Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Children of a Lesser Sense?
Taste as an Aesthetic Relationship
Do you think it is the part of a philosopher to be concerned with such so-called pleasures as those of food and drink?
—SOCRATES, Phaedo, 64D
For me there is no radical distinction between the grand discourse on “the task” with all its dignity, and the reasons for wanting to go out to dinner with someone. They are not homogeneous questions, but I would not mark out a true opposition.
—JACQUES DERRIDA, A Taste for the Secret
This essay stems from a long exercise of observing the ways in which people encounter food and perceive it. This is a particular project that I need to clarify from the outset: the main topic of these pages will be how food is absorbed and assimilated according to an aesthetic approach. The meaning of “aesthetic” in this framework will become clear along the way, starting with this introduction. Allow me to anticipate a bit here by exclusion. My concern in this essay will not be food as an object in itself (for example, I will not inquire into the quality of food with regard to sensory profiles), but rather the experience of food—in a comprehensive and articulated sense. Condensed into a short and somewhat arcane formula, the essay’s basic thesis could be put as follows: taste is situation, circumstance, and ecological experience. An ecological experience is what I call here an aesthetic relationship. The title of the book refers to this formula even more synthetically: Taste as Experience, an explicit homage to John Dewey, who is one of the most important points of reference in this book and, in particular, his Art as Experience. I shall use taste here and not tasting as experience, as one would normally expect, for reasons I will explain along the way. So, what does it mean to say that taste is properly understood through experience, or rather that taste is an aesthetic relationship? Such a question cannot be answered with a pithy statement or a short definition. One needs patience and a spirit of observation. Understanding taste is a matter of learning to observe: to observe others but also oneself, because taste concerns everyone. Taste is not just a sense, nor is it only an emotion or an opinion. Above all, taste is not a thing. Taste needs to be tried and tasted.1
Taste, like theater, involves many actors and its procedural and dynamic nature comes together in scenes of particular meaning, as in a theatrical scene. I have my “primary scene” from which this idea has grown. A behavior I have always been attracted to and which still fascinates me is the facial expression of people ordering croissants and other pastries for breakfast at a coffee shop in the morning. There is hardly ever a neutral facial expression. Very often, the facial mimicry anticipates the satisfaction of a craving, by way of a vaguely complacent look cast on the object to be eaten, accompanied by the mere hint of a self-satisfied smile. Sometimes this mimicry is joined, in a single inseparable moment, by a shadow of guilt or dietary discomfort, which that interlocutory glance always reveals. This simple and everyday act caught my interest and I started comparing it with similar expressions such as that on the face of someone choosing from the menu at a restaurant, or of people ordering an inexpensive meal at a fast food restaurant after having stood in line for a long while. Over time, I put together an archive of images, made by differences in intent, in intensity, in tone, or in gesture. This now well-seasoned archive is the original source that sparked my thoughts on taste. It is the backbone of this book, grounded in the participation in and fascination for everyday and ordinary life.
In two previous works, I endeavored to reconstruct a genealogy that would establish a link between modern philosophical aesthetics and gastronomy, and organized a specific topic that could comprise this space theoretically (Perullo 2006, 2008). The present essay represents my own proposal, stemming from those two previous studies, within the viewpoint of relational aesthetics that characterizes taste. I will offer here a critical reflection on gustatory attitudes as aesthetic encounters—or at least as the most common and important ones—onto which my comprehensive theoretical proposal is grafted. It assigns an important and unexpected role to the experience of taste for food, but not in an exclusivist sense. This is not a book in praise of gastromania. It is not about praising the experience of taste as something exceptional and rare, or about understanding it as an instrument of power for individual claims of superiority or narcissistic exhibitions of skill. My proposal to value taste as an aesthetic relationship goes in a different direction. Drawing on the work of philosophers such as Epicurus and Montaigne, I intend to promote a more flexible and comprehensive approach, one that aims to be open, nimble, and nonspecialist, an approach that strives toward wisdom, as I explain in the last chapter. Believing in the value of food and taste does not mean subscribing to an exclusive lifestyle, nor does it imply becoming a food fetishist or a finicky “food extremist” obsessed with greed and gluttony. Rather, believing in the value of food and taste means having understood how it becomes possible to explore at least a large part of the sphere of everyday and ordinary human relations from a vital and fruitful perspective through the experience of food. This ambitious project aims to define a philosophy not of food, but rather with food, interpreted above all as aesthetics of taste: experiencing food and drink is ipso facto the comprehension of our ecological situation, how we face the environment, how the interconnections between us and the objects we eat, taste, and incorporate affect our being.
