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?

Balaguer responds to my email

I emailed Mark Balaguer about my observation of his entry on Mathematical Fictionalism. In the response email, Balaguer admits that it is one possible way to interpret the fact that both CH and ~CH, e.g., may be consistent with our notion of set and that this would entail that mathematics is, some sense, in trouble.

But he went on to say that mathematicians will likely have recurse to fall back on to render this possibility benign (that is, they will precisify our notions of set in a way that will not entail contradictions). In fact, he used a really interesting analogy that I once had used for a paper on feminist epistemology and realism in the philosophy of science (planet-hood and the case of Pluto).

This was one approach I had envisioned it going and the likely rout taken by mathematicians if no obvious additional axioms are found that would entail the possibility of a proof of either CH or ~CH. But further questions remain. What if we find this additional "obviously true" axiom regarding our precisified notions of our set and then we find another "obviously true axiom" which we may also add to ZFC which renders a proof of ~CH possible (or some alternative theorem and its negation)? There's no way to guarantee this happening and so the possibility of our set theoretic notions being ineluctably imprecise (i.e., any precisifications would just end up pushing the problem back to another level), in a robust and foundation-shaking way will always remain. I feel that this possibility is at least a blow to Platonists by showing that their belief in the complete objectivity of mathematics is an article of faith for at least some of the most interesting problems. There just might not be a fact of the matter about them.

In my paper, the reason I introduced the problem of planet-hood was to give a way for the possibility of objectivity together with some degree of relativism.

Consider the (ex) planet Pluto. It was classified as a planet by Astronomers once but now it is not. The criteria for planet-hood had changed in 2005 and set (arbitrarily) to standards that would disallow classifying Pluto as a planet. Astronomers did this because of the recent discovery of several large objects in our solar system that would, under the old criteria, be classified as planets. Faced with the choice of either adding all of them as planets, they decided by a vote (I think it was about 80% "yea") to reset the criteria so that they would not be classified as planets. One upshot of doing this however, was the now Pluto would fall short of those new standards. This implication was something astronomers were willing to accept.

But let's say that some Martian civilization had astronomers that were willing to accept these other solar planet-like objects as planets, and hence, still able to ascribe Pluto's planet status under their conception. Would we say that they are wrong or that they simply don't have a notion of planet in general?

I don't think we would. I think we'd say that they do have a notion of planet, just that it is slighty different from the astronomer's precisified notion but that they do understand what planets are, etc. Our notion of planet is vague and I argued that this was because planet-hood, like many other natural kinds of things, are vague (I was arguing for vague objects). But this would not mean that anything can be a planet. Floating space debris the size of basketballs are not planets. Anyone that insists they can classify them as such simply do not understand what planets are or have in mind some other concept (though they just use "is a planet" to denote such a concept, it wouldn't actually be one). So I maintained that planets are natural kinds but that planets are vague objects.

Now vague objects are quite controversial, as I understand it. Many philosophers don't believe in them and dismiss them outright (such as Ted Sider in his Four Dimensionalism, if I remember correctly). They think it a "fallacy of verbalism." But at least two very outstanding metaphysicians have defended the thesis: David Lewis and Gareth Evans (making Sider's almost flippant dismissal rather puzzling). I'm not an expert in vagueness so I'll leave it be and hope that it may be defended to save my argument!

But getting back to vagueness, consider this analogy. Hilary Putnam once argued that we, by our linguistic-conceptual faculties, "cut" the world up into conceptually coherent kinds of objects much like a cookie-cutter cuts cookie-dough into cookies. The cookies don't exist before our conceptual renderings (and thus scientific and many commonsense "truths" are not really "mind independent"). In other words, nature has no "joints" but we make them using concepts to "cut" the world (arbitrarily).

This has huge problems. One, it runs against our realist intuitions. Two, isn't the pre-conceptual "dough" of the world a conceptual rendering thereby undermining this kind of theory? By using an understanding of vagueness like I have in my paper, that is, as inherent in the actual world, thus justifying our vague concepts, we can bypass this problem and have a degree of objectivity plus a degree of socio-cultural relativism I argued was desirable (and this would have political implications for feminist and cultural studies).

On my view, cookies already exist in the cookie-dough mind independently, but their borders are not clear-cut as they are when we use the cookie-cutter to cut them free of the surrounding dough. Rather, there are smooth gradients separating the surrounding dough from which the cookies are encompassed therein. We only precisify when we use the metaphorical cookie-cutter such as when the astronomers use precise criteria to classify and reclassify planets. Nature has "joints" but they are smooth, not clear-cut.

What does this have to do with mathematical fictionalism discussed at the beginning of the post? Well, I argued that nature has a way of constraining our beliefs about the world, that is, we can't just completely arbitrarily cut the world up however we like but that doesn't mean we don't have at least some flexibility. But my point was that the objective, physical world constrains us. What in the world could possibly constrain us in one precisification over another in mathematics even when they are dramatically different precisifications? Saying that the abstract "mathematical universe" does so simply begs the question! Besides, wasn't the whole logicist and set-theoretic foundational project started by Cantor and Frege and that carries on today for the purpose of finding mathematics a precise foundation that will eliminate possibilities of ambiguity and thus possible contradictions?

Mark Balaguer's Entry on Mathematical Fictionalism

In a previous post about the book The Big Questions, I argued that the writer seem to naively and glibly treat a very serious and controversial current issue in philosophy (the "immutability" of mathematical truths). I looked up the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on mathematical fictionalism (written by Balaguer) and it has this passage ('CH' is Continuum Hypothesis):

For it could be that our conception of set is not entirely precise and, in particular, that it is consistent with both CH and ~CH, so that neither of these sentences is part of the story of mathematics.

I think Balaguer doesn't realize here that there is a much more radical and disturbing interpretation of that possibility other than that neither CH nor ~CH are "part of the story of mathematics". If both CH and ~CH are consistent with our conception of set, then that could also be interpreted as saying that our conception of set is inconsistent or that both are consequences of our conception of set (and thus by ex falso quodlibet, our notion, i.e., our "story" of just about all of mathematics is inconsistent). That would be disastrous for mathematics. How would we go about our mathematical business then? Should we give up and accept it or should we try to establish non set-theoretic foundations for math?

Temporal Asymmetry of Punishment?

Punishment is a very interesting subject: it's justifications, definition, practical applications etc. However, must punishment always occur after the crime (or moral transgression) to be punishment? That is, can there be prepunishment?

Now consider a fatalistic world and the case of a clairvoyant in this world. Fatalism is not to be confused with determinism. The former is basically the thesis that no matter what anyone does at some time, a certain event will obtain at a later point in time. Determinism on the other hand, is the thesis that any event is necessitated by prior events (that given those prior events, no other outcome is objectively possible). Alternatively, one way we can think of the difference is that in fatalism, the fated event is not be determined by prior events; it will happen regardless of what happens before it whereas in determinism, events are strictly determined by prior events. (I point out the difference to obviate some possible confusions or objections)

Back to punishment. Let's say that there is a clairvoyant in some fatalistic world. This person forsees a crime by a perpetrator. Now the question is, does society have a right to punish this perp before he commits his crime (prepunish)?