Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Difficulties and Resistances
Food studies has developed in the Western academic world since the 1960s mainly thanks to anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas), history (Marc Bloch, Jean-Louis Flandrin, and Massimo Montanari), and sociology (Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu, and Claude Fischler). Philosophy joined the group a little later through gender studies and cultural studies in the United States. The first groundbreaking and highly praiseworthy works (Curtin and Heldke 1992; Kass 1999) opened up possibilities for research in many areas. A few years later, books like those by Elizabeth Telfer (1996) and Carolyn Korsmeyer (1999) brought to light the full potential of food as a topic for philosophical inquiry. I believe that while the analytical approach of these works—especially Telfer’s—point out very clearly the topic’s theoretical issues, they nonetheless fail in two different aspects. First, because they still treat food as an object of analysis among others, regardless of its singularity, which makes it not only an object of study, but rather a systematic set to be incorporated. This methodology leaves out many things. Second, they do not develop a general perspective on what one may do with gustatory experiences in order to achieve alternative possibilities for a better quality of life. The transformative power of taste is therefore left out. These two issues are precisely those at stake in my essay. Before considering the heart of the matter, I ask you to bear with me a little longer while I sum up some very well-known difficulties and conflicts of a philosophical nature about taste. It is necessary to clear the path we wish to take of at least the major obstacles.
How is philosophical reflection on taste and gastronomy feasible? This is not a rhetorical question. Already Plato—in his dialogues Phaedrus, Gorgias, and Phaedo—refused to assign cookery the status of a science or an art. Plato compares cookery to rhetoric with respect to the false and seductive pleasures it provides. Cooking is an empirical activity aimed at seduction, since it only satisfies a basic need. It has nothing to do with knowledge because it does not proceed from general axioms, or with art because it does not satisfy any true and intellectual enjoyment. Its pleasures are physical, ephemeral, and unworthy of rational man: “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 asks in the Phaedo. Here taste is at stake. In most of Western thought, the sense of taste—together with smell—is considered minor and inferior because it is more than proximal: its accomplishment is its intake. According to this view, which runs all the way through the history of Western culture, senses are divided into higher ones (sight and hearing) and lower ones (taste and smell). Touch usually stays in the middle, in an ambiguous position. In the Greek and the Christian tradition, sight—together with hearing, which is instead dominant in the Jewish tradition—is the noblest sense, because it is distal and, therefore, objective. Sight explores, knows, and measures entities in the distance. Controlling from a distance seems to be one of the main bases of objective knowledge: the seen entities become objects. Visual perception is the basis for much of our understanding of reality and for most of our relationships with things (Korsmeyer 1999), so much so that knowledge, as well as faith and beauty, is often depicted using visual metaphors: the word idea (mental image, etymologically derived from the Latin video, “to see”), the notion of light (which refers to beauty), and man as an image of God. Reading and listening are the true or at least the deepest accesses to knowledge, to faith, and to art. When aesthetics turned into philosophy of art, it mainly dealt in fact with visual and auditory arts, even less with touch (the decline of sculpture starting in the eighteenth century is telling), and not at all with taste and smell. As I already mentioned in this hierarchy, touch is in an ambiguous position, since it is evidently a sense of contact and proximity, but not of ingestion. According to some scholars, this difference is enough to grant touch a cognitive status, because it can explore the surface and the shape of things, without blending with them. In some modern philosophical systems—such as those of Descartes and Spinoza—touch is even a privileged sense. For Descartes, for example, all senses are attributable to touch on a physical basis (as the Greek philosopher Democritus maintained); taste is therefore a tactile sense. This position—a minority view in modern aesthetics—is very interesting in light of this book.
In a famous passage at the beginning of his Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel states that “the sensuous aspect of art is related only to the two theoretical senses of sight and hearing, while smell, taste, and touch remain excluded from the enjoyment of art. For smell, taste, and touch have to do with matter as such and its immediately sensible qualities—smell with material volatility in air, taste with the material liquefaction of objects, touch with warmth, cold, smoothness, etc.” (Hegel 1975, 38—39). Hegel is radical and also excludes touch from the realm of art; only sight and hearing produce aesthetic knowledge and pleasure. Taste and smell produce a pleasure that is physical, at least because it has developed by material processes that occurred into the body. Hegel and Plato completely agree on this point, and so does Kant, for whom a judgment of taste—an aesthetic judgment—is only given if the taste in question is a metaphorical one, that is, taste for beauty. Only artistic beauty and natural beauty allow for universal appreciation, tied to a pure, selfless, and necessary feeling, free from any material need and any urgent corporeal necessity. Much of modern aesthetics in the West took up these positions, perhaps varying them slightly, but often confirming the fundamental assumption of the exclusion or the subordination of taste and smell.
