Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Possibilities and Perspectives
Attributing an aesthetic value to gustatory perception is an option that falls under a more general theoretical perspective. Food constitutes an exceptional field of investigation for a coevolutionary and ecological concept of culture. Taste as an aesthetic experience also represents a possibility of promoting a systemic relationship between food fruition (consumption) and food production. Mass industrial production has progressively deprived the human body of the possibility of autonomously producing and processing food by replacing it with machines. This modern change has been obviously beneficial for many aspects of human life, and has allowed more and better food to reach more people. Under the lens of taste experience, however, that shift of paradigm has often led to a perceptive impoverishment, resulting in an increasing distance between production and consumption. In modern agriculture, this is defined as a “long production chain,” with no direct relationship between the eater and the eaten, no information, no knowledge of the sources and of the processes of food making. It has become very difficult to think of food in relational terms, and it is also for this reason that we frequently witness total indifference to taste, with the production of anonymous food, of which nothing is known and which is prone to a purely instrumental approach. In the last two centuries the value attributed to practical skills, especially as far as production is concerned, has steadily decreased. It has become subordinate to design-related intellectual skills and mechanical production (Ingold 2000; Sennett 2009). From this point of view, the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, published between 1751 and 1772 under the direction of Diderot and D’Alembert, is one of the last attempts to uphold the importance of these skills and of the technical expertise, acquired with patience and experience, that they require. The subordination of practical skills to intellectual abilities in production runs parallel to the subordination of taste to sight: the “minor” senses refer to practical and marginal skills compared to the constituting processes of the master narrative of modernity, which instead stipulates the “major” senses as the natural instruments for scientific and technological progress.
However, industrial food production is neither good nor bad in itself: its meaning and its value lie in the development of human thinking under a technological guise that, as such, is a great adaptive and evolutionary resource. Nevertheless, technological development does not entail the dismissal of the capacity and skills of the human body in terms of its expression of wants and primary desires, primarily in food making and eating. In the present age, technology can also allow for a fulfilling and intense quality in the aesthetic relationship between human beings and food. It all depends on how technology is used, and on the experiential and social context in which it operates. Gustatory relational aesthetics can play a crucial role for improving awareness of the systemic connection between production and consumption.
The word taste has undergone a semantic shift since the middle of the seventeenth century, passing from identifying a natural sense assigned to the recognition and appreciation of edible substances to expressing a cultural sensitivity entrusted with the evaluation of natural beauty and, above all, works of art. This shift from the literal to the metaphorical strongly affected the subordination of the taste with respect to the other senses. By the eighteenth century, gastronomy had carved out a minor niche for itself in the context of shared practices, hobbies, and recreational activities. Since then, gastronomes have been mostly affluent professionals, dandies, refined connoisseurs, collectors, and journalists. The intellectual-gastronome is as rare as he or she is evanescent. In this light, things are beginning to change: gastronomy and cuisine are gaining ground and many important chefs are becoming highly visible public figures comparable to pop stars and contemporary artists. This contamination between pop culture, material practices, and the Academy—judged, as usual, with moral contempt by purists of thought—offers new potential for gastronomy. In this essay, I will propose a promotion of taste through a lowering strategy: on the one hand by accepting its marginal status, and on the other hand by developing an alternative and critical concept of making and eating food. Gastronomy here is seen not as a social club for acquiescent gentlemen, but rather as a dynamic space in which philosophy, humanities, arts, and natural sciences can reflect on their own times.
Strategies for valuing taste cannot be planned by overthrowing the hierarchy of the perceptible and upsetting the axiological order between minor senses and major senses. The fact that taste is marginal to thought, to knowledge, and to art is not due to vast carelessness, negligence, or a major conspiracy (as the French philosopher Michel Onfray, author of many books advocating the liberation of physical pleasure and taste, is inclined to think). It is not necessary to line up the good guys (the Epicureans, the materialists, the libertines, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and so on) and the bad guys (the Platonists, the idealists, the ascetics). Nor is it necessary for gastronomy to gain admission to the realm of institutional modern art. Instead, taste and cooking should be used to contribute to a redefinition of the boundaries of art (Perullo 2013). Just as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin advised in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1936, in order to be able to consider cinema as an art form, it is not necessary to turn it into something it is not (for example, a refined form of painting or theater); instead, it is necessary to expand the domain of art, to rethink it on a new basis (Benjamin 2008). The same will happen to gastronomy if a reassessment of taste comes about by way of a lowering strategy, consisting in knocking art off its pedestal and, at the same time, in taking taste experiences as aesthetic ones (Saito 2007). This leads to a consequential shift from a subject/object paradigm of knowledge to an ecological one, a “knowing from the inside” perspective as Tim Ingold (2013) calls it.
