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I Hope He Uses the Phrase “Homespun Intersubjectivity Engine.”

 

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.

 

 


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of a literary bent, Uncategorized

Mostly When I Think “Oxford” I Think Homosexuality and Fake Moustaches.

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i discovered last week, to my excitement, that the Mcgill library carries nearly the full catalogue of Prospect Books’ Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, and was all set to warn you that “Look out, things might get a little academic in here,” but having perused 2005’s Authenticity in the Kitchen, i must say that my enthusiasm was at least partly premature.

Authenticity in the Kitchen is, to say the least, uneven. this i suppose is to be expected because the Oxford Symposium is intensely interdisciplinary, welcoming submissions from without the halls of academia, although in some cases i was struck by the downright crappiness of some of the papers that made it in. my disappointment was perhaps foreordained by the stickiness of the subject from the outset – authenticity, the problematization thereof and quest for it, is fraught cultural territory – that i myself have been worrying and darting at off and on for years now. authenticity in the abstract is something of a trap, authenticity in cooking is a tar-baby, and i have done my best to not get right into it on the blog, for fear i would never get out.

and so, expecting the Oxford Symposium to attract the best and brightest, i hoped that it might lend some texture, definition and form to my own thinking on authenticity. i have not read more than a dozen or so of the papers, but i was immediately struck by how many of them failed outright to historicize or theorize authenticity, instead engaging in or initiating normative debates about the in/authenticity of this or that culinary practice, recipe, or text; or perhaps worse, contenting themselves with the obnoxiously unproblematized wan relativist assertion that “it’s all subjective.” this, like “it’s just a matter of taste,” falls prey to exactly the kind of obliviousness that authenticating practice and discourses to do their hegemonic work unmolested, uninterrogated. it is because taste and authenticity are power effects that they are worth studying, and demand something more than a casual dismissal of their ontological primacy, and despite the abundant references to Benjamin, Bourdieu, and Appadurai, one gets the sense sometimes that the authors are missing the point, falling just shy of extending whatever admirable archival or ethnographic work they have done with a little critical nitty-gritty.

there are some good pieces, though. Sharon Hudgins’ “In the Eye of The Beholder, on the Tongue of The Taster: What Constitutes Culinary Authenticity?” gives a very thoughtful treatment of authenticity in practice, from the perspective of an experienced traveler, food writer, and cook attempting to translate ‘authentic’ permutations of regionally specific foods into locally and personally attainable results. several authors look at molecular gastronomy, its tensions and consonances with Slow Food and other resurgent artisanal culinary trends, and how questions of artistry, aura, and authenticity are negotiated and in some ways reconceptualized, although none engage in conversations about the “de-naturing” of food or “enculturization of nature” in quite the way that i would find most interesting.

there is a pretty decent article by Rachel A. Ankeny entitled “The Rise of Molecular Gastronomy and Its Problematic Use of Science as an Authenticating Authority,” that is less about people like Ferran Adrià and Grant Achatz than it is about Harold McGee, culinary mythbusting, and the consolidation of cultural capital by a science-savvy professional elite. effectively the kitchen as colonized by scientific discourses. while the piece makes some good points, i think that overall On Food and Cooking is painted as a little more technocratic and insidious than is warranted (“The reader of OFC is thus convinced that only ‘thoughtful cooking’, by which is meant cooking that relies on scientific principles and particularly those of molecular gastronomy, is creative and worthwhile”), and there is the tendency throughout, as is common to much ‘critical’ writing on science, to impute the very monolithic and rigid formation of science that is being critiqued:

food historian Fabio Parasecoli describes Adrià’s approach in Wittgensteinian terms, as similar to a game into which we must enter, ‘one in which the rules are not fixed beforehand, but created while playing’. The rules of molecular gastronomy are in fact the rules of molecular biology and chemistry, fixed and unchanging, and hence it is questionable whether there is a ‘game’ to be played. Certainly the rules of the language game that we use to describe cooking are quite fixed, if we adhere to the mandates of molecular gastronomy.

i do not dispute Ankeny’s central argument about the growing role of science (since about the 19th century, i guess?) as a sort of truth-teller or final authority in the resolution (or generation) of disputes of kitchen practice, but i think there is a bit of a muddle in the above. first, the contention that the “rules of molecular biology and chemistry [are] fixed and unchanging” is simply wrong. indeed, for a field that not exist prior to the mid-20th century, molecular biology has gone through some pretty serious overhauls of its precepts and central dogma. admittedly, these shifts have mostly not occurred, and are not likely to occur, in the context of experimental haute cuisine, but that is only somewhat beside the point.

