totally uninspiring title aside, this talk on thursday, “You Are What You Eat: Historical Changes in Ideas About Food and Identity”, by Steven Shapin, should be worth checking out:
The relationship between what you eat and who you are has been understood very differently in different historical settings. Now we believe that both our bodies and our foods are made of chemicals and that our health depends upon taking in the right combination and amounts of food constituents. But in the past both physicians and laity believed that the virtues and powers of foods might become your virtues and powers. If you ate rabbit, you might become timid while beef-eating might make you bold. These are very different idioms for thinking about food in relation to personal and collective identity, and this talk explores what changing idioms mean for changing notions of what people are like and how they come to be the way they are.
granting that even the blurb sounds pretty meh, Steven Shapin tends to be fairly interesting, and i am anticipating a depth and insight greater than is hinted above. co-author of the enormously influential classic of science studies Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, Shapin was part of that early movement of scholars who attempted to open up the production of matters of fact and unpack their political content. the most exciting insights of Leviathan and the Air Pump being to provide a reading of Robert Boyle’s experimental writings as themselves political tracts, and of Hobbes’ Leviathan as being as much a work of natural philosophy as of political philosophy.
what does any of that have to do with food? well, nothing, but the development can be sketched like this: one of the major themes of Shapin’s work over the years has been to look at the historical role of virtue in scientific thought and practice; the sort of moral content that is disavowed in the usual portrait of dispassionate, disinterested science but in fact has been quite central to its construction and the ideas of right-living for scientists. in Leviathan and the Air Pump this emerges in Boyle’s idea that the production and confirmation of matters of fact must occur in a delimited space (the laboratory) occupied by trustworthy people (men) of virtuous character who could act as credible witnesses for the veracity of experimental results. ever since, there has been a hard kernel of trust at the centre of the scientific research endeavour (tempered, ideally, by replication, peer review, etc.). you can call this a social understanding or an intersubjective understanding, but i think the second is more illustrative for our purposes, because (i’m skipping a couple of steps here) when you start viewing ‘objectivity’ as an intersubjective accomplishment rather than an individual possession or a position (the ‘view from nowhere’ for example. Daston & Galison’s expansive examination of this is certainly worth checking out), you can start to come at this foundational dichotomy in a different way.
and in what better field to fuzzy up the conventional opposition between subjectivity and objectivity than that of taste? ‘taste’ in the sense of ‘preference’ has been both totally sociologized and as Shapin argues in a paper from a couple of years back entitled “The Sciences of Subjectivity”, completely neglected as a an object/subject of study by historians and social scientists (to get the meat of his perhaps counterintuitive argument, you’ll just have to read the damn thing). ‘taste’ in the sense of ‘sensation’ and the interface between self and world has received still less (contemporary scholarly attention), even while organic chemistry and neuroscience devote ever more attention to its elaboration and explanation. our faith(s) in science notwithstanding, we are many of us at least comfortable with the idea that there is something of taste (perhaps at the intersection of the two definitions of taste) that resists or eludes objectification. i realize this is all very abstract (and likely boring, i am after all very boring), so here is a video of Steve Shapin talking about the history of the tastes of wine. which i hope he talks about more at McGill on thursday because this is something in which i am particularly interested for how it willfully (and often controversially) pushes taste into a different terrain of referentiality, into a sort of speculative organoleptics. by which i mean a realm of taste and tasting wherein one is as driven by associative concerns as much as by ‘objective’ tastes whatever they are. it’s intimately empirical and yet trenchantly non-objective, perhaps not even intersubjective, for that matter.
more on this later, probably.
also, if that all read as totally opaque academic obscurantism, don’t worry, the talk will almost certainly be more accessible, as Shapin is bald and bluff and moustachioed and doesn’t appear to give a fuck.