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Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy by Carolyn Korsmeyer

Is eating “a small exercise in mortality”? Erin McKenna consumes a tasteful but non-fattening book by Carolyn Korsmeyer.

Making Sense of Taste is, at one level, a book about aesthetics. Korsmeyer provides an evaluation of the sense of taste in many contexts. She discusses food as art and shows how metaphors of eating pervade discussions of traditional art forms. She also spends a fair amount of space discussing how taste is often ruled out as a proper aesthetic object because it is too subjective and does not lend itself to the kind of objective standards that ‘real art’ does, a view which she disputes. I find these points to be distractions from a more central theme, however. Korsmeyer presents arguments in favour of the propositions that taste is an important sense, and that food is an important topic of philosophical discourse, because food and taste play an important role in forming and sustaining community, in providing meaning, and in bringing us to reflective self awareness. I find these last three points to be both very interesting and very important. Unfortunately they get lost in a book that tries to do much.

Korsmeyer begins the book with a discussion of the traditional hierarchy of senses. She provides a nice history of how philosophers have regarded the senses and why sight and hearing get top billing over the inferior senses of smell, touch, and taste. The association of sight and hearing to distance from the object and therefore to objectivity and reason, in contrast to the association of the other senses to closer physical contact, demonstrates for Korsmeyer ‘traditional’ philosophy’s desire to get out of the body and into the mind. This hierarchy is consistent with “the elevation of mind over body; of reason over sense; of man over beast and culture over nature. It also lines up with another ranked pair of concepts not yet mentioned: the elevation of male over female and with ‘masculine’ traits over those designated ‘feminine’.” (p.30). The connection of women to nourishment and to the body makes the denigration of those senses more involved with nourishment and the body consistent with the denigration of women. Even more, the ‘dangers of the body’ often get connected to the ‘dangers of woman’.

Korsmeyer also shows how things connected more closely with the body are seen to give rise to the risk of overindulgence and so provide opportunities to demonstrate a lack of virtue or to sin. She says, “Pleasure, however, is the special danger of the senses of taste and touch. Because of the necessary slight alteration of the body that occurs with the exercise of both, pleasure or pain always accompanies these senses, if only to a small degree. Taste when indulged leads to gluttony or drunkenness, and touch to everything from gluttony (again, since taste is akin to touch) to sexual debauchery” (p.22). These themes of body and possible feminist critiques of traditional aesthetics are not fully developed, however.

After spending chapters two and three discussing the science of taste and defending taste from the charge that it is entirely subjective, Korsmeyer seems to drop the whole point that taste is amenable to the kind of objectivity that would make it a proper aesthetic object. This is one example of the book taking on too many directions and leaving the reader a bit confused and definitely unsatisfied. She says, “(T)hough I have disputed the dismissal of taste as a low, bodily sense from the beginning, my purpose has been not to elevate taste to the status of the distal senses but rather to point out the ways in which taste invites philosophical interest” (p.144). This is not clear in her earlier discussion and provides a jarring shift of focus. She goes on to say that it is the very fact that food puts us in touch with the “supposedly ‘lower’ aspect of being human – the fact that we are animal and mortal” (p.145) that interests her. Food is fragile in the same way that all life is fragile. “Because eating is a repetitive and transient experience, because food does not last but spoils, because it not only nourishes but poisons, eating is a small exercise in mortality. Rather than transcend time, as romantic ideas of art suggest is the goal of masterworks, food succumbs to time – as do we ourselves.” (p.145).

This is when the book picks up pace and things get really interesting. Korsmeyer provides some provocative analysis of the representation and use of food in painting and literature. She discusses how food and eating create meaning, operate as symbols, and build community. Food and eating have important cognitive, political, and ethical components that are often overlooked. The final chapter on ‘Narratives of Eating’ was the one chapter to really grab my attention, though I do not completely agree with her analysis. The use of cooking and eating as a means of revenge in contrast to the usual trust and community involved with eating together is one of several very interesting points that are worth further development. Unfortunately this chapter ends abruptly and, since it is the final chapter, so too does the book. I, for one, left the table confused by too many little tastes of different ideas and I am still hungry. What the main course is supposed to be is never clear and so this reader is left unsatisfied.

© Erin Mckenna 2001

Erin McKenna teaches Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Pacific Lutheran University.

•• Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy by Carolyn Korsmeyer is published by Cornell University Press, 1999.

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