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Intoxication September 27, 2012

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
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Seilenos-Dionysus

Cross-Posted at Edible Arts

A bottle of Jack Daniels is intoxicating if you drink enough of it. The ambient music of Steve Roach is intoxicating as well. Clearly, they are not intoxicating in the same way.

The Jack Daniels will cause drunkenness; but the experience of drinking plays no role in the intoxication just as the experience of taking a sleeping pill has nothing to do with its effects. The effect is all that matters, and you will be just as intoxicated if you drink absentmindedly. Drunkenness is an experience, but it is an experience in which our attention is not directed at anything in particular.

By contrast, with music, the listening itself is crucial to the intoxication. The intoxication is not just an effect of the music; the experience itself, and the attention we give to it, is a necessary component. The hearing is itself intoxicating, and the experience is about something—namely the music.

Happily, wine is intoxicating in both respects. In sufficient quantities it causes the intoxication of drunkenness but the experience of tasting wine is itself intoxicating. The smells, flavors, and textures of wine can be moving and exhilarating just as the sounds of music can be when we direct our attention to them.

As Roger Scruton writes in his article “The Philosophy of Wine” (available in this anthology)

“The intoxication that I feel is not just caused by the wine: it is, to some extent at least, directed at the wine, and not just a cause of my relishing the wine, but in some sense a form of it. The intoxicating quality and the relishing are internally related, in that the one cannot be properly described without reference to the other….I have not swallowed the wine as I would a tasteless drug; I have taken it into myself, so that its flavour and my mood are inextricably bound together.”

Scruton’s analysis seems right up to a point but I doubt that aesthetic intoxication is wholly unrelated to the mild, alcoholic buzz induced by wine. The flush of exhilaration caused by the alcohol (in small quantities) seems to sharpen one’s anticipation, and lends itself to feelings of enchantment that may influence our perceptions and judgments. Even in contexts where I taste and evaluate many wines, and must spit and dump to remain sharp, enough alcohol is absorbed through mouth tissue and accidental swallowing to influence my mood. The attentional focus of relishing and savoring are important but I doubt that they are the whole story.

The intoxication of music may also depend on effects that go beyond savoring. Music influences our moods and expectations in ways that are likely to profoundly influence our judgments about the music.

Recent research has demonstrated the role of neruotransmitters in our enjoyment of music:

Our experience of the music we love stimulates the pleasure chemical dopamine in our brain, concludes a new study produced by a slew of scholars at McGill University. The researchers followed the brain patterns of test subjects with MRI imaging, and identified dopamine streaming into the striatum region of their forebrains “at peak emotional arousal during music listening.”

Not only that, but the scientists noticed that various parts of the striatum responded to the dopamine rush differently. The caudate was more involved during the expectation of some really nice musical excerpt, and the nucleus accumbens took the lead during “the experience of peak emotional responses to music.”

In other words, just the anticipation our favorite passage stimulates the production of dopamine.

I doubt that this kind of influence necessarily involves critical reflection, although the study does not explicitly address this point. It is also not  surprising that increased levels of dopamine are implicated in drunkenness.

Scruton wants to distinguish between intoxication I (drunkenness) and intoxication II (aesthetic appreciation) by insisting that relishing or savoring—a kind of critical inspection—is involved in the latter but not in the former. It is that moment of thoughtful reflection, and our ability to form a representation of the music or wine, that enables us to appreciate the finer points of wine or music.

But I doubt that the content of that critical inspection can be sharply distinguished from causal effects of the wine or music that may not be part of our representation of the wine or music.

It may be that the two forms of intoxication are more closely related than Scruton allows.

Dionysus would not be surprised.

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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.
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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

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.
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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