requires an awareness of the procedural and contextual nature of the experience of food, and it is structured along bifocal lines: from very far away and from up close, in a complementary, integrated, or alternating fashion. Looking at food from up close, in fact, runs the risk of neglecting or denying the ecological and relational dimension inherent in it; on the other hand, standing too far back risks misreading its essential value. This complex mode is not molded as a dominant approach to the food experience. There is more than dominion, because there is more than just visual perception and assimilating incorporation. Wisdom is the ability to move between tension and relaxation, between activating and deactivating deliberate attention toward the food tasted, in a consideration that sways between the maximum and the minimum of the importance accorded to it. To strive for wisdom, one must be able to go beyond the domain of mere vision and mere incorporation and experiment with multidimensional and multisensory approaches.
Starting from Chinese aesthetics, François Jullien defends an enriching perspective on wisdom, and allows us to take new roads by introducing thriving connections (Jullien 1995, 2004). Perhaps no other civilization has developed an attention to food and cooking similar to the Chinese: a huge variety of food items and recipes, together with a rich, nonspecialist, everyday vocabulary and the existence of public places for eating already during Marco Polo’s time, speak of the high regard in which eating and taste were held. In ancient China, being educated also meant having the ability to appreciate food and to express that appreciation in the appropriate linguistic manner (Anderson 1988; Yu-Fu Tuan 2005). It is therefore only logical to take a brief look at this seemingly remote conceptual universe in which the value of food is a known and shared paradigm. Rather than speaking of irreducible differences in this case, it would be more appropriate to speak of prospects that are unexplored and marginalized, yet present in “our” universe. According to Jullien, the main characteristic of the Chinese sage is not personifying any idea or having exclusive inclinations or rigid preferences. Wisdom is a transitional thought between different, even extreme or opposite positions in the continuum of experience. Transitional thought is not a thought of rule, but of regulation: as one tunes a musical instrument, the sage tunes his perceptions and his actions to the flow of experience. For our purposes, this ability, at the same time mental and practical, rational and sensitive, has much in common with the notion of phronesis. The sage has phronesis and knows how to pass from one extreme to the other. The flexibility of his perception does not regard “the golden mean,” that median position in static equilibrium between opposite poles, but the ability to move, fluctuate, or drift lightly. With respect to the relationship with food, the sage will therefore know when to enjoy, to recognize, or even to remain indifferent according to the occasions.
The reasoning above also provides us with an argument for limiting the definition of taste as “pleasure that knows and knowledge that enjoys” given by Giorgio Agamben, which has cropped up more than once in this essay. It is a limit that the cases of pleasure, as the relaxation of knowledge and of indifference, as retraction from attention, have already foreshadowed since these gustatory encounters did not seem to lean completely on the side of “constructive” subjectivity. Instead, Agamben’s definition seems to suggest such a view, which ties the polarities of pleasure and knowledge always together without giving their disarticulation, in certain contexts, even the slightest chance. But the experience of food is not necessarily only an experience of construction, but also one of hospitality. One can have an experience even just through pleasure or knowledge; one can have naked, instantaneous pleasure as well as a purely intellectual pleasure for the food tasted. Taste can therefore be inflected as a pleasure when one enjoys, as knowledge when one knows, and as indifferent neutrality when the taste relationship withdraws, because something more meaningful emerges during the experience. Gustatory wisdom is the awareness of this process along with the skillful ability to regulate it on the grounds of the concrete relationships with the objects in the environment around us. More importantly, this does not mean controlling and managing everything, but rather perceiving when and how it is appropriate and convenient to lose control. Living a taste experience means being inside a universe of relations for the time required, and then leaving it to develop new connections and build new relationships in another gustatory scene. Eating bread or fruit, considering one’s equilibrium and weight, limiting oneself; exaggerating, not paying attention to getting fat, getting drunk, or feasting: these different and even opposite experiences can all find aesthetic legitimacy, as long as they are accompanied by awareness and by the capacity to harmonize the inside and the outside, the perception and the percept.
Gustatory wisdom, however, is not a programmatically passive or accommodating attitude. Its guideline is: it depends. Complying with dominant codes and values would in fact mean betraying the profound meaning of the relationship with food—openness, respect, enjoyment, improvement, criticism, and resistance. Gustatory wisdom fights codices when it is appropriate to fight them, when the conditions of experience require it. If, for example, in a restaurant you were served fish that was supposed to be freshly caught, and if that was not the case and you were sure of this because of your expertise or owing to other information you might have, then you would have every right to protest. This would be a wise and legitimate attitude in response to dishonesty and deceit. Who should be held responsible though? Perhaps not the waiter, who might be unaware of the problem. And what if the cook, too, were ignorant of the matter? Of course, ignorance is not allowed for the cook, but she may have been tricked by the fisherman. Situations may be complex and require specific individual responses that can vary on occasion. Wisdom is this critical vigilance. It is passion for the differences and patience; it is not self-referential and concedes very little to narcissism.
The wisdom of taste recognizes the importance of training, education, and expertise. Yet the reaction to something ugly or bad can be either complete refusal or comprehensive acceptance, produced by different elements: compassionate, comic, social, or emotional ones. A bad meal offered by someone who believes to be offering a good one, an indigestible sandwich eaten on a holiday trip in a bar run by uncaring people: the meal remains bad, the sandwich remains indigestible, but even such experiences can be part of a broader picture that redeems and transforms them into opportunities for pleasure. Wisdom does not like snobbery, except when it is ascribable to a specific strategy of (dis)armed resistance.