second, where Parasecoli compares molecular gastronomy to a game, he is highlighting how the insights, techniques, and instruments of chemistry and molecular biology are being used by chefs to destabilize the rules of the terrain that is the kitchen by making possible preparations and dishes that have been traditionally unthinkable, and in some cases, right up until the moment that they happen. this sort of exploratory cuisine, even if sometimes garish and ostentatious, is not in that sense about submitting the kitchen to the iron law of the sciences (which arguably applied whether cooks were cognizant of them or not), but about using new types of expertise to change the rules of the game.

some of the more interesting papers i’ve read so far have dealt with AOC/DOC/DOP designations in the EU, such as Bronwen E. Bromberger’s “Aged, but not Old: Local Identities, Market Forces, and the Invention of ‘Traditional’ European Cheeses,” that touches on how such regulations, as with other forms of simplistic cultural protectionism, impose a sort of spectre of fixity over certain practices that on the one hand denies history or dynamism to the “historical,” while at the same time incorporating revisions and alterations to enable the development of modern cheese-making practices. in this way, she argues, DOP often ‘protects’ large-scale producers more than it does small-scale artisanal cheese-makers, by being just malleable enough to accommodate the demands of a market hungry for ‘traditional’ products.

furthering this line, and subjecting authenticity to a deeper conceptual deconstruction (although he adopts a language of ‘authenticities’ in a way that, while pointed, runs the risks of obscuring what is at stake with discourses of authenticity by reducing it to a local or personal meaning-making practice), William Rubel’s “Eggs and Soldiers, English Tea, Smoked Milk, and Pain Anniversaire” is my favourite of the bunch thus far. besides legitimizing the occasional practice of putting mayonnaise on pasta (fuck yeah, you heard me), his discussion of authenticity, protected domain, and how place is endowed with a sort of mystical capacity to flatten and overcome the internal and temporal diversity of food practices is right on the nose. what is amazing is the fixity, the authority, with which ‘the land’ grounds (pun intended) claims to authentic practice and production:

The underlying philosophy of authenticity that underpins these registrations is articulated in the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for Pane di Altamura from the Puglia region of Italy. The registration states,”In conclusion, despite the changes and adaptations that have taken place, the bread currently baked in Altamura . . . may be regarded as descending directly from the bread of those peasants and shepherds according to a breadmaking tradition that has continued unbroken since the Middle Ages.”

We have no idea what the bread of a shepherd living in and around Altamura would have been like in the Middle Ages, except that it would have had little, if anything, to do with the bread being registered. Whatever the form their bread took . . . it would have been a mixture of grain cultivars – not one of which is grown today – and weeds. It is illegal under current EU regulations to replicate a field system from the Middle Ages and sell the flour for bread.

in this formulation, it is not merely land, but blut und boden that is relied upon to assert the traditional integrity of the bread, that is the direct descendent of that which fed the hearty peasant stock who, we may rest assured, formed the backbone of the nation. even if, at the same time, nothing else about the land can be said to have remained unchanged – the types of grain and other growth, method of fertilizing crops, the quality of the water, the nutrient and mineral content of the soil, and, after four centuries’ worth of wars and whatever climate change was naturally occurring up until the Industrial Revolution began tweaking the ecosphere, even ‘the land’ itself – there is the evocation of the bloodline, of some spirit of the people themselves, that is made to infuse and preserve the identity of the place.

Rubel does not go this far, but his careful and detailed examination of how authenticities are produced, paradoxically timeless and intensely historically specific, provides fertile ground for thinking about the similar mythical operations at work in nationalist discourses and in the policing and administration of culinary landscapes.

ultimately, i guess i’m still waiting for someone or something that will do for authenticity in food culture what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have done for objectvity with Objectivity, or Alberto Cambrosio, TigoMoreira and others have done with “regulatory objectivity.” it is possible even that this latter may be brought to bear on an understanding of DPO as a form of “regulatory authenticity,” but until i start getting my ass payed for this shit, or you know, actually submit to the Oxford Symposium, i’m just going to focus on such inanities as personal reminiscences, limited edition chocolate bars, and getting drunk in the afternoon.

good thing it didn’t get all academic up in here.

skaal.

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