Today a popular and counterproductive misunderstanding exists. Asserting a distinction between cuisine as art and cooking as “simple” craftsmanship means implying a highly problematic (and outdated) distinction between the creations of the mind and the repetitive and mechanical executions of the hand and body. In this frame, a hierarchical distinction would seem to exist between material techniques and skills—chopping, touching, cooking, and tasting—and conceptual design and ideas. According to this view, the chef is a designer or even a conceptual artist. Thus, “normal” and ordinary cooking would not fall under the category of artistic cuisine, which would only be considered as the expression of exceptional moments originated by the creative mind of a chef. This setting is deeply flawed and confusing and, in the end, it leaves everything just as it was. There are valid theoretical and ethical reasons to refute it. In fact, on the one hand identifying the creative process only as an intuitive act of a mind is wrong: creating artifacts is a complex process made mostly of real, physical work with the original idea. On the other hand, the hierarchy of fine dining (cuisine) and ordinary cooking implies social and political issues. As in the artworld, the gastroworld is subject to codes drawn up by a few people, a few critics, and a few cooks.
It is therefore necessary to proceed differently and change the perspective. There are two steps to the strategy of the aesthetics of taste as experience. The first is the unrelenting emphasis on the value of marginality, in all its possible forms. This is the key to reconsidering established boundaries and customary codes. Changing the signs on the marginality of taste perception means accepting its paradoxically parasitic nature: taste is the paradigm of embodied knowledge, which originates and develops in and through the body, and which is not conceivable otherwise. But taste also needs observation, reflection, and introspection, on the one hand, and expression, sharing, and concepts in order to be communicated, on the other hand. The second, even more exciting step involves embracing a different concept of aesthetic value. This concept takes the functional, instrumental, ordinary characteristics of food to the most extreme consequences: the acts of being ingested, assimilated, and metabolized should become the cornerstone of the new aesthetic values of food. In other words, the gustatory process of ingesting, assimilating, and metabolizing plays a key role for the aesthetic value of taste. Instead of classic aesthetic values such as formal beauty, elegance, and harmony forged on distal contemplation (because these objects are never ingested), here we come face to face with the specific domain of eating and tasting. Eating well is an aesthetic value, but “well” does not mean accommodating a value to a standard of reference borrowed from another field. Rather, “well” has to do with the contact of food with our internal tissues, with the juices that make it digestible, with the channels that transport it to where it can be processed. This move will allow enhancing the taste experience as such, not as more or less comparable to the intellectual (and conventionally aesthetic) ones.
Pleasure, knowledge, and indifference are the three main entryways to taste experiences, from the highest intensity and attention to its total absence. I propose to accompany the reader on a journey into this territory. Pleasure goes back first of all to the primary, infantile, instinctual, naked stage of our relationship with food, a stage that is never completely and definitively overcome: pleasure is never neglected. Food is not only—and this statement is equivalent to: cannot be simply reduced to—a cultural construct. In other words, eating is an activity in which, in many respects and from time to time, something like “nature” emerges. After pleasure, knowledge leads us to our conscious intentions, to adulthood, and to the evolution of culture: taste gets dressed. This is a vast and fascinating field, thanks to which the problems of language, identity, authenticity, different preferences, and appreciation can be addressed. Finally, indifference refers to the negation, suspension, or suppression of taste for many different reasons. In this experience, gustatory attention leaves the scene and food is left to perform its purely nutritional and energy-providing function. This is a necessary integration of the experience of eating, without which one would understand nothing of taste as an aesthetic perception. Understanding these three modes of access encourages what I suggest calling the wisdom of taste, a perceptual ability that assimilates the variables of eating experience and reconciles them with a mindful awareness. Wisdom is the outcome of endless self-enhancement and is a dynamic, not static, condition. It can be depicted better as a guide for the continuous exploration of experience than as a perfectly attained state.
Understanding the taste experience as a whole does not mean isolating it from its ordinary dimension. Taste does not have to be ennobled and does not have to become something other than itself. Rather, it is integrated into a philosophy with food, which is close to an aesthetics of everyday life (Saito 2007). Taste as aesthetic relationship lies on the margins of theory. It can also be understood as a theory of the margins. It is an elusive and ethereal object of reflection, precisely because of its evidence, its universality, and its ordinariness. After all, Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the most important aspects of things are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. And Roland Barthes stated in turn that we do not see our own food or, worse, we assume that it is insignificant and trivial. So let’s start observing and perceiving our daily food with open-mindedness, patience, and confidence.