In the first place, I will try to answer two basic questions: How do we perceive food and drink? What are the presuppositions, the potentialities, and the limits of such perceptions? In addition to the primary scene mentioned above, I must add that many years of convivial, professional, and theoretical practice within the gastronomic scene have provided me with a plethora of different approaches to eating and drinking. Furthermore, many years of teaching wine tasting have allowed me to verify and also to directly experience the expectations and intentions that produce such approaches, as well as people’s ensuing tics and aberrations. I found several of these aspects philosophically interesting and worthy of closer reflection. Two other factors also stimulated me, one professional and one personal.
First, we live at a moment in which Western society seems particularly interested in food, and we do so amid a series of complex and contaminated models, ideologies, and attitudes that go beyond the specific area and involve other aspects of culture and civilization. Conceptually tidying up this universe while at the same time offering a theoretical perspective on taste felt like a useful operation to me. In recent years, various insightful philosophical books on taste and the philosophy of food and wine have been written (Scruton 2010; Smith 2007; Korsmeyer 1999; Telfer 1996), and of course I am indebted to these authors. If my essay takes such references for granted, I have tried to explore a different way of looking at the philosophical appreciation of the experience of taste.
The second reason is personal, almost intimate. Jacques Derrida maintained that every system of thought—and, in general, every act of writing—stems from an autobiographical impulse. In this sense, he declared philosophy to be an egodicea, that is, an attempt to justify the course of one’s life with rational arguments that transcend individual experience. Therefore, this essay is also the egodicea of a gastro-thinker, someone who for many years has needed to justify his passion for food and wine in a philosophical way. I experience gastronomy as a continuous and complete process of theoretical existence, inseparable from the search for meaning, thought, and effects. Food is my means, the refractive angle from which I interpret life, my search for humanity. All this is in line with Montaigne’s dictum “we reach the same end by discrepant means.”
I stated above that taste is not merely a sense; why? According to the mainstream of Western thought, taste is the simplest and the least interesting sense of our physiological apparatus, because it responds to a rather limited series of stimuli in comparison with the other senses. In truth, taste cannot be reduced to the chemesthetic sensations of the receptors in the oral cavity. Its process of sensorial elaboration in fact always involves the sense of smell and from time to time—depending on the specific type of function or purpose—all the other senses. This process is completed by the brain, on the basis of editing sensory data deriving from chemico-physical stimuli together with other pieces of information (cultural, educational, and contextual). Taste constitutes—to use a phrase coined by the psychologist James Gibson, who carried out pioneering studies in this field in the mid-twentieth century—a complex perceptual system. In other words, taste and smell are conventionally defined as chemical senses, because the stimuli to which the organs of the nose and mouth are first subjected derive from chemical compounds and are then processed by receptors. Yet taste and smell as organs of perception cannot be reduced to chemical senses. The process leading from a stimulus to its elaboration as sensation (that is, the immediate impression that corresponds to the quality and intensity of that stimulus), and from the sensation to its elaboration as perception (a higher-level modality organized into spatial and temporal information), is very complex and highly nuanced. Very simply put, like all the other senses, even taste does not occur within a physiological apparatus alone. Gustatory perception is a complex one, involving functions such as memory, recognition, and appreciation (Beauchamp 1997). Taste is therefore an intertwining of bodily and mental processes in constant interaction with the surrounding environment.
Acquiring such theoretical awareness gives great potential to a philosophy of food, but it is also a necessary step for a philosophy with food. If understanding taste as an aesthetic experience requires the knowledge of how the entire process works, if scientifically speaking taste is not a simple sense that can be reduced to a mere mechanical device consisting of a few basic flavors (scientists today count five: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami, but new ones may join the list soon), then taste cannot be simple philosophically either. Rather, taste is a function of many individual, cultural, and social variables; but this fact produces valuable differences in every respect. And these differences require philosophical investigation, attention, and receptiveness in order to be clearly understood and experienced.
In the meantime, let us continue observing the customers at the coffee shop having breakfast. This scene is open to a wealth of interpretations regarding the meaning of experiencing food: the relationship between nutrition, pleasure, and enjoyment; the different life experiences of the actors being observed; the geographical and historical contingencies in which the scene takes place; as well as the quality and the final destination of the raw materials consumed. By playing detective in a coffee shop in the morning, one can collect much information about taste in terms of value, which cannot be simply reduced into quantitative and numeric factors. Because of this, I argue that a correct understanding of taste requires a qualitative dimension that calls for a specific narrative of every single experience, each with its own situated story and structure. The notions of value and quality are not exhaustive, but they form the backbone of the experiential and relational dimension of taste. So the present essay presents a combination of aesthetic reflections on the main theoretical problems regarding the narration of taste experiences. It goes without saying that this strategy is deliberately unsystematic: taste lies on the sidelines of systematic theorization, bound always to specifically biographical and autobiographical dimensions. Food is ingested and represents the only portion of the world we materially incorporate on a daily basis. It also constitutes one of our first, most relevant, and repeated relationships with the external world, and this is certainly enough to prevent us from treating it as a trivial object, or something to consider at a distance.
