jump to navigation

Tasteless Philosophy November 21, 2011

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

Despite being preoccupied with analyzing sensory experience, philosophers have ignored taste, smell, and touch, focusing instead on vision (and to a degree sound) as the most important sense.

Hans Jonas’s “The Nobility of Sight” is a representative example. Only vision, he argued, points us in the direction of the eternal, universal truths, which have been philosophy’s concern throughout most of its history. Vision puts us in mind of the eternal because time is not essential to its functioning. When we view a landscape we see the visual field displayed all at once, in no time; and an object can be visually identified immediately without a sequence of appearances over time, in contrast to sound, touch, or taste that need time to reveal the character of their objects. And visual objects have stability. We can view an object, look away, and then return to the very same object as if nothing has changed unlike the fleeting, ever-changing objects of taste, smell, and sound.

Furthermore, Jonas argues, with vision we can see things better if we maintain a distance from them. Touch, smell, and taste require that we be intimate with the object thus increasing the chances of personal bias might influence our understanding of it.

Despite their illustrious pedigree, these are very bad arguments. We learn nothing of the eternal through vision, or any other sensory mechanism, and vision without the opportunity for subsequent confirmation, in time, would be the source of constant error. Furthermore, our sense of the stability of objects is as dependent on the sense of touch as on vision. The stability of our visual field is dependant on the body’s orientation is space, which is maintained, in part, by our tactile contact with solid objects.

As to the alleged objectifying distance of vision, science shows that vision involves intimate contact with physical objects–swarms of photons. And we seem just as capable of misinterpreting those photons as we are the signals from taste buds. Recent psychological research is demonstrating the unreliability of eye-witness testimony. If anything introduces subjective bias into perceptual judgments it is the fact that objects are often seen at a distance or under conditions otherwise unsuitable for reliable identification. Apparently seeing is misbelieving.

At best, vision’s distance and the illusion of simultaneity allow us to spin metaphors about the eternal and universal. But misleading metaphors are bad metaphors.

There is an important contrast between vision and the other senses however. Through vision we do gain a sense of an horizon, an area beyond our present space. This is surely important for the development of our imagination.

By contrast, sound, touch, taste, and smell root us in the here and now. Objects must be spatially and temporally present for them to effect these sensory modalities. But why should experience rooted in the here and now be uninteresting to philosophy?

If taste is philosophically uninteresting, perhaps it is because philosophers lack taste.

The Synergy of Music and Wine (or how to waste time on the Internet) November 15, 2011

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

Synergy occurs when two or more things function together to produce a result that they cannot achieve independently.

Synergy is essential in the world of food and wine. Good food and wine pairings are an example of synergy. Adding salt or acidity to a dish often enhances other flavors—another example of synergy.

But what about synergy between music and drink? Are their natural affinities between music and particular consumables? A new website, called Drinkify, assumes so. Enter the name of an artist you want to listen to and a song by that artist starts playing and a drink recommendation pops up.

The idea was conjured at a recent meeting of Music Hack Day Boston, where tech geeks gather to meld software and music.

I usually ignore web-based gimmicks. But I couldn’t resist this. So I plugged in one of my favorite bands, Steely Dan, and received the recommendation to drink a bottle of red wine—topped with nutmeg? Now if you happen to like red wine and Steely Dan, I’m sure they will enhance each other, especially towards the bottom of the bottle. But is their some further connection here? The music of Steely Dan is sophisticated and complex, and some red wine is sophisticated and complex as well, but the last thing I’m going to do with a sophisticated, complex wine is sprinkle nutmeg on top! Nutmeg is a flavor note one often detects in pinot noir. I guess if all I had was a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, I could sprinkle a little nutmeg and pretend to be tasting Burgundy. But why bother?

I’m beginning to suspect this is nonsense.

But wait. Here’s another hypothesis. Steely Dan got their name from a William Burroughs reference to a dildo in Naked Lunch. And Burroughs killed his wife trying to shoot a wine glass off her head in a drunken game of William Tell. Ah. I guess that’s the connection.