Of course, alternative positions occurred. Authors from the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and modern times have been willing to allow gustation into the realm of phenomena worthy of philosophical reflection, occasionally even using it for an alternative paradigm of knowledge. Epicurus—whom we will meet again in the next chapters—is the most famous representative and eponym of the positive and key role food plays in philosophy; but there are also libertines and materialists, and, interestingly, some medieval scholars attributed great importance to the palate. A monist and ecological conception of reality that goes beyond the dichotomy between the ideal and the real world can easily overcome the argument that places the distal senses as “superior” to the proximal ones. According to Gibson and Dewey, seeing and hearing, on the one hand, and touch, taste, and smell, on the other, are in fact different perceptual systems, with different functions, but they derive from the same psychophysical unit that developed during the course of evolution with respect to different skills. To put it differently, in a systemic approach, just as it is wrong to state that the brain is metaphysically superior to the hand, because a coevolutionary process between the development of the prehensile hand and the growth of the human brain occurred, it is also wrong to define sight as “superior” to taste and smell. Sight became more and more convenient and useful in the growing process of human beings. It is not so important to us now to recognize the scent of a blackberry bush as it is to recognize the noise of a car or the sight of a predator, such as a tiger. Or even the smell of gas in our apartment, informing us of the risk of an explosion.
Indeed, one can consider incorporation and assimilation a cognitively safer way of interacting with objects than sight, due to the assumption that epistemic certainty may require exploration by contact (a food may seem cold to the eye, only contact will tell me if it is hot). Even the inventor of the term aesthetics, the Leibnizian Baumgarten, left a possibility for the palate: aesthetics as “the science of sensible knowledge” referred to all senses. In the original project, aesthetics was to be the science of all arts, including the beautiful ones, as well as the practical and useful ones. However, as I already mentioned, after its birth Western aesthetics turned primarily to elaborating the intangible aspects of art. Thus, Epicurean thought, as well as that of thinkers such as Montaigne, remained marginal and secondary. And even if the cognitive ennobling of gustatory taste were thought to be possible, it does not imply its free and unlimited cultivation and circulation: the paradigm of moderation—la giusta misura—became a precept of the highest importance also for those who claimed the legitimacy of food pleasures. David Hume, who carefully took taste and the palate into account for his explanation of aesthetic appreciation, wrote that a “very delicate palate, on many occasions, may be a great inconvenience both to a man himself and to his friends: But a delicate taste of wit or beauty must always be a desirable quality; because it is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments, of which human nature is susceptible” (Hume 1909—14, §17). The moral of the story is that an expert in visual arts will never be accused of knowing too much, yet it is easy to see how the intake of food beyond a certain measure is considered, outside of health issues, to be ethically and politically dangerous.
Are the views of Platonic philosophy, of Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics on the value of gustatory taste mere relics of the past? Unfortunately not. Two recent examples from Italian journalism will suffice to demonstrate this. The first appeared in the newspaper La Stampa on September 26, 2007, in an op-ed by the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater titled “L’arte della digestione” (The art of digestion). In this article, Savater criticized the way in which today the media celebrates gastronomy and chefs, taking the cue from a number of meetings on creative cooking and polemicizing in particular using the idea of cooking as an art form, promoted in the last decade by the great chef Ferran Adrià. At the heart of his argument, Savater claimed that food “is an honest craft, not an artistic creation whose goal is not to satisfy the mere senses, but to awaken feelings and encourage the discovery of new meaning. The highest effect of a dish is to pleasantly satiate hunger; true art, in reality, begins later.” Savater fused here the Platonic argument with the Hegelian and Kantian one: art has nothing to do with material sensitivity except as an interim stage. Seeing and hearing actually serve as a go-between for the spiritual and ethereal feeling of beauty. The strategy I propose in this essay is quite the opposite paradigm: I do not deny the importance of the satisfaction of hunger, but rather suggest that satiating hunger can be a way to awaken feelings, create emotions, and enrich one’s own life with new meanings (Perullo 2013). The second example was published in the Sunday insert of Il Sole 24 Ore on March 15, 2009. With a polemic sideswipe at unnecessary spending in times of crisis, the author also picks on Ferran Adrià, the true bogeyman of any critic of the artistic value of gastronomy, “who serves the most sophisticated and most expensive food in the world in his restaurant.” (By the way, this second bit of information is objectively false, it was never true that Adrià’s restaurant—which definitively closed its doors on July 30, 2011—was the most expensive one in the world.) The article quoted the Catalan chef’s answer to the question regarding the ethical legitimacy of spending about two or three hundred Euros for a dinner. According to Adrià, the decision of who goes to a certain kind of restaurant was to be framed in a different complex of issues. Eating at Adrià is not about going out for dinner, but rather about wanting to indulge in an overall experience that is not only sensory but also cultural, aesthetic, and—in this case—even artistic. From this perspective, the choice is as legitimate as spending one’s money to attend a premiere at La Scala or a major sporting event, or even to buy a pair of designer slacks. This (not