There are several positions regarding the theoretical status of taste. According to some scholars, taste can be objectified and systematized like any other object of study. According to others, however, its very characteristics prevent any possible systematization and produce a certain elusiveness, something that is considered as a limit to a serious treatment of taste. In my perspective, both positions are mistaken. On the one hand, taste represents a phenomenon unique to human experience, because the rapport we have with food is absolutely specific. It is for this reason that I believe that food philosophy is fully legitimate. On the other, one may explore that elusiveness or the marginality of taste with respect to our optical frame as a resource. The predominance of vision in the constitution of our grammar of thought is a serious issue. I do not think indeed that Western philosophy has typically neglected to take taste, cooking, and gastronomy into serious consideration merely because of a contingent ideological removal. The fact is that eating and drinking, like all daily activities, are at once very concrete and very fleeting activities; in fact, they appear more concrete and fleeting than many others, as they are necessary and subject to mechanisms of repetition, which tend to rob them of their meaningfulness. They are therefore sentenced to systematic marginality and theoretical transience. If we go back to the roots of the aesthetics of taste, however, it is true that gustatory taste has historically met with a twofold subordination. The first concerns the senses that are generally considered subordinate to the intellect. The second concerns the specific subordination of the so-called inferior senses (touch, taste, and smell) to the higher ones (sight and hearing). Both issues were questioned by the birth and growth of modern aesthetics in the eighteenth century, intended as “the science of sensible knowledge,” according to Baumgarten’s definition (from the Greek word aisthesis, “sensation,” “perception”). The original project of aesthetics aimed to redefine and contrast them to a certain degree, by creating a space for a legitimate sensitivity, irreducible to an intellectual level. Historically, aesthetics and gastronomy share a common ground, a slightly rough terrain from where they began. But the neglect of taste can also be seen differently, as being linked to the very methods utilized in philosophy (at least in the Western tradition), as has been clearly shown by Korsmeyer (1999).
The domain of an aesthetics of taste, that is, a philosophical reflection geared toward understanding taste as an aesthetic experience, lies in this context: historical on the one hand, structural on the other. A historical vindication of taste is possible today only if understood with a profoundly philosophical acceptance of its marginality. The aesthetics of taste is therefore marginal because this sense cannot be understood exclusively through formulations and theories, yet its marginality should be embraced as a theoretical challenge. We live today in an age that could favor a similar train of thought. Of course, such conceptualization remains specific, exactly the kind specific to aesthetics as the science of singularities: taste as experience refers to specific cases, to empirical observations that become stories in a more hospitable and relaxed but no less real or compelling philosophical space. In other words, reflecting on taste also means reflecting in taste. If one lacks adequately lived experiences, it is difficult to come up with anything interesting to say on the subject.
Taste as experience must therefore be understood in two connected ways: experience as in having an experience in the world, as experiencing things of the world (as in becoming an expert), but also experience as living an experience, an inner experience, something that internally changes or enriches us. (In philosophy, these two meanings of experience are distinguished thanks to the German language, which has two distinct words, namely, Erfahrung and Erlebnis.) The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, while explaining his interest in movies, once claimed that in order to find new ways for interrogating the world, philosophical thought ought to reflect not on but in the objects to be understood and dealt with. In other words, it should enter into a vivid and direct relationship with those objects, with that film seeming to offer that opportunity. This is even truer with taste, where there is a tight and very personal relationship between subject and object, a bond where the object is consumed in the body in order to sustain or transform the subject. Subject and object are not separate entities, but rather become a totally intertwined, dynamic, and complex in-between organism. The aesthetics of taste is therefore an aesthetics of relation and implication, an aesthetics that attempts to overcome the stiff and hypostatic resistances and dichotomies that exist between the entities of mind and body, subject and object, or nature and culture.