I decided to go classical and plugged in Stravinsky. Their drink recommendation—Ogogoro, a Nigerian beverage distilled from the sap of palm trees. Well, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring featured primitive themes and syncopated rhythms inspired by African music. Not bad. A bit more precise than the Steely Dan reference.

How about some Coltrane? 4 oz of red wine with the instructions to serve neat and stir vigorously. Huh?

I’m beginning to suspect random associations.

Oh just one more. Elvis Costello. The recommendation–8 oz of fassionola, which is a red syrup used in bar drinks, 10 oz. water and 8 oz. of half-and-half.

That is just disgusting.

I can’t believe I just wasted 20 minutes on this.

x-posted at Edible Arts

Time to Rethink the Concept of Sexual Harassment? November 13, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
Tags: ,
4 comments

I came across an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times: “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks,” by Katie Roiphe. The title alone made me do a double-take, especially since I’ve been having second thoughts about recently deleting a box on sexual harassment from the upcoming 7th edition of The Moral of the Story. The debate just seemed so “Nineties” to me, and here we are in the second decade of a new century; surely we’ve come a longer way than that, Baby? And then the Cain story unfolds, and all of a sudden sexual harassment is in the news again. Apparently I’m not the only one who experienced a temporary time warp: According to Roiphe,

After all these years, we are again debating the definition of unwanted sexual advances and parsing the question of whether a dirty joke in the office is a crime. Conservatives have mocked the seriousness of sexual harassment; liberal and mainstream pundits have largely reverted to the pieties of the early ’90s, with the addition of some bloggy irony about irrelevant old men just not getting it.

The truth is, our Puritan country loves the language of sexual harassment: it lets us be enlightened and sexually conservative, modern and judgmental, sensitive and disapproving, voyeuristic and correct all at the same time.

…The problem is, as it always was, the capaciousness of the concept, the umbrellalike nature of the charge: sexual harassment includes both demanding sex in exchange for a job or a comment about someone’s dress. The words used in workshops — “uncomfortable,” “inappropriate,” “hostile” — are vague, subjective, slippery. Feminists and liberal pundits say, with some indignation, that they are not talking about dirty jokes or misguided compliments when they talk about sexual harassment, but, in fact, they are: sexual harassment, as they’ve defined it, encompasses a wide and colorful spectrum of behaviors.

The creativity and resourcefulness of the definitions, the broadness and rigor of the rules and codes, have always betrayed their more Orwellian purpose: when I was at Princeton in the ’90s, the guidelines distributed to students about sexual harassment stated, “sexual harassment may result from a conscious or unconscious action, and can be subtle or blatant.” It is, of course, notoriously hard to control one’s unconscious, and one can behave quite hideously in one’s dreams, but that did not deter the determined scolds.

If this language was curiously retrograde in the early ’90s, if it harkened back to the protection of delicate feminine sensibilities in an era when that protection was patently absurd, it is even more outdated now when women are yet more powerful and ascendant in the workplace. In her brilliant and enduring critique of the women’s movement in 1972, Joan Didion wrote that certain strains of feminism were based on the idea of women as “creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life, too fragile for the streets… too ‘sensitive’ for the difficulties and ambiguities of adult life.”

And, in fact, the majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations. Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl.

Roiphe concludes by suggesting that we get back to living life dangerously with the risk of exposure to bawdy lingo. Regardless of the Herman Cain situation which is anything but clear at the moment, she brings up some interesting points: Perhaps women in the ’80s and ’90s needed protection from the Old Boys’ Network which was still intact and powerful, but can’t a woman simply speak up for herself today if she feels bothered by someone’s attention? We’re not being protected from rudeness in general, or office manipulation, so why this puritan focus on sexual harassment, which has ended up being a matter of perception rather than intention?

