Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Aura and food production

Look at this outrageous quote by Heidegger.

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

That's obviously hyperbole.

But the quote reminded me of the book Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Pollan is an excellent writer and describes the processes of modern food production. He tries to make a point that our relation to food and how it's grown, processed, harvested, and what kinds are eaten in the modern world has serious social, economic, political, ethical, implications.

The first time I read the book was for an environmental phil class. I wanted to write a paper on the German Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin's notion of aura in works of art and food. But the professor wasn't having it so I wrote on something else.

Benjamin's notion of aura has been used and developed very fruitfully and interestingly in 20th century aesthetics among the continental philosophers (especially the Frankfurt school). Basically, Benjamin argues in his classic The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical reproduction that our relationship to art has fundamentally changed through the industrial production (such as the production of film, photography, sculptures, etc). Previously, art provided a richer kind of experience for us in that it had a ritualistic and religious or cultural relationship with us. We had more of a personal history with the work of art. This was because prior to the modern industrialization of art, art had been mostly handcrafted, or largely handmade or individually customized for our use. Sculptures were not made using diecast molds, but by hand. Pictures were painted using laborious methods, not produced by cameras. Architecture not only served practical and religious functions but were built by hand and had very conspicuous marks or symbols of their makers or inhabitants.

As art loses this more personalized aspect and become a commodity produced and sold for more trivial kinds of entertainment, e.g., it looses much of that aura. I don't think Benjamin would say that they lose all of the aura, art will always have some, or that this is necessarily a bad thing to lose aura. But I think Benjamin would say that we would do better to notice this change because once art is "liberated" from its ritualistic and "bourgeoisie" uses and become "fetishized" in the capitalistic market system, besides being used as petty entertainment, it has the potential to be used as an effective kind of propaganda to indoctrinate the masses.

Art had once been used primarily to form, strengthen and maintain familial, amicable, conjugal, tribal, cultural, religious bonds or attachments. But now it has the more liberalized power to form, strengthen and maintain attachments to nations or states or even ideologies. He thought modern art had been used to supplant that kind of traditional role with the ability to form surrogate relationships with entities (such as nation states and to ideologies) as opposed to people. That's what the Nazis and the Communists (agit prop) did especially with film to devastating effectiveness.

Benjamin wrote his treatise in 1935, at the height of Nazi and Communist propaganda (and hysteria) and he was acutely aware of the change in art's usages and power. He said that one experiences the aura of a work of art when one gets the canny, palpable feeling of someone looking back at them through the work of art. Modern mass produced art has very much lessened the likelihood of producing this feeling.

The concept of aura is situated in a much broader ethical outlook of Benjamin's. Benjamin had a ethical orientation that was decidedly "historical." It may be described as an ethics of remembrance (though it is not suggested that it is an ethical system, it is more like the articulated sentiments of the ethical value of remembrance). He probably viewed art as capable of serving this role well, of remembering the injustice there is in the world. This capturing of injustice in remembrance, may be Benjamin's way of redemption of that injustice. That's how I interpret his ideas, anyway, but I may be taking some hermeneutical liberties. (He personally collected thousand of old books by obscure, unpopular writers. In a way, he was "remembering" those who wrote them by not letting their ideas fade into oblivion. I think this may be construed as his way of doing them justice in a way, of saying that they do matter.)

In my profile picture, I have an image of the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus.

Benjamin commented on this picture as depicting the "Angel of History". Here's his touching description of what he understood to be the essence of the "Angel" depicted.

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I wondered if a look at food, how it's grown, produced, cooked, eaten etc, can benefit from this concept? Food production, cooking etc, can be viewed as a form of art can it not? I am not aware that an analysis of this using aura had been done.

I would have liked to explore these questions in my paper had I written it:

1. Does food have a particular artistic aura? Many people do agree that food cooked by familiar and loved people from ingredients home grown are usually more tasty than food from restaurants or preprocessed food. Is this appreciation from a psychosomatic effect of the gustatory aura infused into the food by it mode of production?

2. When Benjamin said that one takes notice of an aura when one get's a weird sense that someone is looking back at you through the work of art, is there a similar phenomenon from the aura in food and if so who is that person looking back? Is it the person who grew it, who cooked it or the person who is serving it or all of them or some other person or thing? I remember seeing some exotic dishes such as fish-head soup and other foreign culinary creations where there is, literally, something looking back at you. The feeling I get when I see stuff like the later snake-head dish is disgust and some fear, not any kind of aesthetic or spiritual or cultural appreciation. Some people might become more aware of their own conscience "looking back at them" if they were made more aware of how their food's organismic history. But I don't think this is properly Benjamin's aura. Furthermore

3. What ethical implications of aura in food are there? Does modern food production mask aura and what does this masking have to do with ethical implications? If people were more aware of how food is processed (especially the meat industry) would more people become ethical vegetarians and vegans? Would more people be more socially and environmentally conscious from having such an aesthetic experience?

Any comments?

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