The multimodal and embedded character of taste—a blend of natural and cultural features—will be examined on various levels in the four chapters of the essay. For taste as an experience of pleasure, knowledge, and indifference espouses a dynamic conception of aesthetics, namely, the idea according to which there are gradual differences but not qualitative separations between the “lower” functions and simpler processes, such as those related to nutrition, and the “higher” and more complex ones, reflective thinking and the arts. Within the frame of this gradualist position, nature and culture are expressions of an environmental continuum with different and interacting players: humans, animals, plants, minerals, and everything elaborated and built by or with them. One of the main ideas underlying my proposal is that taste is always ecologically situated. Saying ecologically instead of culturally marks a difference: ecology refers to the environment, and according to Tim Ingold, whose position I totally agree with, an environment is a field of forces in which lively beings (as well as artifacts) grow (Ingold 2000, 2013). Human taste is therefore part of this continuum; it does not occupy a privileged position for being cultural with respect to the natural taste of other living beings. If anything, it is just a more elaborate structure. It makes no sense to oppose taste to nature and to claim that it is culture any more than the opposite makes sense. Taste is a relationship because it evolves: the childish pleasure we take in certain flavors or foods, which we retain or which suddenly floods back in adulthood, proves this all too well. As we will see especially in the first chapter, nature and culture are differential polarities, procedural articulations, and not static and objectified entities. Precisely for this reason, the approach to food and drink still practiced by some gastronomes, according to which the only way to appreciation lies in technical tasting skills possessed by a handful of experts, is questionable because it is—in an apparently paradoxical manner, as I’ll attempt to show along the way—tied to a formalistic and abstract vision. A parallel can be drawn here with the conceptual shift in cooking, that is, that approach according to which the only thing that matters—for food and taste to be catalysts of values—is the ideas that transform food into what it becomes (Perullo 2013). This is neither a nostalgic suggestion nor an unlikely return to the so-called taste of origin as a natural pleasure; nor is it related to other charming but ideological simplifications. The point is rather to recognize and highlight the appropriateness of each single gustatory experience for the different ecological contexts in which it takes place and unfolds. There is no rule of thumb for how to taste, or for how to appreciate and enjoy. There is not one way to taste correctly. In other words, in certain circumstances a kind of pleasure I will define as “naked” could be the most appropriate access to taste, regardless of specific cultural paradigms or ethical justifications. In other circumstances, however, this may not be the case.
Here the notion of context plays a decisive role. For example: lunch in a three-star restaurant is a very different experience from a quick bite at a roadside diner while on a trip, but it would be hasty to claim that only the first experience can offer gastronomic delight. In the first case, the pleasure offered and the attention required are of an intense and refined nature. But even everyday lunch can also be enjoyable. Not only are there sandwiches and sandwiches, some are very good indeed. There is also a more subtle reason related to the situation in which food is eaten. In fact, the sandwich itself might not be satisfactory, and one may feel culturally and sensorially far from fine dining, but this is not enough for rejecting such an experience or for denying its pleasure In fact, as one knows well there is also negative pleasure: in this instance, I can take pleasure even in recognizing that that sandwich is not good, yet I am hungry and I eat it. And satisfying my hunger is exactly what gives me pleasure here. Furthermore, I can derive enjoyment from being in a beautiful and hence satisfactory situation (for example, I am in the company of the person I am in love with) in such a way that the taste of the sandwich is completely charged with my amorous energy. Nonetheless, context does not play a hypostatic role here: it’s not the deus ex machina of the whole story or, at least, not in a simple way. There are no rigid and absolute contexts indeed, as the notion of context is an open and variable one. Context is a set of connections established in a given scene, in a given theater of meaning; it is neither a foundation nor a fence, rather—to use a concept coined by Gibson—a net of affordances.
Addressing taste as an aesthetic experience also means understanding the dynamics of those affordances inserted into experience. I think a particular philosophical approach can offer a great help for this task. In this essay I have chosen to conduct my discussion in clear language and without the use of jargon, but the professional philosophers who read me will identify my approach as an eclectic combination of deconstruction, pragmatism, and anthropological approaches.
This book contains four chapters. They are stages in a process that is neither a straight nor an upward path, but rather a zigzagging one. The first three chapters—“Pleasure,” “Knowledge,” and “Indifference”—recount three different modes with which we can approach gustatory taste. Stemming from these three modes, the fourth chapter—“The Wisdom of Taste, the Taste of Wisdom”—is an elaboration of the experiential and existential attitude that captures the theoretical significance of the taste relationship with greater accuracy. This final attitude does not revoke any of the previous approaches but rather expands them into a wider framework. Each chapter explores the territory of gusto using different material, especially that derived from literature, philosophy, and personal experience. Only a few sources are explicitly gastronomical. There are two main reasons for this. First, I like to use every source I think may prove useful for analysis and reflection, without privileging any one genre. Second, I have sometimes found that my personal outlook is better represented by authors from other fields of learning rather than only gastronomy. Every chapter contains sections that investigate particular aspects of the approach taken into consideration.