I think most of us who feel capable of speaking up for ourselves feel that we could probably handle a return to the days when a compliment on a dress, even if equivocal, wasn’t reason for suspension. But a couple of things should be taken into consideration before we return to the dirty jokes and cute compliments: that, for one  thing, the power structure where sexual harassment—the innuendos and sly glances, and “accidental” unwelcomed touches—was a matter of intimidation is still in effect in many workplaces. And a woman may not feel shy about speaking up to her peers in the workplace,  but it is still another thing entirely to remonstrate with the boss. And then, when you add the fact (also quoted by Roiphe) that,

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.”

In other words, for young people who have not been through the Nineties with their sensitivity training and so forth, and without any instruction about what is appropriate and what is not, sexual harassment as intimidation runs rampant. So yes, we have come further than the Nineties, those of us who remember, and some of the concerns of the past may seem petty and overbearing now. But that doesn’t mean the discussion was for naught, or that it should be abandoned today. There is a new clueless generation on the way, with social networks, texting, and a plethora of new ways of being nasty to each other, but sex has always been available as a power tool. It should be possible, today,  to distinguish between shy attempts at getting someone’s attention at work or at school, or simply friendly remarks, and manipulation using sexual harassment as a weapon. I think I’ll consider putting the section back into the 7th edition of The Moral of the Story

Sound, Vision, Taste and the Fine Arts November 1, 2011

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

One traditional argument opposing the idea that the edible arts are genuine fine arts is that taste and smell are very limited sensory modalities. They are important only for pleasure and for their functional role in providing us with nutrition, but we get relatively little information or knowledge about the world via taste and smell, according to this argument.

Vision and hearing, by contrast, provide us with substantial world-directed information through which we establish a robust representation of reality. Vision and hearing give us an understanding of spatial location. Vision enables us to carve up the world into discreet objects that we can then view from multiple distances and many perspectives, thus enabling us to track movement and ascertain size and shape. It provides us with a simultaneous, comprehensive representation that need not unfold over time so we can size up a situation quickly. Via hearing, we process the spoken word and gain insight into emotional tone and resonance, key factors in our ability to navigate the social world.

This deluge of visual and auditory information is fodder for the artistic imagination which uses it to shape imaginative worlds that expand our perspectives and give us new ways of seeing and hearing reality.

There is no doubt that vision and hearing are the sense modalities that process the greatest volume of information. But that alone tells us little about what qualifies as a fine art.  The quintessential fine arts—painting and instrumental music—are in fact rather limited in their capacity to represent anything via sensory experience itself, despite the fact they rely on information-rich sense modalities.

Painting can represent the look of whatever fits within its static, narrow frame. But to the extent painting tells us much about a complex, dynamic world, it piggybacks on the even more information-rich activity of narrative. But paintings tell stories not only in virtue of their visual information but because the visual information is embedded in the temporal and conceptual flow of memory and anticipation, with events linked via causation. Without narrative, paintings represent only the surface appearance of things. Paintings that do not rely on narrative—some abstract works for instance—seem not to be aiming at representations of the world at all. They are about their own surfaces, their materials, or other works of art. In other words, without narrative they are much like the flavors and textures we experience in the edible arts, if tastes and smells were implausibly considered to be merely sources of pleasure without narrative structure.

Music, shorn of the narratives expressed by lyrics or implied by vocalization, is even less representational than paintings. Although music sometimes expresses emotion, it seldom represents precise, particular emotions. Furthermore, much music seems to have little to do with emotion. Music, the most abstract of the arts, is often quite distant from anything we experience in the natural world. Yet that lack of representational content does not disqualify it from being a fine art.

Thus, works of fine art either lack world-directed informational richness or they get much of their informational richness from narrative. In any case, their seems little reason to privilege vision and sound as the only sensory modalities worthy of anchoring the fine arts.

This creates some conceptual room for the edible arts if it can be shown that the edible arts have world-directed informational richness. But that is a task for another day.

Cross Posted at Edible Arts