Conviviality: Discord and Gustatory Empathy - The Wisdom of Taste, the Taste of Wisdom

Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016

Conviviality: Discord and Gustatory Empathy
The Wisdom of Taste, the Taste of Wisdom

I argued that hospitality has to do with giving and accepting in both directions. However, the hospes—the host or the guest—is not only the foreign friend; he can also prove to be hostile, the enemy. Whoever hosts must contemplate the possibility of conflict and discord. Conviviality—from cum vivere, “to live together”—is the emblematic, physical, and metaphorical space of the twofold possibility inherent in the experience of food. Sharing and discord generally characterize the social essence of human life, and eating together is one of its most radical and distinctive features. Conviviality can therefore represent a gym for refining the wisdom of taste. But of course, it needs to be open, “hospitable,” and not rigid. From this point of view, if the gastronomic brotherhoods always risk being self-referential and closed, open conviviality is a bastion of resistance against the consequences of the attitudes of complacency and social distinction (Bourdieu 1984) and conspicuous consumption (Veblen 1899). The gourmand, the compulsive, and the indifferent eater can find elements for reflection with respect to their hardened ways in open conviviality, which puts them back into the game with new perspectives on confronting others. Conviviality fosters the ability to listen and the willingness to do so; wisdom models itself on this attitude, which is the opposite of the assertive approach of seeking immediate consensus.

Conviviality was thought to be important from the beginning of philosophy, even by thinkers like Plato, who did not devote any positive philosophical attention to the sense of taste. But Epicurus, in another aphorism attributed to him, states that before you eat or drink anything, carefully consider with whom you eat or drink rather than what you eat or drink (Epicurus 1925). The sage’s taste therefore is aimed not exclusively at food objects, but also at contexts: on appropriate occasions, any food will do at any level. Unrestrained drunkenness or the most frugal meal can become meaningful in an appropriate convivial situation, and for an advanced sensitivity, even loneliness can become a convivial experience sui generis, that is, an interesting and rewarding relationship with food and drink for someone seeking a solitary meal (at home or in a restaurant) or drink under certain circumstances. The ability to listen and understand the other, typical of wise behavior, is expressed in the attitude that recognizes the limits of one’s inclinations and preferences, starting from that which according to Montaigne is the most important social virtue: empathy. The wisdom of taste can also be understood as the constant exercise in gustatory empathy in situations of diversity and contention. In other words, the sage’s taste empathy is a “reversed” empathy. It consists in understanding—and feeling—why a food we fail to appreciate is popular, or why a drink that leaves us indifferent or worse is so well liked: this ability is the height of the wisdom of taste.

“Everyday diplomacy” is what the sociologist Richard Sennett called the strategy used in dealing with people we do not understand and to whom we have difficulties relating, a strategy used for the superior purpose of the “common good” and for the joint creation of something positive (Sennett 2012). We can in the same manner interpret the wisdom of taste as a flexible device—being able to pass between tension and relaxation, the activating and deactivating of deliberate attention toward the tasted food—as the daily diplomacy of convivial relations. The relationship with food, in fact, is almost always mediated by the relationship with others: diners and consumers, but also other preparers and processors of food. The space of conviviality is not exclusively defined by the relationship between tasters; those who prepare the food must also be taken into account. The differences in cooking styles express complex social and historical facts, and (amateur and professional) chefs themselves go through changes in their taste and their relationship with the raw materials in the course of their lives. This finding further enhances the overall situation, but also undermines any assertive judgment and gives new impetus to the dialogical character of convivial experience.