Criticism and the Look of Childhood - First Mode of Access

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

Criticism and the Look of Childhood
First Mode of Access

What has emerged from the examples given so far is that access to food by way of naked pleasure denies any value or virtue to the morals of privation: “This obvious fact should finally be attested: asceticism doesn’t enrich the spirit. There is no virtue in deprivation” (Nothomb 2006, 126). Now, the paradigm of this emancipative pleasure corresponds to the beginning of every individual life: childhood. Here, behavior and choices are guided by hedonic drives before we become structured according to the educational and cultural matrix in which we are placed or that is intentionally chosen. Starting with the pleasure of food means starting with what comes first in terms of the human experience, but also with what should never be removed and hidden. We should be open to accept the occasional reemergence of childhood during successive phases of growth. The mind-set that strengthens the bond with that condition is frequently to be found in food, in the voluntary abandon to the pleasure of chocolate, of beer, of wine without knowing its history, without knowing its origin, and without any connection to its sources. Whenever the context allows it and requires it, this approach accepts a “passive” relationship with the object: it can invade through its weight, its flavor, and its texture—alcohol as alcohol, the sweet as sweet, and so on—regardless of its social and cultural matrix. The pleasure of food may of course also depend on other factors, and for adults this is sometimes the case. The expectation of that particular wine or dish, the memory we have of it, the place where we eat it, and the person with whom we eat it are all involved.

If we take a look at taste through the eyes of the researcher, taste of course is always a social construct, the outcome of a field of forces that marks complex processes of identification and differentiation. If we look at taste from within, the possibilities of experience and the perceptions we can carve out of it are numerous, legitimate, and justifiable, depending on needs and contexts. Understanding this does not mean, however, concluding that all experiences are just and legitimate per se. There may be cases of inappropriateness, error, and inconsistency with respect to the ecological situation. Imagine being invited to dinner at a very important gourmet restaurant, Grant Achatz’s Alinea, for example, and, once there, demanding a T-Bone steak because that is just what you felt like eating. Your behavior would be inappropriate, off topic, entirely wrong, as if you had asked for background music at a Led Zeppelin concert. Moreover, it is important to point out that the reference to the context does not imply a rigidly regulatory function of the context itself. The context is not a static or transcendental given; rather, it is a dynamic interaction between forces, which can therefore be changed, leaving space for creativity and transformation. The pleasure of food is always ambivalent. It can express desire for growth as well as pathological degeneration. It may be the banner of established powers, but it can also have a critical function. In this respect, the idea of gastronomy as the arena for rare and exceptional experiences too often sympathizes with the bourgeois idea of taste as “good taste,” associated with a dominant trend, in short—to put it in a slightly simplistic but effective way—with “aesthetic capitalism” (Assouly 2008) and with a certain standardization of taste. Taking the relationship between aesthetics and childhood as a starting point is a strategic step for promoting a new strategy for the whole gastronomic experience, reflecting both a deeper and more open, amateur, inclusive, and aware look.

Naked pleasure corresponds to an almost instantaneous perception, phenomenalized first and foremost with sight: a bar of white chocolate puts the child in touch with her intelligence and capacity for observation, and it is precisely the look reflected in the mirror that enhances the pleasure of the spice cookies for Amélie. Gustatory pleasure is always related to the ability to see: to see oneself and to be seen. Casting a look is selective perception and visual intelligence: “Sight, the very essence of life, first and foremost constitutes a rejection. Therefore, to live means to reject” (Nothomb 2003, 11). Just like sight, taste as perception, recognition, and appreciation is also a process of editing and continuous dynamic selection, a process that proceeds systematically by acquiring information from the elements that make up an environment: places, people, sounds, smells, colors, individual experiences, constraints, contingent psychophysical conditions, appetite, and, of course, the chemical and physical characteristics of the object that is being ingested (Gibson 1966). The stimuli of sight are also embedded in this process to complete a complex multisensory perception where, in the words of Gibson, entire perceptual systems interact.

