‘From Plato’s dismissal of food as a distraction from thought to Kant’s relegation of the palate to the bottom of the hierarchy of the senses, the sense of taste has constantly been devalued by Western aesthetics.’ Thus begins the newly published book by Michel Delville, Food, Poetry and the Aesthetics of Consumption: Eating the Avant-Garde (1), his latest. In it Delville analyses why this relegation has taken place and argues that the contemporary avant-garde, in its various forms and guises, has taken it upon itself to confront this prevailing orthodoxy and in so doing has produced innovative art which is challenging in a variety of ways.
Given the vital necessity of food to human existence its marginalisation, and that of the sense of taste, is in many ways astonishing. Whilst Michel Delville stresses that this neglect, or even suppression, stretches back several millennia, he highlights eighteenth century philosophy, and Kant and Hegel in particular, as being perhaps more guilty than most of privileging the hegemony of vision, and to a lesser extent hearing, over other senses. This is not a coincidence. The body? The Enlightenment never fancied it much. It was during this period that the modern subject was in a sense constructed and the valorisation of reason over the sensual became entrenched. For Kant the problem with taste was that ‘it belongs to the realm of the private and the subjective and cannot claim universal validity.’ Furthermore, taste was to be ranked amongst the ‘lower’ senses because it did not seem to be ‘required in the development of higher types of knowledge’ (Korsmeyer). Hegel too, having ‘defined art as an operation of the spirit becoming conscious of itself’, came to the conclusion that the sense of taste had no business with the enjoyment of art, arguing that smell, touch and taste deal ‘with matter as such and its immediately sensible qualities.’ Hegel was moreover troubled by the physical proximity of the lower senses to their objects and by the fact that ‘the sense of closeness one experiences when tasting food abolishes the critical distance between the perceiver and the perceived.’
Some of this comes down to a long standing distrust, even fear, of the body and its functions within Western philosophy. To these misgivings one can also add disgust. Getting it down is one thing, keeping it down is quite another, after all. Food’s potential for putrefaction and rotting, its potential transformation into human waste products, and meat’s resemblance to human flesh are also to be found lurking in the suppressed edges of Western thought. The problem with the sense of taste and foodstuffs is that they destabilise a number of key binary oppositions not only cherished by Western thought, but on which its whole philosophical and moral edifices have been constructed. The oppositions which are threatened here include the crucial ones of inside/outside and self/other. We could add that it is the bourgeois body in particular that comes in for uncomfortable scrutiny.
(1) Delville M., Food, Poetry and the Aesthetics of Consumption: Eating the Avant-Garde, Routledge, 2008.