only legitimate but also philosophically sound) consideration was greeted by the columnist with “Adrià, give us a break! There is no gallery in your restaurant, if a client does not appreciate your liquid nitrogen mozzarella she cannot even whistle, and in any case you will have to concede that a designer dress lasts a little longer than a dinner.” In a presumptuous and mocking tone, three arguments are used here to confute the deep cultural value of gustatory taste. The first one is that gastronomy is not comparable to art, because “true” art is something altogether different. It is supposedly concerned with spiritual, universal, and disinterested pleasures, not with bodily, singular, and interested ones. The second one is that gastronomy is not comparable to true leisure and genuinely entertaining practices either, such as going to the stadium, where the audience can vent its feelings by whistling. Here gustatory taste and fine dining are curiously enough presented as practices that are empty and boring at the same time, hardly serious if compared to knowledge and art but paradoxically also too serious with respect to leisure and fun. The third argument—one of the most classic objections against the value of gastronomy—is that gustatory pleasures are not comparable to clothing and couture either, because unquestionably clothes last longer than a meal; they are less perishable items and, therefore, a better investment. The Consumption Exclusion Thesis (Monroe 2007) still looms large in the ordinary perception of the (in)comparable values of food and art. Even today, in the age of performance arts, there is a widespread conception according to which a work of art—as an object or as an experience—is a valuable fact because it is lasting, in terms of its permanence, of its cultural memory, and of its storage. The prejudice that a dish and a meal are quickly consumed is still ongoing, although everything today clearly indicates that this is not the case (digital memory, mediatization, narration on one side; dietetics and political issues about food hold everyone’s attention) (Perullo 2013).
The objections against gustatory taste thus fall into three categories: epistemological (taste belongs to the minor senses, cooking belongs to the empirical activities); aesthetic (true art versus crafts or applied arts); ethical (the dangers of physical pleasure, compliance to animal instincts, gluttony and greed). Today, these objections seem threadbare, both from a theoretical and from a practical point of view. The idea of any rigid definition of art was called into question from the beginning of the twentieth century onward by many authors (including, Benjamin, Wittgenstein, Dewey, and Danto, to name but a few from different philosophical areas) and now into the domain of aesthetics it is almost commonsense. In the twentieth century, the modern separation between the fine arts and crafts, between theoretical and practical activities, was also called into question. More recently, some scholars like the sociologist Richard Sennett and the anthropologist Tim Ingold have proposed a conception of art in its original and most long-lived meaning, that of skillful making and technique (téchne). Art, in the ancient world and throughout the Middle Ages at least up until the Renaissance, was mainly know-how, and was produced according to rules. It therefore expressed the technical capacity and dexterity to make objects with superior care and recognized ability, but within an established code that served as a paradigm. This is an interesting consideration for our specific topic: cooking is certainly a good example of knowing how to do something according to rules, hence a pertinent example of art as skillful making. Therefore, its exclusion from the artworld would seem wrong. Moreover, the representation of the gastronome as someone boring and overweight, if, on one hand, occasionally true, is, on the other, often a caricature produced by someone who holds the whole subject in disregard. Not all gastronomes are dull and ignorant, just as not all philosophers and journalists are intelligent and brilliant. Let us once again take Ferran Adrià as an example, the most discussed and probably least directly “tasted” chef in the history of cooking. Many of his critics, as we have seen, have never set foot in his restaurant (and not even in restaurants comparable to his), nor do they know anything precise about his techniques or about the history of cuisine. Adrià has become the symbol of artistic cuisine, and furthermore has become so in the modern sense of art, which means creativity, originality, and imagination. He was, in 2007, the first chef to be invited as an artist to the Documenta exhibition (Hamilton and Todolì 2009). Although the contemporary artworld accepted this, it was feared and opposed by many others. Why? In this essay, I will suggest that the reasons are psychological and historical rather than theoretical. Finally, even the argument that gustatory taste is an ephemeral and fleeting pleasure has been strongly questioned. Taking, as it were, the bull by the horns, how could one measure the length and also the intensity of pleasure? Proust’s madeleine is the easiest example of a different possibility, applying the same paradigm in which taste can evoke and express feelings, sentiments, and memories. It can be a resurfacing of emotional states presumed to have been overcome and forgotten. Food’s potential depth of pleasure and taste can also be substantiated through memory and, in any case, a short but intense experience does not necessarily produce less significant pleasure.
Much of twentieth-century aesthetics has contemplated these questions and tried to provide answers to deconstruct both the Kantian arguments on the judgment of taste and the Hegelian ones on aesthetics as philosophy of art based on the paradigm of visual and auditory perception. These responses provide us with the technical tools that can be applied to a philosophical program in which food is based on taste as a relational experience. If we put these tools to use, it becomes possible to overcome contemplative aesthetics, which exclude the body and gustatory pleasures from the realm of philosophy. If, therefore, a complex project and good arguments are necessary in theoretical terms, on the practical side things are much easier and speak for themselves.