The concepts of pleasure and knowledge are very complex ones and, obviously, are so broad and general in themselves that they cut across every field of human comprehension. In this essay, they almost become umbrella terms and are used exclusively as heuristic functions, to help map the whole possible spectrum of the experience of taste—at least as far as it can be put on paper, that is, modeled into a theory. In fact, pleasure and knowledge almost always intersect to a varying degree in concrete experience, modulating themselves along a spectrum from less to more, without absolute interruptions. A reflection on taste that starts from pleasure does, however, have one strong justification: our first contact with food is modulated by pleasure, a deep pleasure with its roots in the biocultural sphere of primary human drives, a sphere where pleasure and knowledge, need and desire, nutrition and taste are all one. One of our first aesthetic relationships with the external world is one where food is a source of both nourishment and enjoyment. There is a strong and precise connection between aesthetics and childhood (Dissanayake 2000) and food and taste can play an important role in evolutionary aesthetics. Even though a pure or naked pleasure is theoretically possible—at least from the perspective of the gustatory experience of the perceiver—it is very difficult to exclude more complex cognitive processes in the appreciation of certain foods and the rejection of others. Need, sensual pleasure, and knowledge often constitute a knot that is hard to untie. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben defined taste as “pleasure that knows, knowledge that enjoys” (Agamben 2015). Accordingly, the separate treatment of these first two points of access—pleasure and knowledge—has a mainly descriptive and explanatory purpose, satisfying certain architectural constraints. This sketchiness will be extensively amplified through the use of examples and discussion.
If these first two modes of access to taste are, after all, obvious—it is always said that food is culture, and sometimes also that food is pleasure—the third is the dramatic turn of events in the aesthetics of taste as an aesthetic experience. Why should an essay promoting the aesthetic value of taste and defending the legitimacy of gustatory expertise also contain a thorough discussion and defense of indifference? All this may seem slightly bizarre. In support of the methodology of active observation underpinning my approach, experience has convinced me that it is also necessary to consider indifference in order to fully understand the experience of taste. Indifference to taste is not simply a lack of something (thoughtfulness, attention, or ability); it can also express feelings appropriate to the context and even necessary criticism. Furthermore, gustatory indifference is part of everyday life. Our perceptual apparatus, stimulated by food several times a day, does not always guarantee adequate levels of attention. Even indifference can thus serve as a resource for the overall experiential blueprint from which that procedural build-up called taste emerges. Indifference does not grow simply from static routine and is not always a trivial negation of values and ignorance. Together with pleasure and knowledge, it is part of a fluid experiential fabric, in which contaminations, entanglements, and multiple accesses are possible. Furthermore, indifference is necessary for achieving the concise and comprehensive attitude that is introduced in the last chapter of this essay with the concept of gustatory wisdom. Being a wise taster means having attained the realization of evolutionary change, of the finite and partial nature of experience, of the impossibility of severing ties with the deepest layers of our being that also emerge through taste and thus claim their rights. Gustatory wisdom is a flexible and elastic attitude that follows from the acquisition of the capacity to perceive differences, contaminations, and the complex dynamics inherent in taste experience. To put it in other words, here taste stands for a device that generates diplomatic skills and, at same time, that can improve our art of living.
Two more clarifications are in order. First, for reasons of competency, perspective, and space, I will not discuss any behavior directly associated with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, nor I will discuss, except marginally, extreme behaviors such as fasting or cannibalism. I will instead focus on ordinary and everyday ways of gustatory perception: eating a donut, enjoying a piece of chocolate, drinking a glass of wine, exploring the local cuisine while traveling, or trying a traditional dish at a restaurant. Of course, I know that boundaries between normal and pathological may be slippery, and the description of certain experiences will touch upon areas that belong to the realm of pathology and are studied in psychology and medicine. But I have decided to leave any further exploration of these themes to the reader. The second point concerns a stylistic choice: although what follows is specifically and directly focused on taste and gastronomy, readers with a background in philosophy will be able to discern several theoretical references. Some are mentioned explicitly in the text, whereas others are not, so as not to weigh down the text. But I hope such references may also be of interest to readers who are not professionally engaged in the area of philosophy. I am convinced that taste is an open and wonderful topic in the practice of philosophy and, for this reason, I think that it can be taken as a quintessential case for contributing to contemporary thought and especially to aesthetics.