Looking refers to the face. The face is one of the fundamental elements for understanding taste attitudes because—anticipated or in vivo—gustatory pleasure is expressed through facial gestures and words. In a pioneering study titled Le doux et l’amer (1985), the psychologist Matty Chiva presented the results of research on taste perception in infants. Chiva and his team analyzed the relationship between facial expression and perception of taste in infants through photographs taken during feeding. Babies responded with great pleasure to the taste of sugar and sweetness, were less excited about saltiness, and demonstrated disgust and repulsion to sour and bitter-tasting food. These responses—a smile or a grimace of disgust—were photographed and catalogued. In addition, another element emerged, which attracted the attention of researchers: the relationship between mother and infant. Chiva and his team noticed that in the presence of the mother infants tend to replicate maternal facial expressions. Later, from the age of about a year and a half onward, they intentionally and explicitly communicate their emotional states using facial expressions associated with taste. The pleasure of food substantiated in the face is therefore the fundamental way toward expressing emotions, but it is also the first way to create relations with the external world. The careful observation of these phenomena helps pinpoint the development between nature and culture in the dynamic and adaptive picture of the human process. The scene in which such emotional mimicry takes place, in other words, is emotionally and socially characterized from the outset. The infant’s facial expression begins to signify something through her relationship with her mother; through this process, the dynamic and differential metamorphosis from biological to cultural occurs (Chiva 1985, 40—85). How is it possible then to underestimate this kind of gustatory pleasure? The famous Italian chef Fulvio Pierangelini once said that the most profound aim of cooking—that of pleasing people—is a very difficult thing to achieve, because it actually means trying to improve on that most intimate and inaugural act of childhood: breastfeeding.

Other issues derive from these considerations about the mimicry of pleasure and the ongoing link between nature and culture: the relationship between anthropological constants and cultural variations, as well as, more generally, between animality and humanity. As is well known, even Charles Darwin addressed the question of the face—though not in relation to taste—in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), comparing the facial expressions of babies with those of animals. Darwin concluded that interspecies facial expressions had much in common. His theories were very important also for evolutionary aesthetics, although not in the field of food. Studies examining expressions of pleasure or disgust for food in infants, however, illuminate the interaction between the physiological, psychological, and social levels of the sensory experience. This constant interaction continues into adulthood and is the basis for individual skills and techniques in many fields of human existence. What is relevant here is that during human growth, the social level tends to cover and engulf the other two. In particular, physiological and biological elements are apparently removed, regardless of the fact that the link between all levels is the key to growth. Culture, which appears to us as the result of one single dimension, thus becomes impoverished. Gustatory taste is no exception to this mechanism, and thus asserting the importance of naked pleasure entails, in an only apparently paradoxical fashion, doing justice to the complexity of culture. There are, of course, good reasons for this shift in manners from childhood to adulthood: one’s upbringing is preparation for a social life and should above all provide tools for critical thought. Very often infantile gustatory pleasure is a tool for manipulation to keep people in a perpetual “minority status,” to use a Kantian expression. Junk food is an emblematic case of the degeneration of the vital hedonic impulse in commercial manipulation, which is why one sees adults continuing to eat like children in every respect, including attraction to the same foods, the sweet and the soft. This is an indisputable fact. Cultural evolution and the channeling of impulses into paths more appropriate to socialization are good. Fundamental attention, however, has to be paid to avoiding their complete removal, because removal has dangerous and serious consequences. In the realm of food and taste, allow me to mention one point I will develop in the next chapter: the axiological distinction between nutrition (the sphere of the primary, energetic need) and cuisine (the sphere of desire, imagination, and creativity) loses its plausibility. In fact, eating is not a purely quantitative action, and pleasure is not a luxury typical of rich and postindustrial societies. This is a curious myth, because it is a fact that pleasure grows with the intensity of the appetite. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding influences some contemporary expressions of gastronomic culture: great chefs who think they ought to be appreciated not for the physical and nutritional value of their food, but for the intellectual pleasure they provide—even implying that it’s best to go to the best restaurants “without being hungry” in order to better appreciate the food—find themselves, against their will, in a counterintuitive and counterproductive cul-de-sac. Instead, an aesthetics of taste as ecological relationship, since it appraises naked pleasure, is also an aesthetics of hunger. To subscribe to this position, it is enough to observe and to observe oneself, honestly and in line with one’s psychophysical processes, inextricably comprising reason and passion, ideas and feelings. We need to do away with the accretions that encumber our feelings. Of course, this is not a matter of rediscovering a naive naturalism, let alone believing in the absolute spontaneity of feelings. Instead, the reevaluation of naked childhood pleasure—which may be defined as the nonintentional childhood look—must be heeded as a warning against all hypostatized dichotomies.